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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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Designing and creating inventions, Luke was learning, was a skill the empire at large seemed far too happy to heap needless pomp and ceremony on to.

If he’d known when taking on the job of Head Engineer aboard the Executor— sorry, the Lady, that so much fuss would be made about every little improvement he made to anything he would’ve— well, he would’ve certainly given it all more of thought than he had! He certainly would’ve insisted at the very least that his name be kept off of any official documents concerning the damn things. As far as the empire was concerned, they could just believe that the new upgrades and inventions had popped out of the dune sea sand.

Luke sighed to himself. Well, that wasn’t completely true. He did like being acknowledged when having built something he was, in all honesty, pretty proud of. But if he’d had any say in it, said acknowledgement would’ve come in the form of a pat on the shoulder and some praise from his employer/mentor/indefinable-but-steadfastly-positive-figure-in-Luke’s-life Darth Vader. Maybe a “thank you” here and there from the people he’d actually helped though even that was hardly necessary. But certainly not this.

Having just finished designing, producing, testing, refining, and getting the new Stormtrooper Universal Tactical Armor (or SUTA, as it had been officially abbreviated) approved in just a month’s time, he’d thought that the most stressful part of the ordeal—as exciting and fun though it was—was over. Suns, had he been wrong!

Even with Darth Vader’s personal seal of approval on the project, there were meetings to sit in, and politics to be navigated, and documents to be drafted, and presentations to give, and even more meetings to be had before the armor could actually enter official circulation amongst the troops. Luke could only produce so many of the SUTAs aboard the Lady after all, and without the necessary heavy-duty machinery, the production was inefficient and slow-going.

So, there were meetings. And as the Head Engineer, Lead—and only—Designer and Head Producer of the first fully finished armor, he had to attend most, if not all of them.

Suns and sand, he’d seen more of the conference menu in his holopad’s call center these last two weeks than he ever had in his life and he still wasn’t done.

Which was likely why Erribas was now grinning down at him after they’d pulled him out from under the TIE AD-X1 that was the latest Vader owned and hadn’t crashed. Yet.

One of these days Luke was going to haul a box of scrap from the latest wreckage with him, dump it on the man’s rarely used desk, and demand that he either stop giving Luke heart attacks every time he performed a “controlled emergency landing” or start fixing the damn things himself. And he could do it, Luke knew, the man was at least his equal, if not superior, when it came to knowing how to make the engine of a spacecraft sing. He just didn’t care to.

Which was once again why it was Luke getting pulled out from under the spacecraft by Erribas while still on his hover creeper instead of some other poor shmuck. Glaring at his second-in-command, he narrowed his eyes further when the man’s grin only widened.

Erribas Lyvon; former Head Engineer of the Lady before Luke arrived and now his second in the Engineering Corps. They’d been an ex-combat engineer on the frontlines for years before they’d taken the necessary classes to serve aboard a starship (and hadn’t that reveal been an awkward moment). Said experience had left the Anaxsi with a fierce-looking line of jagged scar-tissue that stood out along their dark chin and jawline. A scar that they refused to elaborate on except to say that it had not impacted the implacable manners for which their people were known, according to them. No, that impact had apparently come from serving on several active battlefields in the outer rim, as the man liked to joke. To the collective horror of their family, of course.

Having managed to acquire the position of Head Engineer aboard the Lady, the man was obviously no slouch in their capabilities, if sometimes a little too adherent to doing things “by the book”, in Luke’s opinion. And while they hadn’t been too happy at first to be demoted in favor of an eighteen-year-old teenager from the outer rim—an eighteen-year-old who’d upstaged them once already on a holonet channel of all places—after Luke had put his money where his mouth was and proven himself to be a damn good engineer in his own right, they’d come around and proven themselves in turn to be a capable and loyal 2IC.

That didn’t take away from the fact that the man took all too much glee in Luke’s irritation with the imperial military’s love for ceremony and bureaucracy.

Glaring even harder, Luke pulled the hydrospanner he’d clenched between his teeth out of his mouth. ‘What now, Erribas?’ he asked irritably. ‘Wait, don’t tell me.’ He let his head fall back against the vinyl cushioning under his head. ‘There’s another meeting.’

Erribas simply grinned widely and fished a familiar looking comm unit out of their pocket. ‘Actually, sir, Lord Vader’s summoning you to his office.’ Their eyes sparked with poorly hidden mischief. ‘Though that might be to schedule another meeting, who knows?’

The man chuckled as Luke let out another groan. ‘Have you told Lord Vader that if he actually wants me to finish this tune-up before the next dogfight and crash, he’s gonna have to, y’know, actually let me work?’ he grouched.

Erribas snorted loudly. ‘No, and you couldn’t pay me enough in a million years to tell him that.’ Handing over the comm to Luke which did indeed have a message from Vader displayed, they walked over to the workbench’s holodisplay. ‘Just get going, sir, there’s no getting out of this one, not after what you pulled.’ They frowned at the screen as they scrolled through it. ‘By the way, sir, did you keep a tune-up checklist this time or am I gonna have to play the guessing game again to figure out what you’ve been conjuring up in your alchemy lab?’ they called over.

Luke heaved himself up and stuck his spanners back into his toolbelt. ‘Yeah, just under the progress tab, though you can check off everything from the power lines to the torpedo racks,’ he called back as he busied himself with dusting off everything from his hair to his uniform.

Erribas looked over sharply with a confused look. ‘TIEs don’t have torpedo—’ They cut themselves off as their face rapidly went through several different emotions that Luke didn’t recognize before settling on a look of resigned acceptance that strongly reminded Luke of Biggs whenever they filmed Scrap Hunting. ‘Right,’ they muttered. ‘It’s you. Never mind, so you said the torpedo racks were already finished?’ they said as they started checking off the relevant boxes on the list.

‘Yeah, you pulled me out while I was just realigning the heat sensors with the main targeting computer.’

‘Right,’ the other engineer enunciated slowly, drawing the word out. ‘Realign the torpedo rack sensors with a CRX-9 targeting computer… I might be able to get that done while you have your chat with Lord Vader. And what kind of setup am I working with, sir?’

‘A double F4-29 Proton Storm, one on each side. I strung the wires and systems already, now they’ve just gotta be integrated properly.’ He wiped off the last of the engine grease and dust on a throw rag, and looked back up, finding Erribas staring at him with their signature flat look.

‘Sir,’ The Vice Engineer, first rank said, looking thoroughly unamused. ‘Those are racks designed for ships three weight classes up from a TIE. Even an AD.’

Luke rolled his eyes. ‘Look, I already modified them, resized them, installed them in four ships before this one, and Lord Vader requested them. Can you, or can you not, wire them in while I go see what he wants?’ he asked, already thin on patience at the prospect of having to sit through another meeting and not in the mood to debate his 2IC on the merits of improvising. Again.

Erribas blinked at him before nodding with a sigh. ‘You better check the sensor output yourself when you get back though, sir.’

Luke sighed in relief. ‘Thank you, Erribas. Schematics are under the weapons tab; you should be able to figure it out from there.’

Opening the tab, the man quickly became engrossed with what he found, only waving him off as Luke headed out of the private hangar bay.

Heading through the main hangar adjacent, he was greeted by the other members of his corps while people bustled about, happily waving or saluting back at them while the rest went about their business. The troopers stationed at the lifts, two of the ones who hadn’t yet gotten their new equipment, saluted him sharply as he approached.

‘Another summons then, eh, sir?’ a trooper that he recognized as the one with the nickname Rails teased.

He groaned good-naturedly as both troopers laughed. ‘Tell me about it. It’s like he thinks I’ve got nothing better to do than sit through meeting after meeting. Why do I even have to be there in the first place? They have all the files and I’m just the guy who builds stuff!’ he complained as the troopers continued to chuckle at his expense.

‘Must be your sparkling personality and charm, sir,’ the other trooper, Thresh, said in perfect deadpan, Rails nodding along sagely.

‘That, and your decades of expertise,’ Rails concluded gravely, lasting only seconds before he started snickering again.

Luke folded his arms as the troopers continued to laugh, narrowing his eyes at the pair. ‘Well, they couldn’t exactly go to you two for either, now could they?’ he asked, grinning when Thresh made an affronted noise and Rails looked as if he was glaring under his buck— helmet, before shrugging with air that said “fair enough.”

‘Alright, alright, we yield. But in all seriousness, sir, you’re the one who put that shiny new armor together in a month and the brass are probably working themselves into a tizzy trying to figure out how you did it,’ he noted reasonably.

‘Aye,’ Thresh agreed. ‘You showed up a lot of those R ‘n D boffins with your work, sir, and they’re probably all kinds of desperate to save face. But anyway!’ He clapped his hands together and gestured towards the lift. ‘What do we know? We’re just the ground pounder grunts who actually see the consequences of the top brass’ decisions and the ones manning these oh-so-important lifts,’ he finished, voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘So where to, sir? Lord Vader’s personal wing again?’

‘You got it,’ he said as the trooper entered the destination into the lift system with a nod. The device chirped out a cheery ping and spat out a string of numbers.

‘Right,’ Thresh noted. ‘Third officer personnel lift on the right, it’ll take you to the rail station where you’ll want to take car 5-A2. Bellow and Creek will have the other lift waiting for you at the other end and you’ll know where to go from there,’ the trooper rattled off as he read out the numbers.

‘And good luck, sir,’ Rails wished him as he snapped off another salute.

Bidding both troopers farewell, Luke rejoined the crowds heading in and out of the lift station, following the path past the grand cargo lifts into the personnel section at the end. A lift was indeed waiting for him, and pressing the button to signal its passenger had arrived, the doors slid shut with a soft whoosh.

The rail station was a hive of activity as always. Crew members, officers, and troopers alike bustling in and out of the transport station while the railcars took people to all corners of nineteen-kilometer-long Lady. Car 5-A2 pulled into the station just as he stepped onto the specialized-destination section of the platform.

As an A2 car meant for officers or other high-ranking personnel that needed to get somewhere fast, it was much smaller than the ones meant to be able to transport entire trooper squads or supply crates. It was also, Luke decided as he sat back in one of the synthleather seats as the car began to build up speed, much more comfortable to travel in.

Roughly ten minutes later the car pulled up to the station under the command center, and once more navigating his way through the even thicker crowds, he found himself being beckoned over by two other troopers at the lift station.

He grinned at both men when he approached. ‘Bellow, Creek, good to see you two,’ he greeted the two troopers who saluted back.

‘You too, sir,’ Bellow returned with a nod. ‘So, Lord Vader’s wing again?’ he asked with a knowing tone. Luke shrugged as he smiled self-consciously while Creek chuckled in that deep tone of his.

‘We’ve got you covered, sir,’ Creek assured him while jerking his head over to the lift station. ‘The panel to Lord Vader’s private lift is already unlocked. If you’ve got your code cylinder, you should have access.’

‘And try to keep his Lordship from strangling anyone, sir, eh?’ Bellow added in a tone Luke could swear was accompanied by a wink.

Thanking them both, he waved after Bellow and Creek as he headed for the very back of the personnel lifts. Approaching a wall that was ostensibly just polished durasteel, Luke watched as two panels pressed outward and slid aside where there had previously not even been evidence of a seam.

Behind the two panels was a private lift, so called because only a select few individuals aboard the Lady had the authorization necessary to use it, and even fewer had the authorization to make it stop at a floor that technically didn’t exist.

Vader’s private wing, an open secret that practically everyone knew of but only a handful of people had ever seen. And yet Luke had been given access to it on his first day.

Plugging his code cylinder into the security scanner, the light above it flashed green for a moment while the door to the lift slid open with a ding. Stepping inside, the lift’s interface gave him a number of options to choose his destination from, but not the one he needed. Plugging in his code cylinder again, the screen froze for a second, reloaded, and a single other option appeared at the top of the list.

A deceptively blank slot with no information on it, Luke selected it and tucked his cylinder back into his utility belt as the doors slid closed. Two minutes later and Luke was walking down the dark and gloomy corridors to a room he knew well by this point.

There were other rooms in the wing, but Luke had never been shown them and there were only a few Vader seemed to use at all anyway. Even less that he actually let his visitors see.

Entering the meditation chamber, Luke waited for the large pod at the center of the room to open. He hadn’t announced himself and he saw no way how the man inside could perceive the outside world from within it, but he knew Vader was already aware of his presence in a way that Luke had never fully understood, but that whispered in the back of his mind like shifting sands.

With a hiss, the two halves of the hyperbaric chamber separated, opening in a way that vividly reminded Luke of the maw of a krayt dragon, with Vader as the black pearl they hid in their gizzards.

Regarding the man inside, Luke crossed his arms as he adopted the stance Aunt Beru often had when she’d been annoyed with him for one reason or another. The black mask tilted sideways at him and he could swear on all three Moons that the man was already amused by him.

‘You know,’ he began casually, not shifting from his stance. ‘If anyone decides to attack right now, you’re gonna have to go out in a regular TIE. ‘Cause someone didn’t let me finish the tune-up again,’ he finished with a pointed look.

‘Then I believe I should count myself fortunate,’ the vocoder rumbled like a rockslide, smug amusement rolling off of Vader in waves, ‘That unless anyone wishes to challenge the full might of the Lady in a snub fighter, no such attack will occur.’

And damn the man, but Luke knew he was right. Sighing as he tried to suppress a smile, he relaxed his stance while Vader rose out of his meditation chamber. ‘So, what’s the cinch then?’ he asked, curiosity overtaking his annoyance. ‘Another meeting? Do I have to redraft the files again? Or is there finally something else you need me for? I still have those redrafts for the AT-AT walkers ready if you want to start another project, those stabilizers really need to be redesigned and the ejection seat for the operator could be way better if I got to do more than a patch job and—’

‘As much as I would prefer those options, little one,’ Vader pointedly cut into his rambling, and Luke smiled sheepishly at his mentor. ‘This is unfortunately something far more serious than all of that.’

With those words, the atmosphere of the room chilled to the point that Luke nearly expected frost to start forming on the walls, waves of a strange sort of distress nearly vibrating through the room. Feeling concern beginning to edge in at the fringes of his awareness, Luke took a closer look at the man in front of him. Even as Vader exited his meditation chamber with his usual grace, there was a kind of stiffness about him. Like he’d tensed all his muscles and had trouble letting that tension go again. Fist clenched at his side, and mask turned downwards, and— okay, there was definitely something wrong here.

He sighed and completely let go of his previous stance, arms now loose at his side and posture wide open towards the man in front of him. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, ignoring how the man seemed to jerk at the question as if startled.

Two opaque red lenses fixated on him and he could almost feel the question behind them. Luke huffed out a puff of air that was half a laugh and half exasperation. The man never seemed to expect anyone to read him, even though he was nearly an open book at times.

‘You’re practically a wall of tension,’ he explained as he evenly met the gaze. ‘So something must be bothering you, and considering you called me up, it must be something I can either fix or something that I caused, right?’

There was a beat of silence that Luke could almost call “stunned” before Vader released a gust of static from his vocoder that Luke mentally translated as a sigh. ‘You are… more observant than I give you credit for, little one,’ the man begrudgingly admitted. ‘There is indeed something amiss.’

Luke kept his silence as the man walked towards him and placed a hand on his shoulder that gently nudged him towards the extensive comm station situated outside of the chamber.

Letting Vader lead him towards it, he began to mentally sort through whatever could’ve distressed the dark behemoth of a man this much. It wasn’t urgent, or at least, not that urgent that the Lady needed to jump into hyperspace immediately, so it couldn’t have been a surprise attack that the Lady needed to combat. Nor would that have explained Vader summoning Luke. He was an engineer and a damn good pilot if he did say so himself, but he wasn’t an officer or a combatant. And while meetings were tedious, annoying, and boring as all get out, they weren’t anything that would alarm Vader.

So. What was it?

As if to answer his mental query, Vader began speaking again as he activated the comm station. ‘About three standard hours ago, I got a transmission form the Imperial Palace, or more specifically, from my Master, the Emperor,’ Vader revealed and Luke quickly suppressed a wince at the word “Master”, firmly reminding himself that it likely meant something entirely different to Vader than what he’d been taught by his Aunt, a Child of the Desert.

Vader either didn’t notice or ignored Luke’s reaction as he continued his explanation. ‘He… has taken notice of your creation, little one, and wishes to acknowledge your ingenuity himself,’ Vader said as he pulled up a transcript of the transmission in question, though he hesitated to activate it, instead choosing to rest his hand over the control box on his torso.

Luke’s thoughts were somehow spiraling and laser-focused at the same time. The emperor had noticed his work on the SUTA. The emperor had decided he wanted to acknowledge Luke’s work personally. The emperor had specifically commed Vader—ostensibly his second in command—himself to notify the man of that.

That was… nothing Luke had ever expected to ever happen to him.

Suns, he was just a farmboy-turned-engineer from Tatooine! All his eighteen years he’d known nothing more than vaporators, the junkyard, the glare of the twin Suns, and sand and somehow, he’d gotten noticed by the emperor!? That just didn’t happen. It just didn’t.

And glancing up to where Vader was still staring at the message in front of him—staring but, Luke suspected, not seeing—he could pretend that that was the only reason why it suddenly felt like the hungry maw of a sarlacc had opened up beneath him and he was only two steps removed from being swallowed whole. That, and nothing else.

‘Milord?’ he asked softly, concerned about the man who seemed to be frozen like a statue.

Vader stiffened at the sound of his voice and his hand clenched sharply around Luke’s shoulder, the grip nearly painful, before abruptly letting go.

‘Like I said,’ he repeated stiffly, tension rocketing back up with an abruptness that left the thing in the back of Luke’s mind itching with unease. ‘My Master has decided to… honor you, for your work.’ The way Vader hesitated on those words left Luke with the distinct impression that said “honor” would be more akin to a punishment, whether it was intended that way or not.

‘There will be a formal ceremony,’ Vader continued, either oblivious to Luke's growing unease or… something. ‘And an event to herald the start of the production and distribution of your armor design. You will be expected to give a presentation on its capabilities in front of both the Imperial Court and the Galactic Senate, followed by accepting a commendation from the Emperor himself.’

Technically speaking, all of those things were a great honor, but Luke could only feel his face go slack with horror as the words sunk in.

‘A presentation?’ he squeaked faintly, and yes it was a squeak! He earned that squeak after what he just heard! ‘In front of the entire Court and the Senate!?’ His voice was going higher and higher with each word as the meaning of them continued to sink in but for once, he couldn’t bring himself to care.

‘Yes,’ Vader confirmed bluntly, though he once again rested a hand on his shoulder in quiet comfort. ‘You have a week and a half from now to prepare, little one. I will give the orders to begin the jump to Imperial Center soon. If my calculations are correct, from our current position the jump should take roughly three days at minimum. I suggest you use said time before arrival wisely.’

Still feeling somewhat like he was reeling from the information he’d just gained, Luke’s mind eagerly latched onto those last couple of words.

‘Wisely?’ he asked, looking up at Vader. ‘In what way? What are you suggesting?’

A long gust of static burst forward from the vocoder, and Luke wondered what he had missed that could make the man sigh so.

‘Luke,’ Vader rumbled. ‘I realize you have never before had to contemplate this, but there will be… expectations of you amongst the Imperial elite. Expectations you neither can or should meet. Regardless of the sophisticated airs and masks these people cultivate, they tend to resemble a venomous tangle of cowardly vipers who take vicious glee in tearing each other down.’ And here the tone of the man was so utterly scathing that Luke had to quickly stifle a snort.

Ever since he’d started getting to know the man, Luke had suspected there were very little things Darth Vader actually liked. However, that didn’t mean that the man automatically disliked everything, as Luke had quickly found out. He tended to be mostly apathetic towards everything around him that was wise enough not to annoy him too much.

Politicians and nobles, it seemed, did not fall under that category.

‘Not much love lost between you and them, is there?’ he teasingly asked the dark lord, earning himself a soft tap on the head in reprimand, something that only made him duck to hide his smile.

‘Behave, little one,’ Vader admonished him in a tone that was as monotonous as ever, but somehow glowed with warmth to Luke. ‘And listen, this could be vital in the coming weeks.’

Luke nodded and stepped just a little closer to the man as he began his explanation. It wasn’t often that the man Luke had come to think of as a mentor actually mentored him, so whenever Vader decided it was necessary to pass on some of his knowledge, he made sure to listen carefully.

‘What you need to know, little one, is that these kinds of events rarely are what they are said to be. While they may appear to be a celebration or commemoration on the surface, they are often organized with only one purpose in mind,’ Vader explained softly, voice rumbling in the same soothing tone the dunes back on Tatooine had often produced when the wind swept through the sand.

‘And that purpose is, milord?’ he asked, feeling the tension and frenzy from earlier bleed out of him with every word spoken. Right now, right here, he was safe, and listening to someone who was trying to teach him how to remain safe in a frightening new world.

‘Power,’ was the blunt answer. ‘They are organized for power. Either to display it, or to try and gain more of it. Through building connections or other means, the method matters little. And the coming event will be little different. All who will attend will attempt to gain power for themselves or gauge that of others.’

Luke blinked. He… hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made sense, didn’t it? Uncle Owen had often said that boiled down, power was simply the ability to get people to do stuff for you, and the more of it you had, the more you got to do. So, if these people wanted power, then the easiest way to get it was likely by getting to know other people. After all, it was easier to get someone you knew to do something, than to try and get a complete stranger to do the same.

‘I… think I understand,’ he said at last, even as he felt unsure of the statement as he spoke it. ‘But what would they want from me if what they want is power?’

Static blared out of the vocoder, startling Luke before he realized it was just its best translation of the sound of a snort. ‘You, little one, possess far more power than you realize.’ The words were spoken with an air of knowledge and certainty that Luke didn’t fully understand but appreciated nonetheless. ‘And unlike many of the scavengers you will have the misfortune of meeting soon, it is a power all your own. Which is why you must be careful, for those who seek power all too often try to gain it at another’s expense.’

Luke pursed his lips together sadly. This, at least, he more than understood. ‘Like slavers do,’ he offered as he compared the two.

Vader froze for a moment, just a moment, before inclining his head in agreement. ‘That may be more of an apt comparison than you realize, little one,’ he acknowledged darkly. ‘At this event, and likely by all you’ll meet on Imperial Center, you will be tested and measured against their standards, likely without you even realizing it. They will be looking for weaknesses they can exploit to manipulate or bend you to their will. They know you are a new player in their twisted games for power, untested and inexperienced. They will try to use that against you.’

Like a young bantha calf separated from the herd, Luke thought morosely, and it sounds like here there’ll be nothing less than a whole pack of anooba on the prowl.

‘I don’t think I like the sound of these “games”,’ Luke muttered, feeling like it all looked rather bleak.

‘On that we can agree,’ Vader growled lowly.

He blinked in surprise at the man, but Vader merely tilted his head back at him with a warm feeling washing over him. ‘You wouldn’t be the first to acquire a distaste for these kinds of politics, little one. Thankfully, most are wise enough not to try and involve me in them.’

‘Oh.’ Somehow, that little bit of information didn’t seem as surprising as it likely should be, but Luke could easily understand how someone like Vader would have little will or patience for what seemed to be a kind of game with rules as tangible as a shadow show. Then he had an idea. ‘Wait,’ he asked, ‘Will you be there too?’

If Vader knew what he was thinking, he didn’t show it as his mask merely tilted before inclining in a nod. ‘Yes, my Master requires my presence at this event, tedious though I find it.’

Luke smiled widely as a plan began to take solid form before his mind’s eye. ‘Then can I stay near you during it?’ he asked urgently. ‘Please? If they leave you alone then maybe they’ll leave me alone as well!’

Vader stared at him silently for a moment that stretched out until Luke nearly started to fear that he’d said something incredibly silly, but then the man slowly nodded. ‘Yes,’ he muttered quietly. ‘That ought to work. Some might still attempt, but my presence should temper out the worst of their behavior.’

‘Yes!’ Luke cheered, bouncing up and down, gleeful excitement coursing through him.

Static rumbled out of Vader’s vocoder in a strangely halting pattern that reminded Luke of thunder and with a grin he realized the man was laughing. A sound so vanishingly rare that Luke always felt himself swell with pride whenever he could elicit it with his antics.

‘I agree,’ he said happily. ‘This is sounding much better already!’

‘Not so fast, little one,’ Vader admonished him with a finger wag. ‘You still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Imperial Court and we have limited time. Not to mention that you have a presentation to prepare, and I will not tolerate you going up on that stage with nothing but improvisation to rely upon.’

He groaned theatrically but failed in keeping a smile off his face while he did so. Regardless of what his mentor seemed to think, learning, especially when the lessons were taught in the clear and easy manner that Vader seemed to have, was something Luke loved to do. And if he was going to be facing the whole of the Imperial Court in just three days’ time, then he could only count it as extra incentive to pay attention.

Chapter Text

Looking down at the surface of Imperial Center, shining with countless lights and backlit by her sun, General Maximilian Veers thought that it was good to be home again, as briefly as it would last. For all that a planet could still be “home” to one who lived their life aboard the Empire’s ships, anyway.

And for once, they’d been ordered back for a reason Veers could actually look forward to. In one week’s time, Lars’ SUTA Project would enter its mass production and distribution stage, and he dared to think that the face of infantry warfare would never quite be the same again.

Troopers would be tougher, faster, and deadlier than they ever could’ve dreamed of, with nothing less than anti-vehicular weaponry being able to even reliably make a dent in Lars’ creation on the first shot. Hells, they’d probably need to rewrite the whole strategy book when it came to the troopers, and if the grapevine mutterings were reliable in what they reported, they’d be doing a lot of rewriting before the Head Engineer was through with them all.

And it was all thanks to just one boy.

To say that Veers liked Luke Lars would be an understatement. Even just in sheer tactical value the engineer ranked near top priority in his mental listings of whom and what to protect, but he’d be lying to himself if he said he could classify the boy solely on his value anymore. Cheerful, passionate, kind, genuine, and bright, Lars was a breath of fresh air aboard the Lady.

The lad didn’t give a lick’s whit about ranks or pedigree when it came to showing respect and kindness, and simply charged towards the individual he’d targeted for an extra dose of both with a single-minded determination that Veers could only respect. Said respect doubled when it became clear that Lars' preferred targets for what his men had taken to calling “the sunshine treatment” were the rank-and-file and, inexplicably, Lord Vader.

Were the boy anyone else, Veers might’ve thought him dangerously suicidal or an especially oblivious social climber, but Lars' went about the dark lord with such genuine kindness and excitement that there was only one conclusion Veers could feasibly reach: for some Force-forsaken reason, the boy actually, honestly, liked Lord Vader.

And that alone would’ve been enough to drive Veers to down a good half of the bottle of brandy he kept in his quarters for such occasions—Lord Vader wasn’t someone you liked. Respected, feared, admired, and followed, sure, but not liked—if another, even more planet shattering fact hadn’t emerged just hours later.

Lord Vader returned the sentiment.

And it had been right there, all those months ago, that Veers had known that he was in way over his head and well beyond his paygrade. Never mind that he was a General, there weren’t enough credits in the galaxy to pay someone to deal with this, let alone enough to pay him.

Because before those two revelations that had taken half a bottle each to process, there had been one golden, cardinal rule: Lord Vader. Didn’t. Like. Anyone.

Veers had seen him hate, loath, be annoyed by, be apathetic to, tolerate, and respect people over the years. But his Commander had never seemed to be fond of anyone, anyplace, and only a handful of things that he seemed to somewhat enjoy.

Lord Vader being fond of anyone as a person was… alien to his mind.

And yet it had happened.

No one aboard the Lady could deny it anymore; the dark lord had gained a liking for the cheerful ray of sunshine personified that was Luke Lars. Allowing the youth to chatter incessantly at him whenever Lars accompanied him, approach him with impunity, and essentially act however he damn well pleased, the regard clearly went well beyond the mere tolerance people had thought it to be at first. Hells, if the rumors could be believed, Lord Vader had spent the last three days educating the lad in the finer points of Imperial Court etiquettes without complaint or prompting.

It was unfamiliar, strange, and surreal, but he couldn’t deny that it had impacted his Commander in a positive way like nothing before it had.

Lars tempered the dark lord’s rage and more homicidal tendencies, to the point that near everyone preferred it when the boy kept his Lordship company, all the better for their collective necks. Even Ozzel, determined as the man seemed to be to have “executed by his superior” etched onto his headstone, had escaped Lord Vader's wrath an unbelievable amount of times due to the boy’s near miraculous talent for defusing situations.

All and all, the result was that though the rumor mill went wild with speculation as to what could be happening here—a friendship, a mentorship, or what—no one was complaining as Lord Vader and Lars increasingly became Lord-Vader-and-Lars.

Veers least of all since Lars' liking for Lord Vader seemed to translate into the boy performing increasingly extraordinary feats of military engineering that held no compare.

All of which had led them to this.

“This” being a high-priority hyperspace jump towards Imperial Center ordered by His Majesty the Emperor himself, in order to deliver Luke Lars to the Imperial Palace in time for the official launch event of the SUTA Project’s conclusion. An event held in the honor of everyone who’d made the production of said project possible, but which everyone had accurately understood to mean that it was really in honor of Lars.

If you had told him little over half a year ago, that the scrawny little kid brought aboard from an outer rim dust ball in the middle of nowhere would have an event organized in the Imperial Palace to honor him, he’d have sent whomever it was to the brig to sleep off whatever bad batch of moonshine they’d been drinking from.

But here they were, and the reality was undeniable. The entire upper brass of the Lady and their families had been issued invites to the event, with Veers himself being no exception. Which meant that he’d have the chance to see Zev again for the first time in… months.

Force, it really had been months, hadn’t it? The last comm messaged they’d both had with each other face to face had to have a timestamp reading at least three months ago by now. Not, if he was really honest with himself, that that was a big surprise. It had ended in a shouting match, which seemed to be becoming more and more common between the two of them as of late, likely neither of them having been in the mood to chance one again.

He sighed deeply as memories of that unpleasant evening once more resurfaced. They’d argued about the Empire’s doctrine and policies again, something which, for all that they both served it, they just couldn’t seem to agree on. Zev was a bright young man, but he just didn’t seem to get that the ideas and arguments he’d been spouting for the last few years were dangerously close to the drivel rebels passed as propaganda.

Veers knew that the Empire did many things that some may find distasteful, but he also believed in its message and method of projecting unwavering power and force in unstable situations to give hope to all those that sheltered under its protection. The people of the Empire needed to feel and be safe, and to that end, battles and skirmishes were best kept short and contained. If, to best achieve that, overwhelming force and sometimes not wholly savory tactics had to be used, so be it. There would never be a repeat of the Republic’s greatest mistakes. Not as long as he had a say in it.

He remembered the chaos and bloodshed of the Clone Wars, the millions of dead and displaced, the terror that had reigned. He remembered the sheer ruin all those years of conflict had brought to all corners of the galaxy, without regard for who were combatants and who were civilians, which had taken years of rebuilding and recovery to mend. Never again. And if to prevent a repeat of those horror years he had to bloody his hands in the process, he’d gladly do it again and again.

All for the good of the Empire, and its people.

But his son disagreed. Vocally. Even years of training hadn’t brought him around to that point of view. He proclaimed that the Empire, whatever its goals, had failed spectacularly to deliver on the promises it made in its vision of the New Order. Slavery was rampant on the outer rim worlds and in Hutt-controlled space, and under the Empire, due to a treaty with the Hutts, fully legal. There was no freedom and safety for those people, he proclaimed. They were citizens of the Empire too, were they not? Where was their protection, or even just their basic rights?

Or were they not a part of whom the New Order was for? Were they deemed acceptable sacrifices in the quest to building a better galaxy? And if so, who had asked them if they were willing to make that sacrifice? Who had asked the millions, if not billions of slaves whether their freedom was a worthy price to pay for someone else’s safety?

And, if Veers was honest, he could see where his son was coming from. Zev had never known the chaos and destruction of the Clone Wars, and had no basis to compare the current peace of the galaxy to. How could he know that the temporary truce with the hutt families now was preferable to entire cities going up in flames? How could he know that it was because of the Republic that the hutts had gained so much power? How could he understand that having to tolerate slavery for now while they were still engaged with the more immediate threat of the rebels was preferable to the threat of all that had been bled and died for going up in flames?

Veers knew as well as every other officer of his rank that while the truce with the hutts was abhorrent in what it meant; it was still better than starting a war where they’d be fighting on two fronts. One day slavery would be banished to the records of the past where it belonged, but it couldn’t just yet.

Not that Zev understood that. Nor did the boy seem to understand or want to hear just how dangerous the ideas and questions that he had were.

Which led to arguments. Lots of them.

Looking down at the planet on which his son currently resided, brooding over the nosedive their relationship had taken over the recent years, he nearly missed it when his chronometer began buzzing its alarm.

Shutting off the incessant beeping, he shook himself out of his morose state. Departure for dirtside was in less than half an hour and he needed to get to the docking bay, but he knew the thoughts about his son would continue to niggle at the back of his mind like they always did. It didn’t matter, he’d gotten used to that a while ago.

Making his way over to the nearest rail station, Veers had to weave his way through the Lady’s bustling corridors more than usual, the imminent departure of some of her highest-ranking crew members and a good chunk of the 501st sending everyone spinning to get the preparations done in time. The railways operated as smoothly as ever though, and not even a quarter hour later he was down in the hangars, organizing the squad of men he’d selected to join them dirtside.

Six rows of men stood at attention in front of him, each one decked out in a full SUTA kit, version one-point-five. The kid may not have the capacity to produce his creations en mass yet, but that didn’t stop him from repeating his feat of production on a limited scale. And if the 501st was going to be represented at the coming event, they were going to represent themselves in style.

Which is what he was currently ensuring his men understood down to their damn cores.

‘Now, I don’t want any complaints on your conduct from anyone while we’re down dirtside, civilian or otherwise,’ he commanded sharply as he stood in front of his men. ‘You lot will be the first Stormtroopers wearing the new armor that the galaxy will see in the coming days and are therefore now the face of the SUTA Project. I expect you to act the part!’

‘Sir, yes, sir!’ the troopers answered, never wavering in their stances. He grinned fiercely.

‘Good, that’s what I like to hear! On top of that, Lord Vader has ordered you to act as the personal security detail for those not experienced in ground, and close-quarter combat. That includes both the Navy officers and the Head Engineer—’ and he saw them perk up at those words, even as they never shifted their stance. Good. The boy would be well-protected then. ‘—whom you’ll all be guarding over the next few days. There’ll be seven men to each security detail, your commanding officers know who you’ll be guarding. Do not fail, and do not falter, am I clear?’ he snapped as he stepped into parade rest.

‘Sir, yes, sir!’ was the answering call, and he nodded sharply at them.

‘Good. Dismissed!’

And with that the ranks swiftly broke up into the aforementioned groups, some of them taking up honor guard positions at the ramps of the three lambda shuttles they’d be using, some already entering the shuttles to prepare for take-off, and a select few marching off to find the wayward Head Engineer. Presumably to ensure that Lars would actually make it aboard the shuttle instead of disappearing off into some vent or another. Who knew with the boy? He’d already managed to worm himself into spaces on a regular basis that Veers would’ve sworn weren’t accessible by humans.

Relaxing his stance as his men went about their duties, he noticed Piett approaching, probably from wherever he’d been busying himself with being his usual terrifyingly efficient self. The man had a sabacc face that rarely cracked even under the pressure of working directly with Lord Vader, was a minor force of nature onto himself, and Veers was damn proud to count him as a friend.

That didn’t take away from the fact that the man was still a Navy pencil pusher and he an Army ground pounder.

So when Piett raised an implacable eyebrow on his otherwise completely blank face, he knew what was coming.

‘Last minute orders,’ he noted mildly. ‘And here I had hoped that your men would have had the common sense to request those before we were little more than ten minutes away from launch.’

He shrugged, schooling his face into something utterly at ease. ‘They did, they got them, they’re still at their best when someone beats it into them a second time before hitting the ground running.’ He grinned sharply at the Captain whose face still hadn’t so much as twitched. ‘And it’s better than having to submit every order in triplicate.’

‘Hmm.’ Piett pressed his lips into a thin line before taking up position next to him. ‘Perhaps. But if you worked directly under Ozzel, I wouldn’t doubt you’d wish for a triplicate copy that clearly stated you aren’t a viable scapegoat.’ His eyes sparked dangerously at that statement and Veers didn’t doubt for a second that if anyone could weaponize the Navy’s bureaucracy for anything other than boredom, it would be Piett.

He inclined his head at the other man and neither said another word about it.

‘You seen the kid yet?’ he asked instead, scanning the hangar and letting himself linger on the now-infamous entrance to the boy’s workshop. ‘It would look bad if we had to fish him out of some vent at this point in time.’

Piett actually smiled at that. 'Yes, actually. Last time I saw Engineer Lars he was looking rather perturbed at his newly unwrapped dress uniform.'

And yeah, Veers could already picture the scene as a grin broke out on his face. ‘Oh no.’

Piett had a rare, mischievous air about him as he adjusted his datapad in the crook of his arm. ‘Apparently,’ the man spoke with perfect primness. ‘The collar on the dress jacket was rather too high for his tastes.’

 ‘Oh no,’ he said, entirely failing to convincingly hide his delight. Oh yeah, he definitely knew this scene by heart.

‘And apparently,’ Piett continued, finishing his fussing with his datapad and stood straight once more, looking as blank as the durasteel wall behind him. ‘It took an intervention from Lord Vader to convince Engineer Lars that he couldn’t just throw on a clean shirt and overalls and “call it good”.’

And Veers could just hear the undercurrent of offended distaste coming from the man standing next to him in a cleanly pressed Navy dress uniform. Still.

‘The lad planned to meet His Majesty and the Senate in overalls?’ he asked, hardly believing it and yet, coming from Lars, being able to picture it so clearly.

Piett gave him an utterly flat look and said in perfect deadpan, ‘Yes. And apparently, there was a compromise reached that allowed Engineer Lars to pack two additional overalls and his tool belt with the promise that he wouldn’t wear them in polite company.’

Wait, what.

‘A compromise?’ And he could hardly be blamed for the incredulity with which he asked that. Lord Vader didn’t compromise.

But Piett merely gave him an imperceptible nod and, well, that was that, he supposed. His worldview shifted on its axis until it was approximately leaning sideways, but if there was anyone he could believe this from, it was Piett and concerned Lars.

‘Well,’ he said faintly, feeling rather like one of Lord Vader's TIEs had hit him on impact. ‘Miracles have become rather commonplace lately, haven’t they?’

Piett snorted softly and apparently he wasn’t the only one feeling like the punchline of a joke he’d never heard the start of. One that likely went something like; “A Supreme Commander, a General, a Captain, and an Engineer walk into a bar…” or similar, and ended with half of them dead.

‘And besides,’ he said, feigning a casual attitude. ‘No one would be able to accuse him of not being dedicated to his work, now would they?’

The Captain glared darkly at him from the corner of his eye. ‘No, they would simply tear him apart for everything else scandalous about that.’

He shrugged a shoulder. ‘Maybe. Though I doubt Lord Vader would let it come to that.’

There was a beat of silence as Piett weighed his words in the privacy of his mind before resuming their conversation with a quiet, but steady voice. ‘Perhaps,’ he acknowledged. ‘Perhaps not. If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer not to think on it and discuss something not liable to reach the ears of Lord Vader instead.’

And that was a reasoning anyone would find it hard to argue with aboard the Lady. ‘Fair enough,’ he said, focusing his gaze back on the various officers and crew members milling about the shuttles. With a few curious absences…

He frowned as he counted the heads of the people present and came up short one posturing chronic idiot of an Admiral. Leaning imperceptibly closer to the Captain next to him and lowering his voice, he asked, ‘Wouldn’t happen to know where your pompous jackass of an Admiral is, would you?’

Piett stilled for a moment from where he’d been going through a checklist before subtly shaking his head. ‘No, and I hope it will stay that way until we’re already on the way down. He’s been absolutely insufferable ever since the invitations came through,’ the man whispered back lowly.

That got a snort out of him. ‘What, Admiral Blowhard didn’t take well to getting invited to a royal event hosted in Lars’ honor?’ he asked, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘I am honestly shocked and surprised.’

He wasn’t. He really wasn’t. Everyone on the ship knew by now how Ozzel felt about that little tidbit, mostly due to fact the man never shut up about it in the three days the information had spread like wildfire across the ship.

According to him, it was a testament to the “right state of decay and anarchy the Empire found itself plagued by” and would “bring all of them to ruin and rot if the mere fantasies of youth were now valued higher than the experience of age and pedigree of name” as he’d explained time and time again to the poor souls stuck on the other ends of his unsolicited ravings. Needless to say, the man was experiencing and inventing new heights of offense at the fact that a prodigy miracle worker was being honored by His Majesty while a thoroughly poor and unskilled Admiral such as himself had never so much as been noticed. Something which shocked exactly no one, even as the scuttlebutt was whipping itself into a frothing frenzy over the reclusive ruler arranging to meet someone like Lars.

And that was what this was all about. Not officially, of course, but there was little other reason to personally summon the Head Engineer of one of the most active warships in the Navy to the peaceful Imperial Center—for a public ceremony nonetheless!—other than that even the Emperor himself had become curious about the rising star of his military and seemingly the personal protégé of his Heir.

Piett nodded slightly. ‘No one was, really, but he’s been taking it out on the lower ranks harder than usual. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this… volatile before. And he is hardly Lord Vader, the sheer overreactive pettiness of his retributions to imagined slights is taking a toll on morale amongst my fellow officers,’ Piett confessed quietly. ‘Even attempting to arrange the preparations while he’s in earshot has become a hazard.’

Veers whistled lowly. It sounded to him like the man had finally gone off the deep end of his own ego and his reputation was taking the brunt of it. A hit which, if the Admiral had thought about anything but himself for two whole seconds, he’d realize his already abysmal reputation aboard the Lady really couldn’t afford.

‘He’s not gonna last much longer,’ he predicted, seeing the writing on the wall clearer than ever now. ‘Not if he doesn’t stop his vendetta against Lars soon. It’s already out of hand and the boy is an enemy he really can’t afford to make.’

‘I hope you’re right, Max,’ was Piett's ominous answer, his face darkening significantly. ‘I really hope you’re right.’

Before he could answer, a commotion from the other side of the hangar drew attention. The temperature in the impossibly large space dropped inexplicably and the bustling sounds of the hangar muffled until only a heavy durasteel tread and a rasping breath could be heard.

Lord Vader had arrived in the hangar, and despite the usual dread and awe that accompanied any arrival of his mysterious superior, Veers felt his mood instantly brighten when he saw that the man was marching in time with the squad of troopers he’s sent off earlier, now with their charge in tow.

Lars was—likely to the consternation of the lad himself—actually in his dress uniform for the first time. Unlike the majority of the other official Imperial dress uniforms’ greens, blues, and grays, the uniform for the Engineering Corps was cut out of a fabric so deep blue, it appeared to be a complete void black save for the moments the light hit it just right in order to give it a small highlight of a blueish hue. Combined with the small capelet draped over his shoulders, the silver embellishments on the collar and cuffs, and the insignia pin on the right side of his chest that all marked him out as the Head Engineer of the Empire’s Flagship, and the lad looked right at home as he flanked his superior. Dignified, as serious as he was ever going to be, and matching the long strides of Lord Vader with his own, quicker pace.

And seeing the two of them side-by-side like this and surrounded by the fruits of the kid’s work, Veers couldn’t help but think that despite the vast differences between them, they looked like one coherent unit, ready for anything. The picture of the change to come to the Empire for the coming years.

A picture that was unfortunately marred once he caught sight of one Admiral Ozzel flanking Lord Vader's other side and walking some ways behind the two, obviously not truly a part of the duo and glaring venomous daggers at the back of the lad whenever he thought no one was looking. Veers' good mood soured slightly. So, the man had managed to get himself down in time for the take-off. Pity.

He stood at attention nonetheless when his superior approached, completely discarding the presence of Ozzel as unimportant at the moment, Piett echoing his movements besides him.

‘My Lord,’ both he and the Captain greeted in sync.

Lord Vader nodded back at them. ‘General. Captain. Is everything ready for our departure?’

Piett dipped his head slightly. ‘Yes, my Lord. We can depart at a moment’s notice without further delay.’

‘Very well then,’ Lord Vader rumbled lowly. ‘Consider this your notice, Captain. We depart immediately.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

And with that Lord Vader swept away, his cloak flaring in his wake and the strange icy chill that accompanied him lessening with every step. Lars still matched the dark lord’s every step, and now Veers could see that a black gloved hand rested on the boy’s shoulder the entire way towards the shuttle and up the ramp.

Strange, how hadn’t he noticed that before?

With practiced ease he shook himself out of the slight chill Lord Vader's presence always left him with and started commanding his men aboard their designated shuttles while Piett did the same, both of them disregarding the furious Admiral storming up the ramp after Lord Vader and Lars.

Not even five minutes later, the three shuttles were flying out of the protective embrace of the Lady’s hangar and down towards the ever-shining lights of the city planet that never slept.

Chapter Text

Dress uniforms, Luke decided, were the invention of someone with far too much time on their hands and a particularly cruel sense of fashion.

Oh, sure, they looked nice, and even he could admit that it was a pretty snazzy outfit once he put it all on and looked in a mirror, but they were about the furthest thing possible from comfortable.

If you asked him, his black overalls from the Engineering Corps were fancy enough already, considering they never had holes in them and didn’t even show any stains! But Vader had told him in no uncertain terms that he was not facing the viper pit of Imperial Center in his work uniform and did he remember nothing of his lessons these last few days!?

Which, okay, fair enough. But that was before he’d known that clothes could be this uncomfortable. It wasn’t even all that bad at first, but then the collar had been done up and a cap handed to him, and— well, Luke had to draw the line somewhere.

He hadn’t worn a cap since his very first day of work. The thing was stuffy and precariously balanced on top of his head, but it had been given to him with his overalls so he’d gamely put it on. That lasted until the damn thing fell off his head for the third time after he’d crawled under a TIE-fighter and gotten stuck in a piston.

After that, he’d categorically refused to wear a cap, and anyone who pestered him about it he could usually get off his back by citing that it was a hazard to his work. So, he hadn’t worn a cap since then, and he wasn’t about to start now, not even if it was a part of his dress uniform. Not that he could anymore, even if he wanted to, since the two pieces of headgear he’d been given had both met a tragic end after they’d gotten shredded up by Emmy. How that mouse droid had gotten a hold of them was a mystery and definitely not a case of deliberate feeding. Definitely.

Which left only one more problem.

He tugged lightly on the collar that sat tightly around his neck, subtly undoing the hidden clasp that kept it closed. There, much better.

Now freed from the uncomfortable clothing malfunction that had been plaguing him ever since he put on the jacket, he felt much more comfortable in looking out of the view ports of the cockpit. Technically he was supposed to be in the main hold with the rest of the officers, but a bit of quick talking with Vader had given him the permission necessary to join the man in his near-customary position in the corner of the cockpit. Apparently, taking joy in looking at the stars and planets outside whatever ship they found themselves in was something they both had in common, and as long as he promised to return to his seat upon landing, he was cleared to enjoy the view.

And what a view it was.

Imperial Center, as he was told the planet was now called (apparently you could rename a planet? He would have to tell Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru the next time he wrote to them), had strings of lights spanning its surface on a scale that boggled his mind. Theoretically, he’d known that Coruscant— Imperial Center was one big city, but there was a big difference in knowing and understanding.

And understanding is what left him now slightly awed. How could there be so many people on one planet?

As the shuttle circled the planet towards its ultimate destination, Luke watched in wonder as the sun (just one!) began to peek out from behind the horizon of the planet. Transfixed by the sight, he stared out the cockpit with wonder and excitement. His first time on a new planet, and it would be here, in the heart of the galaxy!

A soft squeeze to his shoulder drew his attention away from the view in front of him, and he glanced up sideways at the towering figure of Darth Vader next to him. Red lenses looked back at him, and he could feel the fondness and amusement rolling off of the man in waves. Clearly, his captivation with the view in front of him had not gone unnoticed and he sheepishly smiled up at the man. But really, he came from a moisture farm out on the edge of the wastelands where three hundred people was considered an unfathomable crowd. What else had Vader expected his reaction to be?

Even just boarding the Lady he’d been overwhelmed the first few weeks by the sheer amount of people aboard, and somehow, he got the feeling that Imperial Center would top that ten times over.

It was at that moment that the shuttle began to shake slightly and the pilots began to talk over their comms with what was presumably ground control. Atmospheric reentry, it must be. Looking back up at Vader confirmed it, the man jerked his mask over to the door leading to the main hold in a clear order to take his seat once more.

Nodding back, Luke wasted no time scrambling over to the door as the shaking began to worsen.

Back in the main hold, most of the other officers shot him a look as he made a beeline back to his seat but he ignored them. He’d largely gotten used to people looking at him strangely over the past few months and he figured that it was just one of those things people did off of Tatooine. He did give a friendly nod over to Captain Piett though when the man caught his eye, and he thought that that might’ve gotten him a slight smile in return.

The rest of the descent went rather smooth enough and soon enough a feeling swooped in his stomach that let him know the pilots had decided to disengage the artificial gravity generators in favor of the natural gravity of the planet under them. A few minutes more, and the shuttle started pitching and turning in ways that he recognized as the landing procedures in action.

Sure enough, they soon touched down, and the pilots hadn’t even given the all clear message yet before Vader was already sweeping towards the ramp in long strides, which had somehow already begun to lower itself despite no one being at the controls.

‘Engineer Lars,’ came the rumbling call to attention, and Luke swiftly stood up, already anticipating the next words that would be coming out of the vocoder. ‘With me.’

‘Yes, milord!’ And he quickly hurried over to flank Vader's side. He’d seen the size and scope of the planet they’d just landed on; he was not getting lost.

The ramp finished lowering and sunlight—real sunlight, not the mimicry that the Lady could make—streamed into the shuttle, blinding Luke for just one moment now that he no longer had a specialized window between him and it. He squinted against it, and used every trick he knew to rapidly readjust his eyes.

And once they did, he gasped.  

They’d landed in front of a building he’d only seen in the holos Vader had shown him these last three days. The Imperial Palace, with all its strange angles and spires.

None of those holos had shown how absurdly fucking big it was though! Suns and sand, he couldn’t even see where the sides ended from where they’d landed! (Which appeared to be a landing platform attached to the side of just one of the spires!) Who needed that much space to work and live in!?

Well… the emperor, apparently, Luke mentally answered his own question. And okay, running the whole galaxy was probably a pretty tough job, so maybe he really did need this much space, but the part of Luke that would always carry Tatooine in his bones protested against the near-mountain-sized building regardless of what he reasoned. Actually…

He frowned slightly, was it its size that his hindbrain was protesting? Something felt off here, no question about it, but it felt… old. Very old. And… sad? Scared? Painful? The voice in the back of his mind that sometimes whispered like wind in the sand sounded so sad for just a moment. As if something was lost here. As if many things were lost here.

Then Vader moved by his side and the moment was lost. Luke pulled himself back to the present and shook off the unnamable feeling of loss and grief that seemed to linger here. It was the imperial palace, lots of things had likely been lost here, some of which he probably couldn’t even begin to understand.

He instead refocused on the present, and, once again, keeping up with Vader's long strides that left him struggling to follow in a way that wouldn’t look completely ridiculous. Perhaps recognizing that, or simply realizing there was no real need to break any speed records in power walking towards their welcoming committee, Vader slowed down enough that Luke could keep up without having to jog.

Finally getting the chance to see who would be greeting them, Luke noticed red and white. Lots of it. Apparently, two full companies of Stormtroopers and Red Guards each were needed to welcome in three lambda shuttles. Two of which were their own security detail. He knew it was likely protocol or something like that, but for the life of him, Luke would never understand the way the imperial court did things. Or why they needed a welcoming committee of this size for a man who’d already been here more times than either he or Luke could count.

Coming to a stop next to Vader in front of the neat rows of men, a Red Guard with gear slightly fancier than that of the others—likely meaning they were an officer or something similar, Luke noted—stepped forward and greeted them with a deep bow.

‘Lord Vader,’ greeted a measured voice from under the helmet. ‘It is good to see you once more in the Empire’s heart.’ The… man? Woman? Both? Neither? (“Some things you just don’t ask people, Luke, no matter how curious you are. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary.” “Okay, Aunt Beru.”) Person. The person straightened back up and turned their helmet to look right at him.

‘And this must be Head Engineer of the Executor, Luke Lars, correct?’ Vader nodded once and the Red Guard bowed deeply once more, this time to him. Luke stared in bafflement and almost missed the words coming out from under their helmet.

‘In the name of our glorious Emperor, I bid you Welcome to Imperial Center, and the Imperial Palace, heart of the Empire.’

Luke blinked once. Oh. Not a welcoming committee for Vader then. A welcoming committee for him. That was… well. Fuck.

It was likely only the good manners that Aunt Beru had drilled into him ever since he was old enough to understand what he was saying that saved him from looking like an entirely dumbfounded bantha, as he heard his mouth form words without his direct input.

‘I— thank you,’ he heard himself say, half remembering his three-day crash course. ‘Your welcome is greatly appreciated.’ Likely those still weren’t the exact right things to say, but it was better than nothing, right?

If the words he spoke were in any way wrong, the Red Guard let nothing show as they merely dipped their head once more before turning back to Vader. ‘The guest suites you requested for the members of your entourage have been prepared and space has been made available to house your security retinue, Lord Vader,’ they spoke quietly. ‘Shall we escort them to them now?’

Vader gestured permissively. ‘You may.’

And with that, the Red Guards and Stormtroopers came into motion and marched past them in single-file. Glancing behind him, he saw that all the other officers had also already exited the shuttles and were standing a little way behind them. With most of them looking somewhat shocked for some reason, others unaccountably pleased, and Ozzel and a few of his friends were the strangest of them all, because for some reason, they were glaring at him with looks that reminded Luke of rabid anoobas. Whatever their deal was, Luke didn’t really know and didn’t want to know, if he was honest. But likely it was more of the same core worlder nonsense he’d learned they were fond of, so he ignored it entirely.

Captain Piett and General Veers looked much more pleased in comparison. With the General sporting a wide grin and Piett showing a small smile, which was fairly beaming for the unflappable man. He beamed back at them while the palace troopers and guards took up position around them, the troopers they brought with them from the 501st taking up position inside of those ranks.

Seven troopers seemed to detach and take up position specifically around him and Vader, and he figured they were likely the men Vader had told him would be by his side at all times the coming days. Apparently, there were people who were less than pleased with the idea of improved trooper armor, or who wanted the knowledge of how to make it for themselves. Both of which had sent Vader into one of his fretting fits, as the man had ordered him under no uncertain terms to always keep them at his side when he wasn’t around, no matter what.

Which was fine by him, Luke thought as he subtly waved at the men in good cheer, most of the troopers seemed to like him well enough and the feeling was mutual. Besides, it would put Vader more at ease and hopefully stop the man’s fussing.

With everyone in place, the entire welcoming committee and ones being welcomed all moved forward as one, heading into the massive palace to see what awaited.

What Luke found was unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced before.

If the Lady was massive at her nineteen-klicks-long, then the palace was downright mountainous. It was one thing to read in the short file he’d been given by his mentor that the place was over three klicks tall, and had dozens of spires with who knows how many levels and wings. It was another thing entirely to walk through one of several hallways that had a ceiling high and wide enough that Luke bet you could fly a mid-sized freighter through them safely. Not fit. Fly.

No wonder he’d been warned that people got lost in these halls! You could’ve fit the Homestead several times over in just one of them, vaporators and all!

As they reached the end of another absurdly spacious hallway and turned another corner, Luke looked up and around to really appreciate the sights around him. As strange as he sometimes found the apparent lack of logic behind some of the architecture (Why did the ceilings need to be so high? They didn’t actually fly ships though here, did they?) he could still admit that it was all quite beautiful.

The current sets of hallways they were walking through were done in styles of soft greens and blues, with more plant life than Luke had ever seen before decorating everything from the arching open windows, to the planters in the middle, to the pillars that stretched towards the ceiling. Water (indoor waterflows! And no one seemed to be using it for anything!) ran through wide, shallow channels along the floors like shimmering ribbons, straight into square basins dotted around the pillars, and some of it ran outside towards the palace gardens he’d seen mentioned earlier during his lessons. Or at least, he assumed all the green directly outside the windows were the gardens. For all Luke knew, Imperial Center was just like that.

Then they rounded another corner, deeper into the palace, and the greens and blues changed to ochers and reds. Architecture seemed to change wherever Luke looked and he was honestly delighting in it all. The colors, the plants, the water. But the deeper and higher they went, the less colors seemed to be used and the more faded they became. A couple more minutes of walking and the palace resembled nothing of the fun, lively hallways they were in earlier. Everything was now a polished metal grey, somehow both sharp and nothing at all at the same time. It was… still beautiful in its own way, Luke supposed, but he could admit to himself that he vastly preferred the plants and water and colors from earlier to… this.

That had been the slightly messy kind of architecture that had felt alive and free, but this just felt… empty. He sighed softly. Well, to each their own, he supposed. He remembered something about how the palace was older than the empire, and how many parts were added overtime. The earlier parts must’ve been from longer ago, seeing as this empty style seemed more in line with what he’d seen from the usual imperial fare so far.

It wasn’t much longer until the guards began to notify them that they’d reached the first guest suites, and slowly small groups started to peel off of their main one with their squads of Stormtrooper guards in tow. First the lower officers, then the higher ranks, then General Veers, Captain Piett, Admiral Ozzel (who looked even angrier for some reason) and a couple of others until it was just Luke and Vader left with their complement of troopers.

‘I shall take it from here,’ Vader said towards the guards. ‘Return to your duties.’

The Red Guard who’d been leading them so far stood in silence for a beat before handing over the final code cylinders and bowing deeply once more. ‘As you wish, Lord Vader.’ And at those words, both they and the rest of the guard dispersed, melting away into the background of the palace like shadows, despite their bloodred robes.

Luke shivered. He realized that these people were just doing their jobs as they’d been trained to, but there was something utterly unsettling about them that had the hairs on his neck stand on end. He didn’t get long to think on the mysterious Red Guards though, as Vader quickly motioned for them all to continue on. A couple more corridors, and they came to a halt in front of a shimmering white double door.

‘Engineer Lars; your quarters,’ Vader informs him as he gestures over to the door. ‘Your security detail will stay with you while you reside here. Your luggage should already have arrived. I advise you to check if it has been tampered with.’ And by “you” Luke knew he meant “the troopers” but he decided not to call him out while they were still in front of seven other people. Some professionalism had to be maintained, he knew.

‘My own quarters are at the end of this hallway,’ Vader continued, unaware of Luke's inner dialogue. ‘If you have need to see me, come find me.’

Luke smiled as Vader repeated the phrase he had first used to grant Luke access to his wing on the Lady, knowing it meant the same here, even as the troopers would not.

‘Yes, milord,’ he agreed with a wide smile, and he knew that Vader realized he’d caught his meaning when he felt soft fondness pulsing from the man like a heartbeat.

‘Very well then, Engineer Lars. Dismissed.’ And with that Vader swept around and strode towards the end of the hallway.

Still smiling, he turned towards the troopers still standing guard around him. ‘Alright, you lot, who wants to check out the new place so we can start introductions? ‘Cause I’m not sure I ever got all your names and I don’t have an ID HUD.’

The troopers traded brief looks with each other before one stepped forward, his armor designating him a Commander, and held out a hand. ‘Commander Cody, at your service, sir. I think I speak for all of us when I say: lead the way.’

Luke beamed at the other man and shook the hand firmly. ‘It’s an honor to meet you, Cody.’ And he made sure to pack as much sincerity into those words as he could. These men were assigned to protect him, and he knew they would do so without second thought. That was a great honor indeed.

He clapped his hands together and looked at each of the men’s vizors in lieu of being able to see their faces. ‘Right then! Let’s check this place out!’

Opening the doors, he walked into a room that looked nothing like he’d expected.

Large, oval, airy, and with the furthest wall bisected by one massive arching window that led onto a balcony overlooking the skyline of Imperial Center, the guest suite was nothing like the sterile architecture outside the door.

Sunshine streamed into the room, reflecting off the many glass and crystal elements in it and onto the soft cream walls and plush white furniture, painting the whole place in various shades of warmth and light. Glinting accents of mirror-polished copper and bronze shone out everywhere in the architecture in various tints metallic red and gold. Overall, it reminded Luke of the hours of early dawn and the moments when the sun peeked through the clouds in the rain season. Light, bright, but not punishingly so.

A far cry from the impersonal blank durasteel plating and stiff corners he’d expected somewhere in the back of his mind, but like hell was he complaining! And there seemed to be more to the suite yet. He could see two open archways leading left and right into adjacent rooms, while a staircase gracefully wound its way upwards along the curved wall to the balustrade circling the upper part of the room, lined with yet more doors.

One of the troopers whistled was they walked in behind him. ‘Sweet stars! No offense, sir, but I’m damn glad I got assigned to you if this is what the accommodations look like.’

Luke burst out laughing at that. ‘Suns, none taken!’ he reassured the trooper as he continued to chuckle. ‘If you’re all gonna be stuck on guard duty with me, you better get something out of it.’

‘Eh.’ A trooper shrugged. ‘Guard duty ain’t so bad, sir. No drills to run, no active battles if we do our jobs right, and we get to see something else besides our barracks again.’

‘Plus,’ another trooper added as he slouched down on one of the wide armchairs. ‘You’re pretty laid-back compared to our usual protection charges. Now the guys guarding Ozzel, those bastards I pity. Won’t be surprised if they’ll need some leave after this one.’

All pretty good points, Luke conceded. ‘Fair enough,’ he shrugged, ‘But I still didn’t get any of your names besides Commander Cody’s.’

‘Their names would be sharal utreekov’e [1] who’ve already forgotten we’re supposed to be sweeping these rooms,’ Commander Cody cut in, arms crossed over his chest and oozing sheer disapproval even as you couldn’t see his face.

A trooper standing right next to him with similar Commander markings nodded sharply in agreement. ‘On your feet, all of you, get to work!’ he snapped out as the men groaned, but followed orders with an efficiency that Luke could only admire, even as he was confused by the process.

‘Sweeping?’ he asked to the Commander by his side.

‘For bugs, sir,’ Cody responded promptly. ‘And any other unsavory surprises that might’ve been hidden in these rooms after your arrival became known. You’re a high value target now for any number of factions due to your skillset. Many would give anything to be able to collect on the various bounties on your head.’ The Commander turned to face Luke and he saw his own stunned expression reflected back at him in the vizor. ‘And that is what we’re here for, sir. To make sure they do not succeed.’

Still slightly discomforted from the reminder that there were whole factions baying for his blood or—effectively—his enslavement, Luke could only nod mutely as he sat down heavily on one of the square poufs. Watching the troopers systematically sweep the suite, checking everything from the walls, to the furniture, to the ostentatious cut-crystal chandelier that they had to have four troopers form a pyramid formation for, Luke wondered idly when this had become his life.

When at last even the vents and kitchen sink had been deemed safe, the various troopers pulled off their helmets and gathered round for introduction. The first thing that caught Luke's eye was that they all looked nearly exactly the same. Same height, face, eyes, and hair when they had any, and all significantly older than he was. Clones then, all of them.

Luke had come to know a little bit about the clones these last few months. Apparently the 501st was one of—if not the last regiments they served in. Soldiers from the wars that marked the very beginning of the empire, all brothers of each other. Or vod’e [2] as they called themselves, in a language he’d learned was Mando’a; the language of the Mandalorians. Each identical in appearance, except for the scars and tattoos that told their stories. Vader's most loyal soldiers, and apparently, the men that had been selected to be his guards.

‘Oh,’ he said as he took them all in. ‘Well, this may be a little late, but jate’urcye [3] to you all.’ And please let him have pronounced that right!

That got him a couple chuckles from the troopers, a chorus of mando’a greetings back, and an encouraging pat on the shoulder from the Commander. ‘Almost, sir,’ Cody told him with a light smile. ‘But the “e” consonant from jate and the “ye” consonant from urcye sound a bit more similar than that.’

Luke groaned and dropped his head in his hands as the clones barely stifled their laughter, he’d said that last bit out loud again. ‘I can never get those two right,’ he complained, voice muffled by his hands. ‘Give me hydrospanners any day.’

‘Ah, you’re still learning, sir,’ a clone with salt-and-pepper hair and a black tattoo peeking out from under it said. ‘And you’re trying, which is more than can be said for almost everyone else.’ He stepped forward and extended his hand. ‘Field medic Kix, sir—’ A field medic!? Oh, come on, he wasn’t that bad! ‘—I’m here to make sure everyone stays in top form, including you, and to provide aid in case everything does go belly up.’

‘Field medic, huh?’ he said with a grin as he shook the hand firmly. ‘And here Va— Lord Vader said that he didn’t fret.’

Kix gave him an unimpressed look as he stepped back. ‘With all due respect, sir, I’ve read your file.’ He raised an eyebrow in a manner so uncannily similar to Aunt Beru that Luke mentally shivered as he realized just what kind of personality this man must have. ‘You were found in no less than eight separate places that humans, by all logic, couldn’t and shouldn’t inhabit twenty-seven separate times over the last month. I will defer to Lord Vader's judgement on this one.’

And okay, fair, but that didn’t stop Luke from pulling a face as the other clones snickered.

Another one of the men stepped forward and held out a hand. ‘Commander Appo, sir, pleasure to meet you officially.’

Appo, he recognized that name! ‘I know you!’ he told the man excitedly as he shook the hand. ‘You were the one who filed all those ideas on a real-time tactical feed in the HUD! Those were brilliant by the way, I don’t know if I’ve thanked you for them yet. Everything’s been going at lightspeed lately and I haven’t yet had the time to really thank everyone for all the help.’

Appo, for his part, merely grinned somewhat self-consciously as he shifted his helmet under his arm. ‘Well, sir, you were the one who did all the work so I don’t know about that—’ he began modestly but Luke waved it off as he blew a raspberry.

‘I didn’t even know troopers had a symbol tagging system like that, and without the ledger you drew up I would’ve been fucked beyond all belief,’ he insisted as the man’s face flushed darkly while his brothers nudged him playfully in the side.

‘If you say so, sir…’ Appo muttered quietly and Luke had already opened his mouth again to insist that he did when another clone stepped forward.

‘Ignore the Commander, sir, he doesn’t do well with praise, or really people in general,’ a clone with a mostly shaved head said as he stepped forward, ignoring the glare of his superior. ‘Name’s Boomer, sir, Sergeant. It’s good to finally meet the head tech who’s actually looking to improve things around here instead of just staying holed up in their department and huffing their own hot air all day.’

Luke laughed as he shook his head. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment, Boomer.’

The man grinned at him with a troublemaker smile. ‘Was meant as one, sir.’

‘Alright, trouble, you’ve had your fun,’ one of the last three unidentified clones grouched as he shouldered his way past his brother. Sticking out a hand like all his other brothers, he introduced himself promptly. ‘Sergeant Hex, sir, at your service. Can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us, sir,’ he said as he knocked a hand on his chest plate.

Feeling himself flush bright red, Luke shook the hand while rubbing the back of his neck. ‘Suns. Thank you, Hex, but it wasn’t just me, y’know? Many other people worked on it and you guys helped more than you know,’ he tried to deflect and failed miserably going by the scoffs of the men around him.

Hex, meanwhile, just shrugged. ‘Maybe so, sir, but we know what Lord Vader said when you first presented this to the brass. “Above and beyond” isn’t something he says idly, or at all, and yet…’ Hex’s eyes flashed as he looked looked at Luke, highlighted by the twin falcon markings tattooed underneath his eyes, and for a moment it looked as if he was seeing more than just Luke standing there. ‘He said it about you. That means more than I think you know, sir, and certainly enough to tell us something of who you are.’

Still feeling a bit like he had suddenly been pulled onto a stage, Luke nodded shyly before turning to the remaining two troopers. One of which had a jagged lightning bolt tattoo curving over the right side of his face and temple, the other, a complex mesh of coding symbols that arched over his head. They step forward simultaneously and Luke found himself in the strange position of having to shake two hands at once.

‘Sergeant Volt—’ the one with the lightning tattoo spoke.

‘—And Sergeant Slice, sir,’ the other spoke in near perfect unison. ‘We’re proud to be here.’

Luke smiled at both men before a thought occurred to him. ‘Wait,’ he said as he stared wide-eyed at all seven men. ‘Four Sergeants, Two Commanders and a field medic?’ he asked bewildered. ‘Uh, I might’ve missed some classes when I got my military one-oh-one crash course, but that’s not— that’s not a usual squad makeup, is it?’ he trailed off at the last words, feeling more and more silly for having even brought it up.

Cody, however, merely nodded. ‘It’s not the usual way of doing things, sir, I’ll grant you that, but then, the usual way of doing things doesn’t seem to readily apply to you.’

‘We were all selected by Lord Vader himself when squads were being formed, sir,’ Commander Appo chipped in. ‘And while it’s unusual to have multiple officers in the same squad with two COs, you needn’t worry that we won’t preform our best, sir.’

‘What?’ he blurted out. ‘No! I didn’t mean it like that! I just meant— well—’ He pulled a hand through his hair. ‘Suns and sand,’ he muttered. Seven highly skilled men who’d been soldiers for longer than he’d been alive and they got put on what he knew was essentially glorified babysitting duty? He sighed and met Appo’s gaze apologetically. ‘I didn’t mean to imply that you wouldn’t preform your duty well, Appo, I’m just sorry you all got this—’ he made a vague gesture between him and all of them, ‘—foisted on you.’

Appo stared at him for a moment before breaking out into chuckles alongside his brothers. Feeling like he was thoroughly missing the joke, Luke gazed in askance to Commander Cody who seemed a little less busy laughing than his brothers.

Perhaps seeing his unspoken question or perhaps just taking pity on him, the clone commander explained. ‘Sir, you don’t understand,’ he said as he elbowed Boomer next to him when the man just wouldn’t stop snickering. ‘We were selected, yes, but we were selected from a pool of volunteers.’

Wait, what.

But Commander Appo nodded in confirmation. ‘That’s how it always goes in the 501st, sir. If at all possible, only volunteers are assigned to protection details, since experience has taught Lord Vader that a resentful bodyguard is often worse than no bodyguard.’ He gestured a hand to all men present. ‘We? We were just the lucky ones that got drafted from the pool of volunteers for your detail.’

What.

‘Lucky?’ he asked, feeling just a bit off-kilter.

Appo snorted inelegantly, looking at him with a mix of fondness and amusement. ‘You really don’t know, sir, do you?’

Off-kilter feeling was increasing. ‘Know what?’

‘Sir,’ Cody interrupted gently. ‘Nearly the entire 501st volunteered to be on your detail for this mission. There were arguments on who could come, since the officers who would usually do the selecting had also volunteered. That’s why Lord Vader had to come in and select us himself in the first place. Fights would’ve broken out if he hadn’t.’

And that was… that was just slightly too much for Luke to process in one go.

‘Volunteers? Fights? The entire 501st?’ he squeaked out. ‘Really?’

Boomer badly disguised his laugh as a cough, before he was coughing for real when Hex elbowed him in the side between two hard plates. ‘Yes, sir,’ the stern Sergeant said. ‘Really.’ He tilted his head somewhat at him, and Luke—who’s brain was currently lagging like an Interio Class hyperdrive, thank you for asking—for the life of him couldn’t decipher the look he was being given in the moment. ‘You really don’t know, sir?’ he asked, and Luke mutely shook his head, wide eyed as he tried to process the new information.

Hex huffed and a small smile appeared on his face. ‘You’re something of a hero in the trooper barracks at the moment, sir,’ he explained and that— that didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

‘What?’ he meeped out, feeling thoroughly lost.

Boomer snorted loudly again, and—ignoring another elbow to his side—grinned widely at him. ‘Well, what else did you expect to happen when you made us this shiny new toy, sir?’ he asked, tapping his helmet. ‘We’d been stuck with that dinky Stormtrooper armor for years now, with issues that took years, if not decades to be fixed. And then? Boom! Suddenly you come along and deliver us some of the best goodies in the entire damn military, and unlike most of the tech boffins with egos larger than what their heads can deliver, you did just ‘cause you believed we deserved them. Just ‘cause you saw us as worth expending time, effort, and resources for.’

Luke shot him a look of horror at that last bit, but Boomer just shrugged carelessly. ‘That’s rare, sir, and scored you a lotta points with both officers and shinies alike.’

‘Trouble’s right, sir,’ Hex chimed in. ‘We’re mostly just seen as the grunt workers by the higher brass; expendable and easily replaced. So to get an upgrade like this?’ He shook his head. ‘Unheard of. At least…’ His eyes focused with that same sharp intensity on Luke. ‘Until you came along. And suddenly everything’s changing.’ He tilted his head and observed Luke in a manner that reminded him of some of the lab techs after he’d told them what he’d done to their precious equipment.

Not… angry, exactly. But like they were trying to decide if figuring him out could be best achieved by talking or by slicing him onto a slide and sticking it under the aforementioned equipment for examination. He doubted that Hex would go that far though, if for no other reason than that it would be against his orders. Seemingly making up his mind, Hex nodded once and his features softened minutely.

‘You’ve been good for the Lady,’ he stated softly. ‘The Lady and her Shadow. Lord Vader is the best commander a trooper could ask for, but he’s always carried something with him that weighed like an entire planet on his shoulders. You… seem to ease that burden,’ he noted.

‘I’ve got to agree with Sergeant Hex there, sir,’ Commander Appo piped up. ‘You have been good for Lord Vader, and near everyone can see it. That alone would’ve put you in our good books, but then you took us all under your wing in the best way you knew how, even us clone troopers, and that is something only Lord Vader has done for us before. To us troopers, sir, you’re rare like purple stars.’

Face burning like the noon suns from all the unexpected praise, Luke scuffed his boot along ground. ‘I just— it was just that you deserved better,’ Luke muttered out, feeling both flattered and embarrassed at the attention and confessions of the clones. ‘I just wanted to help.’

He knew the armor was bad before he remade it, but was really no one but Vader looking out for these men?

He looked up at the men standing in a loose group before him. And they were… they were old soldiers. In their mid-forties or early-fifties at the very least. Not unfit for duty, by any means, but they’d clearly been fighting for a very long time. Longer than Luke had been alive. Had they, in all that time, really had that little people looking out for them?

He swallowed, before resolving something to himself. Aunt Beru had often said that his Grandmother Shmi had a favorite saying: That the problem with the galaxy was that people didn’t help each other.

His Aunt had further said that the older he got, the more people would try to say that it wasn’t that simple, that life wasn’t that simple and that he couldn’t just help everyone because it was more complicated than that. She told him not to listen.

“It is that simple, Luke,” she’d told him. “It’s just people who make it complicated. Trying to invent reasons and traditions and systems to justify why they can’t help so they don’t have to face the simple but ugly truth: they just don’t want to. So when people tell you that you can’t help, know that it’s a lie. You can always help; you just have to want to, and be willing to look everyone who doesn’t right in the eye.”

He’d imprinted that lesson, and all his Aunt’s lessons of the secret knowledge that all Children of the Desert possessed, into the very core of who he was the moment he was old enough to understand a bit more of how the world worked. A bit more about Tatooine. A bit more of the core problem that was people not helping.

And while there were differences in the situation, he could easily see the parallels between the men in front of him, and the slaves of Tatooine. No one helped either of them. No one likely ever even thought of either of them besides acknowledging that they existed, maybe. No one helped the slaves, and apparently, no one helped the troopers either.

Or rather, almost no one.

On Tatooine they had the Flightpaths. A network of people who did help and to whom slaves could turn to when they were ready to take a chance at Freedom, no matter the risk. Surgeons and doctors to get the transmitters out and if needed, heal the Desert Children back into fighting shape. Runners and saboteurs who took supplies and correspondence to the slave quarters underneath the noses of the Masters, or led the Flights along their areas by bringing down transmitter towers and escorting their newly Freed Siblings to safety. Forgers and silver tongues, who made the identification someone needed to exist without a chain around their neck and convince some of the people unwilling to help to look the other way. Pilots, who were willing to take on a few extra passengers at a sharp discount and be unusually unobservant to any discrepancies within any paperwork. Those people helped.

Suns, Luke himself had been a runner and saboteur due to his skills as a pilot and mechanic, shepherding his Siblings through what was often the most dangerous part of the Flight as the Desert whispered through the back of his mind. He’d even been a surgeon a couple of times when a transmitter needed out now and Aunt Beru wasn’t around to do it. Even now, with whole systems between him and the Desert, he was still helping. The chunk of his paycheck he sent home every month was working not only to keep his Aunt and Uncle from falling short on Jabba’s taxes, but also to buy the lives of any Siblings who really couldn’t be freed any other way and support the good fight with a vital lifeline of capital.

People helped the slaves of Tatooine, even if they were often only the Free Children themselves.

But who helped these men in front of him?

Vader, apparently, though Luke doubted the man had been able to do as much as he wanted to, since he clearly needed someone to help him too. He’d put a few credits on General Veers trying his best too but he didn’t know if the man really had the mindset either. Likely he didn’t even really think help was needed as was often the case with many core worlders.

So really, almost no one.

Well, fine. If no one was going to help, then Luke was just going to have to do it himself.

He shook off the last of his embarrassment and shyness and stood tall as he looked the men who had proclaimed themselves lucky to be allowed to protect him—him—in the eyes.

‘I just wanted to help,’ he repeated, packing as much meaning into those five words as he could. All that he had decided and all the responsibility he took on with that declaration. And he thought that the men might have caught something of that intent when their eyes gained a kind of sheen that reminded him eerily of the look some of his Siblings sometimes gave him when he helped them with their Unshackling.

‘And I’m going to keep helping,’ he declared firmly, as binding as any true Vow made by water, blood, and sand. ‘You can trust in that.’

The clones all looked between each other, and some kind of understanding seemed to pass between them before Commander Cody took a step forward to him and held out both of his hands, palm up this time. ‘I think we already do, Goran,’ [4] the man admitted. ‘We can see it. You’ve got that fire in your eyes, the kind that screams mandokar [5] to anyone who would care to listen.’

Mandokar. Luke had only just begun to really learn mando’a in order to communicate with the clones in their native language, but he knew that was a powerful word. The kind that paid respect in something deeper than a shallow compliment. He couldn’t help it; he felt some nerves knowing that his Vow had been accepted so immediately without the men even really knowing what it was. That spoke of a kind of starvation for aid that Luke knew all too well from the Desert and Her Children. But he was committed to help now, come what may.

He extended his own hand to accept the handshake, but instead Cody forwent that and clasped his hand around his forearm. And that— that meant something deeper too, Luke could tell. So he clasped back as firmly as he could and looked Cody right in the eyes.

‘Thank you. For choosing to protect me,’ he offered as solemnly as he could, projecting as much determination and a will to help as he could with a mirthless smile, knowing that the Commander would likely understand what he was really saying.

Something that was confirmed when the old veteran smiled back grimly and squeezed his grip once. ‘And thank you, sir, for choosing to help us troopers.’

And as something deeper passes between the two of them, Engineer and Stormtrooper, Luke knew that despite any doubts he may have had about all this, the voice that whispered like shifting sands in the back of his mind had led him true once more.

Here was exactly where he needed to be.

 


 

  1. [1] Sharal utreekov’e: mando’a for “lazy idiots” or literally translated, “lazy emptyheads.” [ ▲ ]
  2. [2] Vod’e: mando’a for “brothers,” "sisters," and "siblings." Gender neutral. Singular: vod [ ▲ ]
  3. [3] Jate’urcye: mando’a for “Well met” or more literally, “Good/Lucky to meet you”. Note: this is not an official mando’a phrase, but one I made up myself by extrapolating from words that are official. [ ▲ ]
  4. [4] Goran: mando’a for “Smith,” “Blacksmith,” or “Armor Smith”, more commonly translated as “Armorer” though there is far more weight on that title than merely a job description. To say that the vod’e made a grave statement by giving that title to Luke would be putting it mildly. [ ▲ ]
  5. [5] Mandokar: “the right stuff”, a kind of aggression, tenacity, loyalty, and a love of life that the Mandalorians admired above all else. [ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

As much as Veers was looking forward to the coming event, he hadn’t thought he could hate the last two days at the palace any more than he did at the moment.

Ozzel had been roundly insufferable ever since the man had discovered Lars had not only been granted one of Lord Vader's personal guest suites, but also been given complete access to Lord Vader's own offices while he hadn’t. Something the man had discovered when he’d gone to Lord Vader to complain about the former fact, only to discover the latter when he’d been denied any kind of access at the door while Lars had come out happily chatting to the lord himself not even minutes later.

Unfortunately—or rather, fortunately, depending on how you looked at it—the young engineer had been unavailable for ranting and hostile intent due to the boy’s unbelievably busy schedule since arrival and uncannily sharp security detail. Something which Ozzel decided to take out on all the officers who couldn’t get away fast enough, including Veers himself.

Not that Veers was a pushover, but there was only so much of the man’s grating voice he could stand before he seriously began to consider committing a homicide. A thought he could see reflected back at him in the eyes of some of his fellow officers who were eyeing the man with more and more disdain each passing day.

Fortunately, today Ozzel would be far away from his both his mind and presence in favor of something far more pleasant.

Zev was arriving with the other officer families today, and in spite of all the arguments they’d had, he was still looking forward to seeing his son again for the first time in months.

And who knew? Maybe Lars could spare some of that good influence he seemed to have on Lord Vader and stop his son from doing something stupid that would stain them both. He’d have to make sure introductions would be made between the two youngsters.

Time passed fast that morning, with those officers whose families could attend being given leave from the day’s busy schedule of preparations to greet and reconnect with their loved ones. There would be a cocktail party that evening for all the new arrivals to make acquaintances with the officers, and, well, their engineer. And just from that little fact, Veers could already guess that the guest list would be a bit longer than he’d been led to believe. And he could already guess as to whom everyone would be trying to cozy up to later this evening.

That was for later though. For now, he found himself waiting alongside the other officers at one of the palace’s landing pads for the shuttle that contained his son.

His son, who was scheduled to arrive in the fifth shuttle of eight.

He’d been waiting since the very first.

Hours later, the comm towers finally picked up the IFF codes of the scheduled fifth shuttle. Standing up from where he’d been seated in the platform’s waiting area, he was joined by several other officers who’d be meeting their families, and began to make his way to the greeting area outside on the platform itself.

Making his way down the halls, he could see the shining speck that was the shuttle beginning its approach from high orbit through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls the landing pad facility favored. It would take some time for the speck to become anything more than that, and by the time it did, Veers had already stationed himself in the section of the landing pad cordoned off for any greeters. Accompanied by several other officers and a few royal guards to ensure proper protocol was observed, he watched as the shuttle at last touched down and began to unload her passengers.

First off the ramp were the families with young children, and Veers couldn’t lie, watching two of his Colonels be greeted by their offspring rushing down the ramp for a tackle-hug was very much endearing. Even if it did cause a pang of longing somewhere inside for the days where he could’ve counted himself amongst them.

While the officers with the youngsters were thoroughly occupied with either not getting knocked off their feet by their mischievous spawn or trying to convince their overexuberant toddler that papa’s mouth really didn’t need to be yanked on to help him smile, the rest of the passengers slowly continued to disembark, amusement at the spectacle written over plenty of their faces.

One of which Veers recognized as the one he’d been waiting on. Zev was still standing at the top of the ramp, watching the small spots of chaos with a grin, and damn, the boy had somehow managed to look like he’d grown some more in his absence despite being in his early twenties.

Approaching the ramp while dodging the other reunions going on around him, Veers watched as Zev finally noticed his approach, and, much to his dismay, the wide grin on his son’s face dimmed somewhat.

Shifting his duffle bag over his shoulder, Zev gave him a small smile. ‘Hey, Dad.’

He smiled back and was relieved to see his son’s face lighten a bit again. ‘Hey, kiddo. It’s good to see you again in one piece and not under arrest.’ And it was, especially after the last time he’d gotten a letter about his son being involved in an explosive “mishap” with his training squad.

Zev groaned theatrically and Veers grinned even wider. ‘That was one time, Dad. Let it go.’ But his son was smiling too, even as his eyes couldn’t completely match it, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence while he led them both back to their rooms. Something they’d far too little of these last few years, he reflected. It gave him hope. Maybe this week would be good for the both of them.

Having already made their way halfway there, Zev cleared his throat and glanced sideways at him. ‘So, Dad? What’s this all about? I mean, what’s this really all about? I know that this is the launch event of some new armor, but…’ He glanced around and Veers was unaccountably pleased that his son seemed to have at least learned to check if anyone was listening before he began these kinds of conversations. Having become a part of COMPNOR seemed to have taught him that much at least.

Leaning in a bit closer, Zev gave him an investigative look. ‘But there’s all kinds of rumors flying. They say that Lord Vader got ordered back to Imperial Center just for this. They say that because of that the entire Executor was order back around. They say that the Emperor himself gave order to organize this event in honor of just one guy.’ Zev looked at him imploringly. ‘Dad, what’s the truth here?’

He gave his son a sharp look and cast a swift glance around to make sure they hadn’t missed anyone, but the cavernous hallway seemed empty asides from just the two of them, his security detail having been dismissed for the day. If he watched his words and was careful about what he said and what he just implied…

Officially,’ he began measuredly, seeing Zev's eyes sharpen as he realized what kind of conversation this was going to be. ‘This is a launch event for the SUTA Project, the Stormtrooper Universal Tactical Armor, whose design finalized just two weeks ago. The event will kick off the mass production and distribution of these things, while both the Court and the Senate will receive a full presentation on the new armor’s capabilities from its Head Designer.’

He looked sideways at his son. ‘Officially, I and the other officers are here because of my troops’ involvement in the project’s development and because the 501st will be the first legion to be outfitted entirely in these new armors, meaning we will be expected to document how this new development will advance ground infantry tactics.’

Zev swallowed. ‘And unofficially?’ he asked, reading the game expertly.

‘Unofficially,’ he continued, dropping his voice low. ‘The armor was designed, produced, tested, and perfected in just one month. And there was only one designer and practically just one producer.’ Zev's eyes widened at that little tidbit and he grinned darkly. ‘Aye. And make no mistake, I worked closely with the project. That’s no lie or boast. This entire thing was created by just one man, and as you’ll shortly see, that’s one hell of a feat. And unofficially,’ he sighed, checking his surroundings one last time.

‘Unofficially,’ he continued, ‘I suspect the only reason I and the rest of the officers aside from Lord Vader are here, is because we happened to be aboard the Lady. Not because of any real need or desire to have us present.’

His son’s eyes widened at that. ‘So, it’s true?’ he whispered. ‘All of this is really just for one man?’

‘Let me put it this way, son,’ he said as he put a hand on Zev's back to make sure he didn’t lose pace. They really shouldn’t be discussing this out in the open. ‘His Majesty and Lord Vader ordered the Lady, the Empire’s flagship, to turn around rather than to stick the lad on a shuttle for what normally would be a rather minor event. Certainly not one where Lord Vader would have to attend.’

Zev shifted around at his side and he suspected the kid was beginning to see parts of the larger picture that had both fascinated and terrified his father for weeks now. Perhaps even better than he himself did. The lad did work at COMPNOR, after all, the inner political mechanisms of the Empire were what he lived and breathed.

‘But pipe down for now,’ he told Zev as they turned into the final hallway. ‘I’ll tell you more once we have a couple more walls between us and any prying ears.’

Zev fell quiet, but he could already hear the questions bubbling up inside of his son. Not that he blamed him, Luke Lars was an enigma that so far no one but the boy himself and possibly Lord Vader knew the answer to. He himself liked to think that he had a bit more insight into what was really going on than most other people, but he knew damn well that even the info he had access to were only potentially more accurate assumptions than the rest.

Who the boy truly was and what his relation to Lord Vader was remained a mystery for now, and everyone clever and cunning enough to get to the bottom of it was also wise enough to know that that could cost them their neck if Lord Vader found out. And Lars wasn’t talking. Yet. The boy had a strange sense of secrecy sometimes.

Shepherding Zev into his and his officer’s quarters, he led the boy back towards the set of rooms the two of them had been assigned. Closing the door, he gestured for Zev to sit at the table in the small communal living area and sat across from him.

‘We can talk here freely?’ Zev immediately asked, eyeing the walls as if he could see the listening bugs sitting underneath the plaster work.

‘Mostly,’ he admitted. ‘This is the Imperial Palace, so I advise you not to start another one of our disagreements, but I swept the rooms already, and it all seems to be clear,’ he finished with a pointed look, only earning himself a glare from Zev.

‘Fine,’ he spat, crossing his arms and looking away like he was still a sullen teenager and not a grown young man. ‘I’ll behave.’

‘I sure hope so,’ he fired back hotly. ‘Zev, you’re in the Imperial Palace. Please, for the love of the Force, don’t do anything stupid that’ll get you killed. Just… keep quiet, son, or we’ll both land ourselves in hot waters.’

Zev gave him a dark look but nodded stiffly, apparently he’d yet managed to instill some self-preservation in the boy. Or perhaps his proximity to the ISB these last few years had simply given him a better appreciation for how true those statements were.

He sighed but sat down across from his son heavily. ‘Good. Now, what do you want to know?’

‘Who is he?’ Zev immediately asked, seemingly forgetting his earlier sullen attitude. ‘Dad, you’re speaking of him as if he’s some genius and he’s clearly got the Emperor’s favor to match if what you’re saying is true, but I still don’t know who he is. Did Director Krennic finally get lucky or something?’ he asked as he raised an eyebrow.

Veers snorted loudly. ‘He fucking wished. No, this kid is a newcomer, picked up by Lord Vader himself. His name is Luke Lars, and he’s been the new Head Engineer of the Lady since a little over half a year.’

Zev rolled his eyes at that. ‘Oh, great,’ he muttered sarcastically. ‘Let me guess, old school, older family, and with an attitude to match?’

He sat back with a smirk and mirrored his son’s posture by crossing his arms. ‘Wrong on all accounts. Kid came from an outer rim dust ball in the middle of nowhere. Hutt space, had never even seen a city before now. Won’t talk about his family much, but I know they’re moisture farmers somewhere out even further into nowhere that he sends some of his paycheck to each month. And as for his attitude…’ he grinned wider at his son as his eyebrows climbed higher and higher with each word.

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Zev, but Lars is a good egg. Bit of a trouble magnet, but he means well enough. Nearly always holed up in some vent or crawlspace when he’s not down in his workshop, and about as genuine as you can get.’

Zev shot him a dubious look. ‘Right,’ he drawled. ‘Sure he is. Next you’ll be telling me he just wants everyone to get along and have a good time.’

He couldn’t help it, he grinned even wider as he saw his son’s disbelief grow. ‘He does!’

‘Pull the other one, Dad,’ Zev groused. ‘It’s got bells on it. Now really, what’s this Lars like and how much am I going to have to restrain myself from strangling him?’

His grin dropped like one of Lord Vader's TIEs. ‘Don’t even joke about that, Zev.’

His son just rolled his eyes again but he leant over the table to look his kid straight in the eyes. ‘No, Zev, listen; do not even joke about that. I’m serious.’

‘What, so he can’t even handle a joke?’ Zev scoffed. ‘Some good egg.’

‘It’s not Lars I’m talking about,’ he clarified quickly, needing his son to understand. ‘I’d swear the kid has the demeanor of a monk with how friendly and peaceful he is most of the time. Ozzel’s been trying to get a rise out of him for months with various barbs and veiled threats and I’m not sure Lars even realizes that the man sees him as a rival.’

Zev frowned. ‘Then why—?’

‘It’s not Lars I’m warning you about, son,’ he interrupted. ‘It’s Lord Vader, some of the other officers, and pretty much the entire 501st.’

His son blinked.

‘What.’

‘Remember how I told you Lord Vader was the one who personally picked up Lars from his dust ball?’ he asked urgently, hardly waiting for a stunned Zev to nod slightly. ‘Well, no one knows exactly how or why, but for some reason, Lord Vader has grown… fond of Lars. A fondness I can assure you is very much mutual in Lars. They’ve practically become inseparable over the last few months, and Lars’ influence on Lord Vader is nothing to scoff at. There are multiple occasions I could’ve sworn that he was about to execute some poor sucker, when Lars swooped in and defused the situation without breaking a sweat. I could tell you at least three officers aboard the Lady who I know owe their lives to Lars and there’re probably many more.’

Zev looked at him with wide eyes, and while he grimaced in sympathy as his son clearly tried process the same information it had taken him an entire bottle of something strong to do so, he pressed on, needing Zev to understand the new hierarchy that he’d be wading into this evening.

‘Zev,’ he implored his son urgently. ‘I’m not saying you are obligated to like, or even respect Lars. But this evening I’m asking you to at least give the boy a chance and be polite, no matter how much you find you dislike him.’

Zev shot him a betrayed look at that request but he held up a hand to forestall any protest.

‘You’ll see what I mean at the cocktail party tonight,’ he promised. ‘But I can already tell you this: I have never seen Lord Vader this protective of a single soul before. And the same goes for his men. The 501st, due to the fact that Lars spent considerable effort, resources, and time to improve their fates on the battlefield, revere him to the point that they nearly fought over the privilege to be his bodyguards here.’

He watched the information sink in with his boy as he sat back, hoping that he’d managed to make Zev understand how severely such a joke would be taken, not by Lars, but by the veritable army of protectors the boy had managed to gather around him in just a few months flat.

‘So, what you’re saying is; Lars himself is nice, but the people around him are not,’ Zev tested out slowly. ‘It sounds to me like he himself can’t be very nice either if that’s the kind of people he gathers around him.’

Veers groaned to himself. Damn the boy for having learned to read doublespeak so well, and while he’d normally be right, “normally” had a nasty habit of not applying to Lars. Which is exactly what he said to Zev.

‘Normally, you’d be right,’ he admitted. ‘And I’d applaud you for realizing that. Unfortunately, “normally” doesn’t apply to Lars. Like I said, you’ll see what I mean this evening, because I honestly don’t know how to explain Lars to you other than that he’s kind to the point that he’s even won over Lord Vader. And that Lord Vader is highly, fiercely protective of the lad. One good way of permanently getting yourself on Lord Vader's bad side is by threatening Lars in anyway. So just—’

‘Let me guess,’ Zev interrupted with a flat look. ‘Be polite?’

‘Yes.’

Zev groaned as he rolled his eyes. ‘Fine, but don’t expect me to cozy up to the guy.’

‘I’m not,’ Veers responded tersely. ‘I’m expecting that you, for once, put your COMPNOR training to good use and don’t make any enemies we can’t afford, son.’

Zev gave him a tired look, but nodded as he looked away.

He sighed as sank back in his chair, practically feeling all the years of strife flowing between them in that moment. He rubbed a hand over his face as he looked at his son’s tired and melancholic expression. This wasn’t right. This week was supposed to be some time for them to “reconnect” as the palace aide had informed them oh so sweetly this morning.

‘Son,’ he said softly, regaining Zev's attention. ‘I don’t mean to scare or pressure you with…’ he helplessly gestured a hand between them, hoping he’d gotten the issue that plagued his son right, ‘—any of this. But I know that you have a habit of getting into fiery debates with others on topics so inflammatory they might as well be tinder. All I’m saying with this is to please not pick Lars as your next target, neither you or he deserve that. And who knows?’ he said as he tried for a weak smile. ‘Maybe you’ll end up liking him anyway. He’s only just a little younger than you.’

Zev returned his smile just as weakly before turning away again. ‘Yeah… maybe. But don’t hold your breath, Dad. The kind of kid who gets Lord Vader's attention isn’t likely to be someone who’d like me, or vice versa,’ he muttered quietly.

At that Veers' smile turned into something more genuine. ‘Oh, I don’t know about that, Zev. But I suggest not judging the book by the cover I gave you.’ He stood up and jerked his head towards the door. ‘Now come on, we still have a few hours before the party and there’s a nice restaurant in the palace gardens. Trust me when I say you’ll be happy you got some real food in you when you see what’s served at your average imperial cocktail party.’

And to his relief, his son smiled as he got up. ‘Considering the people who’ll be there? I think I’ll trust your judgement on this one, Dad.’

Maybe he wasn’t completely hopeless at this after all.

Chapter Text

Luke swore his life would never again be anything more than meetings and presentations. Or at least, that’s the way it felt with how his life had been going these last few weeks.

He’d hoped being in the palace would mean that his schedule would finally see some variation again, maybe let him get a peek into some of the hangars he knew were scattered around the monstrously large building, but no dice. Apparently being on Imperial Center only meant that the people who’d previously not been able to get a hold of him, now had both the chance and the excuse.

Thankfully, Vader had been by his side during the first few of them, or Luke was sure he’d have made some critical mistake in etiquette the first time he’d had to speak to a bunch of senators, never mind that his presentation to the Senate wasn’t for four more days yet.

Vader had said that most of these meetings hadn’t even been on the schedule before they’d arrived dirtside, but he’d anticipated them all the same. Because, in his words, “the senate played host to a hoard of individuals who could at one’s most generous be described as scavenging opportunist predators: always on the lookout to make a kill, but perfectly content to feed on carrion all the same.”

Luke figured it meant that your average senator was a competent gossip and had the means to act on the rumors they caught, which is why he now found himself swamped in all kinds of “essential” meetings he was pretty sure weren’t half as essential as the auto color-coder in his planner made them out to be. He really needed to reprogram that thing. Someday soon, before his life really did become nothing but meetings.

Luckily, it hadn’t come that far—yet—because he knew for a fact that tonight was his first party this week!

Granted, it would be a party with no dancing—not even group dances—and even if there had been, he didn’t know the dances here. And he would have to wear his dress uniform, which wasn’t too bad now that he had resolved his most pressing issues with it, and he did think it looked pretty nice. And apparently there’d be no singing or playing instruments?

Whatever.

It was a party, and even if parties in the imperial palace were apparently nothing like Tatooine parties, it’d be nice to be able to do something other than have to correct countless core worlders who apparently knew nothing of mechanics, even if they were senators and counts and such. If nothing else, Vader would be there too, so there’d be someone to talk to who he was reasonably sure wouldn’t mind the company.

Which is what he kept in mind as he tried not to let his eyes glaze over too much while one senator whomever made another critically false assumption on how the armor worked while sounding supremely confident of his own non-existent expertise. So far, not a single person in these meetings he’d been forced to attend last-minute seemed to know anything at all about engineering. Something they all seemed to get incredibly offended about when Luke corrected their false assumptions or mistakes.

Sighing deeply, he resettled in his seat as he eyed the senator who’d last spoken, a zabrak man with amber colored skin and an impressive set of horns who was looking incredibly pleased with himself. Even though everything he just said about the construction of the helmet is wrong, Luke thought somewhat snippily. Again.

‘No, sir,’ he addressed the senator as respectfully as he could, mindful of the possibility that he might actually be trying to understand for as irritated with him as Luke was. ‘That’s not what I did with the wiring. Why would I even do that? Nothing would work in the armor from the neck up. Now as for what I did do, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the official Senate presentation like everyone else. Until then, I am under strict orders of confidentiality until the project is partially declassified.’

He technically was, but since this would be mass-produced armor, everything but the most intimate secrets—like the precise method of molecular engineering or coding in the firewalls of the HUD—would soon enough become common knowledge to anyone who cared learn. Confidentiality was practically a moot point.

However, as Vader had pointed out when the man had taken pity on him before the first of his long series of meetings, that didn’t mean he couldn’t take full advantage of the fact that until then, he technically couldn’t say anything to anyone not already cleared.

Like a bunch of nosy senators, for example.

Most of whom were looking thoroughly offended at his last statement, even though it was all perfectly true and out of Luke's hands. Another thing Vader had had to explain to him after his first meeting. Apparently, none of these people were exactly used to being told “no” and their power was usually enough to circumvent the times that people said exactly that. Why they thought that that would be the case with Luke—someone they didn’t even know—he had no idea.

Still, he put on his best smile and looked around the room. ‘Now then, are there any other questions that I can answer before then?’ he asked, already knowing that there wouldn’t be and ready to get out.

After the near customary sputtering of offense that he’d gotten used to over the last three days, he subtly signaled Commander Cody who’d stationed himself behind him and off to the side. Immediately, a chime sounded from the Commander’s position, mimicking a chronometer alarm to a tee.

‘I’m sorry, sirs,’ the Commander piped up, not sounding particularly sorry at all. ‘But that’s the signal for Engineer Lars’ next appointment in a couple of minutes. We’ll have to cut this short.’

Perfectly on time. It was a system he and the clones had developed shortly after the first meeting. Apparently, it was an old trick Commander Cody had used before when guarding various individuals. No one would suspect the guards of doing something underhanded after all, he’d told Luke, so it was the perfect cover to get out of a tiring appointment or to work someone out the door while still staying diplomatic.

Apparently not diplomatic enough as several senators immediately made to loudly protest Luke leaving, but Commander Appo joined him at his other side, flanking him in and making for a pretty good barrier between him and the outraged senators.

‘Sorry, sirs,’ Appo said in an echo of Cody, sounding even less apologetic. ‘But the Head Engineer is an individual in high demand and you, unfortunately, do not have a monopoly on his time. Now then, you really must excuse Engineer Lars, but Lord Vader doesn’t take kindly to tardiness.’

At Appo’s namedrop of Vader, the room immediately went eerily quiet and Luke was never more grateful for Vader giving him blanket permission to drop by his rooms any time, or to make subtle use of his name when necessary. Apparently, his dislike for politicians and nobles was known well enough amongst them that no one really wanted to annoy him too much.

Which Luke happily made use of in the moment by gathering up his datapad, offering the now somewhat ashen-faced crowd of senators a genuinely beaming smile, and a shallow dip of his head as he made to leave. ‘Commander Appo is right, I really must be going. Good day, sirs.’

And with that the troopers assumed a tight formation around him and escorted him out of the meeting hall.

Breathing a sigh of relief once they got a good enough distance away that he no longer had to fear attempts at being called back, he scowled at the two commanders when he heard them snickering at his predicament.

‘Shuddup,’ he groused. ‘You heard the nonsense they were spouting. I couldn’t take another minute of it!’

‘Well, you certainly made a dramatic enough exit of it,’ Boomer chimed in cheerfully from where he made up the rear guard. ‘I think a couple of them wet themselves once the commander dropped Lord Vader's name,’ he said chortling, the rest of the clones chuckling happily in agreement.

‘No kidding,’ Volt agreed happily. ‘I think that zabrak nearly turned salmon with how pale he went at his Lordship’s name. But anyway,’ he said as he audibly refocused. ‘Where to next, sir? Do you genuinely want to head to Lord Vader or would you rather head back to the suite for some R ‘n R before the party?’

Luke didn’t even have to think about it. ‘Drop me off at Lord Vader's offices,’ he decided quickly. ‘I best be seen actually heading in so my excuse is more truth than lie in case anyone finds out, and I need someone to complain to about senators and counts anyway.’

That statement made a few helmets turn his way and Luke winced as he realized that may have been a bit too frank, but Cody simply shook his head and gestured for the others to keep on walking.

‘Only you, sir,’ he muttered wonderingly. ‘Only you.’

‘What?’ he asked bewildered.

But Cody simply shook his head again. ‘Nothing, sir. Absolutely nothing.’

A lie. But not a critical one. Still musing on the odd response, Luke didn’t even notice how quickly they made pace until they were nearly at the grand black marble double doors that marked the entrance to Vader's rooms here at the palace.

‘Alright, sir,’ Appo said as he came to a halt. ‘Here we are. You want us to wait outside while you do whatever you need to do?’

Luke stared at the man in bafflement. ‘What kind of question is that?’ he asked. ‘Of course not, that could take ages!’

Boomer, Volt, and Slice sighed in relief. ‘Thanks, sir,’ Slice offered. ‘You have no idea how boring standing guard gets.’

Luke nodded, still feeling a bit baffled, but Cody caught his attention again.

‘If you don’t want us waiting out here, sir,’ he began. ‘Then would you mind if I took the men back to the suite? We’d still be close by and you could comm us once you’re finished with… whatever it is you and Lord Vader need to talk about,’ he finished uneasily, clearly avoiding the word “complaining”.

‘Yes, of course,’ Luke agreed immediately. ‘Suns, you don’t even need to ask, Cody, I would never keep you guys waiting like that. And it’s not like I can get any safer than with Lord Vader,’ he pointed out.

That earned him a laugh from Cody and the rest of the clones. ‘True enough, sir,’ he agreed. ‘Very well, you have your comm?’

‘Course I do,’ he said with a wink, fishing out his code cylinder as he headed for the security panel in the middle of the door. ‘See you in a bit, Commander.’

Cody nodded. ‘Likewise, sir.’

With that, he inserted his code cylinder and stepped back as the solid stone doors slid open with grating rumble of rock sliding along rock. Glancing back revealed the troopers still standing guard behind him. Boomer shot him a double thumbs-up and he beamed back before heading through the door.

Stone began to slide shut behind him again, but he ignored it in favor of the sight in front of him that had never failed to awe so far.

The room was as grand and high as the doors, hewn out of much the same black marble and polished to a mirror sheen that showcased the veins of gold and silver running through the stone, everything shining harshly under the cold light of glowspheres, floating in clusters of various sizes high above his head. It was beautiful, Luke admitted, but there was something almost sad about the space. Something just a bit eerie and off. Something that almost made Luke want to sit down and wallow in misery.

Lonely, Luke realized as he wandered in deeper. The space felt lonely.

And given its usual and only occupant and what he had confessed to…

“That sounds very lonely,” his own voice echoed back at him inside his head. “It… was,” the remembered sound of a vocoder whispered in response as well as it could.

Yeah, Luke thought. Lonely is exactly the word he’d use to describe this space. It’s like it was made for misery.

He shook the feeling off. Well, too bad, that would just have to change, now wouldn’t it? Now Luke was here too and he was determined to help. The troopers, Vader, it hardly mattered, Aunt Beru had often said he had a heart big enough to help anyone he wanted and he wanted to help them all. So that was exactly what he was going to do and caring about Vader was hardly a chore.

Difficult maybe, with the number of walls the man sometimes had up, but certainly never a chore.

And with that in mind he went off to find the target of what Uncle Owen had sometimes called his “aggressive caring.” He’d argue that there was nothing much aggressive about wanting to give someone a hug, but his Uncle had always laughed and said he found a way.

Trusting the sense in the back of his mind, he let it lead him up the grand staircase in front of him and to the right when it split off instead of the lower floors where he knew the office to be. Wandering into the narrow hallways of the upper levels that curved around the atrium, he noted that there were far fewer glowspheres floating near the high ceilings here, casting everything into a gloom that only served to further make him feel like he was trapped in a cave a long way off from anyone and everyone that might care.

Glaring up at the offending architecture, he had half a mind to start lecturing the empty hallway about being so damn oppressive. Who made a home like this!? It was rude is what it was! How did Vader ever feel comfortable in this kind of place? Even the part of him that would always be Desert and associate “Dark and Cool” with “Safety” was recoiling at this place, no matter how beautiful it was to a certain extent. It nearly felt like it drained and muffled—

‘I take it you are not fond of my abode, little one?’ a familiar rumbling voice sounded from behind him and Luke definitely did not yelp as he spun around.

Sure enough, behind him was a distinctly amused Vader standing there with his hands clasped behind his back and that stupid helmet tilted in that manner that Luke knew meant the man was laughing at him.

Scowling at Vader, he jabbed a finger in his direction. ‘This time I know you went into stealth modus for that!’ he accused. ‘This place echoes like nothing else, you did that on purpose!’

Vader merely tilted his head in the other direction but denied nothing while amusement rolled off of him in waves. Luke's scowl deepened as he realized the man wasn’t going to admit to anything either and crossed his arms in a manner that definitely wasn’t a pout.

‘You were glaring quite fiercely at my hall décor, little one. Is it not to your liking?’ the man repeated, blatantly ignoring Luke's accusations of sneaking as he always did. Luke rolled his eyes but went along with it.

‘Yeah, actually,’ he admitted, walking over to join Vader. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but how do you live here? It feels like it’s trying to swallow me whole with how dark it is.’ His eyes widened a second later as he realized how that might come over. ‘Even if it is rather pretty,’ he hurried to tack on.

But Vader merely huffed out a gust of static as he pressed a hand to Luke's back to lead him back down the way he came. ‘Peace, little one,’ he rumbled. ‘I take no offense. And as for how I live here…’ he trailed off, resting a hand over the control box on his chest. Silence reigned for a beat, only broken by the cycling of the respirator and the tread of their footsteps on the polished marble.

‘These… rooms, they were a gift from my Master,’ he explained at last, the vocoder dropping off to a hush. ‘I was told they would… suit me.’ A malice seemed to settle in after those words, pressing down like it meant to grid him into the ground.

The emperor, Luke mentally translated as he suppressed a wince at the word “Master”. This place was a gift from the emperor. One that would suit Vader.

He sniffed derisively at that thought. ‘No offense to his majesty,’ he began, hoping to dispel the uncomfortable feeling setting in. ‘But I don’t think he and I will agree on styles of architecture. Much too little plants, in my opinion. Or color.’

That earned him an amused huff from his mentor and he grinned as the malice seemed to lift a bit. Cheerfully he continued on a rant about how they had the ability to put plants and water inside a house, or well, palace in this case, he supposed, and didn’t use it everywhere. Why, if he had that ability, you wouldn’t even need to paint the walls or put in floors. It would be nothing but plants and flowers all the way down!

And as silly and insignificant as some of his gripes probably were to Vader, they did their job in distracting the man from whatever had been weighing down on him, and Luke could feel from the increasing amusement at his side that the man was listening intently despite how nonsensical it all was.

Somewhere between him complaining about having things like glowspheres and then using so little of them and explaining exactly how many indoor water basins he would put everywhere if given the chance, Vader began to chuckle in that halting, staticky way that was the only way the vocoder could translate the sound.

‘You seem to have very strong opinions on the use of botany in architecture, little one,’ he observed, and Luke could hear the teasing undertone in his voice. He shrugged happily and smiled up at the black mask looking down at him.

‘Pretty much,’ he agreed happily. ‘It’s probably got something to do with being a Desert Child. I never even knew you could have that many plants in one place, and now I find out people can do it and don’t?’ He shook his head in mock disappointment. ‘What a waste. Such a disappointment.’

‘Hm. A disappointment, indeed,’ Vader agreed distractedly as he guided Luke down the last of the stairs and into his office. They lapsed into companionable silence after that, the strange malice from earlier completely dispelled and it was hard even for the strange ambiance of Vader's rooms to make Luke feel lonely when Vader was right there next to him.

Allowing himself to be gently pushed into the office—a vast squarish room cut from the same marble as the rest of Vader's suite and decorate sparsely with a desk and a small seating corner consisting of a few pitch-black leather armchairs and a glass cafftable—Luke flounced forward and plopped down into one of the chairs in a manner that would have Aunt Beru frowning.

Vader, however, merely tilted his head at him when Luke arranged himself upside-down in surprisingly comfortable black leather. ‘I must admit, I had not expected to see you again until this evening, little one. I believed you had a full schedule—’ he cut himself off as Luke groaned loudly at the mention of that damnable schedule. Crossing his arms, Vader looked at Luke in a manner that had him feeling inexplicably sheepish despite the blankness of the mask. ‘Ah. I see.’

Luke covered his face with his hands as he let his head hang slack off the edge of the armchair. ‘It’s all so boring,’ he complained. ‘None of them ever say anything new, and none of them know what they’re talking about either. And telling them that I couldn’t tell them anything didn’t stop it either! We just argued in circles again and again and again. Only it wasn’t arguing, ‘cause I didn’t want to be rude. But I couldn’t take it anymore!’

‘And so, you came here…’ Vader rumbled softly, sounding like he was very far away for a moment.

Luke dropped his hands from his face and looked at the distinctly pensive man in concern. ‘Uh, yeah,’ he admitted. ‘That… was okay, right? I mean, I can go if it wasn’t—’

But Vader merely waved him off as he walked towards the chair opposite to him. ‘At ease, little one, you are more than welcome here.’

Sinking down into the chair with a lithe grace, Luke blinked at the man now seated opposite to him but pointedly didn’t make any move to right himself, instead offering an upside-down smile from where he was partially hanging off of the chair.

If Vader drew issue with his posture, he didn’t let it show. ‘But be that as it may, Luke,’ he rumbled in a somewhat sterner tone. ‘I do hope that you remembered your lessons well enough to not cause a minor scandal.’

‘I didn’t!’ he chirped happily. ‘Commander Cody and I have a system now!’

‘Do you now?’

‘Yup,’ he confirmed as he kicked his legs a bit, bouncing them on the back of the chair. ‘I just give him the signal and he activates a chronometer alarm, telling everyone that it’s for my next appointment or something similar. He’s been very helpful, apparently he’s done this kind of thing before and has been kind enough to help me out with some the trickier bits.’

Vader regarded him for a moment before nodding his head, satisfaction thrumming warmly around them. ‘Yes,’ he conceded. ‘That would certainly serve well enough as a means to diplomatically put an end to the vipers’ hissing.’

Luke snorted lightly. ‘Not well enough,’ he grumbled. ‘You should have heard the volumes they reached when Cody told them I had to go to another appointment. It was only after Appo told them I had an appointment with you that they piped down.’

‘As well they should,’ Vader rumbled darkly, leaning back into the chair, and Luke got the impression that if he were to look below the mask at this moment, the man would be wearing a smile of vicious satisfaction.

Luke gave him a tired smile. ‘Y’know, normally I’d be all for giving people more of a chance than that, but I can see why you’d be annoyed with them. Most of ‘em are incredibly confident in what they’re saying about the armor despite the fact that so far, none of them have gotten a single thing right. And then they get incredibly offended when I tell them that that’s not how it or anything works. And they just… urgh—!’ He let his head drop back as he stared up at the black void where normally there would be a ceiling if it wasn’t so damn high and dark at the same time.

‘Are all senators like this?’ he asked, already feeling drained at the prospect of having to sit through all the meetings still flagged as “essential and urgent” in his planner. ‘Or did I just get the worst of luck?’

When no sound came from the chair opposite from him, Luke looked back down in concern. Vader's mask was tilted down, presumably staring at the floor and looking very much like the man was lost in his own thoughts at the moment. He frowned at the sight, hairs on his neck standing on end as the strange feeling of malice from earlier began to set back in again.

‘Milord?’ he probed softly. ‘Are you alright?’

Whatever thoughts had plagued his mentor seemed to be shaken off as the lenses tilted back up to meet Luke's eyes. ‘It is nothing, little one, merely… old memories.’ He shifted himself in the chair and Luke was relieved to note that the malice seemed to be dissipating a bit.

‘And to answer your question,’ he continued, ‘Yes, most are. Though I will admit that the ones you are currently contending with are senators especially shameless in their corruption and lazy in the execution of their manipulations. The ones who still have a shred of decency left or are simply more cunning are waiting to meet you until after your scheduled presentation.’

‘Why though?’ Luke had to ask, still looking at Vader with a frown of confusion. ‘What are they even trying to achieve with all these endless meetings? You’d think that by now word would’ve spread I’m unwilling to break confidentiality on this project.’

‘You assume that what they are after is information on the project,’ Vader pointed out. ‘And the likelihood that they are is abysmally low.’

Luke shot him a look in askance and felt his mouth twitch into a smile when Vader exhaled a gust of static out of his vocoder.

‘In a certain sense, you must view these meetings as traps, little one, rather blatant ones too, with the SUTA Project acting as bait. Do you remember what I told you about power and the methods used to get it?’

Luke nodded. ‘Manipulation and various kinds of strong-arming, right?’

‘Yes,’ Vader agreed. ‘But in order to attempt either of those, they first need to be able to speak with you.’ And here Vader tilted his head at Luke in that distinct way of his. ‘And even on the Lady you are known as notoriously difficult to contact.’

Luke winced at that statement and smiled innocently at his mentor. ‘Uh, oops?’ he tried.

The vocoder rang out a sharp burst of static in concert with a reprimanding finger being teasingly pointed at him. ‘Do not think me ignorant as to your short comings, little one, you will have to get rid of that poor habit sooner rather than later,’ Vader scolded even as warmth suffused the air.

Luke's smile only widened and he attempted for one of his best upside-down salutes. ‘Yes, sir!’ he teased right back, earning himself a rumbling clatter of staticky laughter. ‘But why would they set up these meetings if they aren’t even interested in the project? Surely there are easier ways to talk to me than simply wasting everyone’s time in a meeting no one apparently wants to have?’

‘There are,’ Vader answered bluntly. ‘But answer me this honestly, Luke, would you agree to any of them? Would you agree to have a lunch meeting or allow an introduction?’

‘Ah,’ Luke realized, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘No.’

‘Exactly,’ Vader said with that damn tilt. ‘They likely realized that early on when you did not respond to any of the more usual requests for a meeting, with the more impatient and foolhardy individuals likely thinking that tricking you into these meetings would accomplish the same result. An educated guess would be that they hoped to distract you away from the topic of the armor and into their own domain of power and politics, thus setting you up to be taken advantage of.’

Well, Luke thought, that certainly explained a lot. Like how his spam folder had been filling up more rapidly than usual or why none of the senators seemed particularly pleased when he insisted they stayed on topic. It also explained why he felt like most of the senators had been two steps away from fainting the first three meetings Vader had joined them.

He groaned. ‘Great, so they’ve been deliberately wasting my time with these things’ he complained. ‘Just awesome.’

‘Indeed,’ Vader agreed mildly. ‘Though why you do not simply cancel the meetings, I am somewhat at a loss over.’

Hold up.

‘Wait,’ he said with dawning realization. ‘I can do that?’

‘Of course,’ Vader replied, completely unaware of the fact that he’d just personally brightened Luke's day by a matter of magnitudes. ‘They are requesting your time for non-essential meetings. You are not obliged to entertain them if you do not wish to—’

‘Fuck yeah!’ Luke cheered, pumping a fist up into the air before realizing he’d cut off Vader midsentence. Wincing, he sheepishly looked back up at Vader. ‘Uh… sorry, milord.’

‘Language, little one,’ was the mildly amused reprimand before he leaned forward with what Luke suspected was a considering look as his demeanor shifted to something more concerned. ‘Did you honestly not know this?’

‘Uh, no,’ Luke admitted. ‘They were forwarded to me from the right codes and my planner simply flagged every one of those meetings as “essential and urgent.” Since it had to do with the SUTA Project—’

‘—You assumed it was simply correct,’ Vader finished, a thoughtful air enveloping the man. ‘Luke, would you mind showing me your planner?’

Blinking at the strange request, Luke could only nod as he rifled for his datapad somewhere next to him in the chair. ‘Yeah, sure. Just give me… a second…’ His fingers hit the hard edge of the pad and he pulled it out from behind his back. With a familiar three-tap shortcut that was near muscle memory at this point, he pulled up his planner, still jampacked with nothing but meetings for the next four days whenever there was a gap in his schedule. He held it out for Vader to grab. ‘Here you go.’

A black gloved hand took the datapad from his hand and immediately started tapping away at the appointment slots displayed. Now with nothing to do but wait until Vader either found what he was looking for or gave up, Luke simply closed his eyes for a bit and let the periodic tapping and rhythmic cycling of the respirator soothe him into a calmer mindset.

It was kinda nice, just hanging there for a bit in silent company. It reminded him of the times when he was younger and the Sandstorms had raged around the Homestead. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would usually be busy with some kind of quiet work as the sands whistled past the domes of the farm, bookkeeping, clothes mending, that sort of thing. When he got older, Luke learned to help, but young as he had been then, he’d often been left to entertain himself for a bit in their company. Sometimes that meant playing quiet games as his imagination brought toys to life, or playing simple tunes on his ocarina in time with the storm, but more often he simply sat down on the floor and allowed the sounds of the howling winds outside to fill his head. The whispers normally so quiet in his mind would swell until they weaved together into words he almost understood.

When he’d been younger, they’d told him stories of how the water and sky and suns came to be. Stories he later told to the other kids if they cared to listen, all of them entranced by the “wind whispers” as they’d called them. And later, when he’d become older, they spoke to him of things his mind didn’t understand but his heart just knew. And sitting there, surrounded by family and listening to something larger, older, and wilder than he would possibly ever know, he’d made some of his most peaceful memories. There, in the raging storm.

Somehow, sitting here, draped upside down over an armchair, Vader reminded him of the Sandstorms back home. And the paradoxical peace and wonder they brought.

Letting himself be lulled into a near meditative state by the sound of half-remembered whispering sand at the back of his mind, he nearly jerked out of his chair when Vader made a triumphant sound.

‘Ah. So that is what they did.’ Opening his eyes again had Vader hold up the datapad and he caught a glance of something that was… definitely not his planner menu.

‘Did what?’ he asked, still with half a mind on the Desert.

‘Apparently, our esteemed senators—’ And Luke hadn’t even known that the vocoder was capable of translating sarcastic vitriol to that extent, ‘—flagged their requested meetings as emergency conference concerning the SUTA Project to bypass both the proper authorities and your filters. Forcing the program to automatically accept their request unless the time was already occupied by an appointment of similar urgency or manually removed. Something they would have had to utilize both their senatorial codes for and the specialized project codes,’ he growled out, tone resembling that of a rockslide.

Well, that didn’t sound good.

‘Are they allowed to do that?’ Luke asked dubiously. As far as he was aware, none of the people he’d talked to were even involved with the project, let alone in a position where it would be necessary to call him in for an emergency that overrode his regular schedule.

‘They most certainly are not,’ Vader ground out. ‘Nor should they be in possession of the codes necessary to enact something like this in the first place. Someone leaked the necessary codes to them—likely for their own benefit—knowing this would be the result. And rest assured, I will notify them with all due haste that I do not appreciate them harassing you in this manner.’

And well, that wasn’t anything that Luke had expected to happen. Maybe be given permission to hide out at Vader's office some more, but…

‘I— thank you,’ was all he could bring out, but Vader merely nodded curtly in response still looking down at the pad with what was definitely a glare hidden behind those lenses. Luke bit his cheek for a moment before blurting out, ‘Can I stay here for a bit longer though? While I cancel those meetings?’

Vader looked up sharply before handing over the datapad. ‘Of course, little one, and I will ensure this does not happen again.’

Standing up from his chair in a single sharp movement, Vader made his way over to his desk while Luke looked back at his datapad and—

Wait. That definitely wasn’t his planner’s menu.

‘Hold up, did you slice into their planners to get that info?’ he asked incredulously as he scrolled through some Senator Ka’ha’uu’s planner. Vader stopped short of his desk and glanced back at him, a rare feeling of mischief dancing through the air.

‘But of course, how else was I to catch them out on their unauthorized activities?’ he rumbled out, and Luke could swear that for a split second the gleam on those lenses was of glee instead of glowspheres.

Shaking his head with a grin stretched ear-to-ear, Luke merely let himself fall back flat against the armchair again and began the process of clearing out of the senator’s planner without leaving a trace.

Somewhere out of sight he heard Vader take a seat at his desk, and, making himself even more comfortable in the chair, Luke began to sort through his own planner, the stress of the day being soothed away as he matched his own breathing to the slow cycles of the respirator. They lapsed into silence, but Luke didn’t think he’d felt this comfortable for a long time, the distinct feelings of safety and close company washing over him, all steeped in a deep catharsis as he canceled each one of those mind-numbing and bad faith meetings.

They worked like that for a while, Vader clearly tapping away at his own datapad while Luke finished up with his planner, now almost blissfully empty except for the things that truly were necessary for the SUTA Project to proceed. Still not really feeling like getting up, he instead pulled up his presentation file and the specialized projector to present it with and started working on that, immersing himself in the far more interesting work of putting together a coherent narrative for what was essentially a caff-and-sleep-deprivation-fueled month-long frenzy of engineering madness. Even if it was some of his better madness, if he did say so himself.

Not that Vader had agreed, the man had started to make it a habit into the second week of dragging him out of his workshop some-time around one in the morning, scolding him for being reckless with his own health. Something which—despite it interrupting his workflow—had made Luke feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Still, he had work to get done, both then and now, and he let himself fall into the flow-zone of designing and coding something workable together.

He was halfway through the part of the presentation where he began to expand on the HUD and all its capabilities when a soft sound from behind him shook him out of his musings.

‘Luke,’ Vader called softly. ‘It is time to finish your task, little one. Tonight’s gathering is in less than an hour’s time.’

Letting his datapad fall flat onto his stomach he craned his neck back to look at his mentor. ‘Wait, really?’ he asked, flipping up his pad to check the chrono, which indeed displayed the correct time. ‘Huh,’ he muttered. ‘Must’ve lost track of time.’

‘You lost track?’ was the rumbled question.

‘Hey, I was busy,’ Luke defended. ‘This is the first time in three days that I’ve been able to sit down and work on my presentation, let alone had some peace and quiet. Besides, the chair was comfortable and I didn’t want to move.’

The silence after that declaration stretched just a beat too long but Vader just nodded like something just made sense to him. ‘Ah. Of course.’

‘And anyway,’ Luke continued, still a bit defensive, ‘It was nice to be able to just hang out for a bit, y’know. Even if we were both doing our own thing.’

That garnered a reaction from Vader that some absent part of Luke's mind noted was not entirely unlike when a loth-cat got skittish. But the man recovered quickly enough that Luke had to wonder if that wasn’t just his own mind making things up.

‘I… appreciate your company as well, little one,’ came the slightly stilted response, but the air was so full of something warm, soft, and slightly hesitant that Luke just knew every word of it was meant.

He smiled warmly at his mentor who seemed to flounder for just a split second now that his extensive walls had been lowered for a bit, but even the rapidly stiffening posture of Vader couldn’t dissuade Luke from what he’d just heard.

‘As for my “own thing” as you put it, rest assured that I took care of the senators’ indiscretions. The situation will not repeat itself,’ Vader continued, blatantly changing the subject in a manner so unlike his usual grace that Luke could only grin.

‘Thank you, milord,’ he said with a little nod, trying to convey his full thankfulness with it.

Vader nodded back stiffly, before sweeping around the side of his desk in a clear bid to get going on his earlier warning of the time.

Flipping himself backwards out his chair and attempting to straighten out the worst creases in his current dress uniform, he grabbed his pad and took up his place at Vader's side. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Time to get ready for the party. I’ll just comm up Cody and the squad to come get me and—’

‘There is no need for that,’ Vader interrupted. ‘If you are willing, I can simply escort you back to your suite myself.’

Luke's head jerked up to look at Vader, but the impassive black mask gave away nothing as per usual, with the stiff posture of the many not helping matters. ‘Wait, really?’ he asked, getting only a stiff nod in return.

‘I plan to arrive early to ensure everything is proceeding according to plan. Seeing as I am not the one in need of a fresh uniform—’ he explained with a pointed look at Luke's dress uniform that was showing the creases and rumples of being worn all day, ‘—I have enough time to see you safe to your suite and guards as well.’

While that wasn’t exactly an entirely fair statement given the fact that Luke was pretty sure Vader didn’t even have a dress uniform he had to wring himself into, he nonetheless beamed in response. Anyone who said that Vader didn’t care obviously hadn’t seen the man when he was not-so-subtly trying to fuss all over the place. ‘I’d like that, milord,’ he agreed.

Something uncoiled in the air, and when Luke took a step closer to his newly self-appointed escort’s side, he could’ve sworn that same something rumbled contently. They walked back down the narrow marble hallways in brief silence, but Luke could still feel a couple of questions bubbling away inside of him.

‘Milord?’ he asked softly, testing the waters to see if the dark man was willing to strike up a conversation.

‘Yes, little one?’

Apparently, he was! Good times for Luke and his endless curiosity.

‘What ended up happening with the senators? And how did they get those codes?’ he asked, still curious as to how this whole debacle got started. ‘Weren’t those supposed to be for the SUTA Project’s communications only?’

The air seemed to thicken for a moment as Vader's shoulders squared off entirely. ‘They were,’ he growled. ‘Which means one of the members did something incredibly foolish and leaked those codes to the senators directly. Something that could have compromised the entire project if they were to reach the ears of people who actually had the sense to see the potential in them beyond harassing you.’

Luke swallowed uncomfortably at that. ‘Any idea who it was?’ he asked hoarsely, images flashing through his head of what a compromised armor could mean for the ones wearing it.

‘I have my suspicions,’ Vader ground out, the vocoder producing a tone not unlike rocks scraping against metal. ‘And if they prove to be true the culprit will know regret beyond bounds, but unfortunately, as moronic as they were to cross us like this, they were at least competent enough to cover their tracks.’

Luke mused over those words for a moment. ‘So, what now?’ he asked. ‘What do we do?’

Vader glanced down at him. ‘We do nothing,’ he answered pointedly. ‘I will handle this situation and see if I can lure the coward out into the open for a hunt. You, on the other hand, will continue on with your duties and attempt to let this weakling interfere with your duties and work as little as possible.’

Frowning, Luke crossed his arms as he gave a mock-glare at his mentor. ‘So I’m supposed to just sit back and do nothing about this? While you get all the fun?’ he asked with a slightly teasing lilt. A lilt that Vader clearly missed going by his answer.

‘Little one,’ a distinctly tired voice came from the vocoder. ‘I realize that you are curious, but I am asking you to trust me. I know what I am doing.’

Blinking at the somewhat odd choice of words for the man that somehow seemed to hold a lot more meaning than he realized, Luke nodded slowly. ‘Okay,’ he said quietly. ‘Just tell me how.’

Vader turned to look at him and confusion pervaded the air. ‘What?’

He shrugged. ‘You asked me to trust you. I do and I am, but I need you to tell me how to show it.’ He smiled up at the blank mask, hiding a face that he could swear was looking rather flabbergasted at the moment. ‘So, just tell me how.’

Silence. Pure silence, aside from the ever-present cycling of the respirator. Silence that would’ve stretched for a nearly uncomfortable length of time were it not that Luke could feel a whole conflict of emotions viciously tearing at each other around Vader. Each vying to be the most confusing and overwhelming as the speechless man stood in the middle of it, the deceptively calm eye of the emotional storm.

Eventually, it all seemed to settle into a curious mixture of quiet bafflement and… awe? Luke cocked his head to the side. Huh, he thought, must’ve read that one wrong.

‘Very well,’ Vader eventually conceded, turning back towards the heavy stone doors in front of him. ‘Then I ask you to leave this situation to me while you occupy yourself with more pressing matters. The upcoming presentations you must give and considerations for who you would wish to appoint as your private secretary, for example.’ With a wave of his hand the heavy doors slid open, and for all that Luke was an engineer and the hairs on his neck stood on end as something shivered through the air, he still couldn’t understand how Vader managed that. Which nearly distracted him from the last part of the sentence. Nearly.

‘Wait, what?’ he asked. ‘A secretary?’

Vader glanced at him and nodded. ‘Yes. It has become clear through this incident that it would be a grave mistake to allow your correspondence and schedule to continue to be maintained by the Lady’s communications department and a mere planner program. Your time has become valuable enough and in high enough demand that people would now resort to unsavory and illegal tactics to gain access to it. Thus, I suggest that once we finish our engagements here in the Palace and return to the Lady, you start considering potential candidates for the position.’

He blinked. And blinked again. And when the world—in which his time was now apparently a valuable commodity—still didn’t make sense after the third blink, he decided to just give up and roll with it. Starting with a few questions.

‘What does a secretary even do?’ Luke asked while picking up the pace to catch up with Vader. ‘What do I need one for?’

‘A secretary or private aide is someone who assists you in many different aspects,’ Vader answered promptly, slowing down his pace just enough that Luke felt a rush of gratitude as he realized it was for his benefit. ‘They would be responsible for maintaining and composing your schedule and your correspondence, and would be responsible for ensuring both are handled to your liking. Such as not allowing a repeat of this situation to happen. They would carry the authority to relay any orders you might wish to give to your Corps when you are otherwise occupied or incapacitated and to block individuals from access to you in any number of situations. If chosen right, they would even be someone you could turn to for advice on various matters, if you wished.’

‘That’s— that’s a lot of responsibilities,’ Luke noted faintly.

‘Indeed. But a good aide seems to be something you need from now on,’ Vader responded meaningfully. ‘You have elevated your station by quite a bit, little one. With that comes a need to manage that station.’

‘I… see,’ Luke answered, feeling like he didn’t see much of anything at all.

Vader hummed noncommittally at that, likely sensing Luke's not-so-inner conflict about this all. ‘I would suggest you do not concern yourself with this quite yet, little one,’ he advised. ‘The search for your new aide can wait for a few days more until we finish our business here. But think on the information and see if you cannot think of anyone aboard the Lady you would entrust with such a role.’

Nodding his head like it was being jerked up and down on a string, Luke tried to process said information. ‘Alright. And… I guess you will be trying to find the leak in the meantime?’ he hazarded a guess.

‘Correct. Whomever it was that distributed the codes was an individual with a high enough rank that they had your emergency codes for this project and yet was petty enough to use them for personal gain and an attempt to damage your reputation. That sort of behavior cannot be tolerated.’ And Luke nearly felt sorry for who was about to be on the receiving end of the anger that prompted that kind of tone.

‘But didn’t you say they’d covered their tracks?’ Luke asked, still fishing for more information despite knowing Vader likely knew exactly what he was doing. The man hardly seemed to mind though. ‘How’re you gonna deal with that?’

Vader scoffed out a sharp sound of static. ‘I do not need their identity to affect them, little one. A notification addressed to all individuals of relevant rank about the situation and the severe consequences for the culprit if they are caught should be enough to either smoke them out or chase them underground depending on the mettle of their will. Either way, they will be dealt with.’

Any response Luke could have given was rendered moot by the fact that they rounded the last corner of the hallway right at that moment, bringing into view the door to the guest suite Luke and clones called home for the moment. About to fumble for his code cylinder, Vader instead rested a hand on his arm and made the same sharp gesture from earlier towards the suite’s doors. With a click and a hiss, both halves slid open and revealed the seven clones in civvies gathered around the cafftable as both Volt and Slice stared intently at a miniature Firepath [6] board mid-game, which Luke really hoped didn’t include the incineration feature from the regular sized boards.

A game that was immediately abandoned by all in favor of looking up to who had just walked into their highly secure suite, shortly followed by all clones present scrambling to attention when they realized a very familiar cloaked figure in black was striding into the room.

‘Lord Vader!’ Commander Appo saluted. ‘My Lord, we didn’t expect you to—’

But Vader waved off whatever Appo was about to say with a graceful gesture. ‘At ease, Commander. I am merely here to see Engineer Lars safely to his suite.’ With that, Vader turned back towards him and offered him a curt nod which Luke promptly returned.

‘I’ll see you at the party then?’ he said with a grin.

‘Of course,’ was the immediate response. ‘And think on what I told you.’

‘I will.’

And with that, Vader gave him one last nod before spinning swiftly on his heel and sweeping out of the room, cloak flaring behind him.

Turning back towards the clones, he’s surprised to find that pretty much every single one of them was looking at him with something that landed somewhere squarely between awe and confusion.

‘Sir,’ Volt articulated slowly. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you just get Lord Vader to escort you back to your rooms?’

Frowning at the wary tone Volt was using, Luke shook his head hesitantly. ‘Actually, he suggested it. He said he’s going to check on the party preparations ahead of time, so he might as well drop me off to freshen up.’

‘Lord Vader doesn’t “check” on party preparations,’ Hex responded, sounding a bit hollow.

‘Really?’ Luke looked towards the door where Vader had exited. The man hadn’t seemed like he was lying at the time… He shrugged. ‘Maybe this time is different?’ he suggested.

Boomer snorted loudly before muttering under his breath, ‘I’ll just bet it is,’ before getting elbowed in the stomach by Kix.

‘Never mind that,’ the field medic said, still glaring at Boomer. ‘What was it he asked you to think on? I swear, if it was another one of those bantha-brained plans of his—!’

‘Kix!’ Cody reprimanded.

‘They are, and you know it, Commander!’ Kix shot back. ‘Besides, you’re not the one who has to patch everyone up after one!’

‘Actually,’ Luke interrupted a bit louder than he probably needed to, drawing everyone’s attention back towards him and away from the rising tensions. ‘He asked me to start considering who I’d want to choose for a secretary.’

That got a reaction as most of the clones blinked for a bit, but both Appo and Cody started nodding slowly as the idea sank in. ‘Yeah. Yeah, that’s probably a good idea, sir,’ Appo agreed.

‘With the amount of meetings he’s got to handle?’ Cody asked. ‘Definitely.’

‘That’s another thing we discussed,’ Luke informed them brightly, pulling up his planner. ‘Check this out,’ he said as he held it up, the clones immediately crowding around it

‘Is it just me,’ Slice began slowly as he squinted at the datapad, ‘Or does that thing look a lot more empty than it did a couple hours ago?’

‘No, you’re pretty much on the mark,’ Luke told the man with a chuckle. ‘Apparently, someone leaked my emergency conference codes for the SUTA Project, which was how they were getting all those meetings in. Lord Vader took care of that issue, and I canceled all the rest, so we should have a much easier time of it in the next few days.’

Slice blinked before looking at him with wide eyes. ‘Wait,’ he said slowly. ‘Don’t tell me you actually went to his Lordship to complain about the senators?’ he said, with a look of slowly dawning horror.

Taken aback, Luke could only look with wide eyes as the other clones took on various looks of either matching horror or resigned amusement.

‘You did, didn’t you, sir?’ Cody asked, lips twitching into a smile.

‘Well, yeah,’ he answered hesitantly. ‘I mean, for the most part we sat in his office and worked on our own stuff, but I definitely complained for a bit and that’s when he looked further into what the senators were doing. Why?’

‘Sir,’ Appo said in an exasperate tone that was eerily similar to Biggs’ whenever Luke pulled off something crazy and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to cheer him on or smack him. ‘You do realize you essentially just got the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces to pull rank on your behalf, right?’

Oh.

‘I… hadn’t thought of it like that,’ Luke admitted sheepishly. ‘I just wanted someone to vent to who’d get it, and be left alone for a bit.’

That was apparently the wrong thing to say as Boomer couldn’t take it any longer, bursting into loud peals of laughter that shook his whole frame. Luke flushed from his neck to the roots of his hair as the man doubled over, sinking onto the floor with each further bout of cackling glee that not even a swift kick from Hex could stop. Not that the man was alone in his mirth, with various of the other clones stifling chuckles or smiles of their own.

‘Ah, don’t get yourself in a twist, sir,’ Volt said with a grin playing along his face. ‘We all knew that you didn’t mean it that way and that Lord Vader is just a tad overprotective of you. This is just the fruits of that.’

‘Not to mention that he has the right idea,’ Kix chimed in. ‘All that stress was doing you no good, sir, and if those leaked codes mean what I think they mean, other people knew that as well,’ he pointed out before getting a thoughtful look. ‘And getting a secretary would cut down on that kind of stress in the future too…’

Commander Cody snorted. ‘Yeah, I’d say that his Lordship has thought of that too, Kix.’ He clapped Luke on the shoulder. ‘But anyway, enough about that bunch of sleemo senators, sir, you had a good time of it with Lord Vader?’

Eager to move on from the current topic, Luke nodded brightly. ‘Yeah, definitely. Those chairs in his office are surprisingly comfortable, and hanging out with him for a few hours while I got some work done definitely helped me relax.’ He shrugged happily. ‘It was nice.’

‘Only you would call sitting in the same office as Lord Vader “relaxing,” sir,’ a still wheezing Boomer informed him from the floor.

‘Shut up, Boomer,’ Cody snapped out, before turning to Luke again. ‘And anyway, sir, shouldn’t you be getting ready for the party?’

Luke's eyes widened. ‘Shit!’ he cursed. ‘Right, I need to get into a fresh uniform!’

‘And maybe do something about your hair, sir?’ Volt suggested innocently. ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing to it, but it looks like somewhere in the hours between when we last saw you and now something decided to make a nest in it.’

He glared at the man as he patted down his admittedly somewhat unruly-feeling hair. ‘Ha ha, very funny,’ he deadpanned. ‘Shouldn’t you lot be getting back into uniform as well? I’m still not allowed to wander about without you guys and I doubt Lord Vader would be happy if I showed up alone.’

‘Hmm, true,’ Slice admitted with a mischievous spark in his eyes. ‘But unlike you, we don’t have to fix our hair as well.’

Luke rolled his eyes but grinned as the other clones chuckled along. ‘Alright, alright, I get the message. I’m going,’ he said as he made for the staircase under the snickering of the various clones.

Still grinning as he entered his ostentatiously large room, Luke began shedding the rumpled dress uniform, feeling the lightening of the weight with each piece shed match the lightness he felt inside.

No more meetings, the strengthening of friendships all around, and a party to look forward to. Whatever else, things were looking up for the evening.

 


 

  1. [6] Firepath: An actual Legends canonical game. It’s a strategy game that encourages elaborate tactics much like chess does, and a regular sized board includes both life-sized game pieces and yes, an incineration feature on each game space to annihilate your opponent’s pieces with. (Darth Vader apparently is an avid player of the game as well, with a strategy style canonically described as “marked by intrigue and charm” but which I mentally translate as “Skywalker Brand Extra™”)[ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

To say that the cocktail party was more chaotic than any other Veers had attended would be an understatement.

Much as he had suspected, the usual guest list had been expanded to include a couple of unusual additions asides from the regular officers and their families. Additions who only had the vaguest of pretenses as to why they were there or didn’t even both to hide the reason for their sudden appearance in an event that normally wouldn’t have even blipped their radar.

Said reason was currently happily chatting away to three utterly charmed older ladies about, if Veers' ears weren’t deceiving him, the power fluctuations inherent in the latest model of twin ion starfighter engines and how he was hoping to work those down by a significant percentage before implementation, all the while bouncing one of the youngest toddlers present on his hip as the little tyke dozed off against his shoulder.

If Veers didn’t know the boy better by now, he would’ve been impressed by how effortlessly he managed to be the center of attention for nearly the entire party, socializing with various people regardless of race, gender, age, or species. Holding everyone seemingly spellbound as he flitted around the room like a hummingbird dressed in fine black to whomever grabbed his attention at the moment. A black that was match perfectly to the looming shadow of his commander, who was always hovering protectively behind Lars at the edges of the room, only a few arms lengths away at all times instead of his usually stationary presence in one corner or another. More than one party guest had been startled to the point of spilling their beverage as they suddenly registered the presence of the dark lord gliding silently along the edges of the room, a black specter seemingly tidally locked with the bright sun darting around the party.

A specter the boy was as happy to engage with as ever, much to the dismay of whomever he was talking with at the moment when he asked Lord Vader for his input or simply dragged the dark lord into one conversation or another.

Something that Lord Vader oddly didn’t seem to mind.

Handing the sleeping toddler back to their mother now that she’d stopped fussing, Lars bid the trio of ladies a warm goodbye before walking back to where Lord Vader had been silently standing at the edge of the room, dodging various senators and nobles vying for his attention with an eerie sort of grace along the way.

Following the lad’s path across the room a bit longer, Veers glanced sideways to where his son was clearly doing the same. His son, who had the single most dumbfounded look on his face as he tracked Lars across the room like a hawk. He snickered softly, drawing Zev's attention back to him instead of the boy he was clearly trying to fathom out.

‘See what I mean?’ he asked, feeling just a tad smug in being proven right.

Zev gave him a sullen glare for moment before refocusing back on Lars. ‘And you’re telling me… this is just how he always is?’ he asked, ignoring Veers’ own question. ‘This isn’t just some mask?’

He snorted. ‘Would be easier to understand if it was, wouldn’t it?’ he retorted knowingly, before shrugging a shoulder. ‘But no, this is pretty much who he is. Perhaps a bit more moody on occasion in private, and mysterious as anything, but this? This is genuine.’

Zev opened and closed his mouth a few times in a rather good imitation of a Mon Calamari, before eventually seeming to realize how he looked and shutting it in favor of slowly shaking his head in quiet disbelief. ‘I take it the troopers along the walls and the person he’s talking to right now are also due to what you told me earlier?’ he quipped, sounding both resigned and baffled at the same time.

Eyeing the eerie presence that were the completely silent troopers in SUTA armor standing guard along the edges of the room, seven of them clearly fixated on only one person and his immediate surroundings, Veers could only nod. ‘Like I said,’ he murmured softly. ‘The only one they currently seem to hold in higher regard than Lars is Lord Vader. And if you remember anything from what I told you about them, you’ll know exactly what that means.’

Zev paled slightly and nodded wordlessly. Good. He remembered.

‘And as for Lord Vader…’ he trailed off with a sigh. ‘Well, look at them and tell me yourself; have you ever heard of anyone talking to him like that before?’

Both their eyes wandered over to where engineer and lord were apparently deeply engrossed in whatever conversation they were currently having, judging from Lars’ excited gesturing and Lord Vader's complete fixation on the young man in front of him, interjecting occasionally if Lars’ occasionally thoughtful or attentive looks were anything to go by.

A quick glance around the room told Veers they weren’t the only ones watching the odd duo’s interactions with vivid interest. Half of all people present seemed to be engrossed with watching the two as subtly as possible, some with clear curiosity in their eyes, others only annoyance and impatience. With the latter mostly belonging to the various nobles and senators, all of whom were clearly reluctant to stray too close to the dark lord’s presence, presumably because they were just as capable as any other sentient in the room on picking up on Lord Vader's rather irritable temper tonight. A temper that only seemed to be soothed by Lars’ presence.

Something which Zev clearly noticed as well, if his expression was anything to go off of.

‘No,’ he admitted. ‘I haven’t. But then again,’ he added with a wry look. ‘I haven’t seen him nearly as often as you have, Dad.’

‘Fair enough,’ he agreed. ‘But asides from that, anything else?’

Zev shook his head. ‘Nothing I can think of at the moment.’

‘So, then you’ll admit that you’re at least somewhat curious now, son?’ he asked with a grin as he crossed his arms, watching with just a bit of glee as his son realized he’d been out-played.

Zev groaned theatrically, even as he kept his voice down to avoid drawing any unwanted attention. ‘Fine,’ he grumbled. ‘You were right. Happy?’

‘Very,’ he agreed. ‘Now do you want an introduction? I’m pretty sure Lars would be curious enough about you as well.’

Zev bit his lip as he looked pensively towards where Lars was now laughing, presumably at something Lord Vader said and that was a thought Veers shoved away as quickly as he could. Despite what the name might imply, he doubted there was enough alcohol at this party to deal with the concept that Lord Vader might have a sense of humor.

‘Yeah,’ Zev said eventually, looking at Lars with the same half-curious, half-wary look that Veers remembered all too well from the boy’s first few weeks aboard the Lady. ‘Yeah, I think I’d like that, Dad.’

‘Then follow my lead,’ he said as he put a hand on Zev's shoulder. ‘They both seem to be in a good enough mood to tolerate an interruption, so we should be fine.’

Zev nodded and let himself be led as they both slowly made their way from where they’d been standing towards the duo that seemed to be the lynchpin of the evening so far. Meandering across the room in a manner that was purposeful but didn’t make them stand out, he eyed the situation in front of him.

There was practically a bubble of space around the two, with various aristocrats and politicians hovering at the edges, clearly tempted by the lure that was Lars but rightfully wary of the boy’s looming guardian. Something which both of them no doubt realized, judging by the occasional glances Lars cast at their spectators and the clearly hostile air that surrounded Lord Vader whenever one particularly brave or foolish soul strayed too close. Veers pursed his lips at that observation.

He and Zev had an advantage over the others in that he worked closely with Lord Vader and had thus far managed to keep himself on the dark lord’s tolerant side, not to mention that they would hopefully see he was only there to introduce his son to the two, no social climbing intended. However, with Lord Vader, nothing was ever guaranteed. The safest strategy would be to see if they could get invited into the social bubble instead of merely chancing it by barging in. Something of which they had at least a chance seeing as social butterfly Lars was involved.

He kept a close eye on both engineer and lord as he and Zev made their approach, directing his son to slow down until he saw what he presumed was a lull in the conversation, at which point they made their approach.

Stepping forward confidently, yet respectfully, he breathed an internal sigh of relief when he was proven right, both of them catching Lars’ eye as the boy’s face lit up.

‘General Veers!’ Lars greeted enthusiastically, ‘It’s good to see you again.’ And with that Veers knew they had an implicit invitation for conversation. One he had the feeling even Lord Vader wouldn’t protest.

As he and Zev now easily made their way towards the two, Veers could nearly feel the affronted and dare-he-say jealous glares from the circling nobles. After all, they had yet to be allowed even near the young rising star, let alone be acknowledged as a welcome presence. Something that probably vexed them like nothing else, since he doubted they’d ever had to treat an engineer as their social superior before. But with Lord Vader's blessing and protection—not to mention the Emperor’s interest—there was no question of who was top dog this evening, and for once, it wasn’t them.

‘Engineer Lars. My Lord,’ he greeted easily, toeing the social lines with his address. He dipped into a shallow bow, subtly angling himself so that it was offered to both men instead of merely Lord Vader. It was somewhat risky what he was doing, but all together it made for a greeting whose significance Lars didn’t seem to notice but Lord Vader clearly did and approved of, if the slight increase in ambient temperature was anything to go by.

Risk and be rewarded, he thought to himself as he released a bit more tension from his frame. Time to see if he couldn’t drop a bit of the unspoken acts of these parties.

‘It’s good to see you again as well, Engineer,’ he said, offering the lad a small grin. ‘I was actually hoping to speak to you for a bit before this, but you seem to have been rather busy these last few days.’

The lad blew out a tired breath and for a moment looked just as young as he actually was. ‘I know,’ he grumbled. ‘But I was booked stem to stern up until this afternoon. Would still be, actually, if Lord Vader hadn’t figured out that someone had leaked my emergency conference codes. Apparently, someone was determined to waste my time,’ he groused as he crossed his arms, the near-childish annoyance of his expression offset by the severity of his uniform and the information he was imparting.

‘Leaked?’ he asked, barely remembering to keep his voice down low enough to keep the info from any listening ears.

‘Indeed,’ the deep mechanical rumble of Lord Vader sounded. ‘Whomever has done so will come to regret that decision dearly should I uncover their identity,’ he growled out in a tone that Veers knew promised a slow, painful death and sent shivers down his spine.

Whomever the imbecile was that had decided to violate the confidentiality agreements on an Imperial project this high profile in such an idiotic way was dead meat, no question, and Veers felt no sympathy for their inevitable fate. There were stupid plans, and then there was whatever this idiot had tried to accomplish.

‘Are there any hints as to their identity, my Lord?’ he asked, the severity of the situation coloring his voice. ‘If they leaked something like this, they might have disclosed more sensitive information as well.’

Lord Vader crossed his arms heavily over his chest and radiated absolute menace as he ground out the next words. ‘I have my suspicions. But if they are who I think they are, they are likely to be as stupid as they are clumsy with this information. We will know if there is another leak.’ The final statement was said with such finality that Veers couldn’t help but agree.

‘But anyway,’ Lars said, cheering up significantly and interrupting the dark lord in a manner that he would’ve thought suicidal in anyone else. ‘That’s not exactly a topic for a party, now is it? You said you wanted to speak to me, General Veers?’ 

Equal parts grateful for the subject change and baffled by Lord Vader's easy allowance of it, he took the opening with both hands. ‘Yes, actually,’ he agreed promptly, taking a subtle step back to draw Zev more into the foreground and the dark duo’s attention. ‘I was hoping to mention beforehand that my son, Zevulon, would be joining us for the rest of this event. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I hoped to make introductions nonetheless,’ he said as he nodded towards his son, hoping that Zev got the cue that it was his turn to speak.

But before that could happen, Lars’ eye sparked with recognition and the boy excitedly clapped his hands together.

‘Oh, so you’re Zev!’ he exclaimed happily, ensuring that at least the nearest few listening eavesdroppers heard and, in the next few minutes, the entire room. ‘Your father has mentioned you a couple of times. Your texting game is strong by the way, ten out of ten, it very much confused him.’

Oh no.

Zev blinked a couple of times at the boy before grinning widely in a manner that Veers recognized as spelling trouble letter for letter. ‘Thanks. Can’t say the same for you unfortunately, Dad’s told me only a little about you, but apparently the things you can do are absolutely wizard,’ he said as he held out his hand.

Lars’ smile turned slightly bashful but lost none of its sincerity as he firmly shook his son’s hand. ‘Luke Lars,’ he introduced himself. ‘Engineer. Call me Luke.’

‘Zevulon Veers,’ Zev returned with a wide grin. ‘COMPNOR, sub-adult group. Call me Zev.’

And just like that, Veers wondered if he hadn’t made a grave mistake.

Something he saw echoed in Zev's face for a split second before he hastily stepped back again and made a shallow bow to Lord Vader, who had been watching the exchange in complete silence and likely due to Lars’ breach of protocol, had been completely forgotten in the introductions. Sithspit! And Veers could only watch silently as his son attempted to cover for his blatant disregard of the social rules at these parties or even just basic protocol.

‘And of course, my greetings to you as well, my Lord,’ Zev hastily rattled off, pale in the face, but Lord Vader merely waved both him and his lapse in etiquette off.

‘At ease, young Veers,’ he rumbled, his tone betraying nothing that could mark insincerity, Veers hastily noted, and Lars hadn’t tensed up in any manner either. ‘And well met.’

Zev nodded faintly, color returning to his cheeks. ‘Thank you, my Lord.’

Lord Vader gave him a curt nod before refocusing his attention on scanning the room as Lars excitedly took over the conversation and the brief tension that had flared dissolved like spun sugar under a rain shower.

‘Good! Now that we all know each other, what do you do, Zev?’ he asked, drawing all attention back to him and away from the fact that it was likely his sole presence that had the dark lord this even-tempered. ‘I mean, I’ve heard of COMPNOR before, but not the sub-adult groups or what they really do. Care to give me the one-oh-one?’

‘Sure.’ Zev shrugged with a grin, his brief moment of terror from earlier forgotten. ‘If you explain to me what it is that you do that’s apparently wizard enough to kick up all this dust.’

‘Deal,’ Lars agreed readily and they shook on it. ‘Now then, COMPNOR?’

‘Right,’ Zev agreed and launched into spiel about what COMPNOR was, how it worked and what his own role in it all was. Veers mostly tuned it out in favor of observing the two boys, only chiming in when he thought Zev was getting a little too fired up for an explanation in public and right under Lord Vader's nose, no less.

But asides from all the turbulence that marked the beginning, he tentatively chalked up the introduction as a success. Zev and Lars were getting on like a house on fire, and Lars’ charm was clearly working its magic on Zev, as his boy grew more relaxed and animated as the time went on. Half the time he could hardly understand what they were saying, as both lads tossed around words and phrases that held no meaning to him, but that cracked them up like nothing else.

And it was… it was nice to see Zev joke around and laugh with another youngster like that again. How old was Zev the last time he had seen him just relax and interact with friends? Sixteen? Seventeen? Veers scoffed internally. Whatever it was, it had been too damn long.

Lars had taken over the conversation at this point, explaining to Zev exactly what his duties aboard the Lady were and the less classified details of how he carried them out. At some point Zev cut the kid off and made some startled remark about something called “scrap hunting” at which point Lars laughed and nodded. Leaving the boys to their incomprehensible communication, he instead decided to take a page out of Lord Vader's book and gauge the atmosphere around him.

He immediately understood why his lord had been so overtly hostile whenever someone attempted to approach.

From this angle, it certainly seemed like everyone was watching their movements like a hawk. Oh, they tried to be subtle about it, but it was pretty obvious even from the most subtle glances that they definitely weren’t as engrossed in their conversation as they pretended to be. Or if they were, it was without a doubt a conversation where they were the topic.

Resentful, envious, and bitter was the impression he got from most of them, their curiosity and interest seemingly playing second fiddle to the former and it immediately brought up his hackles as he realized those looks were directed to his son as well. His son, who’d only just found a friend and whose mind was likely not even thinking of the cloak-and-dagger games of the elite at the moment.

And yet, he’d clearly just become a rival in the eyes of various players alongside his father. None of them met his gaze, but he could see how they eyed Lars and Zev with a gleam of greed and envy respectively. What did they even see? A source of potential power and elevation of social status? A blockade in their way to getting that power? A rival? Two? Did it even matter?

They were just boys, he thought, just boys finding a friend in each other. And yet none of the great and powerful even seemed to spare that a thought. Lars was a potential source of power to use if they could and eliminate if they couldn’t. Zev was either an in to that power or an obstacle in their way. Fucking hells, did he hate aristocracy!

So deep in his observations and thoughts had he sunken, that he almost startled when a deep baritone sounded off to his side.

‘Vultures,’ the vocoder hissed. ‘Circling what they dare presume will be their prey. And it seems you have realized that as well, have you not, General?’ The red lenses turned on him and Veers, for a split second, felt the very essence of what a vivisected specimen must feel like under the eyes of their observer.

Then the second passed and all he could feel was like his answer better be honest. As was usual when working with Lord Vader.

So he simply made a derisive sound and gave a curt nod. ‘They’re rather obvious in their envy and intent, my Lord,’ he agreed. ‘If it wasn’t for your presence, they would certainly… well,’ he trailed off uncomfortably, realizing there was little chance of finishing that statement in any way that wouldn’t aggravate his lord’s temper towards the current guests.

The red lenses stared at him for a moment longer before continuing their vigil over the two boys who were currently discussing something about video editing and assassination droids. Odd.

 ‘They do well to keep their distance,’ Lord Vader rumbled. ‘I would not tolerate them attempting to elevate their own status upon the back of my ship’s Head Engineer.’ And that phrase was both a warning and a statement if Veers has ever heard one, all but stating that his intentions here better be to just introduce his son, or else.

Thankfully, he had nothing to hide. One of the very first things you learned working with Lord Vader.

‘I agree, my Lord,’ he said honestly.

The vocoder produced a deep rumbling sound as his Commander surveyed the remaining gawkers and stared a particularly bold representative into backing away. ‘Yes,’ he eventually said, tone inexplicably musing. ‘I believe you do.’

Before he could even begin to contemplate what was meant by that, Lars shook his head while grinning and set his hands in his side while uttering a phrase that made Veers' blood turn to ice. ‘Well,’ he said, sounding inexplicably amused. ‘That’s certainly one way of looking at it. Though I can’t say I’m surprised if you’ve spent your whole life in the Core.’

Oh Force, no. Zev had promised he wouldn’t. Not here, not almost literally under Lord Vader's nose and with the boy who was practically his protégé.

Unaware and oblivious to his father’s growing panic, Zev crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow in that signature pose that gave Veers stress headaches just looking at it.

‘You disagree?’ he replied, tone wary but with that thrice damned fire already licking at the seams. Something that, he realized as his heart nearly dropped out of his chest, he wasn’t the only one picking up on, Lord Vader's laser focused attention now shifting over to the two boys.

Lars, either supremely unbothered by the whatever had provoked that response from Zev or the owner of a better sabacc face than Veers had ever given the lad credit for, merely tilted his head as he adopted a thoughtful look. ‘No,’ he replied at last, sounding very sure of himself, ‘Not in the way you’re thinking, at least,’ he clarified. ‘But the full answer is longer than I really want to go into at the moment, not to mention not exactly appropriate at a party, so tell you what.’

Still frozen, Veers watched as Lars pulled out his datapad from Force knew where in his uniform and pulled up something or other.

‘I still have some people here I wanna talk to and explaining this would probably take half of forever, so why don’t we continue this later, and I can tell you what I mean,’ Lars continued as if this was just another day and not one of the most terrifying moments of Veers' life as he prayed to whatever was listening that Zev hadn’t just almost committed verbal treason within earshot of the Supreme Commander while talking to someone effectively untouchable.

Zev blinked once, then twice, before shaking his head. ‘Yeah, sure. What’re you thinking of?’ he conceded as he leaned over the pad Lars was holding up.

‘Well,’ Lars drawled out, flashing a mischievous smile. ‘Thanks to some shenanigans earlier, I now have a much more open planner than I did before this afternoon. So, if you’ve got the time, you could crash at mine while I talk your ears off. Sound good?’

Zev shot Lars a look that clearly said he doubted Lars would be the only one talking the other to injury, but nodded. ‘Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of time, but if I had to guess, you don’t, so when should we hang?’

Lars glanced through the planner he’d pulled up before settling on a particular time slot. ‘I got tomorrow at three as the earliest decent chunk of time available. Does that work?’

‘Works for me,’ Zev agreed. ‘Where can I find you?’

‘The marble spire, suite oh-oh-two,’ Lars answered promptly. ‘I’ll let the troopers know to expect you, they can get rather overprotective.’

‘Uh…’ Zev glanced nervously towards the implacable troopers lining the room, seven of which were clearly keeping their eyes trained solely on them. ‘Yeah, I’d appreciate that. I get the feeling they might use me for target practice if you don’t.’

‘Nah,’ Lars dismissed easily with a wave (a bit too easily, if you asked Veers), ‘They may look scary, but they can be goofballs when they want to. I’d introduce you but, well…’ he subtly gestured towards said men. ‘They’re on duty at the moment.’

‘They are also highly trained veteran soldiers, Engineer Lars,’ a deep mechanical voice rumbled, nearly scaring the wits out of Veers and by his reaction, Zev as well. ‘Young Veers' observation is not far off the mark,’ Lord Vader finished, having never taken his eyes off of the other guests.

Lars shot Lord Vader a dubious look of the highest caliber. ‘You’re saying that they’d shoot Zev, a guy not much older than I am, if he showed up at the door asking to see me?’

‘If they perceived him as a threat? Yes,’ came the blunt answer and while Veers knew what it was going to be even before Lars has finished his question, it was still a jolt straight down his spine. He couldn’t even deny that the troopers would do that or blame them. To them, this was a mission assigned by Lord Vader to protect the one person that might rival him in sheer respect they held for him.

That didn’t take away that it was his son’s potential death they were discussing and he could do nothing but listen.

Lars, meanwhile, looked rather taken aback at that blatant admission that the troopers assigned to him would kill without thought if they even suspected it was necessary to protect him. ‘Um, right,’ he said as his eyes shot between a paper-white Zev and the troopers stationed by the walls. ‘Inform the vod’e that Zev’ll be visiting. Got it.’

‘Yeah,’ Zev agreed, voice sounding just a bit too high as he too eyed the troopers warily. ‘Yeah, I’d really like that.’ He cleared his throat and Veers could see him forcibly yanking his thoughts back on track. ‘Anyway, see you on the trails, then?’

Lars shook himself out of his own similar state of shock and nodded happily. ‘See you on the trails, Zev.’ They performed a kind of handshake that left Veers blinking in befuddlement and before he knew it, Zev was back at his side while Lars turned towards Lord Vader.

‘Right,’ he said as he tucked his datapad away again. ‘Now who was it you said was further worth talking to, milord?’

Lord Vader, for his part, placed a hand on Lars’ shoulder and began to guide him away while tersely summing up a short list of names, presumably herding the boy to the individuals listed. Veers watched the strange duo wander away from them with a strange mixture of feelings that was most dominantly featuring relief at the moment.

Then he remembered that Zev was still standing at his side. And that the boy had broken his promise to not start a political debate with Lars.

Steering his son to a more secluded part of the room he rounded on Zev and hoped he succeeded in keeping his face straight enough that the gossips would have little to work with. ‘Zev,’ he growled lowly. ’What did I say about starting debates with Lars? While standing right next to Lord Vader no less!’

To say he was indignant when the boy rolled his eyes at him was putting it mildly but before he could say anything, Zev put up a hand to forestall him.

‘Before you say anything, Dad,’ he muttered lowly, mindful of the ears likely trying to listen in. ‘I knew what I was doing here. More importantly, why didn’t you say that Luke Lars was Luke from Scrap Hunting?’

What.

His surprise must’ve shown on his face, because Zev didn’t even bother to wait for an answer.

‘You know,’ he continued, impatience clear in his voice. ‘They guy who runs the Scrap Hunters channel and went viral a few months back for showing up Sienar Fleet Systems by managing to upgrade a TIE fighter with literal outer rim scrap?’

Right, the way Lars got recruited according to the coffin jockeys. ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ he managed to ask.

‘Dad,’ Zev said, sounding thoroughly scandalized and exasperate for some reason. ‘Urgh, never mind,’ he muttered. ‘Suffice to say, I didn’t know I already knew of the guy you were introducing me to, but I have some knowledge of how he sees things. Sorta. He grew up in Hutt space either way, so it’s not like he’s got a soaring opinion of them to begin with.’

‘That doesn’t take away from the fact that you were about to start a debate with Lars with Lord Vader within earshot,’ he hissed out. ‘Zev, what were you thinking?’

With those words, Zev looked him square in the eyes, that familiar fire burning in his own. ‘I was thinking, Dad,’ he enunciated slowly. ‘That I was taking a calculated risk that clearly paid off. I knew what I was doing and I gave it my best shot. And it worked. Luke agreed to talk more about it, so I clearly didn’t scare him off or offend him, and it was more natural than whatever else could’ve happened if I’d bit my tongue. Besides,’ he continued icily, ‘Aren’t you the one who goes by the phrase “Risk, and be rewarded”?’

And that— he could admit that stung. Damn it all, the boy was right and even he couldn’t deny it. Lars had agreed to make an appointment—a long one too, by the sound of it—because Zev had played his cards just right. Dangerous, but right. Still…

‘You’re right,’ he admitted begrudgingly, ‘I do say that. But never have I applied that to attempting near treason right beside the Heir of the Empire. For the love of the Force, Zev! Did you even think about what could’ve happened if you’d been wrong?’

‘I did,’ came the ice-cold reply. ‘And I doubt it would’ve backfired on you, Dad, since you were all too happy to stand quiet while Lord Vader discussed my potential execution for the great crime of knocking on a door unannounced.’

‘Because unlike you I understand the concept of subtlety,’ he hissed back, just as cold. ‘If I had spoken up in that moment, do you think it would’ve done you any favors if I indicated that I would protest? Here? Now? With troopers all around? They might follow me, Zev, but they’re Lord Vader's men first and foremost.’

‘What?’ Zev scoffed. ‘So I wasn’t a risk worth taking?’

He growled. ‘You are not something to risk,’ he ground out. ‘You are never something I could risk.’

For a split second he thought he saw something flash across Zev's face. Something fragile and vulnerable. But then the split second passed and all he could see again was icy disdain and a fire in his son’s eyes. ‘Hypocrite,’ he accused flatly. ‘So you got to risk it while introducing me, but I have to remain safe and quiet?’

‘Those things are not the same,’ he argued hotly. ‘I knew what I was getting into with Lord Vader, I knew the lines—’

‘So did I!’ Zev snapped, before quickly regaining his composure. ‘And stop evading the question. You get to risk yourself, but the moment I follow your example I am the one who doesn’t understand what I am doing?’

‘Yes,’ he snapped, and instantly regretted his words when Zev's face became as blank as stone.

‘I see,’ he said quietly. ‘Fortunately for me, that’s not for you to decide.’ And with that he spun around on his heel and began to stiffly walk away like so many times before.

He couldn’t let it end like this again.

‘Zev,’ he called, grabbing his son’s shoulder, only to be shaken off. Swallowing hard, he decided to try one last thing. ‘Zev,’ he tried again, ‘Wait.’ And this time his son paused for a moment.

Searching for his words before anyone else could come looking for them, he tried for honesty.

‘Maybe it does make me a hypocrite, son,’ he admitted softly. ‘And maybe it’s unfair. But, Force, I couldn’t stand losing you. Many things. But not you.’

Zev made a derisive sound as he glanced back over his shoulder. ‘Funny,’ he murmured. ‘I could say the same to you, Dad. But that doesn’t stop you, now does it?’

And then he was gone. Again. How had the evening gone this wrong?

Chapter Text

Luke groaned as he flopped over on his bed, the comforter and pillows fluffing up around him.

Suns, he was tired. Even with all the time opened up in his schedule, there was still plenty to do and plenty to discuss. Which meant, to his eternal delight, meetings. Suns and sand, he was beginning to suspect that the reason no one ever improved anything in the empire was because they were avoiding the bureaucratic hell Luke had unwittingly waltzed into.

Lying face-down on his obscenely large bed (he could fit six of him in here! And while it was soft, fluffy heaven to sleep in, who needed a bed this large?) in his equally large set of rooms, Luke seriously contemplated whether or not it’d be worth it to fake his death and just let everyone believe it was the mouse droids who’d come up with any future inventions.

He concluded sadly that the answer was “Probably not.” If for no other reason than that he’d miss the people aboard the Lady. And some of them would probably miss him too.

Which meant he had to eventually get up from his bed and go to another meeting this evening. At least he still had a few hours between to just hang for a bit. He should probably slip out of his dress uniform and into one of his overalls first, though.

Flipping himself over, he idly kicked off his boots and told himself to get up no matter how comfy he was feeling right now.

He didn’t get up.

He probably should.

But he didn’t.

He should though.

But the bed was really comfortable.

But Aunt Beru wouldn’t approve of him wrinkling his nice clothes any more than necessary.

Grumbling under his breath, Luke got up and unclasped his capelet while heading over to the closet to fish out one of his overalls and a fresh t-shirt. Shrugging off the rest of his uniform, he hung it all in the clothes scrubber, punched in the code for the Head Engineer’s dress uniform and set the whole thing to the “deep cleaning and pressing” setting because Suns, he might as well. He had three of the things hanging in his closet at the moment, it’s not like it was wasted time.

Throwing on a clean shirt, he tied off the upper part of his overall around his waist as was becoming custom for him. There, much better. Now he could flop down in a pile of fluff and comfort the proper way.

Which he promptly did. Lying flat on his back as he looked up at the strange crystalline cupola ceiling that made up half of the roof of his bedroom. Daylight fractured and reflected off of its facets, casting colorful patches across the room. It hadn’t done that the day he’d arrived, but he’d made quick work of sorting through the control pad that controlled the opacity and such of the crystals. And well… he did think that the current imperial design incorporated far too little color in itself.

He hummed in satisfaction to himself as he recalled the few dozens of lines in code it had taken to make the crystals behave this way. All in all, he could firmly say it was worth it.

Tracing the colorful patches across the room, Luke felt the exhaustion of yesterday evening and frankly the whole circus of the last few days dragging his body deeper down into the soft comfort of the pillows and the blankets. True, today had been a much more relaxed affaire thanks to Vader figuring out what had been overstuffing his agenda, but he was still dead tired.

Though the extra time had allowed him to finally take a stroll through the royal gardens he’d seen earlier. The sheer green and life of the place had been almost overwhelming, buzzing through his mind and leaving him exhilarated and breathless. He was pretty sure that the clones had gotten more than one laugh at his expense as he nearly made himself dizzy trying to look at everything at once, but it was so worth it.

He’d have to remember to send the holos he’d taken to his Aunt and Uncle the next time he sent credits home. There’d been a few shops that sold a variety of the plants growing in the garden as well, but since Luke hadn’t had the first clue on what it took to keep one alive besides enough water to pay three weeks’ worth of hutt taxes, he’d reluctantly passed up on getting a few. This time. He vowed to learn how to do so before the next opportunity came to acquire some green for his quarters on the Lady.

With his mind on the sights and sounds of life and his eyes tracing the colors within his room, he slowly nodded off, warmth and comfort and color all around him. He slept soundly.

Beep.

Until his datapad had to insist on being a spoilsport, of course.

Beep, came the almost satisfied repeat. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Rolling himself over with a vicious growl, he grabbed the offending device only to blink in surprise at the chronometer. Two-fifty in the afternoon. He’d apparently dozed off longer than he’d thought.

Flopping back down on the bed, he searched his sleep-fuzzed mind for why he’d set an alarm again. Something, something, appointment? Appointment… appointment…

Zev!

Luke shot up as he checked the chrono again. Two-fifty-five. Five minutes until Zev could show up at the door. And while the clones knew to expect him, Vader's words from last night once more echoed through his head. Asides from generally trusting that Vader knew what he was talking about, he suspected that the man who’d led these men for longer than Luke had been alive probably knew a thing or two more than he did about their potential reactions.

Boosting himself off the bed into a running start with a jump, he ran a hand through his messy hair as he grabbed his work boots and yanked them on. Darting into the fresher to check the mirror for a moment, he saw that while his hair was definitely messy and mussed, it was far from bird’s nest chic. Probably good enough to show his face to Zev, right?

If the guy really had been as avid a watcher of Scrap Hunting as he said he was, he’d seen Luke in much worse states of dress than this (and suns, wasn’t that a strange notion? Other people in the galaxy beyond Tatooine actually knew his name and face. He’d known that, of course, but it was one thing to know and another to understand). He seemed like the kind of guy to not mind someone’s clothes too much unlike some other people he’d met over the last few days, or Luke had really misjudged him at the party.

Well, probably too late to change anyway.

A knock on the door told Luke that his moment was up, and he put it out of mind. Striding over to the door, he hit the open switch. ‘Yeah?’ he asked Cody on the other side as it slid open.

‘Sorry to disturb you, sir, but the guy you said would be here has arrived,’ said man informed him with a quick salute.

Yup. Definitely too late to change. Perfect, he could do with a few hours out of the stuffy—if snazzy—uniform.

‘Thanks, Cody,’ he told the man sincerely as he slipped by him, heading towards the stairs. He could already hear the other clones grilling the poor guy downstairs.

He got to the balustrade circling the living room, just in time to see Boomer, Volt, Hex, Kix, Slice, and Appo surrounding Zev in a loose half-circle, all armored up way beyond what was necessary in the suite and clearly done for intimidation purposes. ‘Hey!’ he called out as he got to the railing, drawing all eyes to him. ‘Knock it off, you guys,’ he said with a shooing motion. ‘He’s here on invitation.’

‘We know, sir,’ Slice replied as Luke came down the stairs. ‘We’re just making sure he knew the house rules before he did anything funny.’ He turned towards Zev and Luke caught the tail edge of a smile with far too many teeth to be friendly. ‘Ain’t that right, sir?’

Zev shot the man a look back that was clearly equal parts intimidated and suppressed sass. ‘Certainly didn’t feel that way,’ he shot back.

‘Good,’ Appo chipped in. ‘Then you’ve gotten the message.’ He turned towards Luke fully and snapped off a quick salute. ‘We checked the visitor over, sir, he’s clear.’

Oh boy, it was gonna be like that, huh?

He sighed. ‘At ease, everyone,’ he ordered the clones as he maneuvered himself between them and Zev. ‘Zev's just here to continue a discussion we started yesterday, nothing more.’

Volt shot a dubious look at Zev, but relaxed as instructed with the other clones mostly following suit. ‘If you say so, sir.’

‘I do say so,’ he shot back. ‘Now can you all please calm down? And suns, get out of those armor suits, he’s a guest, not a bounty hunter.’ He paused as he said that before glancing at Zev for a second. ‘You’re not, right?’ he asked, only half-joking.

Zev blinked at him before cracking a wide grin. ‘Nah,’ he replied, crossing his arms over his chest and shifting his weight to one leg. ‘You’re too much trouble. I’d leave it to the professionals.’

Huh. Truth. Well then.

‘There you have it,’ he said to the clones while shooing them off his guest—and he had guests now, Aunt Beru would be so proud—subtly gesturing them the all-clear signal they’d taught him. ‘He’s not a threat. Now please stop harassing him. And can I get you anything to drink?’ he asked, directing the last bit towards Zev.

Zev, who was rapidly glancing between him and the clones with a strange look on his face before the question registered. ‘Uh, yeah. Whatever you’ve got that isn’t alcohol, water, or too sweet, please.’

Luke took the excuse to grab him by the sleeve and subtly steer him away from the clones towards the kitchen. ‘I wasn’t exactly the one to stock up the cooler,’ he said while shooting him a meaningful look, ‘So unless you want to chance it or have something specific in mind, you best come check yourself.’ Please let him catch on.

Zev was a quick one, thankfully, and only shot Luke one dubious look before a flash of comprehension dawned on his face. ‘Probably, yeah,’ he agreed quickly.

If the clones knew what he was doing (and they likely did, Luke knew he wasn’t exactly veteran material, even as an ex-runner, and these guys probably knew all the tricks in the book) they didn’t let on, and he got Zev to the kitchen without anymore “house rule assertions” or whatever the clones had called it. They’d probably be listening in at the door as soon as they were out of sight though.

Cracking open the cooler, Luke began reading off the labels while letting Zev read along over his shoulder. ‘Sorry, about that,’ he apologized, ‘Like I said, they can get a tad overprotective.’

Zev snorted. ‘Yeah, I noticed,’ he remarked drily, before adding in a musing tone. ‘You really are something special to them, aren’t you?’

He shot the other man a quick glance, but getting only honest curiosity from him, he shrugged as he turned back to finding something to drink. ‘Noticed that, huh?’ he asked rhetorically, getting an affirmative hum back in reply. ‘And yeah, I suppose so,’ he admitted softly as he rubbed the back of his neck. ‘We’ve got an understanding, them and I. They want to protect me, I want to help them. It’s mutually beneficial.’

‘It’s more than that though,’ Zev said absently as he found what he was looking for, snatching a soda can from the bottom shelf. ‘Even I can see that. There’s a devotion there, and something more…’ he trailed off as he caught Luke's eye before glancing away, embarrassed. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘It’s probably not my place.’

‘Bit too soon for that,’ Luke agreed as he fished out a can of familiar lemonade himself. ‘But I can’t exactly expect you to just not see, now can I?’ he returned. ‘It’s fine, Zev,’ he reassured as the older teen—young man, really—gave him an apologetic look. ‘You didn’t overstep or anything but it’s not—’ he sighed, ‘—it’s not something I would really know how to explain to an outsider. It’s something mostly experience, and little explanation, get me?’

‘Got you.’ Zev nodded, before shooting him a grin. ‘It’s not what we were gonna talk about anyway, now was it?’

Luke flashed him a grin back as he closed the cooler, leaning back against the marble countertop of the kitchen. ‘Right.’ He cracked open his own can of soda. ‘Now, do we start from where we left off or do you wanna ask something else first? Last I checked, you’d asked me how I can work for the empire while disagreeing with pretty much everything about them, ever, right?’

Zev pointed at him with his soda can. ‘You said it, Luke, not me.’ He cracked it open and took a swig. ‘But yeah, pretty much. I also remember you saying something about how you weren’t surprised about that question coming from a… core worlder, right? What did you mean by that?’

Luke shrugged. ‘Exactly that,’ he said bluntly. ‘That it’s an opinion that I mostly hear from the core. It’s just not viable to hold it anywhere else.’

‘You’re gonna have to explain that one to me,’ Zev said as his eyes narrowed. ‘What’s wrong with not wanting to work for a system that upholds slavery?’

‘Nothing,’ Luke said as he swirled around the lemonade in his can. ‘It’s great that people can choose that, so would I if I had the option.’ He drank down a mouthful of sticky sweet lemonade. ‘But I don’t, and neither does anyone else on Tatooine or similar hutt planets.’

Zev blinked owlishly at him. ‘How come?’

Luke snorted at the wide-eyed look on his friend’s face, grinning bitterly at him. ‘I’m not surprised you don’t know. It’s not like it’s the kind of information you just find on the net. You either have to live it or know where to look. But there is no option of just not working within a slave system when you’re talking about the hutts or the places that are theirs. They control everything from income, to housing, to food, to the laws, and most critically; water. If you live on Tatooine, slave or not, you’re subject to the hutts and the Masters, no way around it. Or well—’ he grinned even wider, gesturing towards the suite around them, ‘—a few ways around it.’

He downed the last of his drink and threw the can into the trash chute. ‘Tell you what,’ he said to Zev as he crossed his arms, ‘You name a job or thing you can do, and I’ll tell you if and how it’s controlled by the hutts.’

Zev nodded as he tapped his fingers against his own drink. ‘Farmer,’ he began, shooting Luke a knowing look. Right, he probably knew about his Aunt and Uncle. Well, it was as good as any place to start.

‘Couple of ways they can get you,’ he said idly. ‘First, you could fail to pay their “taxes”—really just a protection racket—and if you do, you get taken as a slave to pay off your “debt” and sold, probably far from where you lived.’ He shrugged at the horrified look Zev shot him. ‘It’s their main way of getting new slaves semi-legally. But really, no one can protest it, so they just do what they want. If they see someone on one of the farms they really want, they’ll often just increase the tax with little to no warning and get them that way. There were… a few close shaves when I first hit puberty,’ he admitted softly. ‘Luckily, by then, I’d already begun tinkering with mechanics, so we could just scrape by with the extra credits it brought in, but it was touch-and-go for a bit those first few years.’

‘Fucking hell,’ Zev cursed softly.

‘Pretty much,’ Luke agreed. ‘Then there’s of course the fact that if you manage to avoid that, you still have to sell your harvest, and the entire market is hutt controlled as well. And I do mean the entire market. That goes for the equipment needed to farm as well. Vaporators, for example, are either ramshackle things sold by the hutts, or higher quality brought in from off-world. You still have to pay the import tariffs on them if you get the latter, of course, and by the time you’ve payed those prices, the cost might’ve quintupled or septupled. So you both sell to and buy from them, and pretty much only them. It’s a vicious cycle that only feeds the Masters better the more you struggle against it.’

Zev swallowed and nodded. ‘Innkeeper,’ he said hoarsely.

‘Same deal with the protection rackets as before,’ Luke countered swiftly. ‘Oh, and also the only clients actually worth your time are the ones that directly work for the Masters or the Masters themselves ‘cause they’re usually the only ones with any decent amount of credits to spend.’

‘Writer.’

‘Dangerous work.’ Luke shivered. ‘And likely not even worth your time. Half the people on Tatooine can’t even read, and most of the other half either doesn’t have much to pay you, or is far enough in-league with the hutts that they’re only interested in reading stuff that parrots the greatness of the whole situation or nothing at all. You either fall into lockstep with what they tell you to write, or you risk not only not making a living but disappearing as well. And even if you do search for off-world patrons, most aren’t interested in the stories written on the outer rim and the holonet is still the holonet; the empire’s always watching.’

‘Tailor?’

‘To whom?’ Luke countered. ‘Everyone makes their clothes themselves, and those that don’t are either the Masters or working for them. The same goes for pretty much anyone who makes anything. You either sell to people just as trapped as you are, or you sell to the Masters.’

Zev sighed deeply as he chucked his soda can into the trash as well. ‘I take it anything in administration—finances, taking stock and such—is out too?’

‘Yup,’ Luke confirmed. ‘You either do it yourself, or—’

‘—You work for the hutts,’ Zev finished tiredly.

Luke grinned. ‘Now you’re getting the hang of it! But yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes, you either work directly for them or you work for yourself but are in practice still beholden to them. It’s just the way it works on Tatooine; even if you’re the decent sort who has nothing to do with the slavers and slavery, it’s still almost impossible to escape.’

‘You said “almost,”’ Zev quickly pointed out.

‘I did,’ Luke agreed. ‘And there are a couple of ways, but none of them are pretty and roughly speaking only one or two have any real guarantee of success. The thing is, corporations have no interest in Tatooine beyond what’s mined from it, and everything from the mid rim in forgets we exist for most of the time, so everything legal on Tatooine is controlled by either the hutts or the empire. Most of everything illegal is controlled by the hutts too, but there are a few loopholes.’

He began ticking them off on his fingers. ‘One is to start something outside of their sphere of influence, which is basically just asking for trouble, but hey—’ he shrugged, ‘—some people thrive on it. Another is to barter passage on a ship that’ll turn a blind eye to the hutts’ policy of needing a visa and paperwork to even leave the planet or stow away entirely. There’s also joining a crew none too fussed with legalities—’ oh, and the glare that got him from Zev. He grinned widely. ‘—but as you can imagine, that’s not exactly guaranteeing yourself a long and happy life.’

‘So basically, what you’re telling me is that only way out from under the hutts is to become a criminal?’ Zev countered tersely. ‘Doesn’t sound all that much better to me.’

Luke pursed his lips as he frowned. ‘I’d like you to remember that it’s the hutts that write the law on Tatooine, Zev,’ he replied, voice hard and serious. ‘When the unjust write the laws and make justice illegal, all you have left are your own morals and actions.’

‘I… see,’ Zev muttered quietly.

‘No, you don’t,’ Luke countered easily. ‘Not yet. But you’re already seeing more than when we started this conversation and that’s a good place to start. And it’s not like you’re entirely wrong, many people on Tatooine would like to choose something else than to have to turn towards illegal activities to survive, but sometimes in making the choice between being lawful and being Free, you have to risk it all.’ He tapped a finger again his arm, scars underneath tingling with remembered pain. ‘Sometimes,’ he said slowly, ‘It’s better to die a criminal than to live a slave.’

He heard Zev swallow hard. ‘It sounds like Tatooine makes hardened people out of her children,’ he said carefully.

Luke shrugged in agreement. ‘It’s the way of the Desert,’ he said, repeating the ancient words his Aunt had taught him. ‘She doesn’t forgive, She doesn’t forget, and Her temper is to be feared. The lessons She teaches aren’t of kindness or comfort—that’s for family to teach—but if you learn quick and want to know how to survive, you’ll find no better teacher.’

They lapsed into silence after that, Zev clearly processing what he’d learned and the minefield he’d unwittingly stepped into. That was fine, Luke knew that core worlders often had to take a few moments to get used to the harshness of Tatooine and the outer rim.

And Zev seemed like he was doing well enough as he breathed in deeply and let out a sigh. ‘Okay. Okay,’ he said slowly, ‘Correct me if I got this wrong, but in essence, on Tatooine the choice is either to submit to hutt rule or to be a criminal, correct?’

‘Pretty much,’ Luke confirmed, smiling at his friend. ‘Though there is one last path available, and that’s usually the one chosen by most people who can do neither.’

Zev held up a hand as he pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Wait, I think I’ve got this one. Since every choice seems to be varying degrees of awful and since you’re here…’ he sighed deeply. ‘It’s the Empire, isn’t it?’

‘Bingo!’ Luke clapped his hands together in a show of false cheer. ‘Give the man a prize!’

Zev glared darkly at him, but the effect was mostly ruined by the fact that he couldn’t stop his mouth from twitching into a smile. Sobering up, he nodded again. ‘But yeah, that’s basically it. If you can’t bring yourself to work for the Masters and don’t want to get on the wrong side of the law—unjust though it is—your best bet is to enlist in the imperial academy, serve your time, and then go on to use your skills to find a job somewhere. If you survive that is, but then, that’s basically the caveat for everything on Tatooine up to and including breathing.’

Zev shot him a look that clearly read “calling your bullshit” with very well-executed unimpressed eyebrow raise that Aunt Beru would be proud of, and he gave back a dazzling unrepentant grin. ‘Sand storms and dust fever,’ he clarified, causing Zev's eyes to widen before settling into something of resigned exasperation.

Zev groaned as he rubbed his brow. ‘Okay,’ he said at long last. ‘I can see where you’re coming from. I think. Hells, I knew things were bad but… But don’t you feel like there’s something that has to be done about all this?’ he asked, a pleading edge on his tone. ‘You said it yourself, even those that are not slaves on Tatooine are basically only one step away from that at all times or the ones doing the enslaving! Don’t you think that has to change?’

‘Of course I do!’ Luke shot back, a shade of offense in his tone. ‘But you don’t seem to understand, working for the empire is me fighting back!’

‘How,’ Zev demanded. ‘How can working for the very people who made this a reality be fighting back?’

Luke groaned in irritation. Core worlders. The world seemed to miss so many colors in their eyes. Black and white, all the way down.

‘Okay, picture this,’ he tried. ‘My Aunt and Uncle are moisture farmers, but you likely knew that already, right?’ He waited for Zev's nod before continuing. ‘Right. So, on the farm we had, before my departure, three vaporators which usually harvested just enough water every week to both pay our taxes and keep us and the farm going. Tools and clothes and anything else came from saving up or from whatever was left over after that. It’s tough living, and that was what my family managed to scrape together after three generations. The Homestead was built by my Uncle’s grandfather and this is what we had to show for it three generations later; we were barely scraping by.’

He gave those words some time to sink in with Zev before he continued. ‘That’s the main way of gaining wealth—and with wealth; Freedom—on Tatooine. You build it over generations and maybe your grandchildren will never know the fears you did. Do you understand, Zev?’

‘I do,’ Zev said with a sigh, ‘But what does that have to do with you getting a—’ he cut himself off. ‘Oh.’

He nodded. ‘Seems like you got it. Zev, since I’ve started working as the Head Engineer on the Lady, my Uncle’s been able to double that number and is looking for a seventh. Not even the junk scrap the hutts sell that barely runs and I had to fix every few days. No, he’s been able to buy the proper models from off-world, denying the hutts at least those credits. In little over half a year, me working for the empire has managed to double the assets that had taken my ancestors three generations to build up. They’re in no danger of ever missing their taxes again, even if I were to stop sending credits home for some reason.’ Luke breathed out an elated breath as the full reality of what he’d managed for his family became that much more real with every word he spoke.

‘Hells,’ he said with a grin. ‘If they wanted to, there’s now even room for me to gain a cousin.’ And suns, wouldn’t that just be the greatest achievement of them all? His Aunt and Uncle might yet still be the first generation in the Lars and Skywalker family who could afford to raise a second child. If they wanted to that is, but the sheer fact that the possibility was there now brought a giddy grin to his face.

‘And that’s not all,’ he continued. ‘With the credits left over they’ve been able to support more of the people in employments you mentioned earlier, with credits that aren’t controlled by the hutts. Suns and sand, they can now also use it to free my Sib— to free other slaves whose Freedom really can’t come any other way than through purchase!’ He breathed deeply as he smiled at Zev. Zev, who was giving him a thoughtful look and whose eyes were a bit more understanding.

‘So yeah,’ he continued. ‘You’re absolutely right. I agree that a lot of what the empire is doing is wrong, but I disagree that that view is incompatible with me working for them, even when I’m also fighting against slavery. Because every credit I send home, is a credit that’s not controlled by the hutts and is actively working to undermine the entire system of control they’ve set up.’

He shrugged with a sheepish grin. ‘Maybe it’s not as flashy as what I was doing earlier, but there’s more runners on Tatooine than there’re people bringing in funds, especially with the amount I can send home every month. And a fight—any fight, but especially one against the hutts—takes a lot of resources first and foremost. So… yeah,’ he finished lamely with a sheepish grin as he flapped his hands against his side. ‘That’s my reasoning on what I’m doing and why. I know it’s probably not exactly what you expect or even want to hear, but… well, it’s what I have,’ he said as he stuffed his hands into his overall’s pockets.

Silence stretched out in the kitchen, Zev looking down at the ground with his hand covering his mouth and chin in a thoughtful gesture, deep in thought. Well, alright, Luke could understand that. He’d likely either given the man a lot to think about, or put him in a very difficult situation to bow out of and say “agree to disagree.” It wouldn’t be the first time a core worlder and he had different world views that were difficult to reconcile. Even if this was the first time he had to explain himself face to face instead of over the net.

At last, Zev pulled open his mouth. ‘That…’ He huffed with a defeated grin. ‘I don’t know what else to say than that that was a lot and, well, that I don’t know what to say to that.’ He looked at Luke. ‘You weren’t kidding when you said you were gonna talk my ear off.’

‘Nope!’ Luke agreed happily. ‘Still, did it answer your question?’

‘Partly,’ Zev said. ‘And I’ve got even more questions now than before.’ He chewed the inside of his cheek while glancing at Luke. ‘Don’t suppose I can ask a few more? I mean,’ he hastily added, ‘I’d like to know more before… well, before committing to any which way I think about all of this.’

Reasonable enough. ‘Well, let’s see,’ he responded as he pulled out his datapad and glanced at the chrono. Huh. That explanation had taken less time than he’d thought. ‘Looks like we’ve still got a good chunk of time left,’ he informed Zev as he tucked the pad away again. ‘So fire away.’

And something in that sentence must’ve caught Zev roundly off guard, Luke thought, or he wouldn’t be looking like a startled jackrab right now.

‘I uh— hm,’ he managed to bring out. ‘People don’t usually agree to that,’ he muttered.

‘No?’ Luke raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, how’s anyone supposed to learn from each other then?’

‘They’re not,’ Zev shot back, grinning, and yeah, that made sense. ‘But anyway, you mentioned something about… runners? And doing something else before all this?’

Ah fuck.

‘Maybe not that particular bit,’ he hastily added. ‘It uh— let’s just say that if you said that word back home in earshot of a slaver or hutt enforcer it could get me in a right shitton of trouble.’

‘Oh?’ Zev's eyes lit up, his face shifting into a grin that Luke recognized all too well from whenever he and Biggs had gone on an adventure and one that spelled trouble. ‘Even more trouble than you could’ve gotten into admitting you tried to slice into the servers of the Kuat Drive Yards right where everyone in the galaxy with a holonet connection could see?’

He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Considering that this could’ve gotten both me and my family either summarily executed or enslaved by the hutts? Yeah, a bit more than that.’

He hadn’t been sure that Zev would’ve understood the implications in that, but as the man’s face hardened, he was beginning to suspect that Zev knew better than he let on. ‘I see,’ he muttered. ‘That bad— or well, good I suppose, huh?’

‘Yeah, pretty much,’ he agreed as Zev chewed his cheek.

‘And I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me if I promised not to tell?’ he said, half-joking, half-resigned to moving on with the subject.

Luke leant back against the countertop as he crossed his arms, scrutinizing Zev a bit closer than was perhaps perfectly polite, but he’d always had a nose for the truth. Even Biggs, for as long as he’d known him and for as much as they’d done together, had never been able to hide a lie from him. ‘Depends,’ he drawled slowly, listening closer to the indefinable airs around them than the actual words that were about to be spoken. ‘I have a pretty good idea of when someone’s being honest, so if you’re willing to swear on secrecy and mean it, I might be willing to say a couple of things in turn.’

Zev shot him an odd, but considering look. ‘You’re willing to put stock in just my word on this?’

He shrugged. ‘If you mean it? Sure, why not, it’s as binding as anything. If you don’t, then no, I'm not.’

Tilting his head, Zev narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re awfully confident that you’ll be able to tell if I’m lying or not, aren’t you?’

‘Would be dead if I couldn’t,’ he shot back, suddenly feeling highly conscious of the scars that were tingling where his crossed arms were pressing into them.

‘Fair enough,’ Zev agreed. ‘Alright then, who am I swearing to keep this a secret from?’

‘Anyone you wouldn’t trust if you had to put yourself on the line,’ he replied, ‘I don’t necessarily think that the hutts would attempt to get me while I’m employed by the empire, but there’s a number of other things that could be done with this info, not the least of which is target my Aunt and Uncle back home. Something I think you know all too well.’

Luke didn’t even have to elaborate on what he meant; he could already see that Zev had heard the unspoken words that hung between the two of them. COMPNOR, being one of them. Re-education, “motivation”, and blackmail being another few.

‘How about a trade, then?’ Zev suggested, trying to sound confident, but Luke could feel the vulnerability in that statement wrapping around him like a blanket. ‘You’re not the only one with a few things to hide. Might give more weight to my word, hm?’

Luke blinked. ‘Now who’s overly trusting?’ he asked with a smile.

‘Never said that you were,’ Zev threw back, flushing lightly in embarrassment, the air thick with it.

‘But you thought it,’ Luke countered, grinning as he relaxed into his lean, which earned him a halfhearted glare and a shrug.

‘What can I say?’ Zev said as he mirrored Luke's pose. ‘You’re easy to trust.’

He snorted out a laugh. That, and he could already tell Zev was someone whose curiosity tracked information like a hunting krayt when roused. ‘Heard that one before, but fair enough, I’ll agree to a trade.’ He pushed off of the countertop. ‘First things first though,’ he said to Zev as he slipped by him, holding up a hand to forestall any questions. ‘Before we go about giving each other plenty of blackmail ammo, I need to know if you guys are also joining in on the sharing,’ he called out, the last part especially loudly, towards the kitchen door. ‘Hm, vod’e? What’ll it be?’

‘Wait,’ Zev interrupted, ‘They were listening in the whole—'

Whatever he wanted to say got interrupted as the expected ruckus of shuffling, cursing and scrambling came from behind the door. The huddle of clones presumably hurried to untangle themselves and dissipate from their incriminating positions. Not that Luke gave them the time to do as he swiftly hit the control panel, the double doors sliding open soundlessly to reveal the expected scene.

Volt, Slice, Boomer, and Kix froze like jackrab in the headlights of a speeder, Slice freezing while still hauling Boomer up to his feet. Silently, Luke set his hands on his hips and gave each of the clones a look that would do Aunt Beru proud. Staring them down, the silence stretched out into a stalemate that would verge on the uncomfortable if it wasn’t for the fact that Luke simply refused to be embarrassed over catching a couple of eavesdroppers. At least this time it wasn’t just before a Flight and he wouldn’t have to shoot anyone to keep the secrecy. Probably.

The silence dragged out as the clones remained frozen until Boomer saluted from where he was still hanging in Slice’s grip. ‘Hey, sir,’ he greeted with a beaming grin that was surprisingly genuine and shameless. ‘Fancy meeting you like this.’

Luke simply raised an eyebrow at the man, but before he could say anything, Hex piped up from over on the couch. ‘I told them it was a bad idea, sir,’ he said, swiping at something on his holopad. ‘So did the commanders.’

‘Snitch,’ Boomer grumbled under his breath.

‘Can’t hear you from over here, trouble,’ Hex fired back, not even looking up from his pad. ‘You know, on the couch not getting caught eavesdropping on the Goran?’

Boomer looked ready to retort with something equally childish, but Luke had little will to summon the patience for sitting out another catfight between Boomer and Hex.

‘Enough,’ he interrupted tersely, making sure to project his voice in the way that made even Uncle Owen listen under the right circumstances, half-will, half-confidence. Something he was pleased to see made every clone in the room blanch before turning their attention to him. ‘I don’t exactly care who did or didn’t agree to eavesdrop on Zev and mine’s conversation. What I do care about is that we’re about to discuss something we’re both going to swear secrecy over, and I don’t want any outside parties privy to the information exchanged after that. Either make the vow as well, or stay out, clear?’

‘Crystal, sir,’ an until now silent Commander Appo agreed. ‘Right, men?’

‘Yes, sir,’ came the chorus of expected obedience.

Truth. Good, they’d have their secrecy. He turned back towards the kitchen where Zev was staring at him with wide eyes, surprise written in every line of his face. ‘What?’ he asked with a teasing grin. ‘I told you I knew a thing or two about staying alive.’

Zev stared at him for a moment longer, before closing his eyes and huffing out a short laugh. ‘So you did.’ He opened his eyes again to give Luke a piercing look. ‘Did you know they were eavesdropping the entire time?’

He shrugged. ‘I strongly suspected it.’ He glanced back over his shoulder where the clones were slowly backing away from the door. ‘Very strongly.’ At least Volt and Slice had the decency to look sheepish. Kix looked rather like the medic disapproved of the very idea that he’d have to let Luke go into something potentially dangerous without him there to supervise for any potential injury. Boomer, meanwhile, just looked entirely unrepentant with a toothy grin on his face stretching ear-to-ear.

Rolling his eyes, Luke spun around as he reached for the control panel. Jabbing his finger at the clones, he warned them off one last time. ‘Don’t test me.’ Before hitting the panel and having the doors slide shut once more.

He sighed out a breath as he yanked a hand through his hair. Well, at least this eavesdropping hadn’t ended in a life-or-death brawl as so many others had before.

‘That,’ Zev's voice said from behind him, ‘was epic.’

He turned to face the other man, copying the other man’s smirk. ‘Something you learn quickly on Tatooine in the circles I ran in,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘Secrecy and how to keep it.’

‘That was more than just knowing how to keep a secret though,’ Zev argued. ‘You knew they were eavesdropping and don’t give me any of that “I had a strong suspicion” shit. You knew,’ he insisted, and well, it was hard to argue with that.

‘I did,’ he confirmed with a shrug. ‘But that is what was necessary to learn to keep this particular secret, Zev. And it wouldn’t be the first time I intercepted an eavesdropper.’ He rubbed a hand along the back of his neck as his scars tingled again when he remembered the pervious instances. First time no one died though, he thought to himself.

‘What!’

His head whipped up at the sudden sound to see Zev gaping at him in disbelief. Fuck, spoken out loud again.

‘Before you say anything,’ he hastily cut in. ‘This is where I’m gonna need that vow of silence, Zev,’ he insisted stubbornly as he stared the other man down. ‘I’m not saying another word on this subject until you do.’

‘I can see why!’ Zev blurted out, eyes bulging. ‘Holy fucking Force, Luke, what the hell have you gotten up to!?’

‘Your vow, Zev,’ he repeated tersely, narrowing his eyes. ‘Either you swear to keep this from those you wouldn’t trust yourself or this conversation topic ends here.’

Zev stared at him incredulously for another moment before visibly pulling his composure back together again. Straightening his spine, Zev looked him dead in the eyes as he carefully spoke every word. ‘I, Zevulon Veers, hereby vow to keep your secret from those I would not trust myself. On my word.’

Truth. Without a doubt.

Luke clenched his jaw a couple of times as he turned over those words in the back of his head, straining them like a sieve through the whispers of shifting sands as he listened for the harsh sounds of a lie. Just to be sure.

But nothing. Just truth.

Zev shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. ‘Good enough for you?’ he asked, sounding on the verge of defensive.

‘Good enough,’ Luke agreed with a nod. ‘You really meant that,’ and he couldn’t keep the sound of wonder out of those words well enough to make it a statement.

Zev shrugged. ‘Yeah, well.’ He shifted back against the wall, leaning in as he stuck his hands in his pocket. ‘Let’s just say I also have a few things to hide.’

‘I don’t doubt it,’ he returned. ‘But I’m assuming you want my secrets first?’

A nod and Luke sighed heavily. ‘Alright. I hope your curiosity is worth this, Zev,’ he said as he heaved himself on top of the counter. ‘Make yourself comfortable, ‘cause this is a rough one.’

When Zev just sunk down against the wall to take a seat on the floor, leaning his head back to look up at Luke with a small smile, Luke knew it was time to begin. And there was a confidence in that thought that he hadn’t expected, but in that moment, by something he couldn’t name, he just knew that this had been the right choice. Maybe not the only one, but one he could call his without hesitation.

‘Alright,’ he said, exhaling deeply as leant on his hands. ‘The first thing you have to understand is that my secret is only a single strand in a web made of thousands of them. Maybe even millions. The second thing you have to understand is that none of them but my own are mine to tell. I will tell you what I do and am, but nothing more, got it?’

Zev nodded. ‘Got it.’

‘Good. Alright.’ He breathed in deeply, reminding himself that he trusted Zev even if he couldn’t name the reason, and that this wasn’t Tatooine. The hutts couldn’t get him here. Nor was he worth the effort. ‘The secret is that I was a runner,’ he reveals, voice speaking with a calm he doesn’t feel. ‘A runner along the Flightpaths.’

Before Zev could get a word in edgewise, he rolled up his sleeves to reveal the thin scars littering his forearms. ‘Dangerous work,’ he continued, ‘But someone had to do it. And before you ask, a runner on Tatooine is what the hutts would call a slave thief, even though our jobs are closer to that of an accomplice in a prison break. On the Flights to Freedom, we’re the ones who guide and guard the soon-to-be ex-slaves through the first part of the Flight. Jamming or bringing down the transmitter towers to ensure that the transmitter chips don’t detonate—’

‘Detonate!?’ Zev interrupted, voice ringing out through the kitchen with clear horror. ‘What do you mean detonate!?’

‘Not so loud!’ Luke snapped back, partially out of habit, and partially out of concern for the clones next door. ‘And I mean exactly that. All slaves in Hutt territory are implanted with a slave transmitter to prevent them from running. Get out of a certain range, or displease your Master enough, and the transmitter towers or remotes send a signal to the attached bomb for detonation. If you’re lucky, you die instantly with little pain. If you’re unlucky, you bleed out or suffocate in agony. It is possible to survive, technically, but you have to be very, very lucky in the bomb placement and you’re still missing a chunk of your body unless you get serious medical attention, and the only ones who can afford that are usually the Masters.’

Silence. If he didn’t know better, Luke would think he was staring at a holo taken of Zev in the midst of a horrified and shocked reaction, as the other man didn’t so much as twitch. When he did finally move, he swallowed roughly a couple of times before letting his head sink down into his hands, cursing softly.

‘Yeah,’ Luke agreed after a moment when he picked up on a soft “What the fuck.” ‘Pretty much that. Needless to say, one of the most important parts of being a runner is knowing how to jam the detonation signal correctly. Can’t exactly liberate much if your charges are blown to hell. Other duties include guiding your charges to the safe houses where they can get there transmitters out—and knowing how to do it yourself in a pinch, ideally—and recover, distracting or taking out any overseers if necessary, defending your charges against the more aggressive Desert dwellers, and covering any tracks. Pretty much anything to make the escape a successful one, and maybe even more importantly, an unseen one.’

He shifted his seating to bring his arms back to the forefront. ‘That’s where I got these from,’ he said quietly as he gestured towards the scars. ‘Sometimes an overseer can’t be avoided, sometimes you get caught, sometimes the most stealthy escape route is down a sheer cliff face with two toddlers on your back.’ He shrugged at Zev's incredulous look. ‘Lots of things can go wrong and each one is a risk every time. I’ve had my cover blown, plans overheard, escape routes discovered, and one time was nearly betrayed by an accomplice. The reason I’m still here to tell you about all that is quick thinking, quicker reflexes, and more luck than you can shake a stick at.’ He smiled as he recalled the memories that came with each line or patch of silvery scar tissue.

If he could only be proud of one thing in his whole life, it would be the fact that of the dozens of Flights he’d run, he’d only ever lost nine of his Siblings. In the right circles, it’d even gained him something of a reputation. If you needed a runner for a Flight and the odds were near impossible, you contacted the Skywalker boy on the Lars farm, and with a prayer and some luck, he could pull it off. “Desert touched” they’d say with a wink or an eyeroll, but no one could deny the results.

He shook his head out of the memory fog and smiled at Zev as his friend continued to stare at him like he couldn’t quite believe all of this was still real. ‘There’re other jobs a runner preforms as well, of course, like running supplies and correspondence into and out of the slave quarters. Things like messages from family, friends, or loved ones from elsewhere, usually ones who were either Free or had already taken Flight. Or supplies like medicine, food, and water if the Masters were being especially cruel. It’s usually how Flights were arranged as well.’ He shrugged as he plucked at his sleeves. ‘Those were usually the easy jobs, it’s harder to get caught when you don’t have four, six, sometimes even eight terrified charges to keep hidden and safe as well. That’s also why they’re usually more popular with runners, but my specialty were the Flights, always have been ever since I started running the Flightpaths.’

‘And if you don’t mind me asking,’ Zev interrupted faintly. ‘When did you start as a runner?’

Oof, now there was a question. Luke hummed as he closed his eyes. His first Flight had been after that one time Jabba’s goons had gotten especially blatant about what their “tax raises” were really about. He remembered that conversation like it was yesterday, and while those thugs had been talking to his Uncle about the credits and water they were owed, they hadn’t even been subtle about the fact that they’d been eyeing him up like a prized bantha cut the entire time. He’d felt so— so angry afterwards, as even more of their water and credits had been stolen while that scum attempted to make the first Freeborn Skywalker into a slave. Angry, and violated. Not even three days later he’d run his first correspondence along the Flightpaths, and just two weeks later had been his first Flight, just after he’d turned…

‘Fourteen,’ he muttered softly. ‘I became a runner at fourteen.’

‘What the hell,’ Zev whispered softly. ‘What the entire fucking hell do you mean you became what’s effectively a slave smuggler at age fourteen?’

Luke snorted. ‘Just that, Zev.’ He opened his eyes again to the horrified face of his friend. ‘I became a runner at age fourteen. Didn’t stop until I got brought aboard the Lady. And you can stop looking so horrified,’ he said as Zev's face twisted into a rather impressive display of disgust. ‘I don’t know how it goes in the core, but on Tatooine it’s rather normal for kids around that age to start figuring out how they want to apply the skills they learned when they were younger.’

‘What kind of skills!?’ Zev demanded shrilly. ‘What the hell kind of skills do you learn before fourteen that allow you to become a fucking smuggler!?’

‘Would you stop that?’ he hissed back. ‘There’s no need to be so loud.’

‘You just told me you’ve been in a job that could’ve killed you since you were barely even a teenager!’ Zev argued hotly. ‘I should damn well say there’s a need!’

‘Oh please,’ he dismissed, ‘I’d been flying the beggar’s canyon in skyhoppers since I was nine. This was hardly more likely to kill me than that.’

Really, it was almost becoming a pattern with how often Zev would stare at him in silence, and a rather uncomfortable one too. He knew things were different in the core than on Tatooine but really, Zev was acting like it was completely unheard of for some to be a runner at fourteen when he knew for a fact that there’d been others who started younger than him. Not that he could tell Zev that.

Zev closed his eyes and breathed in deeply a couple of times. ‘Okay,’ he said slowly, stretching out the two syllables. ‘Okay, you apparently were already a pilot at nine and became a runner at fourteen. I can handle that, I can understand that.’ Luke wondered if Zev knew that he really sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than Luke, but he decided to remain quiet while the other man was obviously working through a few things, even if Luke didn’t quite understand what there was to process.

They sat in silence for a few more moments as Zev took another few lungfuls of air before speaking again. ‘That still doesn’t answer my question though,’ he pointed out as he looked Luke dead in the eyes. ‘What the hell kind of skills did you learn before fourteen that let you easily become a runner at that age?’

‘Piloting, for one,’ he pointed out with a mischievous grin. A grin that earned him a dirty look from Zev before he sobered up. ‘But really, being a runner wasn’t that much of a change Zev. Sure, it was a lot more dangerous in some aspects, but for the most part it wasn’t any different than hunting or shooting or driving. Just with higher stakes.’

That was the wrong thing to say, apparently, as Zev simply pinched the bridge of his nose like he was staving off a headache and held up a hand for a few moments. ‘Alright,’ he said after a couple of seconds, still rubbing the bridge of his nose, ‘Alright, let’s start there. You learned to shoot when?’

Odd question, but he should probably answer it nonetheless. ‘Same age as everyone else,’ he said, tilting his head in confusion. ‘On my tenth birthday. Uncle Owen took me to bullseye womp rats. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but that’s what the lessons were for. Now I rarely miss.’

Leaning back against the wall, Zev closed his eyes again. ‘Okay,’ he said quietly. ‘Age ten. I’m almost scared to ask, but why did you have to learn how to shoot at age ten?

What kind of question was that? ‘To know how to defend myself, obviously.’ And yeah, maybe the “obviously” wasn’t all that nice to put in, but come on. ‘How else was I gonna deal with the womp rats, anoobas, and tusken raiders?’ he asked plainly. ‘It’s not like I could just ask them to go away, they’d rip me to pieces!’

‘Right,’ Zev agreed flatly. ‘Of course.’ He sighed. ‘And the hunting is of similar stripe I take it?’

‘Pretty much. Though obviously hunting with a riffle has to wait until you’ve learned to shoot,’ he pointed out, perhaps a bit needlessly, but it didn’t seem like Zev knew much of anything about how things worked on the outer rim. Not even things he’d thought had been rather obvious. ‘But I’ve been setting traps and such ever since I was a kid. Uncle Owen would sometimes help me with the trickier bits, when I was younger, but for the most part he showed me how a couple of times and then left me to it.’

‘And the piloting?’ Zev asked hollowly. ‘That too?’

‘Course,’ Luke said, ‘Been flying ever since I could see over the dash at seven.’ And okay, maybe he flashed a bit of a cocky grin at that. But he was a damn good pilot and he knew that for a fact. He was allowed to be a bit proud of that.

‘Right,’ Zev muttered. ‘Of course. Silly of me to ask.’ He heaved out a shuddering breath and rubbed his hands over his face. ‘What the fuck,’ he whispered hoarsely into his hands.

Okay, this was becoming concerning. ‘You okay?’ Luke asked, sliding off the countertop and down next to Zev. ‘You don’t look so good.’

His response was a harshly barked out sound that might’ve been a laugh if it hadn’t sounded so utterly pained. ‘I just found out that there’re places in the galaxy where death and danger are so commonplace that a fourteen-year-old can have enough survival skills and subterfuge training to essentially become a secret operative running potentially lethal missions for an underground freedom fighters’ network and it’s considered a pretty normal thing to do.’ He laughed harshly again, before turning sideways towards Luke with a smile that was closer to a grimace. ‘You tell me.’

Oh. Well, when he put it like that. He shifted uncomfortably as a couple of realizations made itself known. ‘I…’ he cleared his throat, ‘I take it this is… a bit more uncommon in other parts of the galaxy than it is on Tatooine?’ he asked hesitantly.

Zev stared at him. ‘Yeah,’ he said, sounding rather at the end of his rope. ‘You could say that.’ He rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Fucking Force, Luke,’ he muttered. ‘In the rest of the galaxy it’s rather common, or at least normal for the only ones who know how to use a blaster to be the law enforces, those that defy the law enforcers, and pretty much no one else asides from a few exceptions. And even on the planets where it is more common to have weapons training, the people who have it aren’t regularly gonna be fucking kids,’ he explained in a long-suffering tone.

And— well. Hm.

‘But how do they defend themselves then?’ he had to ask. It couldn’t just be that they expected kids to face a raid with nothing but a stick or knife, right?

‘They don’t have to,’ Zev told him. ‘That’s what the adults are for. On other worlds, adults are the ones expected to protect the kids.’

‘So are adults on Tatooine,’ Luke defended. ‘But if they die or get enslaved or if the kid gets enslaved, who protects the kid then?’

Zev sighed deeply as he leaned his head back. ‘Usually there isn’t any real threat of enslavement, but if the kid’s guardians die, extended family members or friends or the government will look after the kid until a more permanent solution can be found.’

Well, that all sounded reasonable enough—especially the whole “usually there isn’t any real threat of enslavement” bit—but there was one thing he had to know. ‘Okay, but the kid getting to those people can take days, if not weeks,’ he pointed out. ‘How’re they supposed to defend themselves in the meantime while they travel there? Don’t they need to know how to navigate, or drive, or, y'know, defend themselves on the way there?’

Zev shot him a look out of the corner of his eyes that would’ve been horrified if it wasn’t so resigned. ‘They— they don’t have to,’ he explained hesitantly. ‘Usually someone else will call the local authorities and they will take care of the kid until they can be brought to their relatives or assigned guardians. There are usually systems in place so that, if they work as intended, no child ever has to go it alone for even a moment until they’re old enough to decide they want to.’

And well… he didn’t really know what to make of that. On the one hand, it sounded great. On the other, he couldn’t even imagine not being a Child of the Desert, raised on Her teachings. Or trusting the local “authorities.” But then, he supposed that Zev could likely not even begin to imagine a way of being raised that didn’t include those systems. What was it that Old Ben had sometimes told him during his visits? Ah, yes. “It’s all a certain point of view, Luke.”

‘I guess I can’t really imagine it,’ he eventually decided to say honestly. ‘It just sounds… weird to me, kids not knowing how to take care of themselves if the worst does happen.’

Zev snorted. ‘Now you know how I feel when you tell me every ten-year-old on Tatooine knows how to plug me with a full clip,’ he teased. ‘I guess I really didn’t know how different the core worlds and the outer rim were— or well, are,’ he amended.

‘Neither did I,’ Luke confessed. ‘Guess I shouldn’t be that surprised, but you’re really saying that you never learned to shoot as a kid?’

‘Oh no, I did,’ Zev quickly corrected. ‘But I would be one of those “exceptions” what with having a career military Dad and all. But I certainly didn’t learn as young as ten. Dad showed me once I was sixteen, didn’t trust me not to shoot myself in the foot before then. And a few months later I was sent to COMPNOR, so my training continued there.’ He smirked self-deprecatingly at Luke as he watched him from the corner of his eye. ‘Wouldn’t be able to pilot so much as a shuttle though even if you held a blaster to my head.’

That’s what they all said. But it was that defeated tone Luke didn’t like. Time to shake things up a bit. ‘Not much to it,’ he replied with a grin and a nudge. ‘You just need to know up from down, left from right, and the outrageous from the suicidal. Do that, don’t crash, and you’re pretty much halfway there. Now politics.’ He pulled a face that made Zev snort. ‘Still haven’t got a damn clue as to why no one says what they’re really thinking half the time.’

‘Oh no,’ Zev muttered with audible amusement that Luke pretended to ignore.

‘Like yesterday, for example,’ he continued as if nothing had been said, switching tactics to hopefully defuse some of the shock still surrounding Zev like a miasma. ‘One senator lied to me about the fact that they liked the color of the armor. The color, Zev,’ he emphasized as the other man’s shoulders slowly began to shake with suppressed laughter. ‘Why do you need lie about liking the color of fucking armor?’ he asked, only half exaggerating his confusion and affront.

Something that was clearly working as Zev quietly hiccupped out an “Oh Force” as the shaking of his shoulders worsened. Encouraged by the fact that his anecdote was having the desired effect, Luke grinned wider and began throwing a few gestures in. ‘It’s white fucking plastisteel plating meant to stop a blaster from making an extra pocket in your abdomen!’ he continued, mock-affront in full force. ‘You don’t have to like the color, let alone lie about it, so why would you? I didn’t even ask whether or not they liked the color. Why would I? It’s white. No one lists white as a color they like unless they’re trying to deliberately draw attention. You don’t have to, it’s just there.

‘Oh, fuc— fucking Force,’ Zev gasped out as he tried to get his laughter back under control, coughing on occasion as air went down the wrong pipe. Gently clapping Zev on the back between the shoulder blades, Luke still went on with his story.

‘And that’s what I said too, y’know,’ Luke continued, as Zev made a couple of very interesting choking noises while trying to muffle his laughter. ‘I said, “It’s white. What’s so special about that?” and the look I got, Zev. Like I’d personally insulted their pet, their mother, and their favorite equally bland mid rim pop band.’

‘S— stop,’ Zev gasped out. ‘Oh Force, my stomach.’

‘You okay?’ Luke asked grinning as he continued to pat Zev on the back. Zev coughed another couple of times while shaking his head as he broke down in laughter again. ‘Oh, come on. It wasn’t that funny,’ he complained, the effect probably ruined by the smile he still had.

‘It wasn’t,’ Zev agreed between sputters. ‘It really, really wasn’t. Oh Force,’ he said as he finally got a few deep breaths in, still occasionally bursting into short bouts of giggles. ‘Fuck, I don’t know why that was so funny.’

‘Probably the shock and stress,’ Luke offered sympathetically. ‘You were practically standing stiff with it and humor’s usually a good bet to get someone to snap out of it for a moment.’

That caused Zev's eyes to snap over to him with a considering look. Standing firm, Luke let himself be observed until Zev apparently saw what he was looking for and closed his eyes with a huff.

‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you? On the Flightpaths.’ It wasn’t a question.

He smiled humorlessly, picking at his sleeve. ‘Well, yeah. Escaping a hell you were sometimes born into, usually in the dead of night, where every second could spell the death of both you and those you love?’ He shrugged. ‘Tensions often ran high. Stress, shock, panic, they can all take their toll. And then people get sloppy and make mistakes.’

He glanced at where Zev was giving him a considering look and grinned right back at him. ‘Any runner worth their salt will know a couple of ways to defuse the situation and soothe their charges. I found that humor and a steady flow of words often do the trick.’ His grin turned slightly sheepish. ‘I guess it’s become second nature.’

‘Hell of a second nature,’ Zev commented bluntly. He sighed. ‘But I appreciate it. I guess I just…’ he waved vaguely at the air in front of them. ‘It’s a lot.’

‘I can only imagine,’ Luke confessed. ‘I’ve never known anything else, but going off of what you said, your world must’ve been very different.’

Zev bark out a laugh, and Luke noted that for a split second he sounded just like his father. ‘Oh yeah,’ Zev agreed. ‘I don’t think it could’ve been much more different even if we tried.’ He rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Force, and here I thought my secrets were dangerous.’

‘Oh hey, no, none of that mysterious shit!’ Luke protested. ‘You haven’t even told me what they are yet! C’mon,’ he whined playfully as he prodded Zev in the side. ‘You promised!’

‘Shove off,’ Zev grumbled just as playfully as he pushed right back. ‘You haven’t even made your own vow of secrecy yet.’

Well, he had a point there. ‘Alright then,’ he agreed. ‘Same vow I asked you to make or do you have different parameters?’

‘Hmm.’ Zev put on a thoughtful look as he tried to stifle a smile. ‘I dunno. You seem to be rather okay with just discussing any secret you have with a random COMPNOR trainee. Don’t know if I trust that kind of sense of secrecy,’ he teased.

Luke narrowed his eyes as he crossed his arms. Oh, so that was how it was gonna be? Fine, two could play at that game. ‘Oh yeah?’ he challenged. ‘Then let’s see what you actually know about the Flightpaths. You know they exist, good job, so do the hutts. You know that runners exist, but wouldn’t be able to name a single one other than me, which granted, would be enough to get me killed. But if you think the hutts would chase a single runner all the way out here while I’m under protection of the empire, you’re vastly mistaken.’ He began ticking his next points off on his fingers.

‘You wouldn’t be able to name a single route, safehouse, or how many slaves I’ve run through their Flights. Hells, you wouldn’t even be able to concretely prove that I even am a runner—unless you thought to record this conversation beforehand—with anything other than your own word of it,’ he stated confidently, knowing he was right. ‘Granted, that might be enough, but it would result only in my own interrogation and death. Nothing more.’ He crossed his arms with a grin that probably bared just a little too much teeth and was a little too hard around the eyes, but he couldn’t bring himself to care as he saw Zev's shocked face as the realization set in.

‘Remember what I said, Zev?’ he asked softly, not necessarily gently. ‘My own secrets. Nothing else.’

Zev gaped at him, opening and closing his mouth in a pretty good imitation of the few mon calamari he’d met in his life. He eventually closed his mouth with a click as he slowly shook his head, huffing out a soft laugh. ‘You weren’t kidding when you said you knew secrecy and how to keep it, were you?’ he muttered quietly, running a hand along his face. ‘Holy shit, Luke.’

He shrugged idly. ‘Like I said,’ he remarked, keeping his tone carefully bland. ‘I would be dead otherwise. But everyone on the Flightpaths has to accept the reality that once you become a part of it, you’ve made your pact with the Desert and are a part of something larger than you on your own could ever be. You have to be prepared to face your death and take the secrets you’ve been entrusted by others to your grave.’

Zev nodded slowly as he chewed the inside of his cheek, processing the words. ‘And,’ he began carefully, ‘Would my secret be included in those as well?’

‘If you want to,’ Luke readily agreed. ‘Personally, I’ve made all kinds of vows in the past with varying degrees of strictness in maintaining their secrecy. Everything from strict time limits on how long the secrecy has to be maintained, to being allowed to use my own judgement in sharing, to indeed taking it to the grave.’ He sat back and relaxed against the wall. ‘How you want your secret kept is up to you.’

A realization dawned on Zev's face. ‘That vow you had me make earlier,’ he uttered slowly. ‘You had me swear not to tell anyone I wouldn’t trust myself.’

‘I did.’

‘Why?’

He smiled softly. ‘You’re still alive, aren’t you? That’s a good enough statement to the quality of your judgement right there. And it’s not like you’re a part of the Flightpaths. The most you could damage would be me, and I’ve survived plenty of worse things.’

Zev swallowed heavily before nodding slightly. ‘The same kind of vow will do,’ he agreed.

‘You sure?’ More like he himself had to be sure. Vows were tricky things if you didn’t want to be foresworn.

But Zev just nodded. ‘Yeah.’

‘Alright then,’ he agreed as he shifted himself until he sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, back straight and looking Zev right in the eyes. Hand over his heart, he spoke clearly. ‘I, Luke Lars, Freeborn son of a Freed man whose Name and spirit I keep in honor within my heart, hereby swear that I will keep your secret from all but those I would trust myself. On my word.’

A little different from the usual vow he’d make, but Zev was neither a Child of the Desert, nor a Tatooinian. The words that weighed heavily for Luke weren’t exactly appropriate here, nor would Zev likely understand their meaning. That didn’t matter. He would understand their intent.

And understand he did. Zev looked at him for a long time before he found something that made him nod slowly. ‘That’ll do.’

‘Good,’ he said sincerely with a smile. ‘Now, I believe you have a story to tell.’

‘I believe I do,’ Zev agreed, sighing deeply. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. ‘It’s nowhere near as… extreme as your own, but it’s a secret that could get me killed nonetheless if the wrong people heard.’

‘Alright,’ Luke whispered. ‘I understand.’

‘Yeah,’ Zev agreed, cracking an eye open. ‘I believe you do.’ He sighed again. ‘Alright. It all began a few months after my sixteenth birthday. My mom had… she became very, very sick few weeks afterwards. She’d been on Ryloth for her work and gotten stung by a swarm of blue firrzan.’ Zev rubbed his arms, perhaps in a subconscious gesture, and Luke knew better than to interrupt. ‘The infection nearly killed her the first time around, but even after she’d managed to come out the other side, things still weren’t better. The whole ordeal had pretty much wrecked her immune system, and it got bad enough that they… they had to transfer her to a clinic, pretty much indefinitely. She’s still there.’

Zev sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Dad wasn’t okay, or even really coping. He’d, officially, taken a couple months of leave to look after both me and mom and to help her get settled into… into the clinic, but he was pretty much falling apart himself. Mom and Dad, they… they always said they loved each other like two matching halves, and it showed. He couldn’t even really take care of me, so instead I got sent to COMPNOR’s sub-adult group a short while after.’ He swallowed hard. ‘She’s getting better, I know she is, I can see it with every visit. But it’s still— still hard sometimes. When the drugs and treatments are messing with her especially bad, she doesn’t even recognize me. Doesn’t recognize Dad either.’ Zev made a choked off sound deep in his throat as he shrugged. ‘It is what it is though, and we’ve all long since come to realize that it’d take pretty much a miracle to completely cure her.’

‘May the Suns and Moons watch over her,’ Luke murmured softly, the well-worn prayer rolling easily off his tongue, tasting of memories.

Zev shot him a sad, but grateful smile. ‘Yeah, may they.’ His breath shuddered on the next words as he continued. ‘Anyway, as you can probably imagine, I wasn’t doing too well either, but that’s where I met my first squad. Beltan, Marlock, Rolf, Lillian, and Gwen.’ He huffed out a soft laugh. ‘Force, everything about the sub-adult group sucked; the drills, the stupid empire songs, the endless propaganda, but those guys made me feel alive and at home. They made me laugh, dragged me out of my room when all I wanted to do was just stare at the ceiling, and just… stuck by me.’ And Suns, Luke could already tell where this was going but he hoped by all the Suns and Moons that he was wrong.

‘Anyway,’ Zev continued, clearly shaking himself out of a set of memories, ‘Those guys were my rock for a long time, and the six of us shared a dormitory. It’s also where I… first discovered what slavery really meant,’ he confessed quietly, ‘And I know what you’re thinking, how could I not know? But I— I’d never really seen it before, Mom had told me about it and what it meant, but I—’

‘Hey,’ Luke interrupted, nudging Zev in the side. ‘I don’t blame you, and you don’t have to justify yourself to me.’ He gave a meaningful look at his friend when Zev glanced at him from the corner of his eye. ‘Really,’ he assured, ‘Just because you didn’t know then, doesn’t mean you don’t know now.’ He nudged Zev gently. ‘We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can before we die, Zev, and until you’re dead there’s no such thing as it being too late to learn. You learned about slavery, you decided it was wrong, and now want to do something about it. That’s enough.’

Zev smiled weakly at him. ‘Right.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Anyway, it’s at the Imperial Academy that I first really encountered slavery. They— they had these teachers for various subjects, brilliant people, experts in what they taught, but, well…’ he trailed off uncomfortably.

‘But they were slaves,’ Luke finished easily.

‘Yeah,’ Zev confirmed. ‘And I was… shocked, the first time I realized that. I’d thought they were just your regular teachers before then; employees with pay. To learn that they were literally forbidden to leave the facility because they were classified as property was one of the few times I think I’ve actually become sick from words alone.’

He breathed out a shuddering breath. ‘My squad agreed with me. None of us had ever really known what slavery meant before then, so we began to research it. And the more we researched, the angrier we got. All those laws and regulations and— and propaganda to make it all seem okay and normal and—’ Zev cut himself off as he took a few deep breaths. ‘Needless to say,’ he continued, ‘We couldn’t and didn’t exactly keep quiet on it, but none of us had any idea what kind of rancor den we’d just entered.’

Luke pursed his lips as the scene began to play itself out in his mind’s eye. ‘The Masters don’t exactly take well to criticism,’ he muttered in quiet agreement.

Zev snorted out a harsh, bitter sound. ‘Yeah, I know that now. But none of us knew it back then. So… we asked questions. Pointed questions. And did research, objected to things being taught in class that we knew to be false, and we… we gained attention. Unwanted attention. And one day we went too far.’

Luke sucked in a breath. He wasn’t wrong. Suns and fucking sand, he wasn’t wrong.

Zev's voice wavered, but he forged on through his story. ‘We— we got assigned together in a group project, every squad did. We all had to make a presentation on one aspect of the Empire, and we? We chose slavery. And we were honest about it.’ He sucked in a deep breath and Luke's heart nearly broke at the soul deep regret on Zev's face. ‘I— we—’ He swallowed deeply. ‘We were ordered to the on-campus detention facility in the middle of the night. All of us. And we were each locked in a separate cell. They— they brought us out for questioning. And when they brought me out they still— they still had Rolf in the room and he— they’d beat him up, that was clear. They had to drag him, that’s how groggy and punch-drunk he was. And they— they—’

Zev sucked in a shuddering breath and that was it. He needed someone, and damnit, Luke could and would be that someone!

He slowly shifted himself over towards Zev, mindful of any rejection cues his new friend might give, but when none came, he pressed himself to Zev's side and wrapped an arm around him in a half-hug, silently offering support as he held the other man tight. The reaction was near instant, as Zev's own hand pressed over his own in flash, keeping it pinned there as if afraid he’d take it away. Like hell he would, but Zev didn’t know that.

They sat in silence for a few moments as Zev pieced his composure back together. And when he did, his voice sounded a lot surer of himself, even if his hand still didn’t let Luke's go. ‘They didn’t touch me,’ he stated in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘But I still don’t know if that was because I was a general’s son, or because I was already scared enough that they didn’t feel the need to. Most likely I was the main target all along or they never wanted any information to begin with. Rolf certainly couldn’t answer any questions in his state. I don’t know how long everything lasted, but by the time I was let go from custody my father had had the time to make the necessary calls and get me released. But it was— it was the last time I saw any of them.’

He sucked in another shuddering breath and Luke held him close. Loosing people always hurt, whether they were family or Family. And from the feeling of Zev's distress, heavy and thick in the air, they may not have been Family sworn over blood, water, and sand, but they were obviously Family nonetheless.

‘I— I know Marlock and Lillian got out,’ Zev managed to force out. ‘I don’t know where they are, or how they’re doing, but I know they’re out. The others, I— I never could get confirmed one way or another and— and they might not— might not—’ he sucked in a breath, ‘might not even be alive—’

That was the straw that broke the bantha’s back. Crying, Luke had been taught when he was young, was a waste of water, so he’d better know what he was crying for and whether or not it was worth it. There’d always been one exception though. When you were grieving your family and Family, the water was never wasted. It was an offering. An offering to the Desert, Her Suns, and Her Moons, so that your lost ones may rest amongst them, Free, and at peace.

Zev, in all likelihood, didn’t know those rites and maybe even had his own religion he followed. But his Aunt had always said that souls didn’t have to be of the Desert for Her to watch over them. And it felt anathema to who and what he was to not pray for a lost soul now that he knew they existed.

So he sat silently as the drops began to flow down his friend’s face, dripping first onto Zev's own clothes, and then on his own as his friend buried his head against him when Luke wrapped his other arm around him, resting his chin on top of Zev's head.

He sat silently, and as Zev made his offering of grief and loss, he silently recited the prayers for the lost and deceased in the privacy of his own mind. Praying that wherever Zev's Family was, the Desert’s winds would find them, and guide them home.

They sat silently on the kitchen floor, the only sound that broke through the silence the quiet sobs Zev hiccupped out as he grieved—properly, and perhaps for the first real time—for his Family, scattered to the stars, if not worlds beyond the pale.

And in that silence, Luke finished his prayers, thanked the Desert, and slowly added his own offering to Zev's well of tears and grief. He tightened his grip around his friend, opened his mouth, and on the floor of a kitchen lightyears away from home, he let the first few notes of an ancient song fall from his lips. A song for a funeral. A hymn for the dead. A lament for the lost.

A wayfinder’s requiem. Sung, when the way that need to be found was dark and deep. Sung, in the oldest tongue the Desert and her Children knew.

‘Oh, Desert winds, Oh, Moonloved light,’ he began softly, rubbing Zev's back out of a half-remembered memory from when Uncle Owen had done the same for him after he’d come home submerged in grief, having had his first loss during a Flight. ‘We ask you to hear us, at the edge of your night.’

‘Though we are far apart, our love for them still shines. We have them in our heart, we keep them in our lives.’ The long notes of the song rumbled deep through his throat, chest, and being as he offered them to the air. ‘Oh, Desert winds,’ he lamented, ‘Oh, Moonloved light. We ask you to hear us, the lost are out of sight.’

Slowly, Zev's sobs started to wind down. Encouraged, Luke continued his own offering. ‘No chain that we can break. No Name that we forget. No faith that they can shake. No, we do not regret. Oh, Desert winds. Oh, Moonloved light. We ask you to hear us, lend us your might.’

‘The dead we can’t return, the lost we can’t bring back. Their Freedom they have earned, their Freedom they still lack. Oh, Desert winds. Oh, Moonloved light. We ask you to hear us, this wrong must be right.’ He let his volume slowly rise, the notes softly reverberating off of the plentiful mirror-polished copper and crystal within the kitchen’s architecture.

‘Loved were our lost ones, loved they still are. Missed were our passed ones, missed they still are. Oh, Desert winds. Oh, Moonloved light. We ask you to hear us, save them from this plight.’ Zev's sobs had near completely stilled save for the occasional hiccup. Neither of them made a move yet to let go, and Luke didn’t comment on how Zev pressed even closer to him, awkward though the angle must be for the other man who usually stood nearly a head taller than Luke.

‘A wind to bring them home, a light to guide the way. A song for their travels, a home where they can stay. Oh, Desert winds. Oh, Moonloved light. We ask you to hear us, we ask you to guide.’ Was it just him, or did the air feel heavier with each note he sung? Not in an unpleasant way, the weight of a warm blanket, or that of a sleeping loth-cat. He could swear he even heard its purr. Or was it a hum?

‘This is our offering, this is our grief. In death we ask their Freedom, as lost we ask their relief. Oh, Desert winds. Oh, Moonloved light,’ Luke sang the last refrain with as much sincerity and passion as he could manage, hoping it would be enough to seal the song, the hymn really, from mere words into a prayer. ‘We ask you to hear us, at the edge of your night.’

The fell from his lips and the last hum left his throat. Silence reigned in the kitchen once more, but the grief, the pain, had all dissolved. No, Luke thought suddenly as he felt the air more thoroughly, Not dissolved.

Shared.

Released.

They sat there for a moment longer, until Zev began to subtly squirm within his grip, prompting Luke to slowly release him. Shifting a bit to grant his friend his personal space back, Luke busied himself with straightening his clothes for a tick while Zev subtly wiped away the last couple of tears.

‘Thanks,’ Zev rasped, voice still rough with tears and muted grief. ‘Sorry for, y’know,’ he gestured vaguely at the wet splotches all over Luke's shirt, ‘Making a mess of things.’

‘I don’t mind,’ he admitted. ‘But are you feeling better?’

‘Yeah,’ Zev admitted in turn with a sniff. ‘Yeah, I am. Fuck, I needed that. And thanks for that—’ another vague gesture, ‘—the song. What was that, by the way? It sounded beautiful.’

‘Many things,’ Luke answered with a shrug. ‘It’s most commonly sung at funerals, but it’s more than just that. It’s… multipurpose, in a way. A hymn for the dead. A beacon for the lost. And if you sing with enough passion and sincerity, it may be transformed from just a simple song to a powerful prayer with the last notes.’ He bashfully rubbed the back of his neck as he realized how… strange it must all sound to Zev. ‘It’s most powerful when offered in concert with genuine grief and loss. To call upon the—’ he broke himself off, swallowing back the words “Desert” and “Moons” and turning them over for something more acceptable. Less steeped in vows of secrecy and faith.

‘To call upon the spirits we worship,’ he tried instead. ‘To guide the dead and the lost to Freedom, to rest, and back home again. I thought it… fit, I supposed. And it felt strange not to do it. Against my nature, in a way.’

Zev gave him a long, indecipherable look, before slowly nodding. ‘I— thank you. I never really had a— a religion I knew or spiritual thing I could or wanted to follow, but that— that song, or— or hymn, or whatever you want to call it. It sounded real, and powerful. So, thank you. And I’m sure that if— if the others were here, they’d thank you too.’

‘You don’t have to talk about them more if it’s too much,’ Luke offered quietly. ‘But if you want to continue, my vow holds, and I’m willing to listen.’

Zev honestly looked torn at those words for a moment before he sighed deeply, running a hand over his tear-stained face and through his hair. ‘No,’ he said resolutely. ‘No, I think I need to talk about this. Especially to you. I’ve kept this quiet for long enough and you might actually be able to do something useful with it, or at least get a warning out of it.’ He snorted suddenly. ‘It’s not even the secret that could get me killed, just what led up to it, but… I think it—’ he shrugged, ‘—I think it helps explain.’

‘Alright,’ Luke agreed, shifting back against the wall. ‘Whenever you’re ready.’

Zev nodded, shuffling back until he was mirroring Luke's posture. Out of comfort or a want for companionship, Luke didn’t know and he didn’t ask, merely waited as Zev took a few deep, steadying breaths before he continued his story.

‘Like I said,’ he began quietly, ‘I never saw any of them again after that night and I only know that Marlock and Lillian got out. Beltan, Rolf, and Gwen I never heard from again, but my guess would be that they got sent to— to the reeducation branch of COMPNOR, and either got released or… expired. Maybe they’re still even in custody, who knows?’

He laughed humorlessly. ‘That’s not even a rhetorical question,’ he confided quietly. ‘After that incident, instead of letting myself get scared off, I fell deeper down the rabbit hole of unraveling the true state of the Empire. I made acquaintances with a few decent slicers to see if I could figure out what’d happened to my friends, but the trail went cold so immediately it might as well not have existed. There were no records of their arrest, no records of their detention or transfer, hells, as far as both the Empire and COMPNOR are concerned, they never even attended the school, let alone disappeared from it!’ He shrugged his shoulders in a helpless gesture. ‘They were just… gone. Ghosts in a system. I doubt their parents even got so much as a letter to explain what’d happened, since that would require admitting on paper that they even existed.’

He sighed. ‘I got lucky,’ Zev spat the word out with a venom that Luke almost expected to burn the very air used to speak it. ‘Due to the fact that I carry the last name “Veers” and that my dad was a general with enough prestige and political weight behind him to be a threat, they couldn’t just make me disappear. So instead I got off with a “warning” and not even an arrest on my record to show for it. As far as the Empire is concerned, that incident never even happened and I got transferred away to another facility shortly afterwards for completely unrelated reasons,’ he finished bitterly.

‘You scared them,’ Luke stated easily.

‘We were six students at the Imperial Academy who naively thought they could make a difference,’ Zev shot back. ‘Not even a full part of COMPNOR. Just the stupid farce that is the sub-adult group.’

‘Then why did they crack down so hard? If you were “just students,” why did they fear you enough to consider you a threat?’ Luke pointed out, gaining a stunned look from Zev. He chuckled mirthlessly. ‘That’s always the first lie the Masters tell,’ he murmured as he flashed a crooked grin. ‘They tell you that you are harmless, powerless, insignificant. But if that were true, why would they move against you at all? They wouldn’t. Not if you were truly nothing to fear. A grain of sand you may be in their eyes, Zev,’ he stated firmly, ‘But you found other grains, and together you whipped up a Sandstorm. It’s why they scattered you; they feared what you could do together.’

Zev looked at him for a long moment, holding his gaze until he averted his own with a shake of his head. ‘They succeeded,’ he declared bleakly. ‘I never tried something like that again.’

‘You learned,’ Luke countered fiercely. ‘You learned what would bring punishment, figured out a bit more of the rules that dictate this battle, and survived. They only would’ve succeeded if you truly gave up, but here you are,’ he said, nudging Zev playfully in the side, ‘Telling me this story in secret where the empire can’t touch us. That isn’t defeat. That’s the act of a fighter who suffered a crushing blow, learned from it, and came back with new tactics that made him stronger.’ He smiled at Zev's doubtful look, pouring the fierce pride he felt into it.

‘If you say so,’ Zev muttered doubtfully, but Luke could feel the sparks of hope gathered under it like rain on his skin, and knew his words had hit their mark.

‘Either way,’ Zev continued on, shaking off the previous topic. ‘That’s what started me on my more serious transgressions. I realized that day that the only thing that had spared me the same fate as the others was my Dad’s name. If he had been just a bit more of a nobody, I could’ve been the bloody body they’d used to scare Marlock or Lillian into submission.’

He propped up his knees and rested his head on them. ‘Instead, all I got was a scolding from my Dad over the comm and a warning not to do it again. I doubt Dad even knows what really happened that day. I certainly never told him, and COMPNOR sure as hell didn’t either. And Mom…’ he sighed. ‘She’s got her own battles to fight. I’m not gonna add to that.’

And yeah, Luke could get that. Uncle Owen certainly wasn’t the one he told first about any mishaps during his Flights either. Not that he really needed to, since his Uncle almost seemed to have a sixth sense for spotting fresh bandages peeking out from under clothes or winces whenever he pulled a bit too hard on some fresh stitches. Still, he knew it was because his Uncle cared. He wondered if Zev knew the same.

Zev, meanwhile, still carried on with his story, oblivious to Luke's musings. ‘Either way,’ he continued, ‘I got put in a new facility on a different planet, but I knew I would be watched from then on so I… toned it down. Only got into debates with other students on occasion and only when they brought up the topic and threw myself into my studies.’ He grinned viciously. ‘Specifically; politics and law. Joined a few less-than-legal online protest groups as well under a couple of pseudonyms, where I met those slicers I mentioned earlier, and am still a member, by the way. Helped organize a couple of slicerests [7] that COMPNOR and the ISB definitely want our hides for, but otherwise, my plan was to pray to the fucking gods or whatever would listen that I could—for once—convince my Dad to do what I want to and let me leave COMPNOR so I could actually hope to start making something of a difference.’

He smiled self-deprecatingly at Luke while he rested back. ‘Like I said; far less flashy than the hellfire you managed to pull out of your back-pocket.’

Oh no, they were not starting that again. ‘Bullshit,’ Luke blurted out easily. ‘If the empire were to kill you for speaking out, you’d be just as dead as I would be if the hutts were to execute me for having been a runner. We all fight in our own ways, and you know loss just as well as I do,’ he finished with steely determination as he stared Zev down.

Blinking at him in befuddlement, Zev nodded slowly. ‘Well, when you put it that way,’ he muttered. ‘You really do have a straightforward way of looking at things, don’t you?’

‘Yup!’ he confirmed happily. ‘But enough of that. Now we have to ask ourselves a few million credit questions—’

‘We do?’ Zev interrupted.

‘We do,’ he stated firmly. ‘Starting with this one,’ he cocked his head as he observed Zev closely, ‘You don’t like working with COMPNOR?’

He got a harsh bark of amusement for his efforts as Zev burst out into deep peals of laughter that sounded a lot like his father’s. ‘Force no!’ Zev worked out as his shoulders shook with his snickering. ‘I hate it more than anything and if it were up to me, I would’ve quit the whole business years ago. Give me a soulless desk job any day if it means I’m not actively working to oppress people.’

Well, Luke thought as he blinked in bemusement, this could be interesting.

‘So why haven’t you?’ he asked.

Zev abruptly stopped chuckling as his brief merriment vanished like frost in the sun. ‘Because of my Dad,’ he explained in a weary tone. ‘He wants to keep me enrolled in COMPNOR and lately has been pushing me to enroll in the officer training programs as well. Mostly so I’m eligible to join CompForce. He wants me to “toughen up,” but if I had to guess he just wants to get me out of politics and into the more “don’t think, obey” mindset of the military. And it’s really, really hard to change his mind on a good day, but nearly impossible on this.’

‘So, in other words,’ Luke began slowly as an idea began to form in his mind. ‘You’d need someone to offer you a job even your father wouldn’t be able to deny as a good idea.’

Zev scoffed. ‘Pretty much, but no offer like that’s gonna come for me since all talent hunting programs in the sub-adult groups are controlled by COMPNOR itself. And while I have pretty damn good marks on my actual studies and comprehension tests, I score abysmal when it comes to any category that’s basically parroting propaganda.’ He pulled a face that had Luke stifle a snort. ‘Like my “political reliability” scores, which mean that the top spots on any talent lists that companies actually look at are basically unattainable for me.’ 

‘I see,’ Luke muttered as he crossed his arms. It could work. ‘Zev?’ he asked slowly. ‘You said you were studying politics and law, right? How well would you say you comprehend the politics of, say, the senate? Especially the more internal kind?’

Zev blinked. ‘Pretty damn well, I would say. I could tell you everything from the latest powershifts to the reasons for the latest laws they’ve drafted and passed to the Emperor.’ He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. ‘Why?’

‘One more thing,’ Luke deflected, ‘Then I’ll tell you. Can you keep something of an orderly agenda?’

‘What the hell does that have to do with anything?’ asked Zev, who was now definitely looking thoroughly lost.

‘Quite a bit,’ Luke answered cryptically. ‘Please say that you do?’

‘I can,’ Zev confirmed, ‘Though what—’

‘Excellent!’ Luke exclaimed happily as he clapped his hands together. ‘Then I have a plan if you want to hear it.’

‘The fuck?’ Zev asked weakly, before clearing his throat and straightening up. ‘What kind of plan?’

‘The kind that gets you out of COMPNOR and into a job I think even your father would be somewhat okay with,’ Luke explained, grinning ear-to-ear.

Zev blinked, blinked again, and then shifted into a fully attentive posture. ‘I’m listening,’ he said, somewhat redundantly as he looked straight at Luke.

‘Here’s the thing,’ Luke said as he crossed his arms again, rhythmically tapping his finger on his bicep. ‘I’ve been asked by Lord Vader to start looking for a secretary after some serious shenanigans happened with my schedule. Technically, I’m only supposed to be considering candidates so far, but I doubt he’ll have much issue with me taking initiative.’

Zev snorted loudly at that, immediately slapping a hand over his mouth and waving Luke off when he shot him a questioning look. ‘Fine, fine. It’s fine.’

Lie. But it didn’t sound like a dire one, so he let it slide. ‘Anyway, he told me something else as well,’ he admitted as he thought back to the conversation of yesterday. ‘That a good secretary, or private aide as he said, could also be an adviser.’ He shot Zev a wry look. ‘Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Zev, but I’m rather new to this all,’ he professed, tone dry as dust.

Chuckling, Zev shook his head. ‘No fucking shit,’ he muttered. ‘But you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, right?’

Oh, yes he was. ‘Zev,’ he said seriously. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me it sounds like you’re both trapped, and in need of a runner. While in the meantime, I’m in need of someone who can tell me what the fuck’s going on around me, and when I’m about to do something monumentally stupid. If you’re willing, I think we could get you a job as my secretary, at least until you get bored of it or find something better, I’m sure.’

Well, he must’ve said something especially stupid, because Zev was staring at him like he’d just grown a second head. ‘You’re telling me,’ he began slowly, ‘That you’re offering me, the COMPNOR trainee not even out of the academy yet and the guy who just confessed minor treason to you, a job as your private secretary?’

Okay, maybe something a bit more stupid than he’d anticipated. ‘Look, I know it’s probably not what you’re looking for,’ he defended awkwardly, ‘But I think it’s a solid plan to get you out of COMPNOR and you’ll at least have something to do while you look for another job—’

‘Are you kidding me!?’ Zev yelled, eyes wide and a disbelieving smile spreading on his face. ‘Fuck yes, I will take that job! What are the requirements? What am I expected to do? Where can I sign?’ he rattled off rapidly, nearly glowing with elation and excitement before his expression abruptly crashed into concern. ‘Oh, hell,’ he swore, ‘Do I need some kind of specialized degree? I probably do, don’t I? Shit, and I haven’t taken any kind of classes on it either. Though I do have those administration classes? Think those would count? Fuck, I’ll have to check. And if I can’t switch some of my classes around. Maybe if I drop the ones on geopolitical history in the mid rim? And—’

‘Whoa, easy, Zev!’ Luke attempted to calm his friend as he tried to parse what had just been rattled off at speeds he hadn’t heard since he and Biggs had been experimenting with engine enhancements and had both accidentally gotten a lungful of helium. After which they’d both attempted to say the greatest number of words as fast as possible, naturally.

Anyway, back to Zev who looked like he was preforming increasingly complicated mental gymnastics over problems Luke was pretty sure he was blowing way out of proportion. ‘Look,’ he began, switching his tone to something steady and sure. ‘Zev, I’ll readily admit that I’m the first person who probably should have some sort of degree, but I don’t, and I get by just fine. You’ll be fine. So deep breaths,’ he said as he deliberately made his own breathing louder and slower, getting Zev to instinctively match his to his own.

‘There you go,’ he muttered when Zev's breathing had reached less worrying levels. ‘I take it this means you’re accepting the offer?’ he asked, just to be sure.

Zev grinned weakly but widely. ‘If you can somehow convince everyone that you’re serious about taking on a barely-trained rookie from the Imperial Academy, then, yeah, absolutely.’

Luke blew a raspberry, and smirked at the startled laugh it earned him from Zev. ‘Convince schmonvince,’ he waved off irreverently. ‘The only one who has to agree is Lord Vader and he hired me to be the Head Engineer of his flagship. If he can’t stand someone with infinitely more formal education as my secretary, I’ll call him out on it myself. In fact…’ he trailed off as he got an idea. ‘You absolutely sure you’re taking the job? Don’t need time to think on it?’ Double checking never hurt, after all.

But Zev shook his head. ‘No, I’m pretty damn sure about the job, and—’ he cut himself off, eyes suddenly narrowing in suspicion. ‘Why? What are you planning?’

‘No time like the present, right?’ Luke asked as he fished out his military-issued comm, opening the text menu and selecting the oldest and longest running conversation on it. ‘Let’s ask him now!’

‘Wait, what?’ Zev yelped, but Luke was already typing.

 

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars: Found my new secretary!!! :D

 

‘And sent!’ he told Zev happily. ‘Now we just wait for the response.’

‘Did you just— Did you just—’ Zev stammered out. ‘Did you just text Darth Vader?’

Before Luke could open his mouth to ask how else Zev expected him to contact Vader within a decent time frame, his comm buzzed with an incoming message and looking down revealed it to be exactly who he suspected it to be.

 

    Sp. Com. Darth Vader: I distinctly remember instructing you that you only needed to start considering, little one, and not that you should have already made your decision.

 

Luke snorted as he read Vader's response, not even needing to see or hear the man to know that he was being teased. Zev shot him a look of the utmost concern and bafflement, but he held up his hand to forestall any interruptions as he began texting back.

 

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars: I knowww >.< But I thought I’d take the initiative and get started early!! :D:D And now I’ve found someone ^.^

 

The next message came in much sooner, and much briefer.

 

    Sp. Com. Darth Vader: And who might that be?

 

He glanced up at Zev, who stared transfixed at the comm in his hands. No going back after this. ‘You absolutely sure about this, Zev?’ he asked. ‘Backing out’ll be a lot more difficult after we get the process started.’

Zev seemed to startle out of some kind of trance, flinching hard enough that Luke almost thought he must’ve pulled something and staring up at him with wide eyes before he registered the question. What followed looked to be a brief, but fierce inner battle before he breathed deeply, and looked back up again.

‘Yeah, I am,’ was all he said, but it was all Luke needed. He gave a brief nod before resuming his conversation with Vader.

 

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars: Zevulon Veers

 

The response was immediate.

 

    Sp. Com. Darth Vader: General Veers' son?

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars: That’s the one, yeah :)

    Sp. Com. Darth Vader: I see. Has he agreed to this? Is he aware of the responsibilities?

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars:  More so than I am, I would say ;) But yeah, he’s agreed to it ^.^

    Sp. Com. Darth Vader: Then we shall discuss. Let us meet at my office, we will resume this conversation in person. Bring young Veers along with you.

    Hd. Eng. Luke Lars: On our way! ;D

 

Well, that was that, he supposed. Now to convince Vader that this was actually the good idea that it undoubtedly was.

‘Well?’ Zev snapped him out of his thoughts. ‘What’d he say?’

He smiled brightly at his friend. ‘He’s agreed to discuss it! We’re expected at his office to discuss it in person, so we can hash it out,’ he said as he put his comm back into his pocket.

‘Okay,’ Zev agreed slowly, ‘So when’re we expected?’

He smiled even brighter. ‘Right now.’

A beat of silence passed as Zev froze, his mind visibly struggling to process the information, with several fuses likely blowing in the process, and he amused himself by imagining some kind of showtune playing over it all. He nearly heard it when some process went “ding!” inside Zev's head and his whole face abruptly switched over to horror.

His head swiveled around to face Luke as his eyes bulged out. What do you mean “right now”?’ he whispered hoarsely.

‘Exactly that,’ he said as he grabbed his friend’s arm, never losing his grin. ‘Let’s go get the vod’e and then go get you that job!’ With that he vaulted to his feet and dragged Zev up with him.

‘Whoa!’ Zev yelped. ‘Wait! Fuck, hold on!’ He yanked his sleeve out of Luke's grasp as he wheeled Luke around to face him, wild eyed. ‘Luke,’ he said slowly, with a desperate edge to his voice. ‘Please, for the love of the Force, tell me you didn’t just get me a job interview with Darth Vader in the next couple of fucking minutes that I’m in no way prepared to face.’

‘You are though,’ Luke countered. ‘Just tell him what you told me if he asks— uh,’ he paused as a thought occurred to him, ‘—without the “minor treason” bits, preferably, but the whole “understanding politics and being able to keep a schedule” part should be fine, and let me do the rest,’ he explained happily. ‘Seriously though,’ he said, as Zev shot him a look that conveyed perfectly how highly dubious he was of that. ‘He’s a lot less scary than you think he is. It’ll be fine.’

Zev heaved a deep sigh of resignation, or maybe exasperation, hung his head, and stuck his arm out again to let Luke regain his grip on his sleeve, resuming his act of dragging Zev towards the door. ‘“It’ll be fine” he says,’ Luke heard muttered from behind him. ‘“Darth fucking Vader is a lot less scary than you think” he says. Fuck, I’m gonna fucking die. Why am I allowing this to happen?’

Deliberately ignoring the dramatics of his friend behind him with an eyeroll, Luke grinned as he hit the control pad of the kitchen door, barely waiting for it to slide open before dragging Zev through.

The seven clones waiting for them in the living room snapped their heads up with such synchronicity that Luke had to wonder for a split second if they’d practiced it before dismissing the thought. Pulling a reluctant Zev up next to him, he clapped a hand on the shoulder of the man next to him, the angle somewhat awkward due to the fact that Zev easily stood a head taller than him.

‘Gentlemen!’ he called out with exactly as much enthusiasm as he felt, beaming wide. ‘I have good news and bad news. First the good; meet the man who’s hopefully gonna become my secretary: Zev!’

‘No shit?’ Boomer called back. ‘You seriously decided that just like that? Uh, sir,’ he hastily tacked on at the end after a glare from Appo.

‘Nope!’ he replied happily. ‘Zev's on track to get the job.’

‘Huh,’ Volt muttered. ‘Congrats, kid, I guess.’

‘Wait,’ Slice chimed in. ‘If that’s the good news, what’s the bad one?’ he asked, a hint of fear creeping in.

‘Sir, I swear, if you’re planning on deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way—’ Kix cut in, tone dangerous in a way that reminded Luke of Aunt Beru whenever he needed stitches after a Flight or crash.

‘I wish,’ Zev grumbled out, cutting off whatever terrible thing Kix no doubt was prepared to do to prevent anything he classified as “harm” occurring. ‘It’s so much worse.’

‘Chin up, Zev,’ Luke said as he glanced sideways. ‘You’re making this out to be much more dramatic than it really is.’ A statement that earned him an impressive raised eyebrow that flawlessly spelled out how hard Zev was internally calling bullshit, but nothing else.

‘Anyway,’ he said, as he turned back towards the clones. ‘The bad news is more for you guys than for us, ‘cause I commed Lord Vader and he’s expecting us to discuss Zev's hiring. As in; expecting us, right now,’ he clarified with a toothy smirk as the words sunk in with dawning realization on their targets. ‘Yup,’ he confirmed happily, smirk widening into a mischievous grin once more. ‘Suit up!’

Groans met his statement with some decidedly uncomplimentary grumbling thrown in there for good measure, but the troopers heaved themselves up from where they were seated, thankfully already mostly in their armor due to their earlier attempts at intimidating Zev.

Watching the clones move to get ready, Luke began to untie the top half of his overall from where he’d bound it around his waist. Shrugging on the greyish-black work uniform, he turned towards a still and silent Zev, who he noted was looking a bit pale in the face.

‘You okay?’ he muttered quietly.

‘Yeah,’ Zev answered just as quietly. ‘It’s just— it’s just all sinking in right now. Force, how is this all going so fast?’

Luke shrugged, tugging up the front zipper and smoothing out some of the worst creases. ‘I find that life usually does,’ he replied easily. ‘Hell, I got hired in three days flat. I sent in the signed contract, got informed to pack my bags, and three days later Lord Vader showed up in a shuttle to bring me aboard. It’s just how job postings work aboard the Lady.’

Zev gave him an odd look. ‘Somehow, I doubt it,’ he muttered out. ‘I get the feeling that it’s mostly how job postings work around you.’

And well, there may be more truth to that than he entirely wanted to admit, Luke conceded. But before he could say anything to that effect, the troopers marched back in, armored up and looking ready for anything. Which only left the two of them, and Luke was feeling ready to take on the world to get his friend—his charge, at the moment—this job and get him out of the place he hated. Zev though…

‘You ready for this?’ he asked softly.

Zev chewed the inside of his cheek, but nodded firmly, shooting Luke a small smile. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’

He smiled back. ‘Let’s go then. We’ve got a Flight to run.’

 


 

  1. [7] Slicerest: An amalgamation of the words “slicer” and “arrest.” A term used to describe various kinds of hostile actions taken on the holonet, but usually refers to a coordinated effort that disables or outright destroys parts of or entire databases and netsites. They’re considered vandalism or destruction of private property under empire law when targeting civilian or corporate interests, depending on the severity of the attack, and treason when targeting governmental or military interest regardless of severity. They’re also highly effective if executed right.[ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

Veers wasn’t panicking. He wasn’t.

But damn if it wasn’t a near thing.

Presentation day. The day on which the SUTA Project would finally formally begin, and a day he’d actually been rather looking forward to. And yet, he couldn’t give less of a damn at the moment it he’d tried, even as he stood ready with the other officers in the appointed spaces of the antechambers, waiting for the time in which the senate session would pause to allow Lars to start the first of two presentations that would kick it all off.

It’d been three days since Zev came back from his meeting with Lars, hours late, and unexpectedly tired and drained. He hadn’t even had to ask what had happened before he’d been informed that not only were Zev and Lars fast friends now, not only had he been hired by the lad as his secretary, no, he’d also already had his job interview with Lord Vader of all people and apparently hashed out a very agreeable contract.

A contract which he’d brought back alongside a three-day deadline in which he could still reconsider his acceptance before his hiring was considered final. After that, the process of fast-tracking his son’s graduation from the Imperial Academy would begin as facilitated by virtue of the fact that Lord Vader would be personally requesting it.

A deadline which had expired that morning.

His son had signed the contract barely a scant few hours earlier and been welcomed aboard by both an exuberant Lars and a surprisingly even-tempered Lord Vader. Force, if he didn’t know any better, he would’ve said that the dark lord had seemed unaccountably pleased with the fact that his son had accepted the position, but that was a thought that held so many potentially horrific implications that Veers decided to take a page out of Piett's book and promptly forget it. It wasn’t like he could do anything about it.

All of this meant exactly one thing to Veers though: his son would soon enough be aboard the Lady. Well within reach of Lord Vader and his infamous manner of dealing with subordinates who made the fatal mistake of earning his ire, and no amount of rationalizing that his son would likely be one of the safest people aboard was going to soothe his anxious mind.

Force, this is why he’d hoped the lad would take to CompForce instead of the far riskier jobs he feared Zev would be drawn to if he truly followed through with his dangerous talk. The ISB might occasionally check within the ranks of their sister organization, but they watched every twitch of even the most minor politicians. Zev wouldn’t last a day if he couldn’t keep his tongue in check.

Now he might last even shorter than that.

He breathed deeply and attempted to calm himself. No, he was overreacting, or at least, he had to believe he was. Zev had managed to wrangle himself the position of Lars’ secretary, and he knew damn well that would effectively make his son an extension of Lars in the eyes of nearly everyone else. With a bit of luck, that included Lord Vader, as well as the miraculous protection the boy seemed to have from him. It would be fine. And if Veers repeated that statement often enough, he might just start to believe it.

There was nothing to be done about it now anyway. He’d been unable to dissuade his son and the contract had already been signed. Now all that was left was to stand in the antechamber and wait for their cue while the minutes slowly ticked away.

‘Worried about your son?’ a mild voice sounded from his side.

Glancing at the point of origin, Veers was damn glad to see the ever-impassive face of Piett. ‘That obvious?’ he asked the other man with a grimace.

Piett hummed quietly as he pursed his lips, dipping his head into a subtle nod. ‘Quite.’

Damn. Well, considering the reasons… ‘Pretty sure I’m more than justified this time, Firmus,’ he replied darkly. ‘The boy’s gone and done it now.’

‘I rather doubt that, actually,’ Piett countered mildly while he pulled out his own comm, checking the chrono. ‘As far as I can see, Zevulon’s executed a master stroke of a plan.’

What.

‘You’re gonna have to explain that one, Firmus,’ he growled lowly, ‘Because all I can see is that my boy has gone and placed himself within strangling distance from someone exceedingly likely to actually do it.’

‘Obviously you would,’ Piett agreed easily, keeping an eye on his surroundings. ‘You’re his father, I hardly expected you to see the situation clearly. But if you were to actually stop, observe, and think for a moment, Max, I think you’ll see exactly what I mean. Regardless of what appearances might be, I firmly believe that Zevulon is perfectly safe.’

‘You know as well as I do that “perfectly safe” and “the Lady” in the same sentence are an oxymoron unless said sarcastically, Firmus,’ he countered flatly.

‘As safe as anyone directly under Lars’ protection could be then,’ Piett conceded. ‘Something you would see too if you’d actually seen how Lars conducted himself around your son, Max,’ he said with a subtle gesture towards the entrance of the Grand Convocation Chamber proper, where Lars, Lord Vader, and—to his blood pressure’s eternal dismay—his son were waiting for the moment that the first repulsorpod would grant them access to the senate floor and its attention. Zev wouldn’t be joining them, as far as he knew, but the boy and Lars had been attached at the hip ever since this morning, with Zev near constantly providing whispered commentary for Lars.

‘Look,’ Piett said, ‘Actually look at their body language. Whatever happened between Zevulon and Lars, clearly some sort of agreement was worked out. As far as I can tell and despite the fact that Zevulon stands nearly a head taller than Lars, Lars is the one extending his protection, not the other way around,’ the man muttered as he tilted his head.

Veers blinked at that statement before rapidly glancing back towards where Lars and Zev were once again whispering to each other conspiratorially. For a moment, all he could see was that his son was standing altogether far too close to Lord Vader for him to be comfortable with without himself there too to act as a buffer. But then he tried to let go of the simmering uneasy in the pit of his stomach that could easily blow into full panic if he let it, and actually analyze the scene in front of him like he would a battle.

The first thing he noticed was that Zev had positioned Lars squarely between himself and Lord Vader. The second was that Lars appeared to not only be fine with that, but also made moves to actively keep it that way. While he was chatting with Lord Vader, he consistently turned his body in a manner that was all but a shield for Zev, drawing attention to himself with quick gestures and talking while Zev all but melted away from perception behind him. And it was all done with a practiced ease that could’ve only come from—

‘He’s done this before,’ he noted quietly.

‘Yes,’ Piett agreed. ‘I believe so too. And he’s rather skilled at it too. I find I’m having a hard time consistently focusing my attention on Zevulon, despite the fact that I’m making something of an attempt to do so.’

Yes, Veers noticed that too. Now that his worry and admittedly frantic need to keep an eye on Zev had been somewhat soothed, he was finding it hard to not get drawn into watching Lars animatedly discuss something with Lord Vader while Zev quietly stood by his side.

Whatever tricks Lars was pulling, they were both effective and deliberate in keeping his son in cover.

He shook his head as the realization dawned. ‘He’s—'

‘Protecting him?’ Piett offered, a note of amusement creeping into his usually placid voice. ‘Glad you finally caught up with the program, Max.’

‘Oh, shut up,’ he grumbled back half-heartedly, feeling far to relieved at the new information to really put his back into their customary banter. ‘You get yourself a son and see how calm you are when they’re standing right next to Lord Vader without you.’

‘I believe I will pass up on that opportunity, thank you,’ Piett replied primly. ‘My interests lie elsewhere.’

Veers snorted. ‘Yeah, like being a secret adrenaline junkie who deliberately allowed himself to get brought aboard the ship with the single highest officer turn-over rate,’ he muttered lowly.

Piett shot him a bland look, only betrayed by the spark in his eyes that could classify his current expression as downright mischievous. ‘I can neither confirm or deny that accusation,’ he said, sounding about as dry as the dustball they’d pick Lars up from.

‘Sure you can’t,’ Veers agreed easily, as he kept his eye on the three people in front of him. Piett might deny it all he wanted, but for all that the man had as healthy a fear of Lord Vader as anyone else, Veers also suspected that no one aboard could have the number of assignments directly under Lord Vader that Piett did unless they deliberately allowed it to happen.

Shaking his head, he put the questionable choices of the Captain aside in favor of continuing his analysis of this newly discovered and highly welcome information. In any other circumstance he would’ve been of the opinion that no matter whose protection Zev had managed to find himself under, it still wouldn’t be any kind of effective deterrent to Lord Vader. Captain, General, Admiral, it hardly made a difference in the face of Lord Vader as he treated them all the same; as his subordinates.

But Lars… Lars was in a category all his own, practically untouchable to anyone who had any kind of sense and didn’t want to piss of both an entire contingent of Stormtroopers and the dark lord that led them. With his protection Veers could almost believe Zev might make it. He just hoped that the boy knew what he was doing.

A thunderous sound shook him out of his reverie, and with a start he realized that it was the sound of applause reverberating throughout the adjacent Grand Convocation Chamber, signaling the change of speaker. It was time then.

And just as he’d expected, Zev stepped away from Lars’ side with a quick gesture and nod, the doors of the antechamber swinging open not even moments later to reveal a waiting repulsorpod. While Zev—to some of his residual relief—hurried back to his side, Lord Vader and Lars both entered the waiting pod, Lars fiddling with an odd spherical object that he’d seemingly pulled out of nowhere.

The pod detached from the dock, and slowly floated down to the central podium, where the Grand Vizier would make an address to preface Lars’ presentation, but before Veers could begin to pay any significant attention towards the words beginning to echo throughout the chamber, a second repulsorpod docked at their antechamber. One he was expected to board, alongside his son, Piett, some of the other high-ranked officers and—unfortunately—Ozzel.

Casting a distasteful look towards where said poor excuse of an Admiral was strutting over towards the central seat of the pod, highly confident in his own importance, Veers steered himself and Zev towards one of the tripled-up seats along the sides.

They’d hardly taken their place before the pod abruptly trembled as the undocking procedure swiftly took place, and soon they were gliding along invisible magnetic tracks towards their assigned altitude while another pod took their place to pick up the rest of the officers.

‘Well,’ Zev muttered softly, the echoing words of welcome the Grand Vizier spoke towards both Lord Vader and the “representative” of the SUTA Project (Veers nearly rolled his eyes at that one. With the amount of work the lad had done, Lars practically was the SUTA Project.) drowning out his own until he was certain that he was the only one who could actually hear his son. ‘This ought to be interesting.’

‘In what way?’ he murmured back. ‘You and Lars have been acting awfully conspiratorial this morning.’

Zev shot him a mischievous grin. ‘Let’s just say that Luke has a flair for the dramatic,’ he answered back. ‘And that this presentation is likely gonna take a form a bit different than what everyone here is used to.’

Oh no.

‘Well, that doesn’t sound good,’ he muttered under his breath, causing Zev to snicker.

‘Relax, Dad,’ he said, turning back towards where the speaker had just finished his address and yielded the floor to both Lord Vader and Lars. ‘Lord Vader personally approved this idea.’

Somehow, that didn’t fill him with the usual confidence that statement would give.

But then the repulsorpod that had the eyes of the galaxy on it did something unexpected; it jerked, shook, and suddenly it was floating in a manner that indicated that it’d somehow gotten free of any magnetic tracks as it drifted into place right above the central podium.

Oh no.

He watched transfixed as Lord Vader took up position at the back of the pod, while Lars took centerstage with a wide, beaming smile that felt disarming even as he sat dozens of meters away.

‘Senators of the empire,’ the young engineer addressed the chamber at large. ‘I thank you for your attention and apologize for the somewhat odd positioning of the pod that was assigned to me, however, I assure you that it’s for a perfectly legitimate reason.’

‘It better be,’ Piett muttered off to his other side. ‘Breaching protocol and even procedure like that in a senate session is inexcusable otherwise. He could be punished with a life-long ban.’

Ah, shit, Veers thought to himself. That’d put one hell of a damper on everything, now wouldn’t it?

‘You see,’ Lars continued, either blissfully unaware or utterly uncaring of the potential consequences of this whole stunt he’d just pulled, ‘Due to the nature of the project I’m about to talk about and the fact that a single holo can speak a thousand words, I’ve decided to go for a somewhat unusual form of presentation, one that—unfortunately—required a bit of adjustment to my pod’s positioning. Namely, it’s one—’ he said as he extended his arm outwards, clearly displaying the strange spherical object he’d been fiddling with.

A single tap from Lars upon some unseen switch on the object filled the room with a soft, high-pitched hum as the device activated, floating up out of Lars’ hand. The Grand Convocation Chamber was bathed in a bright blue light as the sphere separated into countless segments that shot off like bolts to surround the pod Lars was standing in in a perfect circle. Each shot out a bright laser of light directly towards the ceiling, before angling downwards until all beams crossed each other in a conical shape. The lasers disappeared as soon as the beams crossed, and instead a bright holograph flickered into existence right over Lars’ head, displaying a very familiar insignia in bright blue.

Hovering in the center of the Grand Convocation Chamber, was a slowly spinning, five-story-tall, crystal clear holographic rendition of the Engineering Corps’ insignia, the words “SUTA Project” displayed under it.

Well then, Veers thought faintly. Come hell or high water, this would be a day gossiped about for years to come amongst the political circles.

‘—of my own making,’ Lars finished with a sharp grin. And just like that, Veers knew that the lad had the entire Galactic Senate spellbound.

‘Senators of the empire,’ Lars addressed with a bow, his voice echoing through the chamber. ‘I stand here before you to present the fruits of a massive undertaking. An undertaking with the goal of improving the fate of the empire’s troops across the galaxy by giving their armor hardware a drastically needed upgrade. With a new and improved design, it will hopefully save the lives of many loyal troopers who would’ve otherwise met a tragic end. Therefore,’ he said, as he raised a hand towards the hologram still slowly spinning above him, ‘it is my great pleasure and honor, to present to you; the SUTA Project!’

With that final exclamation the hologram burst into action, and to thunderous applause, the Engineering Corps’ insignia shrunk and spun down until it was floating horizontally just above the pod Lars and Lord Vader were standing in. The letters announcing the SUTA Project followed suit, spinning in a slow circle under it, duplicating themselves until the entire insignia podium rested on a slowly rotating support of letters. And finally, in a flash of sparks and light that wouldn’t look out of place in a pyrotechnics display, a massive projection of the now oh-so familiar armor took its place upon the make-shift holographic podium, standing tall and proud as the applause swelled with the occasional cheer at the spectacle Lars had delivered

Veers found himself clapping along just as hard, even as he shook his head at the lad’s antics. Oh yeah, whatever happened after this, the SUTA Project would be the talk of the town for a long time to come and remembered even longer.

‘Yes!’ Zev cheered next to him, clapping just as hard, which was a feat considering he was also holding up his comm to record the veritable laser light show taking place. ‘Nicely done, Luke!’

‘You knew about this?’ he asked with some amusement.  

Zev flashed him a cheeky grin. ‘He may or may not have shown me the projector yesterday,’ Zev admitted, ‘And what it could do. He said that he’d been watching some senate sessions on the holonet and he thought that the senators might—’ his mouth broadened into an even wider grin, ‘—appreciate something a bit different than their usual fare. A bit more interesting too, seeing as he knows it’s sometimes hard to be interested in the technical jargon used in these presentations when you don’t already understand what’s going on. And apparently, the senators have very thoroughly demonstrated to him this last week that they indeed have no idea of what’s going on.’

Veers snorted at that. Somehow, he could perfectly see a dull-eyed Lars sitting through countless bone-dry meetings and senate session and promptly deciding that he was have no part of that, thank you very much. Even if he had decided on the single most dramatic way possible of spicing up a boring senate session. Speaking of which…

He turned to Piett, who was clapping right along with the rest of them. ‘Think this is a good enough reason to excuse the earlier breach in protocol?’ he asked quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the roar of applause.

Piett pressed his lips into a stiff line, but even Veers could see that he did it to hide a smile. ‘I would say so,’ he answered stiffly. ‘I doubt any but the most prudish of senators would object to this kind of entertainment. Not to mention that I doubt there are protocols in place to regulate a holographic lightshow of these proportions,’ he noted dryly.

‘No shit,’ Veers mumbled under his breath as he glanced back to the sheer spectacle Lars had managed to cobble together in about a week’s time.

The applause slowly started to quiet down as Lars made a gesture for silence, grin clear on his face. ‘Thank you, truly, for allowing me this chance,’ Lars spoke with the utmost sincerity. ‘Now then, let me showcase to you some of the armor’s main capabilities, starting with—of course—the armor plating itself.’

On cue, the armor plating depicted in the hologram detached itself from the main frame. Arranging itself into a loose geometrical pattern, it slowly began to spin around the great chamber, giving a good view to every senator regardless of location or latitude relative to Lars’ pod as he began his explanation of its capabilities with that signature ease and good humor.

‘Now, I understand that while it is a disappointment to see the old suits go—who doesn’t love the clanking sound they make?’ Lars quipped glibly, and sweet Force, he actually got some laughs from the uptight senate. ‘But there are good points to be found in this new design despite the retirement of early-warning sound system, I assure you. Take, for example, the increased durability and toughness of the armor plating. Of which there—’

Veers allowed Lars’ voice to fade into the background for a moment, taking the time to surveil the nearest pods to them. He recognized a few of them, and not necessarily for the right reasons. He spotted the pods containing Ryloth, Chandrila, and Alderaan delegations easily, the later hovered only a level lower than them and a few pods over. Peering down, he saw it contained the ever-present Senator Organa and his daughter as usual, the former who furiously conversing with the later as they both sent periodic looks over to where Lars was giving his presentation. He pursed his lips as he considered what that could mean. On the one hand, Organa was one of the Emperor’s staunchest supporters, even if he did have something of a reputation for taking pacifism to its extremes.

On the other hand, Leia Organa was his daughter, and with that there was enough said.

What those two could be talking about that made the elder Organa look about as pale a sheet while his daughter rolled her eyes at him and gestured sharply to the center stage, he was rather curious to know.

‘Not enjoying the show?’ Zev whispered next to him, startling him out of his musings. Glancing at his son and at the presentation in rapid succession, he leaned in.

‘More like I was trying to gauge the reactions around us,’ he muttered back. ‘And I’m wondering just what about Lars and his presentation has the Alderaan delegation this fired up,’ he said while jerking his chin over to the pod in question.

Zev shot him a look before following his gesture to where Senator Organa was still being mercilessly subjected to a fierce lecture by his daughter. He narrowed his eyes as he watched an increasingly agitated Leia Organa fire off a rapid-pace speech of some kind to her befuddled father before something seemed to dawn on him. Much to Veers' confusion, his son’s face slowly morphed into a gleeful smirk.

‘Well, don’t you look happy,’ he commented idly. ‘Care to share?’

‘Now, I might be wrong about this,’ Zev started slowly as he kept an eye on the Alderaani pod below them. ‘But if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that the Princess has recognized Luke from the same thing I did and is currently filling in her father on necessary info about Luke.’

‘Recognized?’ he asked. ‘From where?’

That got him an eyeroll and a soft groan. ‘From Scrap Hunting, Dad,’ Zev explained with no small amount of exasperation coloring his voice. ‘Y’know, the holochannel I already told you about?’

‘No need to get snippy,’ he reprimanded as he wracked his memory for the last time Zev had mentioned this “Scrap Hunting.”

‘I’ll get “snippy” when I have to repeat every “new-fangled” thing to you twenty-two times before it sticks,’ Zev grumbled under his breath as he pulled the camera out of his comm to keep the video going, quickly muting the sound and pulling up a site that showed the logo of a speeder outline racing past twin suns. ‘Here,’ he said as he shoved the comm into Veers’ hands. ‘Educate yourself for once and don’t forget to turn on the subtitles if you’re gonna watch any videos. I’m gonna continue watching the show in front of me.’ And with that, Zev turned back to where Lars was making a good bid for the evening headlines with his lightshow.

Apparently done with his talk about the armor plating, the projections of the hardware in question rapidly spun back to the main projection of the armor in a tight spiral, slotting back into place on the main projection with flashes of light and the correct twist-slide-and-click movements as if it were a real armor suit to thunderous applause.

Lars beamed; his smile projected onto the large holoscreens dotted around the chamber. Dipping into a shallow bow, the lad gestured up sharply to the projection spinning slowly above his head. ‘Thank you, but we are far from done. As many of you may have heard, the Stormtrooper Corps is often on the receiving end of less-than-stellar remarks about their marksmanship, despite the extensive training these people undergo. With the new helmet and HUD battle-modus, those kinds of remarks will hopefully soon belong to the past.’

The projected helmet of the armor rapidly enlarged as the main suit shrunk and faded away below it. Within the brilliantly glowing blue schematic of the helmet, several components suddenly began to pulse yellow. ‘Several catastrophic glitches and malfunctions of its predecessor have been ratified in the SUTA, rendering the battle HUD functionally operational at last,’ Lars happily informed the chamber at large as the projection spun and dipped on his command to the audible delight of some of the senators. ‘In other words,’ he continued with a mischievous grin. ‘Stormtroopers now finally have access to this revolutionary concept called “aiming.”’

A tittering of laughter went up through the chamber, and Veers would’ve taken offense at the joke aimed at his troops if it weren’t for the fact that it was one where they were finally being laughed with instead of at. Every trooper could appreciate a good jab at the down-right shod that was the former battle HUD, after all. Especially since the one making the joke was the one finally doing something about it.

Still grinning and shaking his head at the lad’s antics, he tuned out the presentation in front of him for a moment to finally take a look through the netpage Zev had pulled up for him. Indeed called “Scrap Hunting,” the first thing he noticed was that the two top videos at the moment were called “Tuning up your TIE-Fighter to prove you’re better than the bastard currently running the TIE-Fighter Program for fun and profit” and “I GOT A NEW JOB!!!” respectively.

Both of which had viewing numbers that were rapidly ticking up at the moment.

Selecting the first one that had, of all things, a crashed TIE-Fighter in the thumbnail. Watching the video, it rapidly became clear that Lars’ utter irreverence and disregard for Imperial design not his own was hardly a new development in the boy. Skipping rapidly through the several hours long video, he somehow still managed to land on the boy making some sort of crass remark about the quality of the hardware he was working with regardless of where he skipped to. Snorting softly when the lad made a comment about “fucking lack of life-support in a fucking snub fighter without even a fucking water-reclaimer” he closed out the video tab.

No wonder he’d gotten recruited, if this was his application. Tearing down well-established military hardware and proving you could do better with the material coming from a literal junkyard? He had to admit it, the kid had guts to take that risk. But he’d taken it, and the reward showed itself in that he currently was directing a lightshow of frankly ridiculous proportions while the entire Galactic Senate hanging off of his every word with Lord Vader, effectively, standing guard over him. An equally improbable outcome to an improbable resumé, he supposed.

‘You done with that?’ Zev asked him out the corner of his mouth, eyes never leaving center stage. ‘It might be best to give it back anyway,’ his son followed up, sounding about as thoughtful as anyone could be while grinning like a tooka that got the cream with every flash and pulse of light. ‘Never know who might be watching, and appearing like you’re disinterested in this while you’re a main player in this project isn’t likely to be a good look on you.’

Conceding that his son likely had a point in that, he handed the comm back to Zev while straightening himself in his chair.

‘You might’ve been able to keep watching if you knew how to do so discretely,’ Piett chimed in softly next to him. ‘But then, when have you ever learned to do something discretely?’

He shot a half-hearted glare out of the corner of his eye while the Captain, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be nothing less than completely engrossed with the spectacle in front of him. He nearly scoffed out loud, he definitely knew better than to believe that the man wasn’t scanning everything in the chamber to a frightening degree of detail.

‘Definitely more of a pencil pusher skill,’ he agreed quietly, and how Piett could somehow feel like he was glaring at him while never so much as twitching a muscle, Veers both wanted and absolutely did not want to know.

‘A “pencil pusher” skill that is invaluable in these kinds of situations,’ he fired back in a hushed whisper. ‘Which you would know if you ever engaged in any of them.’

‘Why would I?’ he whispered back. ‘Entering that viper pit you call a home of my own free will? No thank you, I have this thing called “self-preservation” and it keeps me both safe and happily far away from this minefield.’

‘A minefield that’s suspiciously devoid of mines if my survival is anything to go by,’ Piett retorted in a whisper. ‘Perhaps it’s just you, Max.’

He actually snorted out loud at that. ‘No,’ he denied with a faux-thoughtful air. ‘I am close to completely certain that it’s you, Firmus. No one else would be mad enough to voluntarily go through with it for the sheer hell of it.’

Whatever Piett's retort would’ve been, it got drowned out by another round of applause as the helmet reshrunk to its original size and the rest of the armor came back into view. Deciding to take his son’s advice to heart, he refocused on the spectacle in front of him. Lars was currently busy blowing everyone’s minds with a tightly coordinated display of the suit of armor preforming several drills like it was being worn by a trooper, the integrated exoskeleton lighting up throughout the suit in waves with each jump, dash, and vault over simulated obstacles. Honestly, you would think the lad was auditioning for one of those fancy holo-circuses with the lightshow he was putting on, instead of giving a presentation on military hardware to the senate.

He grinned as the armor fluidly began to move through one of several katas taught to the strike-force troops, a small shockwave ripple of light erupting every time the armor “struck” something. Oh yeah, now the boy was just showing off.

The explanation of how the exoskeleton and armored body glove worked washed over him, the info being given to the senate a somewhat more watered-down version of the file he’d been given that he knew nearly by heart now. Life-support systems, vizors, all-terrain boots and gauntlets (emphasis on the “all” part. How the kid had managed to combine the features for both rock climbing and swimming, Veers was still at a loss over, and he’d seen the schematics), Lars showcased it all with a flair of showmanship you’d usually only expect from a ringmaster. Though, as he thought back to his earlier comparison of the presentation and a holo-circus, maybe that wasn’t too far off.

Perhaps it was even what Lars had been planning all along, he thought as the armor came to a halt in parade rest and gave a short dip of its helmet to the enraptured audience as if acknowledging their well-deserved awe. And damn, if that didn’t show that the lad was absolutely aware of what he was doing, nothing did.

‘Insolent whelp,’ muttered an unpleasant voice that grated on his nerves.

Ah. He wasn’t the only one who’d noticed then. How wonderful.

Casting a disdainful look over to where Ozzel sat, he noticed that the man was looking about as pleased with the show Lars was putting on as a mon calamari would be in a desert and just like that, he wished that Lars’d had even more time to finetune this spectacle of his.

‘How so, Admiral?’ he asked, cold as ice, and willing the bastard to just shut up for once in his life. Or at least to spare his comments until Lord Vader was back in earshot again.

Ozzel gave him a look that dripped of his superiority-complex and all over Veers’ good mood, staining it with a distinct feeling of annoyance and contempt. ‘Come now, General,’ he sneered, tone condescending enough that Veers had the vague thought even a newborn would be offended by it, ‘Surely even you can comprehend the sheer mockery this boy is making of the armed forces?’ he asked while making a grand gesture to the armor projection that was currently illustrating Lars’ speech on its capabilities of enhancing its wearer by keeping a weight aloft while a scale ticked up the increase of pressure besides it.

Veers blinked at the display, glanced back at Ozzel, glanced back at the display again where the armor was currently maxing out at keeping a cool six-hundred kilos [8] above its head in a sheer deadlift to the audible awe of the senate, before giving a final look at Ozzel.

‘Are you serious?’ is all he could find it in himself to say. ‘This is a mockery?’

Ozzel glanced back at the projected armor and his expression immediately soured when he apparently realized all it was currently demonstrating was exactly why there were over seventy million credits in collective bounties on Lars’ head from various different factions. Credit where credit was due, the man recovered quickly enough that if Veers hadn’t been specifically watching and waiting for him to slip up, he wouldn’t have noticed it.

‘But of course,’ Ozzel continued in that self-same haughty tone that only held a hint of underlying bitterness. ‘Look at this crude spectacle; he’s making the military out to be vulgar entertainment hardly fit for the common masses, let alone the Galactic Senate.’

A polite cough from Piett next to him was all the warning there was before the man chimed into the conversation. ‘You’ll have to forgive me, sir, I hardly believe a personalized and somewhat unconventional presentation on the capabilities of a piece of military hardware can be called a “mockery,”’ he retorted stiffly. ‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘It hardly seems like the senate has any objections, sir.’

Veers stifled his laughter as Piett offered the silently enraged face of his superior nothing but a pleasantly bland smile. If Ozzel thought that the attempt at intimidation he was making would work on Piett, the man who rarely even cracked under Lord Vader, he had another thing coming.

Something Ozzel evidently realized as well when he began to swell up like a puffer pig from sheer indignation. ‘Well,’ he began, probably attempting for an icy tone but unable to mask the way his voice shook with offence. ‘That’s hardly a surprise to me, Captain. I wouldn’t expect an outer rim pirate hunter to grasp the intricacies at play here.’

Oh. He went there.

Veers immediately glanced back at his friend to see how his face had gone perfectly blank and still, the only thing betraying any underlying emotions being the dangerous glint of steel that’d entered his eyes.

‘No,’ Piett replied quietly, face a mask as calm as the surface of a lake. ‘I don’t suppose you would, sir.’

Holy fucking shit.

Veers glanced back at Ozzel from the corner of his eye and watched with barely suppressed glee as the hidden barb sharper than any knife flew straight over the pompous windbag’s head.

‘Indeed not.’ Ozzel sniffed with a self-satisfied air of superiority, utterly oblivious of how thoroughly he’d just been undermined. ‘And neither do I expect Lars to understand it, but how Lord Vader can just stand by and let this brazen disregard for convention stand, I will never understand.’

No, Veers echoed gleefully in his head, I don’t suppose you would.

‘Perhaps he has some sort of deeper understanding of the situation here?’ he offered, barely keeping a smirk off his face as Piett shot him a look that was downright approving.

He could hardly believe it when Ozzel scoffed derisively, it couldn’t be that easy. ‘Oh please, General Veers. I realize that to you Lord Vader must seem like a genius, but he’s nothing more than a brute and a blunt instrument. The favored pet of His Majesty because he learned a particularly interesting trick. I hardly think he’s even aware of what he is doing half of the time, never mind what anyone else does.’

It was. It was that easy. Sweet Force, how was this idiot still alive?

‘I can see how you would think that, sir,’ Piett agreed blandly, and now Veers really did have to bite his tongue to prevent himself from laughing. ‘But surely the fact that the senate hardly seems bothered by Engineer Lars’ presentation means something?’

‘Only that they understand the basic concept of keeping up appearances, Captain,’ Ozzel dismissed with an imperious wave. ‘It would hardly be befitting of their station to make a scene, after all, something that the engineer hardly seems to recognize.’

‘I suppose being openly disrespectful of one’s direct superior would be something to avoid,’ he agreed while casting a meaningful look at Piett who was busy looking picturesquely innocent.

‘Glad you understand, General,’ Ozzel told him in a voice that didn’t even try to disguise the mocking tone to his approval.

‘I believe you will find that the General understands far more than he lets on, sir,’ Piett informed his commanding officer mildly.

Ozzel cast a glance at him and Veers made it a point to keep his face as straight as possible while the other man poorly hid a sneer of disgust. ‘I’m sure he does,’ was the patronizing answer. Force, did he despise this man. When was this presentation over again so that Lord Vader would be back in earshot?

As if on cue, a deafening roar of applause thundered throughout the Grand Convocation Chamber. Snapping his eyes over to the central stage, he watched as Lars dipped into a sweeping bow while the armor projection snapped off a sharp salute, bursting into a shower of light particles and fractals that reshaped themselves into the SUTA Project logo, pulsing brightly above the boy’s head.

‘And with that, Senators of the Galaxy,’ Lars’ voice echoed through the cavernous room, ‘I would like to thank you for lending me your ears and time today to allow for this presentation. The SUTA Project is far from done, and only just beginning, but with today as it’s official starting point, I hope we can mark it as the day that another step was made to make the dangerous and often times lethal job of a trooper a little less perilous. And perhaps, with a bit of luck, it will save more lives in the future as well. Thank you!’

With that last exclamation, applause once more roared throughout the chamber as the SUTA Project logo winked out while the individual projects spun back into Lars’ outstretched and open palm, reassembling themselves back into a sphere with one final, brilliant flash of light.

Clapping as hard as anyone else, Veers watched as Lars’ repulsorpod shook and presumably got reinstated on the magnetic rails, judging by the fact that it was no longer ominously hovering freely, but serenely gliding back towards their original dock. No sooner had Lord Vader and Lars exited their pod when the pod Veers found himself in also began its slow glide back towards the antechambers.

By the time they’d docked themselves, they were just in time to see Lord Vader drop his hand from Lars’ shoulder as the boy beamed up at him with that signature sunshine smile that was as infectious as anything, clearly having just gotten some rare but much deserved praise from Lord Vader for what Veers thought was an excellent performance. 

Finding himself grinning as well, Veers almost noticed it too late when Ozzel’s expression darkened to something resembling a particularly sour-looking thundercloud. Watching as the Admiral stormed out of their pod like an enraged bantha, he idly wondered if the man would finally be dimwitted enough and do something to earn Lord Vader's ire in a manner not even Lars could soothe. Unfortunately, the Admiral stormed right past the matched duo with a wide berth, not even looking in their direction for a moment, asides from shooting a single vicious glare their way that both thankfully seemed to miss.

Getting out of the pod at a much more leisurely pace, he noticed Zev grinning from ear-to-ear out of the corner of his eye.

‘Is something amusing?’ he asked his son quietly.

‘Asides from you and the Captain tearing that asshole a new one without him even realizing it to the backdrop of a massive lightshow in the senate?’ Zev responded lightly with a slightly manic grin, before adopting a thoughtful look. ‘Not much, not much. Though I do recall someone giving the advice at some point in time to “not make any enemies we can’t afford.” It’s the oddest thing, I swear.’

He tussled his son’s hair until the lad ducked out from under his hand with a glare only ruined by his wide grin. ‘Oh, hush you,’ he told Zev, ‘It’s not like he realized it for even a second.’

‘He really didn’t,’ a new voice piped up from his side, Piett having appeared there in that slightly eerie fashion as he was wont to do. ‘In fact, I doubt he even realized everything he just said is going to backfire on him in a most spectacular fashion.’

Oh?

‘How so?’ he asked.

Piett gave him a smile that had something vaguely shark-like about it despite his friend’s mild-mannered demeanor. ‘Perhaps you should ask your son, as I’m sure he can explain it better than I can, but I have the feeling that the moment Lars’ presentation goes live on the holonet, a significant increase in interest for the SUTA Project will manifest itself, roundly disproving the claims of the Admiral that the presentation would make a “mockery” of the project.’

Snapping his gaze over to his son, he saw how Zev's eyes widened until they were approximately the size of tea saucers. ‘Son?’ he asked tentatively.

‘Holy fucking shit,’ Zev muttered out as he stared into the middle-distance. ‘It’s gonna go viral. It’s gonna go absolutely viral and spawn at least three million memes. How did I not see that coming?’

‘What?’ he asked, but Zev was already scrolling along the display of his comm in a fever pitch.

‘No time to explain!’ he snapped out. ‘Force, what’s the fucking hashtag on this? Does it even have a hashtag yet? And where’s the Force be damned official senate page on here?’ he muttered as he furiously typed away.

Veers shot Piett a questioning look as he mouthed the word “meme” at him, only to receive a baffled shake of his head in return. Zev muttered away to himself as he flipped through various netpages on his comm before making a triumphant sound.

‘Aha!’ he exclaimed as he held up his comm. ‘I knew it!’

‘Knew what?’ Veers asked, feeling roundly caught out of the loop and a bit like a broken record.

‘Knew that it would go viral in ten minutes flat,’ Zev answered with an air of satisfaction. ‘And it is. The hashtags #SUTAProject, #GalaxysGreatestShow, #AConceptCalledAiming, #TolVaderSmolVader, and #LukeLars are already trending and the Scrap Hunting hashtag is alive again for the first time in months.’

‘And this is a good thing?’ he asked dubiously as Zev continued to scroll through his feed at a speed that frankly had Veers wondering how he could read anything at all.

‘Uh, yeah,’ Zev said, tone indicating that it should be obvious. ‘At least if you get on the narrative quickly enough and control it. Otherwise you might get things like—’ he cut himself off midsentence as he stared at his screen with an expression that Veers could almost describe as constipated.

At risk of really becoming a broken record, he decided to ask anyway. ‘Like?’

Zev sighed loudly as he pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Like this,’ he said as he held up his comm screen for him to see. He squinted as he looked closer at what was displayed on the little screen. A candid still of Lars holding up the projector just as it was emitting a bright blue flash, giving the appearance that the lad was just holding sheer light, and a caption that read—

Oh.

Oh no.

Piett leant in over his shoulder and pressed his lips into a thin, disapproving line when he saw what was written there. ‘Tfw u give a presentation so epic it makes Darth Vader look like a rando NPC next to u,’ he sounded out in a voice as dry and filled with disappointment as a military ration. ‘Capped with a hashtag reading #NPCVader.’ He sighed deeply. ‘Oh dear.’

‘Yeah,’ Zev agreed sounding just as dry. ‘“Oh dear,” indeed. I know at least three dozen different people back at COMPNOR that are going to be up in a fuss about this.’ He sighed as he ran a hand through his hair, looking back at the screen and glancing over to where Lord Vader was still conversing with Lars. ‘I suggest,’ he began slowly, lowering his voice significantly. ‘That we let this be someone else’s problem and not call any attention to it.’

As good an idea as any in Veers’ opinion. The Force knew he didn’t want to deal with this. ‘Agreed.’

Piett hummed and nodded stiffly in agreement.

‘And anyway,’ Zev continued. ‘There’s much more going on either way, but for the most part it’s rapidly blowing up like there’s no tomorrow. People are talking about the SUTA Project and I don’t think we could make them stop even if we tried.’

‘And we might not even want to even if we could,’ Veers filled in what his son was saying as the bigger picture came into view like a strategy map.

‘Right,’ Zev agreed. ‘This could either be really good, or really bad.’

‘And I take it there is no way of knowing which it’ll be?’ Piett cut in dryly.

Zev shrugged as he continued scrolling through his feed. ‘Unless we somehow manage to permanently link this with tooka kits or something else equally unambiguously adorable, not really—’ Zev stopped as he got a strange look in his eyes that Veers unequivocally associated with trouble. ‘Actually…’ he said slowly as he glanced over at Lars. ‘I might have an idea.’

Oh no.

‘Zev,’ he began lowly. ‘What are you planning?’

‘Shh!’ Zev hushed him sharply as he rapidly began typing away. ‘Quality memes take concentrated madness.’

He blinked. ‘What?’

He never did get his answer though, as not even a second later he was prodded sharply in the side by Piett.

‘Max,’ the Captain hissed in his ear as he kept his gaze trained steadily on a point somewhere past his shoulder. ‘Over there.’

Turning around, he immediately caught the telltale flash of crimson that marked the presence of the Red Guard, the Emperor’s most trusted forces and feared even amongst the army for the sheer fanatical devotion they held towards His Majesty that drove them to be willing to do damn near anything in the Emperor’s name.

And the Guards were heading straight for Lord Vader and Lars.

Glancing back at Piett, he subtly jerked his head over to where the duo was located, receiving a look of steely determination and a nod back. Slowly ambling over to attract as little attention to themselves as possible, they got within earshot just as one of the Guards split off and reached their intended marks.

‘Lord Vader,’ they heard the vocoded greeting spill out from under the unsettling mask as the Red Guard lowered into a bow. ‘Head Engineer Lars. We have come to inform you of an urgent matter.’

‘State your purpose,’ Lord Vader rumbled lowly as he stepped towards the guard and—Veers noted vaguely—in front of Lars in a manner that would almost be shielding if it had been intentional in any way.

The Red Guard straightened up and turned their blank vizor upon Lars, who must’ve been half-hidden behind Lord Vader's bulk from that angle. ‘We are to escort Head Engineer Lars back to the Imperial Palace. His Illustrious Majesty has asked for Head Engineer Lars’ presence. He witnessed the presentation delivered to the Galactic Senate and was most impressed. He wishes to converse with Head Engineer Lars in person. We depart now,’ came the near mechanical answer that sent shivers down Veers’ spine. For all that the Red Guard were one hundred percent organic, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the way they conducted themselves.

Lord Vader froze at those words and the sudden drop in temperature in the antechambers did nothing to alleviate Veers’ shivering. ‘I see,’ the vocoder rumbled out, and for a second Veers swore it hitched. ‘Very well, we depart now. Engineer Lars, with me.’

Lars shot a concerned look at Lord Vader but offered no protest as he took up his near-customary position at Lord Vader's right side. ‘Yes, milord.’

‘You will accompany him?’ came the not-quite surprised inquiry from the Red Guard.

‘We depart now,’ was the growled answer, to which the Guard offered no protest as they simply bowed once more before melting back into formation with their fellows. The seven troopers assigned to Lars received no signal to join, but they hardly needed one as they took up formation around the lord and engineer.

The whole procession marched out of the antechambers at a brisk pace, leaving the rest of them behind in various degrees of baffled silence.

‘Did… that just happen?’ Zev asked as he appeared at his side. ‘Did Luke really just get summoned for an audience with the Emperor?’

‘Apparently,’ he answered, still feeling rather flabbergasted himself at the event that just transpired almost too quick to really register.

‘An audience with the Emperor…’ Piett mused out loud, something… odd in his voice. ‘That is quite the honor.’

‘Yeah,’ Veers agreed. ‘It is.’

And it was. His Majesty was notorious for being practically a recluse ever since he received extensive and debilitating injuries from the assassination attempt by the Jedi all those years ago. To be allowed an audience, let alone be summoned for one, was an honor that people could and would kill for if they thought it would get them even a smidge closer to achieving it. Hells, many a high-ranking officer could only dream of being granted access to His Majesty. Veers certainly had never met the man in whose name he fought and he honestly never expected to. That Lars would be summoned out of the blue like this due to His Majesty being impressed of all things, was just testament to the kind of easy miracle work the lad did on a daily basis. It was an honor, it truly was.

But why did he suddenly feel like the ground had opened up underneath all of them, just waiting to swallow all of them whole?

 


 

  1. [8] Or roughly 1,322 lbs for all you Americans. Gods, please get a more sensible measurements system. [ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

To say that Luke was confused and concerned with the current situation he found himself in would be a catastrophic understatement.

With no warning whatsoever, the Red Guards had whisked him away into a nearby speeder emblazoned with the imperial crest and colors. They hadn’t spoken to him at all, not even to inform him of where they were going, but then, seeing as a summons of the emperor could really only bring him to one place, that wasn’t surprising.

Thankfully, neither the clones or Vader had left his side for even a second this entire time, their presence giving him the strength and security necessary to keep his head on an even keel and assess the situation.

He was being summoned by the emperor. The emperor, whose reason for summoning him was ostensibly that he’d been “impressed” by the presentation he’d given for the senate. Now, given that Luke had put considerable effort in making the whole thing pretty impressive—if he did say so himself—it would be a pretty convincing lie if it weren’t for the fact that none of this even remotely felt like the actions of someone who’d been positively impressed.

The unannounced summons that clearly left no room for refusal, the way the Red Guard had come to collect him for said summons in a manner that was all too similar to Jabba’s snatch slavers, the fact that—if it weren’t for Vader and the clones’ quick thinking and actions—he would’ve been completely alone on his way to the palace. He frowned as he pensively stared out the speeder’s windows at the blurring city. It all smacked of something sinister that left his instincts on high alert and the part of his mind that he was never sure was wholly him howling in warning like the winds of a dust storm.

None of that had been helped by the fact that Commander Cody had immediately signaled for him to remain quiet as soon as they entered the speeder, something that his gut told him was likely due to the fact that there were more ears listening in than he could see. Stack all of those circumstances together, and Luke felt that he could hardly be blamed for slipping into his runner mindset for the first time in months.

The facts laid themselves out in front of him as he attempted to make heads and tails of what was happening.

He’d been summoned by the emperor. He’d been summoned by the emperor and said summons was being enforced by the Red Guards in a manner that was either callously uncaring of how it affected others or deliberately designed for intimidation and disorientation. With this being the empire, he had his credits on both.

Vader, for all that he had quickly taken control of the situation to the best of his abilities, might as well have been a wall himself with how tightly he was keeping them up. Luke had tried to get some kind of read on him, but the sheer fact that he got nothing from the usually expressive man said enough in and of itself that he felt justified in his own worry about the situation.

He tapped his finger against his bicep as he kept the impassive Red Guards in his vision at all times from the corner of his eye. Whatever was going on here, it was concerning enough even without Vader reacting like this. It felt like he was being put on trial rather than being honored, and he knew that there were likely layers to all this that he couldn’t even begin to hope to see without some guidance from Zev or Vader.

Making up his mind as he glanced back at a rigid Vader, never letting the Guards out of sight, he began to prepare himself for whatever was coming in the only way he knew how.

Centering himself in the raging storm that was his emotional state at the moment, he forced himself to remember that while his emotions were the storm, he was the eye, and they were as subject to his whims as any physical part of him was. They would not distract him from his goal, they would be his tools to success. Every last one of them.

Mind be still, he thought forcefully to himself, his inner voice resonating with that part of him that was more Desert than him as he recited the ancient mantra Aunt Beru had taught him when he first became a runner, handed down through generations of Children. Mind be still, and heart be strong. I am a Child of the Desert, and I am more than what anyone wished me to be. In the center of myself, I will find who I am, untainted by my circumstances.  The Masters will not break me, they will not bind me, they will not catch me, they will not see me. In my Heart of Hearts, I am Free, and Free I will remain. The Storm will hide my tracks, and the winds it brings will guide me true along the paths. I will succeed or I will fail having given it my all. Mind be still, and heart be strong.

A Vow and a war cry in one, she’d told him, recited silently in defiance of the unforgiving and the unrelenting. A war cry for the battle of one’s sanity and mind, for one’s morals and heart, for one’s Name. The last bastions of Freedom in any slave. The only kind of war cry a slave could ever have, she’d told him, and now, the war cry of the Free that would Free them in turn.

In the privacy of his mind, Luke recited the ancient mantra, each line a Vow onto itself that he made to himself. He took the storm of emotions outside of himself and forced them into line, each one interweaving with the other until they were as inextricable mingled as one sand grain with the other. Individually, they wouldn’t amount to much. But, as both Aunt Beru and Old Ben had taught him, together they would stand as strong as any mountain. A sheer wall of storm shielding him from the rest of the world as he called upon his patron of the Storm to guide him true.

Perhaps it was pointless and all of this would turn out to be one big misunderstanding, but he hadn’t survived as long as he had by ignoring his instincts, and his instincts were currently telling him to be prepared for anything.

Slowly, surely, he sunk into that strange state of mind he entered in flights and Flight. When the world both brightened and darkened at once, and time seemed to rest at his fingertips. The whispers in the back of his mind swelled until he nearly understood them, snatches of something ancient beyond understanding floating at the fringes of his awareness as presences older and stranger than he knew turned their attention towards him, beckoning him on along trails he didn’t yet know how to follow. Instead of attempting to follow those trails out past where he knew his mind ended and something else began, he reached for his emotions, all of them, and wrapped them around him like a cloak. A raging tempest of all he felt and was, volatile and wild, unpredictable and fickle.

And yet it was his. It was him. And that made it his closest ally. Because he willed it to be.

He let out a slow breath as he reminded himself of it all, every last line and word of the mantra that was his key. Aunt Beru had taught it all to him, in spite of both Uncle Owen’s and Old Ben’s protests. Uncle Owen because he didn’t want Luke involved in anything that could kill him any more than necessary and Old Ben because— something. Something that had made him and Aunt Beru argue in hushed whispers that had turned to accusations and ended up with Old Ben banned from the Homestead and farm for a month until he reluctantly apologized to Aunt Beru.

In the end, Aunt Beru had put her foot down and Invoked the Name of Grandmother Shmi which left Uncle Owen in a chastised silence and Old Ben with a wounded look on his face. So Luke had ended up learning the old ways of the Children, and he’d been grateful for that ever since, and a little more with each and every safe Flight he ran.

He was certainly grateful for it now, as he made the final steps of preparation, slowly emerging back out of the deep state of mind he had entered without breaking his concentration. Opening his eyes without ever having realized he’d closed them, the world looked sharper than usual in that strange, but comforting manner. Like everything had pulled into focus at once and the colors saturated until even the monochrome interior of the imperial speeder popped out.

Shivering slightly as the very air seemed to spark around him, he looked back out of the window to see the palace rapidly dawning on them, its spires looming over them from where they reached beyond sky, wreathed in clouds. The speeder slowed as it approached the vast structure, but never stopped, simply changing skylanes until it lined up with one of the vast, gaping openings that led into the hangars of the palace.

Tearing his eyes away from the window, he looked back to see what the prickling sensation at the back of his mind was, only to be met with two opaque red lenses staring back at him.

Blinking at his mentor, Luke tilted his head in askance, trying to figure out what the still completely closed off man was seeing that had him so transfixed.

If he’d hoped to get some time to figure it out, however, he’d be disappointed, as the movement seemed to shake Vader out of whatever musings he’d found himself in. If it had been anyone else watching, Luke didn’t think they’d have noticed the slight start the man did as he realized Luke was looking back, before looking away again.

Slightly puzzled by the reaction, but knowing better than to ask while they were still in the presumably bugged speeder, Luke simply shook his head and looked back outside. Regardless of anything else, it was mildly reassuring to know that Vader was still as strange and mysterious as ever.

The speeder pulled into the hangar, and after that, everything went from zero to sixty in Luke's perception.

Before he knew it, he’d been herded out the speeder, through the halls, into an elevator, through more halls, a small railcar station, another elevator, and—if he hadn’t said it yet—halls as he hurried to match pace with everyone around him even though he was a good few fingers shorter than even the next shortest person in the group (never mind Darth Vader. Luke was pretty sure the man had to have some kind of secret to being that damn tall).

Steadily they were guided ever deeper into the palace, ever deeper and ever higher throughout the underlying pyramid structure that supported the spires above, until at last they reached somewhere that Luke assumed to be near the apex of the structure. The architecture certainly resembled that of the typical imperial fare he’d come to expect from the empire and the halls were suspiciously deserted for such a central place, asides from the near-omnipresent Red Guards.

Luke eyed them nervously, their presence feeling more eerie than ever to his newly heightened awareness, a kind of… emptiness? Whatever it was, it made their presence almost fade away against the backdrop of the palace, as if they were simply a part of the scenery and not people. It unnerved him, and made him long to be back on the Lady, where every corridor and hangar hummed with the life of the thousands who passed through.

Still musing on the odd nature that the Red Guards seemed to have, he didn’t even notice Vader reaching out for him until a touch on his shoulder nearly made him jump. Preventing himself from doing exactly that by the skin of his teeth, Luke glanced up at the dark lord, whom he found was still staring straight ahead.  Meaning he either didn’t want to draw attention to his action, or—Luke realized with fondness and a small bit of hope—he hadn’t even realized he’d done it in a subconscious gesture. Whichever one it was, Luke knew better than to draw attention to it, so he kept quiet and merely leaned into the comforting touch.

As they neared the place where Luke assumed the emperor was located, said hand tightened its grip ever so slightly the closer they drew. When he finally thought to chance a tap on the hand to alert Vader to what he was doing, the air suddenly seemed to shift around them in a way it never had before. Sound muffled, and the very air seemed to thicken in a manner that reminded Luke of those rare times fog rolled in over the Homestead, always welcomed for the extra water it would bring in the harvest, and yet it prickled at his senses like ozone.

Blinking at the sudden change around him, he nearly missed it when Vader made a soft sound to draw his attention. Nearly. It wasn’t like his current state would allow him to actually miss much of anything, down to the heartbeats in someone’s throat.

Chancing a subtle glance at Vader, he kept his senses trained on the Red Guards around him, for all that it was like trying to keep them trained on piece of moving furniture. He had a feeling that he didn’t want to be seen suddenly shifting his attention over while this strange air hung around him like a veil.

‘Yes, milord?’ he whispered as quietly as he could.

Vader seemed to hesitate as he subtly drew Luke even closer to his side. ‘Luke,’ came the rumbled response, and to Luke's surprise no one but himself seemed to react to it. ‘I— be careful, little one. My Master is far from as… understanding as I. He is cunning and dangerous. Do not— Do not—’ Vader seemed to struggle for words to express his worries, but as he did so, whatever had kept him locked in himself slipped, and Luke could feel the genuine worry and fear slip out from behind the man’s walls.

Chewing his bottom lip, he nodded subtly. ‘I won’t, milord,’ he agreed readily. ‘I swear.’

Whatever Vader had apparently expected his answer to be, it clearly wasn’t that, as Luke felt the man’s startled surprise flare around him. Shooting him a subtle glance, Luke let his mouth quirk into a slight smile. ‘I trust you, remember?’ he said quietly. ‘Both then and now. I trust you, so just tell me how.’

He smiled as the quiet echo of their conversation a few days and a lifetime ago registered with Vader, who tightened his grip on Luke's shoulder minutely, the vocoder producing a sound Luke wasn’t entirely sure he could translate properly as the air around him thrummed with something deep and large.

‘Then heed my words, Luke,’ he said as quietly as the vocoder would allow. ‘Be careful of my Master. He is… more than he appears to be. Than he presents himself to be. Be wary, and be cautious with your trust.’

Luke swallowed heavily as he nodded almost imperceptibly. That Vader would give such a warning laced with true, genuine fear spoke heavily of the chance that his instincts had been far from off. ‘I will,’ he promised. ‘I will, milord.’

If Vader had wished to say anything in response, it was too late, as they turned a corner and a truly massive pair of double doors dawned on them, hewn from a similar black marble that characterized Vader's suite and offices. Something which, Luke noted with distaste as his opinion of the man dropped another couple of notches, the emperor really did seem to favor as a style of architecture. To each their own, he supposed, but he could already guess what kind of lifeless interior he would find behind them.

Suddenly the air shifted again, and in place of the almost calming muffled quality that had surrounded him, a now almost oppressive malice settled in. A malice he vaguely recalled feeling before in tandem with this kind of architecture, though under vastly different circumstances if he wasn’t mistaken.

Well, he thought as one of the Red Guards detached from the main group to face him, it looks like he would find out shortly if he was right.

‘His Imperial Majesty is waiting for you beyond these doors, Head Engineer Lars,’ the Guard informed him mechanically. ‘We will escort you in. Your entourage will have to wait outside.’

As was to be expected, Luke thought grimly. He nodded his assent swiftly, and with one final, hurried recital of the mantra that had guided him true so far, he stepped towards the awaiting Red Guard and out of Vader's comforting presence.

Immediately the Red Guards flanked him on all sides, but unlike when the troopers did it, this felt more like he was being taken into custody than escorted for his own safety. Nevertheless, he refused to be intimidated by tactics that had failed to work against him ever since he’d been fourteen simply because the person using them ostensibly had more power behind it. Jabba and any of his lackeys would’ve killed or enslaved both him and his family if he’d been caught during any of his runs. He doubted the emperor could do worse than that, no matter how much more powerful he was. The dead were dead no matter how they were killed.

The doors in front of him slid open with the grating sound of rock against rock, and he was quickly ushered through. On the other side, he found himself in a cavernous hallway hewn of much the same marble and black stone. Glowspheres and luminous crystal cast light inside the gloomy hallways, glittering dully on the plentiful reflective surfaces of various decorations and embellishments that were scattered throughout the hallway. None of which was unfortunately enough to lift the ever-present feeling of a deep, oppressive, malice that hung overhead like a noxious cloud.

Luke found himself quickly being rushed through various hallways and into an elevator, nearly getting tripped up by the Red Guards a couple of times presumably in their rush to not keep the emperor waiting. At last, he was led towards a final set of doors flanked by even more Red Guards.

The emperor’s sanctum.

A flash of fear made itself known in Luke, but he swiftly wove it back into the storm of his emotions. Now was not the time for fear. It would have its place, later, when he wasn’t about to face the man who held the majority of the galaxy in his grasp.

The Red Guards stepped to attention, the doors opened, and then the times for preparation and contemplation was over. Mind be still, and heart be strong, he thought one last time as he headed through. Time to see what the emperor wanted.

Inside the room that Luke could only assume was intended as a kind of reception chamber, the lights were down especially low. Thankfully, that hardly mattered with the plentiful windows lining the entire place, offering a stunning view of the bustling city outside as the sun slowly began to set on it, the golden hour only an hour at most away on what promised to be a perfect evening.

How strange then, Luke thought as he kept his eyes fixated on the windows, that it felt like he’d never been anywhere more lifeless and dead.

He pointedly didn’t look at the cloaked and hooded figure that was silhouetted against them.

Luke breathed deeply, but didn’t utter a sound as one of the Red Guards stepped forward.

‘Your Majesty,’ they droned out as they knelt down on the floor. ‘Presenting the Head Engineer of the Executor, Luke Lars.’

Slowly, with shuffling motions, the figure that was the emperor of the galaxy came into motion.

‘Ah,’ a small, creaking voice rasped out as the emperor slowly turned around, a glossy, gnarled black cane coming into view as he heavily leant on it. ‘Head Engineer Lars. It is good to finally meet the young talent I have heard so much about.’

Finally, the man turned around fully, and Luke found himself glad that he’d had the foresight to listen to his instincts and prepare, or he would’ve recoiled at the sheer extent to which the man looked like a half-molten wraith. As it was, he didn’t even blink as he met the strange, sickly bloodshot eyes of the man in front of him.

‘Your majesty,’ he greeted as he bowed deeply at the waist, firmly keeping his arms by his side. Perhaps he was expected to kneel as the Red Guard did in front of him, but the day he knelt at anyone’s feet as the first Freeborn Skywalker was the day he accepted chains around his neck. And that day was not today.

Still, he knew how to placate the kind of people who would expect someone to kneel, and he made sure his bow was sufficiently deep enough to not carry a hint of disrespect.

‘Rise, rise.’ The emperor waved off with a magnanimous gesture. ‘Please, do away with the formalities, my boy. I’d hoped to speak with the engineer who left me most impressed with the display you put on. I am thoroughly pleased to see that you could make it.’

It wasn’t like you left me any choice, Luke thought acidly even as he kept his face carefully blank. It would be the height of stupidity to make enemies here, even if he badly wanted to give the man a piece of his mind on kidnapping people off the streets. The Masters hardly tolerated someone critiquing their “hospitality” in an overt manner, after all.

‘I must admit, I was rather surprised at your summons, your majesty,’ was what he said instead, carefully measuring the truth on his tongue against the lie and finding the later wanting. ‘Especially at the fact that my summons was so urgent.’

He kept a careful eye on the emperor, absolutely refusing to let anything slip by him, even with his senses so attuned to the world around him, and was immediately grateful for that decision when he caught a strange gleam in the man’s eye as he slowly began to hobble over while leaning on his cane.

‘Oh dear,’ he rasped out, sounding as contrite as could be and yet it grated against the back of his mind like sandpaper instead of the usual softly shifting whispers. ‘It appears my guards let their enthusiasm make them rather overzealous in their approach.’ The emperor pulled a sympathetic face. ‘I’m terribly sorry, my boy, it was hardly my intention to drag you out here like this.’

Lie.

Luke nearly twitched as that fact was practically screamed at him. Something was terribly wrong here, why was the emperor acting like this? He hardly had the need to lie to Luke, after all. Something which he’d just clearly demonstrated by the fact that not even Vader had been able to stop him from dragging Luke all the way from the senate to here post haste. So why—

His eyes widened just a fraction as world slowed to a crawl, and, between one thundering heartbeat in his chest and another, the memories rose to the forefront of his mind unbidden.

“You, little one, possess far more power than you realize.”

Heartbeat.

“In a certain sense, you must view these meetings as traps, little one, rather blatant ones too, with the SUTA Project acting as bait. Do you remember what I told you about power and the methods used to get it?”

Heartbeat.

He is cunning and dangerous.

Heartbeat.

“Your time has become valuable enough and in high enough demand that people would now resort to unsavory and illegal tactics to gain access to it.”

Heartbeat.

“They will be looking for weaknesses they can exploit to manipulate or bend you to their will. They know you are a new player in their twisted games for power, untested and inexperienced. They will try to use that against you.

Heartbeat.

“He is… more than he appears to be. Than he presents himself to be. Be wary, and be cautious with your trust.”

Heartbeat.

“Be careful, little one.”

Oh.

Oh fuck.

Luke swallowed minutely and hoped the emperor didn’t notice as everything fell in place in front of his mind’s eye in a split second. He didn’t have the time to dwell on it though, a second’s hesitation might spell as true a disaster here as it would on any Flight.

‘No need, your majesty,’ he replied on autopilot, desperately searching his brain for every last scrap of information he’d gleaned from both Vader and Zev on the games of power played here on Imperial Center. ‘It was my honor.’

Fuck. He knew Uncle Owen would one day be proven right when he said that he’d find himself in a situation way over his head, but he’d honestly hoped that his Uncle’s half-prophetic curse wouldn’t choose to come true on the day he had to meet the fucking emperor.

The emperor, who was watching him like a sandswimmer stalking its prey even as that kindly expression never left his face, and just like that there wasn’t a shadow of doubt left in Luke about what this meeting was for.

‘What a relief,’ the emperor rasped out. ‘Truly, their dedication is admirable, but I have to question where they get some of these plans from. It would hardly do to scare any of my guests away before they even so much as had the chance to arrive.’

Lie.

Luke scoffed internally. So that was how it was going to be? Fine. Two could play at this game of charades. He may be new to the vicious maneuverings and games the imperial elite liked to play, but he was hardly a stranger to concealing his true nature in a bid to be underestimated by a more powerful opponent.

‘That would be rather unfortunate,’ he agreed with the emperor, trying for a slight smile. ‘Especially since I still hardly have a clue as to why your majesty requested my presence.’

‘Of course, of course,’ the emperor agreed readily as he hobbled over at a slow pace. ‘But first, why don’t we find a better place to talk where we are less liable to be subject to the overenthusiastic efforts of my guards? These old bones aren’t what they used to be, but I do still enjoy an occasional stroll throughout the palace. I would much appreciate it if you were to join me, my boy.’

Luke nodded easily as he mentally translated the emperor’s words to include the messages hidden between the lines. ‘Of course, your majesty,’ he agreed with deceptive calm as he recognized the intention to get him alone and away from any prying ears (though he didn’t doubt that there would be more ears within the walls listening in). Though whether that intent was with the goal to allow the emperor free reign or to lull him into a false sense of security, Luke could hardly tell.

The emperor smiled sweetly in a manner that made it seem like there was poison hidden in his mouth and Luke had the sharp realization of exactly what Vader meant when he compared someone to a viper. But vipers only bit when threatened. With the emperor, Luke was a lot less sure of that.

‘Excellent. Then let me give you the grand tour to my humble abode. Follow me.’ And with that the man that was the ruler of the galaxy began hobbling away as his cane clicked against the floor.

Shoring up his courage and determination, Luke followed after him, keeping easy pace with the nearly-limping old man. They left the Guards behind as the emperor led Luke deeper into the chambers of his residence, light once again draining away in favor of sparse clusters of glowspheres and phosphorescent crystals set in black marble and polished metal of a nature Luke didn’t readily recognize and that hummed strangely at the edges of his peripherals. Odd.

Still, he could hardly afford to focus on it when he needed to keep his wits about him if he were to survive this encounter with the emperor unscathed and, perhaps even more importantly, unseen for who he was. The emperor, meanwhile, hardly remained quiet while leading Luke about throughout his sanctum.

‘I must say, my boy, you are quite the curious phenomena at the moment,’ he rasped out as they passed by a grand painting of a beautiful woman against a vast backdrop of green, Luke catching only a snatch of what was written on the plaque. “The late Senator and Queen, Padmé Ami—” something. ‘Such talent, and yet, you almost seem to have come out of nowhere before my apprentice brought you into the fold.’

‘I suppose “nowhere” would be an apt description, your majesty,’ Luke conceded as he obliged the emperor’s fishing for information. ‘I came from the outer rim, and I’m afraid that before Lord Vader picked me up, I was rather unknown.’

‘Ah,’ the emperor said as he nodded in understanding. ‘The age-old tale of a young man rising from nothing to the top. I shouldn’t be surprised; my apprentice does seem to have something of an affinity for picking up strays.’

Luke inclined his head in agreement, unable to refute the point. After all, he too had heard the stories of how several officers aboard the Lady came by their appointments in the same manner he had. Suns, Piett, Veers, and Erribas all had the same story as he did. He was hardly special in that regard. ‘He does indeed.’

The emperor glanced at him from the corner of his eyes, those strange, nearly bloodshot yellow eyes fixated on him for just a moment as they attempted to get a read on him. Luke met them evenly as he wrapped the storm of himself around him even tighter as the ever-present malice suddenly pressed down on him, wrapping around the edges of the storm outside himself.

‘No need for airs, my boy,’ the emperor told him kindly. ‘I would very much like to hear your true thoughts on all that transpired. After all, it must be quite the change from the outer rim.’

There was something resonating within those words, something that Luke would’ve almost responded to with true honesty if it weren’t for almost oily quality coating every last syllable. Shaking off the unpleasant feeling, he measured truth against lie and favored the former. With a bit of a twist. No one had ever said a spoken truth had to be useful.

‘It’s been rather overwhelming,’ he admitted. ‘I suppose I’m hardly used to the sheer amount of people that surround me every day now—’ which he wouldn’t trade for the world, ‘—and everything concerning the SUTA Project…’ He shrugged a shoulder. ‘It’s all new.’

‘Yes, I can see how life on Imperial Center must be rather shocking for someone like you,’ the emperor agreed amicably. ‘You have handled it well though, I must say.’ The man gave him a piercing look. ‘Certainly with such short notice.’

‘I suppose so,’ he said evenly as his insides lit in cold fire with the realization that all of this, the short deadlines, the double presentation, maybe even the meetings, was on purpose and in bad faith. ‘Thankfully, a few people aboard the L— Executor were kind enough to take me under their wing, or I would’ve been hopelessly lost.’ Like you undoubtedly wanted me to be, Luke thought caustically.

‘How fortunate indeed,’ the emperor rasped out, and Luke felt a feeling of vicious satisfaction as he caught the lie. ‘We must always be grateful to those who help us understand the unknown, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘It’s nice to get help when needed,’ Luke said, agreeing to nothing at all. ‘Especially when out of one’s depth.’

‘I’m glad that we agree, my boy,’ was the warm answer, the emperor still looking at him with that selfsame piercing gaze that Luke refused to reveal anything to. ‘Though I do hope that my apprentice was thoughtful enough to give you instructions on your new situation when he brought you aboard the Executor.’

‘He made sure I was taught the basics,’ Luke said, something in him balking at the idea of giving the man who Vader had spoken of with such fear and dread any kind of information on his mentor. It wasn’t like the emperor couldn’t ask Vader himself if he really wanted to know. ‘And anything I was unaware of afterwards was quickly ratified.’

The emperor’s gaze turned considering, before he turned his attention back to making sure he didn’t stumble as he shuffled forwards with his cane. ‘Hm, how disappointing of him,’ he muttered. ‘I would have expected him to do better with such potential.’

Luke blinked in befuddlement. Do better? What?

‘Your majesty?’

The emperor glanced at him as if lost in thought, something which Luke very much doubted he actually was. ‘Hm? Oh, it’s nothing, my boy,’ he assured. ‘But I must say that I had expected Lord Vader to handle this situation with more grace and a certain… finesse.’ Lie. ‘Young talent such as yourself ought to be nurtured by a guiding hand, not stifled by being expected to preform to mediocre standards.’  

‘I hardly feel stifled, your majesty,’ Luke answered stiffly, fire flaring in his gut with indignity at the implication that his mentor was failing him in any way. ‘The challenges I’ve faced as the Head Engineer aboard the Executor have certainly expanded my horizons far beyond from what I thought was possible.’

‘Ah, yes.’ The emperor nodded. ‘I suppose you are referring to that endeavor of yours on the holonet. I am told you were quite industrious with what amounted to scrap, but surely you are aware that after your performance at the senate the galaxy now lies open for you?’ The emperor gave him a long, measuring look, and Luke, by both Suns and Moons, couldn’t think of what he was being measured for.

‘You must understand, my boy,’ he said with a kind but stern tone that made Luke want to scream that he had no right to act with such familiarity, ‘That you are no longer in the outer rim, and you have gained the attention of many with your feats of engineering. Why,’ he continued as he shuffled forwards, ‘I’ve even had Grand Moff Tarkin make a recent request that you be transferred to the Tarkin Initiative, as he was most impressed with your feats and abilities.’

Fuck. Luke swallowed nervously. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to reject a job offer from another party, not with the sheer amount that’d been streaming in these last few weeks. But a direct request for transfer from the Grand Moff himself would be incredibly difficult indeed to refuse without causing an incident, especially if the emperor threw his weight behind it. ‘He has?’ he asked, trying to make the dread in his voice sound like curiosity. Something in which he thankfully seemed to succeed when the emperor nodded.

‘Oh yes, though I am not surprised you did not know of it.’ He sighed deeply and gave Luke a meaningful look. ‘Apparently, my apprentice has been acting rather unreasonable, and vetoed all of his transfer requests out of hand.’

Oh, thank the fucking Desert and all Her Moons. He sent a quick prayer blessing his mentor for safeguarding him from that particular mess. He could do many things, but working for the lunatic that’d thought up the Tarkin Doctrine was not one of them. He may have been initially wary of Vader before he got to know the man, but Tarkin was utterly mad if he truly believed in his own doctrine. ‘I see…’ is what he said instead.

‘But,’ the emperor continued with a casual tone that left Luke on edge, ‘He would hardly be able to stop you from accepting if I ordered him to.’

No. No no no no no. No. He refused. He absolutely, categorically refused to let that happen. Setting aside his own distaste for what working with Tarkin would mean, he would not allow the man that his mentor clearly feared to do anything of that stripe to him. He’d eat glass before he allowed that to happen.

‘That will hardly be necessary, your majesty,’ he said firmly, a thin layer of frost creeping into his tone. ‘I assure you I am quite content where I am now, and have no desire to transfer away from my current position.’

The emperor chuckled softly and smiled. ‘My boy, I realize my apprentice can be rather, hm,’ he tilted his head as he searched for the word presumably least likely to offend Luke, ‘Intimidating once he’s put his mind to something, but there is no need to fear any… ah, persuasion he utilized to keep you under his command. He wouldn’t be able to so much as look at you should I give the command.’

No. Fuck no, Luke thought as he resisted the urge to shake his head in horror, his blood feeling like it’d been replaced with rushing ice water. Whatever was going on here—and he feared he was getting a pretty decent picture of it solely because of the horrifyingly familiar language the emperor was using—he wanted no part of it. Asides from the emperor obliquely implying that Vader had threatened him, he’d also implied that he could stop any of Vader's nonexistent threats. And maybe it was different in the Core, maybe this was just another of those culture clashes, but in Luke's experience the only thing that could make someone back down from a threat and mean it was if someone else was holding something even worse over their head. And if that was the case with Vader, Luke really, really didn’t want to know what the emperor would threaten.

‘I assure you, your majesty,’ Luke responded as icily as he could without it being treason, ‘That no such persuasions were necessary. I enjoy working as the Executor’s Head Engineer, and I enjoy working under Lord Vader's command. The work is interesting and the challenges Lord Vader presents me with are engaging.’

Never mind that even if he hadn’t been the Head Engineer, he would still want to stay aboard the Lady.

Never mind that he’d grown fond of the people aboard the massive ship he’d come to call home, and would miss them all terribly.

Never mind that he wouldn’t want to trade whatever it was he was slowly building with Lord Vader for the entire galaxy (something that he could admit to himself felt a lot like what he’d been dreaming of ever since he was young and watched the sky at night, hoping for his father to return someday).

That wasn’t for the emperor to know.

All he needed to know was that Luke would not do it.

He breathed out a soft sigh as he looked the emperor straight in his yellow, bloodshot eyes, and laid out the facts as clearly as he could. ‘Your majesty, I truly have no desire to leave my post, and I’m afraid I will have to disappoint Grand Moff Tarkin,’ he explained in a calm and measured voice, putting as much conviction into them as he could. ‘Seeing that as unless he would accept me remaining aboard the Executor and prioritizing my duties as a Head Engineer, I will have to reject his offer.’

The emperor held his gaze steadily, even as Luke struggled to keep up his storm around him against the growing malice pressing down on him, beating down on him even as the blows glanced off of his storm. Whatever it was, it was not happy with him.

‘I see,’ the man said at last, something like disappointment leaking into his voice. ‘A pity. I had hoped that you would’ve been able to look beyond your humble beginnings and display some true ambition, but evidently, the outer rim is deeply entrenched within you.’

Hell yeah it is, Luke thought defiantly, keeping his face carefully blank even as he wanted to scream it out loud. ‘It must be, your majesty,’ was what he said instead, ‘As I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be.’

The emperor hummed thoughtfully as he kept his eyes locked with Luke, eventually looking away as they came to a halt. ‘Perhaps. Though do not be alarmed if you find yourself shifting your opinions later on, my boy, I’ve seen it happen before in those who came from nothing and made something of themselves. All thought they’d be content with what they gained, but eventually, as they grew and learned, they began to crave more.’ He cast a meaningful look at Luke, idly tapping his cane against the floor. ‘Just know that when that time comes, the opportunities offered will still be there by those wise enough to understand that true talent cannot be rushed.’

He dipped his head in what he hoped was a respectful enough manner even as he mentally flipped the man off. ‘I will keep that under advisement, your majesty.’

‘See that you do,’ the emperor answered swiftly. ‘It wouldn’t do for you to disappear into obscurity. Not when I have the distinct feeling that you have yet to show much of your potential.’ Whatever Luke's answer to that enigma of a statement would’ve been, he would never know, as the emperor immediately switched tracks as they reached the end of hallway. ‘Ah, but look at us now. Here I had promised you a tour, and yet, we have passed through nearly the entire gallery without me even giving you the chance to appreciate it.’ The man shook his head morosely. ‘My, my, I must really be getting on in age.’

‘It’s hardly any trouble, your majesty,’ Luke assured the emperor, meaning every word of it. The shorter this conversation with the man lasted, the better, in Luke's opinion. ‘Truly, I don’t mind.’

‘You are most kind, my boy,’ the emperor said warmly, ‘But I would hardly wish for you to get an impression of me as a poor host. Come, let us leave such heavy topics behind us for now and remedy some of this old man’s forgetfulness. There is still one last magnificent piece to admire here.’ With that, the emperor shuffled off towards the end of the hallway, where a truly massive painting hung centerpiece.

Walking up next to the emperor, Luke could confidently say that he’d never seen anything quite like it. In oil and paint, it depicted a battle, vivid, and sparing no gruesome detail. Against a bloodred sky thick with black smoke, a single figure stood victorious over a slain opponent while the battle raged on around them. Cloaked in black and with a hood obscuring even the faintest hints of a face, the victor held a red beam of light clenched in their hand as they loomed over a fallen figure, whose face was turned away from the viewer and whose lighter cloak’s color was concealed under the rusted stain of blood, a strange metal cylinder lying limply in a slackened hand.

Around the two figures the battle raged on, blood-stained suits of unfamiliar white plastisteel armor rushing around them, lit by the exchange of blaster bolts, but Luke could clearly see that according to the artist, none of that mattered. What mattered were the two combatants standing centerstage, one laying slain at the feet of another, on top of a pile of corpses. He glanced at the title on the holoplaque. “The Perfect Victory.”

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’

Luke glanced over at the emperor who was looking at the piece himself with striking intent. ‘It… certainly is something, your majesty,’ he admitted. He wasn’t sure if he would call what it depicted “beautiful,” but the artist who’d painted it certainly knew their craft. He almost expected the figures to start moving any second.

‘Yes,’ the emperor agreed. ‘It most certainly is.’ He glanced over at Luke. ‘Tell me, my boy, do you know what this painting depicts?’

Taking in the entire work in all its macabre detail, Luke shook his head. ‘I’m afraid not, your majesty. I mean, it clearly depicts a battle of some kind, a victory as well, but if you were to ask me what victory.’ He shrugged idly. ‘I couldn’t tell you.’

‘Hm,’ the emperor responded thoughtfully. ‘I supposed I could hardly expect you to recognize this, young as you are. This was before your time, when the empire was still only newborn. A terrible act of betrayal, that left both my apprentice and myself heavily scarred, but alive. The traitors, however, were far from as lucky, and they paid for their crimes with their lives.’

The emperor looked back at the imposing painting where the mysterious figure was forever frozen in victory. ‘This painting commemorates that day; that day of truth and deceit, and the victory of one over the other. It depicts Lord Vader in his greatest act of loyalty towards me, right before his greatest sacrifice.’

Vader? Luke's eyes snapped back towards the shrouded figure, looming larger than life over him as per usual. If it really was his mentor, he looked vastly different from how Luke had ever seen him. This figure was obscured, yes, but the robes were soft as they draped over their owner, instead of the hard lines of armor he’d come to know the man in. He doubted the man was wearing his ever-present life support either. Was this before—?

‘That was the day he would sustain the injuries that would seal him in the suit you now know him by,’ the emperor elaborated as if hearing Luke's unspoken question, before giving him a piercing look with those yellow eyes. ‘Has he never told you of this day?’

What? To relive the joyful memories of whatever put him in there in the first place? Luke thought sarcastically. ‘No, he hasn’t, your majesty.’

The emperor sighed deeply. ‘It hardly surprises me anymore. How secretive that man is…’ he trailed off as he tapped his cane against the ground, leaving Luke to frown in confusion as to how that was a bad thing.

So Vader had secrets? Big deal, so did Luke. Secrets of all sorts and kinds, from the things he’d just never mentioned before to the things he’d take to his grave if it were the last thing he ever did. This hardly even qualified as a secret if the reason for Vader's silence was the fact that he’d acquired the injuries that day that haunted him even now. Luke didn’t exactly tell everyone about every one of his scars either.

And even if it was some grand secret, what right did Luke have to question why Vader kept it? Like the emperor said; it was before his time, and Luke likely wasn’t even born yet. It hardly involved him.

His attention was drawn back to the emperor when the man seemed to snap out of his musings. ‘Ah, there I go again, drifting off. But enough about my apprentice’s shortcomings. As enigmatic as Lord Vader can be, I wouldn’t doubt that you have had quite a few questions about him ever since you became acquainted.’ He tapped his cane idly against the floor. ‘If you like, I have similar confidence that I could enlighten you on quite a few of them.’

What.

‘Excuse me?’ he blurted out, trying to determine whether he’d really just heard what he thought he’d heard. Was the emperor really suggesting—?

The man rasped out a low, grating chuckle that set Luke's teeth on edge. ‘My boy, I can tell you now, I have been privy to more than a few of the stories my apprentice guards close to his chest. I would be happy to pass them on to you, since he himself seems to have been neglectful in doing so.’

He was. He actually was. Luke tried not to stare in disbelief at the smiling man, but it was a near thing.

The emperor was actually volunteering to give Vader's secrets away to him.

Holy shit, what was wrong with him!?

‘That will hardly be necessary, your majesty,’ Luke rushed to intervene before the emperor actually gave anything away, his mind still reeling in disgust. ‘If Lord Vader wishes to keep them private, I would prefer to honor his wishes and not intrude.’

‘Oh, you wouldn’t be,’ the emperor assured him as he waved away Luke's concerns. ‘I can already tell that he strongly favors you despite his best efforts to appear impartial.’

Something in the emperor’s tone raised Luke's hackles like nothing else and he had to school his expression before he really did start glaring at the man. ‘Maybe,’ he answered evasively. ‘Maybe not. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed anything out of ordinary when it comes to Lord Vader.’ It wasn’t even a lie, though he dreaded to think what it meant if the man’s behavior towards his “Master” was indeed nothing out of the ordinary. ‘Nevertheless,’ he continued, ‘It hardly gives me the right to infringe on his privacy.’

‘Not even if he were to infringe on yours?’ the emperor asked shrewdly, eyes sharp in a way that Luke didn't like the look of at all.

He stared the emperor down in a manner that bordered on the disrespectful and nodded firmly. ‘Not even then. If Lord Vader were to choose that, it would say something about his character. What I choose to do says something about mine.

The emperor narrowed his eyes carefully. ‘I see.’ He tapped his cane against the marble floor, the sound echoing sharply as the malice surrounding them pressed down with ever greater force. ‘A noble conviction,’ he opined, tilting his head downwards to look Luke further in the eye. ‘A naïve conviction.’ 

Luke met the judgmental gaze evenly. It wouldn’t be the first time he heard that opinion, and it wouldn’t be the last. It sure as hell wouldn’t be the one to break him. ‘Perhaps,’ he agreed. ‘But it is a conviction nonetheless. One I will not be easily swayed from.’

‘Hm,’ the emperor muttered, still tapping his cane in a rhythm that was pounding against Luke’s storm. ‘That remains to be seen. I think you will find, my boy, that the galaxy is far less forgiving of foolishness than the forgotten dustbowl you grew up in. It won’t care for your noble ideals or hopeful wishes.’

Luke very nearly scoffed at that assertion. ‘Of course it won’t,’ he agreed without hesitation. ‘The galaxy won’t care for any plight any more than the Desert would. It’s cold, unforgiving, and uncaring. Why would I think otherwise?’

‘Your convictions,’ the emperor pointed out with a tone that… Luke didn’t exactly know what to make of, but that set him on edge like nothing else.

‘My convictions hardly have anything to do with the nature of the galaxy, your majesty,’ he retorted coldly. ‘It’s neither kind, nor compassionate, nor empathetic.’ He crossed his arms. ‘But I can be. And so that’s what I choose. If the world, the galaxy, and the entire universe won’t care, then I will. Regardless of how difficult and painful it can be.’

His assertion was met with dead silence, and Luke held the emperor’s gaze, those strangely reddish-yellow eyes staring him down like a predator would its prey. Refusing to be cowed, Luke stared right back at the silent man, neither backing down nor bowing out. The malice that had dogged his every step ever since entering the emperor’s chambers bore down on him like mountain was resting on his shoulders, seething hatred, fury, envy, and something that felt like twisted fear beating at the storm around him, even as it glanced off of the sheer impassive cliff he had molded it into. The onslaught continued until—

Beep.

Blinking in befuddlement as his holopad chimed from within his pocket, he broke eye contact with the emperor to fish it out. The screen displayed the reminder he’d set for his upcoming presentation for the Court and he mentally heaved a sigh of relief. Saved by the bell.

‘So sorry, your majesty,’ he apologized with a sincerity he didn’t feel as he tucked the pad back into his jacket. ‘In all the excitement I forgot to switch it to silent. That was my notification to start the preparations for the presentation to the Court.’

The malice lifted abruptly enough to nearly leave Luke reeling as the emperor chuckled softly. ‘Oh my. Is it that time already? I really must have lost track.’ He smiled kindly at Luke and he did his best to smile back in a manner that wouldn’t look like a grimace. ‘Though I suppose that’s hardly surprising when the company is as… intriguing as you are, my boy.’

Suns and sand, what a creep. And this man ruled the galaxy?

Still, Luke responded as he knew was wisest; bowing shallowly at the waist, arms still kept pinned to his side. ‘Thank you, your majesty.’ He straightened up as soon as was reasonably polite and deferential. ‘I hope not to sound like an ungrateful guest, but I would request that you excuse me soon so I can get started on the preparations. I would hate to give a bad performance simply because I neglected to set it up properly.’

‘Of course, of course,’ the emperor said as he waved off Luke's apologetic air. ‘I can hardly fault you for your untimely departure, my boy, even if I would consider our meeting to be a most favorable consequence of my Guards’ poor planning.’ Oh, so they were still upholding that charade? Luke barely kept himself from narrowing his eyes as the emperor smiled warmly. ‘Though I am rather regretful that I was unable to allow you more time to enjoy the art present here. Especially now that I know the extent to which my apprentice has neglected to teach you.’

Luke glanced back at the massive painting that supposedly depicted his mentor in one of his greatest victories, before his greatest fall. ‘I don’t think I can fault him for that,’ he muttered quietly as he observed the giant cloaked figure standing over a fallen opponent. The emperor was right, in that aspect. Vader hadn’t taught him about what had transpired in the painting or the secrets the emperor was apparently privy to. But then…

Be careful, little one.”

Perhaps he didn’t need to.

“You still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Imperial Court and we have limited time.”

And perhaps Vader had known all along what the most important lessons were for Luke to learn.

‘Perhaps not, my boy,’ the emperor allowed. ‘But that doesn’t excuse his complete neglect of a rising star such as yourself.’ He tapped his cane against the floor idly, and Luke was hardly even surprised anymore when the malice almost lazily pressed down upon him. ‘Though perhaps I can still remedy that situation,’ he mused quietly.

Well, fuck. That didn’t sound good. ‘Your majesty?’ he asked, trying not to sound too worried.

‘Oh, not to worry, my boy,’ the emperor waved off airily. ‘It would be nothing that would prohibit you from your precious job—’ and damn, did he have to sound that condescending about it? ‘—but I believe it would be a good challenge for you nonetheless.’

Luke doubted it, but he had the feeling that refusing here wasn’t exactly an option. ‘I will look forward to it, your majesty,’ he answered stiffly. Like one would look forward to a fucking root canal, he thought irritably.

‘Most excellent,’ the emperor said happily. ‘Now then, allow me to walk you back, and I am most curious as to what you will present to us this evening.’ And with that the stooped, shuffling old man that was ostensibly the most powerful person in the galaxy turned around and began the long walk back to the meeting chamber where Luke didn’t doubt the Guards were still waiting.

Hesitating, Luke looked at the painting, and he committed the towering figure to mind and memory. Intellectually, he had always known that Vader had been someone else once upon a time before he was… sealed... inside the armor Luke now knew him by. But to actually see it… he swallowed heavily. Whatever had happened, he didn’t doubt that it’d left more than just the physical marks on his mentor. “The Perfect Victory,” the artist had called it. Luke couldn’t exactly see what was so “perfect” about it, if it had ended with Vader in that suit.

Shaking his head, he turned to follow the emperor back to where he knew Vader and the clones to be waiting, eager to reunite with his people and leave the oppressive atmosphere of the emperor’s sanctum and the wealth of secrets it held on his mysterious mentor. Glancing back one last time, he nodded his farewell to the image of Vader long past, and for a split second, he could have sworn the plaque below it read something different, before he dismissed it as a trick of the light.

Never mind that “The Perfect Lie” somehow sounded more truthful than anything else.

Hastily lengthening his stride to catch up with the emperor before the man noticed Luke had lingered a little too long, he pointedly kept his silence while they made their way back through the single grandest art gallery Luke had ever seen. It felt almost silly for a place this large to be inhabited by what he assumed to be only the emperor and any Guards the man needed. Not that he was ever going to say that thought out loud to the man, Luke was impulsive, not stupid.

Eventually, the emperor seemed to realize that Luke wasn’t going to be the one to strike up a conversation, as he hummed quietly. ‘You’ve been rather quiet, my boy,’ he noted in a manner that seemed to be too well timed to be as idle as the tone implied. ‘Is there something on your mind?’

The fact that you’re about as suspicious as a spice smuggler’s bank account comes to mind, he thought acidly. ‘Nothing of note, your majesty,’ is what he said aloud. ‘Merely contemplating what set-up I’ll need for the holoprojector.’

His response elicited a low chuckle from the emperor that grated at the back of his mind. ‘No need to try to hide, my boy,’ the man chided. ‘I’m well-versed in reading all manner of falsehoods and white lies.’

Fuck. He carefully did not tense at those words and shrugged as innocently as he could manage. ‘I suppose I’m just trying to order my thoughts on all this, your majesty,’ he tried again, taking the truth from another angle. ‘It’s… been an experience.’ Truth, albeit that it wasn’t strictly a new experience.

He’d balanced on the edge of blades sharper than this.

The emperor nodded sympathetically. ‘Understandable. It must be exhausting to manage both your underlings and my apprentice’s more unreasonable behavior at the same time. I suppose you will be requesting leave after you return to your regular duties?’

And well, there was a question. Luke knew that he had more than a little leave built up, enough to take a long trip back to the Homestead for a week or two if he wanted to. And he would, eventually. But honestly? Right now?

He grinned his first, genuine grin at the emperor. ‘And leave everyone to flounder once they no longer have someone to badger with endless meetings? Not on your life, your majesty. No, I’ll be back in the Executor’s wiring and engine chambers once this week is over, no questions about it.’

Something hardened in the emperor’s eyes, and Luke's grin took on a slightly sharper quality. Whatever the emperor had just seen in him, he could bet that the man didn’t like it one bit and honestly? That was fine by Luke. ‘I see…’ the emperor muttered.

They—thankfully—lapsed back into silence after that, with Luke hardly minding it one bit. Perhaps the emperor had hoped that the uncomfortable atmosphere would eventually force Luke into a more talkative mindset, but frankly, you didn’t know uncomfortable until you had to distract a full snatcher squad from your charges hiding under a poorly secured tarp less than three paces away.

The emperor had nothing on that.

Neither he or the emperor spoke another word until they had reached the doors that would let them back into the room he had been received in, flanked on both sides by more Red Guards. The emperor made a dismissive wave and the guards swung the doors open, back into the room with the sorely missed windows that revealed the golden hour was in full swing and probably nearing its tail end. Light bathing the whole room in a dazzling display of golden and rosy hues.

Which would’ve been a beautiful sight if Luke hadn’t been busy staring aghast at the Red Guard who was still kneeling on the floor in a position so shockingly similar to the one they’d left them in that Luke just knew the Guard hadn’t move from that spot or position the entire time.

That was— that was— Luke swallowed heavily. No Free person did that. Not a single person who was truly Free would do something like that. Whatever this was, he had a damn good suspicion that if he scratched of the thin layer of glamor and gloss, he’d find more of the exact same thing he was familiar with on Tatooine. Suns’ fucking Fire, the emperor didn’t just appear to be a fucking Master, he was one!

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. That meant—!

‘Rise.’ His horrified thoughts were interrupted by the emperor’s creaking command, the kneeling Guard jerking up and onto their feet like a puppet on fraying strings. Oh, that was so messed up.

A shift in the back of his mind warned him a split second before it happened, and by the time the emperor had turned his attention back to him, he’d managed to wrangle his horror and disgust back into the storm outside himself. Later. He’d deal with that revelation later when it was safe to do so. For now, he just had to keep up the act.

Keeping his face carefully bland and hoping he was even half as good at it as Captain Piett, he nodded politely at the man who he’d just decided to despise.

‘Well, my boy,’ the emperor said as he smiled warmly. ‘I suppose this must be where we part ways for now. It was truly a pleasure to meet the youth who’s been shaking up the daily drudge of my empire a bit, and I look forward to seeing your ingenuity myself this evening.’

Feeling the end in sight, Luke hardly even had to grind his teeth too much as bowed deeply. ‘Thank you, your majesty. I hope that I will not disappoint.’

‘Hm.’ The emperor narrowed his eyes. ‘No, I don’t think you will, my boy. I don’t think you will.’

Before Luke could even begin to dissect the layers in that statement, the emperor gestured over to the Guards and he was immediately flanked at all sides. ‘Escort Engineer Lars back to his entourage and see that he doesn’t come to any harm in the meantime.’ Somehow that order didn’t feel as comforting as it was no doubt meant to be interpreted.

Choosing to keep his silence, he locked eyes with the emperor—the man who’d somehow managed to validate every last shred of Luke's hard-earned paranoia—and dipped his head slightly in a gesture of farewell. He then swiftly turned on his heel and let the Guards guide him away, not allowing for a return farewell or a further dismissal in a move that could easily be constructed in any number of innocuous manners, but that any Child of the Desert would immediately recognize as blatant disrespect.

A Master may insist on having the last word, but a Child could still snatch away that last bit of power if they were careful enough.

Not that the emperor was likely to notice. After all, the outer rim was “deeply entrenched” within him. What would he know of power dynamics and the steps of its dance?

Chewing on the inside of his mouth, he lengthened his steps just a bit, eager to leave this horrible place where malice seemed to be baked into the very stones he walked on. A move which, to Luke's surprise, prompted the guards around him to keep pace as well. Smiling grimly, he set the pace to a swift powerwalk as he hurried through the hallways leading up to the emperor’s inner sanctum. Dark hallways of black marble and mirrored crystal flashed by rapidly as Luke refused to waste one more moment in this miserable place.

Soon enough, the great double doors that promised an end to this whole ordeal dawned before him, and he heaved an internal sigh of relief. One of the Guards hurried forward to activate the door panel, and with a great, groaning rumble, the two slabs of stone slid apart and revealed a sight he’d never been so happy to see as in that moment.

The clones in their shiny white armor snapped to attention as he was ushered through the heavy stone gate, but as much as Luke was grateful to see them, he was even happier to see that the looming black form of Vader was coming up to meet him, cape flaring behind him. Within a split second the Red Guards had scattered from their positions surrounding him and he was left blinking in befuddlement as his entire vision was filled with a black wall of armor weave and plastisteel armor.

Taking a small step back to assess the situation, he noticed that Vader had taken the initiative to insert himself between Luke and the Red Guards, effectively blocking them from further access to him. The air around him felt thick and heavy with a kind of fearful anxiety that curled heavily around him, giving him the odd mental image of a krayt crouched low over its hoard, fangs bared, in a scene so familiar Luke could’ve sworn that he’d seen it before—

…Oh.

The realization of what was going on struck like lightning and left him grinning as a warm fondness filled his chest. Vader was worried about him. Downright fretting, if his behavior towards the Guards was any indication, and he seemed to be fully intent on assuaging that worry by hovering over Luke like a clucking mother hen. Rolling his eyes at the slightly ridiculous behavior of his mentor, he allowed Vader to keep him close while the man fended off whatever threat he perceived the Red Guards to be.

‘That will be all,’ the vocoder growled out at the Red Guards still warily hovering nearby, seemingly torn between their reluctance to leave, and what Luke assumed to be their reluctance to approach Vader in full Mother Hen Mode. Not that Luke blamed them, the man tended to get snappy whenever he was worried about something. ‘You are dismissed.

‘Our orders are to see that the Head Engineer does not come to any harm—’ one of the Guards protested, their usually flat and empty tone now marred with something worrisome. Vader, however, wasn’t having any of it.

‘And he will not come to any harm under my protection,’ the dark lord interrupted, the words hissed out in a manner that starkly reminded Luke of a ticked-off tooka. ‘Leave.’

The last word was spoken with such force that Luke was impressed the Red Guards didn’t just turn tail and run rather than deal with a supremely agitated Vader, but leave they did. Most of them save two retreated back behind the double doors that slid closed with an echoing bang. With most of the Guards once again safely out of reach, Vader's tense guard relaxed a bit, but, Luke noticed, was still far too similar to a protective crouch to really count as “relaxed.”

‘Milord?’ he said softly, drawing Vader's attention back to him, red lenses fixing onto him with a focus that would be intimidating if he hadn’t known the man better by now. He carefully placed a hand onto the man’s nearest forearm to offer the reassurance of touch, not caring that the clones were likely watching their every move. This was more important than keeping up appearances.

Holding the gaze of the red lenses and letting as much built up stress bleed out of him as he could, he spoke his next words as deliberately as he could. ‘Milord, I’m fine. And I'm here.’ He breathed deeply as the truth of those words sunk in with him as well. ‘I’m here,’ he repeated softly, perhaps more to himself than anything else.

Whatever else could be said of it, the words seemed to help Vader calm down as the heavy air of worry and fear slowly lifted, his posture relaxing from the still somewhat defensive stance he’d held on to even as the Guards had left. Vader's arm slowly dropped back to his side, and Luke let followed suit as the armor weave of the suit slipped from his grip.

From the corners of his awareness, he could feel the clones slowly creeping closer, carefully encircling the both of them in their usual flanking formation even as they seemed reluctant to get too close. He paid them no mind, keeping nearly his full attention on Vader as the man did the same in turn, clearly looking Luke over for any signs of… something.

Eventually, he seemed satisfied, and gestured for Luke to join him at his side in a now familiar gesture, resting a hand on his shoulder as soon as he stepped in place. As the comforting weight rested on his shoulder, Luke felt the stress of his… conversation? Confrontation? With the emperor fade away. A soft increase of pressure ushered him forward, and in no time at all they were putting a decent distance between them and the emperor’s sanctum, with more stress leeching away with every step.

Watching the hallways and turns, Luke had a decent guess as to where he was being guided by Vader, especially since the man was obviously still on edge after the sudden incident the emperor had staged. When they turned into the familiar hallway that led to the suite he’d called “home” for the last few days, he knew he was right on the money.

They swept past his suite and into the stretch of hallway that marked the path to Vader's office. From one set of stone gates to the next, he thought idly as he considered the strange situation he’d gotten himself into that’d let two functionally identical objects elicit such wildly different responses from him. In any case, he suspected he was going to have a lot less time to set up his presentation for the Court than he’d originally planned for, but…

He glanced back up at where Vader was still radiating sharp waves of worry and anxiety into his surroundings. Well. He could live with that.

Vader made a sharp gesture towards the heavy double doors of his office, who slid open without further prompting. ‘Wait here,’ he directed his orders towards the clones. ‘We won’t be long.’ Oh? Luke raised an eyebrow as he glanced upwards at his mentor. They wouldn’t be? Maybe he’d have more time for preparations than he thought.

‘Sir, yes, sir,’ one of the commanders echoed, but Luke hardly had the chance to check whether it was Cody or Appo before he was ushered through the doors.

Another sharp gesture of Vader sent them snapping shut far faster than Luke thought the mechanism would allow for. He braced for the earthshattering sound it would produce, but between one blink and another the air shifted into that strange muffled quality again and the heavy stone slabs collided without even a whisper.
But before he could even begin to register anything on the sheer impossibility that’d just transpired in front of him, his attention was pulled away by Vader abruptly veering around and pinning him in place with the sheer weight of his full attention and the hand on his shoulder.

‘Are you alright?’

Luke blinked at the sudden question, the words taking a moment to sink in. A moment too long, if Vader's reaction was any judgement to go on. ‘Little one,’ he implored urgently, ‘Are you alright?’ His mask twitched this way and that, presumably to allow him to scan Luke fully for anything that could answer that question sooner, hand still clamped firmly on Luke's shoulder.

Luke couldn’t help it, he chuckled softly in amusement and flashed his mentor a warm, but tired grin. ‘Milord,’ he said as earnestly as he could, placing his own hand on the one the man was still holding his shoulder with. ‘Like I said earlier; I’m fine.

‘You were with my Master for over an hour,’ Vader shot back and there was the snappishness he’d been expecting. ‘Forgive me if I am ill content with that knowledge.’

Luke huffed. Considering who the emperor had shown himself to be, he could hardly blame Vader for his worry, but really, he was fine. ‘I promise you, I’m not lying,’ he said patiently, trying to see if he could soothe down Vader's ruffled feathers before the man got too far into his fretting fit. ‘And…’ he hesitated, not sure if it was the right thing to say, but deciding to give the full, honest truth in the end.
‘And I need to thank you. Your warnings were enough to prepare me, in the end,’ he admitted. ‘They gave me the context I needed to connect a few key inconsistencies and stopped me from going into the situation blind. So… thank you.’

Vader stared at him silently, the only sound the cycling of the respirator and the nearly audible shrieking of the tempest of emotions raging around him; an odd mixture of shock, fear, something like hope, and a soft undercurrent of something warm and fierce that he couldn’t easily identify.

‘That— I—’ The vocoder blared with static for a moment, and Luke smiled with warmth and mirth as Vader tripped over his own words in a rare show of being both caught off guard and vulnerable. ‘…You are welcome,’ he eventually got out, the air thick with both the man’s sense of discomfort and satisfied pride stirring around them like water and oil, and Luke beamed when the soft sense of pride won out and settled over the both of them like a thick, comforting blanket.

‘Nonetheless,’ Vader cut in hastily, and Luke had to hide a smirk when he could practically see the flash of embarrassment as the walls were brought up again, ‘You were in there for a long time, Luke. Much longer than I had… anticipated.’ The unspoken question of “why?” hung uneasily between them.

He sighed as he prepared himself for a long explanation. ‘The emperor wanted to—’ he made a vague noise, ‘—talk, I suppose.’ Though that hardly felt like it was the right word for what had transpired. ‘He had many things to say about the apparent “talent” I possess.’ He scoffed and wrinkled his nose at that. ‘Though it was mostly on how I ought to utilize it and telling me how disappointed he was when I disagreed.’ He sighed and pulled a hand through his hair. ‘I very much doubt he was being sincere about the whole talent bit, but he was definitely eager to get me off the Lady and into another project. The Tarkin Initiative, to be more specific.’ He chewed the inside of his cheek for a bit before sighing, and admitting the rest of what the emperor said as well. ‘Even said he could block you from preventing me from going, if I wanted him to.’

And that got an immediate reaction as Vader's grip tightened to the point of pain on his shoulder, something to which even Luke couldn’t entirely hide his wince. The gloved hand immediately released his shoulder, but he stopped it when Vader attempted to pull away entirely, the air suffused with apology. He kept his hand in place as he carefully laid out his next words for his mentor. ‘He also seemed less than pleased,’ started slowly, ‘when I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t leaving my post on the Lady. Not for Tarkin, and not for him.’ The words “Not if it meant leaving you” went unspoken, but, hopefully, not unheard.

A hitch in Vader's respirator told him the man had heard loud and clear. ‘I… see,’ he muttered out as well as the vocoder would allow. ‘I— thank you, for— for your loyalty.’

Luke nodded once, acknowledging what was said and what wasn’t. ‘And I’d have to thank you too,’ he murmured with a hint of a smile as he recalled the rest of the conversation. ‘Turning away Tarkin would’ve been a pain and a half if you hadn’t blocked him.’

A burst of static and a wave of amusement told him that Vader was more than aware of the scene he would’ve caused too. ‘It was no trouble, little one,’ he rumbled as he slowly relaxed back into Luke's presence. ‘If I recall correctly, there was little fondness for Tarkin’s doctrine, no?’

Luke groaned loudly at the reminder of that absolute piece of garbage, mock glaring at Vader when the man gave a staticky rumble of amusement. ‘Ah, yes. I see I did indeed recall correctly,’ Vader said with a nod, as if the smugness radiating off of him didn’t tell Luke that the man knew exactly what it took to get a rise out of him. He kept up the glare until Vader tilted his head in the exact manner that Luke knew meant he was calling his bluff, warmth chiming happily around him.

Letting a grin break out across his face he shrugged his unoccupied shoulder unrepentantly. ‘What can I say?’ he said, mischief in his voice. ‘I have a distinct lack of respect for the shoddy end of imperial workmanship.’

‘Luke,’ came the expected reprimand, accompanied with a soft tap on the head that hardly even touched him, though the supposed offense rang hollow with the sheer amusement that was rolling off the man in waves. He ducked his head, mostly to hide his grin, but refused to take back what he’d said. A gust of static told him Vader had realized that as well, though he hardly felt too upset about it. ‘Those kinds of remarks would land you in more than just your usual brand of trouble if anyone overheard them, little one,’ Vader told him with an undercurrent of seriousness marking the words.

He shrugged, feeling rather unconcerned about it all. ‘Then it’s probably a good thing I only make them when I know I’m around people I know I can trust, right?’

The silence lasted just a beat too long, before Vader responded about three degrees too stiff. ‘I suppose.’

Luke decided to take that as a “yes.”

‘And anyway,’ he continued, ‘I made my stance to the emperor more than clear; I would reject any offer to work for Tarkin if it meant giving up the job I currently have.’ He grimaced as he recalled the emperor’s reaction to that statement, bracing himself for Vader's inevitable fussing. ‘Though he seemed none too happy with that declaration, even if he did try to hide it.’

To his surprise, Vader only sighed deeply in a long gust of static. ‘No, I do not imagine he would be regardless of what his intent was with those questions.’ And well, wasn’t that interesting?

He raised an eyebrow in question at that statement, but Vader uncharacteristically waved him off. ‘Later, little one,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘I truly meant it when I said we would not be long, but this could not wait. We will discuss this in more detail later, but for now I would ask that you— that you continue to trust me, and answer my questions.’ The last words stumbled like Vader himself was unsure of them, but Luke decided he hardly needed to call any attention to it. And well, he had asked him to trust him.

‘Alright,’ he agreed easily, and, letting his mouth quirk up in a wry smile, he echoed his words from earlier. ‘I guess I did tell you to tell me how.’

Vader squeezed his shoulder lightly, warmth wrapping around him. ‘Thank you, little one,’ he said with a sincerity that nearly made Luke feel bashful. ‘Now then, I would ask that you tell me what your impressions of my Master were?’

Oh Suns. Luke chewed the inside of his cheek and glanced up at his mentor. ‘As in, what he did? Or what I thought of him?’ he asked, needing clarification before he spoke his mind.

Vader hummed thoughtfully. ‘Both, I suppose. But start with the latter.’

Luke took a steadying breath. It was just Vader. They’d disagreed on things before and come out fine. ‘My honest opinion?’ he muttered lowly. ‘Or the one that would be approved if I submitted it in a report?’

Vader tilted his head, curiosity sparking around him like the drifting Desert Tears that appeared whenever the rains came in spring. Small specks of light, dancing through the air and pinging softly against the shifting sands that whispered where his mind ended and something else began. ‘For curiosity’s sake, the former, if you would.’

‘You may not like it,’ Luke felt the need to warn.

‘Then I will have to learn to live with that fact,’ Vader retorted dryly.

Luke blew out a breath. ‘Fine.’ Here went nothing. ‘Frankly, I wouldn’t trust the bantha-brained sleemo any further than I could punt him without Biggs to help me out.’ Beat. ‘Oh, and I also think he’s seriously creepy.’ There, he’d said it.

Folding his arms defensively, he waited out the stunned silence of his mentor, anticipating at least one lecture on how what he said technically counted as verbal treason and the like, maybe a bit of a scolding for speaking in such a manner of— of Vader's Master and Suns and fucking sand, that was something he’d have to have a long think on later because how would he even begin to plan a Flight for his mentor if the situation was what he thought it was—?

He was abruptly yanked out of his spiraling thoughts by a deep, rumbling burst of static that reverberated through the air, stone, and Luke's very chest, shaking and halting in time with Vader's odd jerking movements and—

Oh.

Vader was laughing.

Luke felt vaguely stunned as he heard the deep, grating sound that was the only way Vader's vocoder could seem to translate the full-bodied laughter the man was letting out. No longer focused on his own frantic storm of thoughts, he could now feel how the air was light and open with relief, warmth, and hope. Elation and joy spiraled through the air like birds in a chase, tumbling, dipping, and diving in an infectious dance of happiness that left Luke smiling just as bright as he felt.

He couldn’t help it, he laughed too.

Chuckles spilled forth from the lightness inside him, slowly building until he was laughing just as loudly as his mentor, basking in the bone-deep warmth that hung thick in the air around them and seeped into his very core. A precious few moment of levity that reminded Luke all too well of why he trusted Vader with these kinds of secrets in the first place.

‘Oh, little one,’ the vocoder sputtered out, halting and starting oddly with static overlaying every word, distorting the syllables in strange ways. ‘You never fail to surprise me.’

Luke flashed a dazzling smile. ‘Well, I aim to shake things up a bit wherever I go, so I’ll take that as a compliment.’

‘Hm,’ Vader rumbled. ‘Shake things up, indeed. Though I do hope that you understand not everyone will be appreciative of that.’ He tilted his head lightly. ‘For instance, my Master.’

Luke snorted derisively. ‘Why am I not surprised?’ he sniped, rolling his eyes. ‘But I’ll be careful,’ he promised, ‘Though I would like to point out that I’ve already talked to him once and survived, so I think we’ll be fine.’

‘And I am inclined to believe you,’ Vader agreed, before crossing his arms and tilting his head downwards to pin Luke with a piercing look he could feel even through the lenses of the mask. ‘Though your current track record of remaining out of trouble speaks against any notions of that lasting for any period of time,’ he rumbled out in a pointed manner.

And well, Luke had to admit that the man did have something of a point there, but still! ‘Hey, I can think on my feet!’ he protested. ‘And I’m not that bad,’ he muttered mutinously.

The silence that followed was both as conspicuous as it was pointed, with Vader looking down at him over crossed arms with an air that definitely spelled out exactly how much his mentor doubted that statement.

‘Oh, shut up,’ Luke muttered when the silence turned a bit too emphatic.

Vader's vocoder blared out a burst of static that Luke had no problem translating as a sound of amusement. ‘Very well then, Luke, I shall take your word for it.’ The lenses gleamed as they usually did, but this time around Luke could swear that somehow there was a spark of mischief in the gleam. ‘For now,’ he finished, before placing a hand again on Luke's shoulder. ‘Come now, we have spent what little time we had and will have to continue this at a later time. The troopers will be waiting and you, little one, have a final presentation to prepare for.’

Rolling his eyes at his mentor, but allowing the man to have the last word in the matter, Luke let himself be led back to the entrance of the offices. Elation and joy still sparked lightly through the air around them, like moths dancing around a flame, and Luke felt last vestiges of anxiety and stress that had wound themselves around his heart dissipate like mist in the morning.

Maybe this was far from over, and maybe he’d be thinking very differently about this once he saw the work he had to do to prepare his presentation in about one third of the time he’d planned to do it, but for now, he truly felt like they’d be just fine.

Chapter Text

‘—And with that, I bid you all a good evening, and thank you for your time!’ Lars finished, receiving the thunderous applause from the nobility and courtiers present with a flourishing bow, the enormous projection of the SUTA project’s logo shattering into a fine holographic mist of shimmering particles like fireworks.

Veers grinned wide as he clapped along just as loudly, occasionally glancing with amusement at Zev, who was nearly bouncing with a clear desire to join in on the applause. And would’ve done so, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was trying to keep his comm steady to film the entire thing. Or “live-stream” it, as he’d said.

Shaking his head at his son’s antics, he left Zev to his dilemma of weighing expressing his own excitement versus filming something that wasn’t just a completely incomprehensible blur, and refocused on the stage. Lars was standing as tall and proud as he’d ever seen the lad, clearly beaming with pride as he was finally able to usher his project into its final stages of mass production and distribution amongst the troopers. And honestly? The kid deserved it. After all the blood, sweat, and tears he’d poured into the project, and all the hassle it took to get it off the ground in as little time as he had, he more than deserved the praise coming his way.

Even if said praise did unintentionally contribute to the last bit of hassle and stress, as Lars had very nearly arrived late to his own presentation due to the Emperor’s unexpected summons. Not that anyone would’ve dared say a word against it, considering the cause, but it’d sent Lars scrambling to get everything set up nonetheless, even with the unexpected aid Lord Vader had deigned to provide by utilizing his more… esoteric powers to ensure everything was ready in time.

He’d pulled it off without a hitch though, and as the applause slowly died down, Veers could tell that everyone was anticipating the rare appearance their reclusive ruler was scheduled to make now. Well, he glanced at Lars, almost everyone.

The boy’s beaming grin had vanished, and now he was looking pensively at the royal balcony, where His Majesty had ostensibly been watching the presentation from. Which he… supposed was to be expected. Lars had, after all, met their elusive ruler just a few hours ago in a private conference after having been on Imperial Center for only a week, and was probably less impressed by the whole ordeal than the lot of them who’d only ever seen the man appear heavily shrouded in official broadcasts and addresses. Or at least Veers had, but considering his status in the eyes of the elite as an upstart general from a mediocre family at best, he was hardly surprised by that.

Lars on the other hand… well, he could hardly say it wasn’t on-brand for the lad to be unimpressed by the Emperor of the entire known galaxy, considering who his preferred daily company was, but it was still somewhat jarring to see when the kid came strolling back in kept under close watch by Lord Vader. After all, it took a very particular person to come waltzing in after a meeting with the damn Emperor and look no more impressed than he would be by a particularly irritating officer. As if he was more annoyed at having his schedule interrupted than anything else.

It took an even more particular person for that to be something to admire rather than to avoid at all costs.

Although, he thought as the Red Guards began to form an honor guard to the podium, that might be an opinion he’d have to reevaluate depending on how this went. Shifting slightly in his seat, he watched as the doors to the adjacent hallway opened up, one of the Guards making the announcement heralding the arrival of His Majesty the Emperor. And sure enough, there he was. Everyone present rose to attention as the Emperor entered the main hall and podium.

A stooped figure leaning heavily on a glossy black cane slowly shuffled forward, and Veers was left struck with how much the man had lost in that senseless attack of the Jedi all those years ago. He may have been a young man when the incident had happened, just starting out in his career, but even he had known of the jovial and kindly old man that had been the Chancellor of the Old Republic. To see him reduced to this… it was something that felt inherently off.

And yet, this man, shrouded in concealing robes made of black cloth, was the Emperor of the known galaxy and the man in whose name Veers fought, killed, and—potentially—would die. The ruler of trillions.

And Lars, for all that the lad observed a modicum of proper protocol (and winged the rest of it, Veers noted with amused and worried exasperation as he bowed instead of kneeling), looked as blank as the face of the wall behind him, giving away not a single emotion on what he felt as the Emperor climbed the stairs of the stage.

As the Emperor approached him, Lars straightened up and met His Majesty’s gaze head on and— Veers squinted a bit to see if he’d seen what he thought he’d seen, because if the kid had really just given the Emperor a nod of acknowledgement along with a salute, he might just throw in the towel. That was a gesture of equals, and while Lars was certainly an oddity, he doubted the lad was at the level of Emperor just yet. Though with how the week and last months had been going, he wasn’t willing to put any good credits on the keyword in that sentence not being “yet.”

The Emperor, however, hardly seemed to mind the breach in protocol, or if he did, saw no need to draw attention to it, instead choosing to exchange several quiet words with Lars that the general audience weren’t privy to, because evidently nothing about this ceremony was going to be traditional or normal. Whatever was discussed, neither party gave anything away in their expressions when they drew back, but somehow, Veers got the feeling that neither was satisfied with the other.

Shaking off the unpleasant feeling, he focused on the rare event he was witnessing. Imperial commendations weren’t all that rare to receive, though they were still quite obviously a great honor. But to receive one personally from His Majesty, the Emperor himself instead of one’s commanding officer? Unprecedented.

He smiled as Lars gracefully accepted the medal being pinned to his chest, just beside his insignia designating him as the Head Engineer of the Empire’s flagship. A small silver and bronze badge fashioned in the image of the Empire’s familiar cog, embellished with additional stylized stars along its edge that shone bright under the podium lights.

His Majesty spoke a few words praising the ingenuity and initiative Lars had shown by taking responsibility for a project of this size, this young, but evidently his health prevented him from any further addresses beyond that. The ceremony concluded shortly after with the Emperor thanking Lars for a most enjoyable performance and retreating back to his sanctum, Lars choosing to forgo the usual speech due to the fact that he’d just spent over an hour talking, and—to the amusement of everyone present—stated that he was rather confident in saying that if they weren’t tired of his voice by now, he sure was.

It hardly meant the evening was over and done with however. With the presentation and ceremony out of the way, the grand gala that had been planned for afterwards opened with most of the guests already present and ready to bring the party into full swing.

Lars had to go through the usual round of handshakes and congratulations and well-wishes, at least, the usual round from those who could muster up the courage to approach the boy with Lord Vader once more looming darkly at Lars’ side. And since when was it Lord Vader who stood at Lars’ side instead of the other way around? Or was it simply that they both guarded each other’s sides?

Veers huffed quietly, resolving to stop trying to figure out whatever the hell was going on with this increasingly noncompliant-with-the-status-quo thing that was going on between his Commander and Head Engineer and just enjoy the benefits that it brought to both him and his men. Like better armor. Or a calmer Commander who felt less inclined to make his displeasure with his subordinates known in a homicidal fashion, to the point that in the last half year the on-board morgue hadn’t seen a single corpse with a crushed windpipe. Just simple things that made life just that little bit easier.

Congratulating the lad on his commendation and on the success of a monumental first project, he left Zev in the still-not-quite-comfortable company of Lars and Lord Vader and went to pick up some fortifying spirits from the nearby bar. If he was going to spend the evening in the company of his Commander while his son carried an animated discussion with said Commander’s protégé that occasionally skated just a bit too close to treason, he was going to need something to steady his nerves. Even if Lord Vader was rather calm and tolerant for being required to attend an event with all the types of people he seemed to loath the most.

Still, no matter how calm or unusually tolerant, Lord Vader was still Lord Vader and inspired a healthy amount of fear in anyone who aimed to keep their neck in its current state instead of crushed to a pulp.

Well, almost anyone. Lars was one of the rare exceptions who Veers wouldn’t pin down as downright foolish for their lack of fear.

The Princess Organa, who was currently making a beeline towards them, or rather, towards Lars without so much as a glance at the lad’s dark guardian and dragging her sheet-pale father behind her, might be another.

He smirked as he watched her forcibly pull the man behind her along with her in her single-minded quest. She, in what no doubt was the fruits of the years of training and experience her station afforded and demanded from her, somehow wasn’t causing a scene, but anyone who saw her would immediately realize she was a lass on a mission and damn whoever got in her way. Veers’d always liked that about the young princess whenever they’d crossed paths. She had a kind of fire inside of her that burned with a ferocity her parents, for all their virtues, seemed to lack, and it made him curious as to what an Alderaan ruled by the spitfire Princess would look like.

Sipping from the tumbler of whiskey he’d acquired from the bar, he watched in amusement as the Princess drew ever closer. Neither Lars or Zev had noticed her yet, but he saw Lord Vader shift his attention towards the approaching white storm minutely in a move that told Veers his Commander very much recognized the sheer force heading their way.

Either finally noticing the Princess’ approach or, more likely, noticing Lord Vader notice her approach, Lars looked up from where he was discussing something concerning TIE Fighters with Zev just in time to see the Princess stroll carelessly into the social bubble that’d once again manifested itself around them by virtue of Lord Vader's presence. Her poor, harried father looked like he’d frankly rather be anywhere else, up to, and including, facing off against a hungry rancor.

Wise man, Veers thought as took another sip, eager to see how this would play out.

Evidently, despite her brashness, the Princess was more than aware enough of her position to not go haring off directly on whatever had her this fired up, as she dipped her head politely towards both Lord Vader and Lars, her father looking measurably relieved at that fact. Something to which Veers could sympathize all too well, as he caught Zev leaning in to whisper something to Lars out of the corner of his mouth.

‘Lord Vader,’ she greeted politely, ‘A pleasure to see you again.’ Now, Veers knew that was a lie, for all that it was the expected thing to say. No one was pleased to see Lord Vader unless they were either heading out for battle, trapped in one, or Lars. Still, it was the expected spiel of these parties, and she recited it well.

Never mind that as her senior and parent it was technically supposed to have been her father who gave it, they were obviously well past that.

‘Princess Organa,’ Lord Vader rumbled as he inclined his head as well. ‘Likewise.’ After that, the interaction between the two was evidently concluded, as Vader turned his attention towards the unfortunate Bail Organa, who still hadn’t regained even the slightest bit of color.

‘Senator Organa,’ was the curt acknowledgement, and with that, his Commander turned back to watching the crowds, seeming to be rather permissive of both politicians invading his personal space in a move so unusual, Veers just automatically chalked it up to Lars’ influence and left it at that. No need to go digging.

Neither of said politicians seemed to inclined to question their good fortune or press their luck by bothering the dark lord any further, with the Princess choosing to focus her attention on Lars and the unfortunate Senator still looking like he might just pass out any second.

Lars, however, seemed more than thrilled to meet two new people, and turned the full brunt of his sunshine treatment on the two, beaming wide as he inclined his head towards both.

‘Your Highness,’ he greeted warmly, nodding to her and to her father. ‘Senator Organa. What brings you both here?’

The Princess wasted no time covering for her poor father—intentional or otherwise—and immediately took the conversational line Lars had thrown her. ‘Well,’ she said with a wry smile, ‘My first concern would be to ask how Emmy and HK-77 are doing, and the second would be to ask you to call me Leia.’

Whatever that meant, Lars’ eyes widened until they resembled tea saucers and Zev made a sputtering noise of disbelief that had Veers eyeing him in concern. That couldn’t be good for his lungs.

‘I— uh,’ Lars stammered, still looking rather dumbstruck for a moment before he visibly shook off his confusion and replaced it with cautious excitement. ‘They’re both doing fine, thank you for asking. HK-77 unfortunately had to stay home, but Emmy is currently staying on the La— Executor and still helping me out with my work.’ He sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. ‘Though she’s been a bit homesick on occasion, even if she does enjoy all the new space she has to roam.’ He shook his head slightly and looked at the Princess with curiosity, tilting his head. ‘You watched Scrap Hunting?’

Wait. They were talking about that holochannel again?

Evidently, as the Princess huffed out a laugh and nodded. ‘Since some of your very first videos,’ she admitted, holding out her hand. ‘@whitesilksteelcore, it’s nice to meet face to face.’

Lars’ eyes blew wide once again as he shook her hand, seemingly on autopilot. ‘That was you!?’ he blurted out incredulously. ‘Oh man, I— I don’t know what to say.’ He tilted his head abruptly, seemingly reconsidering his own words. ‘Well, that isn’t entirely true, I guess.’ He beamed wide at her. ‘Thanks for all the support. It was always great to have you around in the chat and comments, and I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have thought of some of the things you suggested with mouse droids.’

‘You’re welcome,’ the Princess said bemusedly, before looking over at Zev. ‘And who’s this?’

‘Zevulon Veers,’ Zev introduced himself swiftly. ‘Been lucky enough to count myself as one of Luke's friends these days, so I tend to stick close.’

Lars beamed as he clapped a hand on Zev's shoulder. ‘He’s one hell of a wizard guy,’ he told the Princess happily. ‘And he’s also been making sure I don’t stick my foot in my mouth too often around here. Like telling me the proper way to address Alderaani royalty before I botch it,’ he added with a subtle wink that made the Princess stifle a laugh.

‘I see,’ she muttered, amusement gleaming in her eyes. ‘I was wondering where the sudden formality had come from in a guy I distinctly remember cursing up a blue streak whenever he set fire to the cockpit of the TIE.’

Lars sputtered out an indignant sound as Zev hid a smile behind his hand, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. ‘That was one time,’ he protested.

‘No it wasn’t,’ Zev and the Princess denied in perfect synchronicity, startling when they met each other’s gaze, before all bursting out in laughter, Lars still mock-protesting about the injustice of it all between bouts of his own giggles.

Deciding that the three kids—and really, they were all just kids—seemed to get along well enough for now, Veers turned his attention towards the stock-still Senator Organa, who was looking like he’d simultaneously seen a ghost and been cornered by a wild nexu. Eyeing the man in concern, Veers weighed his options and decided that, for all that it probably breached seven different kinds of protocol and unspoken rules, Organa probably needed a drink too.

Casting one last glance at where the three kids were now holding a hushed, but evidently highly serious discussion about… something, he quietly slipped away and headed towards the bar to see if he couldn’t bring back a glass of Alderaani tirsan before the man collapsed into a dead faint. For all that Alderaan was usually more famous for its wines, Organa could probably use something stronger this time around while his daughter insisted on interacting with one of the most paradoxically dangerous people the galaxy currently knew of. And if anything could do the job of soothing the man’s overtaxed nerves, it was tirsan.

He’d had it only a handful of times in his deployment in the Alderaan system and had forgotten every single one of them after he’d had his second glass, which was good enough of a recommendation in and of itself. Made by mixing both the sap and the fruits of the malla tree together, fermenting it, and then distilling the whole thing twice over, the spirit was traditionally used for celebrations, just after funerals, and wound care.

He figured Organa could use it. He was probably feeling close enough to attending a funeral that even if he was the more traditional type, he wouldn’t protest.

Gesturing over to the bartender and making the request for two fingers of the stuff, he glanced back at where Lars currently seemed to be explaining something to both Zev and the Princess in a hushed conversation that was nonetheless holding everyone rapt. Thanking the bartender when she handed him a crystal snifter with the requested alcohol, he headed back where the kids were still engaged in whatever the hell they were discussing, Lord Vader was still standing tall and silent like the galaxy’s most terrifying guardian, and Bail Organa still seemed to be regretting all of his life choices that led him to here.

Brilliant.

Snorting quietly, he came up besides the man and gave him a slight nudge. The man’s gaze snapped over to him with a slightly wild quality to it, but he hid it well when Veers merely raised an eyebrow at the uncharacteristic manner in which the man was behaving.

‘Ah, General Veers,’ Organa greeted, somehow managing to sound at least twice as composed as he’d looked. ‘It’s been some time.’

‘That it has,’ he agreed, ‘But if it’s all the same to you, Senator, I suggest we skip the pleasantries and that you take both a deep breath and a sip of this.’ He pressed the snifter into the man’s hand and watched in satisfaction as confusion, mild indignation, and baffled recognition warred on the man’s face. Leaning in, he jerked his head towards Zev minutely. ‘You’re not the only one with a kid on the line here,’ he confessed quietly, and felt a sense of grim satisfaction when the confusion on Organa’s face bloomed into realization and understanding. ‘So trust me when I say that your best bet is to take something to calm the nerves and trust that Lars knows what he’s doing.’

Organa stayed silent for a few moments, clenching his jaw as his eyes rapidly flitted between the Princess, Lord Vader, Lars, the drink in his hand, and finally, Veers himself. Then he nodded and a took a swig of the tirsan in a move that even Veers had to admit left him somewhat impressed.

Taking another sip from his own tumbler of whiskey, he politely ignored it when the man stared at the snifter he’d just imbibed a not-insignificant-amount of alcohol from, instead choosing to keep an eye on the kids who were currently having an in-depth conversation about—of all things—outer rim economics and generational poverty. The things the youth got up to these days. One moment they were talking about the most incomprehensible things, the next, topics he doubted even some of the stodgiest core academics could find interesting.

Then Organa seemed to find his voice and composure again. ‘Thank you, General. This was… most kind of you.’

He glanced over at Organa, nodding slightly in recognition of what was said. ‘You wouldn’t be the first one to panic when their offspring comes this close to Lord Vader,’ he muttered quietly, taking care that they wouldn’t be overheard. ‘But trust me when I say that Lars is more capable and has more influence over Lord Vader than you would expect. The Princess will be fine, and she’ll likely get a new friend or two out of the whole ordeal as well.’ He snorted softly as he swirled the remainder of his whiskey. ‘Even if it does come at the expense of our frayed nerves.’

Organa hummed quietly as he took another fortifying sip of his own beverage. ‘Speaking from experience, I take it? Then the young man over there must be… Zett, correct? Or was it Zel?’

‘Zev,’ he corrected softly, waving away Organa’s apologetic look. ‘Zevulon, my son. And yes, I do. While I may have introduced him to Lars deliberately, it was still a nerve-wracking affair for me,’ he admitted. ‘Zev has a tendency of not always recognizing the risks he takes, and I was more than a little worried he’d risk something from which there’d be no coming back.’

‘Hm.’ Organa glanced over at where the Princess and Lars were currently in a deep discussion about the nature of… economic attrition? Why the hell not. ‘I suppose I can understand that feeling.’

‘Thought you might,’ he agreed easily, letting the man pretend like his daughter wasn’t infinitely more likely to accidentally say something treasonous out loud than Zev was. ‘So let me reassure you with this; it won’t come to that. The thing you’re fearing? Won’t happen.’ He took another sip of whiskey as he watched Lars repositioned himself again, still keeping himself between Zev and Vader at all times. ‘Trust me when I say that regardless of where it comes from, the lad has the skills necessary to defuse nearly any situation and keep unwanted attention off of the people he takes under his wing.’ He gave Organa a significant look when the man’s face went mask-like. ‘She’s safer than you think.’

Organa took a deep breath and nodded slightly, turning his attention back to his daughter. ‘You… seem to know what you’re talking about, General,’ he agreed quietly, acknowledging both what Veers had told him and what he technically hadn’t.

He hummed an agreement somewhere deep in his throat. ‘Just figured I’d give you the fruits from my own experience and hopefully leave you with a slightly less severe nervous breakdown,’ he said, only half-joking. ‘It ain’t easy being a father, especially,’ he paused as he looked over to where Zev was still standing by Lars’ side, occasionally interjecting. ‘Especially when you’re not sure if your child will make it or not.’

‘No,’ Organa agreed, something like recognition in his voice as he caught the dozens of meanings that statement could have and found them all to ring true. ‘It certainly is not.’ He sighed. ‘But I suppose there comes a time in every father’s life where we simply have to trust in our child and believe that we’ve prepared them adequately enough to face the dangers that must be faced and take the risks that must be taken.’

And that— that— Veers quickly schooled his expression as he registered Organa’s words.

Organa, meanwhile, seemed utterly oblivious to the internal crisis he’d just given to Veers, relaxing his posture and letting a small smile cross his features. ‘I suppose I had forgotten that. Thank you, for reminding me, General.’

“Trust them to take the risks that must be taken.” He wasn’t sure what to make of that statement, except that he knew it was something Zev would, without a doubt, give him the evil eye over.

‘You’re welcome,’ he muttered out, still feeling rather like he’d just been reminded of something incredibly unpleasant himself. It was just— he couldn’t— Zev couldn’t—

“Fortunately for me, that’s not for you to decide.” Damn the boy for reminding him of that, damn Organa as well. He sighed. And damn himself for forgetting it, he supposed.

Zev could. Zev could and would and had and will. And there was nothing he could do to stop it. Not now that his son had somehow managed to get both Lars and Lord Vader to aid and abet him in his latest scheme. He would just— He would have to trust that Zev knew what he was doing.

Force, since when had he stopped doing that anyway?

Probably when she—

He shut down that line of thought instantly. That way lay nothing but regret, pain, and far more alcohol than he could responsibly consume anywhere that wasn’t his quarters aboard the Lady on a weekend evening. Preferably not even then, as Gaiana would definitely ignore all her doctors’ orders to come kick his sorry ass if she ever heard he was wasting his life away in a drunken haze, and most likely tack another round on if she could see the near-canyon of a split that’d grown between him and Zev.

He grimaced at that thought and promptly downed the rest of his whiskey, almost regretting that he’d already reached his personal limit of half a glass for the evening. Almost. He glanced over at where Zev was currently deeply in a discussion with the Princess, if the way he waved his hands about was anything to go by, and immediately felt the regret wash away in a wave of fondness.

Perhaps— perhaps Organa had a point. For all that he thought of Zev as a boy, his son had grown up into a fine young man while away from him in what felt like no time at all. Grown enough that he would somehow manage to land himself a job that put him directly in the influence sphere of one of the up-and-coming players in this grand game of power and intrigue called a galaxy. And as much as that thought scared him… he couldn’t stop it.

Somewhere along the line Zev had grown past the point where he felt the need to look to his father for what to do, and he’d missed it. He sighed. He knew better than to try and turn back time, had seen the pain and resentment that came from it, but truth was… he was scared. Scared for Zev, scared for what this all would mean, scared for his family, and scared for himself. The galaxy wouldn’t wait for one scared old man though, and Zev certainly seemed to feel like he was far past waiting.

He would just have to learn to trust in his son again, and hope that he could fake it until he truly remembered how. He smiled a humorless smile that had Organa send him a questioning look.

‘I suppose I’d forgotten that as well for some time, Senator,’ he muttered quietly, earning a surprised and then understanding look.

‘Like you said yourself, General,’ Organa muttered, ‘It isn’t easy being a father.’ He looked at where the kids were seemingly wrapping up their own discussions as well. ‘Perhaps even more so when we finally have to let them go.’

He huffed out a breath as he found that those words ran with more truth than he perhaps strictly wanted them to. ‘Well, I’d drink to that,’ he said, ‘But—’ he held up his empty tumbler for the man to see in a move that earned him a stifled bout of laughter.

‘Then let me drink in your stead, General,’ Organa responded, eyes sparking with mischief as he took a sip from his glass.

He rolled his eyes at the man. ‘Truly,’ he deadpanned, ‘A personal sacrifice I will never forget, Senator.’

That nearly made the other man choke on a mouthful of tirsan as he desperately tried to prevent an untimely laugh at Veers’ remark from sending him into a coughing fit. Patting the man on the back to try and dislodge whatever fluids he’d managed to get into the wrong airway, he almost missed it when the Princess shook hands with both Lars and Zev and headed back to her father.

‘Are you alright?’ she asked her father with an amused quirk to her face. ‘Do I need to call an ambulance?’

‘Fine, fine,’ Organa coughed out, waving off his daughter. ‘The General merely made a joke at an unfortunate time.’

She turned her gaze towards him and narrowed her eyes in a manner that he knew spelled trouble, even as her mouth twitched against the urge to smile. ‘I see,’ she said slowly, something deliberate in her tone. ‘And should I play along with the idea that this was an accident or just move straight towards the assumption that your assassination attempt on the Senator of Alderaan failed, General?’

Why that cheeky— he barked out a laugh as the Princess took on a distinctly satisfied air. ‘Oh, you’ve got me, Princess,’ he said, mock-serious. ‘But what proof do you have?’

‘Who says I need proof?’ she fired back, eyebrow raised in challenge. ‘Poison doesn’t care for the courts and a problem dealt with is a problem dealt with.’

‘Ah, been practicing, have you?’ he said, falling back into the strangely familiar banter the Princess had engaged him with when she had been a few years younger and he a rank or two lower, both present merely for appearance’s sake while her mother and his CO had argued over the amount of military presence on Alderaan. ‘How does your poisoning career fare?’

‘I have found that tampering with the breaks of a speeder or two gets the same results with a lower chance at evidence being recovered,’ she answered primly. ‘It’s much easier to arrange an alibi as well.’

He tilted his head in contemplation before nodding in agreement. ‘I suppose so,’ he acknowledged. ‘I take it that means you’re no longer contemplating stabbing as a primary method of murder?’

The Princess scoffed with derision. ‘Oh no, far too messy. And have you seen what I wear on a regular basis?’ she asked while gesturing to her pristine white dress, trimmed in various shades of off-white and ivory. ‘There isn’t enough hydrogen-peroxide in the galaxy to keep up with those kinds of stains.’

‘Fair enough,’ he agreed with a shrug. ‘Though it is a pity that cutting the vocal cords is off the table as well. That’s far too useful a skill to just never use.’ It was too, cutting off someone’s primary means of causing a ruckus—pun very much intended, thank you—was a useful skill if you wanted to get away with murder.

The Princess smiled sharply. ‘True, and it is a very cathartic method, but I have other means to accomplish the same end results of cut vocal cords,’ she replied sweetly, and Veers matched her grin one for one. Oh yes, he really hoped he was still around when she took over for her mother. The galaxy promised to be an interesting place with Leia Organa on Alderaan’s throne.

‘I don’t suppose you’d share those methods with me?’ he asked, raising an eyebrow in challenge.

‘Oh, come now, General Veers,’ she said as she waved a dismissive hand, ‘I have to keep some secret tricks in my repertoire.’ She turned her smile on him and he got the distinct impression of a grinning nexu that’d cornered its prey. ‘After all, I’ll need an ace in the hole in case we ever end up opposed, hm?’

Fair enough. ‘I suppose I can respect that,’ he agreed, and for all that it was friendly banter, he meant every word of it. If Princess Organa was ever the one to take him out, he— well, he couldn’t live with it, that was the whole point, but he’d at least be able to respect it. She’d make for a terrifying woman one day, but for now, she was still just a kid. Granted, she was a kid who had scarily detailed plans to dispose of unwanted suitors and irritating councilors that could succeed with some measure of success, but that was just something to respect.

Her smile softened from something sharp into merely something a bit hard around the edges, and she gave him a respectful nod. ‘It was good to see you again, General Veers,’ she said, voice sincere as far as he could tell.

He smiled back and dipped his head in a respectful gesture as well. ‘Likewise, Your Highness.’ He let his smile slip into a grin as he looked at her. ‘Though you’ll have to forgive me if I double check all the speeder brake lines after this,’ he teased, drawing a snicker out of the Princess.

‘I would expect no less from a soldier such as yourself,’ she informs him, half-mocking, half-serious, before turning back to her father, who’d been watching the interaction with a look Veers could best describe as someone carefully keeping a scream suppressed under seventy layers of propriety and protocol. Shooting the man a mock-salute with his empty tumbler in a gesture that would hopefully be read as some kind of reassurance, he watched as the Princess once more dragged her father off to wherever her spitfire spirit took her.

He caught a few quick gestures being exchanged between Zev and Lars from the corner of his eye, and with a single nod, Zev split off from Lars for the first time this evening and headed over to him. Raising an eyebrow as Zev took up position besides him, he hoped that his son read the question that must be written all over his face loud and clear.

Thankfully, he did. ‘Luke and I had a quick discussion, and we agreed that it was probably best for me to step out of his immediate influence zone for a second,’ he explained quietly. ‘With Senator and Princess Organa having been rather successful in getting his time and attention, it’s likely others are going to try to copy them and we agreed it’s probably better for me not to get caught in the crossfire.’ Zev looked over to where Lars had stepped even closer to Lord Vader's side, clearly creating a visual unit out of the two of them. ‘Frankly, I don’t mind,’ he admitted.

Zev was quickly proven right when, immediately after the Organas had merged back in with the crowd, the next couple of nobles and politicians, emboldened by the Organas’ success, attempted to take their place. They’d be sorely disappointed if they expected any kind of welcome from Lord Vader and Lars though, as the duo, presenting a united front, stared down the unfortunate intruders in silence until they awkwardly excused themselves. Some had marginally better luck, with Lars politely acknowledging them while Lord Vader merely stood there in frigid silence, not even bothering with the acknowledgement.

Only a select few seemed to be lucky enough to find themselves in both Lord Vader and Lars’ good graces, and those that did thankfully always seemed to be of the decent sort. Which… made him wonder about his own status here. At least he wasn’t being stared down in silence.

Watching in amusement as one Senator Orn Free Taa was chased off by nothing but viciously pointed silence, he nearly missed the next approaching group until Zev nudged him in the side. ‘Heads up, Dad,’ he muttered, jerking his head in a certain direction. ‘Here comes trouble.’

Following his son’s indication, he pursed his lips as he saw what was coming. Marching towards Lord Vader and Lars was the entire complement of naval officers of rank commander and higher stationed aboard the Lady, spearheaded by one covertly fuming Admiral Ozzel. How one man could be so red in the face and yet manage to keep such a relatively calm expression, Veers was simultaneously morbidly curious about and absolutely never wanted to know.

‘Now is it just me,’ Zev continued quietly, ‘Or does Captain Piett look like he’d rather be anywhere else?’

Shifting his gaze over from Ozzel, he saw that Piett was indeed stationed at Ozzel’s right, though the Captain looked to be attempting to put as much distance between himself and his malicious superior as was politely possible. Combine that with the subtle glares laced with thorough distaste and loathing he was shooting at Ozzel, and by Piett's standards the man might as well have been flipping him off repeatedly.

‘Oh,’ he muttered back to Zev, watching as the group approached the social bubble Lord Vader and Lars were occupying. ‘This ought to be good.’

‘Yeah?’ Zev whispered quietly. ‘Why?’

He tracked Ozzel’s stiff gait, noting that the Admiral’s posture was overly straight and formal in an attempt to exude authority that failed as miserably as bantha’s attempt to fly. ‘Because, that—’ he said, pointing out Ozzel, ‘—is Admiral Ozzel, and he’s been harboring something of a vendetta against Lars ever since the kid’s set foot aboard the Lady.’

Zev's eyes snapped over to the man at that, narrowing dangerously. ‘I think I remember you telling me something about that a few days ago,’ he murmured, eyes still tracking Ozzel like a hawk. ‘But give me a refresher?’

‘Gladly,’ he agreed. ‘Man’s been a menace. Constant attempts to undermine Lars, trying to get him in trouble, attempting to make him lose face.’ He grinned viciously. ‘And so far, not a single damn one has succeeded. In fact, I’m not even sure Lars realizes that the man sees him as an enemy and rival, but there certainly isn’t any fondness there either. He seems more intent on ignoring the Admiral, though that probably pisses Ozzel off more than anything.’

Zev thoughtfully chewed the inside of his cheek before muttering lowly, ‘I take it the reason for said failures is currently looming over Luke?’

Veers snorted softly. ‘You’re giving Ozzel too much credit if you think that self-sabotage isn’t his main reason for failure, but otherwise? Yes.’

Just then Lars finally caught sight of the approaching party and his eyes immediately lit up in a way that Veers had only a split second to be confused over before the boy waved them over. ‘Captain Piett, sir!’

Oh no.

‘It’s good to see you again!’ Lars finished, beaming at the man.

Oh. Oh, the lad had just shot the rancor’s nest. Snapping his eyes back over to Ozzel, he saw how the unintentional snub took exactly three seconds to register before the man turned puce with rage. Before the Admiral could bring out a single sound, he was quickly overridden by one Captain Piett who somehow managed to look far too smug for a man with no other discernible expression than neutral blandness.

‘Engineer Lars,’ he greeted pleasantly, bland mask of agreeable inoffensiveness firmly fixed in place. ‘I agree, it’s been some time, but if I recall correctly, it was due to your duties keeping you busy.’

Lars shrugged happily. ‘Yeah, though that ought to go back to normal now. And good evening to the rest of all of you as well, Commander Feynor, Commander I’trill, Admiral Ozzel.’

Oof. Acknowledged dead last. Even if the lad hadn’t intended it that way, that was one hell of takedown. And it wasn’t like anyone was going to call him out on it. Even if none of them payed heed to the fact that Lord Vader had clearly already picked a side should an argument happen and that that side wasn’t theirs, no one wanted to cause a scene while they were at one of the most high-profile galas of the season, perhaps even year. Not even Ozzel.

Perhaps, Veers thought as he watched the man visibly tamp down on his wrath, especially not Ozzel. Not with how much the man valued the gossamer threads of intrigue and favor that held together the web of power the elite spun.

‘Good evening, Lord Vader,’ Ozzel instead said, pointedly offering the dark lord a dip of his head instead of acknowledging Lars directly, before turning to the boy with an expression that wasn’t a sneer but might as well have been with the sheer contempt it radiated. The greeting was returned with an icy silence that hung nearly palpable in the air. Oh yeah, Ozzel was skating on thin ice. He doubted the man realized it though, and his next words all but confirmed that.

‘Engineer Lars,’ Ozzel returned in a tone that almost made the words sound more like “I hate you more than you can imagine, you bleeding twerp” than any kind of proper greeting. ‘I suppose I ought to congratulate you on your military commendation.’ And never before had Veers heard a commissioned officer of the armed forces sound so derogatory about a military decoration. Especially not just after the award ceremony itself.

Lars, as usual, either completely missed or simply refused to acknowledge the passive-aggressiveness of the Admiral and instead offered a small, but genuine smile. ‘Thank you, Admiral Ozzel, it’s certainly been an experience.’

‘I can only imagine,’ Ozzel ground out, just shy of hissing it out through gritted teeth. ‘And a private audience with His Majesty as well, you must be very proud.’

‘Hm?’ Lars tilted his head in confusion for a beat before something seemed to dawn on him. ‘Oh! Right. I guess so.’

Oh, that eye twitch really couldn’t be heralding anything good. And the shade the man was turning might have other guests start thinking the Admiral was having an allergic reaction. ‘You guess?’

Lars shrugged innocently. ‘We mostly just talked though, so I don’t really see what’s there to be proud of. And then turning down the job offer was stressful enough that I didn’t really have the time to think about it in terms of pride.’

Wait what?

The composure of all present save for the utterly implacable duo of Lars and Lord Vader stalled for a moment as they processed that statement. He and Zev shot each other bewildered looks as the words sank in. Job offer? Hold up, had the Emperor—!?

‘You turned down an offer from His Majesty?’ Ozzel hissed out, clearly having forgotten all attempts at composure once the implications of Lars’ statement sunk in, and Veers didn’t have to have Lord Vader's more esoteric abilities to hear the barely veiled envy and resentment raging within the Admiral. Which— nine hells, Veers could at least understand that bit!

The kid had been offered a job by the Emperor and turned it down? Why!?

‘Well, of course,’ Lars responded, looking rather befuddled by the sudden hostilities. Something which didn’t go unnoticed by the boy’s dark guardian, Veers observed nervously as Lord Vader shifted his stance to focus fully on Ozzel with a rather menacing air. ‘It would’ve required me to leave my post aboard the Lady and there was no way that was happening.’

Ah, well, Veers glanced between the kid and his guardian, he supposed that explained that bit. Of course it would’ve been something as simple and complex as loyalty. Of course. Even if Lars hadn’t been virtually untouchable before, he certainly would be now. There was nothing Lord Vader valued quite like loyalty, asides from perhaps competence.

‘Not to mention,’ Lars continued, ‘That the offer was for a position in the Tarkin Initiative, and that wasn’t going to happen no matter who asked it.’

The Tarkin Initiative? The think tank overseen by the Grand Moff himself that only requested the greatest minds of the galaxy to work on innovations and inventions that would impact the whole of the Empire? For the Force’s sake, Lars had just demonstrated to the whole galaxy loud and clear that that was what he did. And he turned all that down? In favor of, what, remaining an engineer on a warship, even if it was the position of Head Engineer aboard the flagship of the Empire?

Evidently, because the lad seemed utterly secure in that statement and Lord Vader straightened up as he rested a hand on Lars’ shoulder in a gesture that seemed unaccountably pleased and— and Veers was absolutely not pursuing that train of thought in any way, shape, or form. Nope. Not happening. Taking a page out of Piett's book.

Speaking of Piett.

Gesturing for Zev to stick close, he carefully made his way over to where the aforementioned Captain had been steadily shuffling away from the conversation and likely-soon-to-be blast zone.

‘So,’ he began casually as he ambled over to Piett, keeping half an eye on the increasingly volatile situation. ‘How long do you think Ozzel’s gonna last?’

Piett shot him a reproachful look that fell utterly flat in the face of the amusement gleaming in the man’s eyes. ‘That depends on what you mean,’ he answered primly. ‘Last as an Admiral? Only time will tell. Last before he storms off in a huff over the fact that Engineer Lars is on a level he can’t even hope to touch?’ Piett affected a contemplative look. ‘I’d say another three minutes.’

Chuckling at the truth that was undeniable in Piett's statements, Veers turned his attention back towards the unfolding disaster in front of them.

Ozzel, somehow, had puffed himself up in a bid that was likely to look twice as authoritative as usual but was far more successful in reminding Veers of the time Zev had been four and wasn’t allowed to bring two handfuls of mud inside the house. ‘Engineer Lars,’ he blustered, red in the face and making vague, but sweeping gestures with a pointed finger. ‘Do you even realize the great honor His Majesty bestowed upon you? And do you even realize what a disservice, a disgrace, it was to reject it!? The indignity of it all! Why I—!’

‘Admiral Ozzel,’ Lars interjected gently, still looking somewhat baffled by the storm of hot air Ozzel was huffing up. ‘It was just a job offer I wasn’t interested in, that’s all.’

‘That’s all!?’ Ozzel ranted, and Veers highly doubted that the shade of purple the Admiral was sporting was a healthy color for humans to have. ‘That’s all!? You impertinent little—!’

‘That is enough, Admiral Ozzel,’ a voice suddenly sounded, cracking through the air like a thunderclap. Veers winced as he looked at who’d just spoken, Lord Vader looming darkly from behind Lars like a particularly menacing shadow, the red lenses of the mask fixed on the Admiral in a manner that Veers had learned to recognize and dread.

‘I warned you before, Admiral,’ the dark lord growled out in a manner that had Veers instinctually count off to the lightning strike, half on the memory of stormy planets and tours served in hurricane seasons, half on something he couldn’t even explain. ‘Do not overstep your bounds.’

Ozzel, idiot that he was, didn’t seem to catch the implicit threat hanging in the air like a dark, ominous cloud that promised the wrath of something larger than themselves. ‘Lord Vader,’ he protested, bristling with indignity. ‘I understand that you are— fond of this— this— this lout of a hooligan, but even you must—’ Whatever Ozzel had been planning to spit out in a rage abruptly choked back with a gargle, a hand flying to his throat in a gesture that turned Veers’ blood to solid ice.

Kid, he thought frantically, praying that by any miracle Lars would be able to hear him, if there was ever a time for you to calm his Lordship down, now would be it!

Ozzel sputtered and gasped for a few, futile moments, clawing at his neck, before suddenly inhaling a great gasp of air, heaving a breath of relief that was mentally echoed by all present. Sneaking a quick glance over at the one influence Veers could think of that could’ve dissuaded the dark lord other than the man’s own whims, he noted that Lars was standing a lot closer to his Lordship than earlier, nearly leaning back against the man. The lad looked a bit pale in the face, and if Veers had to guess, this was likely the first time he’d witnessed Lord Vader's more dreaded capabilities in person. Fuck, and it had to happen in the middle of the gala thrown in his honor too.

While everyone else had their focus on Ozzel, now rapidly recovering from his brief strangulation, Veers kept his eyes on Lars, dreading the moment when that pale shock would transform into fear and mark the end of the few glorious months of respite they’d had. Everyone had known it had to happen eventually, but damn if they hadn’t all hoped that day would never come nonetheless.

Steeling himself for the moment it’d happen and trying rapidly to formulate a plan to put some distance between Lars and Lord Vader without being obvious about it to grant the lad some time to process, he watched as the sequence of events that had just transpired visibly registered with the boy.

Lars’ eyes widened even further for a moment, gaze rapidly flicking between a whimpering Ozzel and the dark behemoth at his back, clearly making the connection of what’d just happened. Something sparked in the boy’s eyes, recognition, realization, or something else, Veers couldn’t tell, but he got himself ready to execute plan beckon-Lars-over-and-pray-to-whatever-will-listen-that-Lord-Vader-doesn’t-notice. And then, in the next five seconds, his expectations shattered.

Lars’ features hardened in a manner Veers had never seen before, gaze steady and determined as he clenched his jaw. Something that glinted like glass reflected in the lad’s eyes as he kept his eyes fixed on Ozzel, posture relaxed and somehow standing straighter than ever. There was an— an air, an aura, whatever you wanted to call it, to Lars that filled Veers with an unexpected shot of confidence and reassurance that everything would be fine, that regardless of what the situation looked like now, it would be alright, and perhaps even better than before.

And in one fluid movement, Lars stepped back and brought his hand to rest upon Lord Vader's arm. A gesture so sudden, so unexpected, that Veers jolted at the movement right alongside Lord Vader. Lars kept a firm hold on the arm despite the sudden movements, and cool blue eyes met the red lenses of the mask evenly. Some kind of quiet conversation was exchanged that Veers didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand, but whatever was conveyed must’ve been nothing less than a fucking miracle, as Lord Vader visibly calmed during it.

The air of menace and danger that’d hung over them all like a storm cloud just seconds away from unleashing a deluge dissolved like frost in the morning, leaving only the icy chill of the dark lord’s disdain as he redirected his focus back to Ozzel. Some part of him noticed that Lars’ hand never let go of the black armor, but another promptly advised him to forget it. He decided to listen.

Lord Vader, meanwhile, either didn’t notice or care that everyone around him save Lars was about two seconds away from bolting, perhaps even both, and regarded Admiral Ozzel with a contempt that was palpable in the air. ‘As I said, Admiral,’ the vocoder hissed out, venom dripping off of every modulated word, ‘Do not overstep your bounds. Is that clear?’ It wasn’t a question. Not really.

But Ozzel nodded feebly nonetheless as a hand rubbed his no doubt aching throat. ‘Y—yes, my Lord,’ the Admiral rasped out, voice sounding like it was in as many tatters as his earlier confidence.

Lord Vader's mask dipped down, the brow of the helmet giving the appearance of a glare. ‘Good. Now begone.’

Displaying uncharacteristic wisdom for once, Ozzel chose to heed the order and made a hasty escape, the two commanders who’d accompanied him following suit, thoroughly beaten and more than aware of it. No doubt Ozzel’s social standing would take a not insignificant hit from the incident, especially since Veers was quite sure the surrounding guests were far from as oblivious as they were making themselves out to be, but that was just good survival instincts. Ah well, it wasn’t quite a gala unless someone caused a minor scandal somewhere in the evening.

‘Well,’ a distinctive bland voice spoke up from his side, ‘I can’t say I didn’t see that coming.’

Eyeing Piett incredulously, he was beaten to the punch by Zev. ‘Sir,’ his son started, already sounding a bit frazzled. ‘With all due respect, what the hell does that mean?’

‘It means, Cadet Veers, that I am hardly surprised by this turn of events,’ Piett replied evenly. ‘Admiral Ozzel has never been known for his self-restraint or even temper, and combine that with the factor that is his animosity towards Engineer Lars, and you find a predictable result.’ He shot Zev a flat look. ‘For all that Admiral Ozzel places high value on decorum and appearances, I have never known him to be able to maintain either in the face of unexpected factors. Lars’ casual mention of declining an employment offer from the Emperor was bound to set him off.’ Piett shifted in place, folding his hands behind his back as he turned his gaze back towards where Lord Vader and Lars were having a quiet conversation. ‘And Ozzel’s temper was bound to set off Lord Vader's… protectiveness.’

Zev stared in horror at Piett but Veers just snorted inelegantly. ‘No kidding,’ he muttered. ‘I think we just ought to be thankful that the troopers were out of immediate earshot and view, or we might’ve had to find a way to smuggle a still-smoking corpse out of the hall without causing a panic.’

‘Indeed,’ Piett agreed, pursing his lips as he observed Lars and Lord Vader with intense focus.

Frowning at his friend’s behavior, Veers nudged him subtly. ‘Something on your mind?’ he asked lowly.

Piett glanced at him from the corner of his eye, and gave a minute nod. ‘I don’t know if I imagined it, but for a moment I thought that…’ He mulled over his words before settling on, ‘For a moment I thought that I felt something… odd when Lars intervened with Lord Vader…’ He trailed off, looking unusually unsure of himself. ‘It was likely nothing though.’

Veers narrowed his eyes and put two and two together in his head. ‘A feeling that, for some Force-forsaken reason, made you think everything was going to be alright, regardless of how fucked the situation seemed?’

Piett's head snapped sideways with such speed that he thought the man ought to have cracked something, looking at him with wide eyes that rapidly narrowed in suspicion. ‘Yes, actually. How did you—’ He cut himself off abruptly, closed his eyes, and let out a breath. ‘You felt it too,’ he stated, completely sure of that statement.

‘I did,’ Veers confirmed needlessly. ‘Force knows why.’

‘I felt it too,’ Zev piped up, having recovered his composure. ‘Like it was all gonna be okay regardless of the fact that a man just got— just got strangled.’

‘Hm,’ Piett hummed out noncommittally. ‘How odd.’

‘Very,’ Veers agreed.

Zev looked nervously between the two of them. ‘Are we— are we gonna do something about it?’ he asked, fidgeting in place.

‘No,’ Piett and Veers answered in perfect tandem. ‘Absolutely not,’ he tacked on at the end.

Zev startled at their vehemence and Veers rushed to clarify because this really wasn’t something to let Zev figure out on his own. ‘Son,’ he began gravely. ‘Word of advice; never try to figure out anything that isn’t immediately obvious when it concerns Lars and Lord Vader. We’re not quite sure what’ll happen, but it will draw Lord Vader's attention and that is rarely a good thing.’

‘Especially when it concerns his Lordship’s more private affairs,’ Piett added helpfully.

Zev blinked, but before he could formulate any kind of response, Lars nodded to Lord Vader and split off, heading straight for them. Dropping the topic like a hot stone, Veers hoped that whatever the hell the two had been discussing, it would hopefully help prevent a repeat scenario of the incident a few minutes ago from occurring.

‘Hey, Zev,’ Lars greeted easily, as if he hadn’t just stopped what was previously thought to be an unstoppable force from choking someone out. ‘Lord Vader and I are about to do some rounds so I can talk to a few more people here and then we’ll likely both call it an evening. Do you wanna come with or are you comfortable staying here?’

Zev, who was switching his gaze rapidly between Lars and the black specter standing silently in wait for the return of his protégé, swallowed nervously. ‘If it’s all the same to you, I think I’m gonna stick with my Dad for a bit. Yeah.’ He nodded faintly, before turning his whole gaze on Lars. ‘I’ll still see you tomorrow when I get sent back to the academy?’

Lars grinned wide and all of a sudden, he was just a boy again and not the person who’d just demonstrated a terrifying awareness of their own influence over second most powerful man in the galaxy. ‘Definitely!’ he agreed brightly. ‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

Zev matched the bright grin and for a moment these two young men were just kids again, happy to have a friend. ‘I’ll see you on the trails then, Luke.’

A complicated handshake took place again and Lars clapped Zev on the shoulder, beaming wide. ‘See you on the trails, Zev.’ He then turned to the rest of them. ‘It was nice seeing you again, Captain Piett, General Veers.’ And with that he headed back towards where the single most terrifying being in the galaxy was waiting patiently for him to return. Once again side by side, the duo clad in black swept away into the gala hall, people around them parting like waves to allow them to pass through. Watching them leave, Veers found that he felt a weight lift off his shoulders with them.

Lars was aware of what Lord Vader was capable of. He was aware, and more importantly, he hadn’t run and had somehow been able to calm the dark lord down from a homicidal rage with just a touch and what seemed to be nothing more than his presence. Whatever else could be said about the kid, clearly he had nerves of steel and an iron will.

‘So,’ Zev said, drawing Veers’ attention back to his son. ‘That was fucking terrifying.’ He breathed in deeply as he pressed his hand together in front of his face, fingertips just touching his nose. ‘Holy shit.’

‘Yeah,’ he agreed drily. ‘And just imagine, only a few short months ago we didn’t have the kid to defuse the situation.’

‘Hm,’ Piett hummed in agreement. ‘Yes, it’s been a rather quiet few months ever since Engineer Lars arrived.’

‘Oh, hush, you adrenaline junkie,’ he sniped. ‘Some of us like it quiet and you get plenty of action as the Lady’s captain anyway.’

Piett shot him a look that promised pain in various creative and unexpected ways before neatly folding his hands behind his back and fixing his signature bland expression. ‘I resent that statement,’ he informed them primly.

‘Because you know it’s true and can’t deny it,’ he shot back, delighted when the next dark look he received was downright murderous.

‘If you are quite done,’ Piett responded measuredly. ‘Or do I have to remind you of the time you what happened when the AT-AT walker prototype first hit the battlefield?’

Oh, that was hitting below the belt. ‘I’ll have you know I was acting on Lord Vader's orders,’ he retorted, ‘And simply carrying out his Lordship’s plan.’

Piett merely raised an unimpressed eyebrow. ‘I think you’ll find, Max.’ Oh no, first names said like that were never a good thing here. ‘So was I. In fact, I can prove it. After all,’ he continued with a slight smirk. ‘The navy submits every order in triplicate.’

Oh, that smooth son of a—!

He smirked and tipped his head at the Captain, conceding the brief verbal spar lost. ‘Touché.’

Piett nodded back with a small smile, and Zev chose that exact moment to pipe up. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I really would like to hear what the reminder of the time the AT-AT walker hit the battlefield entails.’

Shooting his son a betrayed look, he found Zev grinning mischievously back at him. ‘After all,’ the boy continued, ‘I’ll be joining you aboard the Lady in a few months, so I might as well gain some insight to the people I will be working with, no?’

Damn it all, he knew Zev taking an interest in politics would spell disaster. Never did imagine it would be in this way though.

Piett, the traitor, chuckled happily at his son’s mischief. ‘Well, since it is a future coworker asking…’ he trailed off with a damnable spark of mischief in his eyes and he shot the man a murderous look which was met with complete equanimity. He was saved by the bell when Piett's comm beeped incessantly all of a sudden, and with a fluidity that spoke of countless hours of practice, the man slipped it out of his pocket and scanned the contents of the message.

He sighed, before nodding politely at both of them. ‘It seems it’ll have to wait. A certain Admiral has just made his escape from the gala and the two remaining commanders are unsure of how to proceed.’ He gave Veers an exasperate look. ‘Apparently they were instructed to not move about the party unless they had a superior officer there to, quote, “make sure they didn’t embarrass the whole Executor.”’

‘Force,’ he muttered out, ‘Sometimes I get the feeling this whole ship’d crash and burn if you weren’t there to fix Ozzel’s bullshit.’

Piett sighed. ‘Sometimes, Max, I think you might be right.’ He shook his head. ‘I should be on my way. A good evening to the both of you, General, Cadet Veers.’ And between one blink and the next the Captain had managed to melt back into the milling masses of the gala.

‘You know?’ Zev suddenly said. ‘That guy is kinda terrifying as well.’

Veers snorted as he tried to bite back a full-blown laugh. ‘That he is,’ he agreed easily. ‘Another word of advice; don’t get on his bad side either.’

Zev nodded hastily. ‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Speaking of plans,’ Veers said as he suddenly realized something. ‘We seem to suddenly have found ourselves with some time left to kill at this party.’ He gave Zev a questioning look. ‘Anything in particular you want to do?’

Zev shrugged. ‘Not really. I doubt there are many other people my age here that I would want to talk to, and I probably want to talk to the older people here even less.’

He hummed as he processed that statement. ‘Fair enough,’ he agreed. ‘I guess—’ C’mon, he thought to himself, Organa had a point. He may not like it, but it was either that, or allow this split to grow ever wider. ‘I guess I have a suggestion then,’ he finished, proud that his voice wasn’t shaking like his insides definitely were at the moment. ‘Since you’re gonna be working aboard with us in a few months anyway, why don’t I give you the rundown on the people you need to know while you tell me a bit more about how, exactly, you convinced both Lars and Lord Vader to give you this job?’

Zev's head whipped around to stare at him, surprise written all over his face with something fragile in the eyes. ‘Are you serious?’

And well, even if he wasn’t before, he certainly was now with that kind of response. ‘Dead serious,’ he confirmed. ‘It’s not like I can stop you either way, so I guess I’ll just have to trust you not to get yourself killed,’ he remarked more flippantly than he was feeling. ‘And maybe give you some tips so you can be the best damn secretary the Lady has ever seen once you step aboard,’ he added, shooting Zev a small grin. ‘Sound good?’

Whatever response he’d expected from Zev, it certainly wasn’t the slow, beaming smile that took over his son’s face, brightening his demeanor in a manner he hadn’t seen in— hadn’t seen in years. ‘Yeah,’ Zev responded, sounding a bit breathless. He rubbed a hand over his face in a familiar nervous gesture and beamed wide. ‘Yeah, that sounds great, Dad.’

And well. That smile made all the nerves worth it. He huffed out a laugh. Story of every father’s life.

‘Alright then, Zev,’ he said, still feeling nervous beyond all compare at the thought of his kid aboard the Lady, but more than willing to shove that feeling down if it just meant more of that smile. ‘First thing you need to know; don’t fuck with Lord Vader's favorites. They’re untouchable, and unless you want to be on the receiving end his Lordship’s wrath, you’ll be polite to them. Anyone associated with them as well.’

‘Does that include Luke,’ Zev interrupted, ‘Because that would mean that I… am…’ he trailed off, looking a bit stunned. ‘Oh.’

Veers grinned wide. ‘Exactly. You’re gonna be going places, son.’ He was. He really, really was. And even if he was going to give his father multiple heart attacks while getting there, he’d be damned if he wasn’t proud of the boy nonetheless.

The smile that spread over Zev's face at those words made would make the heart attacks worth it anyway.

He smiled back, and for the first time in a long while that echoed the moment of watching Lars calm the unstoppable storm with just a touch, he truly felt like it was all going to be alright.

Chapter Text

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.