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rimward bound

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The pub at the edge of town is run down, squatting in the ruins of some long forgotten temple, with thick, fuschia trunks spearing up through the foundations and corrugated metal shoring up the sides and roof. For a jungle planet, the owners don’t seem to give a damn about the constant, drizzling leaks, or the moss that grows down the walls and carpeting less trafficked areas of the floor, but then, maybe the rain here is so constant they’ve given up on that particular war of attrition.

Arthur never stayed one place long enough to call it home, but he bounced between enough arid, desert worlds when he was growing up to feel out of place here, stymied by the constant muck and deep, cloying humidity.

The Twi’lek fella running the bar is handsome, quick with a pour and a smile, and there’s some part of Arthur that’s considering, maybe, leaning into the light flirtation the man keeps leaving open, but he reminds Arthur too much of Sean for comfort, down to the grin and and deep blue of his skin, and that’s too much like screwing a brother to feel anything like tempting.

“Another?” he asks, proffering a bottle, “On the house.”

And that’s the other thing, Arthur thinks, frowning. He’s not gonna be the guy that takes advantage of gratitude enough to get someone on their back for it. Free drinks, on the other hand...

“Won’t say no,” he decides, sliding his empty tumbler across the bar. The Twi’lek sends him a wicked smile, lekku curling against his collarbones.

“Promise?” he says lightly, and makes a delighted noise when Arthur flushes. “Hmm, what’s that mean for humans? It’s been a while, but it does look familiar...”

Arthur coughs, “Just been out in the sun too much,” he says quickly, and the barman, bless him, don’t call him on the fact that it’s been a week or two since the sun shone here with any intensity.

“Your friends seem to be doing well,” he says instead, nodding to where John has been playing Sabacc for the last hour, Unkuhl loitering around, and swiping drinks from unwary patrons - an eight foot tall, silver-haired Wookie should stand out like a sore thumb, but everyone’s too busy watching John’s winning streak to pay him much mind. The barman slants a look at Arthur. “Unusually well.”

Too well, he means, and Arthur grunts. He told the little shit not to cheat the locals, but the folks at the table seem like rich folk that are slumming it for fun, and unless it comes to blows Arthur’s doing fuck all to prevent it.

“Born lucky,” Arthur says, which is so much a lie that he almost laughs at his own joke, ignoring the quizzical look the barman shoots his way. Across the barroom, a fight is starting to break out between drunk Rodians, and the barman turns away with a sigh. “Be right back,” he murmurs, stepping away and discretely picking up a heavy maul from beneath the bar.

Arthur watches him go, clocking the fighters with half a thought. They’re too drunk to stand for the most part, and the Twi’lek seemed comfortable with his bat. Still. It’s been a boring handful of days and he’s restless with energy - there’s worse ways to blow off steam.

He’s distracted, so he doesn’t immediately notice the new patron that sits down beside him at the bar, almost flinching when he turns back from the burgeoning fight.

Automatically, Arthur checks for his creds and his blaster, and relaxes minutely when he finds them still in place.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the man says, eyes flicking over Arthur assessingly. He’s human, or near enough, dark skinned and with bright yellow tattoos sweeping back along his cheekbones, edged with blue and gold. Kiffar, Arthur thinks, and far, far from home.

“Who’s startled?” he gripes, but not unkindly. “You oughta get a bell on you though, people here are a bit on edge.”

“So I’ve gathered,” the man says. His hair is long and shining, held back from his face in a dense, complicated braid that hangs down to his shoulder blades. “I’ve heard there was an incursion from Hutt space recently,” he says, “Slavers.”

Arthur looks down at his hands, his knuckles scarred and heavy from all the times he’s foregone bacta. There’s a heavy slice of grief that still sits in his belly, the betrayal that tries to claw up his throat each time he remembers picking up that last load of cargo from Dutch, only to open the hold to find faces, dozen of faces looking back at him with fear and - worse - resignation.

A means to an end, Dutch had said. So many folks were willing to write Hutts off as venal, selfish slavers - tin pot kings greedily ruling over whatever outer rim dust bowls they landed on. Dutch, though. Dutch was supposed to be different, collecting escaped slaves and drifters like charms on a chain, staking out a slice of the galaxy far beyond the clutch of the Republic and the cartels. Sure, they might smuggle and rob and, when jobs went south, kill lawmen, but there were rules. No spice, no dark siders.

No slaves.

Arthur lets out a slow breath, mindfully unclenching his fingers from the glass. The man beside him is studying him, but it feels far more like curiosity than judgement. After a moment the man says, “Strange thing, though. Seems someone had a change of heart. Returned them home.”

Arthur nods woodenly. “Heard the same thing.”

When he says no more, the man beside him makes an agreeable noise, gaze turned out over the bar. “If I was placing a bet, I’d say it was some boarding party that took the ship, found that...cargo,” he says, the last word dripping with disgust, “Did a good deed by dropping them home.”

“Seems likely,” Arthur mutters, wondering what happened to that fight -

But,” the man says, relentless, “According to the poor folks that were taken, that’s not what happened at all.”

Arthur flinches, shoulders going taunt. “‘Scuse me, I should check on my -”

“Seems, in fact, that the folks say some middleman just - didn’t complete delivery. Took them right back home near soon as he got a look at them.” The man glances at him, his eyes crinkling with a smile, so soft and kind that Arthur sits back down out of reflex. There’s a lot of looks he’s used to getting in bars like this one - most usually some degree of challenge, either a fight or a fuck - but this is something entirely different. He’s - calm, like the deep, cool wells of Mokivj, all the more precious for its rarity, the life that springs up around its edges.

“Sounds like a guilty conscience,” Arthur says with difficulty, finding it strangely hard to look away.

“Could be,” he says, shrugging. “Doesn’t seem too likely to me, though. Hutts hold long grudges. A man that took a risk like that - I imagine he’d be between a rock and a hard place right now. Especially if he might not be overly welcome in Republic space.”

Arthur leans over and spits on the ground, his mouth twisting. “Republic loves to tell itself stories about slavery, doesn’t it?” he says, “Right up until pissing off the Hutts puts a dent in some Senator’s pocket. Hypocrites.”

He half expects the man to leap to the Republic’s defense - about nuance, or limitations, or how no one should expect to be done with slavery in one being’s life time - but the man only lifts his glass, clinking it against Arthur’s with a wry smile. “Well put.”

“Well, friend,” Arthur says, starting to slide to his feet, “I best be on my way -”

The man passes his hand over the bar top, just beside Arthur’s fingers, and in its wake he leaves behind an achingly familiar locket, burnished with years and glinting dully in the low light of the bar. Before Arthur can stop himself, he reaches out, brushing his fingers over the familiar metal - he’d thought it gone, stolen, perhaps, by some light-fingered potential slave more angry at being taken than happy to be returned - but it had been chaos when they’d landed at the port, folks swarming out of the ship and relieved loved ones rushing to meet them - by the time Arthur had noticed it missing, he’d thought it long gone.

He opens the locket, finding the familiar holo of his mother perfectly in place, her smile bright and unrestrained, the slave collar around her neck nearly hidden by the heavy spill of her hair. A rare happy moment, preserved in a spill of light, and hidden away from their owners until she’d bought his freedom with her blood -

Arthur swallows past a tightness in his throat. “I - uh. That’s a nice little -”

“A Jedi?” the Twi’lek says, snapping Arthur’s attention from the locket to the grinning blue face behind the bar. “In this little corner of the galaxy? You’re far, far from Coruscant, Knight.”

For a moment, Arthur is confused, but the man beside him huffs quietly and folds his long, elegant fingers into his robe. He bows slightly to the barman. “Jedi Master Charles Smith,” he says by way of introduction. “And I’ve spent far longer in the Outer Rim than the temple.”

A Jedi, Arthur thinks. Obvious, now he knows, the robe, the utter lack of concern even in a place as rough as this, the bladeless hilt he can now see at his hip. Arthur’s fingers stutter over the charm - Jedi may as well not exist for all they good the people of the Rim, chained up to the Senate like toothless dogs, brokering peace deals between corrupt Core world politicians while the Hutts grew wealthier and wealthier on the backs of slaves -

The man’s - Charles’ - fingers settle over his hand, steadying. The barman has turned away to mix drinks, and when Arthur’s eyes slide over to the Jedi, the man’s expression is grim.

“I found it in the port,” he says quietly. “It... wanted to be with you.”

“Ain’t that a fun party trick,” Arthur mutters. “Well. Jedi, best I collect my brother and -”

“Your ship is in need of repairs,” he says softly.

Arthur scowls. “The Force tell you that?”

Charles’ mouth twitches. “No. The mechanic soldering up the holes in your hull. She also said you need a new hyperspace ring, that you’re stuck planetside until you can scrape together the credits for a replacement -”

“Then best I go find myself work,” Arthur says, dragging his hand out of the Jedi’s grasp, palming the locket in the same motion.

Before he can pull away fully, the Jedi says, “I need passage for myself and another off world.”

“Then best you find yourself a working ship.”

The Jedi’s mouth creases again, a small, amused grin. Arthur has heard stories about Jedi - cold, unfeeling conduits of crippling power that can tear a man apart - but the Jedi, Charles, looks warm, amused, a little rumpled around the edges. He looks like he needs a good meal and a night’s sleep, but if it had been another bar, if Charles had been a different man, then Arthur may have made a pass at him, just to see those braids sprawled out on his sheets.

“I can pay in advance,” Charles says.

“We don’t take passengers,” Arthur says sharply, impatient with himself for getting distracted.

“Of course we do,” an indignant voice says behind him, and Arthur for the millionth time regrets not spacing John when he caught the little perisher stowing away on Roisin Dubh 15 years ago. John, loose with whatever backwater rotgut he’s been drinking with Unkuhl all night, slings an arm over Arthur’s shoulder, grinning at Charles unrepentantly.

“I wouldn’t want to insist, but there are...things for me to see to,” Charles says, “Leads that may go cold if I’m unable to follow up on them soon.”

Arthur arches an eyebrow at him, shoving John off his shoulder. “Not a lot of Senate interests to pander to out here, Jedi.”

Beside him, John chokes, and Arthur is at least relieved he’s not the only one to have missed out on the signs, but before he can stutter out some nonsense, there’s a quiet voice behind Charles.

“Master?” It’s a young girl’s voice, sleepy and unafraid, and Charles simply sighs, raising an arm so she can tuck in against his side.

“Padawan,” he sighs, absently tugging on a string of beads hanging from behind one of her ears. She’s Tholothian, no more than ten, violet eyes regarding them in that grim, serious way that only old men and children seem to be able to achieve. “I told you to stay in the inn. You’re not yet recovered.”

The girl yawns, leaning into Charles sleepily. “I’m fine. Healing isn’t that hard.”

“Not for those with the gift,” Charles agrees, casting her a fond look. “But you should not have -”

“Your insides were outside,” the girl says, unmoved, giving him a severe look. “If I hadn’t -”

Charles raises a placating hand. “I appreciate your skills, Tilly,” he says, “I just worry for your recovery.”

“I can rest on their ship,” Tilly says, as if it’s a foregone conclusion, nodding her head at John and Arthur.

“Is that so?” Arthur says, amused despite himself. Logically he knew there were Jedi younglings, there were enough stories about them stealing Force-sensitive children from their cribs, but he’d never thought much more about their rearing. The girl looks strangely delicate, for all that she’s lounging around in the worst bar in the worst part of town that Arthur could find on short notice.

Charles makes a noise of protest, but Tilly ignores him, rolling her eyes. “The Force says you're safe.”

“I might be about as Force-sensitive as a pile of bantha-shit, but I don’t think that’s how it works,” Arthur says. Behind him, there’s a tell-tale, whining trill from Unkuhl, who sounds like he’s arguing with the barkeep over another round. Clock’s ticking, then.

“It’s not,” Charles says flatly, but Tilly elbows him sharply in the side, giving him a look.

“Master,” she starts plaintively, but doesn’t go on further, at least not verbally. There’s a look the pair trades that goes on a long moment, until Charles seems to relent, easing back in his chair.

“You freed those slaves,” he says finally, with the air of one done beating around the bush.

“Didn’t free nothing,” Arthur says immediately. “Just ferrying some -” he flounders a moment -

“Turnips!”

“Turnips, thank you John,” Arthur says, smooth as he can, which isn’t very, “Between systems.”

“Ah,” Charles says, his eyes laughing, “I can see why Dutch the Hutt sent cruisers after you and nearly blew you out of the sky, then. I’m told turnips are quite valuable.”

“They got good protein,” Arthur says shortly, but he’s fighting back a grin despite his best efforts. There’s a part of him that’s wondering if this is all some mind trick, forced compassion, but this man, his child, seem...kind. It’s a reluctant thought, edged with suspicion - there’s little enough kindness in the galaxy, and less that he’s entitled to - but it comes from his own mind, of that he’s nearly certain. Instinct was about as much as he had to go on on the best of days, and since severing his ties to Dutch like a rotten limb, he had little else to fall back on.

After a beat, Charles’ smile dims, his arm circled protectively around Tilly’s shoulders. “Those...turnips you delivered here. It’s not the only shipment Dutch the Hutt is running.”

Beside him, John goes prey-still, not breathing, and it’s all Arthur can do not to close his eyes, turn away. He’d been suspicious, of course, from the first time he opened the hold - Dutch had sworn it was a once off, even that too much for Arthur’s battered sense of honor, but...But.

“You don’t know that,” Arthur says softly, hopeful, and there’s a flicker of compassion in Charles’ eyes that’s wholly unwelcome, burns sharper for how unfamiliar it is, how undeserved.

“I have proof,” Charles says quietly. “Proof I’m willing to share.” When Arthur says nothing else, Charles continues undeterred, “We need passage off world, no more than that. But any...information I can lay hands on that would throw a spanner in what Dutch has cooking...”

“He’s - harmless,” Arthur says, though it tastes like a lie on his tongue. It had been a mantra for so many years, since Dutch had found him during his first days on the run, taken him in, seen to him -

“I wish that were true,” Charles says, with a ring of sincerity that aches, right down to the bone.

Behind them, there’s an almighty clatter, and Unkuhl’s plaintive moaning, which, at a glance, doesn’t seem to do much to assuage the barman, who’s clutching his maul with new found intensity, pointing at a pile of smashed glasses in front of Unkuhl and swearing.

Karking hells,” Arthur snaps, only noticing peripherally that Tilly giggles, pressing a hand over her mouth. He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose, and glances over at Charles, who’s still waiting patiently, arms folded into his sleeves. “You can pay to replace the hyperspace ring?”

“Yes!” Tilly says, piping up excitedly, bouncing on her toes. “Master Smith broke up an auction hall last month and -”

Arthur reels, staring at them. He’d heard about that bust, down on Tatooine - plenty of dead slavers and a whole group of slaves mysteriously disappearing off world, a heavy slice of Jabba’s credits evaporating along with them.

“We gave most of the funds to the people we assisted, but we should have enough left over to cover your repairs. And, of course, any additional fees for our passage,” Charles says calmly.

“What the hell kind of Jedi are you?” Arthur says, nudging John to go grab Unkuhl before he managed to ruin all their reputation in one stupid, drunken fit.

“One very unpopular with slavers,” Charles says, shrugging.

“The Senate doesn’t care about-”

“The Senate doesn’t tell me what to do,” Charles says, waving this away casually. “I follow where the Force sends.”

“And it sends you to me, huh?” Arthur says, dripping with sarcasm, but there’s a strange sensation beneath his breast bone, like the feeling he gets before storms, full of change and pressure, danger touched with that pure excitement of being alive.

Charles smiles at him, a real smile, sharp enough to show teeth, and something goes hot in Arthur’s belly. “Yes,” he says simply, “To you.”

“Can we go?” Tilly says - she’s already picked up Charles bag, is yawning into her fist as John drags a roaring Unkuhl away from the bar, shouting apologies back at the Twi’lek, who’s looking regretful he ever opened the bar up to a bunch of damned smugglers, good deeds or no.

“I didn’t say you could -” Arthur starts, slamming the last of the drink, but Tilly gives him a look so unimpressed it wouldn’t be out of place on old Grimshaw, and he automatically tips his hat at her, murmuring an apology.

But Charles is still sitting there like he’s waiting on an answer, patient and unflappable, handsome and not nearly as cold as he should be, given who he is, what he is.

Fine,” Arthur grits out, jerking his head at the door, “Now can we go before Unkuhl gets us all thrown in the drunk tank?”

Charles slides gracefully to his feet, taking his pack from Tilly and sliding it on to his shoulder. “Lead on,” he says, gesturing at the door, and Arthur falls into step ahead of him, something feral and unhappy going quiet with the knowledge that Charles had slid into place behind him, sturdy and warm.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he mutters, but of all the lies he’s told himself, this one hurts the least.