The seams of Poe’s uniform settled uncomfortably over his shoulders, nipped awkwardly at his torso. Tugging on any part of it did little to alleviate the situation and finally he stopped fidgeting with it at all. Nothing short of a particularly gifted droid tailor could fix it and there were none of those here. Glancing around the underlit, grimy room, he made sure only the blandest of expressions crossed his features. He wasn’t a diplomat or a politician, but anyone would be excused for getting the opposite idea given the individuals arranged haphazardly around the table he was sitting at.
He didn’t belong here. They all might, but he wasn’t suited to it in the slightest.
And worse, the synthwool of his shirt itched like hell. Tugging at the collar of his jacket, he bit back a frustrated sigh and plastered a fake, pleasant smile on his face to cover for his discomfort.
It took over an hour for it to all be too much. A record, maybe.
Pushing himself to his feet, he murmured an apology to the table and strode toward the exit. No one, especially not the pair of lawyers bickering at one another from across the metal slab between them, paid him any mind. And for good reason.
He was a spectator here, nothing more. Leia’s eyes and ears, a hand that knew how to hold a blaster and get out of tight spots. But he wasn’t a negotiator. He wasn’t important to these proceedings, not the way most of the others were.
If Leia hadn’t asked him to come specifically, he’d have cursed himself and the situation and maybe her, too, but she had asked him and he’d never turn down a request from her and he really needed to accept that fact as the truth it was. Otherwise, he’d never make it off this station before he died of a boredom-or-frustration-induced heart attack.
Parked in the middle of neutral space, said station was nearly midway between Republic space and Resistance space, a small buffer where neither they—nor the First Order—had any claim. For how much longer, Poe couldn’t say. The FO was swallowing up territory like an underfed sando aqua monster and it was up to the rest of them to stop it, even if the people with all the credits, power, and military might wanted to pretend otherwise.
Stepping into the hall, he breathed deeply. His body relaxed in the less stifling atmosphere outside of the conference room just as he’d hoped. A handful of people passed him in the hallway, most of their heads bent toward datapads as they walked. He paid none of them any mind, scuffing his boots against the scratched metal floor and focusing on the scant feet ahead of him instead of offering his usual smile and nod of acknowledgment. Better, he’d found, to avoid the possibility of eye contact all together. Fewer conversations that way.
Of course, that only worked when you were paying enough attention to your surroundings to avoid turning a corner and running not-quite literally into a solid wall of black. Heat suffused Poe’s face and annoyance flitted about his chest. If this was D’Qar, he’d have laughed it off and asked his target if they were all right. But here? Where he was acting as General Organa’s representative? And anyone he came across might put in a bad word about him—and, by extension, her—with the wrong person working for the Republic? That gave him pause.
Get it together, Dameron. You almost ran into someone. No one’s gonna put a stop to the talks because you weren’t paying enough attention.
But looking up into the face of his near-crash victim, maybe he should’ve been worried. Because the man scowled down at him from more than a few inches’ distance and he did not look remotely pleased with what he saw.
“Hey,” Poe said, apologetic, swallowing his knee-jerk impulse to ask the man what the hell his problem was. Something about the disdain with which the man looked at him grated and made Poe want to set the record straight. Still, Poe could play ball. He knew how to toe the line. “Sorry, are you all right?”
“Fine,” the man answered, sniffing and brushing stray strands of hair from around his temple. He had the kind of face that a romantic would maybe call statuesque or intense or brooding if the holonovels told it true. Poe, who bought into none of that and didn’t have time to analyze his own tastes even at the best of times, just thought it was interesting and not unattractive. The important point was this: it was the kind of face that, if it wasn’t currently radiating displeasure with Poe’s entire being and Poe wasn’t on the job, might’ve wrangled an invitation for drinks out of Poe. “Excuse me.”
Poe’s eyes narrowed as he tried to form a coherent thought beyond can you believe the nerve of this guy? It… worked. Somewhat. Partially. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around,” he said instead, curious, friendly. Edging toward friendly anyway. Maybe, maybe it could be construed as prying. But just about everyone on this damned station right now was here for these talks, it seemed. Nobody would risk letting a non-affiliated civilian in on it. And Poe didn’t recognize him.
The man stilled and even though Poe couldn’t see it through the thick weave of his tunic, the severe lines it formed from being tucked under his belt just so, Poe knew he was uncomfortable with the question. The muscles of his back tightened beneath the clothing he wore; his shoulders lifted and fell as he sighed. Raising his hand, he gestured and then turned back around. “I’m with Varal Leetha’s office,” he answered, stiff. His eyes raked disdainfully over Poe’s uniform. “Not that it’s any of your business, Commander.”
Ah. He was underestimating Poe. Now that Poe was familiar with. That, Poe knew how to handle.
“You arrive late or something?” He jerked his chin at the man and pulled his shoulders back. He hadn’t learned much in officer’s training that helped him be the kind of hardass that intimidated people. There, he’d only learned how poorly his own personality mixed with leadership roles of any stripe—he just didn’t mesh well with being the guy in charge, but officer’s training wasn’t the only place to practice being intimidating.
The man’s lip twitched in a sneer. For a moment, his face formed a brittle mask, going blank and not a little terrifying for that blankness. If Poe were the sort to do so, he might’ve taken a step back, put a bit of distance between himself and this… creature.
And then his features smoothed out and he adopted an almost, almost pleasant aspect. In a way, that was the more terrifying expression of the two. Not that Poe was gonna let him in on that fact. Or the fact that Poe found himself compelled by it. Poe didn’t squirm or turn away or try to push the guy further.
To be honest, there weren’t a whole lot of people who could elicit that sort of reaction out of Poe and here this guy’d gotten more than his fair share without even trying.
“I’m replacing one of Ms. Leetha’s aides. Not that that’s any of your business either,” he said finally.
The range and scope of Poe’s security clearance probably said differently, but he didn’t need to say as much to convey the thought. A skeptical raising of his eyebrow was probably more than enough. Besides, looking up his information later shouldn’t be too difficult if Poe decided to really investigate. “I guess I’ll see you during the talks then, won’t I?”
The man inclined his head slightly. Shadows fell across his eyes and the bridge of his nose, throwing the rest of his face into sharp relief. “I certainly hope not.”
Poe grinned, allowing not a little of his own disdain to show through in the vicious upward turn of his lips. Anyone this rude didn’t deserve Poe’s consideration and Poe had been itching under the collar for the chance to get out from under all the careful polish that clung to the conference room. It was… nice. To let the veneer of cordiality drop even if only for a moment. And better, he didn’t have to feel bad about it like he might have otherwise.
Hell, the man was already dismissing him for a second time, turning crisply on his heels to continue down the hall toward whatever duty was at the other end of his journey.
Strange guy. Not bad looking, but definitely strange.
Poe shouldn’t have given him another thought.
But what he shouldn’t have done and what he did were in two separate realms of reality and as he wound his way back to the conference room he’d vacated earlier, he couldn’t help wishing he’d gotten his name.
Slipping back into the room, Poe couldn’t be sure anyone even noticed he was gone. Everything was just the same as he’d left it and the stylus sticklers were still going at it about some minor concern regarding the Resistance’s territorial boundaries. He was pretty sure they’d been talking about that since the start of today’s proceedings.
Frankly, Poe was more interested in how they’d handle the naval defectors. Not for himself—he’d long ago resigned himself to the consequences he’d one day face, assuming he survived long enough to face them—but there were plenty of others he’d hate to see brought before a firing squad or put into prison or tarred forever with a dishonorable discharge for doing the right thing. But they weren’t anywhere near ready to talk about that, he suspected, and probably wouldn’t be for days yet. They couldn’t even agree how to carve up the patches of uninhabited space between them. How would they ever reach a consensus about something so much more fraught?
He was beginning to think they never would, that this was a foolish pursuit. The real help came from the sympathetic senators quietly and cautiously funneling resources to their cause. The real help came from the Resistance fighters themselves, all the people who scraped and scrapped out there for the things their bases needed.
Poe pinched the bridge of his nose. General Organa needed him here. She’d said it herself. He wasn’t superfluous. This wasn’t a waste of time.
Picking up the datapad he’d left at the table when he’d gone, he powered it up. As soon as he’d set foot on the station, he’d downloaded the details of the talks. Schedules, prospective timelines, biographies of the attendees. The last was the one he was most concerned with at the moment.
Flicking through screen after screen of names and images, he bit his lip and kept half an ear out in case something interesting happened. These documents were updated in real time; the man and his name should have been added to it already.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
He went through the entire thing a second time. And a third.
No mention of the man.
Stomach twisting, Poe forced his mind to still the whirring of thoughts that worked through him at the realization that something was wrong.
You don’t know that.
But Poe did know that. He’d spent years honing his instincts. By this point, his gut was about the best indicator he had that something was wrong or would soon go that way. It wasn’t completely accurate, of course, but he trusted it enough that a strike of adrenaline lanced through him anyway and blanked his mind of every thought except do something do something do something.
Surely it was an oversight; the man had to have been vetted. There were security checkpoints up and down every corridor on the station. He wouldn’t have gotten through those without the appropriate clearance. Hell, even Poe was checked so often he felt like he knew every last member of the security team here.
Scratching at the back of his head, Poe thought. And thought. And thought a little harder. He was generally an act first, question later kind of guy. His instincts whirred away, telling him exactly what to do without him having to stop and question himself.
This was a diplomatic conference and it certainly wasn’t his comfort zone. He couldn’t go off half-cocked on this; he couldn’t trust his instincts. He’d grown up with tales of the Force, of miraculous cases of prescience and impossible moments of knowing. He didn’t have that power, but he was a pilot. And he’d seen enough in his time to know that sometimes the universe had a way of telling you everything you needed to know about a situation.
The datapad clattered to the table as he shoved himself away from the table. This time, he drew more than a handful of glares. This time, he couldn’t give less of a shit about his appearance. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, head bowed forward in an expression of forced contriteness. Walking out of the room, he let that particular façade drop. There were more important things than ensuring a room full of people that he wasn’t the rudest person they might ever meet.
Like making sure there wasn’t anything weird going on here.
Poe really, really hoped he was overreacting.
General Organa, he hoped, would understand either way.
Pulling the temporary identchip he’d been given upon boarding the station from his pocket, he flipped it a few times between his fingers, flicking it across his knuckles. It wouldn’t get him all that far, but he might be able to bully a name out of somebody if he had to.
He was a war hero after all. Maybe. Just a little bit. As poorly as the title suited him, if he could use it now, he would.
It might make a fool out of him, but it wouldn’t be his first time facing that outcome.
Strolling past a variety of checkpoints, he searched for the most bored looking security officer he could find, the most out of the way, too. His suspicions made paranoia prickle at the back of his neck and he wanted to do this as far from the main thoroughfare as possible. It felt like everyone he passed knew he was up to something, but whenever he glanced their way, he found them paying him no mind. Or they stared curiously, some with maliciousness behind it and some without. Nobody liked being scrutinized after all. And Poe was scrutinizing everybody
Up ahead, he noticed a young man—Poe noticed that now, people seemed so much younger than he remembered… or maybe he was just getting older—had the same bored look Poe remembered from his early days, that brittle veneer that hid nervous, twitching energy and the need to do something. His uniform fit a little too tight across the shoulders from the tense way he held himself. Not unlike Poe’s still did when he was forced to inactivity.
Yeah, this was Poe’s guy. And if not this guy, well. There were plenty of others onboard, he supposed. One of them would help him.
Allowing a welcoming smile to stretch across his face, he quickened his step.
Only to be waylaid by his mysterious new appointee. Shoving past, he paid Poe no mind, giving Poe half a second to be offended by that fact. His boots struck the floor in a tight, quick cadence. The sound bounced rhythmically around the hallway.
Poe reached for his blaster and quieted his own steps. Surely the man knew who it was he’d blown past, but he didn’t need to know that Poe was suspicious of him. The leather holster creaked, loud enough to be overheard, he was sure—or was Poe just imagining it?—as his hand tightened around the grip. As he tugged it free, he found it wrenched from his hand. Clattering across the hallway, it came to a stop against the opposite wall.
Before Poe could fully parse what had occurred with his weapon—seriously, what the kriff—his whole body stilled mid-motion.
“I wouldn’t suggest struggling,” the man said, stopping a few strides ahead of him. His hair brushed across the back of his neck as he tilted his head. Poe wondered about the look on his face, since the security officer he’d been approaching refused to leave his post, his eyes wide and obvious even from as far away as the guy was. “It’ll do you little good to try.”
Straining, Poe felt the truth of his words immediately. The muscles in his neck and jaw and shoulders ached with the pressure under which he tried to get his body to move. He’d heard stories of Force users, grew up on them, devoured them. That was what happened when your family was friends with the likes of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.
He’d give up his commission in the Resistance if this man wasn’t trained in the Force.
Didn’t mean he was about to give in though. “I’m not very good at following orders,” he said. An unnecessary claim to make, he knew. Biting back a groan of frustration, he shook his head, the only part of him not currently frozen. “Who the hell are you anyway? Not the name that got you in the door here, that’s for damned sure.”
Though it was difficult, Poe was proud that he’d managed to keep his voice as cordial, as indifferent, as he did.
Executing a sharp turn, the man peered at him. “I’m no one you need concern yourself with,” he answered. Harsh and whispered as the words were, Poe almost didn’t hear them despite how close the man now was. From this close, Poe could see the turmoil in his eyes, the liquid, lightning-quick way he shifted from arrogance to annoyance to guilt—that was interesting—to curiosity and back again. A cold mask descended across his face, shuttering whatever emotion tried to shine through.
If he was willing to admit as much, Poe’d have said that frightened him more than the immobility. His heart pounded wildly against his chest and he fought all the harder in the hopes that the man would look at him differently. He’d have preferred an imprecise flare of anger to this… whatever it was. Of course, there were other things he’d have preferred more, but Poe knew he couldn’t always get what he wanted.
There was a scratch on his face that hadn’t been there earlier and a spatter of blood splashed across his cheek that didn’t look like it belonged to him.
“What the hell have you been doing?” Poe demanded.
“Putting an end to these talks,” the man said, offhand, leaning even closer, growing that much more intense, “It’s too bad that you will not remember this.”
“I…” Poe’s head ached suddenly, like his brain was being squeezed on all sides by a helmet that was too small and getting smaller. It ached and ached and ached until—
The ache resolved itself into nothing more than a barely-there memory, inconsequential and intangible and imminently forgettable. “I will not remember this.” Smiling, there wasn’t a hint of concern left in him. What was there to remember?
Nothing at all.
“And you won’t investigate further.”
“And I… won’t investigate further.”
When he blinked, there was a man in front of him, walking toward the docking bay at a fast, if even, clip. Something tugged at Poe’s awareness, a slight discomfort that settled in his stomach. Shrugging helped. So did turning away. People came and went from this station all the time.
If there was something fishy going on, security would figure it out.
He glanced at his chronometer.
He was definitely overdue for the latest round of talks.
Breaking into a jog, he shook his head.
“Where’s your head at, Dameron?” he muttered to himself.
If these talks were going to go off without a hitch, he had to do his part to ensure they went smoothly. And that meant being present for them.
Like he’d agreed to be.
Like he was supposed to be.
Reaching the conference room, he nodded at the nearby security, flashed his identchip and slipped back inside. The same people arguing about the same things as far as he could tell. Whatever he’d missed, it hadn’t been much.
Sighing, he resumed his seat and picked up his datapad. Instead of turning it on, he forced himself to listen to the proceedings.
This was their last, best chance at gaining the support—the true support—of the Republic.
And Poe would do his damnedest to ensure its success.