Steam curled up from the rim of the ceramic mug before her as the soft patter of tea gathering at its bottom filled the air. Three cups sat on the battered old table, its checkered enamel face chipped a bit around the edges. Aphra dug her nail beneath the paint and scraped a bit off.
These people were so stiff and boring and fucking sad. It was like being at a funeral for days on end. Every conversation was hushed, or formal, or stiff, or just plain stagnant. Sometimes Aphra made a harmless joke, and all she got was blank stares. It was miserable.
The Ghost was only slightly more hospitable than it had been the last time she’d been on it. At least she’d gotten a chance to speak to Sabine Wren again. The girl wasn’t so bad, really. Aphra actually managed to carry an intellectual conversation with her about the gallery on Pam’lo, which Aphra had robbed about six years ago.
Her two companions sat and stared at their cups. It was the first time since Leia Skywalker had returned from Bespin that they had been able to sit down and really talk about what had happened.
Aphra did not know why she was still here.
She did not feel any sort of fondness toward Hera Syndulla or Rex the Clone. She was hated, or at the very least ignored, by almost everyone here. And yet Aphra stayed.
Why? It made no sense to her. She had spent every morning and every night sitting in the cockpit of her ship, and inevitably deciding to stick it out one more night— one more day— just another hour, and then she’d be gone.
Aphra sucked in a breath, and she slumped in her seat.
“What now?” she asked to no one in particular.
Hera and Rex raised their eyes and met her face. Rex looked considerably worse for wear, perhaps the worst of them all. He already looked old, but the last few days seemed to have aged him half a decade. His eyes drooped, and his mouth twitched behind his beard. He slumped forward, and he said nothing.
On the other hand, Hera’s eyes were sharp. Her long green fingers curled around her cup, and she straightened up.
“We will do what we’ve always done,” she said. “Knowing Vader’s identity doesn’t change that.”
Aphra couldn’t help but scoff into her tea. “Maybe for you,” she muttered.
Hera watched her coolly. Rex decidedly remained silent.
Aphra took a great gulp of the scalding liquid to remedy the harsh stares. She damned them for not having the alcohol to spare to enhance the flavor of the bland herbal brew.
“I’m just saying,” she gasped, setting her cup down, “he’s a complete monster. And I don’t use that term lightly. If he wants something— whether it’s just information or a whole damn person— he won’t rest till he gets it.”
“That’s exactly why we’re working to better our chances against him,” Hera said.
Aphra exhaled a heavy breath as she slumped forward. These damn rebels had no brains! Aphra had seen the galaxy and all of its tricks. She had seen the way that it tore itself inside out just to see the way its guts glimmered against the starlight. She had seen the way that planets weathered away, how stars blinked out, how civilizations crumbled in a breath and a blink. She had seen the past, held it in her naked hands, and thrown it away for a couple of silver chips and a tall glass of Corellian ale. She had built herself from nothing and simultaneously achieved nothing, and here she was now, sitting at a table among war heroes.
And she hated herself for all of it.
Once she had told a man that a ruler needed to be both good and strong to be successful. She had long believed that this was the reason why she had long abided loyally by the Empire, because it was both good and strong.
She had been a liar. She had always been a liar.
The Empire was neither good nor strong. Luke Organa had opened her eyes to what a good man, a good leader could be. The rebellion had shown her how weak the Empire truly was. And now Aphra was lost.
“We have no chance against him,” Aphra said, looking into Hera’s eyes and finding herself pleading with a glance for this woman to understand. “He’s not going to stop looking for Leia. Hell, he hired me and a bounty hunter to go looking for information about her. At the time I just thought he was pissed because she destroyed the Death Star, but I know better now. When I was employed by him, he ordered me to interrogate a mortician.” She lowered her eyes, realizing rapidly that she felt ashamed of what she had done to Tahn. She thumbed the hot ceramic mug before her, and chewed her bottom lip as she suffered beneath the scrutiny of the heroes around her. “Tortured. I tortured him.”
“Of course you did,” Hera said coolly.
Rex set a hand on Hera’s arm. He lowered his head, and he took a deep breath as he nodded.
“Why a mortician?” he asked. He did not regard her with disdain, but rather interest. She leaned back and peered at him, a small smirk quirking at the edges of her lips.
Aphra circled the rim of her cup with her finger. Shame was a foreign feeling, and yet she felt like she had known it intimately for as long as she could remember. Like her whole life she had been suffering from a dull throb of shame, but never known the extent of it until it washed over her like a flood.
“I never understood fully,” she said, “until the last few days. But I guess… well, the mortician was a Nubian. He prepared Queen Amidala’s body.”
Understanding melted across Rex’s face while Hera’s brow simply pinched uncertainly.
“Queen Amidala?” She blinked rapidly. “You mean… the old Republic Senator, Padmé Amidala?”
“That’s the one,” Aphra said, reaching down into her boot and retrieving a flask` from her sock. Hera watched her with a quirked brow as she unscrewed the cap and poured a healthy shot and a half of hard liquor into her tea. The liquid sloshed as it mixed unevenly, promising an ugly taste to be sure. “I didn’t get it then. Why he was so obsessed with that dead queen, and her quaint little farm girl daughter. I didn’t know why any of it mattered.”
“The Senator,” Rex choked out. He sounded strange, like he’d just been under water for five minutes and could not quite catch his breath. “That’s how he knew. He got you to confirm that the Senator’s body was made to look pregnant at her funeral to protect the twins. From him.”
“Bingo!” Aphra lifted her mug in a mock salute, and tipped it back. The tea and liquor mixture tasted foul, and it washed down her throat with a fiery vengeance, like it wished to tear the first layer of skin off her tongue and esophagus.
“I know that this is very shocking to the two of you,” said Hera, who laid her hand gingerly on Rex’s arm and watched Aphra coolly. “However, right now it doesn’t matter. Vader knows he has two children, and it seems unlikely that he will be content with just one of them, if Leia’s account was anything to go by.”
“Probably not, no,” Aphra sighed. She was annoyed that she was still here. She imagined running off to the far ends of the Outer Rim, leaving the Rebellion and the Empire behind and carrying out her business quietly. But then Luke’s salient blue eyes floated in her brain, hope and pride glistening inside them as she consistently stayed loyal to him, and so she sat still and stayed put. Luke did not deserve this.
It was an entire galaxy full of slime and wickedness, and Luke was the one bright center of hope that had seemed, for a moment, incorruptible.
But then, Vader ruined everything.
“So our mission now must be to rescue Luke,” Hera said. She glanced between the two of them, her eyebrows furrowing. “I have been focused on the greater Rebellion for the better part of four years. Before that, though, I did find myself wrapped up in various situation involving the Jedi and Sith. If I can help Luke in any way, then I will.”
“Thank you, General Syndulla.”
The three of them turned abruptly at the sound of Leia’s voice. She’d appeared in the doorway, Han Solo hunched at her back, his thumbs tucked into his pockets. Leia looked paler than usual, and incredibly tired. There were dark circles beneath her eyes that rivaled both Hera’s and Rex’s. Her long brown hair was tossed into a thick, strategic band around her head, which ended with a small twist at the base of her neck.
“Sorry, Hera,” the Lasat, Zeb said sheepishly as he and Sabine Wren followed Han and Leia into the room. “They didn’t listen to us, that you were in a meeting.”
“It’s fine,” Hera said, rising to her feet. Her gloved fingers stretched out against the table briefly before she turned to face them. “Hello, Leia. We were just trying to figure out our strategy as we move forward with this.”
“Yeah,” Leia said, cocking her head. Aphra noticed with mounting interest that the leather cord around her throat had gained another bauble. It was a gauzy crystal, probably the length of her pinky. Aphra immediately recognized it.
Kyber. One of the most valuable minerals in the galaxy. Worlds bled for it. Jedi died for it. Civilizations crumbled for it.
And here Leia Skywalker was, wearing it like it was a pretty rock.
“Nice necklace,” Aphra remarked. She sat and smirked under Leia’s sharp, cold gaze. This girl had eyes that could lobotomize you like an icicle, and drain you of all of your innermost thoughts. Aphra tipped back her mug and let the alcohol warm her chilly soul.
“I have some ideas about how to get Luke back,” Leia said, strolling into the room and decidedly ignoring Aphra. “We’ll decide on one, and begin planning. As we do that, I need to… go somewhere.” She turned her face away abruptly, her lips twisting. “I’m not sure where.”
“Okay…” Sabine said, leaning against a far wall and waving her hand. “That’s not cryptic at all?”
“I need a new lightsaber,” Leia said, folding her arms across her chest. “Except I don’t know where to find a new kyber crystal, so I’m a little stuck.”
“Why not use the one around your neck?” Aphra asked.
Once more Leia glared at her.
Aphra didn’t hate Leia Skywalker, but she would be a stone cold liar if she said that she didn’t put up with her solely because of Luke. Solo was more or less the same, but Aphra had to throw Sana into the mix as well. No matter how many years passed, Aphra was still unbelievably fond of Sana Starros and her small explosion of hair, her fiery gaze, and the way her cheeks dimpled when she laughed.
She was still sorta a bitch though.
Aphra missed her.
“If I am going to be a Jedi,” Leia said, her fingers gliding toward the crystal that hung at her throat, “then I cannot live in the shadow of my father. I cannot fulfill his broken legacy, because the only legacy he has given me is this damn lightsaber and the burden of being the last Jedi!” Leia unhooked the lightsaber from her belt and flung it onto the floor. It clattered noisily against the durasteel floor, and rolled in place for a moment. The silence rung out as it stopped, leaving the room feeling cold and vacuous. Leia’s expression was twisted, her eyes glistening, and her shoulders hunched up to her ears.
Han laid a hand on her shoulder. For a moment, Leia seemed to stiffen even more, her whole body coiling against his touch.
And then she relaxed.
“I…” Leia took a deep breath, and she closed her eyes. “I know it’s selfish of me. I have a working lightsaber, so what else do I need to be a Jedi, right? But that lightsaber was used to murder so many innocent people. I know that now. It’s the weapon of a genocidal maniac, and if that is the legacy of Anakin Skywalker, then I don’t want it!”
Hera was the first one forward, her movements slow and her hands outstretched.
“I understand,” she said softly. “You don’t have to feel guilty about wanting your own lightsaber, Leia. You are not your father, and you deserve your own weapon. Both Kanan and Ezra made their own lightsabers.”
“It was a tradition,” Rex said suddenly. He was looking down at his hands somberly, his shoulders weighed down and his brow furrowed. Then, slowly, he stood up and turned to face Leia. “Jedi younglings got their kyber crystals, and then they built their own lightsabers. They never got hand-me-downs. Even that one—” Rex pointed at the discarded metal hilt of the heartless sword on the floor. “—was probably the second or third one the General went through. General Kenobi lost his first lightsaber too. There is no shame in it— wanting your own. You deserve it, Leia.”
Leia looked down at her feet, as though perhaps all this support had baffled her, and now she needed to think for a moment as all her rage seemed to dissipate. Aphra watched this all curiously, though her eyes did flash to the lightsaber on the floor with some consideration.
Nope. Had to keep on track. They had to save Luke. No time to get on his twin sister’s bad side, right?
“There was a Jedi temple on Lothal,” Sabine offered, pushing off the wall and approaching the group slowly. “That’s where Ezra went for his crystals.”
Hera nodded in agreement. “There’s also Jedha,” she said, cupping her chin thoughtfully.
“Jedha was destroyed,” Aphra pointed out, half muttering into her mug.
“No thanks to the Empire,” Zeb barked at her.
“Cool it, Zeb,” Sabine said, flinging her arm out so Zeb would not move closer to the table. “Aphra’s not an Imperial, so don’t blame her for something that is out of her hands.”
Zeb scowled, but her said nothing. His ears twitched as he turned his face away.
“As I was saying,” Hera said, glancing pointedly at Aphra, “only Jedha City was destroyed. The temple was built over a Kyber mine but there is no reason not to assume that there are more places on the moon that have kyber.”
“We’ll check Lothal first,” Leia said firmly. She shared a glance with Han, and then smiled at Hera. “Thank you. For understanding.”
“Okay, that’s cool and all,” Aphra said, standing up and clasping her hands together, “but what are we actually gonna do about Luke? Because you will not, and I guarantee this, be able to sneak onto an Imperial Star Destroyer, or whatever. It’s just not logical.”
“We snuck onto the Death Star to save him once, lady,” Han snapped at Aphra. He jerked his finger in her direction while Leia simply glared. “Don’t think we can’t do it again.”
“We won’t, though,” Leia admitted. Everyone watched as she reached out toward the lightsaber on the floor, and it flew into her hand. No one batted an eye, except Han, who wrinkled his nose at the sight. “Our plan has to be smarter than that. We need to lure Vader into a trap, like what he did with me.”
“We were thinking Tatooine,” Han admitted. “It’s secluded, and he won’t have a whole entourage of stormtroopers and Imperial officers. Plus, there is no way his suit will be at 100% in that kind of climate.”
“He hates Tatooine,” Aphra remarked. She remembered his apprentice saying that once. The Torgruta woman, whose name Aphra could not recall. Aphra wondered what had happened to her, but tried not to dwell on it.
“All the more reason to take him back to his roots,” Leia said simply. Her eyes swiveled toward Rex, and she smiled at him apologetically. “We’re going to need you to do some acting, though, Captain.”
Rex looked at her, and his back straightened as his shoulders moved back. He saluted her.
“Whatever you need,” he said, his voice soft and fond, “Lieutenant Commander Skywalker.”
Leia stared at him. Then she looked around the room, her brow furrowing. “This… could be very dangerous,” she said, her voice softening. Her eyes swooped around the room and landed on Aphra. “If you don’t want to do this… if you are frightened of Vader, and don’t think you can face him… then leave.”
Aphra’s mind screamed at her to take the out. She felt it in her heart, in her lungs, in her unsteady pulse that she could not quite bear to die at the hands of Darth Vader. The idea of facing him again made her knees wobble. She swallowed hard as she shrunk a little under Leia’s gaze.
What was she doing here?
Why was she still here?
It made no sense. Risking her life for some snot nosed prince? It was like she was possessed.
And yet, she could not move.
She did not move.
So Leia turned her face away, and with a small, shaky breath, she began.
And so Aphra became complicit in a plan to assassinate Darth Vader.
Coruscant was as the Coruscant of his memory was. Loud and overcrowded and glittering madly with artificial light. He both hated and adored the city planet, where everything was durasteel and wire, and he felt nothing beyond the stretch of electric grids and humming generators. He thought that the architecture was appealing and modern, and part of him enjoyed the hustle and bustle to an extent. When he had been a child, he had adored moving through the city and seeing different buildings and museums. Now, however, all he wanted was to see the snow capped mountains of Aldera. To taste the crisp, clean air of his home planet, to tip his head back and catch snow in his lashes.
The Imperial palace was as grim as he remembered. He always felt like he was walking through a graveyard when he passed through these halls, and a shiver ran through him as he looked around. The stone parapets and marble floors were cast in shadow. There was something ancient about this place, something that reminded him of the few times he’d been on excavation expeditions while in school. Even the smell seemed to inspire a sense of history, like he was passing through a curtain of dust and moving into the guts of a cavern.
He trailed silently after Vader, his eyes lingering on his hands. He’d been given a fresh set of clothes before they’d landed, and they didn’t fit quite right. He was thankful they were at least not any Imperial uniform he knew of, and had a cowled neck. He had also been given a simple gold circlet, but he’d set it aside quickly. He was no longer a prince of anything, and he still had bandages wrapped around his head and ear.
Before they had left the shuttle, Vader had taken Luke’s shoulder and said, “All we must do is survive this.”
“We?” Luke shrugged Vader off him and glared up at his shiny black mask. “In case you haven’t noticed, Father, I am the only person on this shuttle Sheev Palpatine has any reason to kill. If I survive this, I’d like to retire to a deserted planet, live the rest of my life in solitude, and die in my sleep.”
Vader said nothing, which irritated Luke. He knew that Darth Vader was too cold-hearted to laugh, but really? Not even a chuckle?
Now he wished he had something to laugh at. He felt terrible.
Vader swept into the throne room, leaving Luke to struggle meagerly to keep up. The throne room was the worst part of the palace. Whenever he entered, he felt as though someone had turned out all the lights in his head and submerged him beneath an icy lake. He could not think or function properly. It was all a fog, and his body moved purely on instinct.
The Emperor sat, as he always did, in a dark shroud. Waiting.
Luke bowed his head as he slowed to a stop behind Vader. He did not want to look the Emperor in the eye.
When Vader dropped to his knees, that was when Luke became afraid.
He stood for a moment, uncertain and half-defiant, wondering if he was willing to die rather than bend the knee before a tyrant.
The truth was, Luke had always put little stock in his value. His death mattered little to him in comparison to his life, which he’d dedicated to a singular cause. Dying did not frighten him so much as the prospect of failing his people, his family, and his beliefs.
So what would bowing before a dictator do? Was it a betrayal to himself and everything he believed in if he fell to his knees before this man? The man who Luke knew was responsible for everything awful in his life. He could blame Vader for everything if he wanted, but Palpatine had created Vader.
Luke thought back to the things his father had told him about his mother, Padmé, and his then nameless father. How they had loved each other very much, and that there had been so much good in his biological father once, but not to be fooled by his idealism. Vader was a monster.
Do not forget.
And if Vader was a monster, what did that make the man who had defiled all the good in him? Who had twisted the righteous, heroic man he once one?
Luke straightened up. He lifted his head and stared into the Emperor’s face.
Balk, he would not. Bow, he would not. Break, he would not.
Bend to the will of a tyrant?
The Emperor watched him curiously, his eyes narrowing into yellow slits, and he leaned forward slowly. Waiting, as a predator did before snapping up their prey.
And then Luke was knocked to his knees by an unseen force. He had to fling his hands out to catch his fall, so his face did not smack into the cool marble floor. For a moment he stared at the ground, and he found himself stewing in an empty, cold rage.
Even this small act of defiance had been stolen from him.
He didn’t need to look at Vader to know it had been him. He felt it in the Force, as he was sure the Emperor had.
“Well done, my apprentice,” said the Emperor. His voice was as cold and slithering as always. When Luke had been a little boy, he had imagined that the Emperor’s voice was alive somehow. That is twisted and writhed as it crawled out of the man’s wormy lips, and it branched off into a million different directions, coiling around the throats of everyone who heard it and slithering into their gaping mouths as well, until it was time for them to spew the same horrible things. Words as snakes, choking the life out of an entire galaxy.
Luke shivered. He had to put on a brave face now, his politician’s face. He had to be smart, and he had to know when to act, but everything in him was screaming to run or die trying, and that made being clever so hard.
This had never been something Luke was naturally good at. His mother and father had always said he was not made to be a politician. Why hadn’t he listened to them? Why had he become a Senator? Why had he joined the Rebellion?
He wished, not for the first time, that he had died on Alderaan with them.
“Prince Organa’s execution will be a delight for the public,” the Emperor said. Beside Luke, Vader stiffened. “Shall you do the honor, Lord Vader?”
Vader lifted his head. Then he lifted his whole body, and took Luke with him with a sharp yank of his arm. Luke stumbled to his feet.
“I have made a discovery, my master,” Vader said. “Organa, it seems, has a talent for the Force.”
Luke glanced up at Vader, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He did not want to look at the Emperor’s whose wizened little body had shifted in interest, leaning forward as though to probe Luke’s appearance for the truth.
“Does he?” The Emperor began to chuckle. His fingers clasped together in a steeple, and his laughter grew more raucous. “Luke Organa! The hero of the Rebel Alliance… and Force sensitive. What to do, what to do…”
“I have already broken him, my master,” Vader said, his grip on Luke’s upper arm tightening. “He will join us.”
Luke licked his teeth and closed his eyes, so the Emperor wouldn’t see them roll into the back of his head.
“Oh?” said the Emperor. “Now, that doesn’t sound right. Prince Luke Organa, the symbol of hope for Rebels across the galaxy… simply agreeing to join us? Tell me, Vader, how did you accomplish this?”
“Torture.” Vader’s voice was plain, and it was sharp. “Coercion. The truth, my master, that the Dark Side provides. It is a powerful thing.”
Luke opened his eyes, and found that the Emperor was staring at him. There was something in his eyes, a sort of gleeful hunger that made Luke’s skin itch.
A silence blanketed them, the sort of stifling blankness that consumed souls and drowned out wills. Luke found that he could hear his heart pounding in his ears, and his head pounding behind his eyes, and he would do anything to become a human bomb and blow this whole wicked world away.
Then, the Emperor leaned back. A grin split across his sickly, wizened face, and he folded his hands in his lap.
His grin fell, and his eyes dug right into Luke, spearing through him like a metal beam.
“Prove it,” the Emperor spat.
Luke bit his tongue, his eyes fluttering shut so not to betray his shock. Prove this? Prove what? Prove how?
Vader turned to face Luke. A shout tore from his throat as he was thrown to the ground, his shoulder colliding with the marble floor. He dragged himself back, turning his head so he could hear Vader’s footfalls in his good ear. His eyes widened as the dark, empty room was cast in a blood red glow.
The steady approach of Darth Vader with a lit lightsaber would never not be terrifying. Luke found himself backing up, dragging himself across the floor and struggling to get to his feet. When he did, fumbling desperately as he pushed forward, he was shoved back onto his hands and knees. He fell onto his side, feeling the hot glow of Vader’s lightsaber as the man’s shadow enveloped him.
In the reflection of Vader’s helmet, he could see his own face. Sallow, bruised, and terrified.
Vader lifted his lightsaber, and Luke flung his arms out, squeezing his eyes shut and letting the Force come over him like a flood. It consumed him, his body and his soul, filling up his lungs in a desperate scream and bursting around him in a pulse of pure power and fear.
Luke did not hear Vader hit the ground, but he felt it.
His heart was hammering inside his chest, attacking his ribs and willing itself to break free and fly like a bird. It had felt like something in him had burst, like an expanding balloon that could not take the capacity of air flooding through it.
There was something in his bones that tingled. There was something in his eyes that glittered.
It had not felt bad, this bomb that he had begged for.
But it made him feel sick and ashamed anyway.
He sat up shakily, his eyes darting around the darkened room. Vader was on the floor, also rising shakily, and there were guards at the entrance. Luke inhaled deeply, and he held his head for a moment, trying to wrap his head around what had happened.
Had that been the Dark Side of the Force? He’d always thought he’d be able to tell if it came to this, but the truth was… he couldn’t.
Slowly, Luke rose to his feet. His knees wobbled, and he turned to face the Emperor with a level gaze.
The Emperor was grinning. He clapped once. Twice. Very slowly, he applauded Luke.
Luke merely glared at him. His shoulders slumped, and his jaw tightened.
“Most impressive,” the Emperor said coolly. “Fear truly does wonders, doesn’t it? It unlocks our most primal instincts. Tell me, Prince, how willing are you to commit?”
Luke stared at him. His jaw twitched. His fingers closed into fists at his side.
“Show me the nearest camera, my lord,” Luke said, his voice even and low, “and I will give you my allegiance before the whole galaxy.”
The Emperor’s eyes seemed to glitter at this suggestion. Luke stood and waited as the Emperor ordered a nearby guard to fetch a camera crew. Vader stood a little ways away, neither moving nor saying a thing. Luke understood the danger of this plan. He knew that it was a fool’s errand. But if he could show Leia that he was alive, even if it meant alienating himself from the Alliance, then he would do it.
Luke glanced at the Emperor as the camera men set up shop around him. He felt dizzy. His good ear was ringing, and he had a pounding headache.
The man behind the camera counted down, and a small light signaled that they were live. Luke stared at the camera for a moment, a surge of nausea nearly overcoming him. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was hoarse and a little breathless. He was counting on that. “I am Prince Luke Organa, and this is my unconditional surrender. I renounce my ties to the Rebel Alliance, and pledge myself to the service of the Empire.”
He stared at the camera for a moment, his expression crumbling. He realized that if he didn’t hurry, he might burst into tears.
“I ask the Rebels to hear me now,” he said, trying to keep his voice clear and intelligible, “and see that they are running a fool’s errand. There is no hope. Long live the Empire.”
Then Luke turned away, and looked straight at the Emperor. He asked a question with his eyes, and the Emperor smiled.
“Long live the Empire,” he echoed.
Luke did not wait to be dismissed. He stared at the Emperor, and then he turned away.
Vader followed him out. They did not speak until they reached the lift.
“You did well,” he said.
Luke did not look at him as he pressed the button for the ground floor.
“Do not speak to me,” he said coldly.
Vader looked down at him. Nonetheless, he obliged.
Luke moved instinctively. His legs felt gelatinous and wobbly, but he walked with his head held high regardless. There were no reporters outside— all news networks were monitored closely by the Empire, so whoever that camera crew had been, they’d probably been on stand-by. Luke walked up to their shuttle, boarded the ramp, and stood for a moment at the top. Vader brushed past him.
The moment the door clicked closed, Luke fell to his knees. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he held his head in his hands. His vision swam, gray walls blending into gray floors, and lights dancing across the room, poking at his eyes like needles as a ringing sound perforated his eardrums. Even his deaf ear rang out, like a thousand screeching cicadas, and nausea swooped over him.
Through the tears, he realized he was both sobbing and hyperventilating, and his name was falling like pebbles in the distance, softly pattering on the floor. Everything was white in his eyes and everything was screeching in his ears, and his whole body trembled as bile and vomit surged up his throat and out of his mouth. He shuddered on his hands and knees, heaving and retching, blind and white hot with terror and fatigue and uncertainty.
There was a light pressure on his shoulder, and in his daze Luke could barely manage to jerk away.
“Don’t!” he gasped, spittle sliding down his chin as he stared blindly ahead of him. “Don’t.”
He retched again, though this time all that came up was yellow bile. He slumped against a wall, cooling his forehead against the durasteel plate. The white blanket across his eyes dispersed into stars, and those stars fell away slowly, revealing nothing. No one was there.
Luke inhaled deeply, choking a bit on his own breath, and he rested his metal hand against his forehead. He exhaled. He inhaled again. Then he closed his eyes and let the cicadas swell like an orchestral hymn, and consume his waking being.
Leia cinched the rucksack and handed it to Chewie. Inside it was enough rations to last them a month, though Leia hoped they wouldn’t need them all. They’d also dragged extra fuel cells on boards so they wouldn’t need to make unnecessary pitstops if they had to run from Lothal to Jedha and back to whatever Base they ended up on.
Aphra, Rex, and Lando had left early that morning. They were going to Tatooine to scout out Jabba’s palace, though Leia didn’t expect them to come back. Aphra’s job was to play Imperial agent, while Rex played stormtrooper. It wouldn’t be hard, as Aphra had worked for the Empire before.
Hera, Sabine, and Zeb were going to Jedha. They’d left it unspoken why they did not want to return to Lothal, and gave Han the coordinates to the Jedi temple there.
Leia stood for a moment, taking in the scene of rebels scrambling around the hangar. Her eyes lit up as she recognized a small group.
“Evaan!” she called, pushing off the Falcon’s ramp and waving to the tall blonde pilot. She turned to blink at Leia curiously, and a wide smile appeared on her face. Evaan Verlaine had been busy the last few years with her work and mission to preserve Alderaani culture, so it had been a while since they had seen each other. She and Luke had been close, and Luke had been the one who had ordered her to wrangle up as many remaining Alderaanian citizens as possible.
“Leia,” Evaan said warmly, pulling Leia into a one armed hug. Beside her was the ever lovely Shara Bey, and her husband Kes Dameron.
“Kes,” Leia greeted as she moved to hug Shara. It had not been so long since she and Shara had departed on Hoth. Shara squeezed her tight.
“Hello, Leia,” Kes said, clapping his hands together. “Glad to see you still in one piece.”
“Barely,” Leia said dryly. She broke back from the two female pilots, and peered at them quizzically. “Why are you all here?”
“I was just about to leave with Antilles on a mission,” Shara said.
“And I was saying goodbye to my wife,” Kes admitted, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “I’ve been alone with Poe for the last few weeks, and I missed her face.”
“Oh, is that what you missed?” Shara arched an eyebrow, and Kes grinned at her devilishly.
“Don’t be silly,” he said, “I missed your voice too.”
Shara rolled her eyes, though a fond smile had crept its way up to her lips. Leia found this all unbelievably adorable, to the point where she was smiling as well.
“I think he actually missed field work,” Shara said matter-of-factly. “Force knows it’s hard to be cooped up all day with a one year old.”
“Poe is great!” Kes shook his head. “It’s my father I can’t put up with.”
“Oh, Kes,” Shara sighed. “We should be thankful he’s watching Poe at all.”
“Why should I be thankful that the old man is watching his grandson?” Kes asked sharply. “It’s not a chore, it’s called being a decent human being.”
“Alright,” Leia interjected, holding up her hands. “I should probably go.”
“Are you on a mission too?” Evaan asked, looking eager. “To save Prince Luke, by chance?”
Leia stared at Evaan. She had to take a deep breath to calm her nerves. No, Evaan was not trying to rile her up. She was merely worried about her prince. It made sense. Leia had to understand that she was not the only one worried about Luke.
“Sort of,” she said, her fingers falling upon the crystal at her throat. She rubbed it thoughtfully. “We’re putting a plan in motion to rescue Luke, but I have to do something first. I can’t defeat Darth Vader as I am now, so I’m hoping it… it works.”
Evaan nodded firmly, and she reached out and grasped Leia’s arm. Leia stared at her hand blankly.
“Save him,” Evaan whispered, squeezing Leia’s bicep and searching her face desperately. “He is the last symbol of hope my people have. If he dies…”
Leia reached out slowly. Her fingers carefully fell against Evaan’s shoulder. And then, cautiously, they moved to cup her cheek.
“Evaan,” she said, “I will not rest until Luke is safe. Do you understand me?”
Evaan nodded slowly. She seemed to relax a little, and Leia withdrew her hand, hoping that she hadn’t overstepped any boundaries. Or worse, that Evaan would think Leia was coming on to her. Not that Evaan wasn’t gorgeous, but Leia had enough to worry about without a romance developing.
She didn’t want to think about how Han was only about twenty feet away either.
Leia turned her attention to all three of them, and she smiled faintly.
“Luke is going to be fine,” she said firmly. “Okay? I’ve got this. I’m gonna get him back.”
There was a sudden uproar as someone projected the Imperial news network through a droid, a wide holo projection of the news anchor hovering above them. Leia took a step back in alarm as she read the headline.
“What?” she said faintly as the news anchor switched over to the ghostly visage of her twin brother.
Gasps fluttered throughout the room as everyone took in the sight of Luke Organa, who was a sight to be sure. Leia had only seen him a week earlier, and somehow he looked even worse than he had when Vader had cut his hand off. His face was white as a sheet in the holo, and there was a thick bandage around his forehead, and a padded one stuck to his ear with medical tape. There was a split in his lower lip, ugly and raw, and sunken bruises beneath his eyes and along he ridges of his nose that suggested his nose had recently been broken. There was another mottled bruise on his cheek, though the discoloration of the holo made it look blackish. He stood slumped, his eyes glistening as he spoke.
“Hello,” he said, and Leia’s heart broke. “I am Prince Luke Organa, and this is my unconditional surrender."
Everyone began to whisper and gasp and yell at once.
“Quiet!” Leia snarled, lifting her voice above all others and taking a step toward her brother. His voice was thin and broken, and his eyes were glassed over.
Oh, Luke, Leia thought numbly, what has he done to you?
Han was suddenly beside her, breathless as though he’d just run a marathon, and he looked at her with wide, beseeching eyes as she stared at Luke.
“I renounce my ties to the Rebel Alliance,” Luke said, sounding a bit surer as he spoke, expressionless and grim, “and pledge myself to the service of the Empire.”
“This is not happening,” Han murmured, “this isn’t happening.”
Beside her, Han froze. The camera had zoomed out, and now they could see all of Luke. He seemed to stand unsteadily, and his flesh fingers caught on his sleeve self-consciously, tugging it down over a metal prosthetic hand.
Han inhaled sharply at the sight.
“I ask the Rebels to hear me now,” Luke said, staring at the camera and looking like a man who had lost everything, including his will to live, “and see that they are running a fool’s errand. There is no hope. Long live the Empire.”
The holo blinked out.
A silence followed. Leia stood in the middle of it, feeling as though everything in her had begun to flake away, and her whole body was turning to dust in the matter of seconds. She wanted nothing more than to disintegrate, and blow about the world in a thousand directions. To become sand in the wind.
Everyone looked at her. Everyone. There was not an eye in the hangar that did not land on Leia Skywalker.
She stood, and she absorbed their fear, their horror, their rage, and their disgust. She let it fuel her.
And so she started forward. Han yanked her back.
She twisted to face him, her eyes cold and her jaw set.
“What?” she hissed.
Han squeezed her hand. He stared down at her with a furrowed brow.
“His hand,” he said softly.
Leia could only swallow hard. She averted her gaze, and drew her hand back from his.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I should have told you that happened.”
“He cut off his hand, Leia,” Han gasped, taking a step forward and throwing out his arms. “That’s kinda important information! You said he wouldn’t hurt Luke!”
Leia whirled on Han, her teeth bared and her shoulders hunched. “I said he wouldn’t kill Luke!” she snapped back. “I never said he wouldn’t hurt him. I knew Vader would torture him, because he’s done it before, and that’s why we have to get him back! Before it gets even worse!”
“Worse than that?”
It was Evaan who spoke. Her voice was small and whispery. Her face had gone white as a sheet, and she was clenching her helmet with white knuckles.
Leia looked at her steadily, and she nodded. Then she looked around, and she exhaled deeply. She strode over to the nearest crate, and leapt onto it.
“Listen to me right here, and right now,” she said, half yelling so her voice would carry across the hangar. “Luke Organa would never betray us! What you just saw was a result of him being captured and tortured by Darth Vader. We cannot judge him for an act that undoubtedly just saved his life.”
“Is that not just cowardice?” someone interjected. Leia looked among the crowd, but could not quite get a grasp on who it had been.
“No,” Leia said firmly. “There is nothing wrong with lying to stay alive. We all know Luke Organa’s loyalties. Damn it, the Empire destroyed his entire planet! He said those things because he knew we would never doubt his commitment to the Alliance. Knowing Luke, he’s probably going to try and get as much intel as he can before trying to escape, or make a grand display of his true allegiance to us. So don’t you dare doubt him in his time of need!”
No one said a thing. Leia did not expect them to. She jumped down from her box and moved forward, feeling empty as the crowd parted for her. Han slipped beside her, shrinking a little as he lowered his head and spoke.
“I’m glad you said that,” he murmured. “I was about to throw hands.”
Leia found a small smirk rising to her lips. “I wouldn’t have held you back,” she whispered.
He smirked right back. “Good,” he said.
She stopped at the foot of the Falcon, and she turned to glare at Kes Dameron as he jogged up to her. Evaan was close behind.
“Let us come with you,” Evaan gasped.
Leia stared at her blankly.
“Please,” Kes added, leaning forward and offering a dashing smile. “We won’t cause trouble, but we want to help.”
“I need to know that Luke Organa is alright,” Evaan said, chewing on her lower lip.
“And I just want to kill the bastard who did that.” Kes jerked his thumb back at the empty space where Luke’s beaten face had been. “Prince Luke has sorta been like a beacon of hope for everyone, you know? He never showed that he was defeated, never once gave into despair. He was upset after Alderaan, sure, but he never once acted like his pain was any greater or less than anyone else’s.”
“Luke and I mourned Alderaan together,” Evaan said. She sounded on the verge on bursting into tears, the panic in her voice was so alive and shuddering. “He sought me out after the evacuation, after he had a talk with Fulcrum, and he let me cry into his shoulder for hours. And then he told me that even at the end of the world there is always a path forward. Go up, go down, or go through it. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going.” Evaan’s eyes were glistening now with tears. “Please. Please let me go with you. What the Empire has done to Luke Organa is unforgivable.”
That was true enough.
“Fine,” Leia said, folding her arms across her chest. “You can come with us. But we don’t know how long this mission is going to last, and it could really just consume your whole life. Also, there is a very good chance you’re about to go toe to toe with Darth Vader.”
Kes and Evaan shared a glance.
“We’re in,” Kes said, leaning forward. “Whatever it takes, Leia. I told Shara, and she’d be here too if she didn’t already have a mission with Antilles.”
“You can’t die on me, Kes,” Leia warned. “I’m not taking care of a baby.”
“Please,” Kes laughed. “The Empire hasn’t killed me yet, and they’ll be hard pressed to try.”
Leia watched him with narrowed eyes. “The fact that you joined us just late enough that you couldn’t be sent with Lando is a crime,” she decided. She turned and strode up the ramp of the Falcon. “Evaan, you’re with us on the Falcon. Kes, you go with the Ghost. We will meet back up on Jedha.”
As Leia boarded the Falcon, Han pulled her aside. Leia glanced up at him, and quirked a brow.
“Yes?” she asked. She always had to make a note of how tall he was when he did this. He had to stoop his neck to look down at her.
“Tell me that he’s going to be okay,” Han said. He sounded genuinely frightened. “Go on. Tell me. Tell me that he’s not gonna die in a cell, alone and afraid. Go on, Leia.”
“He’s not.” She yanked her elbow from his grasp and scowled up at him. “And I don’t appreciate that tone, thank you. Did I, or did I not say that we were gonna save him? Can you quit pestering me about it, and start trusting me.”
She started down the corridor, and she listened to Han’s stomps as he slumped after her.
“Oh, I trust you, alright,” he grumbled. “I trust you to run into some bantha shit situation without thinking. Why bother planning anything? All our plans go to shit anyhow, y’know. Might as well just call Vader and tell him to come pick you up, then figure it out from there.”
“Is that not literally what we’re going to do?” Leia asked as they entered the cockpit.
Han paused, glared down at her, and collapsed into a chair.
“I hate you,” he decided.
“I know,” Leia said, her smile small and fond.
Evaan stuck her head into the cockpit. Chewie glanced back at her, and he yowled.
“Hello,” Evaan greeted Chewie politely. She turned her attention to Leia. “Can this ship really go anywhere? It’s pretty beaten up.”
Han scowled. “Listen, lady—” he began.
“Don’t worry, Evaan,” Leia cut in, strapping herself into a seat. “This ship has seen worse days.”
Evaan glanced at her incredulously, but sat down nonetheless. It was Luke’s chair.
Leia looked down at her hands, and she did not comment.
“Everyone strapped in?” Han called.
“Mistress Leia!” Threepio cried, waddling into the room. “We have seen the most awful thing. Master Luke—!”
“Oh,” Leia sighed, “just punch it.”
Han turned and grinned at her. His eyes were warm and bright.
“To Lothal,” he said, cocking his head and lifting the ship off the ground.