It had been three months since Ezra’s last good haul.
He finally took an inventory of his supplies after putting it off all week, knowing that the truth would be hard to swallow. And it was.
Nine ration bars. Seven packets of dried fruit. Five cans of hash. Four Instameals. One unopened bottle of veg juice that he hated to drink but at least it filled his belly and helped stretch the rest of his rations. One loaf of bread. Half a box of tea. A chocolate bar he was saving for when he really needed a pick-me-up. And that was just the food. He was also low on power cells and down to half a jug of fuel. On his last bar of soap. A medkit with no bandages, five pain pills, and one bacta patch. And he had just twelve credits to his name.
Utterly depressing, just as he expected.
This was a bad time of year to panhandle, but Ezra didn’t have a choice. So he pulled on his coat and studied his reflection in the broken mirror. He required a certain look. Dirty but not filthy. Clothes old and worn but not tattered. A mostly-clean face. Soft, pleading eyes that would elicit pity but wouldn’t attract the wrong people. And they were out there. Ezra could spot them in an instant. He got this sick, cold feeling in his belly whenever they stared at him too long, and he would leave the area immediately. Sometimes they would follow, but he would always shake them off. He knew the streets of Capital City better than the faces of his own parents, and he was fast and small, able to scurry through tight spaces like a Loth-rat. He tried not to think about how much he had in common with the rodents.
Satisfied with his appearance, he grabbed a scarf and left the tower. He decided to walk today. It’d be warmer and help save on fuel. Besides, if word got around that “that beggar kid” was seen on a speeder bike, people might start thinking he’s a hustler. Which he was, sort of, but a beat-up speeder bike with a dickey engine hardly made him wealthy. He could barely afford to use it, not that that would matter to most people.
“Must be this poor to receive charity,” he muttered, rubbing his hands together. His words appeared in mist as they left his mouth.
Winters on Lothal were typically mild. Snow was rare and light if it did fall, gone the next day. No blizzards had ever been recorded on Lothal. In fact, the climate had gotten steadily warmer as more Imperial factories went up. Ezra was only fourteen, but even he had noticed the change. Smoke from the TIE production plant fouled the air, which blew toward his tower most days. It stunk. Chemicals and electricity. It made him dizzy if he breathed it long enough.
It was cold today, though.
Ezra shivered and walked a little faster.
He found a good spot at the corner of a busy intersection and brought out his cup.
He would beg for credits first. And if he didn’t have any luck with that, he’d head over to the marketplace at the end of the day and beg there. Sometimes the merchants had old or damaged fruit they couldn’t sell. They would usually give them to Ezra at a reduced price or, if they were really nice, for free.
And if that didn’t work… he would loiter in the alley behind Jho’s Pit Stop until Old Jho himself came out with some scraps: food, information, sometimes a little of both. Jho had a soft spot in his heart for Ezra, which was why Ezra never pickpocketed at his cantina. Sometimes Jho knew people or places where Ezra could score some supplies—being a bartender afforded him knowledge like that—and he was one of the few friends Ezra still had. The fact that neither of them loved the Empire further cemented their friendship.
A well-dressed civilian man passed by. Ezra held out his cup. “Spare a credit, mister?”
The man deliberately ignored him and continued walking. Ezra sighed. A soft snort caused him to look down. A kindly Ugnaught was reaching out to him. Ezra lowered his cup and the Ugnaught dropped a five-credit token into it.
“Thank you, sir,” he beamed.
Five credits wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
The day wore on. Clouds fell over the city and the wind blew cold. Traffic thinned as people opted to stay indoors or return home. It almost looked like it was going to rain. Ezra hoped not. It would be a long, miserable walk back to his tower. He shivered in his coat and stamped his feet to keep warm.
So far he had managed to collect fifty-three credits, though he never kept more than a few in his cup. Nor did he empty it out. People were more willing to give if they knew other people had been giving, too. Ezra would be fifteen in a few months but he already knew more about the nature of people than those who went to university to study that sort of thing.
School must have let out because there was a sudden uptick in speeders and pedestrians. Probably the last big rush before everyone went home. Ezra watched with a hollow heart as children, bundled into their coats, walked hand in hand with their parents, chattering about their day. The older kids didn’t hold their parents’ hands or talk quite so much.
If my parents were here, I’d hold their hands in front of everybody, Ezra thought.
He blinked and felt something warm on his cheeks. The wind blew and it went cold. He sniffed, then dragged his arm under his runny nose. When he looked up, there was a man standing across the street, watching him.
Ezra’s heart leaped into his throat.
Through flashes of blurred speeders he was able to see that the man was tall, wearing a bulky green coat lined with bantha wool. Gray trousers and knee-high boots. Brown hair, bronze skin. A bearded chin. His face was unreadable but nice to look at.
Was he one of those men? The ones Ezra had to run for his life from?
No. No, this man was different. Ezra could feel it. He was… bigger? No, that wasn’t the right word. Powerful? Couldn’t be. He was dressed like a regular person and his boots were scuffed. Definitely not rich and powerful. But this was a different power. A kind of gravity. It pulled Ezra to him.
He was just before stepping off the curb to cross the street when the man vanished. Ezra was pretty good about finding people in crowds, but this guy was just gone. As if he’d never been there at all.
He shook his head. “Starting to see things. Keep it together, Bridger.”
But he wasn’t wrong. The man had been there. He could still feel his presence lingering like… like light in a dark room. Only the light couldn’t be seen; it had to be felt. It made no sense, but that was the only way Ezra could describe it.
Maybe the cold was getting to him.
He sighed and went back to work.
The weather grew nastier. The wind picked up and swept pieces of litter across the street. Ezra was thinking about calling it a day and swinging by Old Jho’s for some dinner—and he was famished; that ration bar had left him hours ago—when suddenly a pair of stormtroopers on sleek white 74-Z speeder bikes pulled up to the curb.
Ezra hid his cup behind his back and began to back away only to bump into someone large. He turned and found himself staring up into the broad, leering face of an Imperial police officer.
“Panhandling, eh? That’s illegal.”
Heart pounding, Ezra turned to run and collided with someone else—another even bigger officer.
“We received reports about a thief in this area,” he growled. “Is it you?”
With mounting dread, Ezra realized he was trapped: he had the wall of a building behind him, an officer on either side of him, and two armed stormtroopers approaching from in front. There was no way out. He could kick one of the officers in the crotch and try to run, maybe slip down the alley just a block ahead, but—
The big officer grabbed Ezra’s arm and jerked it out from behind his back. The cup and its six credits spilled out onto the sidewalk.
“Ow! Let go, that hurt!”
“Ha!” he crowed. “Looks like we found our thief. What’s your name, boy? Where are your parents? Mowler, scan him.”
Officer Mowler pulled an identiscanner from his belt and flicked it on. Ezra’s eyes widened in terror.
One of the few things he had going for him was he was still undocumented in the ICDL, the Imperial Census Database of Lothal. Nobody knew his name or his age or anything else about him. According to the records, Ephraim and Mira Bridger were childless. Ezra had been homeschooled and raised as “their nephew from Padura” under the pretense of helping a non-existent sister who was recovering from a severe illness. Only close friends of the family knew he was indeed their son. Friends like Old Jho.
If Ezra was scanned, he would show up as being undocumented, and all undocumented citizens were immediately arrested and jailed—and then forcibly documented. And at Ezra’s age, they would likely send him to the Imperial Academy where he would eventually become a buckethead. Either that or, if they found out whose child he was, keep him in prison forever.
Neither of those options sounded good to Ezra.
As Mowler raised the scanner, Ezra thrust his boot into the officer’s crotch. Direct impact. Mowler bowled over and howled. Ezra tore his arm free and barreled down the sidewalk—
—smashing face-first into the man that had been staring at him earlier.
“Caleb!” the man cried and pulled Ezra to his chest in a quick hug. “Where have you been? Your mother and I have been worried sick!”
Ezra’s face was blank with shock.
The man gave him a wink, then frowned at his clothes. “What are you wearing? Oh, no. You weren’t pretending to be a homeless street urchin again, were you? Look, if you’ll just wait a few more years, we’ll send you to acting school so you can”—he pretended to catch a glimpse of the credits lying on the sidewalk—“stars, Caleb, your sister is going to kill you if she finds out you broke into her puffer pig bank again!”
Ezra caught on. “But Dad, look at how authentic I was!” He threw his arm toward the baffled officers. “I even fooled the police! Who needs acting school when I can already—”
“Maybe you can act like an obedient son for once and listen to your father!”
Ezra hung his head.
The stranger sighed and put his hands on his hips. “I’m sorry, Officers. My boy Caleb here has quite an imagination and entirely too much time on his hands. Caleb, you pick up your sister’s credits and apologize to these nice officers. If anything is missing, it’s coming out of your allowance, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Ezra mumbled, stooping to his task.
The man gave a weary smile to Officer Mowler. “Kids,” he said, shrugging. “They say toddlers are the worst, but I think teenagers have ‘em beat. You got any kids?”
“No,” Mowler grumbled, a hand over his crotch. “And I don’t think I’ll have ‘em after today.”
Ezra pocketed the credits and stood. “Sorry for being a nuisance,” he mumbled to the officers. “And for kicking you. I promise to stay out of trouble from now on.”
The officers gave each other a puzzled look. The stormtroopers, bored by this false alarm, were already clomping back to their speeder bikes.
The stranger put a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get home. Your mother has dinner waiting, and if we’re late she’s going to skin both of us.”
“Are we free to go, Officers?”
“Yes. The faster the better.”
“Thanks. Have a great day!”
The man pulled Ezra around and together they walked down the sidewalk at a normal pace, his hand still gripping Ezra’s shoulder. “Turn down this next alley,” he whispered.
“It’s a dead end,” Ezra whispered back. “Take the next one.”
They passed the dead-end and continued to the next alley, ducked into it, and were finally off the main street. Ezra stepped out from under the man’s hand and put some distance between them. The man raised his hands in peace.
“It’s okay. I’m just trying to help.”
“I know.” Ezra blinked. He didn’t know how he knew, but he just knew. Kind of like how he knew when people wanted to hurt him. It almost radiated off of them like a bad smell. There was no stink coming off this guy, though. Only neutral vibes. “Thanks for helping me back there.”
The man smiled warmly. “No problem. I know what it’s like. I’ve been… well, I’ve been a lot of things.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Kanan.”
Ezra held out his cup. “Spare a few credits, Kanan?”
Kanan burst into laughter. “Straight to the point! I like that.”
Ezra scowled and shook his cup.
“Alright, alright. I’ve got… look, I’ve only got twenty credits and I have plans for them, so tell you what. It looks like the sky is gonna open up any minute now and I really don’t want to get stuck in a downpour. I’m meeting someone over at Jho’s Pit Stop and I—”
“Jho’s? I know where that is.”
“So do I. Jho’s an old friend of mine.”
Ezra frowned. “He’s an old friend of mine, too. He never said anything about you.”
“Jho’s good at keeping secrets.” Kanan raised an eyebrow. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
Ezra pulled his mouth to one side and narrowed his eyes.
“Anyway, that’s where I’m headed. You can either come with me or we can part ways here, but if you come with me I’ll at least order you something from the 5-credit menu. How does that sound?”
Not too bad, actually. Ezra’s stomach certainly liked the idea. And if Kanan was a friend of Jho’s, well, he couldn’t be a complete sleemo, could he?
Kanan nodded crisply. “Good. Come on, I thought I just felt a drop.”
They made their way out of the alley and onto the next street, walking side by side with their hands shoved into their coat pockets.
“My name is Ezra.”
“Ezra.” Kanan smiled at him. “Nice to meet you, Ezra.”
Something sparkled in Ezra’s chest. A kind of… light. An intuition. Warm and reassuring. It gave him hope.
It felt nice to hope again.