“We have been kept waiting long enough.” said Fett.
The young officer looked uncomfortable. He had done so since the two bounty hunters had been shown into his presence. In fact, he had probably looked uncomfortable before that, as he seemed new to his command, and was constantly twitching at bits of his uniform. This was irritating to both Arla and Fett, though neither of them were letting it show. Now he looked faintly embarrassed as well. Clearly, he was very afraid. A foolish promotion, thought Fett, typical of the Empire and its adherents. They were standing in a very white waiting room. It even had a white carpet. There were comfortable chairs around two of the walls, and Arla, her mask fully in place, was sprawled over one of them. Fett stood, opposite the boy, and stared at him. They had not actually been there very long, no longer a quarter of an hour, but that was insult enough. Fett was mentally adding credits marks to his fee for every extra minute he stood there.
“Well,” said Arla, “you heard him - are you going to do something about it, or are we going to have to go off and find our client ourselves. I would strongly recommend that you do not allow that to happen as it would inevitably involve your death.”
The officer cleared his throat.
“Uh, I’ll try to get through again. I’m very sorry about the delay; um, it will be remedied as soon as possible. Er, I’m sorry.”
The boy pressed the glowing buttons at the vidlink display; at first there was no response, but after a second, more frantic, attempt a screen flickered and buzzed into view. It displayed a man with pale blue skin, and very dark hair set around a square jawed face. He was seated at a bare desk. Behind him stood a blank faced secretary droid. The man said, in a mild voice, “I hope that this is important, Lieutenant.”
The lieutenant, who had gone almost limp with relief when his superior appeared on the screen, snapped to immediately at his words.
“Yes sir. I have here two bounty hunters who claim to have captured the six escaped ones. They wish to claim their reward, and, um, grow impatient with waiting.”
Not a flicker of emotion crossed the mans face.
“Very well. Send them to me.” he said. The vidlink snapped off.
Arla got up and moved to Fett’s side. Not daring to speak outside she sent a thought to Fett.
“Is that who I thought it was?”
Fett answered, “if you thought that that was Grand Admiral Thrawn, then you were quite right.”
“What’s he doing here? And why does he want Piett and the others? They should be on the same side.”
“I know. And why are they the “escaped ones”. We should be able to find out if we are careful, I think.”
They followed the young man into the lift, still saying nothing out loud. He pushed himself as far into the corner of the lift as he could without seeming conspicuous, fingering the collar of his black uniform. Arla had to stifle giggles. Then she had a thought which immediately sobered her.
“Boba Fett - Luke and the others would want to know about all this - we have go back and tell them what we know - find out, that is.”
“You mean, sell the information to them.”
“What? No! Don’t be silly - we might not have got this bounty if it hadn’t been for Luke (not that I think he’d approve of our methods, somehow, but never mind), we owe it them.”
“We - I - would have got the bounty.”
Arla suppressed the sharp, irritated sigh that threatened after that implied insult, as the lift stopped and they filed down a corridor.
“We are on floor twenty two,” said Fett.
They were led into a chamber which contained the desk and the secretary droid that they had seen earlier - and the blue skinned man.
“Grand Admiral Thrawn.” said Fett, bowing ever so slightly; Arla did not bow.
“Boba Fett, Arla Gen. An unlikely combination. Still, seeing anyone with you is unlikely, eh, Fett?”
“We have the six you wanted.”
“Good. I trust you had no difficulty.”
“Nothing for you to concern yourself with, Grand Admiral; nothing of much importance.” said Arla.
“We wish to collect the two million credits.” said Fett.
The Grand Admiral laughed, though no humour reached his eyes. His laughter stopped abruptly and his face set hard.
“Don’t worry, Fett. You’ll get your money, if that’s all that concerns you; though if you are with the masked beauty here, I don’t know why.”
“Do not overreach yourself, Grand Admiral.” spat Arla, then gazing at him long and hard, said, “So, why do you want these loyal Imperial servants, eh Thrawn?”
Fett nearly fell over in shock.
Thrawn looked at her blankly, then said in a strange, blank voice, “there will be a new Empire. We will crush the rebels and reinstate one of the Emperors family as our puppet leader, but I will lead them, and thus, the whole galaxy. Those you caught had decided to leave our cause, and had gone to become rivals to me. They will be taught that that is foolish and then they will serve.”
Arla studied her nails.
“Thanks,” she said lightly, “I was wondering.”
Thrawn blinked, shook himself a little and frowned at them.
He pushed a button under his desk, noting with some amusement that Fett immediately readied his blaster rifle. A small computer raised itself up from the desk top. Thrawn tapped at it and a screen appeared above him, its viewing side opaque to them. Thrawn clicked his tongue with irritation, and said, “ Boba Fett, unlock the alarms on your ship.”
Fett did so. Moments passed.
“Very well. The credits are in place in your collecting accounts - one million credits in each account. Enjoy them, if you know how to.” The computer slid down into the table top, “you may go now.” he said.
They turned to go, but before they went out of the door Thrawn called out to them,
“use the information I gave you well - but, if you want to try and get the better of me another time, Arla Gen, you need more training. Go back to your rebel friends and tell them. I would be intrigued to know what they do.” He paused, resting his head on one hand, “ I hope you have more sense than your impetuous partner, Boba Fett.”
They all stood and stared at each other for a long moment.
“I believe I gave you permission to leave.” said Grand Admiral Thrawn.
They left, and were escorted back down to Slave III. They kept their minds closed to each other, but Arla was thinking, oh fuck.
Back on the ship again, they had barely sat down in the pilot’s seats when Fett’s anger burst out.
“I cannot believe that you can be that stupid!” he cried, brutally yanking the regulator into the correct position. “That was, I think, one of the most idiotic things I have ever seen. I can’t believe it. What sort of a fantasy world do you live in? Does it not occur to you that other people might be “strong in the Force” - did it not cross your mind that this was a powerful man?”
A little petulantly, as she knew she was in the wrong, Arla replied, “but it worked on Dengar.”
“Arla, Dengar is like us, like we were before - of course he succumbed to those powers. But Thrawn, he is a formidable man. Perhaps not as impressive as Vader was, but a clever man none the less. He has spent much of his time in the unknown regions. Who knows what he has learnt there. I was going to carefully eke some knowledge out of him, as I have known him a very long time, but - oh you are an idiot!”
Arla felt like getting up and walking out of the room, she did have to stand for this. But, despite feeling like a complete moron, she was fascinated at the spectacle of an angry Boba Fett. Although it wasn’t that wonderful having him yelling at her because she had done something dumb, it was nevertheless thrilling, she realised to have him so different from the stiff, unresponsive man she had always known before. This, she thought, must be the real Boba Fett, the one no-one ever sees. I must feel privileged that he is sharing this side with me, even if he doesn’t seem to like me much at the moment, he must really think something of me, otherwise I would get nothing from him. Belatedly, she realised that he was still talking.
“ - and, to top it all, you are not even bothering to listen to me! I despair of you.”
Arla smiled evilly, and feeling perverse, she said, “it is nice to know that you care enough to get angry with me. It gives me a warm feeling inside, y’know.”
“Arla . .”
“Okay, okay, I know it was dumb - but he did tell us what he was up to. I just hope we haven’t - sorry, I haven’t endangered our friends -”
“They are not my friends, Arla, just yours.” Fett reminded her.
“Oh, Boba Fett, they could be if you tried - Luke wants you on his side very much, more than me, I imagine. But, that’s not important right now.” She frowned, thinking about what he had said, “Wait. You said you have known the Grand Admiral for a long time - how’s that then?”
Fett sighed as the unwelcome memories came back. Still, he felt like talking tonight, for a change - Arla seemed to bring that out in him, and in some ways, perhaps it was easier now to think about certain bits of his past, than to think about the present and the mess he was in. Not the really painful bits, they must, must stay buried, otherwise - well, anyway. But, Grand Admiral Thrawn.
“I worked for him. Nearly ten years ago now. I was in a bit of trouble. It was after the desintregrations - Vader was not impressed with my over-enthusiastic handiwork, so I had to run. I went to the Unknown regions and ended up in Thrawn’s service.”
Arla frowned, a little puzzled.
“But, they were both Imperials, why didn’t Thrawn give you to Vader?”
“I was a good worker. I worked for him as a mercenary more than a hunter - but an officer, not an ordinary fighter. His methods were - unusual, and his fellow officer did not like me being there, but they soon were persuaded to respect me. Those who survived. He put a lot of the Unknown areas onto the map and drew them under Imperial command. I helped him; he appreciated my - efficiency. We respected each other. He was an outsider to the other officers as he is not a human, and no one knew anything about me. After a year I left as Vader seemed to have forgotten about what I had done, so he paid me and I went back to bounty hunting. It was not long after that I met you for the first time.”
Arla was silent for a few minutes, thinking on what she had just heard; finally she said, “I can’t imagine you working as a soldier - much less an officer. You weren’t his lover as well, were you?”
Fett turned to look at her, under the helmet he was boggling.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, were you -”
“I heard you. Of course not. I do not sleep with men.”
“Okay - forget I said anything. Well, um, - oh, Boba Fett - we must return to Coruscant! We have to warn Luke and everyone!”
Fett relaxed a little at the change of subject, and said, “I’ve already set the course. There are a few questions I would like to ask our young Jedi knight. Prepare for going into hyperspace.”
Coruscant seemed too bright and showy to Arla’s eyes as she walked out of the docking area and into the area of the city in which Luke lived. As ever the city set her teeth on edge, it seemed that Empire or fledgling Republic the place was the same. It was as if this place was not effected by the outside galaxy at all. She smiled wryly. The perfect place for government. The windowed outer corridor that she walked inside showed a fine view of the early morning sunshine on the mountains whose snowy caps gleamed far above the city, although some of the spires of the government building in the centre strove to meet with the far off pinnacles. She enjoyed the heat coming through the huge windows as it touched her skin, enjoyed the freedom of the silk clothes she had changed into, enjoyed the slippery feel of the fabric over her body. Her mind was not really on Coruscant’s natural beauties, or the sunlight as she walked towards the training areas where her comlinks had informed her that he was. Part of her wished that Fett was coming with her to speak to Luke, but he was speaking with the engineers about his ship, and hers, for that matter. The talk had been almost interminable, and she had decided that, once her own ship was being sorted, she would see Luke and apologise for everything that she had done. And ask to continue her training. Maybe, bounty hunting was not as exciting as it had been, and attacking other bounty hunters was not the height of good sense, she realised now. Maybe it was time to consider being a hero of the New Republic. She grinned to herself. Or, indeed, maybe not.
She had reached the familiar training area. She pressed a button and the door to the practice room slid open. She stepped in and looked around. The room was empty except for the figure seated cross legged on the floor in the centre of the room. She hesitated by the door, seeing that Luke was apparently meditating. It was not good to interrupt someone in a trance state, and she did not wish to do anything else to offend him.
“It’s alright Arla, I know you are here. Come in.” said Luke.
Arla took a deep breath and walked up to the young man who was standing up to greet her. She hung back a little when she reached him, feeling awkward and somewhat embarrassed.
“I - I think I owe you an apology. You weren’t sending those dreams were you? They kept coming after we left, for both of us. Until we were both on Slave III together. You could not possibly send them that distance. It’s something else.” Her voice petered out as she looked at Luke. “Um,” she finished.
Luke was shaking his head at her, his expression sad.
“I was very disappointed in you, Arla Gen, and also with Fett. And from what I have heard of your exploits you have not been acting like trainee Jedi knights, but have gone over to the Dark Side by using your new knowledge in ways that are - are not - well, are completely horrible. Why have you returned?”
Arla pushed her hair back with both hands, and twirled a curl between her fingers.
“I have been a fool, but now, I am changed - or want to change. I want to get on with my training.”
“Perhaps you want too much. I was a fool to try in the first place -”
Arla could feel tears starting at the corners of her eyes, she swallowed hard.
“Wait,” she gasped, “I have to tell you about a danger to you and the Republic - you have a formidable” she unconsciously borrowed Fett’s word, “opponent who wants it all. Grand Admiral Thrawn has returned from the Unknown Regions and is collecting the remnants of the Empire to him, whether they like it or not. That was our bounty - we collected some officers and brought them to him. We destroyed an Imperial settlement. That at least should please you.”
Luke shook his head and looked at her almost pityingly.
“No Arla, the senseless deaths of innocent people does little to please me.”
“Then why did you destroy two Death Stars and a number of Star Destroyers?”
Arla jumped at the new voice, and even Luke seemed momentarily discomforted. The owner of the voice came into the light of the room and walked towards them. The silence in the room was enough so that she could hear the small chinking sounds of Fett’s tools in the pockets on his shins clinking together as he walked. Arla smiled at him as he approached, but Luke had wiped all expression from his face.
“I know,” said Fett, “it was necessary for your goals. But there were people on those stations that did not deserve to die - even the stormtroopers, they are just soldiers, ordinary men. Do not think to judge us, Skywalker.”
Luke nodded, and a faint glimmer of respect could be seen in his eyes.
“You are right. The Death Stars will always be on my conscience, but -” he stopped, and rubbed at his forehead, “do you also want to resume your lessons, Boba Fett?”
“I must wait for my ship to be repaired, so yes, for the time being, I would.”
“Very well. You do seem different, both of you. And if there is going to be war with this Grand Admiral, then we may well need you.” Arla was surprised at the sarcasm that entered Luke’s voice as he spoke, “we’ll start tomorrow morning.”
Luke walked back towards the headquarters of the Republic, a sour taste in his mouth. When he had heard that his bounty hunters were returning he had been almost been delighted; the last few days had been so purely awful that any distraction would be a boon. And if he was teaching them again, he reasoned to himself, it would be a good reason to keep away from the workshops and the ships. It was getting noticeable now, he realised, and there was no way he wanted anyone to know what a complete schmuck he had been over the past few weeks. It should be the perfect excuse - not to mention, he thought bitterly, his mouth twisting into a grimace, the delightful possibility of yet more war. God, I’ve just about had enough of this. And who the hell is this bloody Grand Admiral, anyway; we thought they were all dead and gone. He punched at the wall as he walked along, trying to turn his anger away from himself, I know that not all Imperials were bad, he thought with increasing bile, I know that most were just following orders, but damn them, damn them anyway.
He emerged out onto the upper levels that had served as the chambers of the governing bodies of the galaxy for hundreds of years and had to stop, as he did every time, to admire the view. The skyscrapers glittered a myriad of colours in the late afternoon light, and light sparkled too on the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Luke felt his anger dissipate as he looked out over the cool, clear view. For a moment, he marveled at just how far he had come since his days as a farm-boy in a floppy hat on Tatooine. Hah, he thought, yeah, Luke, you’ve come a long way: you’ve just been described as a mass murderer by a bounty hunter, and you can’t even manage to sort a bloody relationship out, next, you’ll be stealing sweets from kids and knocking grannies out of their shoppers. But the view, at least, was wonderful. Really, he thought with some irony, Coruscant was a dream city for a dumb country kid like himself, so peaceful, and full of so many beautiful things. Including, one day soon, an Imperial Grand Admiral and his troops; great.
He mooched along, feeling glum. He wondered what had happened to the bounty hunters when they had been hunting those unlucky Imperials officers and that unfortunate bounty hunter who had apparently been picked up on a small deserted moon. Luke silently thanked the sophisticated galaxy information service that Palpatine had inadvertently left behind for them. Easily accessible to all higher command levels, it had been a godsend for them. All those years of grubbing about for any scraps like a coowu bird, he thought, with half a smile, and now, this! This other bounty hunter must have traced Arla and Fett’s movements back to Coruscant, as the message for them Han had intercepted had come to the docking bay here in this sector of the city. It had not been a flattering or nice message, and though Luke had felt a little guilty about reading it (Han, naturally had not felt guilty at all, and had swiftly cracked the code to get into it) it was illuminating to discover just how far his pupils had drifted into the Dark. He felt a trickle of desperation run down his spine. He had to secure these two for the Republic, they could not stand against him - but the Imperials would probably still be able to pay them more.
When he entered the small conference room various people were already waiting for him. The smell of freshly made coffee filled the air. He smiled tiredly at everyone, and sank into his seat beside Leia. He accepted his cup of black coffee and blew at the steam that rose from it.
Then, collecting himself together, he said, “we have a problem.”
“Yeah, I heard Arla and Mr. Talkative were back.” said Han, leaning out onto the table and waggling his eyebrows at Luke.
“That,” said Luke, watching how the people around him had sat up when Han had said that. They hadn’t known, he realised, “that is the least of our problems.”
Sprinkling some more relaxing minerals over her bath, Leia slipped off the robe she had been wearing and tentatively eased a foot into the steaming water. Her head was pounding, and the small crease in her forehead stayed even when she had immersed herself in the hot water. The news that the bounty hunter had brought was, well, terrible. The Imperials had been quiet recently, so she had been expecting something; but Grand General Thrawn, that was something else. They had been deluding themselves that all the important commanding officers were dead, and now they had to face up to the fact that it simply was not true, and one of the most fearsome would be making his presence felt soon enough. And here she was, soaking away in a bath - she should be out there now!
She felt that she should quickly wash herself and leap out to the work that was waiting for her. Her head throbbed. She settled further into the bath.
The bounty hunters themselves were another problem. They had proved themselves to be, in Leia’s view, completely unsuitable people to even have on the planet. Which was ironic, if her suspicions about Arla were correct. If so, this had been her home for a good few years. Fett, of course, was a completely unknown quantity. She sighed, and as she was so low in the bath, she swallowed a bit of bathwater, she sat up quickly, coughing. Why, she thought, as she settled back down again, why does Luke seem to trust them? Why does he thinks he can make everyone good people?. These are bounty hunters, they would feed their own grandmother to the Sarlacc if there was money in it (her mouth lifted in a half grin as the phrase ran through her mind, and she saw Fett fall into the thing in her mind), and that could not make them ideal trainees for Jedi knights. After all, Anakin Skywalker had been a perfectly respectable member of the navy, and look what happened to him. With these bounty hunters, god knows what could happen.
She liked Arla, but now she would remember that the woman had tortured another bounty hunter, apparently just for the fun of it, and apparently, with her new Jedi skills. Great, thought Leia, just great. Admittedly, not everyone in the rebellion had been as, well, virtuous as her brother, some had monetary reasons for supporting them, but even so. And Fett disturbed her. He was too cold, too unfeeling to be trusted ever. Arla’s impetuosity meant that she could be turned to them, perhaps, if she felt like it - but how long would it last?
Her head throbbed again, just to remind her that it was there. Don’t think about them, she told herself, think about, oh, the magical time spent with the Ewoks on the moon of Endor. Those blissful few days when they had been able to relax and not think about anything. Not think about Luke being her brother, especially not think about Darth Vader being her father, or their next move after the destruction of the second Death Star. She closed her eyes and relived those days. A small smile played across her face.
As the sun set over the city, hundreds of little lights began to come on, leaving a bewildering, dancing array of lights of all colours. Fett watched until the fêted mountains had all but disappeared from view, beginning to feel faintly irritated. The scenery that attracted visitors by the thousand to Coruscant did little to please him.
In the end, Fett knew he preferred the wide expanse of space to any habitation on any planet; a nothingness that left him alone with his thoughts, rather than the constant tramp, tramp of people walking by and talking inanely about the fabulous sunsets, and the glorious weather that had apparently been gracing the city since he and Arla had left.
He disliked the people as well. Silly, pretentious people seemed to come here - lived here too, for that matter, with too much money to know what to do with. Holiday-makers, and the fashionable rich. Mind, he thought, they shut up pretty fast when they see me. He smiled a tight smile and watched the night begin.
Eventually, he heard the click of a pair of boots approaching him. One person, hesitating a moment near him, then resolutely the person walked towards him. He did not turn, hoping they would go away.
“Scaring the natives?” asked the unmistakable voice of Han Solo in a forced, jovial way.
Fett’s heart sank a notch further than the already low point it was at. He decided the best policy, as ever, was to say nothing.
“Having fun up here, Boba Fett?” sniped Han, who had not been pleased when he had spotted Fett at his favourite point for watching the city. All he had wanted to do was relax away from - well, lets be honest, Han, he thought, away from Leia and the New Republic. Sometimes he wished he could just steal her away and run to some isolated corner of the galaxy and hide. He hardly seemed to see the real Leia, the one he loved, for she was disappearing under her public persona of Princess Leia Organa, one of the acting galactic leaders of the New bloody Republic. He caught himself, here he was, wool-gathering with Boba Fett standing beside him. It was, obviously, the approach of senility.
“You seem distracted, Solo.”
Han jumped a little at the harsh, grating sound of Fett’s voice, unexpected, and out of place amongst the delicacy that was Coruscant. Just as he was, thought Han, moodily. Then he smiled a sly, almost evil little smile of his own, as he realised how disturbed by his presence Fett must be to have initiated conversation with him. This, he thought, could be fun. He turned to answer the man, but seeing him there suddenly brought back a rush of memories, he could almost feel the rush of cold as his world closed in. He shivered, though the night was warm. He felt a flash of rage at this man, so much would have been different without him.
“You bastard - why the hell did you come back?” he shot at Fett, losing, for once, his flippant manner.
It worked, Fett genuinely seemed taken aback by his words.
“I could have died - because of you; I’ve known you for oveer fifteen years - but no, there is no decency in you at all. “He’s no use to me dead” - Lando told me about you,” continued Han, waving a finger at the helmet. He felt slightly foolish doing so.
“Calrissian betrayed you too, and I was never a friend of yours, Han Solo.” Fett’s voice was flat, uninterested; there was a pause, with Han breathing heavily.
“Never, never, mention that.” he forced out.
He still thought about it sometimes.
He did not wish to think about that now.
Then Fett interjected, almost lightly, “I could have died, too. Because of you.”
Han lost his temper. He jumped, fists at the ready. The two men rolled to the floor, and Han desperately tried to find a way to hurt him - or get that bloody helmet off and smash Fett’s face (though, of course, he’d have a good long look first). He locked his hands about Fett’s neck - that felt soft enough, and began to squeeze. Fett brought a leg up, and kneed Han off of him, cracking him about the head with his wrist armour as he hit the barrier. Fett stood up, massaging his neck.
“You bastard - you should have died in that monster. Or I should have killed you, like I killed that idiot Greedo.” spat Han, as he pulled himself to his feet. “Aah,” he groaned, “I’m too old for this shit.” he muttered under his breath.
“Greedo was an idiot. He deserved to die. You could not have caught me in that way.” Fett sounded even more croaky than ever, Han was pleased to hear.
“I caught you when I was blind,” he taunted, “I’m sure I could have managed.”
Fett was beginning to become angry as well. He clutched at the barrier as hard as he could, trying to force the pointless anger down, and become calm again. It did not entirely work.
“I did not come here to be insulted.” he said in a quiet, tense voice.
“Then why did you come here, Boba Fett?” came another voice. The small, neatly clad form of the princess stood at the entrance way to the lift back down into the city. Han greeted her with a lop-sided smile. She did not respond in kind, but her mouth twitched in a dangerous way.
“To watch the city, your highness.” said Fett.
“That is not what I meant.”
She turned away from him, with a faintly contemptuously glance, “Han,” she said, patiently, “what is going on up here?”
“Boba Fett and I were just having a discussion about old times,” said Han in a stubborn voice.
“A discussion. Well, you and I might have one of those too.” She folded her arms, and looked at him, her head to one side. Fett, watching the scene and feeling awkward, saw the exasperation there, and the love as well. He turned away from them and leaned on the barrier, and looked out to the city again, trying to ignore the tight feeling in his throat that had nothing to do with Han’s attempts.
He heard her say, “ah well, come on then, you’re wanted downstairs.”
Ignoring him completely, the two walked into the lift. He heard them start to talk again just as the lift doors were closing. Fett let his head sink into his arms. He stayed there a long time after they’d left, despite the fact that the air was turning cold, and his flight suit was not warm.
After that, Fett stayed in his ship except for lessons with Skywalker. He knew, deep down, that this was cowardice on his part, but, really, he didn’t care. He saw little of Arla - or anyone for that matter. He missed hearing her talk, missed her presence around him. He tried not to care about that either. Usually, he succeeded, but some nights, when he dreams were really bad, he failed. He felt drained, miserable and cursed himself for staying at every turn. But, every time he was ready to leave, and had decided to throw it all in and just fly off, something seemed to constrain him, and he’d always end up just putting it off.
He wasn’t sure whether it was the - the whatever-it-was - that had affected him on that moon with Dengar, or whether it was something far worse - himself. He woke up every morning exhausted from the nights thrashings, and he fell into bed more exhausted every night from the battering that he received from Skywalker. The fact that he was more and more aware of the younger man’s dislike of him did nothing to help his morale, for all that it was perfectly understandable.
These unhappy facts held him inside his ship for another reason, one which he was certainly not going to admit to himself. He fought with the knowledge that he was afraid to go out there and have people see the state he had got into, to see that his usual calm, his fabled control was gone.
He was afraid.
Those thoughts held him rooted to his seat, as he sipped - no, admit it, gulped, at a glass of something clear and strong.
It had been the same for the last two nights now.
And he never drank.
He clutched the glass tighter, and then gulped another large swallow, making a face at the taste.
“Oh God,” he murmured, squeezing his eyes shut as the tears pricked at his eyelids, and rolled down his cheeks. He never blasphemed either. He had virtually forgotten the god to which his mother had made devotions every morning, but now, he could see her as she knelt before the three images of the god, rubbing her hands together as she prayed. He had never really understood it, he had been too young to even really believe in it. He did not believe in it now - even Arla’s pantheon of ninety gods seemed more interesting, for all he cared.
He gritted his teeth as images of her swam into his view. He hurled the glass across the room. It broke.
“Got to get out of here,” he muttered.
The thought occurred to him that there was little to go to now. There was no way he could go out there and act as if nothing was wrong, that he was the same implacable Boba Fett of before; he would be dead within minutes of trying to do his work. His great reserves of self-preservation would not let him do that, he had survived so much already, he would not die stupidly. He had decided that after the near miss with the Sarlacc; the scars on his legs tingled as he thought about it. He rubbed them abstractedly. Sighing, he got to his feet to pick up the pieces of his glass.
He did not get far.
In the silence of the ship, the beep of the comlink was loud, and insistent. Glancing about to see where he’d left it made him feel dizzy; he located the thing on a table and pressed the receiving button. He waited.
“At last!” came a small, tinny, but familiar voice, “I’ve been trying for ages and nothing was receiving.”
Fett groaned inwardly, this was the last, the absolute last thing he needed right now.
“Arla,” he croaked, “what do you want?”
There was a pause, and only a soft shushing noise could be heard, then, her voice, soft and indistinct, “I - I haven’t seen you for ages - I just wanted to see you, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Fett didn’t know what to say.
There was a pause that seemed to stretch on into infinity, although it probably only lasted a very few seconds.
Finally Arla spoke again, “well, can I come in?” and even across the link he could hear her uncertainty, “I’m standing right outside your ship now.”
Fett racked his brains for some excuse to keep her out, but nothing came to mind, except that he might well go mad and do something he would regret, and he sure as dammit wasn’t going to tell her that.
He fumbled around for his face mask, and helmet, knowing that it would look entirely stupid over the casual tunic and trousers he was wearing. Somewhere at the back of his mind, far away from his confusion, he thought that Arla would be intrigued to see him wearing something other than a flightsuit.
“Alright, I’m opening her up,” he said, his voice sounding hollow and distant to his own ears. I’m drunk, he thought.
Arla chewed nervously at a loose flap of skin around her nails as she waited for the ship to open up. Her palms felt hot and sweaty, though it was quite chilly out in the landing bay.
As door began to ease down, she swallowed, sighed, and with fists bunched tight with tension, she walked up the gangway. It was as sparse as she remembered it, as she passed down the clinical white corridor that led to his living quarters.
He was waiting for her, standing in the middle of the room, looking calm and cool. She was sure he could tell how nervous she looked, and was laughing at her for it; her hair felt plastered to the back of her neck.
“Hello,” she said, noticing as she did so that he was not wearing a flightsuit, but a grey tunic and worn grey trousers. There was a hole in one of his socks, through which white skin peeped. He was holding a piece of glass in his hand, and there was more on the floor.
“Having fun?” she asked, taking in the broken glass and the half empty bottle.
“Arla - what do you want? I am really very tired.” It was true, though he hadn’t really realised it until that point. His head swam with weariness at the thought of bed.
She said, in a small, unhappy voice, “you have asked that already, and I answered you. I just wanted to see you. It’s been a long time, at least a week - I just thought - I wondered whether - oh, ninety gods.” she sat down and pulled her hands through her hair, then, resting her head in her hands, she said in an even quieter, sadder voice, “I don’t know. I just wanted to see you, I guess. No other reason.”
Standing in the middle of the room, still holding the piece of glass, Fett felt useless and stupid. He had no idea of what to say, or what to do. He just stood, but clutched the piece of glass harder. Drops of blood began to drip slowly to the floor. Neither of them noticed.
Arla said, “I missed you, I guess. Don’t know why. But there it is.”
“I’m sorry.” said Boba Fett, not really knowing why he was apologising, and floundering well out of his depth.
She looked up at that, her face flushed and angry.
“You want me to leave, don’t you?” she snapped at him, daring him to say yes. Daring him to say no.
“I - I don’t know.”
She stared at him, then finally noticed the blood dribbling from his hand.
“Oh! Boba Fett! You’re bleeding!” she cried.
Looking down, Fett realised he was still clutching the fragment of glass in his hand. He let it drop to the floor and looked at his hand.
“Yes,” he said, distantly, “so I am.”
Arla suddenly snapped into efficiency. She leapt up and grabbed his arm; he pulled right back away from her, but her grip was firm. He stumbled a little.
“Firelord - what is with you? Come on, I’m taking you to your bathroom.”
She took him to his bathroom and stuck his hand under the cold tap; this close, she could smell the alcohol on him. She looked up at him, frowning.
“You’ve been drinking.” she accused him.
“Yes,” he agreed, gritting his teeth a bit at the cold water running over his flesh.
Her eyes were full of concern as she studied him,
“Oh Boba Fett - “
“Fett is my first name, Arla - I’ve been calling you your name - call me Fett.”
“Wow. Thank you.” She swallowed, feeling very privileged, and a sudden rush of affection for the man, despite his silliness. “Thank you,” she whispered again.
Then, sensing he could take no further intimacy at that moment, she said, “do you have a first-aid kit?”
He nodded, and retrieved it.
“It’s alright.” he said, “I’ll do it now, please.”
She stood and watched him bandage his own hand swiftly and efficiently. After, they stared at each other, both aware that the bedroom was just next door, and neither wanting to admit to the other that they were thinking it. Fett snapped first, and strode quickly back to the living room. Arla stood in the bathroom, alone, looking at the red stained sink. Suddenly she felt angry again. This, she thought, was stupid. What was he afraid of?
She strode back in after him. He was picking up the other pieces of glass, somewhat gingerly, and placing them in the garbage shute. He stopped when she came in, and stood uncomfortably under her irate gaze.
She scowled at him; saying, “I suppose you are going to say that you want me to leave now, aren’t you?”
He said nothing, but looked even more uncomfortable.
She let out a sharp breath.
“Oh, this is pointless - I don’t know why I bothered. Alright - have it your way - I give up, I officially give up; I don’t see why I should humiliate myself any longer. Goodnight.” And she walked stiffly away and out of the ship, which was still open.
Almost immediately, she felt stupid, and wanted to go back. She watched the gangway go up and the ship close itself. He had been drunk, what had she expected? But it was too late.
Back on the ship, Fett numbly closed up, then ripped off the helmet and mask. He flopped down on the seats and stared up at the ceiling as the tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Arla,” he murmured.
Fett thought himself lucky that his helmet was logged straight into his optical sensors, as his eyes were crusted with tiredness. Keen to show at least a thin veneer of normality, he was standing in the practice room, waiting for Luke to turn up for the morning’s lessons. He surveyed the array of things he would be requested to manipulate with his mind today, and a small groan escaped his mouth. He was early, as he had not slept at all the night before, and got bored waiting for the correct hour to come. He had eaten a hearty, though not especially healthy breakfast, and was feeling marginally better, but not really up to his training; although he thought could probably trust his body to behave, his mind kept wondering, and there was a steady hum of exhaustion at the back of everything he did. He had nearly left that night, but really, he was too tired to even set the co-ordinates, and he couldn’t think of anywhere to go that didn’t involve finding work.
He checked the time; Luke was obviously going to be late.
“Good morning!” came Luke’s cheery voice, as he came through the door, “sorry I’m a little late - been up for hours in a meeting.”
Fett felt obliged to admit, “I may not be very receptive today. I didn’t sleep well.”
His voice was so bleak that Luke, who generally avoided looking at Fett as much as possible, flashed a concerned glance at his pupil.
“If you’d rather postpone the lesson until you’re more feeling more lively?” he began, but Fett shook his head, saying, “no, I wouldn’t sleep anyway.” And, he thought, there’s nothing else I could be doing right now.
His voice was more miserable than ever, Luke thought. He wished he could see the man’s face, and see whether he really was as unhappy as he sounded, or whether it was an act to throw him off course. Somehow he doubted it, but Fett was becoming so skilled in manipulating the Force, that Luke could not be sure of him. He felt the familiar rush of fear as he thought about what he was teaching him, and wondered for the millionth time whether he was doing the right thing. You had to constantly fight the Dark Side, but, at the moment, Fett just seemed depressed.
Luke realised that some of it had to be because of Arla, but he sensed that there was more to it than that. Then there were these mysterious dreams that had pestered - and possibly still did - both his bounty hunters. He shook his head to clear his own thoughts of the innumerable questions that came into his mind whenever he saw this man.
“Very well,” he said, “let us begin.”
As ever, Fett did very well at everything he was told to do, but still Luke felt a blankness about him that did not accord with the calm way he used his mind. Fett was obviously efficient, obviously always someone who thought only in the present, otherwise Luke imagined he would not be alive today. Of course, he had no idea how much of the man was artificial, how injured he might have been in the past. He did not move in a way that suggested large numbers of artificial body parts, but Luke himself often forgot that his right hand was made up of metal, wires and plastic. But, whatever Fett was physically made of, there was a part, a large part, of his inner self that he was not revealing to the world. He knew that he, while training, had been easily manipulated by Yoda - the incident in the cave bore witness to that, but he didn’t know how to get to those secret hopes and fears in Fett. This worried him.
He glanced at the man, surrounded as he was by dancing bits of machinery, and was irritated again by the blank visage of Fett’s helmet.
Suddenly he had an idea.
“Boba Fett, stop what you are doing, I want to try something else.”
The various bits and pieces lowered themselves to the ground, as did Fett himself, as he had been floating about two metres off the floor. Avoiding the pieces he had just put down, Fett picked his way over to Luke.
“Yes. What do you wish to do?” He no longer sounded tired, all emotion had been wiped from his voice.
“You have reached a peak in your training,” stated Luke, folding his arms, and for once, looking directly at him. Fett was not a tall man, so Luke and he would just about be able to look eye to eye, and Luke was determined that would happen.
Fett nodded, he was also aware that he was learning little now, just perfecting skills. The mental exercise had made him feel much better, and he felt keen to try something else.
“I feel there is something holding you back. I realise you may not wish to be a Jedi Knight in the end, but you will never attain all you could,” Luke swallowed, thinking he could well be making a large mistake, “if you do not conquer your fear.”
Fett’s voice was dangerously soft.
“What makes you think I am afraid?”
Luke considered his words carefully.
“There must be a certain amount of fear in a man who feels he can never show his face.”
“You dare!” cried Fett, raising his rifle to fire; it was knocked away from his grasp instantly.
“You prove it with your actions,” said Luke calmly, as he handed the rifle back to him, “you cannot harm me with those weapons; have you learnt nothing at all?”
Fett was silent, and Luke could not feel any emotions coming from him.
He pressed on, “Arla tells me that not once during the time you were together on that mission did she see your face. That implies fear to me, as she obviously means you no harm. If you really are not afraid, then take the helmet off and show me what you look like. There can be no going forward unless you do.”
Fett’s silence grew more pronounced, though to him, his heart was pounding loud. His grip on the blaster loosened; it clattered to the floor.
Then, after a long time, he said quietly, in a flat voice devoid of emotion, “if that is so, then I must leave.” His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper, “There is nothing for me here.”
Luke stared at him. That was the last response he had expected; Fett had never struck him as someone who gave up quickly. But, he felt the dejected aura around the man, saw his slumped shoulders, and his air of defeat and confusion was palpable. Luke, who had been only vaguely aware of the man’s inner crisis up until that moment, was shocked as the full force of Fett’s misery hit him. The rush of emotion was soon curbed, to his relief. He wondered, briefly, if that was what people had felt around him when he had discovered who his father had been. He sighed.
“If that is what you feel is best,” he said, “but I’ll be sorry to see you go.” Surprisingly, it was the truth, for despite his personal dislike of the man - which was diminishing every second that passed - he was loath to lose the man’s talent; even taking into account his lack of, well, morality, he would be a good man to have on one’s side in a battle.
Fett laughed, softly.
Luke looked up again, surprised, for he had never heard him laugh before, even to mock.
Fett said, “there is no need to lie to me, I am aware of how you feel.” Then the humour went out of his voice, and he looked away, as if to hide his already hidden face, “tell Arla - tell her - oh, no, don’t bother, tell her nothing.”
He turned abruptly away from Luke and walked stiff-backed to the door. Luke watched him go, but made no move to stop him. The door opened for Fett, then closed once he had gone.
Luke stood alone in the room.
Some quarter of an hour later, he went to the landing bay and found that all three of Fett’s ships had gone.
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