"Of course, I'm worried, Artoo."
Threepio was clearly agitated, even for Threepio. Of course, the protocol droid was already high-strung to begin with, but Luke had known him long enough now to know when his fretting exceeded its usual amount, which--from what Luke saw from the corner of his eye when he walked past the two droids to load the gear into the ship--it did at that moment.
"And why, may I ask, are you not?" Threepio continued to fuss to his squat counterpart. Beads of early morning sun skipped across the length of his golden armor as he waved his arms around for emphasis, though Artoo seemed thoroughly unfazed by Threepio's animated state.
The astromech whistled a reply, a nonchalant chirp that was probably meant to pacify his fellow droid but did not seem to have the intended effect. Without missing a beat, Threepio continued on in the same flustered manner. "I just don't understand how you can be so cavalier about this whole thing," he said, the nervousness in his pristine voice now giving way to plain old irritation for his counterpart. "Why, after all we've been through, Artoo-Detoo, you should know better than to not take this sort of thing seriously! Don't you ever wonder sometimes how we ever get ourselves into situations like these? How we ever get out of them is a mystery to me..."
Luke, for his part, was only half-listening to the droids' banter, picking up enough of their conversation now and then to make him smile in amusement as he walked back and forth past them on the gangway. In truth, his mind had already been light-years away--long before he had met the droids at the landing platform at dawn; long before he and Callista had summoned the Jedi to the darkness of the archives to tell them of their discovery. Something had gnawed at him relentlessly even hours before then, something he couldn't even allow himself to bring to the surface.
He refused to form the thought in his mind, because somewhere inside him he knew--it was about Callista.
Though the mission at hand concerned him too--even he had to admit it was a risky gamble--his thoughts on their upcoming journey and the grim task ahead of them were fractured at best, competing with the other thoughts that were demanding his attention. Once again, the visions of her were far too insistent to ignore.
And far too many.
He'd managed to shake himself into consciousness last night before the nightmare ended, his heart smashing wildly against the bones in his chest when he came to in the darkness. He remembered waking to dread--to absolute certainty--that Callista was no longer there, and the onslaught of panic nearly overtook him when he saw the empty guestroom. He'd been crazed with worry when he rushed out to the archives last night. The fast-fading images blurred together indistinguishably in his head, filling him with guilt at having turned his back for even one second; for letting his guard down when he had vowed never to let her out of his sight.
But she was safe. He had to remind himself of that this morning, though his hands trembled at the mere thought of what might have been if she hadn't.
When he drew breath, he felt a hand on his arm, like a life force surging through him, and he knew it was Callista before he even turned around. Consciously clearing his mind of the random images before he faced her, he forced a weak smile as he turned, though he knew she would know all too well he was pretending.
"You all right?" The warmth of her hand reached his flesh even through the sleeve of his flight suit, shocking him and comforting him all at once, and--as he knew it would--the heaviness of his heart began to lift.
"I could lie and say yes," he said, "but you'd see right through me anyway, wouldn't you?"
The rosebud lips curved into a knowing smile, and he could have sworn he felt a tiny squeeze from her hand before she took it away a second later, as if fearing his reaction to her touch. In a gesture of nervousness, she smoothed the loose curls from her braid, tucking them behind her ear, and without looking him in the eye, she said quietly, "You don't have to be afraid of me vanishing when you're not looking, Luke."
He should have known that she'd know what he was thinking.
"Of course, I know I could never keep you from worrying about me," she said, "any more than you could keep me from worrying about you."
Luke laughed softly, aware for the first time of just how much pent-up tension he had been carrying until that moment, and he let it evaporate into the air like mist. "Old habits are hard to break, aren't they?"
She smiled. Luke caught the tell-tale spark in her eyes before she broke the gaze, as she had earlier.
Why is it so hard for her to look in my eyes...
He watched her look away and fold her arms over her chest, her shoulders lifting slightly when she inhaled, then dropping once again when she soundlessly released her breath. At length she said, "I can take care of myself, Luke. I always have and... I always will. With or without the Force, I always find a way to take care of myself."
For a moment the image of the determined, steel-willed young woman in the gun room of the Eye came to Luke: the soot and grime on her face; the bruises and scrapes, and the finger-long gash on her forehead that threatened to leave a permanent, nasty scar; the grief and worry and pure exhaustion in her tear-rimmed eyes.
And he remembered thinking that he had never laid eyes on a woman so beautiful. It was, he realized, her strength that had drawn him to her back then. It continued to astound him even now.
She was right, there was no denying it. He had seen for himself what a survivor she was; it was the very reason he had fallen in love with her in the first place.
"I know, Callista," he said. "You are one of the strongest women I have ever known. And I know you've lived through more things than any one person should ever have to endure in a thousand lifetimes... But when you-" He stopped, not really sure how the words would sound if he said them out loud, afraid she would turn away again if he did.
But she had looked up at him again. Her eyes locked with his, the air between them suddenly turning electric, and he heard--felt--the change in her breath. "When you care about someone," she whispered, never letting her eyes leave his, "you want to do everything in your power to protect them."
Luke nodded. "Sometimes... It's easy to forget that we can't control everything. Even if we are Jedi."
She returned his smile. "Spoken like a true Jedi master."
Blinking by the door caught his eye, gold and white and blue light--Threepio and Artoo walking up the plank side by side, and the protocol droid still in the midst of his anxious discourse. Luke hid a smile and looked at Callista. "I guess you could say this is a tradition," he muttered, careful to keep his voice from reaching the droid's extra-sensitive hearing--though he knew Threepio wouldn't have heard him anyway, since he was always oblivious to everything when he was like this. "Threepio tends to get a little out of sorts before anything that looks even the least bit dangerous, and Artoo, in turn, tries his best to put his mind at ease. As he's doing right now."
"And succeeding as usual, I see," Callista said with a wink. "Well, maybe we should just let Threepio get this out of his system then..."
"... This Darth Rath person sounds positively frightful, Artoo. There's no telling what he'll do next, and--oh my, what do you think he'd do to us if we encountered him? Do you think he'd-"
"He'd tear you apart, limb to limb, just like a Wookiee would."
Shock forced Threepio into abrupt silence.
Kyp cleared his throat--no doubt to keep the laughter from completely overtaking him--and he rolled his eyes as he came up to distressed droid, playfully tapping on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, Master Luke" he said, "but how could I resist?"
"M-master Luke, it's not true, is it sir? I knew this mission was supposed to be dangerous, but I never expected-"
"Don't worry, Threepio." Luke made sure to avoid looking at Kyp or Callista as he spoke; he could almost see them struggling to hold their laughter in, just as he was. "You know I'd never let anything happen to you and Artoo. And neither would Callista."
"You're right, Master Luke, what could I have been thinking? Of course you and Mistress Callista will take care of us. I don't know what I was ever concerned about..." He turned beside him to Artoo, motioning him inside the ship. "See there? I told you there was nothing to worry about... Come along, we'd best get settled in before take-off..."
Luke heard Kyp's snicker just as the two droids disappeared into the cockpit. He turned his head to look back at his former student. The young man had not moved an inch from where he stood at the doorway, his hands tucked under his arms as he poked his head inside to look at Luke and Callista. Luke smiled and motioned him in, though Kyp hesitated.
"You wanted to talk to us about something?"
Kyp opened his mouth to speak, then closed it back up almost immediately and cleared his throat. Luke could feel him trying to overcome the awkwardness of the moment, but said nothing for fear of making Kyp all the more uncomfortable.
"I, uh... I really should get going, Master," he stammered as he began to back up. "Talia and Tionne are waiting for me, and we probably shouldn't waste any more time-"
Luke walked up to the doorway and saw Kyp turn halfway on the plank to look back at him and Callista.
"I don't want to keep you any longer..."
"You're not," Callista said. She came to Luke's side. "If there's something urgent--we can wait a few minutes..."
Kyp shook his head. "No, it's not urgent--it's nothing like that. I just..." He smiled--it was the first time Luke had seen him smile at Callista since she had arrived on Yavin--and said softly, "I wanted to say to you both... May the Force be with you."
Surprise fell over Callista's face, a tentative smile forming slowly but surely. "May the Force be with you, Kyp," she said. "With all of us."
He nodded back at her, for a moment, looking as if he didn't know what to say, though Luke knew he had said all he had come there to say. At last he turned to Luke. "The others have already left, sir," he said. "We'll all contact you as soon as each of the groups comes out of hyperspace. After that, it should take a couple of days before any of us can track down the exact locations of the hiding places. You'll hear from us as soon as we do."
Luke nodded. "Good. With any luck, this should all be over soon enough."
"Whoever said a Jedi's life is boring sure didn't know what he was talking about," Kyp said. "It's more like, non-stop danger if you ask me."
Luke turned beside him to Callista, and gave her a small grin in the secret language that only they would have understood. "Well, someone wise once told me... What's living-"
"-if you're not living dangerously..."
This time she didn't turn away when she smiled.
Against the deep black of space, Gerridion stood out, a sand-colored jewel gleaming in the velvet darkness, brighter than the diamond stars that studded the sky around it. From this distance it looked absolutely breathtaking, reminding Luke of the countless foreign, exotic worlds he had imagined whenever he stared into the Tatooine sunsets as a young boy; when he was lost in an orphan's daydream of starships and spaceports and creatures that until then, he had seen only in hard-to-come-by books and holos. He had promised himself then that he would see all those things first-hand one day--whenever the day finally came that he would escape Tatooine and get as far away from the Outer Rims as he could.
He'd once half-jokingly asked Threepio to teleport him off that desolate rock, the only home he had ever known until the age of twenty. Now the memory of those words--spoken out of the boldness and rashness of youth--only made him smile. Yoda had chided him for always looking to the horizon, as did Uncle Owen who never could comprehend why his young ward would fail time and time again to keep his focus on the here and now; why Luke would waste so much time and energy dreaming of adventure that would likely never come, rather than concentrating on everyday matters like the harvest and their homestead, and how they were going to get by until the next season on the little money they had.
Only later in adulthood did Luke come to realize just how isolated he had been back then. That he had never been truly understood--not by Deak or Fixer or Camie; not by Biggs, or even Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, who had loved him as if he had been their own flesh and blood, but had never really known the restlessness and longing he'd carried within him his entire life.
The only one who had ever understood was Callista.
She had known that feeling of isolation as well--known what it felt to possess a gift that already set her apart even as a little girl; to be loved by a father who could neither understand nor bring himself to acknowledge her power; to be different and have the vague sense that something awaited her--something for which she had no name yet, but of which she was certain nevertheless. As he had been certain once his path crossed with Ben's.
Without turning his head, he watched her as she sat wordlessly beside him, her eyes fixed on the swirling mass of rocks and dust that circled the heavens and seemed to part as they approached, revealing the imposing planet that loomed before them. Callista rested one hand on the control panel and draped the other across her lap as she looked straight ahead with barely a movement, except for the slight rising and falling of her chest as she breathed.
As his eyes followed the rhythm of her breath, Luke couldn't help but wonder what she was thinking at that very moment. There was a time when he would have known without even having to ask--when he could hear her thoughts as clearly as if her husky alto had been speaking to him.
When the link they shared through the Force was so alive and vibrant that he no longer knew where he ended and she began.
But now he heard nothing, not even the faintest whisper of words from her mind. And yet at times he could almost swear that he still sensed her thoughts somehow--that he could tell by the exact shade of gray in her eyes when they looked into his; the shape of her mouth when she smiled; the feel of her touch when she reached out to him. Even without the Force he felt every bit of her unforgettable presence, as if she had been ingrained in him from the moment they met.
A part of him ever since.
The navicomputer buzzed softly underneath Luke's fingertips, demanding his attention and shaking him out of his reverie--shaking Callista out of hers as well, as she straightened and turned to him. Before them, one of the buttons on the panel was blinking maddeningly. Callista reached over to punch it, the small monitor on her right awakening in a seemingly endless stream of words and images that scrolled across its screen.
"Gerridion," Threepio mused, leaning over Callista's shoulder to get a closer look at the information being generated by the navicomputer. "We should have no trouble remaining inconspicuous there, Master Luke. According to the central database, it's sparsely populated now. Settlements are concentrated on the five major continents on the planet, the largest of which seem to be located on the biggest continent--Halderia..."
"That must be it right here." Callista traced the outline of a large, shapeless landmass on the three-dimensional model, tapping the screen for emphasis. "I do get a very high life reading on it. That's a good sign."
"Halderia--I do believe that the esteemed senator from this sector hails from that very place, Master Luke-"
"Does the computer have anything on what the dominant language is there? Will they be able to speak Basic?" Luke felt a twinge of guilt at having to cut the protocol droid off, but, though he normally found Threepio's extensive knowledge base of facts and trivia fascinating--or at the very least amusing--at the moment he was more concerned with only relevant information.
Unfazed, Threepio looked back towards the monitor. "The planet was originally settled by traders from the core worlds, sir. Their main form of communication has always been Basic, although there are other languages that are spoken, mostly from other inhabitants whose ancestors settled in the planet over the centuries. We should have no trouble with them, Master Luke. After all, I am fluent in over six million forms of communication..."
Luke leaned back in his seat and nodded without looking up from the monitor. After a while he looked beside him at Callista. "I'd say our best bet to find information is to go there then."
"Oh yes, I heartily agree, Master Luke," Threepio said. "Artoo says the chances of locating the hidden Sith somewhere in Halderia is approximately three hundred thirty-seven thousand to one." After a thoughtful pause, Threepio added, "Those odds are quite promising, sir."
Luke thought for a moment about asking the droid exactly how Artoo determined those odds, but, realizing the answer may lie in a long-winded explanation, thought the better of it and simply smiled.
"So," Callista said, scanning the monitor once again, "what's our plan?"
"The plan..." Luke brought a hand to his chin, his finger absently running over the tiny scar over his lip that had been the lasting mark of his near-death encounter with a Wampa fifteen years ago. "Han always used to say that plans are overrated anyway. Things never go as you expect them to, so they end up being useless in the end."
Callista laughed softly and rolled her eyes. "And those are certainly wise words from General Solo," she said, "but just the same, I'd feel a lot better if we had something in mind ahead of time--even if none of it goes exactly as we plan them to."
"Then again," Luke said, feeling a grin form on his lips as he thought of his brother-in-law, "Han always seems to find a way to get into trouble, so maybe his philosophy isn't exactly flawless." He stood from his seat and walked over to Callista's right side, leaning forward to look closer at the information on the monitor. "Well, you heard Threepio, the odds of finding something on Halderia are a lot higher than if we go to the settlements the other continents. Halderia it is. Let's talk to as many of the natives as we can and get whatever information they can provide. There's got to be something by way of local legend--I bet someone somewhere has some story about this that everyone has just laughed off till now. If we could give some hapless soul a sympathetic ear, we might just end up with what we're looking for."
"I sure hope so," Callista said. "But then again, Luke, I had never heard any local legend about a hidden Sith buried somewhere in the oceans of Chad." She tilted her head to look up at him and smiled. "Let's just say it was quite a shock to have him wash up on our ark."
Luke nodded. "With any luck, Rath will find it just as complicated to locate his friends. And in the meantime, that may buy us the time we need to make some headway."
"I just hope luck is on our side this time."
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