It was a two-bit township on a two-bit planet in a two-bit system, but at least if Jack needed to leave in a hurry, there wouldn't be a problem. He'd just hit the thrusters and go straight through the hangar wall. It wasn't going to present any obstacle.
He sat a moment longer in the cockpit, tapping his fingers on the edge of the control panel and watching a dusty huddle of local boys forming just outside the hangar. They nudged and pointed. His ship was too long past guarantee and a healthy sneeze away from falling apart, but it was still Corellian, and he didn't suppose they saw that many of those out here.
At least it was out of the way. What worried him was how easy it had been to follow the trail here. Jack was eager as those kids, full of anticipation of seeing him again, of seeing him still alive. And at the same time, he was hoping with everything he had that this was a false trail. Because it had been far too easy. And if it had been that easy, maybe he'd find him dead.
Calm. Centre. Focus. Like he taught you.
Jack flicked off the last of the landing systems, flicked on the security systems, belted on his blaster (too bulky, too heavy, too inflexible, but safe, and better than the alternative) and left the ship. He couldn't see any suspicious shadows watching him, but he made a point of obviously closing the gangway. You learned, in this new universe, or you suffered. Jack had always been a quick learner.
He stopped short of the bundle of boyhood, and it rippled in response, bulged and spat out a spokesman. Stepping forward, hands on hips, the spokesman demanded, "Are you from Trevall?"
Jack remembered passing through there on his way here, sure enough by that point to just refuel, ask a few questions, not even stop to sleep. "No," he answered. "I'm from --" Coruscant; bad idea, "-- much further away."
Youthful scepticism. Trevall was as far away as real people were from. No one came from further away. Jack smiled, and dropped into a crouch, leaning in. They matched him, almost against their will. "I'm on a secret mission," he confided.
Eyes widened, a hiss skittered around the edge of the group. Another boy, not the spokesman, said, "Are you from the Empire?"
The murmuring took a different tone. For a moment Jack couldn't speak past what was blocking his throat. Rage, mostly. A bit of despair. Grief, but that was always there, when he thought of the spreading cloud of the Empire, of what it had already eclipsed. Who. The list always lengthening, though not so quickly now. Running out of names to add to it.
The kids were looking at him. "No," Jack said. "No, not really."
They looked at him some more. Jack wondered what they saw. Small man, dark, hair shorn short but jagged, mismatched clothes, noticeably armed. Just another disreputable small freighter captain. Not any sort of trouble, these days. Not in comparison.
"My mum says the Empire's no good news," said a grubby girl at the back.
Your mum will die for that, if they come here, Jack thought, but he said, "I'm looking for an old friend of mine. Tall bloke, off-worlder, like me. Would've come through in the past --" quick mental calculation, what was the planetary orbit? "-- year or so."
It was the one who asked about the Empire who spoke, and Jack wasn't surprised. "You want to talk to the mechanic. He knows everyone and everything 'round here."
The spokesman pointed, up the dusty street. Jack stood, and looked at them for a moment longer. He wondered if they knew, and if after he turned away they'd run and tell. Part of him really hoped so. Even if it meant he had to chase further. He could be anybody, following this trail.
If he wasn't the first here, asking these questions, the kids would've told him, right?
The mechanic's store was cluttered and tangled and all the things that mechanics' stores were all over the galaxy. Jack didn't bother looking, just stood in the middle and whistled. A head appeared, somewhere back in the gloom. "I'm after the mechanic," Jack called.
"You've found him, then." The head turned out to be connected to a body, picking his way forward through the metallic clutter. Fairly young, Jack judged, though aged the way life did to you, out here. Everywhere, these days. He looked a little familiar, though that was probably just because this planet was humanoid, and Jack had passed through fourteen in the past month that weren't. "Turner," the mechanic said, offering an only slightly grease-smeared hand.
"Sparrow," Jack replied, shaking it.
"If you're the fella came in on the Corellian, don't think I've got much that can help you," Turner said without preamble.
Jack didn't suppose he did, place like this. It'd be all farm droids and short-hop space craft. "News travels fast."
"News like you does." The mechanic smiled, perfunctory, already turning away. "Sorry."
"Actually," Jack said, "I'm looking for a piece of news." Turner stopped, raised an eyebrow. "An old friend. Lost track of him a year ago. Think he's shipped up around here someplace. Tall bloke, he was. Dark hair, green eyes." More calm than the universe could hold, but this long-suffering look that came right at the end of it, and then he'd roll his eyes...
The mechanic was watching him levelly. "This friend of yours have a name?"
Jack pulled out his best roguish grin. "Told me it was James Norrington, but don't know as I'd trust that."
"No," Turner said, "I know James. Been here nigh on six months now. Got a place just over the south ridge. You want to wait until sunset, I'll get my boy to show you the way."
"Won't be necessary." Jack's words came stiff and sharp past the rage, but there was nothing he could do about that. "Just over the south ridge, you say?" Turner nodded, and Jack ground out, "Much obliged," before stalking out.
He stopped back in the middle of the street. The kids were still skulking by the hangar, watching. Jack took a deep breath. Calm. Centre. Focus. Damn him.
He glanced up, checking the sun, and headed south. He walked until he left the town behind, until the ground rose, and peaked, and started to slip away again. There he stood on the ridge, closed his eyes, and unbound his senses, his feelings. Unwrapped the control, and the lingering anger, and let them melt into his surroundings.
Use your feelings, he'd been taught, and he'd always been good at that part. Calm and rational, he'd also been taught, and he'd never been much good at that. Even after being Padawan for so long to the calmest, most rational Jedi in the galaxy, the one who gave General Kenobi a run for his money in the "think first" stakes. It never came easy, it never came naturally, but feelings, well now...
Jack opened his eyes, pivoting and slipping on the ridge. Headed east. He had a lock on, now.
The place wasn't much. A building huddled against a flare-up of the ridge, half carved into the cliff-face, if Jack was any judge. He considered it for a long time, settled into a reasonably comfortable position in the rocks just across the dip from it. Nothing to see. It wasn't abandoned. It wasn't empty. It was waiting.
So Jack stood up, walked across the little valley, up to the front door, and pushed it open.
After the bright sunlight outside, it was blindingly dark inside, the shadows stark. Jack blinked, took a step inside, two, made out the outline of a rickety table, a doorway into an inner room.
The sudden electric buzz was all the warning he had. Jack dove forwards, as a sizzling blade swept through the space where his head had been. He rolled, fetching up in a crouch under the table. He peered out from beneath it, towards the door, an incandescent square of sunset, with a brilliant green streak crossing its sill. The lightsaber hummed, as its wielder stepped forward, into the light. A tall silhouette, lean-limbed, long-haired.
With a swallowing hiss, the lightsaber went out. The familiar shape of James Norrington looked down at Jack. "I could have killed you," he said. "I thought you were him."
Anger jolted back into place, shunting aside blank panic, and leap-frogging the warm tug of recognition. Jack shouldered out from under the table. "I bloody well could have been," he snapped.
Standing up, on a level with James (or as close to it as Jack ever got outside of standing on a chair, and Jedi were supposed to have some dignity), Jack could see his face. He hadn't changed, except that he had. Still stoic, still hard as crystal, but there was something ragged beneath it now. Something Jack didn't have words for, but knew intimately. He saw it every time he caught a glimpse of himself in a reflective surface.
They were all casualties. Especially the survivors.
"You should have been," James said, tossing his lightsaber onto a shelf.
"No." Jack crossed the room, gripped James's shoulders. "You are not sitting here bloody waiting for him. You aren't sitting here bloody waiting for him to catch up with you."
"I'll kill you myself."
"Jack." How did he do it? Never raised his voice. Never even frowned (unless Jack had well and truly gone too far). Just looked at him. Those eyes were still their clear, faded green. Could still see straight through him. "Are we the only ones left?"
He'd been here for six months. News wouldn't have made it this far. Jack remembered - was unlikely to forget - every single name that had been scratched off the list in that time. Liddy. Redfen. He'd heard Misto four times, but the fourth was final. Colvin, Duma and Ayel, together, the three of them. Three. And they'd fallen.
Jack shook his head. "I don't know."
He must be imagining it. There couldn't be a tremor under his hands. Not in the shoulders of James Norrington. "He was the best of us," James whispered.
"He was not," Jack insisted, fervent. Didn't shake, but his grip tightened. "He was a brat, he was too wild; I should know!"
"Jack." Another look he knew like himself, a steadiness, a faint edge that always came coupled with questions, such as was that really necessary? or do you want to think about that for a moment?
"Never liked him anyway," Jack declared. "Bloody flashy bastard."
There was a tremor under his hands now, but it was laughter, shaking up through James's body; reluctant, helpless, unmistakable. Jack curled a hand around James's neck, tilted his head down to rest their foreheads together. Felt the anger melt away, trickling into the sand, replaced by warmth, that laugh, his own grin. For the first time since the universe juddered around him, he felt steady.
"Come on," he said.
"Where are we going?" James asked.
"To get fall-down drunk. Don't know about you, but I damn well need it."
James had a speeder hidden away. It was a temperamental old thing, but he let Jack drive, and didn't say a word at the sudden jerks, or the spates of swearing. When they finally got out, back in the township, Jack kicked it once for good measure, and limped the next few paces. James didn't say anything about that, either.
The cantina was about what Jack expected - sleepy, dusty, haunted by a few ghostly locals, and some brighter ones just passing through for a quiet drink before they headed home. One of the latter was the mechanic, and Jack muttered an excuse, slipping away from James to corner the man as he slipped out of his booth.
"Found him all right, then," Turner said, not betraying any anxiety about Jack's reappearance.
"I did," Jack confirmed. "Thanks to you."
Turner seemed perplexed, his forehead creased. "Well... good?"
"I could've been anyone," Jack said, teeth bared in something not at all like a grin.
"Oh." Turner's head went back a little, like he was reeling under the impact of realisation. "No."
"I know who you mean. I know what you mean." Jack must have looked sceptical; Turner looked stern. "We do get some news, even out here. And I hear a little more than most."
"If you'd been from the Empire," Turner said, quiet and serious, "the kids never would have passed you to me." He squared his shoulders. "We don't like that lot, out here."
Suddenly, all Jack felt was tired. Old, fatigued, overwhelmed. "It won't help you," he said. Lamented. Admitted.
"Maybe not," Turner replied. "But there it is, anyway. And James is a good man."
"The best," Jack agreed.
They shook hands on that, and Turner continued on his way, nodding to various other local fellows who'd been looking up with some interest. Jack wondered if he'd have been able to hold his own, had it come to anything less amicable. He had the blaster at his hip. A blaster wasn't a lightsaber.
"What was that about?" James asked, leant against the bar.
"Thanking the fellow for his assistance," Jack said easily.
James smiled and turned back to the tender, accepting two beakers and a jug of something that smoked gently. Jack squinted at it suspiciously. Strange outlying brews. He never had trusted them completely.
He couldn't argue with its potency, however. Just as well they were sitting down at that stage (in a booth of their own, far enough from the locals to speak freely, not so far as to seem stand-offish). The first mouthful just about knocked Jack over backwards with its ferocity. "Wow," he said, eyeing the contents of the beaker with a new respect. "You can drink rotgut in every cantina between here and Romide Eleven, and they can still take you by surprise."
James drank. A grimace flowered on his face, but it was restrained, more of a habit, and there was a small smile on the end of it. "You did specifically say 'fall-down' drunk."
"Yes, but I didn't intend it to be instantaneous."
On anyone else, that expression would be a smirk. It's James; it isn't. "Lost your stamina?"
"You." Jack pointed. "You have an unfair advantage. That's why you've been here six months, isn't it? Building up resistance!"
"Yes. Of course it is." Dead-pan delivery, and another sip (with a grimace like an echo). "And in that time you've been...?"
"What is this, check up on the Padawan time?" Jack would be grinning, if that wouldn't ruin the illusion of grumpiness. He was grinning, grumpiness be damned.
James snorted. "When was the last time I checked up on you?"
Jack remembered it like it was yesterday. Better, because with all the space-flight in his recent and not-so-recent past, it's hard to remember where yesterday ticked over into today, but that day is crystal in his memory. His last day of being a Padawan, of being James's responsibility to check upon. Staggering in on the very morning of his elevation, and James's head came up, no rush, as he said, "And where have you been?" Then, as Jack leaned against the doorframe, trying to wring the hangover out of his veins with the Force, a look passed over James's face, a sudden shock of something. Gone in the next moment.
That had been the last time he'd asked, because after that day, Jack had been a Jedi Knight, and no one's responsibility but his own. Sometimes, Jack wished James slipped up more often. Or at all.
Sometimes, Jack wished he'd never had cause. That he was still James's responsibility, his Padawan. That there would have been no power in the universe that could have had him away from his Master's side on the day it all ended.
They'd survived. They were both of them sitting here, still drinking, when better men - better Jedi - had been cut down, either in the first vicious flurry, or the calculated, implacable hunt that followed.
If Jack asked why, he'd need more than one jug of this stuff.
So instead he talked. Staring at the table, at the dropping level of his beaker, as he talked about the moment - that moment - when the universe recoiled, shrieking. Ripped through him like a jagged blade, alone in cockpit of his fighter, somewhere in the depths of space, running late and taking an unofficial shortcut, as usual; the only thing that saved his life.
Cut and run. He'd always been good at using his feelings, and that day, every feeling had screamed. It had taken days before he could think over the noise, but by that time his instincts had him so deeply buried in the Outer Rim that even he hadn't been entirely sure where he was.
"You didn't hear the beacon?" James asked.
Jack shook his head. "Didn't reach out there. Heard about it. After."
"Ah." So James had heard about her, at least.
"Yeah." Jack looked glumly at his beaker, not thinking about Ezek Misto, about how it should never have been possible for anyone to bring her down. He poured again, for them both. They were going to need another jug of the stuff, at this rate.
"What are you doing here?" James asked.
"Finding you," Jack shot back. "You stupid, insufferable, stiff-backed idiot." There was more there; more planets than he could count without checking his ship's log, enough stories to make anyone buy the next round. But all to one purpose. He felt tired, like he'd just done it all again. But it had ended. He was here, sitting across from James. Jack shook his head, drank his violent drink. "What are you doing here?"
James was watching his beaker. "It's as far as I got. As far as I managed before..." He paused. Looked up. "Before I couldn't see the point. There's nowhere we can hide from what's happened, Jack. No matter how far we go, it's still over. It's all over." He passed a hand over his face. "How can it be?"
Jack reached across, gripped his wrist. James looked at him, those faded green eyes that had always seen straight through him. I will not (he heard, like an echo, such an old echo) tell you to "fuck off", Sparrow, because there is something inside you that takes to the Force like I have never seen before, that lives it in a way I can't even begin to imagine, and I'll be damned if I'll let you waste that just because you're feeling a little sulky. Now get up and do it properly.
He said nothing, because James was right. He was wrong, but he was right as well. It was over. But nothing ever ended without something else beginning. They were here. They were alive. The Force was heavy with sorrow and skittish with misuse, but it was still there, unstoppable, like James's pulse beneath Jack's grip on his wrist.
Jack let him go. "My ship's in the hangar." He jerked a thumb. "We can get in, and go. Anywhere in the universe. Somewhere they've never heard of the thrice-damned Emperor. Somewhere they make a bloody decent drink."
"My lightsaber's back at the house."
James considered his beaker, took a mouthful. "Where's yours?" It had the sound of a casual question. Even drunk as a smuggler (which they weren't, yet, but even then, even then), James didn't ask casual questions.
"Threw it in a lake." Even sober, Jack never took questions seriously.
"No you didn't."
Jack met his Master's gaze. "I was out near Geonosis. In a tight spot. All or nothing. This bloke found out I was Jedi. Rolled me, left me for dead, took everything I had. Turns out there's a bounty on lightsabers. Did you know?" He looked down, but his beaker was already empty. He slid it up to the end of the table.
"We'll make you another one," James said.
Jack looked up at him. "I don't want another one."
"What do you want, then?"
Their gazes locked, in the still hours of the night, in a cantina on an unimportant planet. "You know," Jack said.
A year ago, more, James would never have met his eyes. Now, he lifted his beaker, not in a toast, but simply to drain it. "We'll leave in the morning," he said.
"But the trail," Jack objected. "What if--?"
"If he finds us, in the slim span of time between now and then," James said, dryer than deserts, dryer than space, "we'll go down fighting." Implacable. Unshakeable. The solid, grounding force that Jack had shaped his life around. And that smile, just the faintest twist of a corner of his mouth, that Jack would finesse his way through a training exercise just to see. The man he'd crossed the galaxy, fighting for every step, to find again. "We'll go down fighting," he repeated, "together."
Trace by dee
On crack. Blame Elessil. All her fault.