Minutes after his arrival in Smuggler’s Run, Anakin had decided that he never, ever wanted to come back.
The flight in had been bad enough. Anakin had enjoyed flying by the seat of his pants when he had been younger, but he had grown up, dammit, and he didn’t feel the need to dance with death every chance he got. Almost dying did that to a man.
Ana’s pilot, though, seemed to have no such compunction.
They had come in through a shattered asteroid field, missing over a dozen collisions in the space of a few moments. Each one by the skin of their teeth. Anakin’s fingers had turned white from clutching the back of the pilot’s seat. They had made it, though. The pilot had brought them into one of the larger asteroids, tagged as Skip 1 on the onboard computer, landing her in a small bay on the far side.
Now, walking through the tunnels that formed the corridors and chambers of Skip 1, Anakin half-wished he was back in the ship, running the gauntlet. The walls were covered in a slimy goo that stank so bad he had stopped breathing through his nose.
"How can anyone stand to live here?" he asked Ana, walking at her side.
She frowned for a moment, not understanding. Then a bright smile graced her features. "You mean the smell?"
He nodded. "It stinks worse than a bantha in heat."
"You get used to it, farm
boy," she replied.
"Maybe if you cut your nose off," Anakin grumbled.
Ana led him through the tunnels. Though they seemed like a maze to Anakin, Ana navigated them as if she had lived there her whole life. She never once hesitated and knew what turns to take and which corridors to avoid. By the time they reached the bar she had suggested as a possible location to find Ben's contact, Anakin was well and truly lost.
Another sign you're getting old, old man
, he thought as Ana paused outside the door. Once upon a time, he would have been able to find his way back to the Venture blindfolded. Of course, back then, he still had access to the Force.
"Okay, remember, until we find this friend of yours, I do the talking. These are my people, and none of them want to get caught up in your war."
"He's not my friend and this isn't my war," Anakin insisted. "All I care about is getting my boy back."
"If you say so," Ana said, and led the way inside.
Anakin had been expecting the bar to be something exceptional considering that they were in the middle of an asteroid. But whoever had designed and built this module had done everything in their power to hide any sign of where they were located. This could have been any bar on any planet in the Outer Rim.
Well, almost any bar.
The variety of the bar's denizens was more impressive. At least a third of the aliens were from races Anakin had never seen before.
He followed Ana over to the bar, trying not to stare too much. He passed one table whose occupants all had strips of black flesh where their eyes should have been, along with shark-like vents on their chests they seemed to be using to breath. He turned away from them and found himself faced with a group of floating fish, their eyes as bulbous as a Mon Calamari's. They floated in the air, bobbing up and down above a bowl of some kind of red-gold liquid.
"Dypfiti," Ana whispered back to him. "From out beyond the Rishi Maze."
"Never heard of them."
"What do you mean?"
"New. Not from around here. A lot of that happening lately. Some trouble out beyond the Rim pushing them our way."
Before Anakin had time to ask her what she meant, they had arrived at the bar. Ana squeezed in between a Rodian and a Wookie, her hand raised to get the bartender's attention. The bartender - a multilimbed Besalisk with a rough beard and roving eyes - leered at Ana when he saw her and opened his upper arms.
"Ana! Good to see you, doll."
Ana giggled. She actually giggled! Anakin just stared.
"What can I say Malks, I've been busy."
Hauling his huge bulk over to the bar, Malks leaned over and caught Ana up in a hug. Anakin growled as the Besalisk's hands settled for a moment on her ass, but they were gone before he could say anything. Ana glanced back at him and glared, then turned back to Malks.
"I need some information, Malks. I'm looking for someone."
He laughed, his hands waving. "You never just want to see me for me, do you doll?"
"I'll make it up to you, Malks, I swear."
The Besalisk looked at her for a moment, then threw all his hands up. "What the hell, baby. What do you need?"
"I'm looking for a ship," Ana said, leaning forward. Anakin saw Malks’ eyes dip to her open shirt and his scowl deepened. "Goes by the name of Falcon?"
Malks’ smile disappeared and he looked back up at her. "Now why you looking for that ship?"
"It's personal," Anakin interjected, drawing another glare from Ana. "The guy who owns it owes me something."
Malks ignored him. "That's not the sort of company you want to be keeping, Ana. Not the sort at all. All kinds of trouble." He shook his head.
"I understand," Ana said, "but I haven't got a choice. Do you know where I can find the captain?"
Malks hesitated for a moment, and not for the first time, Anakin wished he still had access to the Force. He doubted Malks would be able to resist a little Jedi persuasion.
Ana's charms, though, seemed to work just fine. Malks shook his head, then stood up on his tiptoes. After scanning the room, he lifted his arm and pointed off to the left behind Anakin.
"See the Gungan and the dark-skinned Corellian over there beside the Wookies?"
Anakin followed his finger. A few metres away from the door sat a table full of Wookies in lavish red and green pirate sashes. Beside them, lost somewhat in the shadows, sat a human and a Gungan, just like Malks had said.
"That's them," Malks confirmed.
Before Anakin or Ana could thank him, the Gungan looked up and saw them staring. His eyes widened and he started to pull on his companion's shirt sleeve. Oh frak!
"I see it."
Anakin’s eyes never left the Gungan, as he heard Ana thanking Malks. The Besalisk said something under his breath and Ana giggled again. Then she was at his side and they pushed through the crowd towards the Falcon's crew.
"A Besalisk? Seriously?"
Ana glanced at him. "A Queen? Seriously?"
Anakin decided to shut up.
By this time, the Gungan had managed to rouse the Corellian, who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or spice or both. The man lifted his head, eyes bleary, and stared at Ana and Anakin, blinking. It took him a few seconds to make sense of what was going on, and then Anakin saw realisation cross his features. He stumbled to his feet, the chair clattering to the deck, and followed the Gungan towards the door.
"Frak!" Anakin swore. He changed course, trying to cut the two men off before they reached the door, but he could tell they wouldn't make it in time.
A handful of pilots and crew pushed past them, but none of them spared either Anakin or Ana more than a passing glance. They reached the door moments after the Gungan and the Corellian, just in time to see them vanish around a corner further down the corridor. Anakin led the way, trying to go as fast as he could. He didn’t want to give them too much of a head start.
He reached the corner moments before Ana and raced around it. The Corellian – sober – and the Gungan were waiting, guns in hand. Anakin stumbled to a halt, putting his hands up. Frak!
Ana joined him a few seconds later, stopping a few steps further back. She lifted her hands as well, glaring at the two Alliance officers.
The Corellian smirked, waving the gun.
“Alright, friend, keep em where I can see them.”
Anakin snarled. “Listen, slimo, why don’t you—“
He broke off as the Corellian cocked the pistol, his finger hovering over the trigger. How could I have been so stupid?
Obi-wan would be laughing at him, wherever he was. Caught out like a padawan on his first mission.
The Corellian spoke. “Now, why don’t you tell me why the hell you’ve been looking for me for the past few days?”
Anakin shook his head. “An old friend sent me to find you.”
The other man snorted. “Isard, right? I knew that bastard would track me down eventually. Well, you can tell your boss that - -“
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Anakin cut him off. “Whoever you think we are, we aren’t. I was told to meet you here by Obi-wan Kenobi and—“
“Kenobi!” The Corellian took a step forward, the gun dropping slightly. Beside him, the Gungan’s long ears perked up. “He’s here?”
Anakin felt a surge of pain in his gut. In his mind’s eye, he again imagined Kenobi falling towards the waiting stormtroopers, his lightsabre dropping alongside him… He shook his head once, fighting back the tears that threatened to well up. “No.”
He could see his own pain reflected in the Corellian’s face.
Anakin opened his mouth to explain, but Ana cut him off. “Perhaps we could have this discussion in a less public place? With less guns?”
The Corellian frowned at her, then looked down at the gun in his hand. Lowering it, he grinned at them.
“Sorry. You’re right, of course. Come on. We’ll talk in the Falcon.”
Turning, the Corellian headed further down the corridor, the Gungan spinning on one heel and walking a few steps behind. Anakin and Ana shared a glance, then Ana shrugged and set off after them. Anakin held back for a moment. Could he trust the man? He seemed to check out, all the way down to the name of his ship. Still, he knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving.
He shook his head. At the end of the day, he had very little choice but to trust the man. He followed.
They made their way through a warren of tunnels, each one leaking the noxious goo along with clouds of moisture. Every so often, the tunnel would break off into a secondary corridor or a wide open space. Ships of all shapes and sizes rested within those bays. The Corellian led them to one in particular, where a ravaged old hunk of a ship sat atop seven landing struts.
“That’s your ship?” Ana asked, a hint of derision in her voice.
Anakin stared. The ship, though far from being the sleakest, classiest ship he had ever seen, oozed character. Every pock mark, scar and addition only served to add style to the old girl. He had never seen a more beautiful sight. Love at first sight.
The Corellian stared at her with equal hunger. “The Falcon. Greatest ship I’ve ever piloted, and I’ve piloted quite a few.”
“She’s a beauty,” Anakin breathed.
Ana spun to look at him, her eyes wide. “Seriously? That thing?”
Anakin nodded, his eyes never leaving the Falcon. “Trust me. I know ships. And this one… She’s a hell of a thing.”
The Corellian smiled at him, pride bursting from his face. “That she is. Come on. We’ll be safer inside.”
Anakin’s eyes never left the Falcon as he followed the Corellian and the Gungan towards the ramp. He could feel Ana’s eyes on him, frowning as she tried to make sense of his interest in the old bucket of bolts. He didn’t bother trying to explain, though – it would be like explaining true love. After a few seconds, Ana shook her head and sniffed.
Walking up the ramp and into the ship itself, Anakin took in the cobbled together parts, hanging wiring and oil soaked cogs. How he would love to get his hands on her! Just spending a couple of seconds walking around inside, he could already imagine the changes he would make. And the things he would leave as they were.
She smelled of heated metal and coolant, of unrecycled air and burnt wiring. He loved it. The moment he set foot on the decking’s metal plates, he could feel her humming beneath his feet. In a strange way he could not explain, he felt at home.
The Corellian led them to a small circular common area. A couch and three chairs surrounding a holochess table were the only fittings beyond a wall of consoles. The Corellian indicated for Anakin and Ana to sit down, then drew the Gungan to one side. Anakin and Ana slid into the booth, sharing a glance as the two Alliance men talked in low whispers. Finally, the Gungan sighed and walked back out into the corridor.
“I sent Lo to keep an eye out for Imps on the surveillance systems. Like I said, we’ve been hearing whispers about people asking around about us. That’s why we were running the whole sting in the bar. Hoping to flush the damned spooks out.” He twisted one of the chairs around and sat down, smiling. “Name’s Calrissian, by the way. Lando Calrissian.”
“Ani,” Anakin replied, avoiding using his real name. He didn’t need any more attention if he could avoid it, and he had no idea how much information Obi-wan had given this man about him. “This is Ana.”
She glared at him, but he ignored her, focusing on Calrissian. The Alliance man’s face sombered, the grin sliding off.
“So. What happened to General Kenobi?”
Anakin took a moment to gather his thoughts before launching into an explanation. He told Calrissian about his meeting with Obi-wan, glossing over the part where he had tried to kill him and skipping straight to the story of Luke’s kidnapping. When he reached the story of their escape from the Imperials in Mos Espa, Calrissian’s face darkened even further.
“And you’re sure he’s dead?” he asked after a moment.
Anakin shrugged. “I don’t see how he could have survived.”
“I don’t know.” Calrissian’s gaze grew distant. “But I do know the General. Have done for a long time now. And I also know that he not the sort of man who just dies.” He looked up at Anakin and the older man saw a hint of mad hope flare in his eyes. “Wait here.”
Almost jumping out of his seat, Calrissian walked out of the common area with purpose, heading further into the ship. To the bridge, Anakin surmised. He held back a sigh. He would like to believe that Obi-wan had survived that fall, but it seemed Calrissian was reaching for bantha hairs where none existed.
“How sure are we that we can trust him?” Ana asked after a moment’s silence, dragging Anakin back from his dark musings.
He shrugged. “He’s definitely the man Obi-wan told me about. At this point, he’s my only hope of getting to Coruscant.” Luke’s face flashed through his mind and he felt an all too familiar pang of hurt. “And of getting my boy back.”
When Ana didn’t respond, Anakin looked at her. She was staring at the table. “You’re as good as gone, then.”
A womprat squirmed in Anakin’s belly. “You know I have to do this, Ana. I can’t just- -“
She looked up, placing a finger on his lips. “I understand, Ani. I just wish I could come with you.”
He felt a lump in his throat. “No you don’t,” he said, his voice hoarse. “You have your own life.”
“Just promise me that when all of this is over, you’ll bring him home. Promise me you’ll come back.”
Anakin hesitated for a moment. He had made so many promises – to Padme, to Obi-wan, to his mother, to Luke. He couldn’t bear to make one more that he couldn’t keep. He opened his mouth to tell her, when Calrissian ran back into the room.
Without even realising it, Anakin rose up off the couch, hands pressed down on the table.
“What?!” He felt a surge of hope, tempered by a sick feeling in his stomach. I abandoned him. I left him there.
“Kenobi. He’s alive. I hacked into the Imperial commnet using an old military code. A general communiqué went out around the time you escaped Tatooine, announcing General Obi-wan Kenobi’s capture. The bastard’s have him.”
Anakin felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. He slumped back in the couch, covering his eyes with his hand. “Obi-wan…”
When he took his hand away, Calrissian had moved over to one of the consoles, working it furiously. “According to the communique, they are holding him…” A star map flashed up on the screen, spun, zoomed in, then revealed a red planet that flashed over and over. “Here. It’s a penal station, near the Corellian sector. I doubt they’ll leave him there long, though.” He turned, eyes meeting Anakin’s. “If we’re going to get him out, we’re going to have to be quick.”
Ana spun to face Anakin, shock written all over her face. “What?!”
Anakin looked down at the table, his feelings torn.
“You cannot be serious,” she said, the disgust evident in her voice. “Ani, tell me you’re not considering this.”
He forced himself to look up at her, pain tightening his features. “Ana, I…”
“No!” She spun to face Calrissian. “No! You’re insane, the pair of you. No one breaks into an Imperial penal station and survives. No one.”
Calrissian didn’t bother responding. He crossed his arms and leant back against the console as he looked to Anakin.
Ana growled something and turned back. “Anakin. Please. Think about Luke.”
Anakin felt a surge of anger. “You think I’m not? By the Force, Ana… But Obi-wan…” All of his anger flowed out of him, leaving him a tired old man. “Obi-wan is Obi-wan. He was like a father to me. I owe him, for more than I can explain. Besides, he may be my best chance of getting to Luke. He knows Coruscant better than I do now, knows the Imperials, the Sith… I have no idea about any of that anymore. If there is a chance I can get him free and get his help… I have to try.”
“This is suicide.”
Ana’s shoulder’s slumped and she looked down at the couch. “There’s nothing I can say to talk you out of this?”
“I have no other choice.”
She shook her head. “Damn you, Anakin Skywalker. Damn you for being such a fool and damn me for falling in love with you.” She took a deep shuddering breath, then leant forward to kiss him. Her lips tasted of tears. “Take care of yourself, Ani. Bring him back.”
Before he could say anything to try and make it right, she turned, eased out from behind the table and walked across the room. He watched her leave, listening as her footsteps faded down the corridor. She was gone.
Calrissian took a step away from the console, his face pinched. “I can go after her if you…”
Anakin shook his head, forced as much control into his voice as he could. “No. No, it’s better this way. Let her go back to her life.” Let her be free.
Silence fell, broken only by the sound of the star map beeping in the background. Finally, Calrissian spoke.
“You’re sure you’re up to this?”
Anakin almost laughed. “I think I can handle it.”
“All I meant was- -“
“Save it for the ladies, hotshot.” He struggled to his feet, trying to ignore the lancing pain in his chest. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.” He walked over to the consoles, studying the read-out. “Now, what can you tell me about this penal station?”