AN: This story was written as part of the SW Summer Fic Exchange, as a gift for MightyDragoon.
I hope you enjoy.
The day of the reaping had always been quiet and tense, but there was something in the air this year that made Luke's hair stand on end. This was, after all, his last reaping- the next year he would be eighteen and forever free of the possibility of being chosen as a tribute.
If he wasn't chosen this year, that is.
Luke stared morosely at his reflection in the mirror, inspecting the clothes Aunt Beru had picked up for him. He didn't understand why everyone always dressed up for this occasion, but at least he wouldn't stand out. Not that it mattered- the tributes were chosen randomly, or so the Empire claimed. So far, Luke had been lucky to survive the previous six reapings despite the extra entries accumulated in exchange for food rations for his family, but there was always this one last chance things could go wrong.
Sighing, he made his way back to the kitchen, trying to muster up a smile. It wasn't his Aunt and Uncle's fault that the Galactic Games took place each year, so he shouldn't be a downer on their mood. Not that it mattered- Luke could see his Aunt's hands shaking slightly despite the weak smile she sent him in return.
Uncle Owen was the one trying to put up a firm front, acting as if today was just another day, but it was easy to tell he was nervous by the generous amount of curses he sent Empire's way in the morning alone. Still, Luke was kind of grateful for them trying to act normal. Maybe if he told himself enough times that everything would be alright, it actually would be.
Tatooine's population amounted to two hundred thousand. The chances of being elected were higher than on planets like Corellia or Alderaan, but slim nonetheless.
"Time to go," Uncle Owen said gruffly, and Luke felt his stomach sinking.
He had a very bad feeling about this.
The reapings were always held in Mos Espa, so they had to leave early to reach the city on time. Adults didn't need to attend the event, but children were almost always accompanied by their parents, and the settlement was crowded with people. Because of that, they had to leave their landspeedeer on the outskirts and walk the rest of the way on foot.
The stage had been set in the main square, with three chairs, a podium, and two large transparisteel bowls filled with flimsi in the middle- one for boys, and the other for girls. The flimsi was to assure everyone that candidates were indeed chosen randomly, though Luke suspected that if the Empire wanted to, they would fake the outcome anyway.
There were ten minutes left until the start, and the square was already filled with anxious children. Luke searched with his gaze for Biggs, before finding him standing near the dais together with Fixer, Camie, and Deak. He walked over, giving them a wan smile, and they nodded at him in return.
This was the last reaping for all of them, and they were all ready to get it over with.
Luke watched the Imperial Official by the name of Drez Kavkins walk onto the dais, his dark rich clothes seeming completely out of place in Tatooine's suns. He was new to the planet, completely fresh out of Coruscant, and absolutely not prepared for the harsh desert climate. Already, sweat was sliding down his face, and he looked like he couldn't wait to leave the place.
The chair beside him was filled by a Rodian, and Luke wasn't even sure what his name was. He was here only because Jabba couldn't be bothered to attend the event himself, and so each year he sent a representative instead.
The last seat was reserved for the mentor of future tributes. In some cases, the mentor was a former victor from the planet, but unfortunately for Tatooine, no one from their world had ever won the Galactic Games. Instead, they had been assigned a mentor from another planet, and this year it was a Corellian by the name of Han Solo.
Solo was young, but at least he was a Victor- that had to count for something. Last year they got a drunkard from Ord Mantell, so this at least seemed like an improvement.
At exactly 1300 standard hours, the Rodian whose name Luke didn't know stood up and started the usual spiel depicting the history of the Galactic Empire.
It rose on the ashes of the Republic, which lasted for millennia and ultimately crumbled under the feet of corrupt senators. After the Republic fell, Emperor Palpatine formed the Galactic Empire, which once again brought peace to the galaxy. Unfortunately, four years after the formation of the Empire, the peace was broken. Some of the surviving Jedi, as well as more staunch defenders of the democracy, started a Rebellion, and eventually, an uprising broke out.
It didn't last long. The rebels were quickly crushed, decimated by the Emperor's new enforcer, Darth Vader. Most of the insurrectionists were killed, and soon after that, the Galactic Games had been established.
Originally, they consisted of thirteen planets that took the most active part in the uprising. However, in the following years, the number of planets had been expanded by another twelve, including worlds that harbored fugitives from the Rebellion.
The sole reason for Tatooine's participation in the Games was that a Jedi by the name of Obi-Wan Kenobi hid there after the uprising.
Luke could hardly think of something less fair.
The purpose of the Galactic Games was for each planet to provide two tributes, a boy and a girl, who would later fight to the death in a specially engineered arena. The victor could only be one.
The Rodian ended his speech with long praise for the Hutts and their generosity before sliding down to his chair and making space for Drez Kavkins.
The man stepped up to the podium, saying loudly, "Welcome to the 14th Galactic Games! May the odds be in your favor." He stopped, cleared his throat, and adjusted the collar of his jacket, which was clearly tied too tightly for Tatooine's heat. "We will start with the girls." His hand reached into the transparisteel bowl which contained all the girls' names before drawing a slip of flimsi.
"Aola Devaro!" He exclaimed.
All heads turned in the direction of suddenly parting crowd. After a few silent moments when cries of despair could be heard, two stormtroopers walked to the podium escorting a Twi'lek girl who looked ready to faint.
Kavkins shook her hand, giving her an empty smile, before he turned back to the morose crowd and declared, "We have the first tribute! Now to the boys!"
His hand reached for the second bowl and Luke felt his heart drop.
Suddenly, he knew with absolute certainty who the second tribute would be.
Leia walked up to the stage with her head raised high and her back straight. The crowd parted in front of her like it always did during state celebrations, only now the faces that looked at her were grim and desolate. She was pretty sure some of the onlookers even started sobbing.
She didn't look at her parents- she couldn't. If she did, her composure would crumble, and she would become a teary mess. That would be unacceptable. She couldn't allow herself to appear easy prey.
The Imperial Official grinned at her like she just won a lottery before taking her hand in his and giving her a firm shake. Leia only gazed at him cooly, wondering if the grin reflected the man's true sentiments. After all, she was pretty sure all the Imperials were very glad that the Alderaanian Princess was finally going to die.
The reaping hadn't been a surprise, not really. The only surprise was that it had come so late. Then again, perhaps that was the point. Give her hope for six years and then snatch it from right before her eyes during her last reaping.
The Imperial moved on to the second bowl, drawing a flimsi and shouting, "Bornae Dat!"
It took a while for the stormtroopers to locate the boy, considering how many people gathered in Aldera that day. Some of them watched from their speeders above, unable to find an empty spot on the ground. When Bornae was finally brought to the stage, Leia couldn't help but pity the kid. She didn't know him, but she already mourned his loss.
Though perhaps that was premature. He could surprise them yet.
After the new tributes had been introduced to the crowd, Leia and Bornae were marched up the steps of the Royal Palace, requisitioned by the Empire for the duration of the Reapings. Then they were led to separate rooms to await the last meeting with their families.
Leia managed to hold her composure up until the door to the room opened and her parents walked in, and then she was throwing her arms around their necks, the tears she had withheld for so long streaming freely down her face.
"My baby," her mother said, and it was clear from her voice that she was crying as well. "This is not the end. You will win and come back to us."
"No I won't," Leia sniffed, burying her head in her mother's shawl. "I'm not strong enough to win."
"Of course you are," her father said, putting a hand on Leia's shoulder. "We will do everything in our power to help you. We will send you as many gifts as we can and we will find sponsors that will do the same. You will win this yet, Leia. We believe in you."
Leia pulled back from her mother's embrace and wiped away the tears. Were her parents actually confident that she would win, or were they just comforting her? It didn't matter, except for the fact that she would feel terrible for disappointing them when she ultimately lost.
No, she couldn't think like that. If she didn't believe herself that she would win, then she already lost. She had to at least try.
A stormtrooper entered, signaling their time was up, and Leia gave her parents one last hug before they were forced to leave the room.
Alone again, Leia wondered; was this the last time she would be seeing her parents and her planet?
"It's all in the mind," Han Solo said, smearing some green pasta on a piece of toast. "Being confident that you can win is already half of the success. Me? I knew from the beginning that I would become the victor and so I did."
"Just like that," Luke said dryly, twirling a fork in his hands.
They were sitting in the dining room of the large spaceship that served as their transport to the Imperial Center, already one day from Tatooine. The whole ship was opulent and extravagant and as a result kind of intimidating for someone who spent his whole life living in poverty on Tatooine. Each tribute was even given their own chambers that included a fresher with running water.
Running water! For the first time in his life, Luke had taken an actual water shower.
Solo shrugged. "As I said, this is half of the success. The rest is part skill and part luck. Are you good with any weapons?"
Luke hesitated. "I've used a blaster before…"
Solo raised his eyebrows. "Just 'used'? That's not good enough, kid. A blaster is an optimal choice if you don't know any other weapons. You'll have to work on that." He turned his head to Aola. "What about you?"
The Twi'lek shrugged. "I figure I'm good enough with a blaster."
"Okay, so we'll concentrate on that front. Any other skills worth mentioning?"
Luke chewed on the pancakes that served as his breakfast. "I'm a good pilot. Very good."
"Well, it's too bad you're not gonna get anything to pilot, then. Unless they change the rules this year." His eyebrows rose as if to say how unlikely that was.
"How old were you when you won the Games?" Aola asked.
"Seventeen. The first Galactic Games." Solo shrugged. "It was a lot worse back then, trust me. We had absolutely no idea what to expect. Now you have thirteen years of material to draw on."
"Will it be of any use, though?" Luke wondered. "They change the arena and settings every year."
"Probably not," Solo agreed. "But it's something. And you need every possible advantage to win."
Luke glanced at Aola tersely and she returned the wary look. They both knew only one of them could come out of this alive.
"Um, Mr. Solo…"
"Han," Luke repeated. "Aren't you bothered that you're serving as our mentor? You're probably hoping that a tribute from Corellia will win."
Han shrugged, reaching for a cup of caf before bringing it to his lips. "I don't care either way, kid. I signed up for this gig for money, but now that I'm here, I can as well help you win. Not that I care," he repeated quickly.
"Right," Luke said, lowering his gaze to his already empty plate. He's probably eaten too much, but it was hard to resist when there was so much food ready for the taking. Even so, his stomach was already starting to hurt.
"Have you two watched the recap of all the reapings yesterday?".Han asked.
"Yeah," Aola murmured. "There were a lot of volunteers."
Han sighed. "Don't let it discourage you. They don't always win."
Luke had a sudden epiphany. "Is this your first time serving as a mentor?"
Han glanced at him warily. "Yeah. Why?"
Luke shrugged. "Never mind," he muttered. If Han had never coached any tributes before, that explained why he wasn't jaded yet, and why he thought they stood a chance at winning.
"Don't get me wrong, kid," Han started, probably sensing some of Luke's sentiments. "There will be many participants who are stronger and more skilled than you. That's not up for debate. But so were there during my Games. And I still won. So, give yourself a fighting chance."
Both Luke and Aola fell silent at that, so Han took that chance to finish his toast. After a moment, he clapped his hands and said, "So, since speeders are out of the question, is there anything else you can impress your potential sponsors with?"
"Well, I'm good with machines…"
Leia had been to the Imperial Center before, so it failed to impress her as much as it did Bornae. The planet was glittering with never dimming lights, its tall buildings rising high into the sky.
It was beautiful, but it wasn't home.
When their ship lowered itself closer to the surface, Leia could see thousands of eager faces watching their arrival from slim speeders or opened balconies. They all treated the Games as an annual entertainment, never having to worry about participating themselves. Leia could never understand how so many beings who previously lived in a Democratic State could become so desensitized to human tragedy.
They were taken to an opulent building where a crowd of people led her and Bornae to different rooms, where they were put in the hands of stylists.
Leia found herself severely unimpressed by her unimpressed stylists.
They took one look at her and decided she looked 'provincial and plain', before completely redoing her hair, makeup, and nails. By the time they were done, Leia didn't need to look into the mirror to know she wouldn't like what she saw. And indeed, her reflection showcased a completely different girl to the one who just walked through the door.
Leia hated it.
Her initial makeover done, Leia was then led to another room where a smartly dressed dark-skinned man awaited on one of the couches. When Leia entered, the man rose and crossed the distance between them, smiling warmly.
"Hello," he said pleasantly, gesturing for Leia to sit down. "My name is Lando Calrissian and I'm your stylist."
"Hello," Leia replied politely, not smiling back.
It didn't seem to bother Lando, though; the man clasped his hands in his lap before leaning forward, a slight smile never leaving his face. "Right," he said, and Leia could hear the 'let's get down to business' in his voice. "I'm here to make sure you impress the right crowd during the opening ceremony and later on. Do you know what tributes from Alderaan usually wear?"
"Our traditional garb," Leia replied. She watched every single Games since she was nine and her parents had finally allowed her before the holoprojector. Every time, the Alderaanians were dressed in white, their national color, and the clothes itself looked more or less like those usually worn on Alderaan during state celebrations. More or less, because each year the stylist tried to tweak the costumes a bit to make them stand out.
That last thought made Leia pause- she was pretty sure the stylist for Alderaan used to be female. "You're new, aren't you?" She frowned at Lando.
"Actually, I'm not," Lando replied politely. "But I used to design the costumes for Corellian tributes. This is my first time as a stylist for Alderaan."
Leia tried to rack her brain for any memories of Lando, but she usually didn't pay much attention to teams other than Alderaan. For all she knew, Lando could have been present at every Galactic Games since the beginning.
"Anyway," Lando started, breaking the momentary silence. "We won't be doing the traditional style this year."
"We won't?" Leia asked, appalled. That was actually the only thing she was looking forward to- showcasing her Alderaanian heritage, even though the hairstyle and the makeup would look completely out of place.
Lando shook his head. "No. Sorry Leia, but it won't make you win." He raised his hand to stop the oncoming protest. "It won't, Leia. People are used to this. We need something new to attract their attention and the traditional garb just won't do the trick."
Leia gritted her teeth, resisting the urge to cross her arms over her chest in a sulking gesture. There was nothing wrong with the traditional Alderaani garb, and if the people of the Galaxy didn't like it, that was their problem.
Lando sighed. "Leia, come on. I just want to help you win. I'm sure that's what you want too."
Leia didn't look him in the eyes when she asked, "So what will I be wearing?"
The smile slowly returned to Lando's face, and Leia cautiously looked back in his direction.
"Well, I hope you'll still like it…"
Leia twirled a few times in front of the long mirror, watching her cape flutter behind her back. She had to give it to Lando- the man knew what he was doing.
Her clothes didn't resemble the traditional garb in the least, yet they still paid tribute to Alderaan. The dress itself was white and plain, with an ornamental clasp at the waist. What made the biggest impression, though, was the cape. Leia wasn't sure what material it was made of, but it was light and delicate, and she could barely feel it on her back. When she walked, it gently fluttered behind her, making it seem as if snow was falling right from her shoulders.
"So, what do you think?" Lando asked from behind her, and Leia was pretty sure she could detect some nervousness in his voice.
"It's nice," Leia replied carefully, not yet willing to admit she preferred this dress to the usual outfits.
"Just 'nice', huh?" Lando asked, but he was smiling broadly, and Leia couldn't help but smile back. Despite herself, she was starting to like the man.
"Wait for the dress I prepare for your victory ceremony," he mused out loud, sending Leia a conspiratorial grin. "Everyone will remember the first princess who won the Galactic Games!"
Lando's cheerful mood was contagious, and soon Leia found herself laughing together with him, momentarily forgetting her dire situation. Unfortunately, this had come to an end when one of the other stylists entered, informing Leia that she was supposed to meet with Bornae next.
"Go," Lando said, motioning Leia toward the door. "Make sure to amaze them, Leia. I will be watching." He winked, and Leia sent him a smile before heading for the exit.
For the first time since this nightmare began, she was actually in a good mood.
Darth Vader hated Galactic Games. They were petty, pointless, and a complete waste of time. And each year, he was forced to attend the opening and closing ceremony along with his master.
He didn't understand why the Emperor took such pleasure in watching children fight to the death. They weren't Jedi, most of them weren't even force sensitive. They weren't even the ones who incited the Rebellion in the first place.
Still, he couldn't deny that it was somewhat effective. Since the Uprising was crushed and the Galactic Games established, there weren't that many planets willing to support rebels. The twenty-five worlds that were punished most severely simply no longer had sufficient firepower to try anything, while the rest was too afraid to attract the Empire's wrath.
A lot of people didn't care. If a planet's population was in billions, the chance of being elected for the Games was close to zero. If a person didn't take extra rations for their family, they were usually safe.
Of course, that didn't mean you couldn't still be selected, as was proven in the case of Princess Leia Organa.
Vader's gaze moved to follow the Alderaanian tributes, dressed in outfits meant to imitate snow. There was something satisfying about the fact that everyone knew that Organa's reaping had been faked, yet no one could do anything about it.
The Princess would die just like all the other tributes before her.
Vader forced his gaze back to the procession of twenty-five speeders, each carrying two children. Alderaan, Corellia, Kuat, Ord Mantell… he didn't even bother to remember all the planets that participated in the Galactic Games. Though, he was kind of glad that as of nine years prior, Tatooine was forced to take part in the Games as well. That accursed planet should pay for its very existence
The speeders slowly approached the Imperial Palace, where the delegation with Emperor Palpatine, Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin awaited. Each time a speeder set down on the ground, a speaker announced the names of the tributes, and the crowds watching the procession from their own transportation vehicles went wild.
It seemed that Princess Leia was already a fan favorite. No matter, she would die soon enough.
Vader only half-listened to the announcements, his mind already back with his fleet. The only downside to the uprising had been that after it was crushed, the rebel activity dropped so low that sometimes he was hard-pressed to find any unrest to take care of. Still, it didn't disappear entirely, and Vader would much rather return to his duties than spend any more time on this pointless event.
His attention returned to the spectacle just when the tributes from Ralltiir were being announced- Derek Klivian and Sara Zares.
That made a total of three tributes, along with the Princess, that Vader knew the names of.
"And for the last," the speaker announced, his voice carrying clearly through the streets of Coruscant, "we have Tatooine! Welcome Aola Devaro and Luke Skywalker!"
And Vader's vision went white.
Crushing the data chip in his hand, Darth Vader stalked through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, one purpose in mind.
He was going to kill the Emperor.
It was long overdue, anyway. The old man should be already dead. What had he waited for all these years? The coup was always on his mind. The only thing he lacked was a promising apprentice.
A promising apprentice. Like his own son, a descendant of the Force itself.
His son, who was going to die in a week, when the Galactic Games started. An event orchestrated by the Emperor.
The gates to the throne room opened slowly and Vader walked through, not bothering to even look at the guards. His feet screeched to a halt in front of the throne, and he stood there a moment in silence, letting the Emperor acknowledge that he would not bow. When Palpatine's eyes narrowed, Vader finally demanded, "Did you plan this?"
The emperor's lips curled in displeasure, his yellow eyes sending Vader a look of pure menace. "Lord Vader," the Emperor finally hissed. "Perhaps you should alter your tone when speaking to your Emperor." The words carried more than one threat.
At the moment, Vader didn't care. "Luke Skywalker is my son," he growled, finally uttering the words that had been constantly on his mind for the last hour. "Did you know that?!"
Palpatine steepled his fingers, leaning back in his seat. "No," he said flatly, his eyes never losing the sharp look. "Not until the reaping. Like you, I had thought the child dead."
Vader had a hard time believing that. "So you've known since then and didn't tell me," he hissed, the sound reverberating through the vast hall.
Palpatine spread his hands as if in a helpless gesture. "But my friend," he started, and there was definitely something mocking in his voice, "how was I to know you didn't watch the reapings? If you had, you could check the blood results at the same time I had." His eyebrow rose, and Vader could feel him looking at the data chip in his hand.
For once, Vader didn't have a cutting response because the emperor was right- if he had bothered to find out the names of the tributes earlier, he wouldn't be here now. Still, he gritted his teeth and said, "You must recall him from the Games."
The air crackled and Vader could feel the first signs of electricity dancing on his skin. "I must?" Palpatine seethed. "Lord Vader, I fear you're forgetting your place."
"He is my son," Vader plowed on, aware of the thin line he was balancing on. "He should've never been chosen for the Games in the first place."
"Be as it may," the Emperor said coldly, "his name had been drawn and it is too late to alter the results. The whole galaxy saw the tributes, do you realize how it would look if I just replaced one of them on a whim?"
"He is my son," Vader repeated, something cold growing in the pit of his stomach.
"Indeed," Palpatine agreed and his lips spread in a wide smile. "And thus you should have confidence in him. If he is your progeny, I'm sure he will have no problem in winning the Games."
"But–" Vader started, then stopped. What could he say to that, truly? He couldn't tell the Emperor that he didn't believe his son was strong enough- that would be a sure death sentence, whether he emerged a victor or not. "He wasn't trained in the dark side," he said finally.
Palpatine shrugged. "I'm sure the son of the Chosen One will be able to win despite that. And after he proves himself, we will make sure to remedy his lack of training."
Vader tightened his hands into fists, seething at the old moniker. Palpatine had successfully stripped him of all his arguments, leaving him no choice but to accept the decision. He could, of course, try to attack his master, but now that he was finally in front of him, he realized that he still wasn't ready.
Not until he had his son at his side.
"Will that be all, Lord Vader?" Palpatine asked coldly, and Vader was taken out of his reverie.
"Yes," he gritted out before making a shallow bow and striding out of the throne room.
He was going to kill the Emperor, yes. When those wretched Galactic Games ended and he had his son secured safely on Coruscant. And that wouldn't happen if Luke didn't survive the arena.
Vader would make damn sure he would.
"So let me get this straight," Han said, staring at the nondescript man in front of him. "You want to put your money on Luke Skywalker already."
"Not me," the man replied stiffly, and Han got the distinct impression that he was very uncomfortable with the whole situation. "My employer, who wishes to remain anonymous."
"Riiight," Han drawled, sizing the man up. Despite his civilian clothing, his posture screamed military, which honestly didn't leave many options for his potential employer. Military types didn't usually bother with Galactic Games. "You do realize I need a name for the sponsorship contract?"
"You will use mine," the man said. "I will act as a proxy."
"And your name is…"
"Piett. Firmus Piett."
Han resolved to check out the man and his potential employer later. "Alright, Piett," he said. "You do know that I can't use this money before the Games start, right?"
Almost no one signed the sponsorship contract before the Games started. It simply didn't pay off- most tributes died in the first hours of the Games, so sponsors waited to see who had the most potential to survive. It especially was unheard of to sign the contract before the interview aired and training scores were announced.
"I am aware," the man said. "By signing the contract early, my employer wishes to convey who you should focus on during training."
That… well. There was some sense in that. Kids without sponsors usually didn't win Galactic Games.
"So what's on that?" Han asked, raising the credit chip to his eyes.
Piett hesitated, turning his head both sides as if to check that no one was listening before he leaned forward and whispered the number in Han's ear.
Upon hearing it, Han reeled back in shock. "You've got to be kidding me."
"I do not kid," the man said flatly, though Han could detect something akin to sympathy in his voice. "My employer has a great interest in making sure that Luke Skywalker emerges the victor."
"I could buy ten starships with this amount!" Han exclaimed, staring at the other man in disbelief. Just who the hell was this man's employer?!
Piett made a pained expression which showed Han that the man didn't understand the situation either before his face smoothed back into a blank mask. "That is not all," he said drily. "You are to spend these credits on everything you deem necessary and when they run out you will contact me and I will provide more."
Han stared at the man in silence for a moment. Was he actually serious? No one spent this much credits on tributes ever. Sure, the prices for gifts were exorbitant, the bread alone cost almost 50 times its normal price, but with this much money, the kid could have three full courses a day with credits to spare. "Why?" He asked, because it all came down to that. People usually sponsored kids because they were somehow impressed by their performance. With only the opening ceremony and the kid's plain desert outfit, Han really couldn't comprehend how Luke already gained such a generous sponsor.
"That is irrelevant," Piett dismissed, which Han took to mean 'I don't know either'. "Your role is to simply ensure that Luke Skywalker wins."
"Simply?!" Han boggled at him. "Even with all those credits, I can't make the kid win."
"For your sake, Mr. Solo," Piett started levelly, giving Han a heavy stare, "you should make your damn best to try."
Han narrowed his eyes. "Is that a threat?"
"Consider this a friendly warning," Piett replied. "My employer is not someone to be trifled with. If for some reason he wants Luke Skywalker to win, I sincerely hope the boy will."
"And if he dies?" Han challenged.
Piett sighed. "For both our sakes, Mr. Solo, let's hope he won't."
Han considered the man for a moment. "What if I don't spend all the money?" That was, after all, a big amount.
Piett gave him a shrewd look. "You can probably keep it," he said. "That is, assuming Skywalker wins."
Han nodded, already thinking of all the new parts he could buy for Millenium Falcon with these credits. "Alright," he said finally. "Am I allowed to mention this to the kid or not?"
Piett shrugged. "My employer didn't say anything about it, so I assume this is up to you."
"Okay. Fine," Han muttered, turning the chip in his fingers.
So many credits… The kid certainly found one hell of a sponsor. One could wonder what they would expect in return.
Still, Han actually regretted that as a mentor, he wasn't allowed to bet on any of the tributes. Gifts weren't everything, but they definitely helped, and with the amount Han was about to send Luke, the kid better not die by eating some poisoned berries.
Han smiled. Maybe he wasn't allowed to bet on tributes, but no one forbade him from enticing others to do so.
Time to comm Chewie.
Before they left for the training center, Han took Luke aside and said, "Focus on your shooting skills. Find a blaster that suits you the most and tell me the model later. Aside from that, learn camouflage, knot tying, and other survival skills except for anything having to do with finding food. You won't need that."
"Why?" Luke asked. Finding food skills seemed to be pretty important in all the previous games.
"Well, kid," Han started dryly, a wry smile appearing on his lips, "it seems you already have a sponsor intent on providing you with everything you need to survive."
"What?" Luke exclaimed disbelievingly. He knew he'd be lucky to get even one sponsor after the Games started, but before? Especially after his weak performance at the opening ceremony the day before?
Han shrugged, giving him a lopsided smile. "What can I say, the odds are certainly in your favor. I didn't get a sponsor willing to spend millions of credits on me."
Luke stared, wondering when Han would crack up and call the joke. But the Corellian didn't laugh, instead, he grew serious and said, "I'm not joking, kid. A guy approached me yesterday, saying his employer wants to sponsor you in the Games. He gave me a credit chip with a ridiculous amount of money- enough to turn your life upside down and again. Aaand he also said to ask for more if you needed it." Han paused, raising an eyebrow. "You don't happen to know a Firmus Piett, do you?"
Luke shook his head mutely. Was Han actually serious? Who in the world would want to spend so much money on a kid from Tatooine?
Han sighed. "Thought so. Well, I still didn't manage to find out who is this employer of his, but the guy's loaded and he wants you to win. So, I'm going to send you everything you need- weapons, food, and whatever else you want. Which is why you need to tell me what strikes your fancy in the training room."
"But–" Luke started, then paused. Did he seriously get this lucky? Could he actually win this thing? "Why?" He asked eventually.
"Hell if I know, kid," Han said, shrugging. "Maybe they want you to work for them in the future. Or maybe you have family on Coruscant."
Right. As if a farm boy from Tatooine could have a rich relative in Imperial Center.
"Do they pay for Aola too?" He asked instead.
Han shook his head. "Only you," he said, then hesitated. "Probably better if you don't tell her."
Luke nodded, though guilt started churning in his gut. He didn't want Aola to die, but only one of them could leave this planet alive, and he wasn't planning on losing, especially now that he had this advantage.
For the first time since the reaping, Luke had hope.
Maybe he would win these Games yet.
Luke wanted to follow Han's advice and go straight for the shooting range, but it was also the most popular training station among the other tributes, so he decided to try to learn how to make traps first. He thought he saw Aola go for camouflage, but in all honesty, he was glad they weren't sticking together. It would be only harder for them later if they got close now.
The traps station was empty, so he had the undivided attention of the trainer assigned to explain things. He spent two hours learning how to make snares before looking again at the shooting range. Most of the people dispersed among other stations, and the only one currently training with a blaster was a girl from Alderaan. Luke remembered her because it was shocking news at the time- a princess being elected for the Games.
Luke wondered whether it proved that reapings were set up. Was his election not accidental as well?
He made his way over to the shooting range, spending a few minutes to choose a blaster. There was a wide variety of weapons to choose from, including blaster rifles and even cannons, but in the end, he decided to start with a simple pistol. It was easiest to carry around anyway.
He joined the girl in front of the targets and checked the settings on his blaster. His eyebrows rose. "There's no stun setting?" He muttered out loud.
He jumped when he heard a scoff next to him.
"Please," the girl said, raising a blaster rifle to her eye level. "We're here to kill each other. What would we need the stun setting for?" She shot, hitting the bullseye on the first try.
Luke glanced at the target in envy. "I guess you're right," he murmured sadly, before mirroring her actions and aiming at the board. He gave three shots, every time missing the center of the target just by inches. He grimaced.
"Imagine someone you hate," the girl said, and Luke remembered that her name was Leia Organa. "It's loads easier then, trust me."
Luke raised his eyebrow but did try to picture Emperor Palpatine as his target. He hit the bullseye on the second try. "Thanks," he grinned at the girl.
She smiled slightly back before her expression smoothed back to a blank mask. Luke mentally grimaced. Right, no one wanted to be friends with your potential killer.
Leia put the blaster rifle back on the shelf, picking up a pistol similar to Luke's instead. She walked over to a small cannon standing in the corner and moved it to the center of the station, turning it on. Immediately, the cannon started blasting small balls.
"Moving targets," she explained, reading herself for the shot. She didn't get all the balls, but her score was still impressive. Luke tried shooting at them a few times and got one in total.
After a while, Leia changed the settings on the cannon so the balls were flying faster. Many of them ended up on the floor, but one stray ball ricocheted right off the wall and went flying over their heads. Luke and Leia both turned around to watch where it went and followed with their eyes as the ball steadily bounced up and down, approaching a group of Gamemakers with Grand Moff Tarkin in the middle.
Luke was about to turn back to the shooting range when Leia raised her blaster and gave one shot, hitting the stray ball when it was right in front of the Head Gamemaker.
The whole training center went quiet, the shot reverberating in the hall. Tarkin stumbled back from his spot, clearly startled, while others in the group gasped and called for guards.
It didn't take them long to find the source of the commotion, considering everyone in the center was staring in shock at Leia.
"Miss Organa," Tarkin said loudly, and despite the distance between them, his voice carried clearly across the hall. "Is there perhaps something wrong with your eyes? I could swear the shooting range is behind you."
"I was shooting at the target, sir," Leia said boldly, and Luke couldn't help but be a little impressed by her nerve.
Tarkin's gaze darkened before he said, "You are banned from the shooting range for the duration of the training period. Do not repeat this action again or there will be consequences." He turned on his heel and stalked out of the hall, the rest of his group following hurriedly behind.
"Consequences," Leia muttered angrily, putting the blaster back on the shelf with a loud bang. "Like what? Me being here is already one big consequence."
Luke shook his head scornfully. "Do you have any idea who you just pissed off?" He asked disbelievingly. "Tarkin can make or break you. He decides your final score, which often determines if you get any sponsors! Not to mention he can make your life a living hell in the arena."
"Still worth it," Leia mused.
"...yeah," Luke reluctantly agreed. "The look on his face? Priceless."
A moment later they were both grinning at each other.
The next two days passed uneventfully. Being banned from the shooting range, Leia had to contend herself with either training with other weapons or learning survival skills. Most people stayed away from her, not wanting to be associated with someone who pissed off the Head Gamemaker. Even Bornae seemed reluctant to spend too much time in her company.
On the third day, each tribute was supposed to have an individual session with the Gamemakers, where they would assign them a score that would be later announced on the Holonet. Leia didn't have high hopes for impressing the judges even before her stunt with the ball. Now? She would be lucky to score three.
Low scores had its advantages. If other tributes underestimated you, you could gain an upper hand. Of course, the cons outweighed the pros- tributes who scored low rarely got any sponsors.
Leia knew she could count on her parents and maybe their associates in that department, so her score didn't bother her too much. Better for the rest of the kids to think she was already on a losing position.
During her turn with the Gamemakers, Leia picked up a blaster and hit the bullseye a few times before being dismissed by Tarkin.
Back in the apartment set up for tributes from Alderaan, she listened to Bornae describe his private session with little enthusiasm. "I made a trap," he said, poking the nerf stake on his plate with a fork. "Not too impressive, I'm afraid."
"You could do worse," their Imperial Escort said, giving Leia a firm stare. "You could piss off the Gamemakers before your session even began."
"Oh, give her a break," Lando cut in. "I mean, who could resist that shot?"
Lando and Bornae's stylist, Denver, had joined their small group for dinner and to watch the results later. Together with their Escort, Mart, and their Ord Mantellian mentor, who was currently busy getting himself drunk on wine, it made a total of six people in the room.
"Perhaps someone who wished to win the Games," Mart snapped, turning in his seat to glare at Leia. "It's not only about the sponsors, you know. Tarkin could make your life a living hell in the arena."
Leia shrugged, though inside she was churning with anxiety. It did feel good to startle Tarkin like that, but Mart was right- if he really wanted to, Tarkin could be the death of her without actually killing her outright. She shouldn't have antagonized him like that.
"Shhh," their mentor slurred. "It's starting."
They all turned tersely to the Holoprojector, where the speaker started announcing individual scores for every tribute. When it was Alderaan's turn, Bornae's score appeared first- six.
"Not that bad," Mart commented, though Bornae's shoulders slumped.
Then Leia's holo showed up, and everyone leaned forward.
"Well," Lando started, giving Leia a tentative smile. "It's not three, so I'd count it as a success."
She got five. Which, in all honesty, was more than she expected. Leia guessed Tarkin didn't want to appear a little too eager to see her gone, especially considering everyone knew her reaping was set up.
The scores of the rest of the tributes varied- most of those who volunteered got at least nine, at most ten. No one got eleven or twelve. The boy from the shooting range who laughed with her about Tarkin- Luke Skywalker- got eight, and Leia wondered whether he improved his shooting skills.
Would he imagine someone he hated while pointing a blaster at her?
Leia went to sleep with faces and scores flashing before her eyes.
"We need a strategy for the interview," Lando said, lounging in the plush couch that was set up in the sitting room.
"Shouldn't I be discussing this with my mentor?" Leia asked.
Lando raised an eyebrow. "You mean the one who is currently getting busy in the liquor cabinet?"
There was a pause. "Why is he signing up as a mentor every year, again? I remember he got Tatooine last year," Leia said.
Her stylist shrugged. "You need money to buy alcohol, and the Games pay well, I believe."
Leia sighed. "So, the interview?"
"Mart would normally coach you on how to behave on the scene, but since you're a princess, we'll skip that part. I'll show you the dress later- trust me when I say you'll look stunning," Lando paused. "So, the interview. You must appear as if you've volunteered for this."
Leia's eyebrows rose. "And how do I do that? It's not like the reapings weren't transmitted across the galaxy."
"It doesn't matter," Lando said. "You think people will remember all twenty-five reapings? Not a chance," he paused. "You need to be assertive. Don't wait for the interviewer to ask you questions- take lead. Say that you are very proud to be representing your country. That your parents are proud as well. That you've always waited for a chance like this. Things like that."
"Okay," Leia replied cautiously "I get it. I think I can do that."
"I know you can," Lando reassured her, and his easy confidence made Leia feel better. "Shall we prepare some lines?"
They traded questions and answers back and forth between them, with Leia trying to do most of the talking. All in all, she wasn't overly worried about the interview- during her life as a princess, Leia spent much of the time in the spotlight, surrounded by people. She knew how to win the audience.
After three exhausting hours, Lando finally showed Leia her dress. It was the ceremonial gown for Alderaanian royals.
"I don't understand," Leia said, inspecting the white garments. "I thought you wanted to be original?"
"For the opening ceremony, yes," Lando replied. "Now we need to emphasize the fact that you are a princess. And besides, it's not like anyone had ever appeared in this dress here before- after all, this is the first time someone from the Alderaan's royal family participates in the Games."
That was certainly true.
Leia tried the dress on and immediately liked it- it was very similar to the one she had at home, reserved for important state functions. Up until now, there were only three instances when she had worn it.
Would it be the last?
The rest of the day passed in a blur, and Leia spent most of her time with Lando and Mart, with her mentor showing up every now and then to observe the proceedings before disappearing back to the liquor cabinet. Leia was pretty sure he was assigned to Alderaan this year to make her chances of winning this much lower.
No matter. She wouldn't let a bad mentor bring her down.
By the time night descended over Coruscant, Leia was so exhausted she immediately fell asleep. The interview took place the next day, and the morning was spent on rehearsing her strategy again, then Alderaan's stylists preparing her and Bornae for the show. Her counterpart was also dressed in white, but he wore a courtier's robes, not royalty's.
They arrived at the amphitheater one hour before the start, and Leia had a chance to observe all the tributes again. Dressed in exquisite fineries, Leia had trouble recognizing some of them from her time in the training hall. Unconsciously, her gaze seemed to search for the boy from the shooting range- Luke- and she found him standing to the side with the other tribute from Tatooine- Aola. It seemed as if their stylists didn't go for the native look- both of them were dressed smartly in black, with only the barest hints of white.
Leia was pretty sure black wasn't the most popular color on Tatooine.
"Hey," a voice said, and Leia was broken out of her reverie. She turned around to find Lando standing behind her, hands on his hips, a long cape draped over his shoulders. He looked quite handsome, Leia had to admit. "We're all going to find our seats now, so I came to wish you good luck."
"Thanks," Leia said, her voice a bit dry. She was confident she could pull this off, yes, but that didn't mean she wasn't nervous.
Lando sent her a reassuring smile. "You'll do fine. Just remember, you want to be here."
She nodded and Lando left, meeting halfway with a tall man Leia was pretty sure she saw before with the Tatooine team. She supposed it wasn't a surprise that they all knew each other.
Eventually, the interviews began, with the Corellian tributes opening the show. Corellia was the most successful planet to date, having produced three victors before. This year, the boy had been a volunteer, and the girl was a sweet little thing who looked like she couldn't hurt a fly.
Leia wondered whether it was an act.
Alderaan was next, and Leia braced herself before walking onto the stage. The crowd fell quiet when she entered, and Leia held her head high and back straight, just as during the reaping. She was a princess- she would act like it.
"So, Leia," the interviewer started when she sat down. "I must say, this is very exciting to have a princess here with us this year!"
"Thank you," Leia replied, putting her hands in her lap. "I'm incredibly excited as well. You have no idea how glad I am to be representing my planet this year."
"Are you?" He asked curiously, and Leia was relieved that he didn't seem to want to humiliate her- she half expected it of every Imperial she's met since arriving on Coruscant.
"Yes," Leia replied, trying to appear eager. "I've watched the Games every year, and I always admired our tributes. They were so brave, and I know they did their best, even if none of them ever won. And I thought, well- call me arrogant, but I always thought that if I were to participate in the Games, I had a chance of winning."
She was betting on the fact that he wouldn't call her out on the fact that she didn't volunteer for the Games. She was right.
"I'm sure you do," he said easily, playing along with her strategy. "I cannot think of a bigger source of pride for Alderaan than if their own princess won the Games!"
Leia smiled charmingly, inclining her head. "I certainly hope I won't disappoint our people. I'm going to try to bring victory to Alderaan for the first time."
"Ladies and gentlemen," the interviewer proclaimed, beaming, "Leia Organa of Alderaan!"
The audience was cheering wildly while Leia left, and she was pretty sure she noticed Lando in the crowd giving her thumbs up.
Since her interview was only the third in line, that left forty-seven to go, and Leia found herself sitting comfortably on a couch before a holoprojector, watching the rest of the tributes smile for the camera.
Bornae was nervous the whole time, but the interviewer made him seem quite adorable. Watching him, Leia felt a pang in her chest- he was a fellow Alderaanian, and yet the thought of helping him win never really crossed her mind. Was this selfish of her? Should she sacrifice herself for him?
She was the princess of Alderaan, and she had a duty to her people. Up until now, Leia only thought of it in terms of staying alive and returning to her planet. But Bornae was her people, too. Was she approaching this wrong? Would her parents divide gifts equally between them? Were they feeling the same guilt Leia felt when wishing their daughter won?
Bornae left the scene and other tributes took his place, playing out different angles- confident, beautiful, sly, et cetera. The ones Leia was mostly worried about were tributes from Kashyyyk- Argodan and D'Raved. Considering that all Wookies Leia had seen up until now were big and ridiculously strong, it was a wonder that only two of them had managed to win the Galactic Games so far.
The show drew to a close, and the last tributes took to the scene. The last planet was, once again, Tatooine, and Leia found herself leaning forward when it was Luke's turn to shine. She didn't know why she was so fixated on him- she told herself that she needed to watch out for anyone with a score of eight and above, but even to her ears it sounded fake.
"Tell me," the interviewer began warmly, "what would you do if you won the Games?"
"Leave Tatooine," Luke replied immediately, and the interviewer, along with the audience, burst out laughing.
"Well, I can't say I'm surprised- I've seen the holos and it does seem dreadful. So where would you go instead?"
Luke shrugged, smiling shyly. "I don't know yet. I think I'd buy a ship first, what with the money from the reward, and I'd travel for a bit. See the galaxy, you know?"
"I absolutely understand. Why limit yourself when the galaxy has so much to offer?" He asked, and the audience agreed loudly. "And how do you find Coruscant so far?"
"It's marvelous. I definitely plan to come back here one day. Maybe I'll even stay, who knows?"
"I certainly wish you will!" The interviewer exclaimed, turning to the audience. "Everyone, give it up for Luke Skywalker, Tatooine!"
The people in the crowd roared and the show ended. The interviews were over- only the Games remained.
The last night before the Games, Luke couldn't sleep. He spent the night turning in his bed, worrying over the fact that the next day he would be sleepy and tired. He thought he heard Aola moving through their shared apartment, but he couldn't stand to see her now. Tomorrow they would be enemies, so it was better to not spend too much time in each other's company now.
It crossed his mind that it would be better if she died early on in the Games, so he wouldn't have to kill her later, and the thought made him sick.
This was all so unfair. Why did they have to participate in this bloodbath? What purpose did it serve?
The holos said that thanks to the Galactic Games, rebel activity in the galaxy diminished. Luke didn't know whether this was true- Tatooine was so far removed from the galaxy at large that any news reached them with delay. But even if, was killing children really worth it? He supposed most people didn't care- the population of planets like Corellia was so large that getting elected was close to a miracle; why care if you were in no real danger? He heard that some tributes were even paid to volunteer in the Games.
Luke never expected to hear his name during the reapings, but alas, here he was, perhaps drawing his last breaths.
Han had said that Luke stood a bigger chance at winning than the other kids, but it didn't guarantee his success. He could still be killed by an avalanche or a krayt dragon.
Luke shuddered. There were two instances when the Gamemakers included actual live dragons in the arena, and both ended up very bloody. He really hoped that they weren't planning for a third.
His thoughts returned to his mysterious sponsor and the ridiculous amount of money he seemed to throw on him. Han had never actually mentioned just how much credits he was given, but the Corellian implied that it was pretty much limitless. He even said that if speeders were allowed in the arena, he would definitely send him one.
Luke had still half expected this to turn out to be a cruel joke, intended to give him hope only to crush it mercilessly later. Who in their right mind would sponsor a scrawny kid from an Outer Rim planet, who stood no real chance of winning against better opponents, especially those trained specifically for this purpose?
This had to be an elaborate prank.
And if it wasn't… Luke was kind of afraid to think about what it would mean for him if he actually won. No one invested this much money with no hope of some revenue in the future. Would he spend the rest of his life slaving away to pay off his debt? The thought made his insides churn with anxiety. Slavery was no better than death.
He supposed he would deal with that when the time came. First, he had to win the Games, which even with extra gifts would be difficult. Those Wookies had been scary…
Luke closed his eyes, blocking out the images of every tribute he had met so far, trying not to imagine them splattered with blood.
The sleep never came.
The planet which would serve as the arena was kept secret up until the very end, and even as they neared the surface, Luke and Aola weren't allowed to look outside the viewport. Their ship arrived directly in the underground hangar, and they were whisked away to make the final preparations for the Games.
One of which included getting a tracker injected in your body. Luke shuddered throughout the entire procedure, bile rising in his throat. On Tatooine, a chip meant one thing- slavery. And while everyone assured him that it wouldn't explode at any time, Luke wasn't so sure. What stopped the Gamemakers from adding that function to the device? After all, what were the tributes if not slaves, forced to fight to the death by the Empire?
Funny. Never before had he thought of the Galactic Games as a form of slavery, but now it seemed obvious.
The tracker injected, Luke moved on to get dressed in the outfit prepared for him. It was simple and practical, with pockets to hide any foundings and high boots to withstand every weather. It was the same for every tribute.
Han had met him in the so-called Launch Room, where the turbolift that would take him to the surface of the planet was located. The sight of it made Luke's stomach clench painfully, and he basically collapsed into the couch that stood in the corner of the room.
"You alright?" Han asked, before realizing the stupidity of the question. "Yeah, well. You'll be alright. I have faith in you."
"Great," Luke muttered.
Han shifted awkwardly. "You will. Just remember to run away from the Cornucopia as fast as possible- you don't need any supplies. I will send you a backpack as soon as it's safe, so you need to find a hiding place."
Luke nodded, only half-listening to what Han was saying. They went over this many times before, and he was in no danger of forgetting anything.
There was a moment of still silence before Han spoke up. "Kid–"
Just then, a droid rolled in, announcing that it was time for launch. Luke was glad he didn't eat too much this morning or else he would puke it now.
He stood on wobbly legs, mechanically walking for the open turbolift.
"Luke." He felt a hand on his shoulder and paused, turning his head to look at Han. The man was visibly uncomfortable, biting his lip and struggling to speak.
"Good luck," he said eventually, and Luke couldn't decipher the emotion in his voice. Was it concern? Was he actually worried about Luke? Or was he only worried about the money he apparently bet on him?
"Thanks," Luke got out before stepping into the turbolift, watching the transparisteel doors close in front of him.
This was it. The next few days would decide everything- one way or another.
The journey to the surface took about five seconds, during which Luke clenched and unclenched his hands, taking deep breaths. Eventually, the doors opened again, and Luke stepped out onto a metal panel that would serve as his starting point. Behind him, the turbolift sank again beneath the ground.
He only had time to register that the terrain was green, when a loud voice boomed, "Ladies and gentlemen, let the Fourteenth Galactic Games begin!"
And so the countdown began.