The meadow is the perfect shade of spring green despite the persistent threat of winter in the air, wildflowers dot the grass like little gems woven into a priceless canvas, and the tower in the center of it all, ringed by oaks and aspens, stretches infinitely into the crystal blue of the sky.
Honestly, sights like these get a little boring after the first ten times. Cody wonders absently if wizards and kidnappers are just an uncreative lot.
He walks towards the base of the tower, weighing his options. He’s running a little low on fuel after rescuing one of the many Geonosian princesses yesterday, and he’s not sure it would be worth the cost of reconnaissance when he’s not sure who’s in the tower. Rescuing royalty is a dangerous profession, after all; you never know if it’s a dainty princess or an evil witch waiting for you at the top. Besides, this bounty might already be on another hunter’s list.
His fuel tank is only a quarter full, and his Deece is on half charge. It’s not worth it, he decides. And he hardly needs any extra cash after the reward he earned yesterday.
He’s turning to go when he hears singing.
The song is faint, almost too faint to have recognizable words, but the delicate tenor is more enchanting than any of the real magic that Cody has seen. He doesn’t even realize that he’s drawn closer to the tower until his hand is on the rough-hewn stone of the base, squinting upwards against the sear of the sun.
That—that must be a prince of some sort, he thinks. Although most captured royals are princesses, the country is becoming more progressive; perhaps some equal-opportunity kidnapper decided to expand to other genders. He activates his jetpack and starts his ascent, not once looking down as the ground falls away below him.
When he at last reaches the wooden balcony built into the side of the tower’s top, he finds the most beautiful man he’s ever seen staring at him in no small amount of shock and an uncomfortable amount of fear.
Cody fumbles his helmet off quickly and tucks it under one arm while hovering mid-air. The man may be beautiful, but Cody’s a professional , he reminds himself.
“Hi, I’m Cody. Cody Fett,” he says, keeping his hands and shoulders relaxed; some of the captured royals can be a little skittish at first. “I’m here to rescue you.”
He’s practiced the line with Rex, and he might not be as suavely charming as Solo, but he thinks he manages to be reassuring. As he watches, the man’s fear shifts into bemusement and then to wry humor in the form of a lopsided smile.
“Oh, that’s—” The other man interrupts himself with a laugh, and the sound is as delightful as his song had been. He simply must be royalty.
“That’s very kind,” the prince says, his madder blue eyes twinkling. “But I’m quite alright, thank you. Have a good day.”
And then, with Cody watching, he gives a little half-wave and turns on his heel to leave through the open door behind him. Cody can't help but fly a little closer. He’s never even heard of something like this happening, and he has no idea what to do.
"Wait, wait. Didn't you hear me?"
"I did, and I think you heard me!" the prince calls, turning around and grasping the door handle on the other side. "Please carry on to your next tower."
Cody's fuel tank beeps a warning on his wrist, and he looks helplessly from his dwindling fuel reserves to what little he can see of the tower's interior beyond the prince. He can't imagine being locked into one place for more than a week, let alone for as long as it must've taken this prince to wear holes in his faded carpets and to accumulate so many neat rows of stitching up and down the couch cushion seams.
"Aren't you trapped here?" Cody asks. To be here for so long… any reward bounty out for him must have long-since expired. The prince must hear the plaintive note underlying Cody’s words, because he turns and gives Cody a smile overflowing with sadness and kindness both.
"Very, very trapped, I'm afraid," he says, and the music in his voice strikes a minor key. "You shouldn't waste your time on me."
The beeping on Cody's wrist transitions from a warning to a threat, and he grudgingly starts his descent as the prince closes the door.
"I'll be back!" Cody shouts, and he shuts his eyes to better hear an answer over the thrum of the wind.
He doesn't get one.
The tower’s location isn’t on a single bounty registry. The structure itself isn’t noted on any map, either: not on the LiDAR, the topographics, or the old hand drawn maps on actual paper in the Fett archives. Cody runs a hand through his hair, sneezing at the dust. It seems impossible that there wouldn’t be a single reference to a tower that must have been standing for ten, maybe twenty years, and yet.
Coruscant is full of impossible things.
Cody curses, wishing his records were more complete. Unfortunately, the princess bounty hunters guild was only officially established when Jango had come here a decade ago and kicked the industry into high gear. Mandalorians had been called hired by plenty of the Empire’s autonomous duchies before, of course. But there had been no native infrastructure for enterprising warriors wanting to make daring rescues and royal amounts of cash. Jango had been the first to lay in guidelines for setting bounty rewards, for dividing quests among interested hunters, and for settling disputes between hunters and unhappy royal clients.
Cody had only been twelve when the whole family had come to Coruscant, and he still remembers Jango complaining about finding a dozen other hunters at the base of a single princess’ tower. For a time, competition among hunters had been more dangerous than the dragons and evil wizards guarding the kidnapped children.
“It’s terrible, Cod’ika,” Jango had said, swirling his tihaar in its tall frosted glass. He had gripped onto the little pieces of home all the harder for having left the big pieces behind. “These knights all have more honor than sense, kid. Ori’buyce, kih’kovid : all helmet, no head.”
Although Cody’s grateful that he doesn’t have to deal with that now—the system gives him assignments based on his success rating and relative experience, and he has exclusive rights to those assignments for at least a few weeks—he can’t help but wish he could choose to rescue this lonesome prince instead.
The system has archived records dating back ten years, and Cody resolves to go through them one by one. There are more princes in the database than he’d been expecting, honestly. One of the Hutt princes was kidnapped five years back, but unless the man in the tower is under a curse to be beautiful instead of ugly, that isn’t him. There’s also some imported record from the legacy system about a prince kidnapped as a baby, which might fit the timeline, but that prince and his twin sister had been kidnapped.
Besides, the man in the tower had looked a good deal older than seventeen.
Cody expands his search to what few databases are available from any neighboring unincorporated kingdoms, but the data is sparse and unhelpful. It doesn’t feel right, anyways. The mystery prince had sounded Coruscanti through and through, and the Emperor hardly needs to stoop to kidnapping to convince other kingdoms to sign over their allegiance. Six years in the service had shown Cody very definitively that the Empire could get whatever it wanted through other shows of force.
The terminal shuts off with an unsatisfying click. Cody drums his fingers on the table, staring at the black, faintly buzzing screen and wishing he had a name.
Well, he won’t get another high-credit bounty assigned to him for a while after rescuing the Geonosian princess. It’d be good professional practice to scout the area a little more thoroughly and stay ahead of the curve, maybe get a little bit of practice in for aerial maneuvers. Bounty hunting is a constantly changing landscape, after all.
The tower is more difficult to find again than Cody had anticipated. He’d dropped a GPS marker on his navcomp before he’d left, of course, but the latitude and longitude of the marker keep changing even as he watches. The fine hairs at the back of his neck raise: magic. Extremely powerful magic, if it’s capable of affecting technology. Cody doesn’t know everything about casting, but he knows well that magic and tech don’t mix. Maybe that’s why the man hasn’t been rescued yet—maybe the wizard who had locked him away had been powerful enough to kill everyone who’d tried.
Well, any of the others hadn’t been a Fett.
Dangerous confidence aside, it does seem like the rest of the world’s forgotten this tower by now. Considering its persistent lack of existence on any map, it’s entirely possible that that’s by design. Still, bounty hunting isn’t an easy job nor a safe one; Cody knows that as well as anyone. In the four years since he left the imperial army, he’s fought living skeletons, chimerae, wyverns, and more minor beasts than he cares to name, and he’s still here. It’s more than most people outside of the Fett clan can claim.
Cody gives up on his navcomp and pushes through the thick underbrush and overgrown shrubbery, crackling and dry after the long winter, and he puts his faith in his instincts. The fresh scent of pine sap fills the air as his shoulders break through dozens of little needles, and his boots sink into the fresh loam just deep enough to slow him down. The earth can’t seem to decide if it wants to stop him or just make him work for it.
After an hour of walking in what his navcomp insists are circles, about to take to the skies and risk being seen by whatever beasts might be flying by, Cody at last breaks through the trees. The tower stands before him, innocuous and huge and impossible, and his guidance system gives a cheery “you’re here!” beep.
There’s a wrought iron door at the base of the tower, set deep into the pale orange sandstone. It’s incongruously dark compared to the desert colors of the structure, and it’s oddly smooth and ominous for a tower door: it looks as if it were designed to keep people out rather than to keep a prince in.
Cody wishes he could knock on the door and get an answer, but the tower’s many dozens of feet tall, and he has no guarantee that the prince is on the balcony. He’s tempted to wait and see if the prince will start singing again—surely routine is very important for someone trapped for so long—but it’s already been a couple of days since Cody was last here. He’s impatient, as much as he hates to admit it, and he activates his jet pack with only a cursory glance around the woods.
Wind whips through his short curls on the ascent. Cody tries to let it carry away his concerns, his fears. He has no idea what he’ll do if the prince turns him away again.
When he makes it to the top, the prince is indeed standing on his balcony, staring at him with a bemused little smile. Cody cuts the throttle and hovers, a curl of guilt creeping up his spine, sudden and irrational.
“You came back. Why?” the prince asks. It’s impossible to read his tone over the sound of the jetpack engines.
“I wanted to.” It’s the truest reason Cody can think of. “Did you—did you change your mind? About wanting to be rescued?”
At that, the prince’s smile softens from confusion to sorrow. This high up, his light blue eyes match the faded blue of the sky.
“Oh, no. No, it’s not a matter of want. It’s a matter of possibility. I can’t leave.”
“You can,” Cody insists. “I’ll take you down. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“Why would you?”
There isn't an easy true answer for this. The Fett clan are known for being brutally efficient, and that efficiency comes at a cost. Mandalorians don’t do anything for free.
“I know there isn’t a bounty for you, or that it’s expired,” Cody hedges. “But surely someone still wants you back.”
The short, sour laugh he gets in return is like a splinter under a nail: small and devastatingly painful.
“Oh, quite possibly,” the prince says. “My bounty was millions of credits, once, but no one managed to claim it. To be quite honest, I’m pleased to hear everyone else has stopped trying.”
Cody huffs, frustrated to hear just how thoroughly the man has given up. “A pro bono rescue, then. No strings attached.”
The prince raises one eyebrow and smiles a little crookedly, looking at Cody’s determined frown with faintly amused skepticism. “Cody. Listen to me, please. I can’t be rescued. I’m… I’m under a terrible curse. If I leave this tower, I’ll be putting more than my own soul at risk.”
Cody opens his mouth to argue, but his fuel gauge beeps a warning at him. He glares at it, frustrated by the laws of physics, before snapping his gaze back to the softly smiling prince.
“I’ll be back,” he promises, and the prince’s slowly shaking head stays in his mind all the way back down.
Cody doesn’t realize that he still doesn’t have the man’s name until his feet touch the ground. He glares upwards, but there's nothing to be done but come back later.
He'd said he would, after all.
The tower is easier to find the third time. He's back the very next day, tank full of fuel and mind full of questions. The prince seems much less surprised to see Cody when Cody creates the balcony, but his body language is still closed off and wary: arms crossed and mouth thin. The stance draws attention to the frayed hems of his sleeves, and how what once was fine wool has been eroded back down to the loose threads from which it was woven. Cody is struck, all over again, by how long this man's exile must have been. What kind of fear could keep a man from freedom after so long without?
“Have you changed your mind?” Cody calls, keeping all his nervousness tucked behind his teeth.
“No,” the man says. “And I do not intend to. Look, I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but this is a waste of your time. And your fuel.”
There are many in the guild who think that Cody is the most reasonable and level-headed of his brothers, and they’re wrong. His stubbornness just shows itself, not in boisterous pubs or city streets, but in quiet moments like these.
“I think I get to decide that,” Cody says evenly, and the prince startles a little to hear it. “I’ll keep coming back until you decide to come with me.”
“And if I never do?”
“Then it seems like you could use the company anyways.”
Cody swallows. He isn’t sure why he’s being so adamant about this. It’s a big promise to make, regardless of their circumstances, and he’s never been one to make promises lightly. This is only the third time he’s ever spoken with this man, but there’s an undeniable rightness about the decision that keeps him from trying to walk it back.
However, when the prince doesn’t answer, just bites his lip in consternation, Cody realizes that he might not be the only one with strong feelings about the situation. “Unless—unless you don’t want me to.”
The prince sighs, rubbing absently at his arm, and the smile he summons up for Cody is wry and a little lopsided.
“No, I. You’re right. I could use the company.” He laughs then, shaking his head, and his smile turns a little more real. “Listen to me stutter. I can barely hold a conversation as is; I’ve clearly gotten out of the habit. I’d appreciate you rescuing me from that, at least.”
Cody’s fuel gauge beeps again. His jetpack isn't designed for sustained flight, especially not at these heights, and Cody’s not willing to risk a 60-foot fall for more light conversation. He flies a little closer, wanting to at least get a name.
“Your highness,” he starts, but the man interrupts him with a wave of his hand.
“Oh, no, I’m not a prince.”
“No, not a duke, either,” the man says, and his gaze softens as it drifts towards the horizon, reminiscent. He must have a lot of practice reminiscing. “Please, just call me Ben.”
It is, quite frankly, one of the most obvious fake names Cody has ever heard. Cody’s closest brother has a more kingly name than that, and the man ducks his head when Cody raises both eyebrows in disbelief.
“Ben,” Cody repeats out loud, and the not-prince laughs in embarrassment.
“For now,” he says, and then Cody’s fuel tank beeps its angriest warning yet.
He starts his descent with a wave goodbye, savoring the idea of 'for now' and planning for ‘for later’.
When he gets home, he almost forgets to comm Rex for their weekly call, and when Rex picks up, Cody does forget that Ben isn’t exactly one of his regular jobs.
He’s halfway through describing his theories on Ben’s curse when he notices that one of Rex’s eyebrows is almost at the curve of his blonde hairline.
“Cody. I know this isn’t a job, because you just said you don’t even know his name. So why do you care so much?”
Cody frowns. He's not embarrassed, exactly. He honestly doesn't know why Obi-Wan's predicament has been like a rock in his boot, annoying him with every step. He’s burnt through two tanks of gas and as many rare vacation days for a few minutes with a stranger, and he doesn’t regret the choice in the least.
"I don't know. He's just... Rex, he seems so sad."
Rex's other eyebrow raises to join its brother.
" Vod ," Rex says warningly. Plenty of people in the business have accidentally fallen for people they've rescued—princesses already betrothed to others, mostly—and it rarely ends happily. Even when a True Love isn't involved, royalty can't exactly marry foreign commoners. Bly and Queen Secura are still dancing a complex political back-and-forth in the duchy of Ryloth, after all, and it’s been a year since he pulled her out of a sleeping spell and the not-so-tender care of seven Jawas.
Cody shakes his head, frustrated at himself and the reminder of all the ways this is a bad idea.
"It's not like that,” he argues. “I want to rescue him because it's the right thing to do, not just because he's beautiful."
Rex gives Cody a wry look. "Beautiful, huh?"
If Rex weren’t dozens of miles away in the emperor’s own barracks, Cody would be pulling his brother into a headlock and scrubbing his knuckles through a blonde buzzcut.
Rex just grins at Cody’s scowl, well-aware of what punishment he's avoiding. “Alright, fine, but I am not getting jetpack fuel on my only suit. You’ll have to get him to the ground for me to be the best man at your wedding.”
“Rex!” Cody squawks, but Rex has already laughingly hung up.
With a sigh, Cody flicks his own screen off and starts getting ready for bed. He’d settle for a real name right now, let alone a hand in marriage. Besides, a man like his not-prince is almost certainly someone with a True Love out there, ready and waiting to break his curse: some beautiful duchess with sapphires in her hair.
It’s not that Cody’s jealous; he doesn’t even know what he’d do with a storybook ending. His parents hadn't had True Love, but they had still loved each other, deeply and sincerely. From all his hazy memories of a childhood in Mandalore, Cody knows their life had had joy. They had each had someone to come home to, and to laugh with, and to fight for—and that’s all Cody really wants in the end.
When he goes to sleep that night, he dreams of falling.
The Fett estate is a few days’ journey beyond the very edge of Coruscant’s capital. Mandalore had still been wild country when they’d left, overgrown with swamps and creeping, crawling things, and Jango had felt uncomfortable with all the trappings of a city at his front and back. The second that he had completed his end of the emperor’s bargain, Jango had bought a piece of land deep in the forest to the north of the capital at the exact spot that the roads transitioned from asphalt to dirt. None of the family is there much, despite the size of the estate. Half the boys are running across Coruscant following in their father’s bounty hunting footprints, and most of the other half are still serving in the imperial army.
As for Fives—and Echo— well. Cody would give anything to see them both back at home.
The estate being so far from the city boundary makes it easier to go visit Ben, at least. For a year now, Cody has been debating using some of his savings for a little apartment in the city, but he’s putting those plans on temporary hold. Ben’s tower is about a three-hour walk along dugar trails that are so rough that even a hardened speeder couldn’t handle them. It makes the journey about a whole day’s trip. Cody still hasn’t managed to pinpoint the tower’s exact place on a map, but he’s used his navcomp to sketch out the roughly half-mile radius within which a GPS marker won’t stick. Finding the boundary of the normal and working backwards from there is a trick he'd learned from Jango very early on, and it's saved his life more than once.
Jango had reinforced the lesson over and over again. Magic, no matter how powerful, is never limitless, and every spell and every caster has a weakness. Cody has never seen reason to doubt it. The emperor had been willing to bring the whole family ashore just to get Jango, after all, and for good reason: there’s no one better at fighting magic.
A minor bounty comes in for Cody the next day, just as he's heading out towards Ben's tower. Assignments can’t all be dashing rescues of beautiful princesses, of course; the empire has a lot of autonomous duchies, but there aren’t limitless numbers of royal children of kidnapping age. The majority of missions are to get rid of nuisance monsters like kikimores or warg packs bothering this or that village. A few blaster shots usually have them sorted, but it makes the citizenry feel better to call in pest control.
He’d dismiss it, but it looks bad to turn down too many of the fetch quests. Everyone has to do their time in the trenches, and Cody’s not one to turn his back on the dirty work. Getting a big head is a good way to get killed—by monsters or otherwise.
He gets back from Dantooine only a little worse for wear and considerably worse for time. There’s mud jammed down the barrel of his rifle, but he still has both of his boots, so it’s an improvement over the last time he had to hunt down a pack of vodniks. As he watches the sun start to sink through the tree canopy, dappling the tentatively budding leaves in crisp reds and oranges, he can’t help but wonder if Ben had waited for him.
Or worse: if Ben had thought himself abandoned when Cody never showed. If he had already added Cody’s words to a pile of broken promises.
The idea keeps him awake long past the witching hour.
Cody’s up with the dawn despite tossing and turning most of the night, but he forces himself to stop and clean his rifle before heading out the door. The dried mud flakes off easily enough, and he reassembles it and straps it on with the ease of long repetition. The sun’s barely a quarter of the way above the horizon when Cody emerges into the newly familiar clearing, the last of the morning dew evaporating at his feet. The ebullient birdsong is a little more scarce than usual, but Cody had probably scared off a few of the warblers by crashing, incautiously quick, through the woods.
The manners Jango had drilled into him rise unbidden into his mind. He wishes he could install a doorbell at the base of the tower, anything to signal to Ben that he’s here instead of arriving unannounced. There’s nothing for it now, though, and the thought of Ben waiting for him all day still sticks, sharp and biting, in the back of his mind.
When he reaches the top of the tower, something in his heart fits back into place to see his not-prince—to see ‘Ben’—sitting on his balcony and looking up with a real and joyful smile.
“Cody!” Ben says, standing. There’s a second chair on the balcony next to his, and it’s wooden where the other one is curving black metal. Cody’s sure, suddenly, that this is Ben’s kitchen chair. It makes a painful kind of sense that a man imprisoned alone would have a deficit of additional seating. “I’m glad you came.”
“I said I would,” Cody says, smiling helplessly back, and Ben’s demeanor brightens a few degrees more.
Ben has a little white cup in his hands, and he gestures with it towards the railing. A little planter hangs over the wooden rail, a simple rectangular box filled with black dirt and a few enterprising young buds, and Cody does a double take when he sees a teapot and a second cup nestled between the shoots. There’s barely enough room on the balcony for two chairs, let alone a table, and Cody can’t help but appreciate how Ben has made do.
“I’m sorry for having so little to offer you in the way of hospitality,” Ben says with an embarrassed little cough, “but I thought the least I could do would be to offer you some tea.”
It’s the first time that Cody has felt wary around his not-prince. He’s more than aware of the dangers of accepting food in strange places, and he has no desire to be trapped in a fairy circle or gateway. Honestly, Ben being part or full fairy might explain how enchanting he is.
“Unless your aerial control isn’t quite up to the task?” Ben asks, watching the slight variation in Cody’s hover with concern. “I know those jetpacks can be finicky, but I do so hate to let good tea go cold.”
Indignant, Cody flies closer. He puts one knee on the balcony and reaches out a single hand to show that his aerial control is excellent, thank you. Ben passes him the second cup with both hands, and Cody can’t help but wish that he weren’t wearing his gloves, that he could feel the warmth of Ben’s hands alongside the warmth of the cup.
He is so karked.
“Thank you,” he says outloud. He thinks for a single second about not drinking it, but—it is warm in his hands. Ben couldn’t possibly have known when or even if Cody would be coming, and Cody wonders if there were other cups before this, other whole pots, long gone cold and poured out.
Well. The tea is very good.
“Will you join me?” Ben asks after Cody swallows, moving away from the railing to give Cody space to land. And even though his instincts are shouting that this could be a trap, Cody's already made a promise. He’s already accepted Ben’s food.
He swings his other leg over the railing and slides off it, landing on his feet as softly as possible so as to not slosh his tea, and then he settles into Ben’s kitchen chair. Ben beams at him, delighted.
“There’s a tea shop down the road from my house,” Cody says suddenly. “Owned by an old married couple. It’s almost impossible to walk by without being drawn in by the smells. I could take you.”
His reward is a smile even softer than before. Cody has to look away from it, to stare down at his hands. His cup is chipped slightly on the edge, and the blue designs on the porcelain are wearing thin and patchy.
“Thank you, Cody," Ben says. "Perhaps—perhaps one day.”
Trips to Ben’s tower quickly become part of Cody’s weekly routine. He can’t visit often, especially when assignments start flooding in as spring blossoms into being and monsters emerge from hibernation, but he does what he can. He lets the system administrators know that he can’t accept assignments on Centaxday, and they mostly adjust for it. So every fifth day, barring some slogging assignment on the outer coast of the continent, Cody journeys three hours through the woods and thirty seconds through the air to the welcome jut of Ben’s balcony.
Cody had worried, at first, that he’d run out of things to say. Rex likes to tell people that Cody is an old Mandalorian soul: Cody says what needs to be said, then stops. Not everyone is comfortable in the quiet, though, and Cody had been worried that Ben had had enough quiet to last a dozen lifetimes. Cody had feared the suffocating weight of silence where silence shouldn’t be.
While walking through the overgrown brush towards the tower for the fifth time, he hadn’t been able to stop imagining Ben’s face falling into disappointment as the quiet grew, as Cody tried, desperately, to fill the air with something worthwhile and witty. Cody had never really wanted to impress someone with words before, but there were no monsters to slay or battle plans to draft at the top of Ben’s tower.
Only them, and the foot of space between them.
Still, during his first few visits, there hadn’t been any dead air at all. Ben had been intensely curious about current Coruscanti events, and Cody had spent hours racking his brain for everything he knew about local and imperial politics. He’d even rushed home afterwards to comb the holonet for the answers he hadn’t had, feeling like he’d been assigned homework modules and wanted to impress the class. Eventually, though, even Ben had run out of questions and humorous asides, and they had turned their attention to the world below, watching as the sun ducked behind clouds and the trees swayed in gentle breezes.
Gritting his teeth in preparation for Ben's disappointment, Cody had steeled himself and asked, “Is this okay? The silence?”
His chrono had shown the time inching closer to 3 pm. Cody would have had to leave soon to avoid stumbling home in the dark, and he hadn’t wanted to leave on a sour, empty note.
Ben had hummed, thoughtful, and he had glanced towards Cody with one of his grateful, tender smiles. “Oh, no; the silence is one of the few things I don’t mind much. It’s the loneliness that hurts, and the silence isn’t ever lonely while you’re here.”
So they sit, and they talk, and sometimes they don’t talk at all.
Only once does Cody ask about the nature of the curse.
Ben falls quiet, searching for the right words in a way he rarely has to struggle for. “My… my brother made a terrible mistake, years ago, and the consequences have been far-reaching and long-lasting. It’s a wretched story, and I doubt you’d want to hear it.”
Cody wants to argue, to say that he wants to hear everything there is to hear about Ben, but. Ben’s soft smile has flattened down to a troubled line, and Cody tucks his curiosity back down into his chest.
Four months into this new habit, and the hike to the tower hardly seems to take any time at all. It passes in a blur of newly sprouted greenery and the pleasant burn of anticipation. So intent on his destination, Cody almost doesn’t stop when he starts getting a bad feeling. Still, his instincts have kept him alive so far, and he slows from a brisk walk to a careful, measured tread when they start screaming that something’s wrong. Something’s… different.
There’s no birdsong.
Nothing has ever been different, not once in the dozens of times that Cody has come to visit. The tower has been a place out of time. Flowers have been the same cheerful pastels; the grass the same short and vivid green; and the birds have always been trilling and delighted by this unchanging patch of spring.
If this were just a job, Cody would be getting down and staying down, possibly heading back to base to build out a recce plan. But this isn’t a job; this is Ben. The only thing that’s changed here is Cody, and if Cody’s brought danger to Ben’s door, he’ll never forgive himself.
When he at last gets a glimpse through the trees at the clearing, it’s worse than he could have ever imagined.
A massive dragon is curled around the middle of Ben’s tower like a huge white armor-plated vine. It’s almost half as long as the tower is tall, and its clinking tail lashes back and forth, tearing up grass and red-orange sandstone alike. When its cavernous maw opens to reveal rows and rows of serrated teeth set into death-gray gums, Cody would swear that he can smell the rank, acid tang of its wheezing breath. He’s never seen a full-grown dragon before, only wyverns and drakes, but he can tell that there’s something very, very wrong with this one.
“Kenobi!” the dragon screeches, its claws clacking against the stone and causing a sunburst shower of rock to break loose. “Kenobi, I’ve found you! Did you think you could hide forever?”
'Kenobi'? Is that Ben’s real name? And if it is, how did Ben manage to piss off a white dragon ?
...And how is Cody going to stop it?
He unslings his rifle from his back as quietly as he can and creeps forward, trying to get a better angle. There isn’t much information, even among bounty hunters, about how to fight dragons. The only advice Cody’s ever gotten is “don’t”. Dragons—like hydras and nightmare hosts—are in the category of monsters that you need an army to fight. They come in a variety of species, so they range in size from “house” to “mountain” and in intelligence from “human” to “supercomputer”, but they’re all incredibly dangerous. And this might be a white dragon, one of the smaller and more animalistic types, but that doesn’t exactly make a potential fight any less suicidal.
Dragon scales are impervious to anything other than heavy artillery, but Cody doesn’t exactly have time to go get a couple of AT-TEs. Their strength makes them the most prized form of armor for bounty hunters, and Cody’s got a few pieces himself, but. Having a manufactured dragonscale breastplate doesn’t mean he knows how to get through an actual dragon breastplate. He’s heard through the hunter grapevine that someone—a bard of some sort? The story was confusing—had managed to kill a dragon by sliding a shot through a gap in its armor, but this dragon’s armor looks terrifyingly intact.
What, then? He could scale the tower, get Ben, try to get him to the forest, and then hope the dense trees would slow the dragon down. There’s also a nonzero chance that the tower will hold against a full draconic assault, but the dragon seems angry enough that Cody’s unwilling to risk it.
Kriff. He’s never been a fan of on-the-ground tactics; that’s Rex’s expertise. Cody’s always been the strategist, holding a dozen adversary capabilities in his mind across a massive field, but he's less skilled at improvising for a single combatant with limited resources.
All he has are two blasters, a jetpack, and less and less time to make a plan.
Okay. He needs more information. He needs to know where Ben is, and the only way to know that is to get in the tower. The dragon’s scuttle around the tower is like the onslaught of a glacier, slow and inexorable as it swings around the sandstone edifice. If Cody times this right, he might be able to jetpack up to the balcony while the dragon’s line of sight is on the other side of the tower.
If nothing else, it’s better than staying on the ground.
The remnants of dry winter leaves crackle beneath his feet until he gets to the edge of the tree line, right where they fade into the evergreen spring of the meadow, and he waits. He puts all his weight on the ball of his front foot and primes the jetpack’s carburetor, opens the throttle, and sets the choke. When the dragon’s head makes another pass around the tower, a thin rain of sandstone spilling from the side, Cody slams the starter and launches himself towards the balcony railing he can just barely see.
The ground falls away from him as he guns it, blades of grass melting into a sea of green, and the wind bites his face as he increases speed. He’s a quarter of the way, a third, half—
A claw comes flying towards him like a streak of white lightning. He almost doesn’t see it in time; as is, he doesn’t have time to maneuver. He cuts his jets to drop out of his ascent, straightening his body and feeling his stomach hit his throat as he drops into free fall. The claw snaps shut on the space he just vacated with a whistle and a clack of scales. Cody spins onto his back as he falls, reengages his engines, and angles his path along the line of the arm as it pulls back and the dragon howls.
“What is this ,” the dragon says, and its voice is just as raspy and awful as its wheezing breath. It laughs, suddenly, with a grating sound like a dying carburetor. “A gnat? Little gnat, you will not take my victory from me.”
Cody dodges another swiping claw on his way towards the dragon, following his instincts. It’s still clinging to the tower instead of flying, so it really must not see Cody as a threat. After dodging a few more precarious swipes, the line of the dragon’s back comes into view. The dragon cranes its neck around the circumference of the tower and snaps at him, and he drops down onto the armor plates below to avoid those gnashing teeth, each one as long as his arms. The plates are smoother than he is expecting, and his feet slip out from beneath him until he throws the choke on his jetpack.
With a huff, the dragon keeps making its way up the tower, and Cody gets a single second to catch his breath and think. There must be some reason the dragon is climbing the tower instead of roasting it. Pride? Knowledge of the tower’s defenses? What ?
The massive plates shift beneath him as the dragon moves, its belly flat to the side of the tower and its legs scuttling across in showers of broken sand. Kriff, it’d take all of Cody’s brothers to lift even one of these back plates; he’s not getting through here. He climbs up the dragon’s side, towards the face of the tower, and he notices the plates shrinking towards the dragon’s joints. They’re smallest at the dragon’s armpits, only as long as Cody’s forearm, and he unsheathes his vibroblade with a determined snkkkt.
The sharp, electric edge of the vibroblade just barely slides beneath the scale he grabs. The first cut does nothing, but the second spills black, oil slick-shimmery blood across his feet. The dragon doesn’t really react until Cody slices through the webbing connecting the scale to the skin below, and even then it just sends a gout of flame into the air. It can’t twist its head around to his upper shoulder: its head is too big to fit between the tower and its body without letting go. Cody gets another scale free, and another, and he tosses them over the side with the vague hope that he might get a pauldron or two out of this if he survives.
Once there’s a decent gap in the dragon’s armor, he pulls his rifle up, and he puts a few steady shots into the sluggishly bleeding black hole.
The whole tower shakes. The base seems unmoved, but the top sways in the wind like an old oak, creaking and shedding as it goes. The sandstone of the tower around the dragon’s dug-in claws has cracks spiderwebbing out in racing spirals. Cody tries not to look past the dragon’s body as he looks down and keeps shooting, desperate to build a weakness out of nothing.
Kriff, kriff, kriff, he has no idea what to do from here. He’s been running on instinct, but a DC-15 isn’t going to take down a dragon .
The hair on the back of his neck prickles suddenly, and he feels a brief wave of warmth that’s nothing like dragon flame. Beneath him, the dragon shudders as if hit by a massive blow, rolling with aftershocks. It makes Cody stumble once, twice, and he desperately needs to get to the tower before the dragon manages to topple it. The balcony juts out fifteen, maybe twenty feet above him, and he opens his jetpack throttle as he runs along the dragon’s arm, racing towards the tower’s surface.
He throws himself into the air and guns the engine, but he only makes it five feet up before the dragon twists beneath him. The dragon keeps the claws on its right feet dug into the tower and reaches its left arm up towards Cody, revealing an equally armored underbelly and a flexibility Cody hadn’t expected. The tower lurches again, reverberating with a screech like steel nails on a glass window as all of the dragon’s weight shifts to its grip on two sections of stone.
The dragon gets one claw on Cody before the stone gives. The obsidian black point scrapes down the back of the jetpack, and the smell of hot fuel fills the air just as the dragon, screaming, starts to fall. Cody barely manages to tilt his last remaining aerial thrust—the last bit of fuel stuck in the hoses instead of the tank—towards the hole in the sandstone from which the dragon has slipped. He watches with adrenaline pounding in his veins, doubling his vision, as the dragon tries to spin and spread its wings.
But it’s too close to the ground. It slams into the fresh turf with a crack and a thump that shakes even more pale orange sand into clouds. Dozens of feet beneath Cody, the dragon lies still. Beside it, one wing is spread out like a cape as white as bleached bone, pocked and silvery on the edges. The other is trapped beneath the dragon’s body, spilling from beneath its limbs like a spreading white stain.
From this far away, Cody can’t even see the hole he made.
He watches as the dragon rolls painfully onto one side, then gets to its feet. Its crumpled wing doesn’t straighten out, just stays bent like a wire clothes hanger under too heavy a load. While standing, its head is still a third as tall as the tower, and it looks as though it’s considering making another attempt.
“Kenobi!” it wails, desolate and furious and tinged with smoke. “This is not the end!”
And then it turns, stumbling into the forest and trailing its limp wing behind it.
With that immediate danger gone, Cody’s brain remembers the other immediate danger of being 60 feet in the air with exactly no fuel left in his jetpack. Without the urgency of the fight, his brain feels tight with terror. His hands shake where they’re dug, as rigid as the dragon claws before them, into the rubble of the tower’s wall.
“Cody!” he hears, and he looks up with a start.
Ten feet above him, Ben bites his lip in alarm, his eyebrows drawn so close together they’re almost touching. Cody can’t imagine the man has any rope; who’d give a prisoner in a tower that ? With an edge of hysteria, Cody remembers a story that must have been an exaggeration from Jesse about a princess with hair long enough to climb. He bites back a laugh, wondering if he can hang on long enough for Ben to grow a longer beard.
Ben disappears back into the tower, and Cody flexes, looking at the sheer walls above him for anything that could function as a foothold. At even the slightest shift of his weight, though, the rock starts to creak and slide, threatening to break free, and Cody makes the mistake of looking down.
Seven kriffing hells, this is a tall tower.
Above him, Ben is dangling a long, brown robe over the edge of the railing. The sleeve swings to a stop about three feet from Cody’s head: just out of reach.
Cody curls his legs up as slowly and careful as he can, digging his toes into the unblemished stone just beneath the gouged rock he’s gripping with his hands. He’s going to have to jump for it.
There’s no sense thinking about it—no sense in being afraid—no sense in doing anything but springing into the air just as his handhold dislodges from the tower.
Still, there’s a heart-stopping, hair-raising moment when his hand sinks into the soft brown wool and the fabric starts to stretch. He falls, dragging the robe into a single taut vertical line, until, at last, it holds. There hadn’t been time to consider it earlier, but Cody’s breath catches for a different reason entirely when he realizes that Ben just managed to keep Cody’s whole armored weight from free fall.
After a second of sheer, lightheaded relief, Cody pulls himself up, hand over hand, until he can wrap shaking fingers around the bars of the balcony. He pulls himself past where Ben’s white-knuckled hands are twisted into the hem of the robe and slides over the rail, landing with shaking, jelly-kneed legs onto solid ground. The exhausted end of his adrenaline surge sends him stumbling into Ben, and they both collapse, breathing hard with exertion and relieved laughter, onto the floor.
Next to him, the roots of Ben’s coppery red hair are stained dark brown with sweat, and a frizzed lock has fallen, haphazard, into his face. Cody desperately wants to tuck it back behind Ben’s ear.
“You saved my life,” Cody says instead.
Ben grins, rakish and satisfied, and stars. Stars, the man is beautiful. “You did just fight a dragon for me. I thought it was the least I could do.”
It’s too much; it’s more than Cody’s hammering heart can stand. He looks towards the rest of the tower instead, suddenly aware that it’s the first time he’s been inside this space. The few pieces of furniture are old but well-maintained, and the living space is clean in the way sparsely filled places tend to be. There’s a woven mat against the far wall that looks even more used than the couch, and Cody assumes that a man capable of holding 200 pounds of dead weight must get a lot of exercise. There’s a kitchenette, a pile of soft gray weavings, and, most obtrusive of all, a metal-framed fireplace, taller than Cody is, set into the far wall.
Cody stares in shock as the fireplace suddenly lights up with flickering with a roaring blue-green fire, and a woman steps out of the flames.
With strength he didn’t know he still had, Cody spins himself in front of Ben, his DC-15 sliding into his hands without a second thought to fix on the woman. She’s dressed in gauzy pastels, her hair is in an elaborate cascade of braids, and the look on her face is one of frantic worry. Could this be Ben’s captor?
She doesn’t even notice Ben and Cody on the floor at first.
“Obi-Wan!” she says, calling out as she steps free of the flames. Her hand clenches into the fabric of her dress just above her heart. “Obi-Wan, the twins are gone!”