by MJ Mink
He watched the youngster delivered through the floor hatch, prudently waiting until the blaster was holstered before he spoke. "The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet."
The boy turned slowly toward him, chin lifted in determination, and began to mount the stairs. Near the top he shifted the lightsaber into his right hand. After a heartbeat's hesitation, he ignited it. Vader switched on his own saber and waited until the boy swung. Their blades clashed. Skywalker tumbled under the strength of his blow, and Vader allowed him to rise unmolested. The child was inexperienced; it was a small matter to evade his wild thrusts. He felt no need to defeat his son; instead, he tossed words of praise.
"You have learned much, young one."
"You'll find I'm full of surprises."
Charming, a touch of arrogant defiance. Vader parried casually, then hooked Luke's blade and sent it flying through the air. He sensed the child's dismay. His own blade struck at the boy, allowing him enough time to twist aside. Luke tumbled down the stairs, and Vader leaped, landing beside him, intimidation his only weapon.
"Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker. Obi-Wan knew this to be true." Could the boy overcome the lies he'd been taught and sense the truth? You are my son. You belong to me, little Jedi. Obi-Wan knew.
"No!" But the words had found their mark. Concentrating on the threat of the lightsaber, Luke took one step too many backward. A single cry was abruptly cut off as he vanished into the freezing pit.
"All too easy," Vader muttered disappointedly. With a cursory twist of the Force, he activated the carbon freezing unit, stepping back as clouds of condensate billowed up from the pit. "Perhaps you are not as powerful as the Emperor thought." At his signal, his aides returned. When the process was completed, they carefully raised the precious slab of carbonite.
The face was frozen in an expression of surprise and horror, right hand raised as if its owner had tried, too late, to fend off the deadly spray. Not dead, only frozen, Vader thought with satisfaction. Palpatine would be pleased with this offering and would wish to reward him. But the only reward that interested him was retaining custody of his son. The boy was ready to be molded in his image, to be taught to follow and support him; Palpatine would not have him. Together, father and son would be more powerful than the Emperor could begin to suspect. Palpatine knew nothing of the hidden history of Jedi and their ancient secrets, but Luke would learn. A fine boy, the young Lucian Skywalker. A promising heir.
The world was black and full of terrifying visions that came from somewhere in his mind. His skin felt strange, dry and crumbling, a size too large for the inside of his body which seemed to be shrinking. He wanted desperately to open his eyes, but nothing worked, nothing in his body. Maybe he had no eyes, maybe he was dead, maybe this was the Force. He remembered--he remembered a huge, fiery saber swinging at him. Then he remembered hurting, then--nothing. Nothing, then visions. Visions that filled his forever. Great shadows, hulking things that never came close enough to form into shapes; sounds, rumbles, all unexpected, that made his heart--if he still had a heart--thud and race and pound against his chest. If he could cry, he would, pride be damned, but tears were alien. Tears were water, but where did water come from? There was no moisture anywhere, just dryness, drier than--than that place he had come from, that place whose name was just out of reach. That place, those people. People...he almost remembered people. Vader. He remembered a Vader. But there were others. Others-- A sharp pain stabbed through some part of him. He knew about crying, but there were also screaming and moaning and other sounds and other things he couldn't do. Had he ever been able to do them? Or was this...him? Was this all he was? He'd been something more once, because Vader had swung the fiery saber and said I am here because you called me, but now--now--
Fire swept through his consciousness, a sudden inferno of heat that seared his throat--yes, he had a throat!--and singed his hair, charred his right hand as it pushed against something soft. He felt something! He tried to make a sound. Heard it. He made another cautious attempt, then drew breath into starved lungs and tried to scream. Someone, somewhere, had to hear him, had to get him out of here! Wherever here was. There was a touch on his forehead. Someone heard him. He would have cried with relief, but-- Tears. There were tears! He felt them, warm and wet, and they soothed his dry cheeks like a summer storm on thirsty fields. A sound, outside himself. Someone else? The owner of the touch, the one who heard him. He struggled to move, but only his right hand seemed free and only its fingers moved. His legs were frozen, immobile, maybe he was crippled, maybe he had no body, maybe the feelings were an illusion. Who was there?
Vader stroked his son's face as the carbonite began to dissolve. He sensed Luke's confusion and panic. "It will be over soon," he murmured. "You will be complete and healthy in a short while." This boy was one of the soft ones, one of the sensitive beings who cherished love above all else. That would make his conversion extraordinarily simple. The meek ones always fell the quickest for they had no understanding of the true depths of which they were capable. They were always surprised, always so certain that they were treading the path of the righteous, that the Darkness beckoned only as a route to retrieve a victim, to save a fallen loved one. He had never met one who truly understood the Dark. His son would be no different.
He remained at the child's side as the thawing process was completed.
A simple treatment would relieve Luke's carbonite-blindness, but that could
wait. More seasoning would flavor the dish of confusion and desperation,
enhance the fear and grief. It would make the boy even more vulnerable
for his meeting with Palpatine. He would learn immediately that Palpatine
was the enemy. It would be a lesson carved in his newly-returned memory...whichever
memories Vader chose to return.
He knew it was night, or what as passed as night in the place where he was, because the sounds were different. There were fewer people passing by, and no one refilled the nutrient line that was fastened into his arm. At least, he hoped it was a nutrient line. Maybe they were drugging him, maybe that's what was wrong. Where was Vader? Was he Vader's captive? And where was the gentle one, the one who'd touched his face? The one who hadn't hurt him. These others, they hurt his body, they did things with it, stretching his legs, bending them, pulling on his arms, rolling him over. He hated it, resented it, but they didn't listen when he tried to tell them. Maybe they couldn't understand him. His words were still belabored and slurred. His tongue felt fuzzy and too big to fit in his mouth. His hands were oversized, obscenely huge, but his feet were tiny and cold. Was he deformed? Or was he supposed to feel this way? He was still blind. Maybe he'd be blind forever. But how could he live with being blind when he didn't know where he was or who he was or who these people were or what happened? He couldn't even ask in a way they could understand. And he couldn't remember...why couldn't he remember? Didn't he have a family who looked after him? Didn't anyone take care of him? Friends? Someone? Why didn't anyone speak to him?
Where was the gentle one who touched his face?
He was so tired. Not sleepy, he'd never be sleepy again. But very, very tired. No one heard him. No one cared about him. If only he could remember more than the big room and the pipes and the mist on the floor. And Vader coming at him, swinging a bloody saber fashioned of clear, cold ice. He struggled to cling to that thought, to trace backwards from it. Where had he been? Where had Vader come from?
Why did he know Vader?
Who was Vader?
A dark form coalesced behind his eyelids--and it was black, all black. Big. Vader. That was Vader. Vader was big and black. There was no face in his vision. Did Vader have a face? Was Vader here? Vader! he screamed the name silently, then he shrieked it aloud. The noise was mangled. Would anyone understand? His desperation grew, and he tried to thrash about. They'd strapped down his arms and legs. Or he was paralyzed. Either way, he couldn't move, couldn't see, couldn't talk, couldn't remember. But he was Luke.
That realization hit him with shocking suddenness. Luke. He was Luke. Luke was his name. An expression that might have been a smile stretched the skin on his face. It hurt, the skin cracked and bled--he could feel it--but he smiled anyway. And was rewarded.
The touch was back, the gentle one who touched him had returned. The gentle one who said something--something about feeling better. Luke tried to make words, to ask, but he only heard sounds that were nothing like what he'd said.
"It's all right. I'm here."
I'm. I'm. Here. Who was Here? I'm Here. He struggled with the thought. I'm Here. I am here. Not a name then. He. He was here, the gentle one. I know, he tried to answer, but his tongue blocked the words. Who are you? Where am I? What is this--
Invaded. His mind was invaded. There was another being in it, with him in his head. Fear swelled and he wanted to flee-- Lucian. Luke, you'll be all right. We can talk this way. I won't hurt you.
Lucian...Luke. The being knew his name. The gentle one who touched him--was he someone who loved him? A friend, maybe, a father? Tentatively, he asked the question again, focusing it somehow, someway, so that-- Yes. I am here. I will care for you. It is time to heal your vision. You will see again. Are you ready?
Ready? Yes, yes, ah, to see again! Ready! To see this gentle one who-- What is your name?
Vader. I am Lord Vader.
Vader? His head thrashed on the softness that pillowed it. Vader, the fiery saber swinging at him, red ice that cut. Vader was black, dark, evil--he could almost remember something.
Hush, young one. I will not harm you. Relax. This may be momentarily unpleasant, but it must be endured if you wish to see again.
Trust. He had to trust this gentle one, even if it was Vader of the Ice. Then he would have his eyes, they wouldn't lie to him, he would see this Vader, this darkness, this gentle one. He tried to relax as much as he could, uncertain of what relax meant to this body that didn't seem to belong to him.
Pain. Sudden shaft of pain spearing through his head. Arching his spine, teeth grinding, hot tears unwillingly filling his eyes. Other liquid in his eyes that burned and stabbed like needles. Needles! Did they put needles in his eyes? His arms strained against the bonds, fingers clenching, reaching, try to push away the needles, hearing it's all right, Luke, it's all right a litany over and over, reassuring him but the pain didn't end, his face, his neck, his chest drenched with sweat, why did they do this to him? all right it's all right not all right, you stupid bastard! if it's so all right, then you lie here and take it!
And it ended as suddenly as it had begun. Light began to appear, and he squinted. His arms were freed, and he raised his hands to his eyes. They itched. They felt full of sleep-stuff, sticky stuff that glued his lids closed. A cool, damp cloth was laid across his eyes, and he used it. Better. He blinked, trying to clear away the rest of the liquid. Forms swayed and shimmered. He blinked frantically. Blackness hovered over him, but it wasn't his vision. Vader. It was Vader, the Dark One. He rubbed the cloth against his eyes once more, then clutched his fist around it. Tried to sit up. His stomach churned, and dizziness filled his head. He fell back with a low moan.
"Poor child. You are very ill. It is your Jedi sensitivity that has caused this severe effect."
Jedi. Jedi. Jedi. A little green creature, a man with a white beard, someone else in the shadows, someone else in the ice. Jedi. They were Jedi. He was Jedi. Jedi were.... He strained, but couldn't remember.
"All your memory will return soon, Lucian. You will be as you were. You will have lost nothing."
"What--?" He stopped. A word. A word that he'd said and understood. Muffled, but clear. He tried again. "What...happened?"
"Very good." The black faceless thing that was Vader sounded relieved. "Soon you will have your memory back, too, little Jedi. Then you will not need to ask what happened. Rest now. Gather your strength. Shortly I will take you before the Emperor. He is your master now."
Master? Emperor? Luke shook his head. He watched as the black-cloaked figure departed, floating like a stormcloud high above him. Vader wasn't his friend. Somehow he knew that. Yet...little Jedi. Someone else had called him little Jedi. Who was it? When was it? Everything hovered just out of his reach, taunting him with its nearness, torturing him with promises. Giving him nothing.
"So. This is the child." Palpatine smiled with pleasure. This small creature, this thing, limp on the medcot, so full of the Force, bursting with It like an overripe fruit. And it was his now. Like its father. Fair blue eyes looked up at him. He sensed confusion and the beginnings of recollection in its mind. "Are you quite certain it is not damaged, my lord? It doesn't appear to be intelligent." There! An immediate reaction. So, Vader's little Jedi would recover from the carbonite. Fortunate for the Dark Lord that the memory inhibitor he'd added to its nutrients hadn't caused permanent damage. What a pity it wasn't able to stand yet. If it could have stood, he could have had the pleasure of knocking it over, again and again, until it was defeated and bloody. A fine game, one he never tired of. Sometimes he needed a game. Sometimes this galaxy was too tiresome, too tedious for a mind such as his. He cupped the little Jedi's chin in his hand. That angered it, and he sucked its angry feelings into his soul, squeezing the chin to drain out all the rebellion, savoring its sweetness. Vader's little Jedi whimpered--not aloud, but inside its head as if it thought he couldn't follow it there. "Weak little thing," he said dismissively, relaxing his grip. He looked at his Dark Lord. "Have it removed from here as soon as possible, then clean it up and bring it to me. I will use it for...something." Difficult to decide. An apprentice eventually, after Vader had broken it. But for now...perhaps it could perform in other ways. It didn't look as if it would know any clever sex tricks, and its conversation would no doubt be hopelessly provincial. For awhile, until it acquiesced to its apprenticeship, it could probably serve only as a toy. But torture was so commonplace. It was scarcely worth his energy.
Was there nothing new in the galaxy?
His robes trailed behind him as he glided from the room.
Vader looked down. "He is disappointed in you." The tone indicated that somehow Luke had pleased him.
He didn't reply, just met the gaze of the empty mask. "I remember everything," he whispered, not truly sure if he did. "I know you." Vader, the evil one. Vader, the gentle one who touched his face and whispered secrets.
"You remember what happened in Cloud City?" The giant waited until he nodded. "Then you remember that your so-called friends deserted you. Left you to face me alone while they saved themselves."
Luke shook his head, though it was true. He'd gone there to save Han and Leia, but they'd fled without his help. At least, Leia and Chewie had. Where was Han? "I'm glad they escaped!" But why hadn't they come for him? Why had they abandoned him? How could they have left him behind? Where were they now? Where was he?
The Dark One shrugged. "It matters not. You have one standard hour to compose yourself. Then you will be taken to the Emperor. I advise you to obey him. It is unnecessary for you to suffer further."
He watched the man leave. Where was the gentle one who'd touched his face? Had he dreamt it all? Maybe there was no gentle one. Maybe there were no friends, no Han or Leia, no Chewie, no droids, no Alliance comrades. Maybe there was nothing, maybe he was alone--
No! Something in his soul rebelled. He had friends, he had a cause. Vader killed his family and destroyed Leia's home. Vader and the Emperor were evil. They were wrong, he was right. They were Dark, he was Light. He knew it, felt it, lived it. The galaxy was simple; it was split in two; he was on one side, they on the other. That was his Truth and he would hold onto it no matter what the Emperor did to him.
He was a Jedi. He was strong. He could defeat them.
He'd warned the boy. Darth Vader stared down at his unconscious son. Still, perhaps this would teach him his first lesson. Palpatine had been right to correct him. The sooner Luke accepted that his destiny was with them, the sooner the two Vaders could meld their powers.
Palpatine joined him. They both studied the youngster on the floor. "It's quite pretty," the Emperor said offhandedly, "if not very serviceable."
Serviceable. Not a word for the son of Vader. He did not reply.
"Ah, I've piqued your vanity, my lord! How delicious!" Palpatine chuckled. "You see much of yourself in your little Jedi. I, too, see a resemblance. Pity it's so fragile. If it had inherited your build, we could have had quite a challenge here." Casually, he nudged the crumpled figure with one booted foot. "Can it be repaired?"
"It is--he is in no danger, master," Vader replied, angry with himself for having momentarily fallen into Palpatine's derogatory speech pattern.
From beneath the hood, Palpatine's face peered up at him. One eyebrow raised. "I sense possessiveness in your manner, Lord Vader."
He met the look squarely. "He is my son."
He felt no fear. "I do not wish to see him damaged...unnecessarily."
"Thank you for adding a modification to your declaration. So, you think my instruction was unnecessary. It was for my pleasure. Do you think my pleasure unnecessary?"
Not a discussion he cared to begin. Vader bowed his head. "My pardon, master." At his feet, Luke stirred. They both watched as he struggled into a sitting position, rubbing his head. The chin was set stubbornly, and eyes watched them with defiance.
"Rise, boy." Searing anger from Palpatine burned the air. Vader stepped back.
Luke stood warily. Tremors traveled down his arms to fingers that shook visibly. "Whatever you want from me, you can't have."
Vile lightning crackled. Luke flew through the air and smashed against the far bulkhead. He slid to the floor, where he remained for a wise moment before pushing himself onto one elbow.
"I grow weary of this," Palpatine said irritably. "It's yours, Vader--do something about it! I leave you with this responsibility. If you can't tame it, at least make it docile. When it's prepared for its apprenticeship, bring it to me in Imperial City."
A great surge of relief filled the room after the Emperor's departure. Vader wasn't sure which of them initiated it. He walked over to his son. Stood silently for a moment and admired the high polish on his own boots. The boy's face was reflected in them, twin miniature darknesses. "He will depart the Executor shortly. You need worry about him no longer."
The child squinted, suspicion plain on his face. "Why are you--"
"Is any part of you damaged?" He sensed the sprained arm, the mild concussion, a few cracked ribs. Nothing serious.
"I guess," the boy said grudgingly. And accepted, even more reluctantly, his assisting hand. Once on his feet, the child winced and rubbed the back of his neck, his injured arm tucking cautiously around his ribcage.
"You don't need the medical center for these small injuries."
Scorn filled the blue eyes. "So, you torture prisoners too?"
Little, insolent Jedi facing the formidable Darkness. Vader smiled. "You have not learned your healing powers, have you, young one?"
"Healing powers? And don't call me young one!"
He laughed aloud. "Shall I call you Lucian?"
"Lucian?" the boy repeated. He hesitated, as if the name was familiar. "I think.... Why would you call me Lucian?"
"It is your name."
"My name is Luke. Luke Skywalker." That incredible stubbornness still shone in the intense eyes, and the lower lip nearly pouted. "Tell me about the healing powers."
Such a naif. Already he was willing to trust his enemy, the shadowed reflection of his own darkness. Vader touched the pale forehead with spread fingers and taught his son how to diagnose and treat his own injuries. It was a reinforcement of their bond, he knew, though the boy did not. Young Skywalker and his great Jedi father. In time, they would be as one.
The boy watched him distrustfully, but gradually his wariness relaxed. The warmth of his astonishment at the healing filled Vader's mind. Forgetting their perceived enmity, the youngster smiled at him. "It's amazing! It's so easy! Why didn't I know it before?"
He smiled in return, letting his unseen expression touch the boy's mind. Luke's delight faded. "Why are you helping me?"
"You belong to the Emperor. I am his servant," he replied smoothly. "I obey his commands, as you will."
The child shivered. "I belong to no one. I am a Jedi like my father before me." Another slice of memory returned. Recognition lit the face, then it darkened with horror and loathing. "It was you! You killed my father! You betrayed and murdered him!"
Betrayal and murder. Interesting interpretation. Contamination from that thief and liar, Kenobi. "Your father was weak and self-indulgent. He did not deserve to continue his existence." But ambitious. Oh, how ambitious was Anakin Skywalker.
"He wasn't weak. He was a wonderful man."
"Do you remember him?"
Luke's wrath faltered. He caught his lower lip between his teeth and shook his head. "He died before I was born, and my mother died in childbirth."
The child had been raised on a diet of lies. "That is untrue. You were nearly three years old when he left. You...and your sister."
The boy sank down onto the metal bench. "I don't have a sister," he said, but his voice was filled with doubt. "I don't have...anyone."
"Your sister--your twin--disappeared. Stolen by...a family friend. Your father went in search of her. She was never found."
The tender ones always looked this way when he gave them something, someone, then took it away again. "What was her name?" Luke whispered, his eyes reflecting the newly-learned loss.
"She was Lalian, named after your mother. And you were Lucian. The girl was your mother's favorite. The abduction destroyed her mind." The child was not yet prepared to face the truth. "While your father was searching for Lalian, she deserted you and killed herself. When your father returned, both you and your mother were gone."
"He lost everyone!" Anguish filled the thin face. "And then you killed him. Are you going to kill me, too?"
"I would regret being the instrument of your destruction," Vader answered truthfully. "I hope you do not make it obligatory. You must begin to obey and to learn from me. I can teach you much."
"I thought the Emperor was going to train me." The boy might still be distracted by his grieving thoughts, but his remark was astute.
"It will be a very long time before you are humbled enough to be returned to Palpatine."
The child's thoughts were abruptly condensed; all the attention focused on him. "You're not obeying him," Luke observed slowly. "You have your own plans for me."
"Very perceptive, young one. Be careful. Such perception will cause you great trouble if you are unwise enough to utter your views aloud."
The dark blond hair shook, denying his wisdom, and Luke rose to his feet, fingers clenching, reaching for the lightsaber that was no longer there. "How did you kill my father?"
He very nearly laughed at the implied threat. As if the child would return the favor. "Enough for today. Your lessons begin tomorrow. You are recovered enough to walk." He signalled the guards who waited at the far end of the room. "Escort him to level five, detention suite one."
"I'm a prisoner then," Luke said flatly.
"Of course." This time Vader chuckled aloud. "Did you think you were my guest?"
The crystal gaze pierced him. "I don't know," came the soft reply. "I don't know who you really are or why you want me."
"When you are ready, you will understand." He watched the boy stumble away, supported by fully-armed stormtroopers. So small, so full of ignorance to hold so much power. So ready to be shaped. I want you, little Jedi. I want you back. Nothing more. Merely...you. Your abilities and your precious soul.
At the entrance to the lift, the boy shot a glance over his shoulder, the sudden rush of consternation indicating that he'd heard the mental message. There was no hasty, arrogant reply. Just...thoughtfulness.
It gave Lord Vader pause.
He awoke feeling fully rested. Luke stretched, reclining for a few more minutes in the luxurious softness of the bed--a real bed! Not a cot, not a bunk, a real bed. Such luxury for a detention cell? He grinned. This was no detention cell, no matter that Vader had labeled it so. He sat up and swung his legs off the edge of the mattress. Soft slippers waited there. He slid his feet into them. They fit perfectly. Luke looked around.
His clothes were gone, the dirty and torn fatigues, even the medcenter's standard issue jumpsuit. Gone. Shrugging, he padded into the head. For all the suite's luxury, the shower was sonic. He missed water. Not the water on Dagobah, not that smelly, brackish stuff. But the clear melted snow of Hoth. It hadn't mattered how cold it was, every day he'd managed at least one bath in the tub he'd fashioned from a hull piece off a damaged cruiser. Someday, when the rebellion was over, he'd live somewhere that was cold and clean and had lots of water, and he would bathe three times a day.
Afterwards, he peeked out the bathroom door. The suite was still empty, so he strode boldly across the room. There were drawers built into the wall; surely they held something he could wear. The first one revealed what apparently were cleverly constructed silky black undergarments. They were like nothing he'd ever seen before, and he turned them around in his hands several times before he figured out what went where. The second drawer held socks, traditional socks in black, nothing tricky here. He put them on, feeling a little foolish, hoping no visitors would drop in unannounced, and continued his exploration.
There was a button on the wall. He pressed it, and a recessed panel slid open to reveal a rack of clothing. All black. Everything looked the same. He reached for a pair of trousers. They were made leather so soft that he could have crumpled it in his hand. He slipped them on--they were much tighter than the ones he'd worn on Tatooine--and then found that the long-sleeved shirt was sueded and soft. He fastened its closures at his wrists. The cropped jacket was the same leather as the pants. On the shelf above the clothes were six pairs of identical boots. This leather was soft, too, but the shafts held their shapes, standing straight and proud like Academy cadets. He held a pair upside down and shook. No more surprises like on Dagobah. No more snakes and spiders in his boots. Never again. He peered inside and then pulled them on, stamping until his heels fit.
He felt safer once he was dressed. More confident. Curiously he explored the room further. At his touch, a second panel slid aside. Cloaks, dark as a starless night. Cloaks like the one Vader wore. He hefted one off its hanger. It was heavy, the fabric rich and warm. He swirled it around and over his shoulders. A high collar surrounded his neck, brushed his face. He turned toward the mirror.
A stranger stared back at him. A very handsome stranger. Whoever this was, he knew it wasn't Luke Skywalker, inexperienced Tatooine farmboy. This was a prince. A handsome, dramatic, sexy prince. He tossed the cloak back and studied himself. The leather was formfitting across his newly-developed muscles, but comfortable, and the color gave him an air of mystery. If Leia saw him now, she would regret preferring Han! Even Han would be impressed with him, maybe impressed enough to quit calling him "kid". This was no kid in the mirror. This was...Lucian.
His lips parted in a smile. Lucian Skywalker, son of the great Jedi Anakin, a legend in his own right, soon to be born. A legend. And his smile dimmed. A legend who was the captive of the Galactic Empire and its Dark Lord. Dressed in Vader's image like some macabre doll. Son of Anakin, sith! He looked more like the son of-- Some legend. Han and Leia would be unsurprised by his current predicament; it seemed that he always needed their help to save himself.
Leia. He missed her and Han both. She did not love him, but in another reality perhaps she could have been his sister, his long-dead sister. And Han the brother he'd never had. Biggs, Leia, Han--each of them had taught him the importance of friendship, had shown him how many empty places it filled. But now he was alone.
In another reality, they wouldn't have deserted him, wouldn't have left him for Vader to own.
The way his mother had.
He straightened the cape and decided to set out to confront his captor. The door slid open at his request, but posted outside were a single stormtrooper and a tall young officer. He envied the man's height. "You will take me to Lord Vader now," Luke said, using the skills Yoda had taught him.
The officer peered at him from under his sharp-brimmed cap, completely unimpressed. "That is where I have been instructed to bring you. I am Commander Worthing. Follow me, please."
Follow, no; Luke walked alongside the other man while the stormtrooper guarded his back. "You're very young to be a commander," he observed as they waited for the lift.
Worthing slid a sideways glance at him. "As are you."
But my reasons are different, Luke thought, remembering the loss of so many fine officers in the battles that ensued after the triumph of the Death Star. So many friends. They stepped into the lift, and the doors slid closed. Worthing turned his head.
"Our best officers were aboard the Death Star. My promotion came much earlier than it normally would have."
Luke's lips parted. He was stupid and arrogant; why had that never occurred to him?
"My father was on the Death Star, too." Hostility burned through the words, conflicting with the emotionless expression. "That was you, wasn't it? You're the pilot who destroyed it."
"Yes." Turmoil filled his mind. He'd never before been confronted with a grieving relative of one of his victims; certainly he'd been aware of the deaths the Alliance had caused as well as the deaths they'd suffered, but the personal repercussions had never come so close. "I'm--"
"How old were you then?"
He met Worthing's eyes; they were a glacial blue not unlike his own, and they were very young. "Eighteen," he said softly, knowing that the commander couldn't have been much older at the time.
Worthing shook his head and turned away, his shoulders slumping for a moment before they squared off again in perfect military bearing. The lift stopped, and they were deposited into a corridor that was virtually identical to the one outside his quarters. Luke quickened his pace to stay at Worthing's side. "I'm sorry for your loss." Your father--at least you had him for twenty years, he wanted to say, as if that would make the grief easier to bear. In reality that probably made it nearly unbearable.
The commander nodded. "You were just doing your duty. Or, at that age, it was probably a game to you. We heard a story...a pilot we captured said you compared blowing up the Death Star to killing some kind of rodent."
Luke caught his breath so sharply that it hurt deep within his sore lungs. "Not...not killing people. I...was comparing hitting a small target like that thermal exhaust port with...with hitting a womprat from my T-16."
The shadow of the last few minutes dissipated slowly as they continued down the corridor. Worthing glanced at him with bleak curiosity. "Is it true you're a Jedi?"
How could he answer that? He was not a Jedi yet, so Yoda and Ben said; but if he was not a full Jedi, then what was he? "Almost," he replied finally.
"Almost?" Worthing repeated. They halted before a set of closed doors. "These are Lord Vader's quarters. He wishes you to report here at the start of every shift. I will be your escort...Commander Skywalker."
"My name is Luke," he answered impulsively, offering a quick, uneasy grin. "Luke Skywalker." He held out his hand. Just because he was Vader's prisoner--
The Imperial hesitated. "I'm...Tal Worthing." His grip was firm. Their
eyes met in silent challenge, and neither of them looked away.
"I will not be angry!" The intensity of the boy's words belied his vow.
Beneath his mask, Vader smiled. Any criticism of Anakin Skywalker caused this great outburst of rage in his son. "Anger is not forbidden to Jedi," he replied mildly.
"Anger is wrong." The boy paced restlessly, so like him now, all draped in blackness. "Yo--my teacher said that--"
"Ah, Yoda lives. I had wondered."
Luke stopped pacing and glared at him. "You couldn't sense him, could you? And you say you're powerful! Neither you nor the Emperor could sense him!"
This continual gloating had become tedious. "We knew one other Jedi existed," he said coldly. "His hiding place shielded him with its natural defenses. I see from your thoughts that he conceals himself on Dagobah."
Defiance fled from a face gone pale. "Leave him alone."
"He dies." Something about the boy roused his own anger. "He is a fool. He taught you lies just as Kenobi did. The galaxy will be richer for his passing." He laughed at the rush of fierce protectiveness that he felt from his child. "Go ahead, strike at me, boy. Use your aggressive feelings."
The small hands clenched helplessly. He watched while the child searched inside himself for calmness. "Yoda said that anger, fear, and aggression come from the Darkside."
Vader shook his head. "An incomplete explanation. Anger begins in the Dark, certainly. But you must separate your feelings from your actions. It is acceptable to feel anger if you don't act upon that feeling in an angry manner. For example, if you feel anger toward someone, you may advise them of your displeasure or punish them without anger. So the feeling itself is Darkside only if you indulge yourself with an angry, undisciplined reaction, do you understand?"
Luke hesitated, his interest raging a battle with his obstinacy. "Punishment isn't Dark?" he asked doubtfully.
"You make too broad a generalization. Punishment itself, no. Punishment can be instructive. If feelings of anger are behind it, it is inappropriate," Vader repeated patiently. "If you react in a rage, without thought, or with malicious intent--that is what you call Dark. However, righteous punishment of a wrong act is acceptable. For a Jedi, discipline and the control of thoughts and actions are of prime importance."
Luke shook his head. Why did it sound reasonable? It was almost what Yoda had said, but with a small, yet logical, twist. "What about fear and aggression?"
"Fear is not from the Darkside. Yoda was trying to defeat your natural reluctance to kill by shaming you about the misgivings you felt. A non-combative Jedi would have done him no service--a frightened Jedi would have never faced me. Aggression--again, it can be either. Aggression is not necessarily a negative action or feeling. It can be very positive--and necessary. It is unsurprising, given your small amount of Jedi training, that you readily embraced the abbreviated teachings of Yoda. He was trying to steer you toward the correct path while leaving you unencumbered with too many questions--questions he was not prepared to answer."
"He always cut off my questions about the Dark." He remembered the curtness, the defensiveness of his former teacher. "He said when I was at calm, at peace, and passive, then I would know it was the Lightside. But...I rarely feel that way naturally. I have to concentrate on it. I never pleased him."
His father smiled. "Skywalkers have always been filled with passion. You are no exception. You are very much like your father."
"That's what Ben and Yoda said." He stared out the viewport at the stars that paraded past. He shouldn't be listening to this man, this Vader. But there was no one else to teach him. Would he be strong enough, wise enough to understand, to pull the truth out of the falsehoods? How could he trust a man his father had trusted, a man who had then betrayed him? Could he trust Vader long enough to learn how to avenge his father's murder? "Do you consider yourself a Jedi master?" he asked hesitantly, accepting he could not judge the truthfulness of the answer.
"Yes. A master is one who has learned to control the Force to a greater extent than other Jedi. In that sense, I am more a master than either Obi-Wan or Yoda, because my control extends to Darkside talents. Their weakness was in ignoring its potential."
Confusion clouded his mind like a great winged beast. "I don't understand the Darkside."
One hand reached across and rested on his forearm...the gentle one who touched his face, who warmed him where others harmed. "There is only the Force, young Lucian, with all its varying shades of grey. Light and Dark are personal perceptions, except for the more virulent parts of each. Too much Light is not good either, it can make a Jedi weak and ineffectual--but I presume neither of your teachers mentioned this."
He shook his head, absorbing all this new information. "So there really aren't separate Dark and Light sides to the Force?"
"Sometimes it is easier to label emotions thus. Just realize that you are a Jedi, that the Force is your ally, and that Darkness and Light are your reactions within the Force. Neither is good nor bad exclusively. They are merely different angles of a single, many-sided tool."
Here was much for him to think about. If he accepted this as a valid philosophy, it would destroy his personal view of himself as a champion of the Light. This meant he was no champion, he was a Jedi. Only a Jedi. "What are Jedi? Why are we...this way?" When the words left his lips, he realized what he'd said. He'd accepted Vader as Jedi. Vader was like him. He was like Vader. Vader was like his father. His....
"We are above mere mortal beings," the Dark Lord said quietly. "Our powers are infinite, awaiting only our skill to tap them. And our powers are hereditary, passed down from parent to child. From father to son."
Panic tightened his throat; where it came from, he could not say. He had to get away, had to move. Wished he had his x-wing so he could fly, if only for a short while. Even if he couldn't escape...he could fly. He paced toward the door. "Shouldn't we--could we return to the bridge? I'd like to see that drill you talked about."
"Of course." Safe, but only for a moment. Then Vader stopped beside him, touched his shoulder. "Don't be frightened, little Jedi."
"I'm not afraid of you." It was almost true; he set his lips in a firm line and glared up at the faceless mask.
"I know." The black glove stroked his cheek. "It is the truth you fear. About your destiny and yourself, Lucian."
Heart pounding against his throat, he jerked away and turned into the corridor. Vader was only trying to confuse him. There was no truth here that he didn't already know. No truth that could frighten him. Nothing. "Don't call me that!" Oh, how he hated it when Vader called him by his real name--for he accepted that he was Lucian, there was a sense of familiarity, of rightness, about the name. But for Vader to use it--he hated it. And craved hearing it. Both at once. Neither. Either.
Yes/no. Right/wrong. Black/white. Dark/Light. Nothing was true anymore, nothing was simple.
"The bridge is this way."
He drew a deep breath, flustered. Turned around and stalked past Vader toward the lift. "I know."
"Indeed." Laughter rippled from behind the mask.
Luke was still angry and upset hours later when his escorts returned him to his quarters. He stopped abruptly at the entrance. The prospect of endless hours alone in this barren room, with only his muddled thoughts for company, was too dispiriting. "Look," he said to Commander Worthing, "would you like to come in for awhile and visit?"
The other officer hesitated, but it was evident that the invitation was no surprise. Maybe he'd been instructed to cultivate the prisoner's trust. "All right."
It irked Luke that the stormtrooper--who never responded to his words--remained posted outside his door. "Where do they think I'm going to escape to?" he muttered irritably.
"Bad day?" Worthing asked mildly.
For a moment, he was reminded of Han. Luke turned as the door slid shut behind them. He grinned. "Yeah. Sorry."
The man shrugged. He looked around the spacious room, then sank into one of the chairs. "You sure don't--"
Tal Worthing shook his head. "I was going to say that you don't have anything personal in this room--but that's stupid. Of course you don't."
"No." He reflected back to his tiny quarters on the base. He didn't have much, but he missed his few Rebel Alliance insignias, the holo of Biggs and his family, the miniature fighter Han had picked up for him in a bazaar on Ord Mantell, the scarf Leia had loaned him and he'd kept, but mostly-- "I wish I had my lightsaber."
Tal straightened with interest. "You have a lightsaber? Where'd you get it?"
"It was my father's." He found himself on the floor near the other youth. It was easy, too easy, to spill out the entire story from beginning to what appeared to be the end. Ought he be more cautious? More discreet? But how could he make a friend if he didn't trust anyone? Surely Tal wasn't under Vader's command to become his companion. Yet it would make sense. But even if he were-- Luke firmly banished the doubts from his mind. "So," he concluded, "I don't know the truth about my father anymore. Except that Vader killed him. At least--" Hadn't Vader admitted it? His brow furrowed as he tried to remember. "I think he did. Anyway, now I'm trapped here."
Tal was quiet for a few minutes, long enough for Luke to begin to feel uneasy. "It sounds," he said eventually, "like you really got swept up in this whole scene. They taught you to be a hero, and you've lived up to it. It hasn't left you with many choices."
"That's the way it feels to me sometimes." He sat crosslegged and rested his elbows on his knees. "What was your father like?" he asked curiously.
Tal tossed aside his officer's cap and ran his fingers through the cropped curly hair. "He was a good man," he said quietly. "There were times when we didn't see much of him, being career Navy and all. But we traveled to postings with him, and when he was in space, he came to see us on every leave. He always brought me something--you'll have to see my stuff! I brought most of it with me." The crooked grin warmed his heart. "Now I'm starting to collect things for my son--oh, I don't have one yet. But someday I will. So at every port, I pick up some little souvenir. Wait until we get to Coruscant, I hear they have the best--" He stopped and looked at Luke. "If you...don't get leave, I'll pick up something for you, too."
For the son I'll never have? Luke wondered bitterly. He shook his head and stared at the floor. This recitation so filled with a sense of the future, so full of normalcy and hope, from a man barely older than him, brought the desperation of his situation to a peak.
"Hey. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking." Tal leaned forward. "It's just--you seem so much like the rest of us, I forgot for a minute. Uh...have you ever played crossball?"
Luke shook his head again.
"Well, look, why don't you get changed, and I'll come back and take you down to the courts. It's not hard to learn, and it's a terrific workout. It'll do you good."
Great. Someone else telling him what was best for him. He untangled his legs and rose. Stalked to the closet. "Get changed? Get changed into what?" Viciously he jabbed the button that opened the closet. "Look at this!"
Tal came over and studied the row of black leather. "Sith. You've got a small fortune here. Pity we're not headed for Coruscant yet. I hear Imperial City has some sex clubs where you could either sell these--or be the most popular guy there."
He felt his eyes widen, trying to imagine what Tal was talking about. "Oh, w-wonderful!" he finally stuttered. Then met the blue eyes. They both burst into laughter. "You mean--"
"I hear Vader lookalikes are very much in demand--"
"Stop!" he choked out the word and stabbed for the door button several times before he hit it and banished the offending garments from their view. "Oh, sith!" He controlled his laughter. "As you see, I don't have anything to--to wear for--" A giggle burst out of him, more from tension than genuine amusement.
"Well, not for crossball anyway. I'd loan you some of mine, but I don't think they'd fit. Anyway, I'll get changed and come back for you. We'll go down to central supply and get you a couple sets of recsuits." The suite door slid open and Tal departed. Immediately, he thrust his head back through the opening. "In the meantime, don't do anything I wouldn't do." He winked at the closet and grinned.
Luke laughed again. Tal Worthing wasn't the kind of man who would befriend him under orders. He was genuine.
And that suddenly made his own enforced stay on the Executor
a lot more palatable.
Most evenings, after his instructions, his training, his workouts, were completed, he and Tal got together for a drink or two in the officers lounge. Sometimes they explored the Executor or joined some of the other officers in a crossball match. Sometimes Luke remained alone in his suite and contemplated his situation. Fought the loneliness that threatened to consume him. Tonight was different. Tal was on duty, and he felt restless, full of longing. Needing something. He'd been aboard this ship for a very long time. There were days now when he never thought of his old friends.
With his newly-allowed freedom, he prowled the corridors of the officers' level, not knowing where he was going until he arrived at the door to Vader's quarters. It slid open in response to his mental call.
No illumination relieved the darkness of the interior. He could see Vader's shadow silhouetted by the pale glow of stars and planets. He walked over to the wall that was a row of viewports. One gloved hand gestured to the other chair. Luke sat.
"Betalon," Vader said.
Luke tried to follow his gaze. This area was unfamiliar to him; all the stars looked the same. He couldn't discern a pattern, then felt Vader invade his mind, directing him. He tried not to pull away, tried not to resent the familiar intrusion. He focused on the single, small planet indicated.
"It's cold. Dead. It was not always so. There was a time when Betalon teemed with life. Humans. Tropical growth. Abundant animal life. It had much to offer."
"I never heard of Betalon."
"It died long before you were born, little Jedi."
The name no longer bothered him. On Palpatine's lips it had been a threat. On Vader's.... There was, Luke accepted, a certain measure of affection in the deep tones. "What happened?"
Vader seemed to rouse himself from a deep contemplation. "Palpatine happened. It was his home. He loved it. Therefore, it had to be his sacrifice to the Darkness, his final commitment. Its destruction was his first demonstration of his Dark powers."
Horror crept through his blood. Why had he never heard of this? Silence stretched into infinity. He wondered if Vader remembered that he was here. Something in the voice.... What kind of commitment called for the murder of a planet and its inhabitants? This Darkness, this was what Vader wanted for him? This was how Vader lived? "Tell me about a star," Luke whispered nervously. "That one to the right."
The ebony helmet turned slowly toward him. "Have I frightened you, little Jedi? Do you contemplate your own time of commitment? Or has the story depressed you like a wicked fairytale?"
With a sudden jolt of awareness, he knew that Vader was the one who was depressed. Vader. He hesitated, wrestling with the compassion he felt. "You...must have been very lonely on this ship."
"Until you arrived to keep me company?" Vader chuckled. "You think highly of your conversational skills, my boy."
Luke smiled in relief. "Tell me about a star. Tell me something happy."
Vader was silent for a long moment. "Very well."
Luke closed his eyes and listened to the words, accepting, for the first time, that he was becoming close to the Dark One. He felt a wistful kind of fear. In his mind, he backed off and stepped outside himself, a trick Vader had taught him. In the comfortable chair, Skywalker looked peaceful, relaxed even. Attentive.
"I don't like that," Vader said with a sharpness that destroyed the flow of his tale.
Luke returned to his body. Of their own accord, his fingers reached
out to rest on the black glove. "I'm sorry," he said. Then he withdrew
his touch and closed his eyes. After a moment, the voice resumed its recitation.
Luke and Tal shared a dinner in the officers' canteen, neither of them particularly hungry. Luke picked up a synthetic vegstick, then tossed it aside. "When do you leave?" he asked for the third or fourth time, though he knew the answer by heart.
Tal smiled. "A full hour sooner than the last time you asked me." He pushed his chair back. "Let's get out of here."
If only he could. But the most he could do was get out of the canteen, not off the ship and out of Vader's life. The small arboretum was the nearest thing to an escape that existed aboard the Executor. It was tiny but lush, and it smelled of the dampness of growing things. The lighting cycle simulated sunshine for 16-hour periods, then the natural, starlit darkness of space finished the span. Now it was dark. They walked along the short path to the viewport, discreetly ignoring the lovers who hid in the shadows.
"It's a great promotion," Luke said finally.
Tal shrugged. "A smaller ship, but at least I'll be the chief of navigation. It's what I've wanted since I was a kid. My father--" He broke off for a moment. "My father taught me a lot, but mostly he passed on his love for space. I never gave it a second thought when the Imperial recruiter came calling. I wasn't interested in working on a freighter or becoming a traveling merchant--a commission in the Imperial Navy was the most exciting choice. Besides, my father's position gave me a leg up on the competition."
"Which is how you ended up on Vader's flagship." He'd heard the story a dozen times, but never tired of it. Tal was his friend; he could have listened to his history a million times if that was what Tal wanted. "You've earned this promotion."
"I wonder." A rueful smile canted the corners of the wide lips. "Oh, I have the aptitude and, with the help of a good staff, I'll be able to grow into the position. But I think our friendship had something to do with it."
He was not so stupid that the thought hadn't crossed his mind. Vader was grooming young Skywalker as his protege, that much was obvious to everyone. Perhaps the commander of the Coruscan saw the advantage of having Skywalker's friend aboard his vessel. He said as much to Tal.
His friend looked at him strangely. "I hadn't thought of that. I assumed...."
Tal glanced away and leaned his arms on the rail. His face was reflected in the viewport like a pale moon. "I assumed that Lord Vader didn't approve of our friendship. He is very possessive of you."
Luke stared at the other man. Would Vader--? Of course he would. Separate Skywalker from his only friend. Make him more vulnerable. Push him down further until surrender became the inevitable result of his loneliness. This Darkness that Vader wanted for him, this seduction that grew more aggressive every day--
He started, jarred from his thoughts. "What?"
Tal looked away from him again and stared into the darkness. "What does he want from you?"
Wasn't it obvious? "He wants me to...to be a Dark Jedi like him."
What kind of question was that? Luke shook his head and turned his back on the sky. In this dim light, the gardens reminded him of Dagobah. "Because I'm the last Jedi."
"Then why didn't he kill you? He and the Emperor killed the rest of the Jedi."
He turned his head. "I don't know." It was a question he had never wanted to ask himself for fear he would find an answer.
Tal touched his arm. "He wants something from you, Luke. I wish I wasn't leaving. Please...be careful. Maybe--"
The other man lowered his voice to a whisper. "Scuttlebutt says the fleet is going to Coruscant soon. Maybe you could...escape."
Coldness filled his limbs. "We're going to Coruscant?" he repeated numbly. He'd thought that he and Vader-- What? That they were on one side, Palpatine on the other?
"According to rumor." Tal frowned. "What's wrong?"
Luke lifted his eyes and met his friend's gaze. "The fleet will go to Coruscant when Vader decides I'm ready to be delivered to the Emperor."
A strange expression flitted across Tal's face. It was filled with fear, revulsion, and fascination. "Why are you--?"
"I'm going to be his apprentice," he answered through lips suddenly gone cold. "I'm going to be...like him."
Tal inhaled sharply, then threw one arm around Luke's shoulders. "No, you're not," he said fiercely. "You're nothing like Palpatine and you never will be. Sith! I wish there was something I could do!"
You can't even stay on the same ship with me, he thought dully. "I'll be all right. I'm strong," he answered, though he didn't feel that way anymore. Mostly he just felt tired.
"Yes, you are." Tal's arm dropped. "How about a game? It'll take our minds off...everything. And, you know, when I'm gone, Saml will play with you. He's good."
Yeah, pass on your orphan to someone else to care for, he thought with a bitterness that Tal didn't deserve. "That'd be great." Somehow he managed a smile, though anxiety filled him like never before. "Come on, buddy. I'll whip your sorry ass."
"Power is important to you," Darth Vader said. "Even if you were not a Jedi, even if you did not crave power as is natural for a Jedi, it would still be important given your upbringing."
Luke met the level, emotionless gaze of the mask. It was true. The need for power had been growing in him since he'd been brought aboard the Executor. At first he'd thought it was a reaction to being held prisoner, a filling of the void in his heart, but the longer he watched Vader wield his power, the more enticing was its lure. Power and uniqueness, he craved both. Perhaps it was, as Vader suggested, to compensate for those years on Tatooine when he was powerless and forced to fit into a mold of others' making. He was different, had always been different, even when he was the only one aware of it. His deeply-felt needs had never been satisfied because no one--including himself--had ever understood those needs. Until this man. Vader saw him clearly, understood him as no one else ever had. Was it because of the long-ago connection with his father or because they were both Jedi?
He lowered his eyes back to the starcharts he'd been studying, brushing away the melancholy that he refused to name. He waited until Vader was called to the com, then pushed the charts aside to gaze into the endless space beyond the viewport. Ordinarily he enjoyed studying the navigational charts because it made him feel closer to Tal; today nothing pleased him. The Coruscan and Tal were nearby--near but totally out of reach. There had been no one to take Tal's place. No one had sought out young Skywalker, no one had responded to his friendly overtures. Maybe Tal was right, and it had been Vader who'd separated them. Vader who wouldn't permit new friendships. Vader who wanted him to be alone. But somewhere out there was the Rebellion and his old friends. Curious that they'd engaged the Rebels in combat so few times since he'd been aboard. He wondered again where Han was, why he hadn't fled Cloud City with Leia and Chewie. There was no point in asking Vader; his questions about his friends always went unanswered. Han--Leia! Hear me, please! If only they hadn't left him in Cloud City. If they couldn't have rescued him then, why hadn't they followed, why hadn't they come for him?
It was hours before the man who was usually foremost in his thoughts came striding back into the room. "You call to them and here they are." It was almost a laugh. "Amazing--though of all people, I should know the potency of your call."
It was a joke of some kind, but he didn't understand it. Luke rose from his seat and turned. And then he understood. Framed in the opposite viewport he saw flashes of light and rapidly approaching fighters--x-wings! His heart leaped with rare joy. "They're here!"
"Not for you, foolish little Jedi. A coincidence--unless you truly did send for them." Vader whirled. "Come with me."
Numbed by the truth, he followed. Of course, they hadn't come for him. Of course, they didn't know he was here. Anyway, the Alliance wouldn't risk its ships to rescue one lost pilot. Still, for just a moment, just the briefest moment, he'd felt a rebirth of hope and wished--
He was losing sight of Vader in the confusion of the crowded hallways. The Dark Lord was headed for the bridge. Impulsively, Luke darted down a side corridor. This was his first moment of true freedom since coming aboard the giant destroyer. If he could find one of the bays, maybe he could find an unwatched ship. Maybe there was still hope. Maybe he could escape, flee, run away--
--run, run away before he--
Leia, hear me!
It took longer than he'd wanted, and he followed many false leads, once ending up in the center of the main fighter bay. But eventually, instinctively, he was drawn down an unmarked hall toward blast doors that slid open upon his touch. It was a bay, but it was empty. Disappointment filled his soul. Was there no escape? From the cavernous bay, he watched snatches of the fighting. Was that Wedge's fighter? Difficult to be sure from this distance. It was probably only his longing that colored his vision and made him see the familiar fuselage markings. But that-- There was no mistaking that distinctive shape!
He ran across the bay. That was the Falcon, the Millenium Falcon! Han had come for him, he knew it! He threw the controls that killed the forcefield, flashed the landing lights, signalled an old Alliance code that he prayed they would see and understand. Waving excitedly, he waited long, agonizing minutes before the Falcon finally swooped in and made a skidding, sloppy landing on the deck. "Han!" he called, knowing they couldn't hear him. But they could see him!
Don't leave me again!
With heartbreaking slowness, the ship's hatch door opened, and the ramp lowered. He raced toward it. It was Han--Chewie--some man he'd never seen before--and Leia, sweet Leia! Luke flung himself at them and was caught in the warm arms of his friends. He buried his face in the softness of Chewie's fur, inhaled its almost-forgotten scent. There were delirious exclamations he didn't understand and couldn't answer, an introduction of the man whose name was Lando, and more hugs--hugs he'd been starving to receive. "How did you know I was here? How did you know?" he babbled, nearly incoherent with excitement. He was free--Vader couldn't keep him--he could leave--
"I just knew!" Leia hugged him again, laughing and crying.
He held her hands and studied her. She looked tired. Behind her smile, sadder. And Han looked...different. Older. "What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Han laughed happily. "If you're okay, nothin's wrong, kid. Except that we can't stand around here jabbering. I've been gone for a year, and I'm not about to get caught by Vader again."
"Caught?" he echoed. "Vader caught you? Is that why you left me?" From the corner of his vision, he saw Lando eyeing him strangely, then whispering to Leia. She studied Luke's clothing. "What do you mean, a year?"
"Vader gave me to Boba Fett in Cloud City. I've been in carbon freeze for a standard year, Luke. So they tell me." He tilted his head toward the other three, as Luke mulled over the realization that he'd been on the Executor--with Vader--for more than a full year. They left him here for a year. His friends. "They sprung me from Jabba's place on your old stomping ground, then we concocted this great scheme to get you back. Speaking of which, I think it's time that we--"
The blast doors slid open.
Luke whipped around, conscious of Han's raised blaster behind him. Vader. It was Vader. Only Vader. The sight of the lone man gave all of them pause. Even Han's aim faltered. "Go away," Luke whispered. Go away, go away, go away! He raised his voice. "Go away! I'm leaving with them."
Vader approached, but raised no weapon. The blast doors slid closed again, isolating the six of them in a private hell.
Han clutched his blaster nervously, never removing his eyes from Vader. "Let's go, kid, before the reinforcements get here."
Kid. He hated that.
He heard Chewie head for the cockpit, heard Lando start up the ramp. Han and Leia were directly behind him, Leia pulling his arm. But he couldn't look away from the Dark Lord. The faceless stare was mesmerizing, particularly now when he knew how much the mask hid, how many inconsistencies, how much knowledge, how many feelings, especially the feelings for him. Feelings that he'd longed to know. "Wait." He shook free from Leia's grasp.
Han groaned. "Don't do this, Luke."
"You do not wish to be apart from me, little Jedi," Vader said in a low voice. A sharp exclamation from Leia was the only response he received. "That's why you called to me again."
Luke was mute for a long minute. Little Jedi, little Jedi-- His heart pounded in his ears, muffling every sound but its own frantic beating. He wanted, he wanted-- He stepped in front of the Dark Lord. "Tell me about my father. Tell me what happened."
"We don't have time for this, kid. Come on."
"I have to know."
"Luke, it's a trap!"
He tilted his head. Those had been the words she'd screamed at him in Cloud City. She'd been right then. But now? If only he had time to think.
"You already know the truth, my little Jedi."
"Don't let him mess with your head, Luke! He's doing Force stuff to you!"
"Han, Leia--come on, let's get out of here. Leave him if he doesn't want to come."
"Shut up, Lando. Luke, think about this. You've been a prisoner for a year."
Too many words, too many thoughts. Indecision swirled through his head. Han approached, blaster still aimed at Vader. "Look, kid," he said quietly, "I know about being a prisoner. Sometimes you get confused. You forget who's your friend and who's your enemy. Maybe--I don't know, maybe Vader became your friend. But, Luke, he's still your enemy...no matter what he's told you. Now let's get out of here while we can."
He looked at Vader. The door in his mind was closed, but the truth pounded on it, begging to be let in. Little Jedi. Luke shuddered and looked at Han. "My father's here," he whispered. "My father...."
Han's lips parted in astonishment. "On this ship?"
"Luke, your father's dead."
Han silenced Leia with a gesture. "We'll come back for him, I promise, kid. Now--"
"Don't leave me again, Lucian," Vader said into a sudden void.
Again. If not for that one word, he might have been able to leave. Again. It conjured up visions of Anakin Skywalker searching for his abducted daughter, returning to find his mate dead and his son vanished, his little Jedi son. Then facing Vader...facing Vader...facing Vader....
What was Vader doing there?
...his sacrifice to the....
Leia--never leave me again! Luke drew a shaking breath.
Two steps brought him within inches of the Dark One. He studied the mask's sharp features, groped for the strength he needed. Pity and love overfilled his heart, spilled into his soul. He turned around, knowing the sight of their twin black figures should answer any suspicions his friends had. But just in case-- "My father's here," he repeated. Father's here, little Jedi....
Appalled understanding swept across Han's mobile face. For a moment, the blaster shook, but then it steadied and focused on both of them. "No. Step aside, kid. He's messing with your mind, I told you that."
"No." He looked at Leia. She understood. She knew it was true. Her emotions were strong. Chewie came slowly down the ramp and uttered a soft snarl. Yes, he understood too. "I have to stay with him. He'll be alone without me."
Han shook his head. "Step aside. I'll blast him, and we can all get the hell out of here."
With Han it was the simple and obvious solution, even when he knew it wouldn't work. "Go back to your Rebellion. I have a different war to fight." A different battle to win. A black glove came to rest on his shoulder. He stood taller, showing no fear, smothering all his doubts.
Anger flared in Han's eyes, and Leia stepped forward. "You want to go with us. How can you stay here?" she asked, her even voice conflicting with her apprehensive gaze.
There was a simple answer. "I have to stay with my father," Luke said. ...facing Vader...Father's here, Daddy's home...my little Jedi called and I.... "He needs me, I can feel it."
"Then you're a fool," Han said brokenly, as if he'd been badly wounded. "Damn you--"
Any further plea was cut off as behind Luke the blast doors slid open. He heard the clatter of boots and weapons. Knew that only his father stood between his friends and Death. "Please," he whispered to Han.
Han pushed Leia toward the ramp. "Let's go." The words were not addressed to him. Luke watched as Leia threw him a last imploring look. His friends reentered their ship, and the hatch closed with frightening finality. Leaving. His legs, his lips, were paralyzed; he could neither run nor call to them. The Falcon blasted out of the bay. The hand was removed from his shoulder. He watched the ship shrink into the distance before he turned to Vader. Forced his lips to move. "Thank you for letting them leave." Live.
"A small price to pay."
"For you." He hoped his father was worth the cost, for it was the most terrible price he had ever paid.
My little Jedi called and I came.
--never leave me again!
He trembled and reached out his hand.
The Dark Lord moved away. "This time," Vader said sternly, "follow me."
His lips quivered as he followed obediently behind the Dark Lord. On the bridge, he shook with dread when he saw that the battle still continued. TIE's and x-wings, blasting one another into oblivion. Occasionally the big guns of the Executor assisted in the destruction. He searched out Tal, relieved to find the Coruscan undamaged by the fighting and Tal's presence still shining brightly in the Force. Luke leaned his forehead against the viewport and flinched as the Millenium Falcon winged into view. Please leave, he whispered in his mind. Run, fly away, go while you can...the future I see for you--
...run, run, leave quickly, you must run before he finds....
They didn't hear him. Incredibly, the Falcon turned its guns on the Executor, and he felt Han's rage and frustration. Heard his father's command to the gunnery crew. "No!" he cried hopelessly, knowing it was already too late, praying that Han's flying skill would get them away from--
--never leave me again!
The Falcon disappeared in an incandescent ball of fire and sparks. Luke lost his grip on the cold metal of the port's frame and sank to his knees, gasping for breath. Death-screams echoed in his mind though the friends who had called to him were gone. Han...Leia.... A rift opened inside his head and spread through his heart. Gone.... He searched the Force for anything, any trace.... Gone. Left. Again. Blindly, he became aware of another's anger, another's grief. He lifted his head toward the faltering battle.
An x-wing came screaming toward the Executor's bridge, the pilot's thoughts broadcasting clearly. Luke--the princess--Han! This is for Luke, you bastards! Wedge! Wedge thought he'd been rescued, thought he'd died on the Falcon along with the others. I'm alive, he tried to tell him. Tried to urge him away, tried to make him flee as Leia and Han and Chewie had not.
His attempts were futile. Wordlessly he watched as Wedge's fighter was destroyed. Stayed in Wedge's mind until it vanished, gave what comfort, took away what fear he could. His shoulders slumped. The battle was ended, and he was so cold.
...he is so cold. We must run before he...no, little one, please stop calling--Ben, help!
--save the baby!
--never leave me again!
"Admiral Piett. Set new coordinates. For Coruscant. And Imperial City."
Eventually he became aware of the stillness on the bridge. The Executor set off on its altered course, on its journey to deliver him to Palpatine. The normal sounds of activity had reappeared, curiously muted. Cautiously, he reached out with his mind. Pity overwhelmed his senses. They were sorry for him, those officers who had not quite become friends. Even the junior officers, the new ones, were subdued by his sorrow. I haven't even cried, Luke noted vacantly, and yet they grieve with me. Slowly he rose to his feet and rested his forehead once more against the cool plexi of the viewport, the only thing that separated him--and all of them--from the vacuum of space. It crossed his mind that he could easily destroy this ship with just the power of his thoughts, destroy all those who murdered his friends. But the act was not within him to commit. One man alone was responsible. Or was it two? How much of the culpability was his? How many deaths...Han and Chewie and Wedge and...Leia?
Another cry/another voice/another time/another death
You will never leave me again!
Blood on the big hands of a man, red tears on a beautiful, still face, terrified wails from a blond toddler, unfettered anger, final commitment, sacrifice to--
The bridge was totally silent, save for the soft sounds of the tracking monitors. His culpability. His fault. And he was...he was...his name....
...clever little Jedi, calling for Daddy...Daddy's here, I heard your call, I found Mommy's hiding place....
Dead? They're all dead? And I...?
...save the baby, Ben, please make Lucian stop calling--
He turned. A Dark One approached with a wariness he'd never before sensed in any...man. Was this a man? Was it someone he knew, someone who loved him? A friend maybe, a father? The black figure stopped directly in front of him. There was blood on the big hands. It ran like a river from the dark fingertips and pooled on the deck.
...what have you done, Kin?--sweet Sith, what have you done!
--icy saber the color of blood swinging, singing--
"You are more clever than I had hoped," the man-thing said with delight. "Your second sacrifice has transcended my expectations."
If he could speak he would, but his tongue felt fuzzy and too big to fit in his mouth. If he could cry, he would, pride be damned, but tears were alien. Tears were water, but all the water was frozen. There was no dryness anywhere, just snow and ice, like that place he had come from, that place whose name was just out of reach. That place of honed fat icicles that could kill and thin fragile icicles that shattered at his touch. That place, those people. People...he almost remembered people. There was this thing, this Dark One. But weren't there others? Others who left-- A sharp pain stabbed through some part of him. He knew about crying, but there were also screaming and moaning and other sounds and other things he couldn't do. Had he ever been able to do them? Or was this...him? Was this all he was? He'd once been something more, because something, someone, had said I am here because you called me and swung an icy saber at him/her, an icy saber the color of blood that exploded into a beautiful incandescent ball full of sparkles, but now--now--
"Everyone who ever loved you, died for you. You inspire sacrifice, my son. And it strengthens you, as it does me. It has enabled you to finally break the mindlock Kenobi forced upon you so many years ago." The Dark One hesitated. "You are much like your father."
He looked at the blank eye sockets and spoke the only truth he remembered.
"My father died before I was born," he replied sadly.