by MJ Mink
The destruction of the second Death Star and the devastation of the Imperial troops that had defended and populated it meant that the Empire was severely crippled. Which in turn meant that its navy was depleted, and the galaxy was damn near safe for travel again. Which meant that Tarrant Darklighter could finally get away from home.
Which meant he was doing it.
He looked out through the porthole and studied Tatooine as it became smaller and smaller. From here, it was deceptively peaceful and beautiful, bathed in the golden brilliance of its twin suns. But thank the Force he wasn't going to be stuck there forever! He might have been if Dad hadn't lured the Darklighter cousins from Bestine on the other side of the Wastes, urging them to get away from the city--if Bestine could be called a city-- and live in the fresh, unpolluted air of the country.
Tarrant snorted. Idiots. They'd change their minds after the first duststorm, but they were stuck now--Dad would never let them go. And he was free!
Even though the war was over, he could still enlist and find Luke. Or maybe he should reverse those two plans. If he found Luke, he might not need to enlist. Rumors had reached Tatooine about Luke's alleged Jedi status--the first time he'd heard, he'd nearly choked on the term--so Blondie was probably allowed all kinds of special privileges, like having friends around. Or maybe he could cast a spell that would make Tarrant invisible and unnoticed. Or make Tarrant a Jedi, too.
He grinned, glancing at his fellow travellers on this freighter that had been converted into a passenger liner. They were all headed for Anardes and then on to their various destinations. Would any of them be traveling with him to Yavin IV? Somehow he suspected that he would have to find passage on his own. The rebel base was probably not on any trade routes--if indeed the base had not been moved.
What was Luke like now? Tarrant closed his eyes and leaned his head against the thin cushion. They'd never heard a word from him, no message that he was safe, not fried like his aunt and uncle, not even a condolence for Biggs's death. Mom and Dad never said anything, but he'd known they were pissed--though not as upset as he'd been. Until they told him the truth, he hadn't known why they'd expected more and why they weren't angrier. But just because Luke was a Jedi, he was allowed certain--well, Dad called them "eccentricities". All Tarrant knew was that Luke had always been self-centered, impossibly snotty, arrogant, and conceited.
And Tarrant Darklighter's responsibility. Even if his parents hadn't told him about his job, he still would have been responsible for Luke; he'd promised Biggs he'd watch out for the brat.
Biggs and the kid.... The memories were with him every day. He'd hated Luke for years.
Maybe it would be better if he still did.
Tarrant wiped the sleep out of his eyes as he stumbled from the bathroom. In the pre-dawn darkness he fumbled with his clothes, not bothering with a light. He could smell breakfast, the rich cardolin toast that was Mom's specialty, and the frying rareba strips. He glanced at the other bed. Biggs was still asleep.
He picked up one of his brother's soft boots and threw it on top of the rumpled covering. It struck the sprawled form. "Come on! You're not sleeping until school starts. I'm not getting stuck with all the chores again!"
Someday he wouldn't be a farmer--when he grew up. When he was eighteen, he'd be free and he'd leave the farm and go to Mos Eisley. Or maybe even leave Tatooine. There was a whole galaxy of planets to choose from. He would pick one that had water, lots of water. There were plenty of places where people cleaned themselves in water! They'd studied it in Galactic Civ. A lot of the kids didn't believe it, but he did. There were probably other kids on other planets who didn't believe in Tatooine, either. Who ever heard of people living on a planet where they had to build machines to suck moisture out of the air?
Who ever heard of moisture farmers? It was stupid. If they moved to a normal planet that had water, they could do something else. Like be ranchers or live in a city--or be smugglers!
"Biggs! Get up!"
The fourteen-year-old pulled the blanket off his face and reluctantly opened one eye. "Quit yelling, brat. I'm up."
"No, you're not." He ran across the room and bounced on the end of the bed. "Biggs?"
"When we grow up, can we run away together?"
He glared into his brother's sleepy eyes. "Why not?"
"'Cause I'm two years older. I'll already be gone, and you'll still be a baby."
He ignored the remark. Biggs was always cranky in the morning. He watched his brother crawl out of bed and pull the nightshirt over his head. Biggs had filled out in the last few months. He was getting taller and more muscular--nothing like their father yet, but he was growing. Tarrant wished that he was as big. But they shared the same shaggy black hair and dark brown eyes, the same clean lines in the face--so maybe that meant he would grow up to look like Biggs.
"I'll save you some rareba," he yelled as his brother shut the lav door, adding in a whisper: "Maybe." Then he ran out of the underground structure that served as the boys' room, across the open courtyard, and into the kitchen dome.
"Slow down, dear," his mother warned as soon as he bounded into the room.
"'Kay." He snitched a rareba strip from the pan, yelping as hot grease stung his fingers. He stuffed the strip in his mouth, then sucked at the burned spots. "Morning, Dad."
Arron Darklighter glanced away from the vid news. "Good morning, Tarrant. Don't eat until you're sitting at the table."
"'Kay," he agreed cheerfully, snagging a slice of toast as he slid into his chair.
His mother put a plate in front of him. "After you've eaten, go change into your school clothes. There'll be no working this morning. Our new neighbors are coming by."
Well, he wasn't much interested in new neighbors, but if he didn't have to work because of them, that was just great! He grinned as his brother came into the room. "We don't have to work today!"
"Only this morning," his father corrected. "After school, it's back to your slavery."
Tarrant giggled. Biggs brought his plate to the table. "Why don't we have to work?"
"Our new neighbors are coming by," Tarrant announced importantly.
Their mother brought the pan and divided the remaining strips of rareba between them. "They have a nephew your age, Tarrant, who lives with them. He's going to school with you."
Tarrant groaned. "He's probably a dwirk."
"I'm sure he's a very nice boy. I want you and Biggs to look after him today and make him feel welcome. Be sure he gets to the right classroom."
"Mo-om," he whined. "There're only two classrooms, how could he get lost? He must be a real dwirk!"
"I'm not babysitting him," Biggs said with that familiar stubborn tone in his voice. "What's the dwirk's name, anyway?"
"Biggs," their father said warningly.
"I'm not sure of his name, but I know both my boys treat strangers with kindness."
He really hated it when his mother talked like that. It made him feel like a sandworm. "Yes, Mom," he said, and Biggs echoed him.
But after their mother left, they exchanged disgusted looks.
"He's all yours, brat," Biggs muttered under his breath.
"That's not fair."
Biggs was getting to be a tyrant. Tarrant shrugged and carried his
plate to the sandscrubber. If the new kid was a dwirk, he was on his own!
Tarrant Darklighter wasn't wrecking his reputation for a moron!
The two brothers waited with studied casualness while their parents greeted the newcomers in the courtyard. No kid had ever lived close enough to be called "neighbor", and the suspense was killing Tarrant. He peeked around the doorway. There was a boy behind two old people. He couldn't see much except that the kid was a runt, lots smaller than him, and his traditional Tatooine whites were way too white. He'd be out of place the minute he walked in the school building. Too bad. When you were labeled a dwirk on Day One, that was the end.
"What's he look like?"
Tarrant shrugged. "Can't really see. He's little."
Biggs snorted. "We should've gone to work--anything would be better than babysitting."
"You've never babysat in your life."
"Yeah? I take care of you when Mom and Dad go into Anchorhead." Biggs grinned.
Tarrant ignored his brother. "Here they come," he whispered. They both fled into the coolness of the living center. He snatched up a holocomic and pretended to be engrossed.
"Boys, I want you to meet our neighbors."
The brothers stood at Arron's command.
"Owen and Beru Lars, these are my sons, Biggs and Tarrant."
They shook hands and mumbled conventional greetings. Beru Lars smiled pleasantly, but Tarrant thought she looked sad. "Nice to meet you, boys. This is our nephew Luke."
From beneath shaggy hair that hung down his forehead and obscured his eyebrows, the boy gave them a sullen look and nodded once. They responded in kind. There was a moment of silence.
"Why don't you show Luke around?" their mother asked, though it wasn't a request as much as an order.
"Sure. C'mon," Biggs muttered, as anxious as he to be away from the grownups before they started a boring conversation.
They wandered to the far side of the courtyard. Biggs leaned against the small household evaporator and folded his arms. "Where are you from?" he asked, a subtle challenge in his tone.
Luke shrugged. "Different places." His voice was soft. He looked sharply at them. "My name's not Lars. It's Skywalker." His gaze flickered appraisingly over Biggs.
Tarrant studied the boy. Luke was small and slender instead of big and broad-shouldered like a farmer should be. His skin was dark like theirs, almost golden brown, but his hair was bleached to a funny white color. His eyes were remarkable; they were a light blue that looked almost eerie against the contrast of tanned skin. He was as opposite from the Darklighter clan as anyone could be. "How come you live with them? What happened to your folks?"
"They died." Luke's eyes were wary. "My father died in space. He was a ship's navigator."
"I'm going to be a pilot," Biggs announced, though it was the first Tarrant had heard of it.
"You have to stay here and farm," Tarrant said.
"Stuff the farm."
Luke smiled faintly. "My aunt and uncle said everybody likes it here. I hate it. That's why they brought me to meet you, to see what good boys are like."
Tarrant and Biggs exchanged glances and burst into laughter. "We're the bad examples," Biggs finally said under his breath. "We're both leaving as soon as we're old enough."
"I'll come with you," Luke said impulsively, then bit his lower lip. "I mean...that is...."
"You can come with us," Biggs said, surprisingly obliging. "If this wasn't your first day, we'd skip school. But we don't want them out looking for you so soon--give it a few weeks. Then we'll take off, and I'll show you where the action is."
"You will? I'd like that," Luke said quietly. He stared at Biggs, and a rosy color filled his face, then he looked down at the ground. Long golden lashes brushed his cheeks.
Tarrant's eyes narrowed. Not another one! Biggs had been impossible when Windy had decided to hero-worship him for a couple years. And now this new kid was acting as though Biggs was a god. Biggs smiled at the blond boy, puffing his chest like a dingidin dragon.
"We should be leaving now," Tarrant said sharply.
"Go ahead," Biggs replied distractedly, obviously enjoying the attention. "We'll catch up."
"Go on." There was an edge to Biggs's voice, and he shot Tarrant a quick, angry look. Then he turned back to Luke, and his whole face changed.
Tarrant opened his mouth to protest, but gave up and stamped away. Who the hell was this dwirk to come walking in and take his brother like that? What was the matter with Biggs? Luke was Tarrant's age; he was supposed to be showing the kid around. This was cheating--this wasn't fair! He could see it now: Biggs and Luke were going to be best friends. He was going to be left out.
Angrily, he turned around to confront them, but shut his mouth immediately. Biggs was talking and scooping up sand. He ran his hands down Luke's sleeves, destroying the purity of the fabric, making Luke look more like one of them. Luke smiled and knelt and rubbed more sand on his boots and leggings. He said something to Biggs, and Biggs laughed, loud and full the way he did when he was in a really good mood--which didn't happen very often.
Tarrant sighed. "Hey, guys, let's go. We'll be late."
By the time their parents and Luke's aunt and uncle came out of the dome, the three of them wore nearly identical expressions, looking as though they hated each other.
But Tarrant knew he'd seen something special born. A little magical circle that enclosed only two.
A circle where he would not be welcome.
They insisted on herding him in with all the other recruits, though he'd told them he wasn't enlisting. Of course, he'd only whispered it under his breath, and the sergeant hadn't heard him, so he'd gotten a free trip to Yavin. But he drew the line at being assigned to the barracks.
"I'm staying with a friend," he told a uniformed man who was taking names.
"Doesn't work that way, Darklighter. You're in the army now. You're assigned--"
"I'm not in the army."
The man looked up from his datapad. "I have you down here as an enlistee."
"I never signed up."
"You can sign up now."
"No, thanks." He hefted his bag over his shoulder. "If you'll just point me in the direction of Luke Skywalker, I'll be going."
The officer's lips twitched. "Another Jedi devotee, hmm? Sorry, he's not taking students."
Tarrant laughed. "I'm not looking for him to teach me, buddy. Never mind. I'll find him myself."
"You're not going anywhere--buddy. Security!" With a wave, the officer gestured to two grim men.
"Great." Not seeing a choice, he allowed them to take his bag and march him away. At least if he was in the brig, he could send word to Luke. Blondie would be sure to pop him once he heard--
"Biggs? Hey--hold it!"
The voice was incredulous. He turned around to see who called. A young man about his own age hurried across the landing bay toward him. He wore a grey jumpsuit that seemed to be the standard around here. His black hair needed a trim--not unlike Tarrant's own hairstyle.
The man stopped in front of him. "Biggs?" he repeated in an astonished tone.
"Tarrant Darklighter." He extended his hand. Since he'd grown the moustache, he looked even more like Biggs. Wait'll Blondie got an eyeful. "You obviously knew my brother."
"Yeah. I--sith, you look like him!" He offered a wide smile. "I'm Wedge Antilles. Your brother and I were in the same squadron. Are you a pilot?"
"Yeah. Biggs wasn't the only hotshot in the family. But I'm the brains, too." With an answering grin, he continued, "I asked to see Luke and now I'm off to the brig. Vouch for me?"
"Sure. I'll take him, corporal. He's a friend."
He heaved the bag over his shoulder again and walked alongside Wedge. "Congratulations on the Death Star. Were you in on it?"
"Yeah. Took one of the killing shots." A bounce appeared in his steps. "Man, you should have seen that thing when it went! Better than the first one!"
"You were at the first one, too?"
"Yeah, I--" Antilles hesitated. "I'm sorry about Biggs. I was the last one to get away before he got hit."
"Luke will tell me about it," Tarrant said dismissively. He wanted to hear the details from the brat, not this stranger. "Where is he?"
"Probably at dinner. That's where I was headed. We'll check the cafeteria first."
"Great. I'm starving." Spaceship food was nothing to brag about. You'd think with the fare they charged, they could provide a decent meal.
They walked outside for a short ways. Tarrant didn't speak, but he drank in the sight of green--trees, shrubs, things he'd only seen in vids! There were strange noises, too, and he wondered if they were birds. He had a vague idea what birds looked like (they were little and flew like ships) but he didn't see any. There was a breeze, and the temperature was pleasant, not hot! He'd lucked out. Twenty-three years old and he was free, he was on another planet, he was heading into adventure. No more farm, no more oold vaporators to try to repair, no more trudging out in the blinding heat of the day or the night's cold. No more sand in everything.
Nothing to do but babysit an infant Jedi. Should be a snap.
They headed indoors. "Here's the cafeteria. Want to get in line or--"
"I'll go on ahead."
Wedge grinned. "Go through those doors at the far end. That's the officers' dining room. If you don't spot him, come on back and fill a tray."
"Thanks." He pushed his way through the noisy room, drinking in the chatter and laughter. He'd never been anywhere with so many people, and it was disconcerting. Did Luke feel out of place or was he used to the chaos by now?
He'd expected the officers' dining room to be small, but it was half the size of the main dining hall. The tables were more intimate; round rather than long rectangles, they seated four people apiece. He searched the room for the familiar blond head, but didn't see it, and his shoulders drooped in disappointment.
"Can I help you?" A woman in orange flight gear stood behind him.
He moved out of her way, giving her figure an appreciative survey. "Sorry. Uh, yeah, I'm looking for Luke. Skywalker. I don't see him."
Her glance went immediately to the farthest corner of the room. "Over there," she said, pointing while she juggled her tray in one hand, "with General Solo and the Princess."
"Thanks." Princess? Trust Luke to end up with the aristocracy. Spoiled brat. He headed toward the corner she'd indicated, assessing its occupants as he walked.
There was one woman, obviously the Princess Who of What. She had dark hair that was braided and looped on both sides of her face. Two men sat near her, and he squinted to see them better. No one was sun-gold and shining. They both had brown hair, though one head seemed lighter than the other. Tarrant came to a dead stop a few meters from the table. If that was Luke--
The darker-haired man smiled at the woman--his lover?--and chuckled, then he quieted and his head tilted. He eyed Tarrant with suspicion. Spacer, Tarrant thought, and a dangerous one. The hazel eyes flicked quickly around the room, settled for a moment on the other man at the table and glared in his direction. He leaned over and muttered something to the man. Was that Luke? He was small, true, but--
The man turned his head and looked directly at him. Whatever color had been in his gaunt face drained away. His lips parted; they were so pale that Tarrant wondered if the guy was going to faint. His mouth formed a word, but no sound was uttered.
It was Luke. Sith, it was Luke--
And he looked like a corpse.
Luke stood suddenly. The first man caught his chair before it could overturn. Both people at the table stared at him.
"Luke, what's wrong?" The woman's hand rested on the black sleeve.
Luke's lips moved again. "Biggs?" he asked hoarsely.
Tarrant grinned. The moustache must look even better than he'd hoped. "Guess again, sunshine."
Sandy lashes fluttered and a small smile tugged at Luke's mouth. "Tarrant!" he said in little more than a whisper.
"Give the man ten credits." In two steps, his long legs carried him to Luke's side. He threw his arms around Skywalker. "You look like hell, Blondie! Sith--can't even call you that anymore! You look like you've been livin' underground for the last five years."
Luke didn't mind the insults. He buried his face against Tarrant's shoulder, his fingers digging in as if this was some kind of rescue. "Tare...Tare."
Awkwardly, he patted Luke's back and tried to extricate himself from the embrace, but Luke had him in a death-hold. "Don't squeeze the breath out of me, brat. I got friends in high places who won't like it if you kill me."
"Guess he remembered you, hmm?" Wedge Antilles slid his tray onto the table and sat down.
"Who is it?" the dark-haired man snarled.
Wedge looked around the table. "Uh...Biggs Darklighter's brother."
"Luke's friend," the woman hissed. "The one who died at the first Death Star."
"Oh. Never met him."
Tarrant sighed faintly, rubbing his face in the silkiness of Luke's hair. It was too short, and it wasn't blond any longer. He felt Luke begin to pull away and tightened his grip. Luke had never been big, but now he was too thin. His arms felt muscular, but there was no meat over his ribs or around his waist. "What happened to you, brat?" he whispered to Biggs's little shadow.
Luke straightened, and Tarrant released him. Now there was some color in the pasty complexion and a little animation in the eyes that seemed faded compared to the blue brilliance they had been years earlier. "A lot," Luke answered finally. They stared at each other for a few seconds, then Luke caught his breath and cleared his throat. The unexpected smile was luminous. "Let me introduce you to my friends. Tarrant Darklighter of Tatooine, this is Princess Leia Organa, General Han Solo, and--I guess you've already met Wedge."
Yep, Luke was traveling with high company. For a moment Tarrant had forgotten that the kid was a Jedi. He eyed him speculatively, wondering if it was true or if his parents had exaggerated. Luke was dressed all in black, and a silver cylinder dangled from his belt. Tarrant recognized it from the book Mom and Dad had given him--a lightsaber hilt. Maybe it was true, then. But it looked as though this Jedi business had been hard on the dwirk. His expression was bleak, and dark smudges under his eyes spoke of a parade of sleepless nights.
Tarrant dropped his bag and snagged a chair from the next table. He wedged it between Luke and the princess. "Lemme in here," he commanded.
Luke chuckled. "Tatooine manners."
"Don't knock them, boy. Or have you learned a fancy new set of manners to please your fancy new friends?"
"Assho--" Luke shut his mouth abruptly, his face going red.
"Manners," Tarrant reminded him easily. "Can I have your sandwich?"
Luke slid his plate over. "What brings you to Yavin?"
"You," he replied through a mouthful of an unfamiliar but tasty meat. Guess Jedi didn't have any moral objections to eating animal flesh, unlike some of those old religions.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Princess Leia said on his other side.
"Lieutenant Darklighter sacrificed his life for the cause of the rebellion. He was a hero."
"Yeah, we got the medal," he drawled. "Looks mighty nice hanging on the wall above his empty bed. Helps out a lot on the farm, too."
There was an awkward silence. Luke stared down at the table. Tarrant finished the sandwich and turned to him. "We got a lot to talk about, dwirk."
Things hadn't changed as much as he'd feared--Luke sent him that familiar sullen look. "Like what?" he asked defensively.
Luke was too damn complacent--all these people were. "I want to hear how you killed my brother," he said flatly.
Everyone at the table seemed to draw a sharp breath in unison. Wedge put down his spoon and choked on the thin soup he was eating.
"You're out of line, Darklighter," Han Solo said angrily. "Luke didn't kill nobody."
Tarrant raised one eyebrow. "Really? Let's hear that from Luke. So, you've never killed anyone?"
"He's a soldier, of course he's killed." The princess leaned forward, frowning.
"Oh. I thought you were a saint, not a soldier, Blondie. Can't make up your mind?"
Luke's jaw tightened. "Shut up," he said softly.
He clicked his tongue. "I also heard that Jedi can't get mad," he reminded the youngster. "You'd better hang on to that temper of yours. You might get bit."
Luke's head raised suddenly. He glared at Tarrant, then his lips twitched. "No, thanks. I already have a scar."
He laughed. "Still there?"
"Yeah." Luke colored and fiddled awkwardly with his collar. "Tare and I, we--got in a fight once. We were--what?"
"Sixteen." As if Luke could forget when Biggs left.
"Yeah, sixteen. He didn't fight fair--"
"I fought fair. You were just lousy at it."
"--and he bit me." Luke giggled. "I still have the scar. And he made me tell the infirmary that I got bit by a Tusken Raider--"
"--but we didn't know--" Tarrant interrupted.
"--that Raiders never unwrap!" Luke finished triumphantly. He met Tarrant's eyes and laughed.
Leia's mouth dropped open. Tarrant didn't think his bite caused it--she was staring at Luke with a curious combination of worry and relief on her face. Blondie looked like he didn't laugh much.
"Now," Tarrant began, "about Biggs--"
Luke shot him a terrified glance. He shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."
"I need to hear what happened," Tarrant persisted. "We never heard anything."
"Luke said he doesn't want to talk about it."
Slowly, he leaned around Luke. "Who died and made you Luke's voice?" He fastened his gaze on Luke again.
It was Wedge who answered him. "The three of us were flying down a trench in the Death Star--we were the only ones left. I was hit and had to pull out. Then Vader and his wingmen got Biggs, and he went down. Luke had nothing to do with it."
"Is that right, Luke? You did nothing?" He paraphrased deliberately, knowing how to raise a fierce reaction.
But the blue eyes went soft and unfocused. Luke looked down at the table, his aura unnaturally peaceful. He folded his hands in his lap and didn't respond.
"I think you better back off, fella." Solo again.
Tarrant nodded toward the general. "He your new keeper, brat?" Twin bright shafts of anger and jealousy blinded him momentarily.
Luke's head raised. A faint smile touched his lips. "We take care of each other, Tarrant. And the Force guards all of us."
He was supposed to accept it, but Jedi philosophy still made him uncomfortable. He frowned.
"But you're right," Luke whispered, staring at nothing. "It was my fault. I should have covered him. If I'd known more about the Force--"
"Covered your wingman? From in front of him? How would you do that?"
"I should have found a way."
"Uh-huh." Tarrant leaned back in the chair and folded his arms. "You've spent the last five years telling yourself that you were responsible for Biggs's death. He died a hero--and you want to take that away."
Luke closed his eyes. "What do you mean?" he asked wearily.
"He sacrificed his life for something he believed in--the Rebellion." Tarrant leaned over and laid his fingertips on Luke's arm. He lowered his voice until he was certain no one but Luke could hear him. "Biggs chose his death. He saved the Rebellion and millions of lives--including yours. You should be proud of him. But you can't even say his name. Unless I miss my guess, you've never talked about him, never told anyone how close you were. Are you doing this with everything--keeping it all to yourself?"
Luke shook his head. "I'm a Jedi now," he said, as if his new identity had washed away his old life.
"Talk about Biggs--talk to me, for sith's sake. I loved him, too. And don't pretend you had anything to do with his death. He left you to go to this war, he didn't follow you to it." Biggs had left when he shouldn't have; but he'd been allowed to rectify his mistake. He'd been allowed to die for his Jedi.
Not an example that Tarrant Darklighter cared to follow.
"I'll take care of you," he whispered. "That's why I'm here. But you have to help me, dwirk, because I'm not planning on dying just so you get a second chance at living. Get your feet back on the ground or next time I'll bite something that'll really hurt."
Luke drew away and sat very straight in his seat. He didn't look at anyone, but his face was bright with color.
"Hey," Tarrant said loudly, to cover the sound of the pulse that raced in his ears, "some idiot at the space dock thought I enlisted and tried to assign me to a barracks. I told him I was staying with you. You got a place, right?"
A smile curved Luke's mouth. "I got a place," he agreed.
"We have many rooms available," Princess Leia said. "I'd be happy to arrange for private accommodations for the length of your visit."
"Thanks, but I'm staying with Blondie," he said easily. "We Tatoo-weeners stick together."
Luke laughed, and the sound was an echoing reminder of the past. "'Weeners stick together," he confirmed, his eyes sparkling with some of their old mischief.
Tarrant pushed his back chair and stood. "Then let's go. You can show
me my new abode. It better be good." He glanced around the table. The others
didn't look too happy with him. "Nice meeting you folks," he lied easily.
After Biggs left for the Academy, he didn't see Luke for five days. One cool morning he showed up before school. In Biggs's dirty orange speeder.
Tarrant studied the other boy. The familiar sulky expression was back on his face. "Come on in and have some breakfast."
"Thanks. I'll give you a lift to school if you want."
"Sure." He led the way into the kitchen dome.
Mom looked up. "Good morning, dear. And hello, Luke. Nice to see you again."
Luke blushed, though Tarrant couldn't imagine why. "Good morning, ma'am. Sir," he added when Tarrant's Dad joined them. "I, um, wanted to thank you for letting Biggs let me use his speeder. I told him I'd take good care of it until he gets back."
"I know you will," Mom said. "And if I know my Biggs, by the time he comes home, he'll want the newest model, so I have a feeling that speeder will be yours to keep."
"Unless I want it," Tarrant muttered under his breath.
"Thank you, ma'am." Luke sent him a triumphant look and stuck out his tongue.
"You're such a baby!"
"Tarrant!" his mother exclaimed. She shook her head. "You boys sit down and eat. You, too, Arron."
On the way to the table, he elbowed Luke's ribs. "You are," he mumbled.
"Asshole," Luke whispered.
They grinned at each other.
The temperature had already begun to rise when they took off for Anchorhead. Luke drove too fast, just the way Biggs always had. Tarrant fumbled for his sunshades and settled back in the seat.
"So, did the big romance go out with an even bigger bang?"
For a second he thought he'd made a mistake, because Luke started and lost control of the speeder. It careened wildly before he regained control of it. "You really are an asshole!" Luke shouted angrily.
"Up yours!" He laughed. "Force knows, there's--oof!"
He hit his head on the screen as the speeder came to a jerky halt. The blond youth leaped out and stood in the sand, fists clenched. "You bastard! You don't know what you're talking about! Can you fight as well as you talk?"
"Runt," Tarrant said conversationally as he strolled around the speeder. "Brat. Baby. Am I supposed to believe Biggs liked you just 'cause you're nice? You're a womprat, you're a sandworm, you're a slimy, crawling--"
The shorter boy flew at him, getting in a few good punches before Tarrant easily knocked him over with a sharp cut to the jaw. "Can't even fight, can you, Wormie?" he taunted. "Wormie, Wormie, crawlin' after Biggs, bein' his slave--"
As he expected, Luke scrambled to his feet and came after him again. In total control, he punched the furious boy in the stomach, then clubbed the back of his neck when he doubled over. Tarrant stood over the fallen figure.
"Not used to this, are you? Little Luke Skywalker, who always gets what he wants. What do you want now, boy?" He dropped to the ground and pinned the slight form with his arms.
"Get off me!"
"Still mad, huh?" He laughed and bent his head to nuzzle the exposed throat. Luke squeaked with rage. Grinning, Tarrant closed his teeth.
Tarrant rose to his knees, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. It came away bloody. He spit out something he suspected was a strip of skin. Luke sat up, clutching his shoulder, trying to see the wound, half-crying, half-raging. "What's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Are you crazy? You bit me!"
"Tell me something I don't know." He stood and held out his hand, pulling Luke to his feet. "We're going to be late for school. We'll stop by the dispensary and say you got bit by a Tusken Raider."
"Bit by a-- You're out of your mind! I'm telling! Your father won't--"
"Oh, yeah," Tarrant drawled. "Gonna run to Daddy and cry that I beat you in a fight? You're such a baby!"
"We weren't--it wasn't fair! You cheated!"
"Quit whining. Come on or we'll be late." He got behind the driver's wheel, waited until Luke took the passenger seat, then gunned the engine and floored the accelerator. Luke wasn't the only one who could drive fast!
Luke maintained a stubborn silence until they reached the outskirts of Anchorhead. "Why did you do that?" he finally asked.
"Because I hate you," Tarrant said easily, cutting the motor and gliding to a silent halt next to the small building. "Let's go." He walked around the speeder and waited at the dispensary door.
Luke met him there, dabbing at the bleeding wound with a rag he'd found in the speeder. "You don't hate me."
He met the pale eyes and found an understanding that he hadn't expected
to see. He looked away. "Get inside so they can stitch that up. I hope
they give you a big shot," he added, angry at the conflicting emotions
he felt and the ones he had foolishly displayed. "A huge shot--I hope it
hurts!" he shouted at the retreating figure.
"You're as obnoxious as ever," Luke commented as they walked a long corridor.
"More so, I hope," he replied, eyeing the walls uneasily. They'd taken the lift underground; everything was damp and dark, and he was certain that there were probably alien bugs. He shivered. "How can you live like this? No wonder you look like a ghost."
"It's not like Tatooine, that's for sure." Luke halted at a grey door. "Skywalker," he said into a panel, and the door slid open to reveal a totally black room. "Lights."
Tarrant blinked when the lights came on. He looked curiously around the rooms. They were in the living area. It was tiny and didn't look particularly comfortable. There were no decorations, only a functional sofa and a couple stiff chairs. He peered through the single open doorway and saw a bed, a simple desk with a chair, and a small bureau. "This is it? You must be into the ascetic life."
"Yeah. Come here. Put your hand up and say your name."
He glared at the lit panel next to the entry door and pressed his hand against it. "Tarrant Darklighter," he growled. "And I hate technology. Who else can get in here?"
Luke gave him a strange look. "Han and Leia."
"Luke Skywalker, fleeing felon, becomes companion to princess and her lover/general. I can see the vidlines now."
"Fleeing felon?" Luke repeated.
He shrugged. "Lots of people still think you killed your aunt and uncle and took off to follow Biggs."
"What? It was stormtroopers-- Do people really--"
"Only the stupid ones." Without waiting any longer for an invitation, he walked into the bedroom and tossed his duffel on the bed, then dropped down beside it. "Got room in the dresser for my stuff or can we get another one?"
"Tare...." Luke stood awkwardly in the doorway. "You can't...I mean, you're welcome to stay here until you get settled, but...um, you can't stay with me permanently."
"Afraid I'll cramp your style?"
Color rushed into the pale face. "No, I...well...."
"Force, I'm wiped!" He lay back and crossed his arms under his head. "So, brat, you got a rep as a ladies' man?"
The blush deepened. "A Jedi feels no passion," Luke said in a soft voice, as if he was reciting a lesson.
Tarrant sat up. "You've got to be kidding. Are you really into that whole monk-thing?"
Luke shook his head. He crossed to the small table and pulled out a straightback chair. "Strong emotions lead to the Dark Side."
"The Dark Side? What the hell are you talking about?" he retorted automatically, though he knew, with a sinking feeling in his heart, exactly what Luke meant.
"The Dark Side of the Force," Luke said with unnatural patience. "The Force is behind the existence of everything. The Dark Side encompasses all that is evil and wrong."
"Oh-oh." Tarrant groaned. "You've gone off the deep end. You've gotten religion. Oh, Great One, shall I kneel before you?"
"Please don't make fun of me," Luke said quietly. "I'm a Jedi now. I must live by certain rules."
He snorted. "Who died and made you a Jedi?"
From Luke's expression, he knew immediately that he'd said something wrong. He just didn't know what it was. "Luke?"
The young man blinked several times. "My father," he said flatly. "He died and made me a Jedi."
Tarrant stared. "What do you mean? Your father...he died before you were born. That's what you said."
"That's what I thought." Luke laughed bitterly. "They lied to me, Tare. Everyone lied to me. My father's alive--or he was, until a few weeks ago when he died to save my life."
"So...he was a hero after all?" He didn't understand any of it, but instinctively he sought the words that would ease his charge's pain.
"A hero?" The laughter was sharp-edged, hurting. "Oh, Tare--you don't know. You can't--"
"Come here," he ordered, vaguely surprised when Luke obeyed and settled uneasily. He put his arm around his old nemesis. "Tell me."
The body he held was tense. Luke's muscles tightened as if they protected him from the touch of another human. "I'm Vader's son," he said flatly.
"Vader?" he echoed uncomprehendingly.
"Yeah. Maybe you've heard the name? Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. Palpatine's right hand--that's a private joke! Planet-killer, murderer, pillager, all around good guy. My Dad. Dear old Dad, the navigator. And he had to die so I could be a Jedi."
He opened his mouth to offer a protest, then stopped. Luke wouldn't lie about such a thing. But it seemed impossible. He'd seen Vader on the vid--a huge monster of a man with a voice that could cut through the thickest sandstorm. And Luke was his son? Yet it made sense--and that was the secret his father had kept hidden! Vader was the mysterious Jedi his parents had alluded to! Luke Skywalker, abandoned as a child, disappeared from Tatooine in a cloud of violence and suspicion, then reappeared the a hero who destroyed the Death Star and later brought about the death of Emperor Palpatine--and Darth Vader. Unlikely for a backward Tatooine farmer, but believable for the Jedi son of the Dark Lord of the Sith.
Did that make Luke a Dark Lord, too? He eyed the black clothing uncomfortably.
Tending a Dark Lord would make his own life a lot harder. He was tempted
to give up before he began. But the brat was still his friend. Tarrant
sighed. "Start at the beginning, farmboy, and tell me the whole story."
Suddenly there were dozens of reasons to send him over to the Lars farm. Dad needed a plug for an evaporator repair--no sense in going all the way to Tosche or Anchorhead for it when Tarrant could borrow one from their agreeable neighbors. Mom baked an extra loaf of cardolin bread and sent him to take it to Beru Lars. Then she needed water for a recipe--water, of all things!--and sent him to borrow a canteen-full. He felt funny asking for water. Nobody borrowed water--it was unheard of except in the worst emergency! And baking sure wasn't an emergency. Mom didn't usually use water in her cooking, it was too precious.
But Mrs. Lars didn't blink when he asked for it. She told him to go "play" with Luke while she asked Mr. Lars to retrieve some water from their underground storage tank.
"It won't take too long, will it?" he asked, anxiously eyeing the horizon. The suns were dipping low in the sky. "I have to get back before dark. The Raiders--"
"I know, dear. Don't worry. You run along and see Luke now."
Dear. What was it with older women? Dear. It was humiliating.
Still, he sort of liked the way she patted his cheek. It felt...nice.
He found Luke in the garage, hopping around, sailing a toy T-16 through the air and making engine noises. It took a dive--with appropriate sound effects--and whirled back up into his face. He stepped backwards.
"Oh!" Luke dropped his arm, hiding the T-16 behind him. "Uh...hi."
They both looked away, feet shuffling on the oily floor. "What're you doing here?"
"Uh, my mom sent me to get...somethin' from your aunt."
"Oh." Luke nodded. He bit his lip. He looked around. "Uh...you wanna...."
"What? Play with your toys? Sith, no, I'm not a baby."
"Neither am I!" Luke edged away, and Tarrant heard a telltale thump as the model T-16 met the surface of a table. The huge eyes turned toward him. Luke blinked. "So you wanna...um...uh...."
He shrugged and frantically glanced around for something--anything--to talk about. Saw the speeder's hood propped up. "You got problems with her?"
"Who?" Luke followed his gaze. "Oh, her. Yeah. I mean, not really. Just thought I'd adjust the timing. It runs rough."
"Always did. Me and Biggs spent more time under that hood. Okay if I--?" He made a vague gesture.
"Sure. Go ahead." Luke followed him to the speeder.
They both stared at the engine. "Looks like you've been keeping it up."
"Yeah. Got that new synthetic graybone grease--have you tried it? Slick stuff."
They fell easily into conversation, discussing the newest products, the fastest speeders, their 'hoppers--the next race. Then, just as quickly, the conversation faltered and died.
Tarrant wandered over to the garage door and stared outside. "Sith! It's dark!" Great, now he was stuck here for the night. "Why didn't your aunt call me?"
"Why should she?" Luke snapped. "You've got eyes. You can see when it's getting dark!"
"So can you, big mouth," he replied furiously, not certain why he was angry.
A few minutes passed. "It's almost dinner time," Luke mumbled. "You hungry?"
"Yeah, I'm always hungry." He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Biggs said your aunt's a good cook."
"Yeah." Luke grinned. "C'mon. She's a stickler about washing up first."
"My mom, too. I don't know why they're so fussy about it. It's just good clean dirt." He was gratified when Luke laughed. He followed the runt into the lav. "My mom makes me wash my face before dinner, too."
"Why? It's not like you're eating with your face." Luke stopped and grinned. "Oops."
Tarrant laughed. "Good one, kid. Easy to see why you're the brains in the family."
"Asshole." A fist shot out and tapped him on the arm. "Wanna fight?"
"Oh, you're getting brave all of a sudden? Been taken lessons, brat?"
"What if I have? What if I took lessons just so I could beat you?"
He eyed Luke with curious pride. The blue eyes danced in much the same way as the feet did. A few fake punches were thrown in his direction, and Luke's smile was exuberant. "I think if you've been practicing, I'll stay out of your way."
"Smart," he corrected. "Can we quit the hostilities? I'm starving. I haven't eaten for hours."
"You had a nutribar while we were working on the speeder!" Luke protested.
"Not the same as a meal. What's on for tonight?"
"Let's find out."
He bounded after the shorter boy into the dining dome. Mrs. Lars looked up. "I'm sorry I forgot to call you, Tarrant. I messaged your parents and told them you're staying the night. We'll put a cot in Luke's room."
"Thanks, Mrs. Lars," he answered politely, then hissed under his breath to Luke: "You take the cot--you're smaller."
"What does that--"
"And I'm the guest. Guests always get the best beds."
Luke rolled his eyes upward. "Fine. I wouldn't want to be accused of being a poor host."
They both giggled, then looked at each other with identical expressions of astonishment. Tarrant frowned. "Yeah." He stalked to the table and stared at the chairs. "Which one is your place?"
Wordlessly, Luke pointed to the right. Tarrant pulled out that chair and sat down. He grinned. "Guests should be made to feel at home," he announced, quoting his mother.
"What a charming sentiment, dear," Mrs. Lars said as she placed a large bowl on the table. "After dinner, you can help Luke clean the dishes. That should make you feel right at home."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed, seeing that he'd neatly trapped himself.
Luke whistled an aimless little tune and leaned back in his chair, his gaze fixed upward.
"Creep," Tarrant muttered to him for no reason at all.
A dazzling smile was his only answer. He glared, then raised his
eyes to see what so fascinated Luke. The sight made him grin. He'd have
to remember to tell Mom that Mrs. Lars had painted some more of her dumb
designs on a perfectly good ceiling.
"I'm not hungry," Luke repeated. "I'll just stay here. I have some meditations that I want to--"
"No way." He stood up and pulled the brat to his feet. "From the looks of you, you've been skipping too many meals. Tarrant Darklighter is here to take care of you now."
Luke laughed. "Surely Tarrant Darklighter has other things to do with his life," he said happily. "You've gotten away from the farm. Are you planning on joining the new government or what? Maybe I can help."
He tugged the thick wrap out of his duffel and pulled it over his head. The unending dampness was starting to bother him. "You don't listen too good, ex-Blondie. I meant what I said. I'm here for you."
Luke's gaze wavered. "I don't understand."
"A first for Mr. Know-It-All Jedi."
"You're such a jerk."
"Thank you. Let's go." He grinned. "Besides a jerk, I'm also your friend."
"Brat. Don't 'hah' me. Sometimes you have to take what you can get."
Luke laughed again, bright eyes studying him wickedly. "Pretty pitiful," he observed.
"Uh-huh. And which one of us d'you think all the ladies will flock to?" he teased, elaborately smoothing his moustache.
The smile vanished. "Not me. I can't...that is, I'm not...well, I'm a Jedi and Jedi don't...you know, feel passion."
It was his turn to laugh. "Please! Jedi don't what exactly? Don't like girls? Don't get it on? Don't have the proper equipment? I'd say your very existence makes a lie of that excuse."
Luke half-turned, then whirled back. "My father fell to the Dark!"
"Because of sex? Get real, sunshine."
"I don't know why! So I can't afford to make any mistakes!" The fists slowly unclenched, and Luke's breathing slowed. "Please don't try to anger me. Anger is--"
"Of the Dark, I know. Sith, Luke, you have to live! You can't lock yourself behind this Jedi shield. You're real. You're not a god."
"I know I'm not a god. I just-- Damnit, can we go eat?"
"Yeah." He relented with a smile. Luke's panicked arguments had more holes than a womprat village. It would be fun to enter into this battle, and it would be easy to win.
He followed Luke through the line, adding dishes to the brat's tray. "Eat properly."
"Yes, Auntie," Luke mumbled.
They were stopped at the entrance to the officers' dining room. "Officers only," a uniformed man told them.
Luke stared for a moment, his face going impassive. Then he shrugged and turned away. "Her Highness strikes again," he muttered as they found seats at the empty end of a long table.
"Leia? You mean that was for my benefit? To keep the interloping Darklighter away from their table?"
Luke shrugged. "She's probably all too happy to keep me out, too. I remind her of someone she'd rather forget."
"Your father," he said, not questioning.
"Yeah. Sometimes...." Luke shook his head.
Tarrant cautiously nibbled a mouthful of some creamed vegetable. Fortunately, it didn't taste as bad as it looked. "Well, I can see why she might not want other people to know, but it shouldn't bother her--or you either. What difference does it make what your father did or my father did? None of us are our fathers."
Even when we get stuck inheriting their jobs.
"You don't understand. Your father was normal." Luke lowered his voice. "My father was an enemy of the Alliance. If Command knew the truth, they'd hate me--or worse. After all, my father was a Jedi. The Dark Side of the Force made him what he became. It tempted him. Now I'm a Jedi, and it's tempted me. I've felt its power." He leaned partway across the table. "I could become another Vader."
Tarrant forced the blue eyes to hold his gaze. "And what if you did?" he asked quietly. "From the Imperial point of view, being Vader wasn't a bad thing."
"Tare, he killed! He was evil."
"Grow up, Luke. I'm sure the Imps see you as evil. And you kill, too. Don't tell me that reasons make a difference. Vader had his reasons just like you have yours."
"The Force is used for defense only."
"Says who?" He shrugged. "Yeah, I know, the great Yoho, or whatever his name was. Sith, Luke, Kenobi lied to you. What makes you believe everything this Yoho said? Look," he tapped his fork against Luke's tray, "I'm not saying Yoho was wrong or lied, I'm just saying you should be more cautious and less trusting. Obviously, one thing a Jedi can do is lie. Keep that in mind."
The huge eyes focused intently on him. "Tarrant, if I--"
"Hi. Mind if I join you?" Wedge Antilles waited politely to be invited.
"Sure, Wedge." Luke pulled out the chair next to him. "Are you in self-exile or making a political statement?"
"Political statement," the Corellian said cheerfully. "If they don't want our Jedi and his buddy in their precious dining room, I'm not eating there either."
Tarrant grinned. "I like this guy," he told Luke.
Wedge smiled at both of them. "Yeah, Antilles ain't so bad. So, Tarrant, what are you going to do? You staying with the Alliance?"
"Why does everybody keep asking me that?" he complained.
White teeth flashed as Luke laughed. "It is an army, Tare. And we are fighting a war. It's not like you've gone out of town on vacation."
"Hmm, you have a point." He winked at Wedge. "I'll say it again, I'm here for Blondie...ex-Blondie."
Wedge leaned his chin in his hand. "Now that you're here, what are you going to do with him?"
"You guys!" Luke protested, still laughing.
"Try to lighten him up a little," he said seriously. "Looks like he hasn't been having much fun. And, near as I can tell, no sex. What do you think?"
Luke groaned and bowed his head. "Oh, Force!"
Wedged blushed. "Uh...I don't really know. I've never seen...that is, nobody I know has...I mean, I haven't...uh."
"Gods!" Tarrant said fervently. "I've got my work cut out for me."
Luke pushed back his chair and laid his forehead on the edge of the table. "Stop, stop, stop."
"You love it, sunshine." He flashed a grin at Antilles. "I don't seem to be getting the correct response. You think I'm being too subtle?"
"Anything less subtle, you'd better do in private," Wedge said over Luke's moaned protest.
"I tried that, but he keeps telling me Jedi don't feel passion."
Luke made a choking sound.
"Really?" Wedge looked at his fellow pilot interestedly. "Is that right, Luke? How do they make little Jedi?"
"They use the Force," Tarrant interjected before his friend could speak.
Luke and Wedge both burst into laughter. Seeing Luke's happiness touched him more than he cared to admit. "Brat," he muttered to hide his feelings. Any misgivings he'd felt about following Luke disappeared.
The little dwirk needed him.
"Are you asleep?" Luke whispered.
"No." How could he sleep when he was in the same room with someone who kept turning over, fiddling to untwist the sheets, sighing, fluffing his pillow, knocking his blankets to the floor, and generally behaving as if sand-ants were in his bed?
"No kidding. Don't you ever stay still?"
Luke sighed heavily. "Sorry. Aunt Beru says I've always been a restless sleeper. I think when I get in bed."
"Can't you think quietly?" He turned onto his side to face the speaker, trying to find a soft spot on the lumpy mattress. A pang of guilt twitched at his conscience. "You want the bed? If you can't sleep--"
"No, it's okay. I can't sleep in bed as well as I can't sleep on this cot. I mean...."
"I know what you mean." He rolled onto his back. Maybe this restlessness was contagious. "Are you hungry?"
"No. Are you?"
Luke giggled. The sound was immediately stifled as though he'd clamped his hands over his mouth.
"Biggs looked good when he came home, didn't you think?"
There was a moment's silence. "Yeah. He looked...older."
Something odd was in Luke's tone. Tarrant turned his head and squinted, wishing he could see the brat's expression. "You miss him?" he asked awkwardly.
This time the silence was longer. "Sure," Luke said eventually, unconvincingly.
Tarrant frowned. "You don't miss him?"
"I just said I did."
"Yeah, but you didn't mean it." He considered his next words. "I thought you and Biggs were...." Well, he couldn't say what he really thought, so he settled for: "...best friends."
"Yeah. I guess."
He was becoming used to the silences, so he waited as long as he could, until impatience got the better of him and he prompted: "But?"
Luke sat up and swung his legs off the cot. "I don't know."
"You don't like him! You don't like my brother!"
"Of course I liked him!" Luke said indignantly, then corrected himself: "Like him. He's my...my best friend."
Right back where they started. "If he's your best friend, then why are you awake and sitting there talking about him and not saying anything?"
Luke stared at him, his face a misshapen moon in the darkness. "I don't know."
"Quit saying that. What do you know?"
The dwirk slid to the floor and scooted across the small space that separated them. "I think...I mean...it was never quite right with me and Biggs, know what I mean?"
"How would I know? What do you mean by not right?"
"I don't--sorry. I'm not sure. It just never felt...right."
He stifled a yawn. "What did it feel like?"
"It didn't feel like--I mean, it didn't feel wrong, but--"
"You just said it did."
"No, I said--" Luke's head drooped, blond hair glowing faintly. "It wasn't anything about Biggs. Except that he was...sort of overwhelming. He was more like a...a father than my friend. But I still liked him. I mean...you know."
"You liked him," he echoed sleepily. "So what's the problem?"
"There was always something missing," Luke said softly. "It felt like we were almost...somewhere, but never quite.... I don't know how to explain it, Tare."
Maybe it was the way Luke said his name, but suddenly he did understand. It should've been him and Luke, not Biggs and Luke. But he didn't know why. And he sure couldn't put that realization into words. "I know. Sort of."
The head rested on the mattress near his shoulder. "Okay," Luke said quietly. "Just so you know." And promptly fell asleep.
Tarrant lifted his own head and stared. Terrific. The brat was asleep sitting up, and now he was wide awake! Whoever was in charge of the universe was torturing him. Now he wouldn't be able to roll over without hitting the brat with his elbow or--
He stared at the offending head. An incredible feeling welled inside him. He had trouble identifying it, then was revolted when he realized it was possessiveness. How could he care anything about this runt, this brat, this snotty little boy--
How could he not?
It was simpler not to figure it out. He scooted to the far side of the bed and wedged his back against the wall. He watched for a moment. His last waking thought was that Luke's head would fall off the bed in the night and wake them up. Maybe the brat would get a concussion.
Unthinkingly, he wound a handful of blond hair through his fingers
until he had a secure hold. Keeping Luke safe in the night.
The next morning Tarrant was left alone while Luke went to some military briefing. Wasn't the damn war over? He wondered if it would be best to remove the brat from this war. Do his Protector-thing, take him somewhere safe, and let Luke practice his Jedi-osity to his heart's content, away from danger.
With the low-level clearance badge Luke had gotten him clipped to his collar, he explored the base. It took awhile to find his way outdoors; the huge building was an underground labyrinth of corridors that twisted and turned. When he was finally outside, the humidity struck him like a blow.
The air was damp, oppressively heavy in his lungs. There were few people out in the morning sun, but he lifted his face to it and longed for the dry warmth of Tatooine. He stood before the wide entry of the pyramid-shaped structure and hesitated to go farther. Jungles of plants encroached on the building. There were probably diseases lurking in that forest, and a boy from a desert planet would have no immunity against such things. He wondered if Luke had ever gotten sick--or couldn't Jedi become ill? He'd have to look it up in the book.
He turned quickly. It was General Solo. Did the man always wear a frown or was it specifically aimed at him? "Solo," he said with forced politeness, nodding to the sturdily-built man. This was a type of man his father had warned him about--the kind that made their living with their fists.
Solo gave him an answering nod and stood beside him, hands thrust into his back pockets, staring into the jungle. "Pretty wild out there."
Small talk. Tarrant stifled a sigh of resignation. "Yeah. You been here long?"
"The Alliance has used Yavin as a base on and off. Been flying out of here for a couple months now." Solo's gaze was unreadable. "What have you been doing the last few years?"
Tarrant sensed the unspoken criticism. "I've been minding the farm and my own business," he said flatly. "My folks figured that sacrificing one out of two sons was enough."
"The war's not over," Solo reminded him.
"We lured some cousins to the farm," he answered with a grin, "so I got sprung."
"And you came directly here?"
He met the brown eyes. "Why don't you ask what you want to know and stop dancing around?"
"All right, I will." Solo leaned toward him, brows drawn together. "What are you doing here? What do you really want with Luke?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to blurt out the truth, but he owed it to Luke to tell him first. "Five years ago, we found his aunt and uncle burned to death and Luke gone. No one back home has heard from him, other than rumors, so here I am--as his friend. And from the looks of things, he damn well needs one. You people treat him like he's made of glass."
"He's been through a lot," Solo said defensively.
"I know. He told me." Hopefully that would put Solo in his place.
"Yeah, well...we're friends."
"Good," Tarrant replied, though he wondered at the strange remark.
"Yeah." Solo stared out at the thick vegetation again. "Don't go out there. You haven't had your immuno injections yet."
Shots. He felt queasy. Maybe he could stay indoors while he was here. "Thanks."
"You were pretty hard on him yesterday in the canteen."
Sith, the guy sounded like Biggs! "He didn't complain."
"So I shouldn't?" An edge of anger rippled in the tightly controlled voice. "Luke doesn't complain. About anything."
He rolled his eyes. "That's a switch! All he did back home was whine. About everything."
"Maybe he's changed more than you realize."
What the hell was that supposed to mean? He didn't like the idea of Luke changing without his help. "Maybe," he answered vaguely. "But let me tell you this. I really don't care what your opinion is of me, Solo. The only one who might care is Luke. If you and her high-and-mightiness want to treat me like sith, it'll be Luke you're hurting, not me. Think about it."
Tarrant turned abruptly and reentered the cavernous building. To hell with that idiot. No wonder Luke had greeted him with such delight--he'd been stuck here with an uncouth moron for a friend. Muttering to himself, he stormed back to their small quarters.
"Where've you been?" Luke exclaimed as Tarrant marched into the room. "I've been looking all over for you."
"I wasn't aware that I had to report my movements to you," he said icily.
The blue gaze was startled. "You don't," Luke replied quietly. "What's wrong?"
There was no accusation in the tone, no hurt feelings to make him feel guilty. But, naturally, Tarrant felt guilty anyway. "Sorry, it's not you I'm angry with. Your asshole friend Solo tried to cross-examine me. He wants to know my intentions." He grinned. "So I asked for your hand."
"You didn't!" For a moment, Luke's face reflected horror, then he began to laugh.
"Bastard," Luke said pleasantly. His smile disappeared. "Did Han give you a hard time?"
He shrugged. "Not really. It just hit me wrong is all."
"Han and I have been through some rough times together. He wants to make sure you're okay. You were a bit aggressive when you met him, you know." Luke's eyes sparkled. "'Who died and made you Luke's voice'--remember?"
"Yeah, well." Tarrant cleared his throat. "I was looking around outside," he said, belatedly remembering Luke's original query.
"No! You didn't go into the jungle, did you?"
He shook his head. "Looked too creepy for this desert boy. Then Solo said something about immuno...shots." His voice trailed off, and he ducked his head.
A hand touched his arm. "Big shots," Luke whispered. "You won't be able to sit for days."
"In the butt?" he exclaimed in horror.
"Don't worry, I'll be with you," Luke assured him condescendingly.
"You'll probably tell them to poke harder," he grumbled. "Do I have to?"
"Believe me, the alternative's worse. Fever, night sweats, aches and pains--"
"Okay, okay, I'll do it. Tomorrow."
Luke glanced at the chron on his wrist. "I made an appointment for you before lunch. In fact, we could go right now."
"What's the rush?"
"I just want to be certain you're protected."
He glared suspiciously at his companion. "You're being too nice. What's up?"
"I'm a Jedi. We're nice. Come along, Tarrant." Luke grabbed his elbow and steered him into the corridor. "I hope you don't faint."
"Faint?" Passing crewmen glanced his way, and he lowered his voice. "I've never fainted in my life. A little shot isn't going to make me faint!"
"A big shot," Luke corrected mildly. "And I'm sure you'll do just fine."
He ground his teeth together. If Skywalker didn't knock off the solicitous friend routine--
There were several people already waiting in the medcenter, but Luke marched right up to the desk. "My friend arrived a few days ago and hasn't had his immunos yet."
A grey-suited woman glared at both of them. "Come with me," she directed Tarrant. "Have you been outside yet?"
"Just, uh, just by the door," he answered feebly.
She frowned. "Uh-huh," she said disbelievingly. "I'd better give you a booster too."
"Booster?" he echoed, looking at Luke.
The Jedi shrugged. "Sorry. I should have thought to bring you here the first day. Now I'm afraid.... Well, don't worry, you'll be fine."
Whenever someone said not to worry, it meant he should worry a lot. But he refused to appear weak in front of Luke. In the exam room, he braced his hips against the table and unfastened his pants, lowering them until his buttocks were exposed. He gritted his teeth and forced a smile for Luke's benefit.
The medtech turned toward him. "What the hell are you doing?" she demanded. "Pull up those drawers, soldier!"
His face burned as he hastily tugged his pants back up and fumbled with the fastener. "Sorry. I thought--"
"I know what you thought and I'll have none of that in my exam room! Roll up your sleeve."
He pushed up the fabric and held it while he scowled at Luke. His friend shrugged apologetically.
"There, what?" Tarrant looked at the woman.
"There, you're done. Get out of here. I have sick people to care for."
He looked down at his arm, then at the hypo she was throwing into a trash receptacle. "An air hypo," he breathed.
"What did you expect--needles?" She laughed and left the room, shaking her head. "Farm kids!"
As soon as they were alone, Luke burst into laughter. He slumped against the wall, wrapping his arms around his waist. "You should have seen your face!"
"You sonuvasith!" Tarrant growled, advancing across the room. "You set me up! You bastard! There are no needles and you knew it--you set me up!"
Luke backed into a corner, holding up his hands in a feeble attempt to protect himself. "'I hope they use a big needle'," he mimicked. "Remember that?"
"Do you remember everything?" he complained. He waved his fist
threateningly. "You're going to pay for this, farmboy. You're going to
suffer--you're going to wish I'd killed you!"
A year later, Biggs was back. Not for long, just for a brief leave before his first assignment on the Baybren. Tarrant had watched him at home, privately amused--and a little annoyed--by the way Biggs visited politely with their parents while chafing to be gone. To search out his little friend. He waited until Dad finished his long story about the new evaporator and how many trips back to the dealer it needed until it ran properly, then took pity on his brother.
"Want to run into Anchorhead with me and visit the guys? They hooked up a new vid game in the back room of Tosche Station. Everybody hangs out there."
"Sure. If you don't mind, Mom?" Biggs looked at his mother.
Tarrant hid his smile. Even if Mom minded, it wouldn't make a difference. One way or another, her idol-son was flying to his little acolyte. But he'd find things changed. Luke was his friend now--Biggs was in for a surprise.
"Go ahead, dear. But you two be back before dark."
They trooped out to the garage. "Can I drive? I haven't been piloting anything but spaceships."
"Remember how?" Tarrant asked. "I don't want you cracking up my speeder. And before you ask--no, you can't borrow my speeder and leave me stranded. If your honey isn't there with your speeder, you're out of luck."
"Don't call him that." Biggs rolled his eyes. "Were you always such a pain in the ass?"
"Yep," he said cheerily. "And I've gotten worse since you've been gone. No one to inhibit me."
"I'm glad I'm not staying long."
The remark was meant as a joke, but they both became quiet. They were halfway to town before he slid a sideways glance at his brother. "So...you're going to be a merchant shipper? I thought maybe you'd sign up with the Navy."
Biggs returned his look. "Stop a minute," he said finally.
He killed the speeder's engine. The silence was overwhelming. No animal noises, no voices, no motors--nothing broke the stillness.
"When the time is right, I'm going to jump ship," Biggs said quietly. "I have a buddy who's going, too."
Tarrant studied the emptiness of the desert as if it might give him answers. "You'll be shot if they catch you."
"I'm joining the rebellion."
He had no words. He turned in his seat and looked at his brother. "Oh."
Biggs laughed, white teeth a sharp contrast to the dark moustache. "Let's go."
They set out again. "Will you be able to message us?" Someday he would have a great moustache like that instead of the scraggly one he was growing now. Then he and his brother would look--
White fear speared through him, and he didn't understand its source.
"I don't know. Depends. I heard the rebel forces move around a lot. It'll probably take me awhile to find them. I'll try."
When they pulled up to Tosche Station, a cursory look told him that the orange speeder was nowhere to be seen. Beside him, Biggs slumped in his seat.
"Don't worry, Blondie'll be along. He always hangs out with these dwirks."
Biggs smiled at the word they hadn't used in years. "How is he?"
That was a loaded question. "Same as always. A brat. Sulky. Pouting. Given to great exaggerations and wild stories. The only thing he's good for is womprat bait.
Biggs jumped out of the speeder. "You're not funny."
"And you've lost your sense of humor!"
"Screw Blondie--everybody else does!"
Biggs stared at him, the anger leaving his face. "Tarrant, I know you don't like him, but that isn't funny. He gets teased enough just because he's different from the rest of those idiots. He doesn't need that label, too."
He shifted uncomfortably and stared down the empty street. "It was a joke."
"Not a funny one." In the harsh light of the afternoon, Biggs's face looked gaunt and haunted. "Thanks for driving me here."
"Yeah." Stubbornly, he fixed his gaze on the hood of the speeder.
"Tare-- Damnit." There was no anger in the word. "Keep an eye on Luke, will you? Take care of Mom and Dad, too."
"Who's going to take care of me?" he asked, only half jesting.
Biggs hesitated and shot him an odd look. "If I don't come back--"
"You'll come back." He hadn't expected his voice to shake; it horrified him.
"If I don't," Biggs repeated firmly, "get off this rock. Don't waste your life here. And, Tare?--take Luke with you. He's special. He's made for something more."
It wasn't in his heart to make a joking reply. Tarrant nodded, and watched his brother disappear into the darkness of the station without further farewell. And without an invitation to join them.
Just like the old days.
This time, he couldn't find it in his heart to be angry.
"We're going to have a party."
From where he sat slumped cross-legged on the floor, Luke looked up, first wearily, then with a hint of alarm. "What?"
"A 'Weener party." Tarrant gestured in the air. "A party for 'Weeners away from home--and everybody else. I brought 'Weener music with me. There's not enough space here, though. Think we can get one of the rec rooms?"
"We can't have a party." Luke unfolded his legs and stood slowly, blinking. "Why do you always come up with ideas while I'm meditating?"
"Maybe your meditating has some cerebral influence on me. I get my best ideas then." He grinned. "Of course we can have a party. Why not? Is there some Alliance rule against celebrations?"
"Nobody would come!" Luke snapped. He stalked to the other side of the small room like a caged animal.
"Why wouldn't anybody come?" He'd never thought he'd again see that familiar, childish pout on Luke's mouth, but there it was. Instead of annoying him the way it used to, he had the sudden desire to smile.
"Nobody likes me," Luke said sulkily.
Tarrant laughed softly. "I'm not surprised."
"What's that supposed to mean?" For a supposedly peace-filled Jedi, Skywalker had a ready temper. He sure as sith needed a Protector.
"It means you're not much fun to be around. You're morose and gloomy, you dress in black as though you're in perpetual mourning," Tarrant pointed out. "You hardly ever smile at anyone but me--which makes me suspect that before I came, you never smiled at all."
Luke turned away and leaned his forehead against the wall. His posture suggested a yearning for a window, for freedom, for flight. Tarrant sighed. "You have to lighten up, dwirk. You're too young to be acting like an old man, carrying the weight of the galaxy on those little--though slightly muscled--shoulders."
The brown head turned toward him and Luke's lips twitched. He shook his head. "You.... I never know whether to get mad at you or--or--"
"Worship me?" he suggested with a leer.
"You're incorrigible." Luke sank onto the floor. "I'm serious, though. I'm rotten at making friends. When I joined the Alliance, Leia told everybody I was a Jedi--or going to be one. People looked at me...strangely. They still do." He studied his entwined fingers. "From what I've heard, Jedi weren't...they weren't what I thought they were. During the years before the Purge, their reputation declined. They were considered undependable and power-hungry. I have no way of knowing if that's true or if it's just the result of Imperial propaganda--but it's affected how people treat me."
"And how you feel about yourself?" Tarrant suggested softly.
"Yes. I don't feel proud. I don't exactly feel ashamed, but...I don't know what to feel. All the personal records of the Jedi are gone, and historical data doesn't reflect what I need to know. There are no Jedi left, Tare. Just me. And I'm no Jedi, no matter what Yoda said. I don't know how to do very much, I'm not smart, I wish--" Luke shook his head. "I don't know."
Tarrant swallowed. Even in profile, Luke's face reflected his grief. "What do you wish?"
"Nothing," he said glumly.
He joined his friend on the floor. "What do you wish, Luke? You've had so many changes, lost so many people--what do you wish? One thing. What is it?"
Tension radiated from every muscle in the stiff body. Luke's head swiveled and the pain in the pale eyes pierced him like knives. "I wish my father was alive!" he hissed. "I wish he wasn't dead. I wish I'd gone with him when he called for me. I could have saved him, we could be together, he would have taught me everything, he would have told me the old stories-- He would have loved me." The face hardened until it was nearly unrecognizable. "I wish Darth Vader was alive! Does that answer your question? And what I wish would make me damned by everyone in this Alliance." Luke leaped to his feet and stalked into the bedroom.
Tarrant followed. "You don't wish Vader alive--you wish your father alive. There's a big difference, Luke."
"Vader is my father! There is no difference."
"There is." He hesitated, unsure of his words. "Vader was the dark image, the military machine, the Emperor's tool. Your father was the man behind that image. You never knew that man, Luke, you were cheated. Nothing can replace that unless he's left something behind."
"Left something behind?" Luke echoed curiously. "Like what?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Did he have a home, an estate? Papers, a will? A diary? A man like that, a man who accomplished so much, who rose so high--he didn't do it anonymously. There must be a track, a journal, something for you to follow and learn." He wondered if he was doing the right thing, planting such an idea in Luke's mind. Vader wouldn't be a great example for Skywalker to follow, yet it was his right. And it would give Luke a purpose and an identity.
The side benefit would be to get Luke away from this Alliance and these people who were so critical of him, who expected so much. "If you want to look, I'll help you," he offered. "Did I tell you I got my own research 'puter--at home, I mean. I've gotten good at tracking through bureaucratic twists and turns. And even better at being sneaky. I got in all sorts of files I shouldn't have seen--and they never identified me."
Luke was staring past his shoulder. A tiny smile grew on his face and he refocused his gaze on Tarrant. "Ben won't like that." The smile widened. "But I think it's a terrific idea."
He watched in fascination as something akin to radiance appeared on the pale face.
"I could get out of here--we could! We could find out about my father--" Luke hesitated. "But Leia depends on me. I can't walk out and--"
"Leia can depend on Han," he replied gently, though from what he'd seen, Leia didn't depend on anyone and certainly not on Luke. "You've put your life on hold for five years. You're entitled to a break and to find what you need."
Luke looked down at him. "Will you come with me, Tarrant Darklighter?" he asked formally.
"You know I will. I always wanted a life of adventure and excitement."
Welcome color tinted Luke's cheeks as he laughed. "Tell me about the 'Weener party. You really brought music?"
"Mm-hmm. Good old down-home 'Weener music, the kind you haven't heard in years. I'll bet you've forgotten what it sounds like."
"I haven't forgotten anything," Luke whispered, and his gaze grew dreamy.
"Wanna work on the speeders?" He had to raise his voice to be heard over the music that blasted from the speaker near his head.
"Nah. Done it."
Tarrant yawned and leaned his head against the evaporator, hiding in the little bit of shade it offered. "Wanna go into Tosche?"
"Um...nah. Been there."
He opened one eye and looked at his companion. How could anyone fall almost asleep in this heat? Gods, he hated Third Season! It was miserable from sunsup to sunsdown. Hot. His skin felt dry. Pieces of it flaked off when he undressed at night. Even now he felt uncomfortable. And bored.
But Luke was sprawled on his stomach in the sun, the floppy hat perched on the back of his head, appearing to be totally relaxed.
"Don't you get dust in your mouth?"
"Nah. I keep it closed."
"That's a switch. It's usually hanging open."
"Wanna go into Anchorhead? They put a new cooler in Arastin's cantina. I heard it works real good. There's that vid gamehall, too."
"Nah. Been there. Done that."
He looked around the courtyard. Mom and Dad were nowhere in sight--they weren't stupid, they were hiding indoors. Not like some dummies he knew. "Wanna go inside? We could play Imperial Victory on the 'puter."
"Nah. Been there. Done that."
His patience snapped, and he sat up. "Well, what DO you want to do, Skywalker?"
The head turned on its arm-pillow. One eye opened and squinted at him. "Just keep listenin'. Like we're doing now."
"Boring," he pronounced succinctly. He leaned back against the machine and closed his eyes, thoroughly disgusted. Unimaginative brat! Why'd he pick the dwirk for a friend anyway?
He must have slept. When he opened his eyes and stared at the dingidin dragon perched on his chest, he noted absently that the evaporator's shadow was slanted differently and the music had stopped. The dingidin's brilliant green eyes watched him curiously. The huge lids blinked once, but the gaze remained fastened on his face. He swallowed.
Nearby he heard Luke's soft snoring. He wanted to call out, but knew the dragon would react violently. With its long claws and sharp teeth, it could tear into his chest and grab his heart before he could finish a scream for help. He tried to keep calm, but his breathing was increasing; it was only a matter of time before his respirations jolted the dingidin out of its fascinated trance.
As he'd been taught in survival school, he held its gaze. Dingidins hypnotized themselves--and their victims--until their prey was totally helpless. Tarrant hoped he didn't look helpless yet. He concentrated on Luke. If only the kid would wake up--HEY, BLONDIE! he screamed in the void of his mind. Damn you, wake up!
With a snorting noise, the dingidin's chest puffed slightly, a sign that it was readying for attack. Tarrant didn't break his stare. To show weakness, to lower one's gaze, to look away--that was what it waited for. The sign that its intended victim was weakening.
The dingidin's head turned. From the corner of one eye, Tarrant could see Luke moving into a sitting position, assessing the danger. Don't go after Luke, he told the dragon. You've got one of us--don't go for him, too.
How the hell had a dingidin gotten in the courtyard? Mom would have a fit. Good thing Dad wasn't here or he'd whip out his blaster--and probably blow his son straight to hell along with the dragon.
Sith! His heart raced frantically. Luke had pulled out his blaster--was the brat psychic?--and Tarrant wanted to shriek Don't shoot.
"Don't move," Luke warned him quietly.
The dingidin looked at Luke again. With its attention distracted, Tarrant was able to let his eyes stray to his friend. The hand that held the blaster was steady. He was torn between begging Luke not to shoot--and to tell him to kill the damned monster, even if he died with it!
Luke was staring into the thing's eyes. In a flash of understanding, he knew what Skywalker was doing. Luring it away, tempting it with another promise of human food.
Maybe it would think Luke looked tastier than he did.
He heard a soft moan--his mother. Fine time for everyone to show up. Why hadn't they been here sooner? A muffled curse from his father--and something from his mother that sounded like...no, let Luke do it.
Let Luke do what? He wasn't doing a damn thing except staring at the dingidin like it was going to--
Get off his chest.
He exhaled as the weight was released, but still didn't dare to move. The dragon walked toward Luke, its rear end sashaying better than Camie's did, the heavy tail leaving a familiar mark in the hard-packed sand. Tarrant sat up slowly, reaching for his own blaster. If that thing went for Luke--
The dingidin looked at Luke for a very long time--minutes, probably. Then, suddenly, it turned and ran across the courtyard, compressing its body and scooting through a small hole that their syrrit had dug last night. A hole he was supposed to have repaired today.
He tried to rise, but his legs were shaking. Luke knelt beside him. "You okay?"
He nodded. Then his parents were there, his mother hugging him in that way he both loved and hated because it was embarrassing, his father yelling at him for being careless and not doing his chores, his mother yelling at his father for yelling at him--
And looking beyond the chaos of his family, he saw Luke smiling at him. He smiled back.
Best friend, Tarrant thought, shuddering at the sudden influx of emotions.
Best friend. He stared at Luke's profile. Self-centered, yes. Arrogant,
maybe. Confused, definitely. But still his best friend. It had taken him
so many years to concede that simple fact. And it had taken his parents
even longer. They hadn't realized it until that awful day in Fifth Season,
the day his universe began to change.
Biggs came home only once more, before his transfer to the Rand Ecliptic. The time was nearly right, he told Tarrant, to join the Rebel Alliance. Once again, Tarrant had felt a twist of pain in his stomach. For a moment, Biggs had looked unreal, like a spirit, and he wondered if it was a premonition.
After Biggs left, he'd gone straight to Luke. In the heat of the afternoon, in the oppressive stuffiness of the old garage, he hopped up to sit on the hood of Biggs's dirty orange speeder.
"He's going to die," Tarrant had said flatly.
Luke hadn't looked at him. The rag he held twisted in his hands. "I know."
And that was all either of them had said. After a few minutes, Luke had come to sit beside him, and they'd remained that way until he had to return home.
Why was he thinking about that now? That was yesterday, today was today, and he was supposed to be completing his university application.
But all he could think about was Luke and Biggs. And this incredibly uneasy, restless feeling that distracted him from all his other chores.
His stomach rumbled, but he wasn't hungry. His head ached, but no medication eased the pain. He was angry, on edge--but for no reason. He just couldn't stop thinking about Luke.
Finally, he pushed aside the datapad and went into the living dome. Mom was in the kitchen, beginning preparations for the evening meal, and Dad was at the desk, calculating the current profits.
Tarrant wandered around the room, brushing his fingers against the furniture, searching for comfort in its solidity. He wrapped his arms around his ribs, trying in vain to slow the rapid tripping of his heart.
"Dad?" he asked eventually.
Something in his voice must have alarmed both his parents. His mother came out from the kitchen.
"What's wrong, dear?"
Arron Darklighter stood. "Tarrant?" He put one arm around his wife.
They were afraid, Tarrant realized suddenly, but why? Surely it wasn't fear of him. Then, quite suddenly, he was afraid, too. Terrified. He said the first thing that popped into his mind:
"Can we go over to the Lars place?"
His voice was too high-pitched, and the question echoed in the silent house. In the kitchen, the soft whir of the processor served as no distraction.
"What's wrong? Is it Luke?"
It didn't strike him then that his father's question was odd. Tarrant shrugged. "I don't...know. But, Dad...? I'm scared. Please, we have to get over there right--"
"I'm coming, too," his mother interrupted, ripping off her apron and running into the kitchen. The processor was silenced, and she returned, armed with one of the household blasters.
Tarrant stared. His father grabbed two laser rifles from their cabinet and handed them both to him. As though in a dream, he accepted them without question and followed his parents to the speeder.
Dad ignored all the rules about speed and safety, flooring the vehicle's accelerator until the passing landscape was only a blur. In the back, Tarrant clung to the seat and secured the rifles with his legs. They'd never covered the distance faster.
He saw the smoke before he saw the Lars homestead.
Tarrant leaped from the speeder, not waiting until it came to a full halt, ignoring his father's shouted warning. Black smoke billowed from the courtyard entry door. On the sand, tossed among the smoking wreckage of household furniture, lay two strange shapes. He came to a halt several meters from them and stared, trying to understand.
They looked like bones. Bones that still had strips of cooked meat hanging from them. But what kind of animals--
Understanding lashed across his mind. He turned away and retched violently. Felt his father's arms circle him, offering comfort.
His mother strode past them. "Too big for Luke," she called after a moment. "Must be Owen and Beru."
Like a child, he hid his face against his father's shoulder. "Where's Luke?" he whispered helplessly. His head raised. "Where's Luke?" he demanded in a louder voice.
He pulled free of the embrace and ran for the entry, coughing as he inhaled the thick smoke. He covered his mouth and nose with his arms, ran down the stairs and plunged into the courtyard. The vaporators were smashed, a few pieces of furniture were in flames. But Luke wasn't there.
"Luke!" he screamed. He spun in a circle. There was no answer, and he began to search the rooms. This wasn't the work of Sand People! They carted away the spoils, they didn't destroy everything they found. Who could have done this?
His parents worked silently at his side, helping to overturn furniture and peer through the ruins of the home. Luke's room was wrecked, the contents of the garage smashed. He found the little T-16 that Luke had treasured over the years; its upper wing was broken and hanging. Gently, he picked it up. Maybe it could be repaired.
Eventually he stood in the center of the courtyard, exhausted. There was no trace of Luke, nothing, no corpse, no blood--nothing. He turned around and saw his parents staring at him.
"What?" He bit out the word.
Atypical uncertainty was reflected in his mother's dark eyes. She shook her head and exchanged a puzzled look with her husband. "Nothing, Tarrant." She shook her head again. "We'd best be getting back home. Whoever did this is still at large. We need to warn the other settlers."
What about Luke? he cried silently. Was he to be abandoned to some awful fate? Would no one search for him? Tarrant closed his eyes and forced himself to relax. His emotions calmed, his senses drifted.
Luke was safe. He didn't know how he knew, but he felt the truth of that knowledge.
Somewhere, Luke was safe and waiting for him.
I'll find you, he vowed silently.
I'll find you.
Tarrant sighed. It was time to tell Luke, to make the necessary explanation and hope the young Jedi would accept it--and him. "I brought other stuff besides music. I brought a book."
Luke tilted his head. "What kind of book?" he asked sharply, caught by the odd note in Tarrant's voice.
He stared at Luke for a moment, uncertain how to begin. Then he decided
to start at the beginning.
"Your mother and I need to talk with you, Tarrant."
He eyed his father steadily, though he dreaded what would be said. Since Biggs died, more and more of the responsibility for the farm rested on his shoulders. His dream of getting off Tatooine--if only for a short while--seemed to be shrinking into nothingness. "About the farm," he said dully. Then he squared his shoulders and folded his arms on the top of the kitchen table. The farm would be his full responsibility some day; he couldn't deny it.
"No, dear." His mother laid her hand on his forearm. "It's about Luke."
He couldn't control his reaction. "He's dead?" he cried out in dismay. First Biggs, now Luke? Biggs's death broke his heart, but Luke--not Luke, too! Fingers dug into his arm, and he looked up.
"He's not dead, Tarrant. I'm sorry I frightened you." She studied his face. "It isn't that at all."
"You've heard the talk that Luke may be a Jedi," his father said, making the statement into a question.
The big hands laid an ancient, leather-bound book on the table. "He is. Years ago, before the Emperor's Purge, there was a Jedi enclave on Tatooine."
"A...gathering, a clan, a tribe. Skywalkers have always been Jedi, son." Arron glanced at his wife. "And Darklighters have always served them as Protectors. It is why we live on this planet. And why Luke was brought here."
He shook his head. "I don't understand."
"It's your duty to serve Luke," his mother said quietly. "You are both of the same generation. Biggs...helped for awhile, but now Luke is your responsibility."
"Serve Luke?" he exclaimed, liking that word not at all. "What the sith does that mean? What's a Protector? How come it's my responsibility? No way! That brat isn't--"
"Enough!" his father said in the commanding tone that he rarely used. "You must follow tradition. Luke is the last Jedi, and you are the last Protector. If you fail in your duty, Jedi will never return to the galaxy. We have never heard the details of how Biggs died, but we know that he sacrificed his life to Protect Luke."
"Did Biggs know about this?" Tarrant asked incredulously. "For how long?"
"We told Biggs when he first applied the Academy. Once you were old enough to assist in Protecting Luke, we could allow him to leave, but not before then."
He had a million questions--but he couldn't think of one. He shook his head.
"We thought Biggs was Luke's true Protector and that we would have you safely at home." His mother smiled sadly. "I'm sorry, dear. We shouldn't have encouraged Biggs's friendship with him to the exclusion of you."
"Biggs died five years ago!" Tarrant exclaimed, feeling a rush of anger flood him. "Why do I have to Protect Luke now? Who's been doing it for the last five years?"
His parents exchanged a troubled look. "I don't know," his father answered heavily. His eyes were clouded with something Tarrant didn't understand. "Someone has Protected him. I would say another Jedi--but that's impossible. The only one who's left-- And he...wouldn't. Well, whoever was Protecting him is no longer. So you must go to him."
His life was suddenly without stability. All he could think to say was: "But the farm! Who --"
"Awain and Rislen are coming from Bestine. They will live here and help with the harvest."
"Do they know, too?" he asked indignantly. "Did everybody know except me?"
"They are Darklighters," his father said evenly. "They will understand."
Tarrant folded his arms across his chest. "I have a lot of questions."
His father smiled faintly and slid the heavy book over to him. "You'll
have many more after you've read this."
Luke was sitting up, staring at him, mouth hanging open. "I.... Tare...."
"That was pretty much my reaction, too."
"This is weird." Luke hands curled into fists. Suddenly his eyes lit up. "My father was Protecting me!" he whispered, excitement flaring in his voice. "He Protected me!"
His pride deflated like a punctured balloon. "Terrific," Tarrant muttered. "I'm giving up my whole life to babysit you and all you care about is some asshole father who was never around."
Luke glared at him. "I thought you understood," he blurted accusingly. "Do you think I can just erase him from my mind? Do you think that because he turned to the Dark, he doesn't deserve my...my caring about him?"
"Love. You can say it." He met the furious gaze and smiled slightly. "Temper, temper, Jedi. And, no, I'm not saying you should forget about him. Far from it--I think you can still learn from him. All I'm saying is that you have to live in the here and now. He's dead. I'm not."
"Yet." Luke stood and stalked across the room, stopping to stare at the wall as if a window had suddenly opened up to reveal Yavin's most picturesque scene.
"Go away." There was no anger in the voice, just ragged, raw mourning.
Tarrant blinked and ignored the command, following his Jedi. "I'm sorry you're hurt," he told Luke's rigid back. "I'm your Protector, but there are some things I can't Protect you from." Cautiously, he brought his hand to rest on one shoulder.
"I'm sorry, too," Luke said softly, his words heavy with effort. "Tare, you don't have to Protect me--whatever the hell that means. Get on with your life. Do what you want to do."
"I want to stay here. I want to do this, Luke. I have to do this."
There came a bitter laugh. "You don't want to be with me. I'll kill you like I did your brother. I've ruined everything I've touched. Even my parents didn't want me. They should have--"
He was jolted when despair cut off the declaration. They should have what? What had Luke been going to say? Did he wish he'd been aborted, killed as an infant, never conceived? With sick certainty, he knew that, without him, Luke would implode from the tension within him. Whatever Biggs had given the brat, it hadn't been enough.
Because Protecting Luke hadn't been Biggs's job, it had been Tarrant's. His parents had been wrong, and they'd all paid for that mistake.
"They loved you. Both of them sacrificed for you--your mother gave you up so you'd be safe and your father died so you would live. They knew your worth, Luke, and so do I. I'm your Protector and you're my Jedi. We're stuck with each other."
Luke turned, and eyes the color of Yavin rain focused on him. "Oh, sith," Luke moaned. "What a fate!"
"You brat!" He punched Luke's shoulder and stomped away. "I was trying to be serious!"
"Try harder." Luke grinned. "I wanna see the book!"
"I want to eat."
"You always want to eat. Give me the book."
"Fine! You can have the damn book--but you can't read it without me. It's my book."
"Just hand it over." Luke folded his arms. "There must be something in this Protecting business that says you have to obey me."
"In your dreams, Skywalker."
They glowered at each other for a few seconds, then burst into laughter. "What exactly is it--" Luke gasped between chuckles, "--that you're supposed to do?"
"Huh?" He leaned his back against the wall and slid down until he was on the floor. "What d'you mean?"
"To Protect me." Luke sat opposite him, cross-legged, pulling his feet onto his thighs in what looked like a very uncomfortable position. "I'm great with the lightsaber, terrific with, um, leaping out of harm's way--just how are you going to Protect me?"
"A Protector's job is psychological," he said loftily. "I battle your more difficult enemies."
"Such as...a big ego," he replied mischievously.
"A big--!" Luke's eyes widened. "I do not have a big ego! I'll bet it doesn't say that in the book!"
"You do and it does. Actually, it says 'an over-inflated sense of self and purpose'. I memorized that bit. When I read it, I recognized you right away."
"You are such a brat!"
"That's my line," he muttered complacently, totally content for the first time in years. "My job, brat, is to nail your Jedi feet to the floor. To keep your head from puffing any bigger than it already has. And--" He hesitated and leaned forward, arms linking around his knees. "--to keep you from sliding into that depression that calls you."
He shrugged. "Fancy name. According to the book, Darkness isn't an outside influence, Luke--it's you. It's inside everyone. But sometimes a Jedi flies so high that this thing inside wants to bring you back down. Way down."
Luke winced, his eyes full of pain. For a moment, he looked young and vulnerable--the way he should look, Tarrant thought angrily.
"Why didn't my father have a Protector?" Luke whispered. "Why didn't anyone stop the Darkness from taking him?"
Tarrant rubbed his face on his arm, then smoothed his moustache. It itched a little; he wondered if Biggs had really liked his moustache or if it was meant to make him look older and nothing more. "He had a Protector. My father." Finally, he met Luke's disbelieving stare. "Yeah. My father failed your father. Protectors aren't omnipotent. They don't see all the trouble that's coming."
"Omniscient," Luke corrected distractedly.
"Gosh, thanks." Sarcasm cloaked the words, and he hid behind its shield. "We're talking about something a little more important than my grammar."
A frown flitted across the face before the usual serene mask reappeared. "You think I won't trust you," Luke observed softly. "You and I are different from our fathers--you said that yourself. I trust you. But I can't believe what you say until...."
His heart pounded in his ears. "What?" he asked, nervously licking lips that were as dry as the desert in Third Season.
"Until you give me the damn book." Luke smiled sweetly. "I want to read this for myself. Over-inflated sense of self, my ass!"
Tarrant's smile was equally charming. He crawled across the floor to the table. "Here it is." He straightened to stand directly above Luke. Then he dropped the book.
With an inhumanly swift movement, Luke rolled to the side and leaped to his feet--a heartbeat before the heavy volume hit the floor with a loud thud.
"Just checking your reflexes," Tarrant said innocently. "Another of my duties. Page...476."
Luke's instant retaliation was checked. Squinting suspiciously, he squatted down and leafed through the pages. "It had better be here. Page 476, hmm?"
"Something like that." Luke would be distracted by the contents long before he reached that page. He watched with satisfaction as the slender fingers traced passage after passage. This was the way it always should have been. This was right. He wanted to jump and run and shout at the top of his voice. He settled for punching Luke's arm. "Hey."
"Hmm?" It took a moment of blinking before the pale blue eyes focused on him. "What?"
"What about the party?"
"Partyy?" Luke repeated absently. Then a smile began to light his eyes and echo across his lips until it was a full-fledged grin. "Yeah, why not? Let's go reserve a room."
"Race ya," Tarrant challenged and flung open the door.
Luke's call of "Not fair!" followed him down the long corridor.
So what? Nowhere in the book did it say that Protectors had to be fair!
"Hell of a party," Wedge Antilles shouted at Tarrant hours later. "You 'Weeners know how to do it up right."
"It's those long nights in the desert."
They both studied the crowded hall. It seemed as though everyone on base had shown up for the 'Weener party--even the higher echelon. People were curious to see the Jedi who'd defeated Vader and the Emperor and the stranger who'd so quickly become his confidante, so the large rec room was packed. Carefully rigged overhead lights seemed to twinkle and move, their straight beams disrupted by long silver streamers that flashed like striking lightning. Music came from speakers near the ceiling, unfamiliar tunes that were strangely danceable. Earlier he, Luke, and a few other 'Weeners had led some brave souls through a traditional Tatooine stomp dance. Han and Wedge had both joined in, flushed with laughter by the time it was finished.
Now the music came to a halt. Tarrant mounted the raised platform and raised his arms for attention. The crowd quieted until the only sounds were the clinks of synthcubes in their chilled ales.
"We would like to thank you all for coming. If we could ask your indulgence for a few minutes, we have prepared a short program to share with you the Legend of Tatooine."
The people nearest the stage began sitting. He smiled his approval and gestured to the rest of their audience. Soon everyone was seated on the floor, even the command staff. Once down, they could see Luke, cross-legged on the stage. The Jedi lifted one hand and the overhead lights dimmed until they were nearly extinguished.
Tarrant crossed his ankles and sank gracefully onto the stage. Soft music came from the speakers, so quiet it was merely a hypnotic undertone to the breathing of hundreds of people. He spread his arms in a dramatic gesture.
"Since the beginning of our recorded history," he began in a low voice, "Tatooine has been the secret home of the galaxy's most powerful Jedi enclave. The Force ran strong through Tatooine for thousands of generations. Over the centuries, the Jedi departed and spread across the galaxy, until on Tatooine but a single family remained. Then the Darkling Shadow fell across the skies and the blood of Jedi was spilled on many planets. Only Tatooine was left untouched.
"In the name of Palpatine, the Jedi's Protectors were slain 'til none remained save Darklighters, those who defied the Darkness and kept the last Jedi from harm."
His arms came forward and he murmured a few words from the book that he couldn't quite pronounce--but no one else would know what they were supposed to be anyway. With a tiny pop, a light flared in his cupped hands. Several people screamed, but he remained motionless, staring into the flames. Luke edged imperceptibly closer as if to protect him from the fire.
He knew it was unnecessary; he was the Protector.
Tarrant began to speak again, a half-whisper intended to pierce through everyone in the room. "The silver fire of the Jedi itself burned, 'til none remained but the Ashes of Darkness. Then from the Ashes, the Light was born again."
Luke rose to his knees and held out his hands. Tarrant transferred the flame to him. Slowly, the fire's color changed from orange to green to pure white. Luke cupped it carefully, his face glowing eerily in the strange light. "Ashes and flame rise again, each burning the other. Hear my command: Come together and cease to burn."
He laid the flame on the stage between them. Unexpectedly, it exploded, shooting straight up to scorch the hanging silver streamers. But they didn't burn. Instead, they floated free, twisting like wraiths in the giant flame. Gradually, the fire returned to nestle in Luke's hands, and he held it out steadily as an offering.
"Fair warning, Darkness," Tarrant hissed into the terrified stillness of the room. "With this enchantment, Light has returned. Death came to thy sorcerer, Light reclaimed thy apprentice. The heir to the Jedi is born, and his Protector shines the Light of Tatooine to dispel thy Shadow."
Tarrant and Luke both rose to their feet. Luke raised the flame in one curled hand as if he were holding a lightsaber aloft. "Behold the Jedi!" he cried out softly.
The fire flashed in a small, blinding explosion. Then it vanished and the overhead lights returned.
To the audience's astonished gazes, it seemed as though the Jedi and
his Protector had disappeared.
"It worked!" Luke exclaimed under his breath as they hurried back to their quarters.
"I told you it would," Tarrant replied smugly. "I have a flair for showmanship."
Luke laughed. "It wasn't all showmanship, Tare. You have a natural talent."
"Junior Jedi Darklighter, that's me."
The blond man came to an abrupt halt. "Maybe you are. Maybe Protectors are Jedi."
"Or maybe Protectors are something special on their own."
Luke smiled slightly. "I won't argue with that. I think you're very special."
"Yeah, well...." A blush warmed his cheeks. Tarrant cleared his throat. "About time we started talking about me. Did you ever notice that your favorite topic of conversation is you?"
It was Luke's turn to color. He considered the accusation for a short moment. "Sith, I'm sorry, Tare. I guess you're right about that."
"I'm right about everything, dwirk. Now, you got all your stuff packed?"
"Yes. I just have to talk to Han and Leia. And Wedge. Tell them good-bye."
He studied his friend's troubled face. "We'll come back," he said quietly. "After you've found out what you need to know."
Luke shrugged. "I'm not even sure where to start."
"Start where you began." He grinned and thrust his fist in the air. "Behold the 'Weener!" he exclaimed, mocking Luke's gesture with the flame.
"Skywalker," Luke muttered with an aggrieved sigh as he pressed his palm against the door entry. "Tatooine?"
Tarrant followed him inside the small room. "Got a better idea?"
"No." Luke twisted his head and rubbed the back of his neck. "Right now, Tatooine sounds damn good. I'm tired of this rain and cold."
"We both need to bake our bones," he proclaimed fervently. With a little imagination, he could feel the warmth of the twin suns on his chilled flesh.
"Yeah." Slim fingers ran across the cover of the Protector's book. Then Luke turned toward him. "I should have said it a lot sooner, but--thanks for coming, Tare. I'm glad you did. You've given me a new outlook. A new life."
"I've given you hope," he replied loftily, "and reminded you how to laugh. That's part of my job, brat. I'm your Protector. Speaking of job--we've never discussed my salary."
"Hmm," Luke replied absently. He sat on the floor in front of the table and opened the book. He flipped through a few pages and stopped, bending his head over it.
Tarrant hesitated, watching the fierce concentration. Luke read for several minutes, then looked up, his lips parting. First he stared at nothing, then he turned his head toward Tarrant.
"What?" he asked, hiding his alarm. "What's wrong?"
"Why did you come here?"
What the sith kind of question was that? "I told you."
"You said you came because of me."
"Yeah." Did Luke expect him to get mushy about it? He folded his arms and frowned. "So?"
Luke closed the book and stretched out his legs. "You were drawn to me, the same as I was to you."
"Let's not make a Galaxy Romance out of this."
"Listen to me." The young Jedi held out both hands. Tarrant could almost see an idea held in their loose embrace.
"Biggs left. Your parents told him that he was my Protector, but he left anyway. He went to the Academy to learn to be a fighter pilot, how to fight in a war. He gave up Protecting me to become a warrior. Does that make sense?"
"I don't know. Is it supposed to? What are you getting at? We already know he wasn't your Protector."
A strange light appeared in the blue eyes. "He had to learn to fight. He had to join the Rebellion. Tare--he didn't die for the Rebellion and he didn't die Protecting me!"
"Yes, he did." He walked over to the chair and sat. "Look, he still thought he was your Protector. He didn't know your father was Protecting you." More likely it was Kenobi doing the Protecting, he thought, but didn't voice his doubts. It was something they would never know; why should he make a suggestion that would disillusion Luke further? Let him think that the Dark Lord, in a strangely sentimental mood, had Protected his son for years.
Maybe it was true.
"No. Think about it." Luke stood and spread his arms. "I was in position to take the shot to destroy the Death Star. He protected that. He protected the Yavin moon, the base. He Protected Leia."
"So?" If the baby Jedi was trying to make a point, it wasn't clear.
Luke came over and crouched by the chair, his fingers gripping its arm. "Don't you see? Biggs was supposed to be Leia's Protector."
He blinked. "Leia?"
"Of course. He was drawn to me because Leia and I are twins, we must share patterns in the Force. But I wasn't his Jedi, that's why he could leave me, why he was drawn to the Rebellion, all of it. That's why I never felt right with Biggs. That's why he sacrificed himself. It wasn't for me."
The relief in the words was alive and vibrating through the room. If his Jedi was right, it explained everything. If not...let him never believe otherwise. With a shaky sigh, Tarrant brushed Luke's arm. "Biggs didn't die for you. He died for Leia."
He winced. "Leia's not a Jedi."
"Well, not yet, but--"
"No, Luke." He rested his hand on Luke's shoulder. "The Book says that a Force user can't become a Jedi without his--or her--Protector. She'll never be a Jedi." He paused sadly. "I wish Biggs could have known. About why he died, about saving the Princess. She can't be a Jedi, but she can be a powerful Force user. It would have meant a lot to him. I wonder if he ever met her?"
"He did. And he knows now," Luke said softly, smiling fixedly at some invisible scene beyond Tarrant's shoulder. "I can see that he does."
He resisted the compulsion to look around in case Biggs was lurking in the shadows. "That kind of talk gives me the creeps," he complained. "There's nobody here but us. No spooks. Just us."
"The last Protector and the last Jedi."
"Or the first," Tarrant countered easily. "You know what that means!"
"We're in trouble?" Luke asked, his head bent and his smile shy.
"You're such a pessimist!" He grinned at the man who would probably be the galaxy's next Dark Lord--Force willing, this Dark Lord would be everything the last one was not. "Nah--two things. First, you got to start making more Jedi."
Luke blinked. "Making more--? But you just said-- Okay, you can be the first, and I'll be your Protector."
"Me?" He chuckled. "I love you, sunshine, but I'm not having your babies! You have to find a nice lady to do that."
The pale eyes widened. "Babies? Babies? I thought--I mean, we can make adult Jedi, we don't-- You mean I have to start from scratch?"
"That's the general idea. Just like I have to make baby Protectors--we're both called upon to make sacrifices. And second--"
"You have to make Protectors for Leia's babies, too," Luke said mildly.
He nearly bit his tongue. "Huh?"
Luke smiled innocently. "I wonder if twins run in our family," he mused.
"That's not funny, Skywalker!" Tarrant briefly pondered the possibility, mentally adding a few numbers to his obligation. "I'll have to get busy soon, judging from the way Solo and Leia look at each other. We'll just keep you away from girls for awhile."
"I dunno." Luke gazed at the ceiling. "Now that you've given me the idea...."
"Oh, shut up. And quit interrupting me. Where was I?" he asked, scowling. "Umm...oh, yeah. We also get to make our own rules! And I have some terrific ones in mind." Like birth control for Jedi, he thought darkly.
"Stars!" Luke rolled his eyes, laughing. "And I thought my life of excitement was over, that we were going back to the farm and retire into our studies."
Tarrant threw back his head and surrendered to a burst of life-affirming laughter. The only answer he had was at once both a warning and a promise:
"Jedi, the excitement is just beginning."