The Road Home - Part Three
by MJ Mink
Laark rubbed his forehead. "It's more difficult than I thought it would be. He's more difficult."
Alin nodded. "At least he's better than his father. If you want to hear about difficult--"
"Oh, I don't know how you've managed Anakin all these years! He's so forbidding."
"He was not always so."
"He's been better?"
"Yes. And worse." His father smiled. "Young Luke doesn't have his temper."
"But he broods." Laark sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. He picked idly through the remains of his dinner. "His thoughts are so dark that sometimes that they depress me! Can you imagine? I never get depressed!"
"Those are the times when your job is most important."
"I know that!" He frowned. Did his father think he wasn't doing his Lightshining properly? "It's just difficult."
"No one said it would be easy."
Another cliche. Honestly! He sent Alin a Look. "He's learning a lot from his father. He's getting very powerful."
"He'll be one of the great ones."
"And Sith likes him."
"I noticed. Please stop playing with your food."
With a sigh, Laark put aside his fork. He was an adult, a Lightshiner with his own Skywalker, yet his father still treated him like a child. Well, soon he would bond with Mari Darklighter--if he could get Luke bonded first--and they would have children of their own. Then his father would have to treat him as an equal. "If he becomes really powerful, will he still need me?"
"More than ever. Eventually you may become his only link with reality."
"If that's true, then why does the Great Lord leave you behind when he goes Outside?"
"Every relationship is different, Laark." His father stood and gathered the plates. "Anakin and I have been together since childhood. You and Luke are trying to squeeze a lifetime of knowledge into a short period. Because of that, your relationship will be more intense than the one I have with my lord."
Intense. Laark considered the word. It wasn't quite correct. "He expects a lot from me," he said slowly, thinking aloud, "but I don't think he realizes it. He's...emotionally demanding. The Great Lord said Luke was raised without love, so I expect that's why he needs so much."
"Probably," his father answered absently. He left with the dishes.
Laark leaned back in his chair. How would it be when he was bonded with Mari? Would she demand as much of him as Luke did? Would she accept that she'd always be second to Luke? She was pushing for their bonding--more emphatically now that he had his Skywalker. She hadn't been like the other girls; she had stood by him and believed in him even when he didn't have a Skywalker, but he knew she shared his relief at Luke's appearance. It meant he wasn't an oddity among Lightshiners and that he had taken his place as one of the most powerful men on Sith. For who was greater than Lightshiners? None but the lords they served.
He found that he enjoyed this taste of power he was sampling. Luke shared it with him; Laark didn't think this was customary, and he hesitated to ask his father for fear that Alin would mention it to Anakin who would speak to Luke who would-- Well, he didn't want to risk losing any of his newfound influence. It was also immensely helpful that he could read Luke's mind as easily as he did everyone else's. His father said that he was special among Lightshiners, that not every one had the Gift.
He was special, and Luke was one of the greats. It was inevitable that destiny had brought them together. They were going to rule the galaxy. Luke would command everyone but Laark. And the Lightshiner would guide the Skywalker.
This was Sith's way.
"You are finding that controlling your power is the most difficult part of having it." Anakin studied himself in the mirror and straightened his tunic. "You must resist its lure and not indulge every urge."
Luke swiveled in the chair and leaned his chin on its solid back, watching his father dress. "I suppose. But I've learned so much about the Force, sometimes I want to unleash it, just to see what I can do."
"Go ahead. It is safest to try that on Sith."
"I will." He wondered if his father would assist him with such an experiment. "What's on tonight's agenda? Elisa Darklighter again?"
"Yes." Anakin tugged at his cuffs and nodded approvingly at his reflection.
"Are you going to bond with her?"
Luke sighed. It was the same every evening. In the months since he'd conquered Temptation in the treecave, it seemed as if his father thought he could be left alone every night. Which he could, of course; it wasn't as though he was a child. But he couldn't demand Laark's constant presence because his Lightshiner had a life of his own, and he found the evenings to be very long and lonely. He wondered if that was his father's intention, to make him so isolated that he would be anxious to bond. But there were many things he needed to discuss with his father, and there never seemed to be time. His days were spent in training and studying and the evenings in private contemplation.
"Will you be staying home tomorrow night?" he asked casually.
"No." Anakin swirled his cloak around his shoulders and once again admired himself in the glass. Then he looked at his son. "Why? Do you wish me to stay?"
"No. I just wondered." It was ridiculous to feel like an unwanted child, but sometimes his father had that effect on him.
"If you require that I stay home one evening so that you may discuss what is on your mind, feel free to say so."
"Well...I'd like to talk about what we're going to do when we go back."
"Back," Anakin echoed.
"To the--" He caught himself before he said 'rebellion'. "To the war."
The elder Skywalker turned to the dressing table and slipped on a pair of black gloves. The total effect of his father's costume was an elegant but eerie reminder of Vader. "We have already discussed this several times."
"No," Luke pointed out carefully, "you've told me what you want. We haven't truly discussed anything. You know I don't agree with--"
"Yes, yes. I don't want to spoil my pleasant evening by becoming involved in one of your irrational arguments." His father gave a final look in the mirror. "I bid you good night."
"Have a great time," Luke muttered under his breath as Anakin strode from the room.
His father could try avoiding this topic as much as he wanted, but his son had no plans to let him off the hook. Luke was suddenly filled with restless energy. He left the room and the house, preferring instead the shadows of the night. He wandered from the unnaturally correct garden into fields that were only slightly more rustic in appearance. It was very quiet.
"Hey, Sith!" he called, his voice shattering the peculiar stillness. "Haven't you ever heard of birds? I like birds! How about some birds here?"
Part of him actually expected a response, but there was nothing. He sat cross-legged on the grass that was cool but not damp. Of course not--dew would mar Sith's perfection. "Don't you ever want to mess things up a little? Just a bit--you know, like maybe a rain shower? Birds. Even artificial ones. Can't you make one that sings?"
Almost immediately, he heard a very loud chirp from somewhere high above him. Involuntarily he ducked his head and felt a small splat hit it. Then he looked up and received what he hoped was a raindrop square in the eye. Without further warning, a deluge of rain fell, and he sat very still until it ended. He wiped his face with his hands and looked around cautiously. There was a small circle of wetness surrounding him, and he was thoroughly soaked. Everywhere else was dry. He burst into laughter. "I'm glad somebody here has a sense of humor!"
Luke crawled to a dry spot and stretched face down on the ground, turning his cheek to the grass. "I like you," he whispered, spreading his fingers on the coolness. "I know you like me. I'm glad. But I wish we could talk...differently. I get lonely sometimes--do you? Or are you part of the lives of everyone? Do you feel with all of us or just with Skywalkers? Do you-- My father says I ask too many questions. Even Laark says so. But I just want to know more. I wish you could tell me everything.
"Do you know everything, Sith? Can you explain what Laark tries to tell me, that you and I are one? I'm you and you're me. I understand how your consciousness could be a man, but how can I be a planet? Or doesn't he mean it literally?" Luke sighed. His old friends would think him crazy if they saw him talking to a planet, but his Sith friends would think it normal. Which of them would be right?
He closed his eyes. A sleepy lassitude stole slowly over him, and he
began to relax. His dark thoughts drifted and evaporated, his mind numbed,
and Sith claimed him.
In Elisa Darklighter's bed, Anakin Skywalker suddenly pulled away from her and sat up. "Luke?"
"What is it?" She raised her head.
He climbed out from the tousled sheets and reached for his clothes. "My son. He's--" He shook his head. There were no words to describe what he was feeling.
He was only half dressed when he headed out of the house.
In the Lightshiner kitchen, Laark stopped mid-sentence. The dish he'd been wiping slipped from his grasp and broke in a dozen pieces on the stone floor. "Luke!"
"What's wrong?" Alin grabbed his arm.
He stared unseeingly at his father. "I can't--I can't feel him. He's gone!"
Laark shook his head. "I don't think so. I didn't feel anything happen. He's just...gone." Suddenly mobilized, he threw aside the towel and flew out of the kitchen at a full run. His father followed.
He hesitated in the garden. Not the garden, no, Luke had been here but this was not the right place. He raced through the stone fence and across the fields. From the corner of his eye he saw a figure running toward them.
"It's Anakin," his father said, panting the couple words. "He felt it too."
Laark didn't answered. He concentrated all his thoughts on Luke, but there was no response. He came to an abrupt halt. "Here," he said with certainty. "He's here. Or...was here."
His father was kneeling a few meters away. "The ground is wet."
Blood? He felt his dreams dying. No--he would know if Luke was dead. He examined the damp area, tore off a blade of grass and brought the wetness to his tongue. "Water. Pure water." He turned around. Where could it have come from?
The Great Lord joined them. "Where is my son?" His ferocious gaze locked on Laark.
"I don't know." It was an unforgivable admission for a Lightshiner to make, but he faced Luke's father without a quiver.
"Why weren't you with him?"
"I was at home." Which the Great Lord knew very well. "He said you were staying with him tonight," he added with malicious innocence.
The pale eyes became malevolent slits, then Skywalker whirled around. "We must find him."
He's my Skywalker, Laark wanted to say, and I'll find him. But it wasn't wise to upset the Great Lord any further. So the three of them fanned out and examined the small valley, though Laark knew their search would be futile. Wherever Luke was, he wasn't...here.
He was proven wrong almost immediately and thanked the stars that he was the one who heard the low moan. Without calling to the others, he followed its source and found Luke curled on his side under a small tree. He knelt beside him and lifted the blond head. "Lord? Are you all right?"
Luke's lashes twitched and remained closed. Laark probed his Skywalker's mind gently, but it was sealed more strongly than he'd ever known it. It made him afraid. "Father!" he called. "Lord! He's over here!"
It was inevitable that Anakin would snatch Luke from his arms. Laark refrained from any possessive comments and watched passively as the Great Lord held his son with more gentleness than he'd credited the old bastard with having.
"Luke. Luke. Wake up."
"I don't think he's asleep," Laark offered helpfully.
Anakin frowned at him, and his own father sighed. Laark subsided into silence again. At least Luke didn't treat him the way they did. Luke liked him.
As if sensing their combined concerns, Luke opened his eyes. He gave them a vague, dreamlike smile. "Hi," he said softly.
Anakin drew back. "Are you drunk?" he demanded, the tenderness erased.
Laark snarled mentally. Of course Luke wasn't drunk! How did his father put up with this obnoxious idiot? "No," he answered for his Skywalker. "He's...dazed."
"Dazed," Luke repeated with a giggle. He struggled to sit up. "Where was I?"
"I think you are the one with the answer to that," Anakin said stiffly.
He didn't dare probe the elder Skywalker's mind, but he silently asked his father for confirmation of his suspicion. Jealous--Anakin was jealous of his son! But why? What did he sense?
Luke's smile held amazement and maybe a little triumph. A dawning wonderment made his eyes glow. "Sith. "I was...with Sith. Sith took me inside." His lips moved but no more words came forth.
Laark sank back on his heels. If this was true--he'd never heard anything like it, not in any of the diaries or records, not even in legend. He looked at his father. Alin appeared both surprised and disturbed, and his gaze was focused on Anakin. Laark turned back to his young lord and tried once again to probe his thoughts. This time he was more successful--except that Luke sensed him immediately.
Lord...what did you learn?
Take a look.
He accepted the offer, then realized almost immediately that he shouldn't have. There was a sudden, overwhelming inrush of sounds and lights and strangeness, things he couldn't comprehend. He broke their contact, gasping. I can't! Luke took his hand and held it in a cool grip.
Anakin glared at him. "You will never leave my son alone again," he ordered.
"I didn't leave him alone--you were with him!" He shook off his father's mental warning.
Anger seemed to control Skywalker. "Do not cross me, young one. You will obey my command. My son's well-being is your charge. You will not allow him to wander off again."
That made Luke sound like one of those pet-things that he'd heard about. Domesticated animals that people on other planets kept as toys. "If you treated him properly, he wouldn't be so lonely that he had to wander off to find someone to talk to." And he found Sith to be his companion, Laark realized a split second before the Force knocked him to the ground and squeezed the air from his lungs.
"No!" Luke scrambled to his feet and held up a forbidding hand toward his father. "Let him be. My Lightshiner is my business, not yours."
Anakin Skywalker looked at his son with something akin to derision on his face. "Interesting, the moments when you decide to claims your rights as a Sith," he drawled. "Would that you did it all the time." He turned and stalked back toward the house, Alin Lightshiner following at his heels.
Luke helped him stand. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." He brushed off his clothing and felt his throat carefully. "I guess."
"Good." Luke put his arms around him, and they hugged. "I have so much to share with you! But not now--I've spoiled enough of your evening. Go home and we'll talk in the morning."
He shook his head. "You come with me. My father will probably be with yours for hours. You don't want to go back there. In fact--we can put up a tent! I always wanted to camp! Did you know our fathers did that when they were children? We never got that chance, and I think it's time we did!" He chattered on, knowing how it relaxed Luke. Later they would talk seriously, and he would learn more of Sith's hidden mysteries from his Skywalker. He knew Luke would share this information with no one else, not even the Great Lord.
This would make him the most powerful Lightshiner ever. There was great
satisfaction in the knowledge that both he and Luke knew more than their
fathers ever had.
The realization that Luke had been able to communicate directly with Sith must have jarred him more than he had thought. After a sleepless night, Anakin Skywalker was still wide awake the next evening. Obviously, he'd cancelled his rendezvous with Elisa; it was more important that he talk to his son and discover exactly what happened. Luke, however, was not being particularly receptive to his overtures.
Anakin cleared his throat. "You're very quiet," he repeated.
Luke didn't lift his gaze from the fireplace. He'd been sitting on the floor with that same expression locked on his face for the better part of ten minutes. "I have a lot to think about."
"Would you care to talk?"
The look his son gave him was bland. "What? And spoil my evening?"
It was extremely rare for anyone to so firmly shut a door in his face. He had to restrain himself from shifting uncomfortably in his chair. This son of his was, as Alin said, quite a handful. No naive, malleable infant this--though not as strong and independent as he liked to think either. A few gentle words from his father, and Luke would relent.
Still, this was the child who had slain the father who had Tempted him. Perhaps he should tread cautiously.
Anakin sighed and leaned his head against the tall back of the sofa. He didn't approve of his blooming animosity towards his son and was at a loss to explain what had triggered it. The incident at the treecave had disturbed him; perhaps that, coupled with his son's new relationship with Sith was what made him wary of the boy. He'd had such hopes for them, so many plans, and now they could all fall into ruin. He opened his eyes and found Luke watching him.
"I apologize for my behavior last night," the elder Skywalker said formally. "I cherish your curiosity and your ideas. I am feeling stress, though that is no excuse for my behavior."
Luke shrugged again, but the reproachful attitude began to recede. "Why do you feel stress?"
"Sith. Too much perfection. Too stifling. I want to get away. The same things you have felt."
The clear eyes looked over at him. "Sometimes I feel that I could stay here forever."
He felt a pang of jealousy. What had his son found? "I envy you," he said honestly. "I have never reached the level of oneness with Sith that you seem to have found."
With a small nod, Luke turned away and refocused his gaze on the fire again. Anakin frowned. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. From here he could nearly touch the boy. "Do you enjoy politics?" he asked abruptly.
There was an element of surprise in the eyes that fixed on him. "I've never been involved in it."
"You will be, after we have defeated Palpatine."
"After we destroy him, I am returning here." There was no threat in the quiet declaration; it rang with the certainty of truth. Luke turned away again.
He shook his head. "Not permanently, I hope."
He wanted to douse the damn fire if that would liberate the child's gaze. "I will need your assistance to restructure the Empire."
"No, you won't. You'll manage fine on your own."
For a moment he had the illusion that their roles were reversed, that he was the child and Luke the stern father. Was this why Luke became irritated with him? Because he had to fight for attention, beg for approval? They were not pleasant feelings.
"I enjoy the excitement of politics, the intrigues and plots, but I especially enjoy seeing the fruits of my labors, the reforms and successes that make the work worthwhile."
Luke pulled his legs around and faced him. "Have you had many successes with Palpatine in control?"
"Very few." He was pleased to have recaptured the youngster's notice. "The constitutional amendments on Rigis were my work, as were several other one-world reforms. My greatest failure was the move for independent agriculturalists. I disagreed with the Imperial plan to eliminate private farms and place them all under the Empire's ownership. Very non-productive. But Palpatine would not listen."
"Uncle Owen was worried about that. He said the Empire would get to Tatooine eventually. I didn't believe they would've taken such a small farm."
"They would have. A dozen small farms combine to make a decent mid-size one. When Sith rules, I will repeal that edict. There are many reforms I wish to make. I need your help."
Luke stood and stretched his arms, yawning widely. He shook his head as if trying to wake himself. Then he joined his father on the sofa, a deceptively casual move which indicated that the recent friction was forgiven. "You disagree with Palpatine in a lot of areas."
"I understand why you stayed with him," Luke said slowly, "but how could you do it for so many years? I would have been driven mad or lost control or--something."
He smiled. "I have wished many times that I could slaughter the little weasel," he admitted easily.
Luke laughed delightedly. "Then you must be looking forward to the future with anticipation."
"Yes." He rubbed his hand against his forehead, massaging away the beginnings of a headache. "Even now, here on Sith, he communicates with me constantly."
Anakin nodded. "More plans, more obscene ideas. I am so weary." He was surprised he'd said that last; it wasn't something he'd planned on confessing. Would Luke understand that this weariness went to the very depths of his soul?
Cool fingers brushed his face, traveled across his brow. He felt the muscles relax almost immediately and wondered if Luke had a dash of Healer in him. Given the extent of his powers, it seemed of reasonable likelihood.
"You need my support," Luke said, half-questioning. "You need me to believe in what you plan to do. You need me as an antidote for Palpatine's all-encompassing control."
"All that is true." He rested his hand on his son's forearm. "I would be grateful for whatever assistance you wish to offer."
Luke made a small sound and bowed his head. "Since we've been together, I haven't given any thought to what you need from me. I've only thought about myself. That doesn't make me a very good son."
"You have the example of a poor father," he replied, only partly joking.
But Luke's eyes were serious. "You're a wonderful father," he contradicted. "I know you think you've disappointed me, but you haven't. I'm proud to be your son."
What a brilliant young man Luke had proven to be. Anakin smiled with pleasure. "I wish I could believe it."
"Very well. And I will tell you something to believe." He squeezed Luke's arm. "No matter what happens, no matter that I lose my infamous temper, no matter what unforgivable words I may say to you--know that I love you, and I always will."
Luke stopped breathing for a moment, then inhaled with a gasping sound. He freed himself and seemed to shrink back against the opposite end of the sofa. He stared at Anakin. "I...no one has ever said that to me."
"I expect not."
The response startled his son. "What's-- Never mind. But you and I, we said it in the cave."
He felt a chill creep through him. Luke held in his mind the events that had transpired in the treecave; he had not shared them in detail. Would his psychic Temptation become an actuality? Would Luke's final decision be whether to kill his father, either literally or symbolically? He touched Luke's hidden senses and was allowed entry. There he read the same fear.
"I don't know," he replied to the unasked question. "But I do know that we can't let your Temptation control our words and our lives."
Luke nodded. "If it's in my heart, what difference does it make if I say it aloud? I love you, Father. I loved the idea of you all my life. Now I love the reality."
"You used to give such simple answers," he teased, made nervous by his son's gravity.
"I remember." There was a touch of wistfulness in the tone. "I don't want to rule the galaxy. I don't want you to rule it either. The Alliance leaders have the right ideas and--"
He shook his head, weary of the familiar arguments. "The galaxy cannot be ruled by a coalition. Nothing would ever be accomplished. Look at the way the Old Republic decayed. No, it will take one strong individual with, as you say, the 'right ideas' to repair the damage that has already been done. It is a huge task, Luke, and will require single-mindedness. A democracy would lead to confusion and dissention. Don't you see the futility of your desires?"
"I see it, Father. I'm not stupid."
Anakin smiled to himself. It was about time that Luke realized that and put aside Owen Lars's criticisms of his intelligence. "Then I don't understand your reservations."
"My reservations are about you. And me. About two power-hungry Skywalkers." Luke gave a deprecating shrug. "You want power. You glory in it. I don't want it, but I know myself well enough now to realize that I could be swept away by it very easily."
"Power is seductive."
"Power is temptation. And I don't understand how the power you're offering now differs from what I rejected in the cave." His son's eyes filled with grief. "I killed you in the cave, and I don't want to believe that my Temptation was a foreseeing."
"I don't want that either," he replied sharply.
"Then we'll have to compromise."
It was not his favorite word; still, Anakin nodded. "You have a plan?"
"I think so. But it will rely totally on trust and good intentions."
"On whose part?"
"On our parts." Luke smiled crookedly. "I do agree about the inefficiency of a democracy, but I don't want to continue the monarchy either. How about an oligarchy? Me, you, and a few well-chosen others."
"Us, of course." The grin spread across Luke's face. "Like I said, I'm not stupid."
Anakin laughed. "So, son of mine, let me summarize your plan. You wish us to rule with the help of a few advisors." A benevolent monarchy held much more appeal than an oligarchy. And advisors were so simple to dismiss or ignore.
"Sounds good." The blue eyes twinkled with playfulness.
He clasped his son's shoulder. "I'm glad to know that you don't have the heart of a liberal. Such a characteristic would be distinctly un-Skywalker."
"Yeah." Luke's demeanor sobered. "All the things I'm learning about Sith--I thought it meant you were a god when you were Home. And that I'd be a god, too."
"Ah, yes. There is some validity in that assumption." He considered his words. "We are humans--chosen ones, but humans nonetheless, and we can make mistakes. You may think of yourself as infallible, but you are not. Remember that. And because you have special powers, you must heed these things you are already discovering: Be cautious with people of whom you are fond. You may end up ruining them to save yourself. Choose your friends wisely and sparingly. Always maintain an emotional distance. The same applies with your bondmate. Only your Lightshiner is truly safe with you. The power that is drawn to you and the attractiveness of wielding that power can prove fatal to others. You have seen examples of this with what happened to your guardians and young Darklighter."
"What about you?" There was the faintest tremble in Luke's voice. "Are we safe from each other?"
"If we are vigilant."
"But-- In Cloud City, before you told me who you were--you didn't want to hurt me. You could have defeated me easily, you could have killed me--but you didn't even fight. You only defended yourself. Surely that means--"
"That means we can control our actions and our tendencies to commit violence," Anakin said firmly. "I controlled mine until you struck me with your blade. Then I lost my temper and deliberately severed your hand for two reasons: to prevent you from fighting further and increasing my aggressive instincts, and to satisfy my lust to spill your blood."
"And I killed you in the treecave." Luke stared at him, probing his thoughts. "This violence--it's why you took the name Vader," he murmured in sudden recognition. "The Emperor didn't name you. Vader is your...Darkness."
Luke's brow furrowed in concentration. "You said Palpatine harnessed the long-dormant Darkside on Sith. Did you mean...through you?"
"Does Palpatine know about me?"
"But when he does, he'll want to use me."
The indrawn sigh was long and shaky. "If Skywalkers are Sith--"
"Skywalkers are part of Sith."
"Part of the Darkside."
He inclined his head. "In a way. Do you remember what we discussed back at your rebel base? About good and evil, and not being totally one or the other? And what you told your Alliance Council--that Dark makes the Light brighter?"
Luke nodded. "But if we're Dark, why aren't we lost in it? Why aren't we totally evil? What prevents us--" His eyes glazed momentarily. "Lightshiners?"
"Lightshiners and our sheer stubbornness." He smiled with pride. His son was so quick.
"But if I represent Darkness, why does Sith like me? Why did it let me...join with it?"
"You have answered your own question." He felt a sudden flush of excitement. "To be contained, the Darkness must be rejoined with Sith. I took it away. You will bring it back. You were chosen. Perhaps that's why you were raised away from my influence."
"So my life isn't mine? Nothing I do, none of the decisions I make--have they all been manipulated by Sith?" The boy's voice cracked.
"Not manipulated. It is your destiny, my son. You are meant for greatness."
Anakin watched in fascination as first disgust crossed Luke's face, then understanding, then something akin to pleasure. "Hmm," he said noncommittally.
Skywalker leaned against the sofa arm. "So we will return to the galaxy, defeat Palpatine, and rule as Skywalker father and son. I must say I'm looking forward to it."
"Oops," Luke said quietly.
"Oops?" he repeated warily.
"I told my friends about you. About Vader. That he's--you're--Anakin Skywalker, my father."
"You shouldn't have done that." But it was a small matter really. "You'll have to repair that damage when you return to them."
"Yes," Luke acknowledged, his soft voice filled with regret. "Everything has changed so much."
Anakin knew he was no longer speaking of his friends. "I am sorry."
"You can't change facts. Ruling the galaxy...." The youngster sighed wearily, a blatant admission that this particular greatness was the last thing he wanted. "You're tired," Luke added suddenly, pointing out something that he hadn't realized himself. "Why don't you go to bed? We can talk more tomorrow. Or the next day or the day after that. Without free will, it doesn't matter what or when or if we talk about anything, does it?"
"You'll feel differently in the morning," he replied without conviction. "You need sleep, too. You've had a difficult few days."
"I'm fine. I'll just sit here awhile if you don't mind." The gaze fixed on the fire again.
"I'd like that." There was some comfort in knowing his son would protect his sleep--protect it from what was unclear. But after Anakin undressed and slid between the sheets of the huge bed, he lifted his head for a moment toward the sofa at the far end of the room. The sight of the blond head silhouetted by the fire was reassuring. It took only a few minutes before he fell into a deep sleep.
When he woke much later, fully refreshed, it was still hours until dawn. He rose to check on his son. Luke was balanced precariously on the edge of the sofa, sound asleep. With a small smile, he lifted the boy and carried him to the bed where he laid him on sheets that were still warm from his own body. He pulled the thick comforter over the youngster's shoulders.
In repose, Luke's face was peaceful and relaxed, a way he rarely saw it when the boy was awake. There was something disturbingly familiar about the child's features. The resemblance to himself had grown stronger, but there was more. It reminded him of-- But that was impossible. It was only his wistful imaginings.
He took up a post in the overstuffed chair and watched the boy sleep.
As Luke had guarded him, so would he guard his son from whatever terrors
waited in the rest of the night.
Lightsabers clashed and sizzled. They were fairly equally matched for awhile, but Luke had the twin advantages of stamina and determination. Finally he hooked Laark's blade and sent it flying. It extinguished itself and landed in the middle of a flowering rateira bush.
"Damn!" Laark rubbed his forearm. "This isn't fair! I've been practicing my whole life and you just started a couple years ago! How did you get so good?"
"Necessity," Luke said grimly, thinking of his incompetence when he'd confronted Vader on Bespin.
"Good thing he didn't kill you."
"Laark!" he exclaimed in exasperation. "Must you read my mind all the time?"
"I don't, lord," the other man protested. "I can only do it when your feelings are strong or close to the surface. And if you don't block me."
When his feelings were strong. Wasn't that what his father had said? Perhaps his thoughts could only be sensed when he projected them. "Why can't I read your mind?"
Laark bent over the rateira, fumbling with one arm thrust into the bush. "Can't quite-- I don't know. Skywalkers can't, that's all. Skywalkers can be telepathic or do what you do, reaching into people's thoughts, but they can't read minds. Most Lightshiners can't do it either. My father says I'm special."
Not mind-read?--that wasn't quite true, he realized, guarding that thought as he did. He and his father read each other's minds...didn't they? Or were they only talking to each other?
"Speaking of fathers, I wish you would try to get along better with mine."
Laark grunted. "He's jealous of me." He almost fell into the bush. "Damn!"
He watched Laark struggle for another moment, then he used the Force to raise the missing lightsaber out of the bush to a point in the air that was just out of Laark's reach.
"Very funny!" Laark glared at him. "Do you mind?" he asked pointedly, holding out his right hand and tapping his foot impatiently.
Luke let the saber hover for a moment, then he dropped it. Laark caught it easily.
"Show-off," he muttered.
"Big bully," Laark added, encouraged by his appreciation. "You enjoy torturing me, don't you?"
"As if I'm the only torturer," he scoffed. "You're totally sadistic."
"Hah! This is sadism!" Laark brandished his blade and slashed the air, dancing through the garden. "Take that! And that!"
Luke followed him, laughing at his Lightshiner's antics. It felt so good to play. No somber reflections, no agonizing over his destiny. Nothing but fun. "Hey," he called. "Want to see another trick?"
"Sure." Laark hooked his saber to his belt and folded his arms. "It had better be good."
"It will be," he promised. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Sith? I'm showing off. How about bringing the bird back for a few minutes? Please?
Almost immediately there was a sweet singing from the rateira bush. They both turned at the sound, and Luke held out his hand. A tiny golden bird flew to him and perched on his fingers. Its beak brushed his thumb curiously.
Laark stepped back a few paces, fumbling for his lightsaber. "What is it, lord?" he asked, aghast.
"It's a bird," Luke said, studying it closely. It allowed him to run his finger down its back. Its feathers were pleasant to the touch, soft and fragile. He lifted his hand higher and studied every angle. It was compact and very beautiful. Maybe he could design a ship like this.
"Eew, how can you touch it? It might bite you." Laark approached cautiously. "Is it real?"
Good question. "As real as anything, I guess." Hadn't his father said that to him once? Now he finally understood what it meant. This bird was as real as Sith and as real as any of them. "Hi, bird."
It chirped in response, cocking its little head to one side and studying him. He laughed delightedly and tried to replicate the sound. He must not have succeeded because it squawked at him and fluttered its wings.
"Can I touch it?" Laark asked.
But the bird flew off when Laark's fingers neared it. It went to a branch of the nearby ebonwood tree where it sang for a few minutes while they watched. Then both the song and the bird vanished.
Laark shivered. "I don't like that."
"The bird?" he asked in surprise.
"No. When things appear...and disappear. Especially things I've never seen before." He studied Luke carefully. "How did you do it?"
"I didn't. Sith did," he answered truthfully, despite a mischievous desire to make Laark think he was a conjuring sorcerer.
"Why?" There was a demanding tone to Lightshiner's voice; all the earlier levity had gone.
Luke looked at his companion, puzzled. "I asked Sith to bring it back. So I could show off to you."
"What do you mean, bring it back?"
Laark was really upset, Luke realized uneasily. "What's wrong? It was just a bird."
"What do you mean, bring it back?" the Lightshiner repeated stubbornly.
He shrugged. "I asked Sith for a bird the other day--you know, when I disappeared. And rain. And It made rain and a bird for me. We were playing."
"Playing with Sith?" Laark's voice trembled. "I don't like this."
"Hey." He put his arm around the youngster's shoulder. "It's all right. What are you afraid of?"
Laark was shaking. "It likes you, Sith likes you. What if It will do anything you ask? What if--what if you ask It to do something terrible?"
"Like what?" He was bewildered by the intensity he felt through their link.
"Anything." Laark jerked free and backed away from him. "You could...turn It into a desert. Or kill us all. Or change us into birds...or something worse."
"I wouldn't do that, Laark." He tried to approach his friend, but the other gestured him away.
"You might if you got mad. There's a legend...a legend that a Skywalker got mad once, a long time ago, and that brought on the Darkness and nothing was the same again. Everybody in the galaxy hated Siths, and we had to stay here, and Sith had to protect us, and we've been here every since. That's why we change and die when we go Outside." Laark clutched his arms around himself. "Are you going to make things worse, lord?"
It seemed the more he learned, the deeper it piled up around him. Luke leaned against a tree. How could he take any action when the game kept changing? Was his father not responsible for releasing Darkness? Had a Skywalker done it generations ago, or was that a legend based on fear and superstition? And what was his role to be? He'd thought of himself as Sith's savior, but what if Laark's fears were correct, what if he did indeed make matters worse? It was so difficult to interpret the things Sith had tried to tell him and to act accordingly.
"I hope to make everything better, Laark," he said finally. If he kept his mind focused on one goal, perhaps it would improve his chances of success. "I hope to put the Darkness back where it belongs."
"Where's that?" Laark whispered.
"I'm not certain," he admitted. "But you're going to help me do it. Soon."
Lightshiner turned away for a moment, then returned to his side. "Shit," he said succinctly.
"My feelings exactly." Luke grinned.
Laark responded with a half-smile. "Okay, I'll help, but don't screw up."
"I'll try not to." He felt a great fondness for his Lightshiner. "I love you," he said, finding that, once said, the words were easily repeated.
"I love you, too, lord." Laark hugged him. "And I promise to take care of you always, no matter what condition you're in."
"Thanks," he said doubtfully. "What do you mean, 'condition'?"
"Well," Laark said smartly, releasing him and brandishing his lightsaber. "My father told me a legend about a Skywalker who was badly injured, became a vegetable actually, couldn't move or talk or eat or pee or anything, and his Lightshiner was stuck with him for the rest of his life because the Skywalker's mind still worked, it was just trapped in his useless body."
Luke drew his own saber. "That's horrible," he said truthfully.
"Indeed it is. Can you imagine me being stuck with a vegetable?" Laark ignited his saber. "Ready for more practice? I'll wipe the ground with you, lord!"
"Hmm. Just be careful you don't injure me. I might turn into a vegetable."
And he took advantage of Laark's horrified moment of reflection to send
the Lightshiner's saber flying again.
"Not that one! That one!" Han bellowed from under the Falcon.
Chewbacca threw the torch aside with a snarl. Han would never make up his mind, and he was tired of acting as mechanic for this useless equipment. Solo should have never bought this new scanner from Jabba. Fool, Han sometimes was, hoping to ingratiate himself with the Hutt. He'd paid the debt; he should have left it at that. But, no, not Han-o. He'd bought--bought!--gear for the Falcon from that scoundrel. And now they were paying for it again, in hours of labor and repair. Foolish, foolish Han. He would tell him so, but what was the point? No one was as stubborn as his Han-o.
"What are you doing?" Han's head appeared at the top of the ladder. "Taking a nap?"
Chewie snarled. *I try to restore that worthless device which you have inflicted upon us. If you do not approve, get yourself another first mate! I am done with your folly!*
"All right, all right, calm down. Why don't we break for a meal? Maybe that'll put you in a better frame of mind."
*Meal would be good for the stomach. Only less foolishness from you will alter my state of mind.* He descended the ladder after his unpredictable human friend. Han would never change. But, then, humans rarely did.
A signal horn warned of an incoming ship. Turning to the sound, Chewie saw a small figure running across the bay toward them. *Wedge,* he pointed out to Han. Han stopped.
"Did you hear?" Wedge called when he was within shouting distance. He waved wildly, pointing behind him.
"It's Luke! Luke--he's back!"
Chewie turned his head and studied the vehicle that approached. It was an alien shuttle, a type he'd never seen, but beautifully crafted. It made a perfect landing--he would have recognized the Young One's light touch even if he hadn't known the identity of the pilot.
Han let out a whoop and raced across the bay, Chewie following at an only slightly more sedate pace. Han had missed the pup more than Chewie had thought he would. There was friendship between them, but it held something else. A fine father Han would make one day; he needed children of his own to guide, instead of experimenting on the Young One. Still, both of them had seemed to benefit from the relationship.
The ramp lowered slowly, too slowly for the impatient Han. Eventually feet appeared. Chewie watched in fascination as a long black cloak--Vader, he thought instinctively--glided down the ramp. It swayed with its owner's commanding stride. Not the Young One, surely it was Vader--but no! Beneath that mysterious hood, was that their little Luke?
A second man appeared, similarly cloaked and hidden, but dressed in warm brown, the color of Wookiee females. Then the first man pushed his hood off his head and revealed a smiling face. Was this Luke Skywalker?
Chewie gawked. Yes...and no. This man--not a boy any longer--this man was young but his eyes were old with wisdom, older than any Wookiee Chewie had known, and his bearing was more imperial than the Spunky One's had ever been. This man was made of precious metals, platinum and gold, and he glowed even more than when they'd met him on Tatooine. His hair was long, a full year's worth of growth caressing his shoulders. And his face had changed in a way Chewie knew was most pleasing to humans--smoother? No, they called it handsome. Strong jaw. Firm mouth. The exotic blue of the eyes was still the same, but now they were full of the radiance of stars. Strangest of all the changes was an aura of power, limitless and forbidding, like nothing he'd ever felt. It seemed to fill the huge hangar bay. Chewie shivered.
"Luke?" Han's voice wavered uncertainly. He took a few steps forward. "Is that you?"
"In the flesh." At least the voice was the same.
Chewie relaxed and moved ahead. With surprising agility, the second man placed himself between Luke and his friends, one hand reaching under the cloak. For a weapon? Luke made a small gesture, and the man calmed. But he remained watchful, hovering at Luke's left shoulder like a guardian angel of legend.
Luke opened his arms and embraced first Han, then Chewie, and Wedge. "It's great to see all of you again." He waved to other pilots who hovered just out of speaking distance, strangers most of them. Too many young pilots had died in the last months.
The youthful exuberance was gone, Chewie noted with sadness. But Luke didn't look unhappy, only remote. *Welcome back, pup. We have missed you.*
"Thanks." Luke smiled, but no similar sentiment was expressed; Chewie knew the pup had rarely thought of them. Still, that was good. It was a sign of maturity. "This is my companion, Laark Lightshiner. Laark, this is Han Solo, Captain of the Millennium Falcon as well as captain--oh, general now--congratulations!--in the Rebel Alliance. His First Mate, Chewbacca of Kashyyk. And Commander Wedge Antilles."
"Pleased to meet you," Wedge said with his usual politeness. "Are you joining the Alliance? We can always use another good man."
Lightshiner's young face was unreadable. He pushed back his hood to reveal gold-flecked brown hair, burnished skin, and a pleasing countenance. "I serve my lord," he replied stiffly. "That is my function."
"Laark," Luke said in a aggravated tone.
"Well, it is!" For a moment, something warm sparkled from under the formal demeanor. Chewie wondered if the boy was Luke's friend or a servant. Or both. Uncommonly pale grey eyes turned his way. "I am my lord's Lightshiner," the Bronze One said in an explanatory tone.
Chewie nodded, hiding his surprise. The boy had read his mind. He felt Han shift uneasily and knew that his friend understood what had transpired.
"So." Han rocked on his heels. "Chewie and me were just going to grab something to eat. Why don't you join us?"
"I really should report in."
"Nah, then you'll be stuck forever. There's plenty of time for the Council. They're having one of their piss-and-moan sessions today. Wait until later and give them a little good news." He grabbed Luke's arm to lead him. The Bronze One stiffened and knocked away the Corellian's hand. Han glared at him. "Back off, junior."
From nowhere, a lightsaber appeared and was ignited. "Laark!" Luke hissed. "Put that away!"
Lightsaber? Another Jedi? Chewie's eyes widened. Oh, Luke would have many stories to tell.
"Master Luke, Master Luke, oh, thank the Maker you're safe!" As fast as his stiff legs could move him, Threepio came barreling toward them, following by an excitedly beeping Ar-too.
The Bronze One remain alert, saber brandished menacingly, his face an expressionless mask.
"I won't tell you again, Laark."
The cool tone reached the boy. After a moment's reluctance, he extinguished the saber and replaced it under his cloak. The youngster pouted. Chewie had seen that same expression on Skywalker's face; it evoked fond memories.
"Hi, Threepio, Ar-too. You're both looking well." Luke patted Ar-too's dome with more affection than he'd displayed for the humans. "We'll be happy to join all of you for lunch. If you'll excuse us for just a moment first." With a fixed smile, Luke grabbed young Lightshiner's hand and dragged him into the shadows below the shuttle.
Chewie couldn't hear the words, but the gist was clear. The Bronze One was being instructed in appropriate behavior. He hoped Luke was not too harsh with the boy; obviously, he was a Guardian and not familiar with their customs. Where was he from? Was he a Sith, too?--though Chewie was not certain if he believed Luke's claim to be Sith. Since the pup had been gone, he'd done much research and found little more than myths and fables. If such a place existed, it was well hidden. Still, he knew Luke would explain everything to them.
When the two young men rejoined them, Chewie growled softly and put
his hand on Luke's shoulder. This time the Guardian did not object, and
they headed for the canteen.
Han delivered a tray of beverages to the table and sat down. "So where were you?" he asked, struggling to remain cool despite this rush of anger he felt over the treatment he'd received from that punk Lightshiner--disrespect that Luke had tolerated.
Luke hesitated, though the question could not have been unexpected. He slid a sideways glance at Wedge. "Sith." He watched Wedge as he spoke.
The younger Corellian laughed uneasily. "That bad, huh?"
Luke shook his head. "No. That's where I was. Sith. The planet Sith."
"I don't understand."
"Join the party," Han interjected sarcastically. "So you spent a year on that planet of paradise? Terrific. Learn anything, sport?"
Lightshiner whispered something in Luke's ear, and his friend nodded. Then Laark sniffed and folded his arms, glaring at Han with obvious dislike.
*It has been a difficult year for the Rebellion,* Chewie explained anxiously. *Your--Lord Vader led the Imperial troops on victory after victory. Many lives were lost--many people you will not see again.*
"I'm sorry to hear that," Luke answered, not sounding sorry at all. "There was nothing I could do."
"Mothma thinks differently," Han retorted tightly. "After you left, bad luck seemed to dog us. She believes in that Force crap of yours." And there had been moments when he believed it too; believed in Luke, believed that a young Jedi had been sent to rescue them. But Luke had deserted them, and hell had filled his empty place.
Luke patted Lightshiner's arm as if to quiet an angry pet. "I'm glad to see the three of you are still all right. How's Leia?"
He resented that Sith brat or whatever he was. Apparently he could communicate telepathically with Luke--and what he was saying wasn't complimentary to the Rebels. "Good enough," he said shortly, because Leia was none of Luke's damn business. "And another thing, why the hell was Vader leading the Imperials? I thought he went with you."
"With Luke?" Wedge interrupted, totally bewildered. "Why would Vader go with Luke?"
Han bit his lip and stared fixedly at the ceiling. He hadn't meant to mention Luke's parentage--but now that he had, how would Luke weasel out of it?
"He...came after me." Luke looked down at his entwined fingers. It wouldn't take a genius to see that Antilles was being cut out of the conversation. A good thing, because Wedge was no intellectual.
Wedge took several deep breaths, looking around the table at the others who remained silent. Color rushed into his face. Then he stood. "I see. Well, I have to...get to work. Excuse me. Good to have you back, Luke. And to have met you." He inclined his head toward the other Sith.
Regret was plain on Luke's face, and it pleased Han that something could break through that aloof air. The younger man turned back to him. "Lord Vader was with me."
"He commanded the Imperial troops--"
"--telepathically," Luke finished. "From Sith."
The information didn't faze Han. "And you let him."
"For awhile, I didn't know. When I found out, there wasn't anything I could do to stop him. He is responsible, after all, to the Emperor."
He liked nothing about the boy's manner. There was too much self-assurance, damn near arrogance. Too much like Vader. "Just how hard did you try to stop him? Not at all? And why should you. Corellians have a saying: Blood will tell. Well, I guess your blood finally caught up with you. Tell me one thing--why did you bother to come back here?" His glare was torn between Luke and Lightshiner, who appeared to be endlessly whispering in Luke's ear.
"I promised I would. Han--"
"Worthless promises we don't need. We've had plenty." Han pushed back his chair and stood. A beverage container toppled with the force of his movement, spilling clear liquid across the table. This Luke was truly a Vader. This Luke would lie to get what he wanted; he could feel the difference, the power, and it both frightened and infuriated him. "Why don't you go back where you came from--Sith!" He spat out the word, turning it into the vile curse that it was.
Filled with bitter disappointment, he strode from the canteen. This wasn't his friend. He didn't know how he knew--but he could feel it.
Luke stared at the spreading pool of juice, listening to the sound of hard, angry footsteps pounding away. His father had warned him that he would no longer fit Outside. He was Sith now; his former friends would not accept that--or him.
*Try to forgive Han,* Chewie said. *We lost many friends--most of your old squad. And Leia was injured.*
He looked up quickly. "Is she all right?"
*She is recovered, but she is not the same. Much anger in her. I fear she blames you, too, for the change in fate.*
"But you don't?"
*I am more sensible than these pups. If your actions were responsible, I know it was not malicious on your part but rather the result of fate itself.*
He wondered if the change was because of him or was it just part of Sith's plan? He suspected the latter. He leaned back, resting against Laark's shoulder. His Lightshiner still whispered nonsense to him, that constant comfort he offered when times were difficult. Luke closed his eyes.
*Will you stay after you've seen the Council?*
"Yes." He didn't offer further explanation. The plans with his father were too daring, too tightly woven to risk unraveling by the Rebels. He would tell the Council nothing of their true plans to govern the galaxy; in view of what had happened in his absence, they would have no reason to trust him anyway. He would tell them only enough to intrigue them with his mysterious powers and to give them a promise of victory in the future.
*Do you wish me to leave now?*
He gathered his thoughts and opened his eyes. "No. I'm sorry, Chewie. I don't know what I was expecting, but it never occurred to me that Han would feel--would be so angry. I'd hoped he and everyone else would be glad to see me."
*He is glad. When he heard you arrived, he was excited. I think he is jealous that you have a new friend. Afraid, maybe, that you will no longer need friendship with him. Angry that you return looking better than before, unscathed.*
"He wanted me to be hurt?"
*To be disillusioned. He fears this birthright of yours.* Chewie blinked a few times. *Is it true? You are Sith?*
*And did you find what you needed?*
You found your Lightshiner! Laark transmitted proudly. What more do you need?
Luke smiled. Enough, Lightshiner! "I found many things. Things I'd never dreamed existed. Mostly I found knowledge." You talk too much, lord. Wrap it up. "And now I must see the Council. Chewie, did Leia tell them about my father?"
*No. She and Han-o talked about it, decided to respect your wishes. She is not as unyielding as you think, pup.*
He accepted the gentle chastising with more grace than Laark did. His Lightshiner bristled and frowned. "I'm glad to hear that. Because I want to tell the Council the truth." The Truth According to Skywalker. Gently, he insinuated his will into Chewie's mind, traveled back to the day he had told his friends about his father. With a feathery-light touch, he eradicated that knowledge from the Wookiee's mind. The amazement he still felt when he used his new powers held only a trace of regret.
Chewie leaned back in the chair, hands clasped behind his head. *I wish I could be an oomvarc on the wall when you tell them--* Chewie hesitated. *What is it you will tell them?*
Luke smiled. "I'll tell them I'm a Sith and that I've come into my powers. I'm going to use those powers for the benefit of the Alliance."
"Yes," the Wookiee said vaguely. "Good luck, Young One. And luck to you, Guardian.*
"Thank you, Sir Chewbacca from Kashyyk." Laark smiled his approval. "I am pleased to have made your acquaintance." He may be a strange-looking creature, but he's much nicer than the others.
Luke stood, Laark rising up behind him like his shadow. He clasped Chewie's hand briefly, then they left the canteen. There were few people here he recognized and even fewer as they travelled the corridors of this makeshift building. One young man caught his attention. Their eyes met, and Luke recognized him--though how he could never explain--as a fellow Sith. The pilot nodded slightly, and Luke understood it was obeisance to the future Great Lord of Sith.
See? Laark whispered in his head. I told you they would recognize you! And you picked him out right away--you're finally getting smarter, lord!
Thanks so much.
He wondered if Leia would be at the Council meeting. His heart beat a little faster at the prospect of seeing her after so long.
She is the one with which you will bond?
No! She's not-- Must you listen to everything I think?
Of course! Otherwise I might not hear wonderful praises of me!
Luke groaned and tried to clear his mind. It was impossible. If you're going to keep this up, I won't let you come before the Council with me.
I'll still hear you.
Hear me, fine. Just quit talking!
There was an immediate silence in his head. He snuck a glance at Laark. There was a pout on the delicate features, but it was definitely an artificial one. Stifling a grin, Luke halted in front of the small chamber where he sensed the Council in session. Two armed guards studied them.
"We will see the Council now," he intoned firmly. "Admit us."
The soldiers were not particularly weak-minded men, but his powers had increased a hundredfold since Obi-Wan had taught him. He wondered if he could make everyone do his will. Unthinkingly, he waited for Laark's affirmation, taken aback when he didn't hear it. His mind trembled with the small shock. I meant don't talk while I'm talking to the Council. That's all. Don't be angry.
Laark made an indignant noise in his throat. The guards opened the set of doors, and they stepped inside. He was ready with the plan he'd rehearsed with his father, ready with the story that held as much truth as they dared tell. It would require only his skills in Force persuasion to maneuver the Alliance and Empire conflict to a head. Then they would destroy Palpatine and, with him, the Darkside's freedom.
Circling an oval table sat a trio of familiar figures: Mothma, Rieekan, and Leia. A fourth man, a stranger in the uniform of a general, was at Leia's side. Without hesitation, Luke delved into the man's mind, dredging out all the information he needed. Crix Madine, Corellian, ex-Imperial, no living family. Covert Operations--a former spy. Didn't want to sit on the Council, but Mothma had insisted, resulting in Madine holding a deeply-buried feeling of resentment against the Alliance leader.
Enough. Luke shared the information with Laark, then cut off the contact. They approached the table, and four pairs of eyes focused on them, their expressions uniformly puzzled and alarmed. He sent a message: Leia! Her brown eyes widened, and she rose to her feet. "Luke!"
By that word, she identified him to the others; he knew they had not recognized him, changed as he was. "Leia." He smiled at her, touching her mind. She was pleased to see him, relieved, but underneath was a great sadness, a repressed rage. He felt a twinge of conscience, but put it aside and turned to the others. Later there would be time for Leia.
"Mon Mothma." He bowed to her, gave Rieekan a genuine smile, and sent a polite nod to Madine.
"Command-- Jedi Skywalker. You have returned."
Oooh, isn't she the observant one? Please tell me this isn't the Alliance's revered leader!
His lips twitched. Laark--
Oops, sorry. I'll be quiet.
He would believe it when he heard it--or didn't hear it. "Yes, ma'am. This is my companion, Laark Lightshiner."
"Honored," Laark said with a straight face and an elegant bow.
She nodded at him and gestured to the table. "And this is General Madine. Please join us. We are interested in hearing your report."
What report? She wants a report on your vacation?
Luke smiled gravely. "I understand that the tide of war has turned against the Alliance."
Rieekan leaned back in his chair. "Yes. We've been very unlucky. The Empire seems to know where we are, no matter how often we move our base. Even in space, we're not safe. They dog our every movement. Particularly Vader."
There was a significant pause. "Evidently your attempts to convert him were totally unsuccessful," Mothma finally said. "He was not left with a modicum of sympathy for our cause."
"Did you think he would be?" Madine asked sharply. He fixed his stare on Luke. "I heard about your Jedi beliefs and what you thought you could achieve with Vader. Had I been your commander, I would not have allowed it. All you accomplished was to give Vader access to our base, our plans and, apparently, some kind of knowledge of our thoughts."
"Harsh words, General," Rieekan said reprovingly. "And undeserved. Jedi Skywalker had the most sincere of motives."
"You put too much faith in your Jedi--or whatever he is." The unsympathetic gaze strafed Luke. "I knew Jedi twenty-five years ago. This one doesn't have the eyes of a Jedi. Perhaps he's a sorcerer, in league with Vader."
"That's enough, General Madine," Mothma said. "Forgive this rude greeting, Jedi. Please tell us what you have been doing and if you intend to remain with us. We tried to contact you on Tatooine, but were unsuccessful."
She's got the hots for you.
Like father, like son! That's why she keeps saying the J-word!
Luke cleared his throat, trying to banish the picture of Mothma panting after him or Anakin. "I was not on Tatooine, ma'am. And General Madine is not far afield in his assessment of me. I am not a native of Tatooine, I am a Sith. A sorcerer, perhaps, but that is only a word. I am a Jedi by choice and the son of a Jedi by birth." The half-truths flowed easily from his lips. He was a Jedi no longer; his father was right, they were all dead, their faith was meaningless. Sith was the true way. "I spent the last year on Sith, learning about the Force. Learning how to defeat the Emperor."
Hope and dismay warred for superiority on Mothma's serious face. As he expected, hope won. He could say anything now, and she would believe him. He wondered if she'd loved his father. "Defeat Palpatine? How?"
"With my command of the Force and with the assistance of the Alliance, I can overcome the Emperor's sorcery." He folded his hands on the table, concentrating on her and Rieekan. Leia he could control, and Madine didn't have the ear of the others. "The Empire is building another Death Star."
An icy wind seemed to sweep through the room, reminding him of Hoth, of being lost in a blizzard, of Han's rescue of him, and then he felt the others' depression follow on the heels of his memories. This was nearly a death-blow for the Rebellion, he could sense it among the leaders. They had had no successes since the destruction of the first Death Star; now that sweet victory was nullified.
Mothma closed her eyes briefly; when she reopened them, they were unfocused and full of desperation. "Another Death Star...."
"Yes, but we can destroy it." He projected his Force voice at them, returning the hope he'd just stolen. "The Death Star is under construction, and soon Palpatine will allow your spies to learn its location. He wishes you to attack because, although it appears unfinished, it is fully operational. It is situated in the Endor system, protected by a shield generator located on the Sanctuary Moon. The Alliance must disable that generator and attack the Death Star with all your firepower. While the Emperor is distracted by your relentless attack, I will use my Force powers and defeat him."
"Wait." Rieekan held up one hand. "You're going too fast--where will you be?"
"Wherever the Emperor is--the Death Star or the Executor."
"How are you going to get aboard either of those? And how did you obtain all this information?"
Luke lowered his eyes, again willing Leia to remain silent. "I have access."
"Vader," Mothma breathed. "You were successful with Vader!"
He did not reply to the comment. Instead he looked directly into her eyes, demanding her obedience. "Will the Alliance heed our plans?"
"Indeed we will, Jedi Skywalker." Mothma smiled, and Rieekan nodded his agreement.
"Slow down," Madine interrupted. "I don't like this. Rieekan's correct--this is too fast. We need to think."
Corellians! Are they all so rude?
"Of course," Luke said smoothly, still using Force persuasion. "Please, discuss it among yourselves and advise me. When you agree, I will put my plan in motion." He stood and looked down at Mothma. "You wanted the return of the Jedi. We are here." Behind him, he sensed Laark brushing aside his cloak and displaying his lightsaber, leaving the implication obvious. Beautiful, my Lightshiner! "For the sake of the galaxy, I hope you will accept our help. Ladies. Gentlemen." His nod encompassed them all, then he and Laark swept out of the room.
They would agree and would vote down Madine. Even Leia would trust him, he could feel it. The Rebel Alliance, so humbled by Vader's attacks over the last year, so depleted in ranks, would confront the vast Imperial army and navy in a last, desperate stand. That would, necessarily, mean the death of the Alliance, but Palpatine's demise would also destroy the cohesion of the Empire.
No Empire, no Alliance. Nothing would be left but Sith. And they would rule.
Yes! Laark's glee-filled thought was broadcast clearly. Your father has taught you well.
Indeed he had. But Sith had taught him more. Luke Skywalker had come a very long way from the naive soldier who believed that the Alliance held the only path to freedom. Now he knew that true freedom was the result of guidance by a benevolent ruler.
And Sith was nothing if not benevolent.
"Your friends are strange," Laark commented as he unpacked his second duffel.
Luke watched in silent resignation as Laark filled all the drawers of the single small chest with his own clothes. "Can I have one drawer?" he asked finally.
"I'll unpack for you," his Lightshiner answered evasively. "If you hadn't told me they were friends, I would have thought they didn't like you. Except the Wookiee. I've never met a Wookiee before, but he was quite pleasant. Good manners. Much better than that Solo, though I'd heard that about Corellians, that they're outspoken. I'd call it rude. He certainly didn't like me, did he?"
"Maybe drawing your saber on him had something to do with it." With a yawn, Luke fell back on his bunk. "I'm wiped."
"You need to build up your stamina, lord. And you must not fall asleep in your clothing. Come, sit here."
There was no arguing with Laark. Wearily, Luke obeyed and dragged himself to the single hard chair. "We need another chair if we're sharing this room."
"I'll see to it."
Oh, he didn't doubt that. The fleet quartermaster didn't stand a chance when Laark came shopping. They'd only been on base for a few hours and already his room had a second bunk, new linens for both bunks, a full length mirror, and four sets of boot stands. "And maybe another chest," he added hopefully.
"After I find a bigger room. This one is much too small."
"It's fine, Laark. It's standard."
"We're not standard, lord. We deserve better. And we shall have it."
He watched in the mirror as Laark fumbled through his bag, tossing his clothes on the floor. "Hey, that's my stuff--watch it! You're making a mess!"
"You worry too much, lord."
How many times had he heard that? Luke closed his eyes. After a moment, he felt Laark's hand in his hair, freeing it from his collar. Then a brush pulled through it. He smiled. Such luxury. No one but Laark had ever brushed his hair--then again, he'd never had this much hair. Perhaps it was sheer vanity, but he enjoyed the way he looked now. After a lifetime of being unimportant, it was satisfying to finally be-- "Ouch!"
"Sorry, lord. If you combed it more often, you wouldn't have these tangles."
"You comb it," he commanded lazily, feeling very much the royal. Was this how Leia had been raised, her every whim pampered? "Ouch!" he said again when Laark smacked his shoulder with the hairbrush. "What're you doing?"
"You mind your manners, lord. You're not my master." The brushing resumed.
Luke tilted his head backwards and looked up at the stern face. "Yes, I am. You even call me master."
"A simple turn of phrase, meant to flatter your ego."
"It worked. From now on, I'll be impossible."
"You're already impossible." Laughter danced under the severity. "Put your head down or I'll stop."
"Don't stop." He obeyed, feeling relaxation flood his limbs as the brushing continued. Would his mother have done this? Had she combed his fine hair when he was a baby? If she had, then how could she have left him?
"Hush," Laark said softly. "You don't know what happened. Do not look for pain, lord. It will find you often enough."
Luke looked in the mirror and met the grey eyes. He nodded. Though they were the same age, Laark was so different from him, both in maturity and understanding. Sometimes Laark was childish and petulant; other times, he was as wise as Anakin Skywalker.
"That's because I'm your Lightshiner. I was raised to be wise."
"Evidently you were also raised to eavesdrop on your Skywalker's private thoughts."
"Absolutely," Laark admitted cheerfully. He gathered a handful of hair and brushed it upward. "Now, don't you feel better? There's nothing like a good scalp massage to ease your mind. All those little bristles scratch your brain and get rid of the negative thoughts."
He couldn't help but laugh. "I feel rejuvenated, thank you, my Lightshiner." Then he sobered. "Did Mon Mothma and my father really...?"
"They certainly did." Laark grinned at him in the mirror. "At least, that's what my father says."
Luke groaned. "You don't think she's my mother, do you?"
"Oh, Sith save us! No, no, they were lovers years and years before we were born! What a terrible thought!" Laark gave a mock shiver. "That's almost as bad as me pretending to be a Jedi! Wait until Mari hears!"
"You'll never live down the disgrace," Luke teased. He stood and stretched. "I'm going to find Leia. Wait for me here, and we'll go to dinner together."
"I can't wait--I must see the quartermaster." Laark looked around their room with manifest disapproval. "This is totally unacceptable."
Luke shook his head and departed to search for Leia. Remember, I can't bond until you do, lord! So get moving!
Stop eavesdropping! I want to talk to Leia privately! He waited until he knew Laark had broken contact, and then considered his Lightshiner. After they destroyed Palpatine, they would go Home and he would be bonded. If he didn't pick someone, his father would. And if his bondmate was not someone he could learn to love, at least he would have Laark's companionship. Between Sith, his father, and Laark, he would never be lonely.
The base was totally unfamiliar, but he used his Force perception to wind his way through the portable huts and skeleton buildings that were built to be abandoned. It wasn't difficult to locate Leia; her aura was as familiar to him as his own, even with its current dark undertones. Han was with her, his anger making ripples in the Force. He felt a rush of relief that Leia wasn't alone; for reasons he didn't want to examine, he had no desire to be alone with her. He paused in front of a low structure that he sensed housed the senior officers of the Alliance. Carefully, he probed Leia's mind, searching for the root of her rage. He found the sensitive, protected area, closed his eyes, and let the memories rush over him.
There was darkness, hiding in the darkness, fear, discovery, capture. His mind brushed past the brief episode of torture at the hands of ignorant soldiers, the imprisonment, then he felt the invasion--a rape. That was the source of her hatred, her frustration. A youthful Imperial stormtrooper, an impetuous moment, a rash deed that bruised the Princess's pride more than her body.
Luke withdrew his contact, trembling. Her pain didn't break through his shields, not quite; he didn't feel the compassion that he knew he should and hated himself for it. Almost--almost he felt satisfaction that she had finally been humbled.
He bit his lip. A year ago, he would have been devastated. A year ago, he would have been filled with rage. A year ago, he would have tracked down that trooper and killed him. A year ago, he would have felt like Han.
No longer. Sith had given him a different perspective on human suffering and the pitiful wishes of the species. Individual misery and grief was regrettable, but frequently necessary for the greater good of the galaxy. Perhaps Leia could be made to understand that. If she lived through the coming cataclysmic confrontation, she would be a leader of the Alliance. She needed to have a thorough, unbiased perspective on life and its travails. She, as everyone else, would come to understand that Sith was the true god of all the galaxy.
He concentrated on Leia and Han. Gently, he reached into Leia's mind and began altering her memory of his father. For a moment he considered erasing the remembrance of her attack, but that would serve no useful purpose. It was part of her character now and to remove it might have grave consequences.
The act was more difficult than it had been with Chewie; her mind seemed to resist him. A touch of the Force was with her, he realized without surprise, accepting that somehow he had always known. But he was stronger by far, and his will prevailed. He completed the memory eradication and broke the connection, resting for a moment before he confronted Han's mind.
The Force was with Han, too; interesting, but again, not surprising. Among the things he'd learned from Sith was that Force-strong individuals would always be attracted to him. But Han's Force held much Dark potential, and Luke skirted around it carefully. Before long he would be facing the Dark himself, and in his mind, he pictured it as a huge black monolith that stretched infinitely into the sky. This feeble Darkness of Han's was unimportant in comparison; still, he didn't want to be tainted further. He found the memory he sought and attempted to erase it, but it evaded him. He concentrated harder, but still he could not smooth it away. In a fit of annoyance, he grabbed it and ripped it out of Han's mind, heedless of the consequences to his friend. Then he felt Han's pain and confusion. Was this what his father meant about destroying his friends? But Han wasn't dead; he'd have a hell of a headache for awhile, that was all.
Luke broke their connection and shrugged. If Han didn't feel better in a few hours, he'd assist. But it was preferable if Solo thought he was merely suffering from a particularly agonizing, but normal, headache.
It was a relief to know that he'd eliminated the knowledge of his parentage
from the Outsiders. With a pleased smile, Luke headed back toward the canteen,
calling silently to Laark to meet him. They would both relax tonight. Tomorrow
would be the beginning of their work. And the beginning of the end of the
Alliance and the Empire.
"...and after this appalling tasteless dinner, we'll go to the cantina. A very charming lady told me they're having dancing tonight," Laark muttered under his breath, all the while smiling across the table to the senior staff they had joined for the evening meal.
"A very charming lady, hmm?"
"What about Mari?"
"Mari's charming! But she's not here," Laark pointed out practically. "Anyway, you're unattached. Maybe you'll meet a babe."
"I don't have much luck with 'babes'." He chuckled quietly at Laark's flippant use of the slang.
His Lightshiner looked at him seriously. "I can give you some advice on how you could be luckier."
"How?" Luke asked, accepting the bait willingly.
Laark leaned against his arm and whispered in his ear: "When we walk into the cantina, don't hold my hand. It's a dead giveaway you're not interested in babes."
"You--! I--! Laark!" Luke whispered heatedly. "I don't--well, I do, but it doesn't mean--"
"On the other hand, that cute General Madine has the hots for you," Laark whispered airily, ignoring his spluttering protests. "Is he playing footsie under the table?"
"Laark! First it was Mothma, now Madine?"
"You're right." Laark frowned. "There is something wrong when you only attract attention from those old enough to be your parents."
"Great Sith!" Luke clenched his fingers around his knife. "I don't--"
"Lord, you'll hurt yourself!" The teasing was gone, and Laark took hold of the knife and pulled it away. "I didn't mean to upset you. I understand why you grab my hand. You crave physical contact."
Luke groaned. "You're making it worse."
It was Laark's turn to be flustered. "I mean physical contact with me--that is, well, because I'm your Lightshiner! It strengthens our mental bond when our bodies are touching--part of our bodies. I mean, not any particular part, just-- Oh, lord! You're so confusing!"
Luke finally gave in to laughter. This was what he'd missed by not having siblings. "No, I'm confused--you're confusing!"
"Hrmph." Laark sniffed. "Go ahead, tease me. You'll pay for it later."
"Believe me, I know. I'll pay for it whether I tease you or not, so I may as well have a little fun at your expense."
"You're brutal." Laark pouted. "I'm certain that your father was never so mean to my father."
"That may be true," Luke admitted, carefully protecting the thought that came to his mind: Anakin, warning him to beware of Laark's ambitions, reminding him that Laark had not been raised as his servant, that Laark might have some independent aspirations. "Now behave yourself and eat."
"Very well." Laark raised his voice to join in the general conversation. "So, General Madine, do you come here often?"
Luke choked on the piece of bread he'd just bitten off. Great, Laark--now he'll be interested in you!
"Oh, dear," his Lightshiner said aloud. This is what happens when you have an army full of boys and not enough girls to play with.
"Pardon?" Crix Madine inquired politely.
Laark patted Luke's back. "Lord Skywalker seems to be choking," he said as he gave the general a dazzling smile. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked Luke solicitously. "Here, have a sip of water."
If you throw that in my lap, I swear I'll--
Lightshiner replaced the glass. "I guess not. Feeling better, sir?"
Madine leaned his elbows on the table. "Just what is your function with 'Lord' Skywalker, Light--uh? Are you his servant?"
"Lightshiner. That is both my name and my function," Laark said brightly. "It's traditional with Sith. We are what we are called and vice versa."
The general leaned back in his chair. "Oh," he said finally, his brows drawing together as he searched for a grain of logic in the answer.
A feeling of inescapable dread came over Luke as he considered what Laark would say next. Whatever it is, say it in your head, not aloud--please!
I was merely going to say that it's lucky for me my name isn't--
I changed my mind--I don't want to hear it!
But it's such a good--
But it's so clever and--
NO! End of discussion.
Bootlicker, Laark said.
There was a silence, but Laark being Laark, it didn't last. He looks as though he'd enjoy that. He's probably going to ask if one of my duties is to polish your--
No. Now shut up and I mean it.
Fine. Be that way. I'm going to tell my father you're mean to me.
Luke giggled, then bit his lip as he realized everyone could hear him. Damn you--
AND you curse at me! My daddy won't like that. He'll tell your daddy. And your daddy will--
"Excuse me," Luke said, horrified to hear his voice break on the last syllable. He coughed to cover his giggling, but he was not quite successful. He rose, and his napkin slid to the floor.
"Whoops." Laark rose with him and bent to retrieve the cloth.
"Sit," Luke commanded, pointing his finger at Laark's chair. "Stay."
Across the table, Mothma made a low sound that he realized was an amused snort. "Pardon me," Luke squeaked again and left the room as quickly as he could. He barely made it into the hall before he had to clap his hand over his mouth so his explosion of mirth wouldn't be heard by the officers still in the canteen.
He leaned against the door jamb, weak with laughter, mind filled with amusement, totally unprepared to be grabbed and slammed against the wall. Hands pinned his shoulders, digging into them like claws.
"What the hell did you do to me, you son of a bitch?" Han Solo glared at him, fury radiating from his dark eyes.
"Don't play innocent with me, kid. My head feels like it's bleeding! What the hell did you do? If you're fucking around in my mind--"
He was saved from replying by the crash of the canteen door flying open. Laark rushed out, lightsaber flaring and raised to strike. He was followed closely by the alarmed senior staff. Luke used the Force to simultaneously toss Han out of the way of the saber's descent and to deflect Laark's aim. The blade came down through empty space and made a terrific noise as it sliced through the floorboards. He heard exclamations and a few muffled screams as all traffic in the corridor halted.
"Stop!" Luke commanded.
Laark glared at him, then at Solo. "Let me kill him, master," he begged, his voice filled with a frenzied fanaticism. "Let him be the first Outsider to die!"
He realized that Laark was on the verge of inadvertently revealing their plans. Silently, he closed mental fingers around Lightshiner's throat, squeezing until Laark dropped his saber and fell to his knees, gasping for air.
Never disobey me. This is the only warning I will give you. Just before the young man would have fallen unconscious, Luke released his hold and turned his attention to Han. Behind him, he heard Laark give a gasping sob as he struggled to his feet.
"Are you all right?" He helped Han rise.
"Yeah." Han rubbed the back of his neck. "No. Hell, no! I feel like shit. What did you--?"
"I didn't do anything, Han. Please believe me," Luke said sincerely. "I'm sorry you have a headache, but it's not my fault. I sense you're very tense. You're probably in pain from muscle strain. I can help alleviate that pain if you wish."
"No, thanks," Han muttered, staring at him. "Just keep away from me."
"Very well. We'll talk again tomorrow. I bid you all good night." Luke nodded to the assembled audience and began to walk down the corridor. Lightshiner, he commanded silently, and heard obedient footsteps following him.
He kept his thoughts closed and waited until they arrived in their shared room before he turned to Laark. "Look at me."
Laark raised his head. Luke didn't need to read his thoughts; the expressions in his eyes were clear: shock, anger, fear, shame.
Luke smiled tightly. "You will not disobey me again," he said quietly. "You are my friend and my servant, and I allow you great freedom. But I do not allow disobedience. Do you understand?"
"Yes, master," Lightshiner replied, a faint quiver in his voice.
"Good. Then we'll get along fine." Luke hugged Laark, ignoring the stiffness he felt. "Now, tell me. Were you successful in finding us a larger room?"
"Tomorrow. We'll get it tomorrow, lord." Laark's face was still pale. "I'll move all our things over there in the morning. I'm sorry I couldn't get it today, lord."
"I think it's a miracle you found a room at all. They're very stingy with them."
Laark wasn't responding to anything he said. Luke steered his Lightshiner to sit in front of the small table and reached for the brush.
"Let's see if we can get all those negative thoughts out of your head." He ran the brush through hair that was much thicker than his. He'd never touched anyone else's hair before, and it was a curious sensation. It made him feel very paternal. He reopened his feelings and allowed Laark to see that his friendship hadn't changed.
The grey eyes watched him in the mirror. Luke smiled slightly. "Your hair is warm," he commented.
"Yours is cool when I start brushing it," Laark replied cautiously.
"Hmm. I wonder why?" He was giving Laark an opening to make a teasing comment, but nothing was forthcoming. He stifled an impatient sigh. "Are you going to stay angry with me forever? I still love you."
"I know." Something flared brightly in Laark's eyes. "And it makes me wonder what you'll do when you get tired of me."
Anger blossomed like a fierce flower. Luke carefully put the brush aside, struggling for control. He sensed Laark waiting, wondering if he'd pushed his master too far.
"I hope that won't happen." Luke bent over and peered at himself in the mirror. "Shall we go to the dance? You can give me some more 'babe' lessons."
"Yes, lord," Laark agreed warily. He seemed to force himself out of his guarded attitude. "Maybe you'll get lucky this time."
"Maybe." Luke smiled at his charge. Laark would be all right. It was just another small hurdle in their relationship. Once Laark learned where the line was drawn, they would have no more problems. "Will you learn?" he asked softly.
"Yes, master, I'll learn." Laark's face became drawn, aging as if years
had passed this night, rather than minutes. "I'll learn where the line
is, and I'll learn not to cross it. I'll learn to be like my father. I'll
learn to keep loving you despite fearing and hating you so much that sometimes
I'll go home and throw up. I'll learn how to overlook your lies and your
cruelty and how to defend them in the presence of others. I'll learn how
to live with the Darkness and how to accept what it does to my family.
But there's one thing I don't have to do, master." Laark stared at him
unblinkingly. "I don't have to like you."
Those few moments with Laark reminded him of Hoth. First cold, then numbness, then the knowledge that he was dying and nothing would prevent it.
On Hoth, Han had prevented it. Han had risked his own life to save him. But here he was alone; he had to save himself.
What had Laark said? ...learn to be like my father.
Like my father. That was one thing they had in common. For if anyone had learned to be like his father, it was Luke Skywalker.
Luke stepped out of the way as a group of pilots passed by him and entered the hangar bay. He didn't know why he was loitering here, only that he hadn't seen Laark since last night--or Han or Chewie. He'd spent part of the morning with the Council, outlining the plan, all the while very aware that Leia refused to meet his eyes. It was evident that she believed Han and had begun to distrust him. Almost he had delved into her mind to force her trust--but realized what he was about to do and stopped. All the powers his father had taught him--erasing and altering memories, invading the privacy of others, projecting his Force voice to make others obey his will--he'd sworn he'd never use them frivolously and now he did without thought for the consequences.
But he couldn't blame Anakin Skywalker for the change in himself. He alone was responsible. He'd accepted what was offered and enjoyed using his powers. Even now, he was going along willingly with his father's plan to overthrow Palpatine and rule the galaxy. He could hide behind pretty words like oligarchy, but didn't he, in the deepest recesses of his heart, long to hear himself addressed as Emperor Skywalker?
He could turn down the twin temptations of Power and Omnipotence when offered their shadows in a mystic treecave. In real life, he embraced them.
He had become what he feared most.
Luke shook his head as if that would jar loose all those ambitions he disliked in himself. It crossed his mind, then: Laark with the hairbrush ...get rid of the negative thoughts. If only it were that simple.
Or was it? Was that what Sith had tried to tell him? The simplest decision, the strongest emotion. Even Anakin had told him to trust his heart.
Raised voices distracted him. Wedge Antilles was arguing with a mechanic and gesturing toward a battered-looking R2 unit. Luke crossed the bay and joined them. The mechanic shrugged.
"If that's the way you want it."
"That's the way I want it," Wedge affirmed grimly. He waited until the man, muttering dire predictions under his breath, headed for the R2, then he turned to Luke. "Hi, stranger."
"Hi. What's going on?"
"You don't want to know." There was nothing rude in Wedge's tone, but Luke knew it was a well-deserved rebuff.
He accepted it with a nod. "Any of the old crew around?"
"They're all dead, Luke. Except me." There was no sorrow in the brown eyes, just weary acceptance as if all his sadness had been spent.
Luke squeezed Wedge's shoulder. "I'm so sorry," he said, meaning it this time. He remembered all of them, could almost pretend that they were the ones in the pilots' uniforms who now wandered around the fighters. "Tomas?" he asked, needing confirmation that the bright, promising youngster who'd joined the squad shortly before he'd left was gone also.
Wedge nodded. "All of them," he repeated. He gave a short laugh. "Half of the pilots we have now are former mechanics. There aren't enough volunteers signing up anymore. We're having to recruit from within."
"With inducements of high pay and seeing the galaxy?" Luke teased, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
"With the inducement that a quick death is preferable to captivity and torture by the Empire."
Luke caught his breath. "That's not going to happen. We're going to defeat Palpatine."
Wedge studied him. "I almost believe you, boss. I don't know what you did while you were gone, but you're different. If you told me you were going to take on old Palpatine singlehandedly, I'd trust you."
"I'm not that brave!" Luke laughed, though he privately acknowledged Wedge's intuitiveness. Perhaps Wedge had some of the Force with him, too, when he could guess such things and survive so long as a Rebel pilot, a career that had a very short life expectancy. "So what's wrong with your R2 unit? Why don't we take a look at it and let your mechanic get back to his flight training?"
Wedge laughed, tension visibly draining from his body. He slapped Luke on the back. "I missed you, boss. I hope you're staying for awhile."
"For as long as the Rebellion lasts," Luke vowed. Then he wondered exactly
what he meant by that promise.
One friendship mended. After the noon meal, Luke headed for the Falcon. This would be a more difficult bridge to cross--if he hadn't burned it completely. His senses told him Leia was there with Chewie and Han; partly he dreaded facing the three of them at once; partly he welcomed it. The ramp to the Falcon was down, but he hesitated before mounting it. Someone was watching him.
He turned. Partway across the bay a man in an orange flightsuit stared at him, then removed his helmet and bent forward, shaking loose a long mane of red-brown hair. Luke caught his breath. That pilot was a woman! A Sith woman. They stared at each other from a distance of a dozen meters. She made no acknowledgement and neither did he. But there was something so familiar about her-- Luke ventured a small smile, uncertain if she could see it from this distance. But she must have because her answering smile dazzled him. He took a step toward her. She shook her head and pulled the helmet back on. He watched as she climbed the ladder into a snub and waited until the fighter took off. Who was she? Laark? he asked silently, but received no response. That was one bridge that was definitely burned halfway through. Later, he promised himself, accepting that today would be spent reestablishing friendships and regaining trusts.
Only a Skywalker would think such difficulties could be repaired in one day. He could almost hear his father chastising him. He wished they could communicate, but it was too dangerous with Palpatine so near. It was not yet time to reveal his existence to the Emperor.
Resolutely, he put aside the image of the young woman. Not for the first time he wished his black jumpsuit had pockets so he could shove his hands in them. Maybe it was time to alter his Jedi--Sith?--uniform and make it more practical. He ran his fingers down the hilt of his lightsaber, hoping that would give him confidence. If he was this frightened to face his friends, how would he ever confront Palpatine?
Taking a deep breath, he strode up the ramp without announcing himself. He found them in the rec area, sitting around the game table but not playing any game. Leia stopped talking when he entered.
Han looked over his shoulder at him, then turned back to the table. His hands clasped together on its top.
*Hello, Luke.* Chewie's voice was soft and disappointed.
Leia didn't speak. Han took her fingers.
Luke swallowed. "Mind if I join you?"
Han laughed shortly. "Could we stop you?"
The comment stung; he read into it the deeper implications that Han meant. "Yes. With your words," he replied evenly. "But I hope you'll hear me out. I owe you some explanations."
*Han thinks you invaded his mind and altered his thoughts,* Chewie said hesitantly.
Luke nodded. "I did."
Han released Leia's hand and stood. "You son-of-a-bitch."
Truer than he knew. Luke bit his lip to prevent the nervous laughter that threatened to burst from him. "I also altered your memory, Chewie, and yours, Leia."
The curse Han uttered was colorful and extensive, full of words he'd never heard spoken aloud. "I should kill you--but, shit, I suppose I can't do that, can I? Are you a god now? Or are you just acting like one?"
"Just acting like one," Luke said mildly. "I have certain powers but they are not unlimited."
"That's a relief," Han snapped sarcastically.
"Han!" Luke spread his hands. He couldn't justify an act for which no justification could be given. "I apologize for altering your memory without your permission. And I apologize to Leia and Chewie, too. I acquired so much power that I became careless with it. It was imperative to remove the memory that I did, but I should have explained and asked permission first. I promise you I won't do it again."
Han paced across the small room. "What the hell are you doing, kid? You're up to your neck in something, aren't you?"
"Up to my neck and over my head," Luke agreed.
"Luke?" For the first time Leia spoke. "Are you telling the Council the truth about what's going to happen?"
How did he answer that? He had told the truth about defeating the Emperor, lied about impending rule of the Skywalkers, told the truth about the new Death Star and how it could be defeated--
But now he no longer believed that Skywalkers should rule--did that mean he'd told the truth about everything? "Yes," he said slowly, fingering the Sith talisman he still wore at his throat, "although some of the things were lies at the time I said them. They're all true now, though."
*How did your lies become truths?* Chewie asked quietly.
"I altered my beliefs. I saw what I was doing and that it was wrong." He turned back to Leia. "Everything will go as I outlined--except that I can't be certain what will happen when I confront Palpatine. Whatever happens to me, you'll be able to destroy the Death Star."
"But you might be on it."
He nodded ruefully. He wanted to live, but death would not be such a bad thing. It would be easier. "Han, will you do me a favor?"
"You've got to be kidding!" The Corellian glared at him, but the expression wasn't as fierce as it had been earlier. "What?"
"When I go to face Palpatine, I'll leave Laark here. Will you take care of him? And if I don't come back, see that the Alliance doesn't confiscate my cruiser. Laark needs it to get Home." He hesitated. "There are other Siths here. They'll need to go Home too."
"More Siths?" Han looked around suspiciously, though only the four of them were on the ship.
"Yes. If we don't defeat Palpatine, they must go Home. They'll die out here."
"Yeah, okay." Han shrugged. "Anything else?"
"I think that's quite enough, don't you?" Luke attempted a smile. They hadn't fully forgiven them, but there was the beginning of understanding in their auras. "Thank you for listening to me. I'm sorry I disappointed you. I disappointed myself, too."
He made a quick exit, knowing it would be easier for everyone than if he delayed. And now he had to face the one bridge that would be the most difficult--or the easiest--to repair. Laark? he called again in his mind as he descended the Falcon's ramp.
There was only emptiness where a response should have been. Luke stopped for a moment and bowed his head. This was too much like old times, full of emptiness. He wondered if this was how Laark had felt, all those years without a Skywalker, knowing what he was missing.
Luke looked around the bay. Some of the fighters were back in, but the one the woman had taken was not. Who was she? Laark could tell him, if he would. He wanted to scream at Laark and demand a response, but knew that it would be even more destructive to their relationship. Stifling a sigh he headed for the officers' quarters, hoping Laark had moved to their new room.
He probed gently, searching for Laark's presence without invading his consciousness. He felt nothing and knew Laark was blocking him. He was beginning to realize that his Lightshiner had some unique powers, and he didn't like it. It was threatening to have an entire planet believe you were omnipotent--except for one man.
Unfamiliar presences were behind the first several doors, then he sensed the barest hint of Laark. He opened the door. His Lightshiner was folding shirts and stacking them neatly in one of the two large chests in the room. Luke closed the door and leaned against it.
"Yes, master." The movements didn't cease; if anything, they became faster.
"Thank you for what you said to me last night."
Laark couldn't control a jolt of surprise, but he didn't speak.
Luke cleared his throat. "I don't want you to live that way, and I certainly don't want to be the cause of it. I don't want to be like that. Thank you for reminding me what I was doing and for pointing out what I was becoming. I'm very sorry for the way I treated you." How many apologies did that make so far today? Surely he was setting a new galaxy record. "Will you trust me again?"
Laark clutched a black tunic against his chest for a moment, then finished folding it and tucked it into the drawer. He stared at Luke for what seemed like a long time and finally smiled. Luke felt the flood of Laark's presence fill his mind. It was such an enormous relief that he crossed the room in two steps and flung his arms around his Lightshiner.
"I'm sorry to have been mean to you, lord."
He was trembling, his face buried against Laark's shoulder. "Not mean...I think it's called discipline."
Laark stroked his head. "Mean discipline, then. But it worked."
"Yes, it did." With a shaky laugh, Luke lifted his head and met the gray eyes. There were so full of understanding and love that Luke felt a flare of sorrow and need. He pulled away, dismayed by his emotions.
"It's all right, Luke."
"No, it's not. So...." He turned and studied the room. "This is a big improvement. Thanks for finding it. I won't ask how you did it!"
"Better you don't," Laark answered quietly. He touched Luke's arm. "The way you feel...it is all right, lord. As close as we're becoming, it's to be expected that you'll feel regret for what we are...and aren't."
"Laark...." He gestured helplessly. "I'm so confused--about everything."
"You're an entirely different person now. Of course, you're confused! It will pass. I'll help you."
"If I live long enough," he answered without thought. Laark's pain hit him. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
Laark shook his head. "You'll live. There's never been a Skywalker who died before twenty. Tradition says you make it at least until thirty."
He stared at his Lightshiner blankly. "I'm twenty-one."
Laark looked back at him with the same expression of incomprehension. "No, you're not. You're the same age as me. We're nineteen."
He fumbled behind him for a chair and sank onto it. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. You think I don't know how old I am?"
"Well, one of us doesn't! Unless we're not the same age."
"Of course we are. We have to be."
He stared ahead unseeingly. Owen had always been vague about his age and birth date, as well as when and how he'd gotten custody of Luke. But could Luke have been two years off in his own estimation of his age? And his mother, how did his mother figure into this new revelation? If he were two years younger than he'd thought...would that help his father determine the identity of his mother?
After the coming confrontation was over, he'd ask.
Laark was staring at him with a very odd expression on his face.
"What is it?" Luke asked.
"I'm not certain." Laark shook his head. "Nothing...for right now. But...does your father think you're twenty-one?"
"Of course. That's what I told him." Luke didn't press further; there was enough for him to think about without adding more ingredients to this already-rich soup. Besides, there was one important question he had to ask. "I met a girl--well, I didn't really meet her, but I saw her, and she's Sith. She's a pilot."
Laark nodded. "Red hair?"
"Yes!" He stared at his companion. "Who is she?"
"Dev's daughter. The youngest."
Once again he saw the tumbled auburn curls and the bright smile. Were her eyes black like her father's? "Did you know she was here?" he asked suspiciously.
"Did my father?"
"Did her father?"
"Has this all been preordained?"
"Don't ask me, ask Sith!" Laark said with a chuckle.
"Ah!" Luke leaned back in the chair. Was the entire parade of inappropriate mates just a ploy to distract him until he could meet Devlin? He grinned. "She's the one everybody thinks I'll fall for, isn't she?"
"I don't know." Laark twisted a shirt in his hand--one of Luke's, not his own. "Maybe. Maybe you'll get bonded and live happily ever after. And have lots of babies. Maybe you'll name the boy Laark. Laark Skywalker...is has a certain simplicity and elegance about it, don't you think? Then he'll be the next leader of Sith--well, after your father and you, of course--and everyone will say, there's Laark Skywalker, named after one of the greatest Lightshiners ever! The Lightshiner who allowed the Great Lord and Junior Lord to save the galaxy and destroy the Evil Emperor, the Lightshiner who made it possible for all Sith to live in harmony and peace with Outsiders, the Lightshiner--"
"--with the biggest mouth on Sith," Luke finished. "I'll bet your father never talked to my father this much!"
"Not if he knew what was good for him!"
They burst into childish giggles. "Tonight," Luke gasped, "tonight will you introduce me to Devlin?"
Because if he was facing Palpatine, he wanted to meet her. If he didn't come back, he wanted to have known her.
Laark's laughter stopped. "You'll come back, Luke. You have to."
He brushed Laark's hand, reluctant to take hold of it. "If I don't, I've made some plans for you. Take our cruiser and go back to Sith. Take any Siths who will go. Han will care for you in the meantime."
Laark bowed his head. This time there were no protests or arguments.
"Yes, lord. Thank you."
She was already in the rec area when they arrived, sitting at a table with five other pilots--all male, Luke noted with dismay. Wedge was sitting next to her; he hoped his friend wasn't interested in her.
He and Laark approached the group. "Hi, Wedge."
"Luke. Laark. Please join us."
He remained standing for the introductions, committing the names to memory. Then he gave in to the temptation to lightly probe Wedge's mind. There were no romantic inclinations toward Devlin--a touch of lust, but that was not unexpected. He smiled at her.
"It's a beautiful starlit night." He ignored Laark's mental, We're in space, lord--there's no other kind!, and continued, "Would you care to go for a walk, Devlin?"
She returned his smile. "Thank you," she said and rose gracefully.
Fast worker. Can I come along?
You can't even eavesdrop, he told his Lightshiner as he offered Devlin his arm. Her small hand wrapped around it.
She was very tiny for a pilot, he noticed, wondering if the controls had to be adjusted to accommodate her shortness. She was even littler than Leia. She barely topped his shoulder.
Their children would be midgets. He had a sudden vision: one each, boy and girl, beautiful and Force-strong.
There was no romance in strolling through the corridors of the big ship. Luke steered them to the observation lounge, using his Force powers--surely this wasn't Darkside!--to convince the people currently occupying it that they wanted to be elsewhere.
They sat on a small bench in front of the huge window. He felt very big and strong beside her. He looked down at her hair. It was shiny and rich with color; he longed to feel it sliding between his fingers. "Thank you for coming with me."
"You're welcome, lord. I'm honored to meet you."
"Please call me Luke," he replied, flustered. Did she see him just as a lord of Sith?
"Very well." She lowered her gaze. "Have you recently returned from Home? Did you see my family?"
"Yes. They're all well. Had I known about you, I would have brought messages."
She looked up. Her eyes were like Dev's, black as night. "No one mentioned me at all?"
"No." He hoped he hadn't hurt her feelings. "But I didn't have a chance to visit them very often."
She shook her head. "If they didn't talk of me, it was deliberate. They didn't wish to prejudice you."
"What do you mean?"
Devlin laughed musically. "Since you were not raised on Sith, maybe they worried you would resist an arranged bonding. Isn't that silly?"
He stared at the stars. The bonding was already set? It would have been nice to fall in love like a normal man. Can you read my mind? he asked silently. There was no reply, which both disappointed and relieved him.
"So you knew?"
"Of course. The Skywalker always bonds with a Starsinger."
He was getting tired of being called The Skywalker. "My father didn't."
She turned away. "No. He was the exception."
"It seems like the line would get very inbred," he continued spitefully, "so I suppose it's good he didn't." Immediately, he was ashamed of his childish attitude.
Her chin lifted. "He wanted to bond with my aunt, but she died. He took her away, and she died Outside." Was that an accusation in her voice?
"I'm sorry," Luke replied automatically, but he was thinking about Anakin. Had his father been in love or was that relationship just another Sith arrangement?
"It bothers you," Devlin said softly.
"Yes, but not because of you." He smiled at her. "I wanted..." To fall in love. "I wanted something in my life that wasn't planned by Sith."
"Oh." She tilted her head and looked up at him. "Only the bonding is planned by Sith. Other things are entirely up to us. We may even love each other."
Of course--everyone on Sith loved one another. But to have a cold-blooded discussion about it first.... Where was the magic he'd dreamed about?
"No," he lied with a smile. "Just taken aback. Can we pretend we don't know our future and just get to know each other?"
"As you wish, Luke."
She would obey him because he was the future Great Lord. Luke kept his smile steady. With persistence, maybe she would relax. "Then tell me about yourself. What caused you to disobey Sith traditions and join the Rebellion?"
She looked at him with surprise. "You did, of course! My father sent me here after you arrived on Sith."
He held onto his temper; she wasn't the one who angered him. "Why? It would have been simpler to meet there."
She lowered her eyes again. "My father said your father said you weren't ready to bond, so they didn't want to pressure you by introducing us."
He wanted to scream with frustration. Did his father and Sith do anything but manipulate him? What would happen if he didn't bond with Devlin? Could Sith stop him?
Then again, why wouldn't he want to bond with her? She was beautiful. Clever and brave, too, if she was an Alliance pilot. He hadn't met anyone else on Sith with whom he wished to bond, and he couldn't bring a non-Sith to live there.
"Have you been flying long?" he asked, opening an avenue of mutual interest
as he took Devlin's hand. There was no point in behaving like a spoiled
brat by denying his destiny. He would accept it like a Sith, just as she
Laark hovered anxiously as the team prepared for the short journey to the surface of the Sanctuary Moon. What an inappropriate name! There Luke would meet his father and be taken before the evil Emperor. No sanctuary at all.
He murmured a mental disapproval as Luke continued to help load the crew's supplies. Siths didn't do things like that for Outsiders! Would Luke ever learn?
"Got everything?" Lando asked his crew.
Laark approved of Baron Calrissian--he was very polite and softly spoken, and he treated Luke properly.
"Sure you don't need me along? Just to watch out for you?"
He glared at the Corellian. As if anyone would want Han Solo along to do anything whatsoever!
"You'll better serve the Alliance by piloting the Falcon," Luke said with some of the diplomacy he'd been taught.
Laark beamed at him. Well done, lord!
The crew boarded the captured Imperial shuttle, with Luke lagging behind. Laark slumped, but accepted that it was Luke's destiny to go. Everything will be all right, he said to both of them.
Luke smiled at him. Take care of yourself. Don't give Han a hard time. He's not so bad.
Compared to Palpatine, he's not! Otherwise-- Oh, lord, please be careful!
And...be careful of your father, too.
Laark...what do you mean?
You know. About the Darkness.
Luke sighed aloud. "I know. I will be." He smiled again. "Han, take care of my Lightshiner."
"Yeah, well, so long as he doesn't get in my way," Solo grumbled.
"I shall do my very best to stay out of your way, General," he retorted icily. "I have no more wish to be in your company than you do--"
Luke groaned. "Please. Don't give me something else to worry about."
Laark whirled on him, instantly contrite. "I'm sorry, lord! Don't think about me. I'll be fine. General Solo may have poor manners, but I'm certain he'll be a competent guardian for a short while."
"I'm sure he will." Luke grinned at Solo. "Take care of yourself, hotshot. And the princess."
"Yeah," Han said gruffly. "Cover your butt, kid."
Luke laughed. "Bye, Laark. See you later."
He hoped so, he really hoped so. He would continue what he'd been doing, praying to Sith to protect his Skywalker. Luke!
He held out his hand, and Luke stopped and took it, squeezing it briefly before he walked up the ramp.
They watched in silence until the craft had departed, then Solo strode away. Laark looked after him for a moment and followed, dogging the Corellian's heels all the way to the Com Center.
Once there, he immediately began to explore, peering over shoulders, asking questions, ascertaining the best location to watch all the action. Mon Mothma arrived and he studied her covertly, trying to imagine her in bed with the Great Lord. Perhaps she'd looked better a few decades earlier. But he smiled pleasantly when she approached him.
He cringed at the designation but inclined his head. "Ma'am. The crucial moment is upon us." He was very glad that his father had insisted on lessons in diplomatic speech and elocution. The Lightshiner had to sound good--even better than the Skywalker. When they got home, he'd remind the Great Lord that Luke needed further lessons in proper speech.
"Indeed it is, Jedi." Did she have to keep repeating the J-word? "What are you able to sense about the Imperials' intentions?"
Sense? Sith save us, she really did think he was a Jedi. "I'm a Lightshiner, ma'am. I can only sense my lord."
That nasty General Madine appeared. "What do you mean?"
It was perfectly obvious to anyone with half a brain what he meant. "It is my function to serve the Skywalker. I can sense only him."
"Are you a droid?" Madine asked.
A droid? A DROID?? Laark pulled himself very straight. "I beg your pardon? What are you implying?"
"I'm sure the general regrets any misunderstanding," Mothma interrupted. "Jedi, can't you sense the enemy at all?"
Laark hesitated. He couldn't, not really, but he could improvise. "The Imperial fleet is still in hyperspace, and the Death Star is waiting." What an unpleasant name. Death Star. Nasty business. What would Outsiders think of next?
"Thank you, Jedi." Mothma turned to that very nice General Rieekan. "Are your pilots prepared?"
"As prepared as a batch of youngsters can be," he said grimly. "I wish they were older."
"We do seem to be relying heavily on youth," Mothma murmured.
"They're the ones doing the dying," Solo agreed without inflection.
"The defeat of the Empire and Palpatine himself relies on a teenager," Laark pointed out, bristling defensively. Old people were so annoying and narrow-minded! He eyed Solo. "And Master Luke won't die."
"He's also not a teenager," the Corellian said just to be argumentative.
"We certainly are. We're nineteen."
Mothma was ignoring him--a blessing!--and talking to Rieekan. But Solo gave him his full attention, such as it was. "Luke is older than that. He joined the Rebellion over three years ago."
"Hrmph." He sniffed disapprovingly. "You shouldn't recruit babies!"
"Wait a minute." Solo grabbed his arm. "Are you saying that Luke is only nineteen now?"
"Please release me, general." He waited until his arm was freed, then inspected his garment for any dirt or marks. "That is what I said, is it not? I am not in the habit of repeating falsehoods."
"There's no need for vulgarity."
Are you eavesdropping, lord? Shame!
"No wonder he acts like such a kid," Solo muttered. "He is one."
"We can't do it the way we planned," were his son's first words to him as they met in the corridor of the Sanctuary Moon station.
The words dismayed but didn't surprise Anakin. He'd never felt comfortable that Luke would stick with the plan once he was away from his father's influence. Those Rebel friends of his had corrupted him again. If only they could communicate mentally, if he could use Force influence on the boy--but Palpatine would sense him then and, until the confrontation, he had to protect the knowledge of Luke's existence at all costs.
"I'm glad to see you, too."
Luke looked startled, then smiled. "Sorry. Hello, Father. It's wonderful to see you again."
"And you don't want to do it the way we planned."
"We were wrong. We were so wrong!" Luke seemed almost eager. They paused in the walkway, away from the curious eyes of the stormtroopers, and faced the darkness of the moon's forest.
"It's too late to change our plans, my son. There is not enough time--"
"Listen to me." Luke laid his bound hands on Anakin's arm. "You said that you set the Darkside loose from Sith, gave it to Palpatine, and you thought that I was meant to return it to Sith. But in the treecave, Palpatine said something to me about the Light, about its feeble powers. I think he's afraid of it--and afraid of it in us."
"I don't understand how this affects our plans."
"We can't destroy him the way you said, by turning his Darkness against him and returning it to Sith." Luke paused for emphasis. "Sith doesn't want it back. That's what It's been trying to tell me. We have to disburse the Darkness. And, Father, what's the only way to do that?"
He gazed down at this curious but earnest son of his. "With light," he replied, feeling like a schoolchild.
"Exactly!" Luke looked pleased with his response.
"With lightsabers?" Anakin teased.
To his surprise and near-horror, his son appeared to consider the idea. "I hadn't thought of that," Luke said slowly. "I don't think so. We can't use violence to destroy him."
"Enough." He was quickly losing patience. "You are being ridiculous. Perhaps you are planning to ask him nicely if he will kill himself? Or if he would be so kind as to vanish like Kenobi? Your foolishness will destroy both of us and the rest of the galaxy. You will cease this nonsense. Come along."
"It's not nonsense, and I'm not going anywhere until you agree to do it my way."
"Now you may add insolence to your list of sins against your father." Anger coiled in the pit of his stomach. "I have planned this for years. I am not strong enough to do it alone, I need your assistance. You cannot defect now."
"Did you ever try to destroy him?"
He hesitated, remembering. "Once," he said heavily. "And you see the result." He gestured to his black Vader garb, the life support equipment that he once again needed.
Luke's lips parted in surprise. "The Emperor did that? I thought--"
"It was Palpatine. I tried and failed. I will not fail again."
"No, you won't fail." The irrepressible eagerness was back. "Don't you see? It wasn't you who failed, but your method! Adding my strength to your method won't make any difference--we'll both fail. We have to destroy him with Light. Both of us, burning bright, can lighten his Darkness until it dissipates."
"A fine philosophy, my son, but lacking in the practical area. How do you propose we make this 'Light'? With torches?"
Luke clicked his tongue. "You're being deliberately obtuse. With the Force, the true Force. With Sith. You must turn back to the Light, Father, as I have done, and renounce all your desire for the Dark. When I returned to the Alliance, I committed Dark acts carelessly, thinking I was acting for a higher purpose. Even when I understood what had happened, I couldn't undo them entirely. I made what repairs I could and now--"
"What are you talking about?" he said crossly. "We don't have time for this nonsense. The longer we delay, the less time we will have to escape the Death Star before your friends destroy it."
"I'm talking about our Dark powers--altering memories, invading minds, all the crimes you commit in the name of the Empire--we both must stop. We must be pure to accept the Light."
Only the fact that this was his son stopped him from rejecting the ideas outright. But Luke was so sincere, so fervent-- Anakin turned away and walked to the other side of the glass corridor. It was ridiculous, yet what if Luke were correct about his previous failure? Was the reason he had failed to destroy Palpatine not because he lacked the strength but because he had used the wrong powers? If his Darkness was not stronger than Palpatine's, then what of his Light? Palpatine had no Light powers at all; would that not give a powerful advantage to Light users?
Yet Palpatine had destroyed all the Jedi with their vast powers. How could a father and son hope to do what thousands of Jedi could not?
"We are only two. We are not strong enough."
"One would be strong enough if he had faith," Luke said softly.
He wanted to laugh and cry. Luke was nearly delivered into the hands of the Emperor and still he talked about faith. Young fool. If Luke would not fight, he would be destroyed. They both would, because Anakin Skywalker knew he would have no taste for life if his son was sacrificed.
"The Jedi had faith."
"And Palpatine had you to counteract their Light. If you stand with me, he has no one."
Anakin hung his head. If Luke would not support their plan, what choice did he have?
"I met a girl," Luke said suddenly.
"What?" He looked down at the child. "You what?"
"Met a girl--woman," Luke corrected. "Devlin Starsinger, the one with whom I will bond."
He chuckled. What an extraordinary boy he'd produced, so full of surprises. In the midst of an argument about their impending deaths and the possible destruction of the galaxy, Luke came up with such an inanity.
"I have foreseen our children," Luke added quietly.
That stopped him. His son's foreseeing powers had never been strong, but they had grown as he'd studied on Sith. If this was true, if Luke had foreseen offspring, that meant that he would live and prosper.
And it all depended on what they did now, here, at this time. He closed his eyes and listened to the hideous sound of his respirator. His life support--hated but necessary. Like Palpatine. Like...the Dark?...or the Light? One or the other, never both. His son evidently thought it should be an easy decision. Perhaps Luke had believed some of what he'd been taught by his father, that there was little difference between Dark and Light. He believed it himself sometimes. Other times, he saw there was a vast gulf, one that he'd never been able to cross. To accept the Light would mean giving up the Dark, the source of his power, the reason for his life. On Sith he was not Dark. On Sith he was the Great Lord, the feared lord, the--
Feared. It brought Alin to mind. The fear he used to see in those gray eyes. He'd almost forgotten; it had been so long ago. Was the fear gone or only hidden? He felt hot with shame and regret.
"I honestly believed there was no difference between Dark and Light," he began slowly. "But my life has been devoted to the Dark."
"Always?" Luke interrupted.
He didn't have to consider the question. "No. Not always." Before, when he'd had her, before he'd killed her with his curiosity and his lust for foolish explorations, before he'd taken her Outside and led her to Death--before then, he hadn't been a slave to the Darkness.
That's what it was, he realized suddenly. Slavery. All this power he was so proud of, all this control--what did he do with it but Palpatine's bidding? Perhaps the old Masters were right, that the Dark path led nowhere but to grief and despair.
But it was all he knew.
"You are asking me to try to give up everything I have ever held dear.
To try to change my basic philosophies and beliefs in an instant. To never
"No, Father. There is no try. Do or do not. Accept the Light. Control the Darkness within you. This time let me lead and you follow. Believe in the Light. Believe in me."
"Fool," he declared affectionately, touched to the core by his son's words. There had to be a reason why Sith had chosen Luke for special treatment. Maybe this was it. Luke was right about one thing: his previous attempt to attack Palpatine had failed. Why reuse a method that had proven inadequate? If they were going to die, at least they wouldn't die in a repeat of his last performance. He made a characteristically abrupt decision. "Very well. We will do it your way."
Luke's face lit up with a grin. "Thank you, Father!" It was obvious that only the presence of distant stormtroopers prevented him from grabbing his father in a hug.
"I hope you'll thank me later," he said dryly as he escorted his son into the lift that would take them to the landing platform.
"Me too. By the way," Luke said as the doors slid shut, "did I mention that we won't be ruling the galaxy afterwards?"
"Shit," Lord Vader muttered.
Luke giggled--the child actually laughed! "And, Father, did you know that Laark's only nineteen?"
"What does that have to do with--"
"I do not keep track of the ages of--"
"But that means I'm only nineteen, not twenty-one like we thought!"
"Congratulations," he said shortly, before truly discerned all the implications. Then he realized how very young Luke was, why he had seemed so immature at times--and how dangerous it was to expect this baby to confront, defy, and defeat Palpatine.
The doors slid open, and they stepped out into the balmy night air. "So maybe that makes a difference about my mother. Maybe you know who she was?"
"I hardly think--" He stopped. Twenty years ago, there had only been her. But she'd died. There was no way Luke could be her child. It had been quite some time before he'd had a woman again. Did that mean...?
Anakin looked over at the boy who was climbing into the shuttle.
Did that mean Luke was not his son?
"Lord Vader. You've brought the boy to me at last. I've waited a very long time for his return."
He felt his son's jolt of surprise, quickly suppressed. He was not as shocked as Luke; very little Palpatine knew or did surprised him anymore. That he'd known about Luke was inconvenient but not totally unexpected.
"I have brought him to meet you. This is my son, Luke Skywalker."
"Your son?" The Emperor held out his hand. "Come, boy. You belong to me now."
Uncertainty filled Luke's aura. Anakin dared touch his mind for a moment, only long enough to see one image--the cave!--and understand that this was Luke's Temptation come alive.
"I'll never belong to you," Luke said finally. "I don't want Darkside Power." His words lacked a certain conviction.
"You will once you understand it. You will learn strength and control far beyond that which your feeble Light offers. And you don't need those any longer." With a wave of Palpatine's hand, the binders dropped off Luke's wrists.
Luke didn't reply. Anakin said gruffly, "You cannot have my son."
Palpatine wasn't fazed by his sudden disobedience. "I have already had him," he said with a twisted smile. "I have always had him. You are my son, boy. Can't you feel it?"
Anakin couldn't control the wave of revulsion that swept through him.
Luke took a step backwards and bumped into him, breathing heavily. "I'm not your son!"
Palpatine laughed. "Of course you are. My son and my heir. Lord Vader knows this to be true--he was even acquainted with your mother. In fact, he fancied himself in love with her some years ago."
He held himself very still. Were it not for the respirator, his own breathing would have become jagged and harsh. "What do you mean?" he demanded.
The yellow eyes focused on him. "That Sith girl--what was her name? Starsinger--Layna Starsinger, wasn't that it?"
"She died," he denied hoarsely. "I took her Outside and she died in a landslide on Coruscant."
"A very convenient landslide, don't you think?" The Emperor smiled. "She did not die...not then. I took her. She was quite a delicious bedmate. I made this child, and I reclaim him today."
Anakin shook off his son's concerned touch. "Where is Layna?" Though if she still lived, he surely would know.
"She became less than pleasant as a companion." Palpatine waved his hand. "She ran away, I tracked her down--unfortunately, not before she'd had a chance to hide the child. You should be pleased to know, my son, that your mother died beautifully. It was her best moment. Most impressive."
Fury raged through him. He wanted to take that scrawny neck between his hands and snap it. He wanted to push his lightsaber through the center of that heartless chest. He wanted--
"Father, please! He's lying!"
He shoved Luke away. To hell with this boy, this spawn of evil. After he'd killed Palpatine, he'd kill the bastard child, kill--
Luke grabbed his arms, sensing his hesitation. "Father, look at me. Look at my eyes. Weren't they the first things you recognized?--they're your eyes, Father--yours!"
He looked down into Skywalker blue. True; but how could it be? His mind was blurred with anger; he couldn't think.
"If I'm her child, then I'm your child, too. She must have been carrying me when you thought she died." Luke's touch slid down to clutch his hand. "He's lying, trying to rouse your Darkness. Please, Father, trust your heart. Remember the Light."
"Vader never knew the Light, my boy." Palpatine rose from his throne and approached, cloak dragging along the floor. "You knew it--and now you shall be all the stronger for renouncing it. After I am gone, you will be the next Emperor."
Through his confusion, he sensed Luke's interest in Palpatine's words, his ambition. No, he sent silently, do not listen. But his son seemed entranced. Yes, he had to acknowledge that Luke was his son--how could he have doubted it? Now, to know the boy was Layna's too--
With her had gone the last of his Light. Palpatine had stolen Layna and Luke to possess his powers. Stolen his love, stolen his child--
Stolen his life.
The golden eyes narrowed into slits as they studied Luke. "My health is not as it was. My body decays. I think I am not much longer for this mortal plane. Soon you will be Emperor. You must come with me now--there is much you must learn."
Still Luke hesitated, neither assenting nor rejecting the offer. "But I met someone...." His thoughts drifted, transmitting a clear, joyous picture of a red-headed beauty.
Palpatine chuckled. "Ah, the Starsinger girl, your intended bondmate. Your cousin, you realize."
Luke blinked. Confusion flowed from him. Anakin held his breath.
"So, you are ready to bond," the Emperor continued with satisfaction. "And with a Sith? Well, I suppose it can only strengthen the Imperial line. Evidently you have accepted Sith customs then?"
Anakin winced. He sensed what was coming and he wanted to offer strength to his son, but Luke had moved away from him more than just physically.
"What do you mean?"
"That curious family tradition they espouse. It doesn't bother you, then, about your bride? That her own father had her first?"
He approached his son's side in time to see all the purpose drain from Luke's face and the strength disappear from his eyes. He looked tired and old.
Palpatine, stealing his son's love, his son's Light--his son's life?
"Then it does disturb you?" Palpatine asked with a touch of glee. "Well, I'm certain you will learn to accept it, since in a few years you will pass on the custom to your own children."
Luke stepped back as if he'd been slapped. "Never!" he snapped, drawing his lightsaber. "You are corrupt and evil! You must die!"
Luke! he called before the boy could ignite the saber. Remember your own words--he is trying to anger you. We can only destroy him with the Light.
"Ah, you wish to become Emperor without waiting for my natural death? How ambitious of you, my son. But as I told you, there is much you still need to learn. Dark Powers will make you the ultimate ruler of the galaxy. With them, you can have everything you desire."
With a start, Anakin realized that the Emperor couldn't sense their thoughts to each other. It was a powerful weapon. He can't hear us.
Didn't you know that? Father, I'm only pretending to be interested! Slowly, and with seeming reluctance, Luke rehooked the saber to his belt. His head lifted arrogantly. "I can already get everything I want. I have power that grows as rapidly as time passes."
"Not like this. Vader never learned enough to teach you. I know the secrets of the universe." Palpatine leaned on his cane. With his free hand, he stroked Luke's cheek. "Do you wish to know those secrets, my son?"
Luke smiled and caught the hand. He pressed a kiss into the wrinkled palm; Anakin flinched at the sight. "What are you doing?" the Emperor demanded querulously. "Release me!"
"I already know the secret of the galaxy," Luke said to the Emperor, caressing the fingers that Palpatine tried to free. "It's Love, in all its forms. Goodness, purity, strength of heart--"
"Let go! Anakin, help me."
Anakin stared, fascinated. Palpatine couldn't seem to release himself. And Luke was glowing, literally glowing with Force energy. It reminded him of that loathsome lightning the Emperor enjoyed dispensing--but this was different, gentler. It encircled Luke rather than shooting out at his direction.
Father, wake up and assist!
He threw back his head and laughed. He had nothing to fear from this decrepit little man, this poor ugly creature who had lived aeons too long. He withdrew his Dark powers from Palpatine and joined them with Luke's radiance. The feeling of Light didn't dim; it absorbed his powers and became brighter. He felt warm and realized that he had never known how very cold he had been.
Luke still held Palpatine captive with just a gentle clasp of his fingers. Palpatine screamed and struggled, his wild curses evaporating as soon as they left his lips.
"Poor man," Luke crooned. "You have caused such misery to others, and yet you are so unhappy yourself. Relinquish your corporeal body and be at peace. Hate no more, dear Palpatine. Your time of trial is at an end."
The yellow eyes still glared as they glazed over. Anakin chuckled. Palpatine would never repent, even though he knew what spending infinity Darkside would mean. Intelligence began to leak out of the gaze, and the gold dimmed to white and slowly faded. Eventually the body shimmered, its outlines losing shape, and the empty brown robe collapsed on the floor.
He and Luke stared at it. It had not taken more than a few minutes.
"Hmm, it worked," Luke said with a surprised inflection. "I wasn't really sure it would."
"You. Weren't. Sure?" Anakin repeated disbelievingly.
Luke shook his head. "No. It was just a hunch."
"Are you saying that your 'Savior of the Galaxy' approach was just a hunch?"
"Well...I was winging it. Weren't you?"
He sighed. "I suppose so."
"At any rate, it worked," Luke pointed out practically. "And we don't have to worry about Palpatine any more." He turned around in a circle, studying the throne room of the Death Star. "Gloom and doom. We'll have to redecorate."
"You want to keep the Death Star?" he asked incredulously.
"No sense in letting all this construction work go to waste. We'll eliminate its destructive capabilities and use it for...something. A mobile educational facility, perhaps."
Anakin cleared his throat. "Luke?"
"Hmm?" Luke strolled around possessively, peering over the railing into the pit below. "Wow! Look at that generator!"
"Your friends are going to blow us up any moment now."
"Oops. Forgot." Luke closed his eyes, concentrating. After a few minutes, he reopened them. "That didn't work," he said with a touch of worry. "I told Laark, but they're not listening to him. Where's the communications center?"
"Why don't we just leave?"
"We can't let all these people die."
He'd forgotten about the population of the Death Star, not a good move for a Lightsider. Perhaps Sith wouldn't expect too much from him all at once. "Come," he said abruptly and began leading his son to Central Com. It would be simple enough to control the contingent of troopers or disarm them if necessary. Without Palpatine's mind directing them, they would welcome the guidance of Lord Vader. He could already feel the disorientation among the Imperials and began to calm it with his mental powers.
"Be careful, Father," Luke said softly as they got into the lift. "The Dark can be seductive."
What did this child know of Darkness? Anakin smiled at his boy. "Don't worry, my son. I know how to control it."
And he spread his influence throughout the Death Star. If he tried harder, perhaps he could control the entire Imperial Navy and end this current conflict.
He stretched his mind.
Luke looked up at him with despair in his eyes. "Father, please...."
"You worry too much," Anakin said. The doors slid open, and he stepped into the heart of the communications center. "You may contact your Rebel friends from here, and I will advise the Imperials to cease attacking. We have won, my son."
The communications were established. Though the Alliance did not believe Lightshiner, Mon Mothma had no trouble accepting the word of The Skywalker. It seemed to be the com crew members who were having the most difficulty. They kept shooting nervous stares at Luke.
When the immediate crisis had passed, Anakin relaxed and allowed himself to glory in their success. They had done the impossible, and now Anakin Skywalker was the leader of the galaxy.
"You can return to Sith as you wished," he murmured to his son, "and I will remain Outside and establish order. Then, if it is your desire to rule, you may join me. Together we will bring a magnificence to the galaxy that has never before been achieved."
A wave of grief battered at his senses, and he turned to Luke, surprised.
"We can't rule the galaxy the way you want. There must be a democracy."
He grabbed the boy's upper arm and squeezed it. "I told you earlier--no more foolishness! Palpatine is gone, and I am in command. I am your father and your emperor--you will obey me. And, as your reward, you will rule with me."
Luke pulled free. In a movement too fast for Anakin to see, he drew his lightsaber and ignited it. "No, Father. I did not defeat Palpatine to allow you to take his place."
He unbladed his own saber and held it in front of him. With a twinge of bitter amusement, he noted that the stalwart com officers abandoned their posts, leaving them alone in the small room, in the company of only the monotonous sounds of transmitters and trackers.
"You cannot kill your own father, Luke."
The blue gaze didn't waver. "I don't wish to, but I can and I will if you fall to Darkness. The Dark should have died with Palpatine--but still you hold its child in your heart. Release it, Father. Come with me." Luke held out one hand, his saber wavering.
It was the perfect moment to strike down the boy--Layna's child--but he did not. "Was this your Temptation? To kill your father?"
Luke blinked. "The Temptation was to let my father live and to join him in Darkness."
"And in the treecave, you killed me rather than join me."
"But that was only a dream." He smiled. "Will you do it now that I am standing before you? I am no specter, Luke; I am flesh and blood. If you strike me down, I will be gone forever."
"As will I, if you use your saber on me."
He held the even gaze. Gambling, he switched off his lightsaber and replaced it on his belt. "I cannot kill you, my son. Do what you must."
Luke still held his saber steady. "Will you join me? Do you wish to renounce the Darkness?"
"It is not Darkness, Luke, it is power." Why couldn't the child see the difference between the two? "I am doing what you requested. You wanted a benevolent monarchy--no, an oligarchy. Very well. I want that, too."
Luke made an aggravated sound and deactivated his lightsaber. "Damn it, Father! You do not want that--you want to be emperor! Will I have to keep you on a leash like a half-domesticated animal and tug it when you stray too far?"
"A bit kinky, but workable," he commented, beginning to relax. Then he became serious. "Luke, I will try. I understand your idealism and what you wish to achieve. I believe your visions are unrealistic, while mine are more practical. I, after all, am the one with political experience, as well as considerably more life experience than you have had."
"Thank you for pointing that out, Father," his son replied in a tone that said he was less than pleased. He shook his finger at Anakin. "No more controlling the Imperials--or anyone else--on your own. We have joint custody, at least until a government can be established. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Father," Anakin mimicked. "Whatever you say, Father. I am your obedient, adoring son, Father."
Luke laughed. Anakin admired his youthful resilience.
"You're impossible! Laark's right!"
"I beg your pardon?"
A blush touched his son's cheeks. "Nothing. Um...are you going to be able to take off your Vader disguise and come back to the Fleet with me?"
He shook his head. "Let your accomplice Vader tend to Empire business. When the time is right, he will disappear and your father will be resurrected from Sith."
"Are you sure?" Luke's brow creased. "Your Temptation has always been power. If I leave you alone with the Empire--"
"You have put me in the position of not having a choice." He tousled his son's hair. Layna's had been both this color and this soft texture. "I cannot rule with your adamant opposition, and I do not wish to eliminate that opposition. Stalemate. Perhaps I will be more successful at resisting Darkness when I am denied the opportunity of free choice."
He groaned. "I know, 'do or do not'. Sweet Sith, I thought I'd heard the last of that when I quit my Jedi training. Yoda nearly drove me to madness with--"
"You trained with Yoda?"
"For a short while. I found him to be cranky and impatient to a fault."
"Me, too!" Luke grinned.
A movement distracted him. The com crew sheepishly began to filter back into the room. "Return to your posts immediately," he roared at them. Then he turned to his son. "They don't understand polite commands."
"Neither do I," Luke teased.
"I noticed. Still, I will advise you politely to return to your friends and ensure the stability of this moment. We don't want our fragile peace endangered."
"All right. When will I see you again?"
He smiled, knowing the child would sense it even as it was hidden by his hated mask. "Soon. At least now we will be able to communicate openly."
"Good." Luke looked at him with affection in his eyes. "May the Force be with you, Father. Always."
"And with you, my son." He watched the boy walk away, striding proudly toward his future. The road home would be difficult and full of many choices, but Skywalkers always persevered. They were Sith, and it was their destiny.
He turned his attention back to the more immediate future. There was much work to be done, a galaxy to be rebuilt, and no one better to do it than Anakin Skywalker.