The third thing Vader did after arriving at the medcenter was to physically crush the sound emitter on the vitals monitoring system. There was no single noise in the universe he hated more passionately than that. Damned. Beeping.
Especially when the life being monitored belonged to his son.
On the other side of the bed, despite the bleary-eyes and stiff neck inflicted by over forty-eight hours of vigil-keeping, Mara Jade’s head snapped up. The only thing more total than her irritation was her lack of surprise. “What the hell was that for, exactly?”
He tore the emitter out of the monitor and threw it across the room in the general direction of the trash chute, against which it landed with a violent crash. “I prefer silence.”
“Too bad, because that’s exactly what we aren’t going to have when the nurse comes back around,” she growled.
Vader ignored this comment, attention already turning back to Luke. The boy—five decades or five years old, he would never not be The Boy—lay facedown on the medcenter bed. By all medical and visual indicators, he was comatose. A tube ran into his torso amid bacta-laced bandages concealing third- and second-degree burns, not to mention puncture wounds from flying shrapnel, one piece of which had perforated his lower intestine. Hacking into Luke’s medical chart was the second thing Vader had done after arriving at the medcenter, patient privacy being a foreign concept in his book. “He is stable?”
She ran a hand over her eyes, disinclined to argue about the monitor any further. “Yes. Prognosis for recovery is good. Internal damage responding well to bacta infusions. Coma transitioned to healing trance after the first round of surgery. All of which I told you in my message yesterday, so please. Calm. Down.”
Vader spun on her. “My son is lying half-dead in a medcenter in the back of beyond and you expect me to be calm?”
“Your son?” She crossed her arms. “Try my husband.”
Vader’s hand clenched on the rail of the bed. “Do not play that card with me. I am well acquainted with your capacity for detachment. This is not the time for it.”
Mara snorted. “It’s the perfect time for it. You of all people should know this is exactly the kind of stunt Farm Boy can’t help pulling. I knew what I was signing up for when I married him, wringing my hands about it now won’t help.”
The sharp tone faltered slightly on the last few words. Too late he perceived the haggard resignation in her eyes. His indignant anger quieted a little. “What was the cause of this?”
“The Bethniran Primacy requested a Jedi mediator to supervise peace negotiations between three opposing factions. As I understand it one of the Bethni diplomats was brainwashed, given an explosive device, and programmed to set it off at the opening reception. Sound familiar?”
Vader’s fist clenched. A brainwashed assassin had no notion that he was a threat until the imprinted commands were triggered, and consequently even a highly skilled mind reader would perceive no danger before the attack began. More than one well-read enemy had attempted to assassinate him in that manner, as Mara certainly remembered. A few had come within a second or two of succeeding. “I am familiar with such tactics, yes. He would not have had time to react.”
“Except, of course, to throw himself over the prime minister. I’m just counting my blessings he didn’t have time to throw himself on top of the detonator instead.” The haggard look washed out her customary sarcastic armor once again. In a rare display of vulnerability, she took Luke’s limp left hand in both of hers, twining their fingers together. “Your idiot son wouldn’t know a healthy sense of selfishness if it clocked him on the skull with a blaster butt. Which it regularly does.” She offered Vader a wan smile.
Impulsively he reached across the bed and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Go and rest. I will monitor his condition.”
She went taut as a tow cable, an indignant refusal on the tip of her tongue; but she must have been even more exhausted than she looked, for the next moment she relaxed and nodded. “If he wakes up…”
Vader glanced at the limp form on the bed. “I will call you if there is any alteration in his condition.”
She crooked a little smile again. “I was going to say, if he wakes up, remember I get first dibs on killing him.” She reached out and ran a caressing hand over Luke’s hair. “You hear that, Bantha Brains?” she muttered at him under her breath. “You’re a goner. And I lo—”
She stopped herself short, snatched her hand away. She had graduated from the same school Vader had—having vulnerabilities was a sin, advertising them was suicide. Giving him a curt nod, she stood and left the room.
He diverted his attention from Luke for a moment or two, watching her glide away down the hall. Not many, he decided, would have dealt as well with such an adventurous husband. Even fewer would have dealt as well with such a father-in-law. He glanced back at Luke. You chose her well, young one, he admitted.
Then he immersed himself in the Force and delved into his son’s presence again—the first thing he’d done upon his arrival. Luke’s normally blinding footprint in the Force remained unnervingly quiet and dim, not reacting a whit to his intrusion. He resisted the urge to panic afresh, and pushed his probe deeper into the boy’s mind until finally—far deeper than it would have been in any other Jedi he’d ever known—he located the muted whorl of activity that characterized a full-blown healing trance in progress. Luke was submerged far beyond any possibility of hearing his father’s voice, or recognizing his presence; nevertheless Vader scrutinized the process anxiously, racking faded memories from his days as a Jedi to reassure himself that the boy was doing it right. There was so much Luke had had to teach himself; for all his brilliant intuition, it would be stupid to presume he’d hit upon the best techniques in every skill.
But even by his demanding standards, the boy seemed to be getting on with things well enough. Of course, if Mara was to be believed, he’d had more than his fair share of practice with healing trances. Vader shifted his probe into Luke’s damaged body, assessing each wound and its rate of progress. He found it…complicated to remain objective about the burns, and finally withdrew the probe when nausea began to threaten. He blinked, reorienting himself to the physical world, and studied the still form beside him.
“Foolish child,” he muttered. His hand moved itself out and ran nervously over Luke’s hair, back and forth, back and forth. A meter or two closer to the blast point, and he would be standing beside a mangled corpse in a morgue rather than a battered but living son in a medcenter. His fingers convulsed in the boy’s hair. Without Luke…
Remorse burned like acid inside. He was a damned fool, and he always would be. This boy meant the galaxy to him and he had never said so, never made sure Luke knew it. Mara was right; it was not in Luke’s nature to live safely, nor to spare a thought for himself. There would be more brushes with death to come, for Luke and likely for his father too, and no guarantees.
Now, a voice within urged. Now, while you still can.
He swallowed. Perhaps…he could take it slowly. Train up to it, as it were. They were alone; the boy was out like a light; if it went badly, no one need ever know.
He cleared his throat five or six times; it seemed to be swelling shut. His fingers worked nervously. The words sounded too absurd in his head, coming from him. The naïve young fool he’d once been would have had no problem with this, could have said it fifty times a day without blinking; but he was no longer young, nor naïve, if as much a fool as ever. Too many betrayals, too much immersion in the worst humanity could do to itself and others …
Then he thought of Mara, who certainly was not naïve and had never been permitted to be young. She could say such things; would have, a moment ago, had he not been present.
He was not about to concede defeat to Mara Jade of all people.
The words boomed out, and he felt a nanosecond of total lighthearted relief—not so difficult after—
The words bounced back at him off the bare walls. They sounded just as pathetic as he’d thought they would.
He made an irritated noise at himself, in an effort to ignore the welling urge to cringe at what was already his most embarrassing memory of the last thirty years. What in the nine hells had he been thinking? He was Darth Vader, not the second coming of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Just because he was an old fool didn’t mean he had to be a sentimental old fool. Luke would just have to take his word for it—figuratively speaking—because that particular sentence and most especially that ridiculous word were never going to escape his vocabulator again—in fact he wasn’t going to think them ever again—his personal dictionary had been expunged of them forever, again, starting now—
There was a soft groan. The next moment Luke shifted on the bed, stretched his feet, and blinked his eyes open.
Vader stared at him, too astonished to celebrate. Only in Hutt soap operas did people awake from comas just because their long-lost emotionally hamstrung fathers momentarily overcame their relational inhibitions.
Holodrama lost its brightest star when you became a Jedi, my son.
“Father?” Luke’s voice rasped and slurred. “’s that you…”
His hand sprang to the boy’s neck, holding him down firmly lest the idiot child’s next melodramatic stunt be an attempt to get up. “Quiet, my son. You are in the recovery ward of the medcenter, on Bethnira Dua. You have been gravely injured. Resume your healing trance.”
True to form, Luke strained briefly against his hand before he conceded the point and stopped trying to move. Instead, the insufferable brat had the nerve to smile drowsily at him and remark, “S’not that bad…”
“It most certainly is,” Vader snapped, instantly so irritated he forgot about trying to get the boy back to sleep. “You are fortunate to still be in possession of your own kidneys.”
“You might not have.” Vader’s hand tightened reflexively on Luke’s neck. How easily he could have lost the boy two days ago. Or any one of a thousand occasions in the twenty-five years he had been away. Or on the second Death Star. Or on that damned gantry in Cloud City. Or in a hundred different firefights during the war. Or over the first Death Star. Or sometime in the nineteen years he’d been scrabbling his way to adulthood on the galaxy’s least child-friendly desert planet. Or on Mustafar, as he’d thought he had for so long…
Something grasped his free hand, and Vader looked down to find that Luke’s hand had crept feebly across the bed to his. “Didn’ mean to scare you,” he murmured, eyes fluttering.
Vader felt his jaw quiver treacherously. He clenched it in place, shook Luke’s hand off, and crossed his arms. “I am not afraid,” he growled. “I am furious.”
“I know,” Luke murmured. A faint smirk winked up at Vader, sleepy but immensely pleased with itself. Perhaps, then, the boy did know what his father had never told him.
In which case, there was no need to say it. Thank the stars. “How do you feel?” he demanded brusquely.
“’M fine,” Luke said.
Vader made a disgusted noise. “If you were two breaths from death you would say precisely the same. Resume your healing trance before I do it for you.”
Luke laughed, and of course winced directly thereafter. “I don’ know what happened t’ the ronto that ran me over, though…”
“Dead,” Vader said sourly. In a properly arranged universe, the trio of Hutt-spawned scum who’d programmed that diplomat would not have died yesterday after resisting arrest, but would currently be waiting in a conveniently located dungeon for Vader to dispatch each of them. In an attentive, unhurried, and deeply personal fashion.
“Steak f’r dinner?” Luke suggested. He had spent far too much time around Corellians.
“Hardly. It will be weeks before you are free of a nutrient tube. Your lower intestine was badly damaged, among other things.”
“Par f’r…th’ course, then.”
“So it would seem.” His hand worked slowly through Luke’s hair. “Enough talk, son. You need rest, not conversation. Resume your trance now.” Luke raised no objection. He stilled, breathing easy and deep, and his aura in the Force pulsed peacefully. Silence blanketed the room.
For a minute or so.
“Wh’re’s Mara?” Luke murmured.
“Sleeping,” Vader said pointedly. He remembered enough about being a husband to refrain from adding because she has not since you were injured.
Luke, however, needed no help jumping to that conclusion for himself. He frowned and tried to get his elbows under him, but desisted at a warning growl from Vader. “How long’ve I been here?”
“Approximately three days. Mara arrived six hours after you.”
“Don’t wake her up,” Luke ordered him automatically.
Vader gave this due consideration. Mara Jade was not a woman lightly crossed. But on the other hand, this kind of leverage over Luke did not present itself often. He made a show of reluctance. “I promised to alert her to any change in your condition.”
Luke made a disgusted noise. “Now you decide to be best pals with my wife?”
“However,” Vader continued, dismissing that preposterous comment, “if you resume your healing trance right now, I will be able to report this to her as an aberration that ended before she could be appraised of it.”
“’s a low blow,” Luke muttered resentfully.
“You should not be surprised, considering whom you are speaking to.”
“Trance, young one. Now.” He accompanied the words with a powerful sleep suggestion in the Force. It was proof of how drained Luke was that his eyelids batted in immediate response; under normal circumstances he would have shrugged the suggestion off the way a bantha ignored a sand gnat.
“’M going,” he murmured.
“I will see that you do.” Vader crossed his arms and watched like a skrite-hawk as Luke settled back down and closed his eyes, preparing to ease into the trance again.
Just before tipping over the brink into unconsciousness, though, his eyes suddenly snapped back open and darted with surprising energy up at Vader. He pushed himself up on one elbow.
Thunder rumbled in Vader’s throat. “Are you a child?” He grabbed Luke’s neck and elbow and shoved him back down where he belonged. “How many times must I tell you? You should not be awake.”
“You’re right,” Luke said. Naturally, he was now further awake than before. “I shouldn’t.”
“Because Mara’s the only one who knows the key phrase to wake me up from a healing trance.”
There followed a flat silence while Vader debated his alternatives and calculated the odds of successfully deflecting Luke’s damnable curiosity.
Well, playing dumb had gotten him through worse inquisitions than this.
“Perhaps your nurse passed through and said it by chance while I was meditating,” he said, dismissively, with the air of one who could not be troubled to notice the doings of lesser mortals.
“With you standing there? Not a snowball’s chance in the Dune Sea.”
Time to switch to the offensive. He pointed sternly. “Then it is clear your control leaves something to be desired.”
“I seriously doubt that, seeing as this has to be the hundredth time I’ve done it.” Those eyes were positively cackling at him. “I think you must have said something.”
“I made the obvious observation that you are a foolish child,” said Vader. “If that is your key phrase—”
“No, no,” said Luke. Nobody with third-degree burns and a punctured intestine had a right to sound that chipper. “It’s more the kind of thing my wife would say, if you catch my drift.”
Vader crossed his arms. “That is the kind of thing your wife would say.”
“True,” Luke allowed, “but I meant the kind of thing she says when she’s feeling…oh, you know, soppy.” Again the cackling eyes. “Sure you didn’t say anything else?”
“Nothing.” A sheet of flimsy in a million-kiloton hydraulic press could not have been flatter.
“Four letters? Starts with L?”
“The only four-letter words starting with L that I am in the habit of using refer to yourself and your sister.”
Luke raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you just forgot. I mean, it’s normal for the aged and infirm to lose track of—”
“Infirm?” Vader’s mighty gauntlet sprang up, hovering ominously over Luke. “I can still knock you unconscious with one hand, boy. And if you do not resume your trance this instant, that is exactly what I will do.”
Luke laughed silently, and brushed tired fingers against his suit sleeve by way of appeasement. Already his eyes were drifting shut—so trusting, with so little need for proof. It reached deep into Vader and plucked a chord in minor key. His soul was a madhouse of warped mirrors, distorting all good things into hideous and grotesque forms; but Luke did not fear the house of mirrors. He saw true, even when everything around him was askew. No one in the universe had such a son.
Luke’s hand tightened briefly on his arm in close-attuned response to his emotions. A fading thought rolled from his mind and broke gently on Vader’s. I love you too, Father.
Vader stood in silence for a long minute, head bent, and then laid a hand against Luke’s forehead, daring no other answer. Luke’s mind brightened and warmed, and an almost unknown sensation ran through his father.
Typical of them both to find perfect peace only in an intensive care ward.
Trance, Vader reminded him gently, and this time Luke acquiesced. His sun-bright presence began to dim as he slid back toward unconsciousness.
But he was too much a Skywalker to go without a parting shot. Wake me up again if you need to. Four letters, starts with an L.
Vader growled in exasperation, but Luke flipped a cheeky mental salute and made his escape into slumber. Of all the impertinent—
A throat cleared severely behind his back. He twisted round to see the head nurse standing in the doorway of the room. Hands on bony hips, stern white bun, and eyebrow raised at an angle calculated to inspire terror in miscreants of all ages: he might have been looking at the reincarnation of Jocasta Nu. He fought down a sudden compelling urge to stand to attention.
“I am informed”—by the stars, it was Jocasta Nu, that was exactly how she used to start a dressing-down—“that we have a slight equipment malfunction in Master Skywalker’s room.”
Her lips twitched in the kind of smile that meant the recipient had better he was not the one responsible. Her eyes pointed at the mangled monitor. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Lord Vader?”