Luke Skywalker had always, always longed to climb a tree.
As a kid the only direction which interested him was up, but among Tatooine’s endless inconveniences was an outrageous shortage of things to climb—that was, ones that didn’t result in Aunt Beru having a heart attack (the canyons in the Jundland Wastes) or Uncle Owen having a conniption fit (the moisture vaporators). He had therefore been endlessly jealous of luckier kids on happier planets who could, according to every holovid he’d ever watched, defy the shackles of gravity any time they liked by popping out their front door and shimmying up a tree.
Like a lot of his childhood dreams, it wasn’t turning out the way he’d hoped.
As high up as the branches would take his weight without shaking, Luke flattened himself in a fork of the trunk—a soft gray shade that almost matched the color of his fatigues, thank the Force for small favors—and impersonated bark to the best of his ability. This was tricky, as he was pretty sure bark didn’t have to cope with a hammering heart and heaving lungs. It was amazing how fast you could learn to climb a fifty-meter tree when—
—a muffled crunching and clattering arose, like a fifty-man band of maracas; then white armor swarmed over the forest floor twenty-odd meters below—
— you had the right motivation.
Luke forced himself to breathe at a snail’s pace through his nose, ignoring the burning in his lungs. Don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up…
They looked up.
Then they jogged on by, scanning other treetops. The pine needles had saved him—they weren’t as thick as he’d have liked, but they made up for it by being mirror-bright silver, difficult to look at directly. Luke allowed himself a deep breath of relief—
A familiar sound traveled up the ground and directly into Luke’s spine.
Luke’s mouth and eyes snapped shut. If he could have stopped his cells from metabolizing he would have.
Louder, and now the sound of footsteps—just one pair, but heavier than the whole squadron that had just gone by. He didn’t dare open his eyes, for fear even a twitch of an eyelid would betray him, but he didn’t need to see. The Force showed him every detail—insectoid eyes and dagger-sharp focus probing the eaves of the woods, cold and piercing as the wind on Hoth, seeking their coveted quarry. He knew, of course, that Luke was here…
According to Master Yoda (who’d been supremely grumpy about it), his latest pupil had a very ill-mannered inclination to sprawl in the Force, which the wizened old master put down to his having grown up without a proper Jedi education in an uninhabited desert. He had spent a fair bit of time making Luke practice drawing his presence inward, minimizing his signature. But today sprawling was the only thing that mightsave him.
Eyes still screwed shut, Luke strained to diffuse his signature in the Force a little wider, a littlethinner than he’d already stretched. He estimated he had his mental footprint spread pretty evenly over a five-klick radius of forest. Vader would know he was somewherein that space, but it was still a lot of complicated and densely vegetated ground to scour for one smallish and sneaky Rebel. And he was fairly confident they hadn’t found his ride out of here. It was a dwarf stingship, much smaller than the starfighter they’d be looking for—a seat and a flight stick strapped to a hyperdrive, the end—and he’d squirrelled it away in a steep overgrown gully, just outside the area where he was casting his presence, practically on top of a natural thermal vent that easily absorbed its teensy power emissions.
He just had to get to it before Vader got to him. No sweat.
It had been a full minute, and still the respirator cycled below him, soft and ominous, taunting Luke’s screaming lungs. He could feel that spine-melting stare probing over his hiding place…but there was no hint of triumph coloring the Force, no particular uptick in suspicion.
The heavy footsteps passed by. Slowly, so slowly, the sound of the respirator faded.
With agonizing care, Luke inhaled a badly-need lungful of oxygen, then another, until the black spots in his vision went away. That had been way too close.
He kept dead still in his perch for another five minutes, to make sure they were well past him, but his hopes started to rise a little. The main search line was behind him now, and he didn’t think there was anyone between him and the ship, unless a few patrols had fanned off.
It was probably the best shot he was going to get.
Luke let out a shaky exhale and unplastered himself from the trunk. He patted his holster, making sure the strap across the top was still snapped in place and his blaster wasn’t about to go flying out of it, and then slithered down the tree. With a soft thump of earth and the tiniest possible rustle of fallen pine needles, he dropped the last couple meters. Still half-crouched behind the understory growth, he cast wary eyes around to make sure the coast was clear—
“Clever, young one.”
It must have been some obscure Force power that propelled him. Luke was five meters back up the tree before his brain had processed what the actual words had been.
Not that he needed to know; that voice was all the reason you needed to run like hell.
A disembodied yank at his legs arrested his progress; reflexively Luke shoved back with the Force, clinging to the tree for dear life—or maybe more accurately, for his immortal soul. Much to his surprise, the grip on his legs winked out. He hurled himself up another couple meters and jammed himself into the first big fork. Only when he had himself screwed in place like an industrial welding clamp did he crane his neck to peer down.
Vader stood directly below him, hands planted on his waist, and death’s-head gaze zeroed in on one Commander Skywalker.
Damn damn damn damn damn. How the hells could he be so quiet with that blasted respirator? And why in blazes had hebeen stupid enough to—tree himself like a fruit squirrel, that was the weird phrase Han had always thrown around. Well, now Luke finally knew what it meant.
And why it was such a bad strategy. Why the hells hadn’t he just run for it?
“Most clever.” Vader prowled at the base of the tree, gaze tracking him with every turn, for all the galaxy like a nexu eyeing a bird cage. Luke couldn’t tell if he was pleased or amused or sarcastic or irritated; he suspected those would all sound about the same.
“Not clever enough,” he muttered. How am I going to get out of this one?
Jumping wasn’t much of an option this time. Daddy, catch, he thought, a little hysterically.
“No,” Vader agreed. “But close, young one. You are indeed full of surprises.”
Luke winced. His words, at Bespin. Before he’d gotten such a thorough education on what a realsurprise was.
“Come down,” Vader ordered. “You cannot stay up there forever.” Another harsh yank dragged at his body; Luke gritted his teeth, jamming himself in even tighter and shoving back like anything to hold his ground. Tree. Whatever.
Good one, Skywalker. What are you, twelve?
Vader didn’t look impressed either. “Do not be childish. The time for running is past. You have nowhere to go.”
“Beats going with you,” Luke growled under his breath—but there was a distinct plunge of temperature below him and Vader’s presence pulsed ominously. Maybe he had enhanced audio receptors in that helmet. Maybe he’d heard Luke’s heart hammering at his ribcage up in the treetop earlier.
“You seem to think you have a choice in the matter, young one.” Vader’s voice dropped to a hiss. “That is no longer the case. I do not repeat mistakes.”
“I’ve got four years of experience that says you do!” A Jedi was probably supposed to be above that sort of petty jab, but he had a feeling Jedi rarely had to cope with Sith Lords who were—who were claimingto be their fathers.
Vader kept patrolling the base of the tree, while out of his line of sight Luke plucked at the strap pinning his blaster in place. Not that he stood a snowflake’s chance on Tatooine of taking out Darth Vader with a puny little BlasTech, but maybe he could create enough of a distraction to get a head start.
“You may have evaded me on previous occasions, Skywalker, but you are currently treed like a fruit squirrel.”
Definitely amused now. Kriff you, Dad. “Fine by me,” Luke called back, with completely fabricated bravado. “You want me, come up and get me!”
“That will not be necessary. This juvenile exhibition—”
Luke’s hand located a handy pinecone and without consulting higher decision-making centers in his brain, tore it off and hurled it. Vader didn’t bother to dodge as it pinged off the side of his helmet. “—gains you nothing. You are merely wasting my time and your energy. Come down. Now.”
A forefinger speared up at him. “That is the last time you will say that to me.”
His inner twelve-year-old really, reallywanted to yell no again, purely out of spite, but he had a feeling that wouldn’t go over well. “Want to bet?”
That didn’t go over much better; something cold and sinister snaked through the Force. “Do you?” Vader hissed.
Luke shrank back into his nook with a soft curse. He didn’t even have a lightsaber. Once on the ground there’d be nothing, nothingVader couldn’t do to him. And however much he fought it, unless a chariot swooped from the heavens to collect him or a benevolent lightning bolt smote Vader out of the blue, on the ground was where he’d inevitably end up.
I think I’m going to be sick.
The skin-prickling bass softened curiously. “Come down, young one. I will not harm you.”
“Sure you won’t.”
“Of course not,” Vader said impatiently. “You are unarmed.”
He couldn’t help laughing. “Tell you what, how about you start listing off all the unarmed people you’ve ever killed, and I’ll come down when you get to the end. If I don’t die of dehydration first!”
Unfortunately Vader didn’t have much more difficulty deflecting words than he did blaster bolts. “Thus says the destroyer of the Death Star. I did not take you for a hypocrite, my son.”
“I’m not your son!”
Scores of pinecones peeled off the tree and pelted at Vader, who batted them all aside with one curt gesture. “Have you not had enough of Kenobi’s lies without adding to them?”
“The only liar around here is—”
“It would be one thing if you actually believed what you are saying. We both know that you do not.”
Luke felt abruptly shaky, his heart rattling at lightspeed. Words shriveled in his mouth and he turned away, hoping his reaction wasn’t visible, knowing it almost certainly was. He wanted to forget it, all of it, every second of that day. He wanted it to un-happen. He wanted to wake up from the nightmare. He wanted to not believe it.
“Compose yourself,” Vader barked. “You are reacting like a small child.”
For some reason that hurt almost more than losing his hand had. All he could think to say—a rebuttal, a plea, an accusation, he didn’t know what he meant it to be—was, “I’m twenty-two.”
“I am well aware of that fact.”
Fury spun on his voice, like every syllable was its own tornado. Vader did not merely resent the twenty-two years of life Luke had had without him; he wanted to resurrect everybody who’d been even slightly responsible for those years and rip them apart by degrees, and once they were dead he wanted to do it all over again.
It ought to have horrified Luke, such a ravening hunger for revenge—but it was too familiar an emotion. Half the people in the Alliance had joined up because of someone the Empire had taken from them. He’d often seen the way lips twisted and fists clenched when they told their stories, the sheer force of the rage they carried into battle…and in quieter, hidden moments, he’d seen what fueled the rage. Anger like that always meant grief, terrible gut-wrenching life-altering grief, and grief meant—
—but that couldn’tbe right. This was Darth Vader he was talking about, the monster under the galaxy’s bed. If you asked a team of mad scientists to distill the concepts of Evil, Wrath, and Death into a living being, whatever abomination they came up with would take one look at Vader and run for its life. It made no sense. None of this made any—
Another imperious yank of the Force nearly wrenched him from the tree, and Luke scrambled to brace himself again, shoving back with all the strength he could muster, feeling like a womp rat punching a krayt dragon. “Stop it already!”
“I will stop when you see reason and come down.”
“I’ll come down when you go the hells away!”
“Suit yourself,” rumbled that stars-awful bass. “I will permit you thirty seconds to change your mind.”
“Or what?” Luke snapped.
By way of answer, Vader unshipped his lightsaber.
Luke went white. “You wouldn’t.”
“You are free to believe so...for another twenty-five seconds.” The blade ignited.
Luke fought down a flash of panic and did his best to channel Han at his most snarky and unconcerned. “Yeah? What happened to that alive onlystipulation?”
“Rest assured, young one, that I will not permit the fall to kill you.” The tip of the saber described fiery semi-circles in the fallen steel-gray needles as Vader prowled. “Though I may allow it to incapacitate you to a certain degree. Fifteen seconds.”
His mouth felt like the Dune Sea at high noon. “You’re bluffing.”
“I do not bluff. Tenseconds.”
Of course he didn’t bluff. He was Darth fracking Vader.
Four meters to the neighboring tree—he could make it, if he moved at the right time. Vader couldn’t cut down trees faster than he could jump, right?
That might be more like five meters, actually—
Vader’s arm swung back, and Luke tensed, primed to leap the instant he—
Out of nowhere the Force went—Luke could only describe it as the color a battle klaxon’s scream would be if you could taste it. He couldn’t see it, but he could sure as hell feel it. So could Vader; his saber arm froze, still suspended behind him. Both their heads spun north, towards the slope the stormtroopers had hiked over. There was a faint but swiftly building roar.
Also, briefly, screams.
Luke swallowed. “What’s that?”
“Damn,” said Vader.
“That’s not an answer!” What was he pretending to be now, the second coming of Han Solo?
Vader turned an exasperated-looking lens up at him. “The dam, young one. It may have—”
A ten-meter wall of water suddenly appeared uphill, gnashing mud and branches and boulders and a few doll-like figures in white armor in its foaming mouth. Luke felt the blood drain from his face.
“It has breached,” Vader amended, as if he were remarking on the collapse of a child’s inflatable splash pool. As opposed to, e.g., a tsunami of liquid destruction mowing down the forest like it was a lawn, twenty-meter trees keeling over on impact—
A jolt rattled histree prematurely, and Luke tore his eyes off Armageddon to find a great black helmet rising up dead level with his shoulder.
He yelped and lunged up the larger branch of the fork, squirreling out of reach again as fast as he could manage and nearly falling out in his haste. “Get your own fracking tree!”
“This is the strongest within immediate range.”
That claim notwithstanding, Luke was prepared to try his luck on the tree next door—but even as he planted his feet against the trunk to get a running start, Vader bounded up into the fork Luke had just vacated and caught him by the back of his belt, pitching him on his stomach. “Stay where you are!”
A vast surging motion in the corner of his eye convinced Luke to concede the point and fling his arms and legs around the branch he was on instead, a mere instant before the leading crest of the flood slammed into the tree.
All fifty meters of it rocked backwards; Vader had to let go of his belt to get another handhold, even as Luke’s branch bucked like a crazed ronto and flipped him around, leaving him clinging to it from below. The tree keeled over, and Luke had a terrible fancy that he could feel the wood straining at the snapping point—he saw large boulders in the roiling river, a hit from one of those and it’d be over—any second…any second…
…no, it was holding. It was holding.
Luke blew out a relieved breath, staring sideways at the raging floodwaters only two or three meters below his perch. For someone who’d spent the vast majority of his life in a desert, it was amazing the number of ways he’d nearly been killed by water.
The respirator rasped, reminding him that he was by no means out of the not-so-metaphorical woods, and he looked to see if that neighboring tree was still a viable escape hatch.
It wasn’t there anymore. Their tree had, in the span of forty-five seconds, ceased to be a monarch of the forest and begun to be a vertical island in the middle of an exceedingly huge and swift downhill river. The only other survivor within jumping distance, bowing so low the current was ripping the foliage from its canopy branches, didn’t look like it’d withstand even a Luke-sized impact. Kriff.
“I do not advise that you try it,” said a voice more thunderous than the flood. “It will collapse in five minutes at most.”
Luke twisted so as to glare around his left arm. “I can see that. I’m not an idiot.”
“Your judgment in the matter of jumping from great heights has yet to commend itself to me.” Vader made a preemptive assault on Luke’s belt; Luke yelled and kicked at his helmet with one foot, still Wookiee-hugging the branch for dear life with his other three limbs.
“Calm yourself,” the man had the nerve to tell him. “We are likely to be here for some time. You should find a more secure place to wait.”
“Like the opposite side of the galaxy?” Luke tried to haul himself back on top of the branch, lost his hold on the stupid satiny bark, and frantically locked his fingers together again.
“That is not among your options at present.” Vader shifted his grip slightly on Luke’s belt and then boosted him up, allowing him to throw a leg over the branch and twist himself upright. “Nor will it be for the foreseeable future.”
He let go, amazingly; but Luke remained tense, every centimeter of him prepared to take flight if Vader looked like making another grab for him. “Yeah, well, I’m not foreseeing much future anyway.”
“Our circumstances are not as dismal as you believe. The water will level when it fills this valley, and the current will drop. We will swim to higher ground then.”
Maybe he could. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, had not led a life in which aquatic sportsmanship figured much. The guys had started teaching him to swim when they’d set up base on Creallo a few months after Yavin, but they’d had to bug out after just a couple weeks and since then he hadn’t even seen a swimmable body of water—unless you counted Dagobah’s swamps, but considering what else was swimming in those, Luke didn’t. “If this tree’s still standing then,” he muttered.
Vader didn’t reply. Maybe he wasn’t sure it would be. Kriff.
Well, drowning was one way of escaping. Not exactly Luke’s plan A, of course…but it might be a better way to go than Bespin. He still wasn’t sure what would have killed him there—it was a gas planet, so no ground to smash into—maybe he’d have burned to death from air friction, or maybe the gases would have poisoned or suffocated or dissolved him, or maybe he’d just have kept whirling in orbit until he starved to death. Drowning sounded more reliable—a few minutes of pain and terror, and then they said everything went very peaceful and you sort of drifted away…
Vader’s head spun sharply up. “You will not drown.”
Luke glared at him. “Whether I do or I don’t, it’s none of your business.”
“It is entirely my business. You are my—”
A loose log bashed into the trunk and rocked them sideways again. Vader’s hand flashed to a branch to brace his bulk; Luke plastered himself to the one he was perched on and swore a torrent under his breath to match the one below.
“Steady, young one. We are not in imminent danger of this tree being uprooted.”
“If we’re still stuck in it we’ll be dead no matter when it falls.” Luke shoved himself back upright. “What the hells did you dam anyway, the entire ocean?”
Vader aimed a dignified and quelling look up at him. “Industrial interests found it necessary to contain the Shkalo River in order to conduct mining operations in the surrounding area. This forest has grown in the intervening centuries.”
“…Oh.” Luke crossed his arms tightly.
“Contrary to the claims of your Rebellion’s propaganda writers, I am not personally responsible for every disaster that occurs in this galaxy.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Luke retorted.
Something very like a laugh flickered in the Force. “Perhaps not.”
The sudden absence of opposition threw Luke so far off-balance it felt like an attack. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for something as non-hostile as conversation with Vader.
“Figures it would pick now to go to pieces,” he said, resorting to general resentfulness. He hadn’t even known there was a dam in the area, though he now suspected that the massive blue patch on his briefing maps he’d taken for an inland ocean had been it.
He really hoped he was wrong about that. They could be here for days.
“Naturally,” said Vader. “A spectacular feat of civil engineering that has contained a river with a discharge of four hundred thousand cubic meters per second for three hundred years is no match for your destructive talents, my son.”
“Just because I’m therewhen it blows up doesn’t mean I blew it up!”
“That is called plausible deniability, young one. Something you have not possessed since Yavin.”
That…was actually a fair point. Explosive destruction of military and industrial infrastructure did tend to feature a lot in his life nowadays. Luke sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Maybe not.”
The effect was remarkable. The massive, cold-as-Hoth presence immediately warmed, radiating amusement, its aggressive edge softening a touch. Far from being exasperated by their predicament, Vader seemed almost to be enjoying it. Luke bristled.
“But if I had,” he went on irritably, “I wouldn’t bother denying it. Last I checked I was up to triple digits on Imperial death sentences. I don’t think one more is going to make much difference...”
“Very well, I shall give you the benefit of the doubt,” Vader purred. “If not sabotaging dams, what were you doing here?”
Walked right into that one, Skywalker. Luke muttered a soft curse under his breath. Then again, it probably wasn’t anything Vader hadn’t already guessed. A lone Rebel pilot skulking in the wilderness outside an Imperial munitions depot could hardly be doing anything butspying on it. Besides, once he missed his ETA with the fleet, Madine would call off the raid. “Recon.”
“I see.” Vader gestured abruptly with one hand, and a sizeable boulder that might well have reduced the base of their tree to matchsticks came to an unaccountable stop just short of it. “Am I to conclude the Rebellion is so strapped for manpower as to waste your talents on such chores?”
Strapped for everything, actually, thanks for asking. “You wish.”
Vader flicked a finger. The boulder shot sideways, and no doubt it was a total coincidence that it slammed directly into the tree Luke had been eyeing as a possible escape route, snapping its trunk and dumping it to its watery grave. “Then they are merely too stupid to comprehend your value.”
It didn’t take a Jedi Master to foresee where Vader was driving that train of thought. It wasn’t somewhere Luke wanted to go—not now, not ever. “Oh for two,” he growled. “I volunteered.”
“Indeed?” If anything, Vader seemed more pleased with that explanation than with either of his. “Then it is the will of the Force. You are drawn to me, my son. You should cease to resist it.”
Much more of this and Luke was going to be chucking pinecones at him again. “It had nothingto do with you.”
“Search your feelings,” Vader intoned smugly. “You will know it to be true.”
My feelings were that it was a one-man mission to the back of beyond and I was sick of people asking if I’m ok, if I need to talk, how’s my hand doing, am I eating enough, can they get me anything, can—
On second thought, maybe he’d better just let Vader interpret the whole thing as some sort of Freudian sabotage on the part of Luke’s subconscious orphan complex.
“Whatever,” he said instead. That always used to drive Uncle Owen up a wall. Maybe it’d drive Vader down a tree.
“Whatever what?” Vader demanded.
There was a pause. “That is a nonsensical statement.”
The temperature dropped back to cold-as-a-wampa’s-butt as Vader cottoned on. “I suggest you consider carefully before indulging in further insolence, young one.”
“Or what?” Luke snapped. “You’ll cut my other hand off?”
Vader turned an unrepentant stare on him. “I do not recall that I was first to draw a weapon. Those who choose to challenge me to a duel should be prepared to accept the attending risks.”
Phantom pain immediately flared. Luke clenched his prosthetic into a fist, trying to concentrate on those sensations instead of the ones his brain still thought ought to be at the end of his wrist. “You wanted me to, you—”
Words went out from under him, as they always did when he tried to wrap his mind around what had happened, what it meant. The lengths Vader had gone to—what he’d done to Han and Leia and Chewie—the goading when Luke had first stepped into the carbon-freezing complex—the way he’d just toyed with his prey, tormenting Luke with every pulled strike, every deliberately ignored opening, prolonging the ordeal—and only after the hand, telling him that the man who’d done all this to him was—was—
“The choice was yours,” Vader said. “A Jedi, as I recall, uses the Force for defense and not attack.”
Luke felt like he’d taken a lightsaber to his gut. Master Yoda had said almost exactly that, more than once. A hard lesson to learn after three years with the Alliance, which believed the best defense was an aggressive offense. “You wouldn’t have let me not,” he said flatly—because that was true too. “You knew, and you still—”
He had to stop. This valley was flooding just fine without him bursting into tears, and besides the thought of being laid that bare to his enemy again sickened him.
Vader did not miss his agitation, but sympathy remained foreign to him. “Still wished to cross blades? Of course. How else would I determine what you are capable of?”
“Well, you got your answer.” Luke did not trouble to hide his bitterness. Bespin had taught him, on a visceral level, just how green and clumsy and overall inferior he was. The wonder was that Vader would still bother to take an interest in him after such a pathetic—
“Indeed. Your potential exceeds even my expectations.”
Luke had to clutch ingloriously at the branch again to prevent this comment from knocking him clean out of the tree. “What are you talking about? You beat the nine hellsout of me!”
Vader trained the mask on him, somehow contriving to make its totally immobile features convey exactly the face Luke’s secondary teacher in Anchorhead used to pull whenever she had to grade his essays (Luke’s essays had generally come back looking like they’d narrowly survived an axe murderer and then had something like great ideas, I know you can do it! scrawled in enormous letters at the bottom). “You have barely begun your training, whereas I have trained with the blade for longer than you have been alive. You should not have been able to sustain a defense for more than a matter of seconds, yet you kept pace well, and did not make the mistakes toward the end that you did at the outset. Your aptitude is lightyears beyond the ordinary scope of human Force-sensitives."
His gaze fell for just a moment on Luke’s right hand. “As is your courage.”
Luke gaped at him outright. “That’s—you—you’re exaggerating…”
Vader’s gaze rested on him strangely—almost proudly. “I know of what I speak, young one. With proper instruction, in ten years’ time you will be a better duelist than I am.”
He said it so point-blank, so matter-of-fact, that Luke was unable to doubt that Vader, at least, believed his own— “Bantha shit!”
“I know of what I speak,” Vader repeated, unperturbed. “It is not such a matter for wonder as you believe. You are my son.”
No almost about it. He was proud.
Luke swallowed and looked away. He wanted to deny that that mattered to him, but he couldn’t. He was terrified that by the time he got out of this tree, he would no longer be able to deny why it mattered, either.
He slammed his mind shut, desperate that those thoughts not be seen—but something unseen immediately closed around him, chillingly careful of its strength, like a krakana carrying its hatchlings in its jaws. He shivered once—then flinched at the sound of motion below him as Vader stepped upward. Run, his instincts screamed—but where?
A massive hand closed around his chin. Fingers that could have crushed his jawbones without trying tightened just enough to restrain his instinctive backward tug and pull his face around. Much more forceful was the grip of that basilisk gaze Luke was compelled to meet.
“You cannot hide from me, young one.”
Angry indignation cured Luke’s momentary paralysis. “I managed alright up until now!” He grabbed Vader’s wrist and shoved.
It was like trying to arm-wrestle a marble statue.
“But no longer.” Vader held on a heartbeat longer, driving his point home, and then abruptly let go in order to alter the destination of another fallen tree careening in their direction. Luke, immediately seizing this opportunity to haul himself higher up the tree and discourage further steamrolling of his personal space, glanced down in time to see the log cannon instead into the nearest tree still standing and obliterate it.
Near being a relative term; you could’ve flown three X-wings abreast through the gap. Luke snorted and pulled himself up another branch. “Overkill, much?”
Vader plastered one evil eye to him for a moment before presumably deciding it would be a waste of energy to chase his quarry further up a dead end. Instead he shifted around to secure a clearer view of Luke’s new refuge, a broken limb stub not quite two meters above his head. “It was not impossible.”
“A fifteen-meter horizontal jump from a standing start? I’d say it’s pretty damn improbable.”
“You have well and truly instructed me in the inadvisability of leaving anything to chance where you are concerned, young one.”
“Overkill,” Luke insisted.
There was an interlude, during which it gradually dawned on Vader that this had been meant as a joke while Luke tried to pretend it hadn’t.
“Do I have the Rebellion to thank for teaching you to mangle spoken Basic in that juvenile fashion, young one?”
Wasn’t that just like the Empire: never spend a decicred towards establishing a decent school system on your backwater provincial planet, then turn up its nose at you for not having a quality education. “I didn’t exactly grow up going to posh academies, you know.”
“Tatooine is not an adequate excuse for your crudity of expression,” Vader lectured, with a definite suggestion in his tone that he had personal reason to know this was so.
Luke bristled. “I’m not a slacker if that’s what you—”
“It is clear to me,” Vader went on, as if he hadn’t said a thing, “that your guardians were criminally lax in your education.”
Luke’s teeth clenched, no longer in mere irritation but grinding, grieving fury. He wanted to rip the vocabulator out of Vader’s mask and smash it. Then maybe the man’s vocal cords too, if he had any left. “Shut up.”
“You presume too much, boy.”
The threat in that snakelike hiss was unmistakable, but Luke didn’t give a damn at the moment. “The hell I do. You of all people have no right to—”
“No right?” Vader snarled. “To criticize the thieves and traitors who robbed me of my only child?”
“They weren’t thieves, they were my family!”
“Your family.” Contempt dripped from every word. “By what right did they claim you? Because a random moisture farmer on a fifth-rate planet happened to take a fancy for a second wife years after—”
“Because they loved me!”
The implicit accusation thundered over the waters like the blood raging in Luke’s ears.
“You think that I do not.”
A question? An observation? An implication, an invitation—all of them at once? Luke’s anger drained away, leaving a pittin-sized lump in his throat. It was better not to ask. Whatever the answer, it would only twist the knife that had been planted in him the last time they met.
“You don’t care what I think,” he answered dully. That much seemed indisputable.
Vader stiffened. “You form your opinions too rashly, boy. You should learn to think before you leap.”
He all but spat the last word. For the first time, it occurred to Luke that maybe he wasn’t the only one still smarting from Bespin.
After entertaining that idea for all of half a second, though, he decided it’d be a lot less upsetting to get good and angry again. “What’s that supposed to mean? If you did care what I think, you wouldn’t be hounding me all over the known galaxy and torturing my friends and chasing me up fracking trees!”
“Yes. Obviously you are of no significance to me whatsoever.”
Luke flung his arms over his chest and thumped back against the tree. “Go kriff a battle droid, why don’t you?”
“None are available for that purpose.”
Luke ran a palm over his face in sheer exhausted frustration. You’d think that kind of comment would be guaranteed to piss off Darth Vader, of all people. But no, apparently it just brought out the man’s heretofore unsuspected inner Corellian. “Kriff yourself then,” he growled, just to see what would happen.
“Anatomically infeasible.” The polished lenses turned impassively up to Luke. “And in answer to your previous question, though I may not choose to be guided by it, your opinion is…not a matter of indifference to me.”
Don’t listen, Luke ordered himself, gritting his teeth. Don’t believe it, however bad you want to. Vader knewwhere he was most vulnerable, knew exactly what effect such words would have. He wasn’t going to be manipulated that easily. “And if I couldn’t use the Force?” he retorted. “If I were of zero possible use to you?”
He got the distinct impression of a raised eyebrow. “That is a pointless speculation. The Force could not fail to be strong with any child of mine.”
Of all the conceited, self-congratulatory—Luke hadn’t heard anything that arrogant since the last time Han had told his Kessel Run story, where the hells did he get off being—being so damn right, kriff him anyway. Domineering was Vader’s middle name, wasn’t it, his genes would charge into any reproductive scenario like they owned the place, they’d slaughter competing DNA with tiny little red lightsabers—
The respirator marked a sharp inhale and Vader shot him an incredulous look. Luke squelched down into his fork, and worked very hard not to look like someone who was hoping the tree would swallow him whole and prevent him from embarrassing himself any further.
Silence—at least, all sound not attributable to an ongoing natural disaster—fell between them for a good while after that. Not that this meant Vader was leaving him alone. His overwhelming presence continued to curl itself around Luke’s. It was not a soothing sensation; it reminded him of the giant constrictor snakes on Yavin IV, suffocating their prey until it was either dead or too weak to protest as it was swallowed. He shivered. Would he be crushed to death too? Or would the jaws of darkness swallow him still alive, and slowly digest him into itself…
I still have the blaster.
The fingers of his left hand crept over the holster on his hip. The strap hadn’t come undone; the cool grip was right there. Freedom was two seconds away…if he had the nerve to do it. He shivered again.
Vader glanced up sharply. “What is it?”
Luke clenched his left hand into a fist. “Nothing.”
“You are exceedinglyunwise to lie to me, young one.”
“I’m not lying! That’s just what everybody says when—”
“I am not interested in what everybody says. Answer the question.”
Boy, had he developed Uncle Owen Syndrome fast. Luke half expected the next comment to be if everybody was jumping off the edge of Beggar’s Canyon, would you do it too?
Experience, however, had taught him the futility of arguing with old men about the nuances of youthful culture. “Fine. I’m cold.”
Vader targeted a forefinger at him. “That is not a sincere answer.”
“Am I lying?” Luke demanded stonily.
They both knew he wasn’t…technically. Jornan was not a warm world, or at least not this part of it, and having left his hideous orange flight suit with the stingship in the interests of camouflage, Luke was wearing only light shipboard fatigues.
“You are engaging in legalistic insubordination,” said Vader. “It is not an improvement.”
“You want a real answer? Then give me a reason to trust you.”
He stopped in dismayed surprise almost at once, realizing what exactly he’d just said. Where the nine hells had that come from?
Vader was even more disconcerted. To Luke’s amazement, the man retreated a step, muttering, “You presume far too much.” But the response was late, and lacked his usual overweening confidence.
Luke, on the other hand, finally had some of hisconfidence back; it was the first time he’d managed to reclaim the offensive. “It’s not presumption, it’s common sense. I do have some, you know.”
“My agents would contest that statement,” Vader said dryly.
Luke looked away into the top of the tree, a sad smile playing over his face for a moment. Dack, his gunner on Hoth, had always thought it was hilarious to imagine what Imperial Intelligence made of Luke and his seat-of-the-pants escapes. He’d used to impersonate an imaginary Imperial analyst and keep Wes and Zev in stitches for hours at a time. Rumor had it even Hobbie “Stoneface” Klivian had once cracked a grin at him.
“Something troubles you.”
So far the emotionally blunt approach had gotten better results than nothing or none of your business; might as well try it again. “I was wishing I could tell my friend about your agents. He’d’ve been laughing for months.”
Thunderheads of a metaphorical nature gathered. “Wishing will not make it so. Your destiny lies with me. You will not return to your Rebel fleet.”
Luke didn’t need the Force to sense that arguing with Vader about destiny would be about as productive as arguing with Uncle Owen about why he really, really needed a ninth-generation Taim & Bak propulsion booster for his skyhopper. So he just ignored that part. “I couldn’t tell him even if I did. He died on Hoth.” He picked at the top of his boot, a fidget he’d picked up on the hangar decks over the past few years.
“One of your wingmates.”
Luke looked at him sharply. “My gunner. How did you—“
“I am also a pilot, young one. As you should know.”
“I do,” said Luke, “I just can’t see you giving a damn if your wingman turns into a fireball.” No offense.
“Your hyperactive sense of compassion will destroy you, young one.” The lecturing finger sprang back at him. “You should have learned that lesson at our last encounter.”
“From where I’m standing it was your lack of compassion that nearly destroyed me,” Luke retorted. “If you behaved like a civilized human being I’d—”
“I will do you no favors by coddling you.” Luke’s eyebrows skyrocketed, but before he could even sputter in indignation Vader went on, “The Emperor is not more civilized than I am. He is the one who should concern you.”
“Oh, he does,” Luke grumbled. “He does.”
“Then I am your only alternative. The Jedi cannot aid you in this, child. Why do you think none of them are left alive?”
Luke did not feel this was the time to mention that wasn’t quitethe case. Besides, his thoughts had headed in another direction. “You’re saying I haveto turn to the dark side in order to take him down.”
He kept his tone neutral. That ought to be more than enough to encourage Vader to—
“It is the only way, my son.”
This was going to be the dangerous part, he was pretty sure. But it was a little late in the day for playing it safe.“So if that’s what it takes…what’s your excuse?”
Emphasis on dead.
“What?” Vader growled.
Well, in for an eelfrog, in for the whole Hutt buffet. “You keep saying it’s the only way, but you’ve been on the dark side for umpteen years now and he’s still kicking. So far the only thing you’ve got on the Jedi is you’re…not dead yet.”
He’d been going to say alive, but could you call that suit living?
Vader was glowering at him like a Plossnian basilisk eel. “There is muchyou do not know, young one.”
Luke glared back. That nickname was getting real old real fast. “Yeah, I probably don’t know almost as much as you’ve deliberately forgotten.”
Ah. So that’swhat it sounds like when he’s really angry.
The Force boiled and seethed like acid, raged like a sandstorm, and left Luke frozen with the instinctive terror of a small rodent; it felt like rigor mortis had gotten a head start on him. The river blasting by below was a nonentity compared to the raging power he had nearly brought down on himself.
“Do not,” Vader said—in such a tone might a prophet set forth the first and greatest commandment for an entire race—“do not try my patience in that egregious and insolent manner again.”
Luke didn’t dare answer. He wasn’t sure what was left of Vader’s patience would withstandany answer short of yessir…and terrified or not, he wasn’t about to bend to that extent. So he only nodded and concentrated on not encroaching in any conceivable way on Vader’s mental space.
Presently, though, he felt the bigger, blacker presence lose its poisonous edge and curl about him once more. “You are frightened.”
“That,” Luke muttered, “is because I’m not an idiot.”
“You have nothing to fear from me.”
“Great! Let’s shake hands on it.” Luke held his right hand out pointedly.
Vader stepped swiftly up and seized it. He wasn’t supposed to do that! Luke yanked backwards, but only succeeded in nearly dislodging himself from the tree. An invisible hand steadied him, and his pulse crested on a second wave of dismay.
“Quiet,” Vader said distantly. He turned Luke’s hand over in his, examining it. Luke had all he could do not to fly apart in panic. The prolonged touch, there, specifically there, urged every nerve in his body to bolt, never mind that there was nowhere to bolt to. His head whirled, black spots forming—
“Breathe,” Vader told him. A moment later he let go of Luke’s hand. Luke snatched it back, finally getting a shaky inhale again. “It is a surprisingly good prosthetic, given the resources generally available to the Rebellion. Perhaps they know your worth after all.” He cast a cynical look at the prosthetic again. “Or is it your little princess’ doing?”
Luke scowled, all the angrier for the unexpected ordeal of a moment ago. “Leia doesn’t play favorites. She has this thing called integrity.”
“Integrity,” Vader said, as if it had four letters rather than four syllables, “is all too easily dismissed where the heart has greater priorities.”
Luke blinked for a moment or two before he realized what the inference was and thought, this cannot be happening to me right now. “She’s my friend, that’s all.”
“Of course she is.” Apparently Han hadn’t cornered the market on condescending amusement after all. “I am not a fool, my son.”
Luke groaned. Of all the possible lines of interrogation, Vader had to go and fixate on the one Wes Janson and all of Flight Crew Twelve had been hounding him on since he’d walked off the Falcon’s ramp onto Yavin beside Leia. Like the Empire needed any more acts of injustice to round out its resume. “You were at Bespin, you know she’s got a thing for Han.”
“Extreme circumstances engender abnormal emotional outbursts,” Vader said, and if that wasn’t Han and Leia in a nutshell Luke didn’t know what was. “She would be a far less intelligent woman than I know her to be if she truly preferred that smuggler to you.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about Han—and anyway, what the hells do youcare who Leia decides to—”
“I do not. I merely observe that a princess, even one accustomed to consort with traitors and terrorists, commands a higher class of suitor than a Corellian scofflaw who cannot even maintain a ship to an adequate standard of performance.”
Luke snorted. “Yeah, only the finest impoverished Outer Rim moisture farmers for the likes of her.”
“You were not born a moisture farmer, young one. Your natural antecedents are as deserving of respect as those of an adopted princess.”
“I’m pretty sure even adopted princesses outrank Jedi Knights.”
There was a stiff-sounding pause. “I was referring to your mother.”
Luke sat bolt upright so fast he nearly gave himself whiplash. “My mother? What do you mean? Who was she?”
The silence went from stiff to bowstring-taut. Even above the thunder of the river doing its best to swallow them whole, Luke could hear the creak of Vader’s clenching fists. “Did Kenobi tell you nothing of her?”
Luke swallowed and looked away. “He didn’t—I mean…I never asked.”
Vader spun on him—like any of this was his fault. “Why not? You had no interest in knowing anything of your mother?”
“I just…thought it was better not to.” Luke played nervously with his boot top again. “I mean…my uncle and aunt didn’t know anything about her at all, and…I thought…well, why wouldn’t they know anything, unless…”
Luke ran a hand through his hair. Was Vader really going to make him spell this out? “I wasn’t the only kid who got dumped on a doorstep, okay? I know why that kind of thing usually happens!”
“You think I am such a weak-minded and contemptible foolas to traipse around the galaxy getting children on spaceport whores? Or that your mother—”
“How should I know? Back then I thought you’d been a navigator on a spice freighter!”
“A navigator on a—!”
Vader sounded like he’d choked on his own outrage—and just like that the entire mess seemed morbidly, hideously funny. Luke had to clamp his hand over his mouth to stifle the hysterical laughter that threatened him.
“These are the people you insist on considering as your family?”
“If it helps, I never really believed that one.”
It didn’t help. You could see the disgusted scowl right through the mask. “Fortunate for them that they are beyond my reach,” he spat. “Navigator on a spice freighter...”
“Could’ve been worse,” said Luke giddily, “they could’ve said you were a Mos Eisley trash collector who got run over by a charging bantha.”
Vader was still stalking up and down his meter or two of branch like a tiger that had been on starvation rations for a month. “A strangely specific alternative,” he ground out.
“My friend Biggs, he used to—”
Reality came crashing abruptly back in. Biggs was dead, and he was talking to the man who had killed Biggs. Who’d almost killed him more than once. Who’d have killed Han and Leia without batting an eye. He swallowed, throat dry.
“Your friend who amuses himself at the expense of the Imperial Intelligence services?”
“No.” Luke picked a cone off the tree and hurled it into the river below. “This would be one of the other ones you killed.”
Well—maybe that wasn’t quite fair. Dack and Biggs had known what they were signing up for, same as he had. It was war, people died, it wasn’t like Vader had hunted them down specifically.
Nope, remarked his inner critic, that’s the kind of special treatment he saves for his kid.
“You have an overabundance of friends,” Vader said below him.
“You should talk, you don’t have any.”
“That is the only wise number of them to have.”
Luke hurled another cone. “Oh yeah? How’d I get here, then?”
“At great cost.”
Luke’s vexation stilled. Grief stirred the Force, deep, laced with anger and choking guilt. It filled him with pity and fear in equal measures. Whatever had happened to his mother, Vader felt responsible. Probably he had good reason to think so. Luke decided on the spot he didn’t want to know what that reason was. Ever.
But he couldn’t leave the subject wholly alone either. Not after so many years empty-handed. His voice came in a raw whisper. “Did you love her?”
Vader’s presence became opaque and stony. “She is dead. It is of no consequence now.”
Luke tore another a pinecone off, shredding it slowly in his fingers. “If it doesn’t matter, why won’t you answer me?”
Vader said nothing. The respirator cycled—five times. Ten times. Fifteen. That kind of silence was probably an answer in itself...but Luke didn’t want to infer or guess anymore, he wanted to know.
That one harsh word was very obviously the most he’d ever utter on the subject. But it was enough. Luke swallowed and nodded. “Thank you.”
Luke blinked at him. “For telling me.”
“Do not thank me for such things. You are entitled to know them.”
Luke sighed, propping one knee up on his stub of branch and flinging an arm out on top, the remnants of the pinecone still tangled in his fingers. “Yeah, well, not everybody thought so.”
Obi-Wan, why didn’t you tell me?
Vader was silent for a few minutes, doing what Luke had no idea, until he suddenly spoke up again. “You have suffered these past months.”
Luke looked down, away from him. There was no point in denying what Vader had to be able to feel bleeding off him constantly. The hand was nothing by comparison. “...Yes.”
“That was not my desire or intent in...telling you.”
Luke shrugged, trying to muster up the protective numbness he’d used to keep himself going in the absence of any outlet.
“Have you spoken of it to anyone?”
He blinked stinging eyes. “There isn’t anyone.”
Vader eyed him skeptically. “What of your innumerable friends?”
“You mean the ones you’ve tortured, or the ones who’d give anything for a shot to take you out, or the ones who are dead?” Luke hurled the shredded pinecone away, watched the waters swallow it. “Like I said. There isn’t anyone.”
Vader observed another inscrutable silence. Luke stared miserably into the storming waters. He didn’t even dare tell Artoo. Someone might overhear, or Artoo might fret about him and wind up spilling the beans to Threepio or Leia; he was independent like that.
“There is one,” Vader said.
Luke froze inwardly—had he found out about Master Yoda? How had he—
The significant, fixed regard Vader had pinned on him suddenly registered. Oh gods. How was this happening to him? “I don’t think so.”
“Whom do you fear to be heard by?” Vader countered. “The fish?”
Dread momentarily forgotten, Luke squinted at the water. “Are there fish?” He’d never seen a fish. Dagobah only had eels.
“Some,” Vader informed him. “Small ones.”
“You’d think they’d all be dead from getting smashed into things.”
“They appear to be skilled at avoidance. Not unlike my son.”
Luke ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Keeps me alive.”
“Do not try to tell me you do not wish to speak of it. I know the truth.”
He wanted to, alright. He wanted it out of him, out where someone could help him make sense of what had happened and the mess it had made of him inside. “I can’t.”
The aggression had receded again; now Vader sounded strangely patient, which was much harder to face. Luke’s heart clenched like it was the only thing holding him up as he dangled over the edge of a precipice, like an oyster gripping itself shut against a predator. He screwed his eyes shut. Why did it have to hurt like this? “Because you’ll use it against me.”
Silence again. It was true, and Vader offered no rebuttal. He was, Luke was starting to see, inclined to be straightforward. At least by his own lights. At least where Luke was concerned.
Which was what made his next statement such a surprise. “Very well. You have my word that anything you say in the next fifteen minutes will remain...unused.”
Luke stared at him with eyes the size of droidekas. “I can’t trust that!”
“Why not? I have never lied to you, young one.”
Which, his emphasis loudly implied, was more than Obi-Wan could have claimed, but Luke decided to pretend he hadn’t heard every word Vader hadn’t said. “Please, you’ve barely had a chance so far. It’s been what, an hour?”
Vader crossed his arms, still studying Luke closely. Luke stubbornly held his gaze.
“Your mother’s name was Padme Amidala. I met her when I was a child. I knew from the moment I saw her that...that she would occupy a position of importance in my life. She was small in stature, but towering in passion. I...” A clunky pause. “I perceive much of her nature in you.”
A twist ran through Luke’s middle. He could see the trade Vader was trying to offer, however clumsy and cold and clinical his execution might be. Confession for confession, grief for grief, weakness for weakness. He worked his fingers nervously, knowing it was meant to be his turn, still not knowing where to begin. “I…”
Vader waited below, still strangely patient.
“I...used to watch the sky all the time. When I was a kid.”
A little hint of impatience now. “You wished to fly, I am aware of this. What bearing does that have on our present conversation?”
Luke shook his head, mouth dry. “It wasn’t about flying.”
“...I hoped my father would come.”
He hunkered down, a sickening new convulsion of hurt seizing him. He’d said it. It had been his father he’d watched for, wistful and mostly hopeless but never able to argue himself out of the idiotic conviction that it was possible. Which was why he’d known the instant those words were spoken at Bespin that they were true, however desperately he wanted them not to be. It hadn’t been stupid childhood fancy that made him look to the sky—it had been the Force, still whispering even when he was nearly too deaf to understand what it was telling him. His father really hadbeen up there to be found, though not where anyone but Obi-Wan would look for him.
“And you never did,” he whispered.
Vader’s anger blasted up, towering above the flood. “That was not my doing. Kenobi—”
“It doesn’t matter!” Luke spun on him. “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t matter whose fault it is! It doesn’t matter why! You weren’t there! You weren’t there, so I had to—I had to make you be there, somehow, and—”
He lost hold of what had already been confused, scrambled thoughts and just sank down on the branch, head buried in his knees, mind screaming memories at the top of its lungs and he didn’t care anymore if Vader saw every one of them. Four, asking Aunt Beru why other kids called their adults Mom and Dad but not him. Six, at Great-Uncle Cliegg’s funeral, suddenly understanding what dead meant. Years of taunts in grade school, because Tatooine taught even children to be harsh beyond their years. Eleven, the hunting trip that all the fathers and sons had gone on, but not him, because Uncle Owen said it wouldn’t be proper. Sixteen, teaching himself to fly a skyhopper because Uncle Owen didn’t know how to fly and thought it was foolish risk-taking anyway. Nineteen, in Ben’s hut, a lightsaber in his hands and exhilaration in his heart because he’d known, he’d known his father wasn’t any damn navigator on a stupid spice freighter. Twenty, talking to Rebel veterans, lapping up the scraps some of them remembered, constructing the pattern for his future. Twenty-two, Bespin—
Vader too had dropped all restraints. A rage like nothing Luke had ever imagined hurricaned around him. Branches tore above and below, water spouted up in stinging funnels, an unnatural gale battered him into the trunk at his back, and that was all nothing compared to the titanic writhing and lashing of the Force. Vader’s wrath distorted its fabric for lightyearsin every direction, drenched it and twisted it and whipped it. Luke probably should have been petrified, but with his heart in such tumult it seemed only right that everything else should be. He couldn’t even cry; he just huddled there, feet braced against his bit of branch, trying to anchor himself.
The rage spun in tighter, faster, centering on him; he was the eye of its storm. He heard, over the roar of water and wind and his own ragged panting, a branch creak nearby—felt, rather than saw, Vader’s terrifying bulk rise up beside him—then two enormous hands closed on either side of his head, and the slick ridged dome of the helmet pressed against his forehead, and the rage speared straight at him, into his mind, and blasted him with images in reply.
A brunette woman, beautiful and young and brilliant in every sense. Happiest day. Her joy—her worry—her sorrow—her panic—her still cold body on a bier, passing beneath a grim sky amid candlelight and tears—Obi-Wan, fire, lies, rage, he took her from me, he took youfrom me, you, my own son, my only son—Luke’s own childhood memories fired back at him, Vader’s fury and grief and gnawing bereavement permeating every one—he took this from me, and this, and this—
Luke jerked backward with a terrified gasp, eyes flying wide open, staring into Vader’s lenses point-blank. He didn’t know what to think, how to feel—whether horrified at the man’s invasion of his mind, or terrified of his superhuman capacity for rage, or nauseated at his even more boggling capacity for hatred, or elated at those precious glimpses of a mother he’d never known, or—or torn with joy at how much his father cared. To a terrible and obsessive and far from healthy extent...but he’d been so starved for a father all his life that his appetite for being wanted was almost equal to such possessiveness.
And that was by far the sharpest of the knives in his heart. If he once gave in to Vader, he’d never get himself back; their two inner emptinesses were like magnets of opposite poles. The deepest, most aching desire of his heart had become the thing he must, at all costs, refuse—or else lose himself forever.
Since the fifteen minutes weren’t up, he let that thought scream aloud too.
The rage around him stilled. The sounds died away—nothing now but the thunder of the river, the whisper of wind, and the implacable rhythm of the respirator. Vader did not let go of him—on the contrary, gripped him the tighter, eyes still searching Luke’s.
Fear returned, growing with every second Vader held his stare. He shouldn’t have let that be heard, promise or no promise. Now the man knew exactly how precarious Luke’s resolve was, exactly how much advantage he had to press, exactly how tantalizing a temptation he offered by merely existing. What would he do?
The hands on his head slackened, to something almost gentle, and the fingers worked soothingly through his hair, against his scalp. The presence in his mind sent quiet, knowing pulses, as though Vader understood exactly what such torture of the soul was like. Luke closed his eyes again. He sat still for as long as his father’s gentleness lasted, hoping it would never end.
Futile hope, of course. He’d only said fifteen minutes.
“I cannot alter what has already been done, child, nor can you. But know this.” One hand reached further, catching a fistful of hair and forcing Luke to look up. “If I had known, you would not have watched a single day in vain.”
Defeated, Luke nodded. Vader would have come for him alright—and probably his uncle and aunt and Ben would all have died that much sooner, and he’d have grown up in a much worse hell than Tatooine had ever been. Be careful what you wish for, Aunt Beru always used to say.
Was she ever right.
Vader’s hand only twisted tighter into his hair, almost painfully. “It is not yet too late,” he murmured. The other hand traced an unnerving line along his jaw. “A boy, still.”
Luke glared instantly. “I can hear you, you know.”
Possibly this wasn’t a mutual state of affairs just now, because Vader only continued to study him at close range and murmur to himself as if Luke hadn’t said a word. “Not for long, though. You grow so swiftly. I had forgotten...”
That, Luke decided, was about enough of that. He shoved at Vader’s arm, more to make a point than in hopes of actually budging it. “What’s to forget? You barely know me now.”
Vader let him go with an exasperated noise. “I was young once, boy, incredible as it may seem to you.”
Luke rolled his eyes and thumped back into the trunk, arms crossed. Then, as an afterthought, he kicked Vader’s shoulder pauldron out of pure twenty-something pique. It made a dull, metallic thud and bruised his toes mildly. Vader’s head snapped around. “What do you think you will accomplish with such childish antics?”
“You’re the one who keeps calling me a child. Might as well get my money’s worth out of it.”
Vader growled. “If I had had the charge of your upbringing—”
“You didn’t.” Luke aimed another kick, only to have his boot caught in a grip that ground his metatarsals together clean through the leather.
“Attempt that again and it will require a dedicated team of orthotic neurosurgeons to reassemble your bones from the ankle down.”
Luke stared at him, wide-eyed. He hadn’t heard a threat that good since the last time Uncle Owen had reamed him out for “forgetting” to run the weekly maintenance check on Vaporator 32 way out at the farthest, hottest edge of the farm. “Did you just improvise that, or…”
“What do you think?”
“...I think I’m going to use it on Wes the next time he’s late turning in the munitions logs.”
“You will have no such opportunity.” His fingers tightened, finally forcing Luke to grimace.
“It was a joke, do you have any sense of humor at all?”
“I had you.”
Luke went bug-eyed in astonishment for fully three seconds. Even Vader looked taken aback, at least until a laugh got away from Luke, at which point he bypassed his apparent insecurities about constructive human interaction and went straight for smug satisfaction.
“No,” Luke said, when he was reasonably confident he could speak with a straight face, “that’s the Force’s sense of humor.” And because Rebels did not succumb to Imperial threats even from their fathers, he swung his foot up and thunked it down on top of the man’s shoulder for a footrest.
Vader tensed sharply, and Luke wondered briefly if he’d wind up with a prosthetic foot for his trouble—but a moment later he felt a tentative pat on the side of his boot. Vader went back to watching the remnants of the forest and the sulking river. Luke frowned. Now he’d have to figure out when to move his foot back off.
Somehow, this seemed an even more insurmountable problem than figuring out a way off this planet that didn’t involve Imperial chauffeuring services.
Wait. What if he just...asked? It had been good enough several times in this conversation; overall Vader seemed to be in a fairly indulgent mood, if he was content to tolerate a 1:1 boot-to-shoulder ratio. If he could make his father see why...
“I can’t leave with you, you know,” he said, after several minutes’ hard thinking.
“How fascinating,” said Vader. “I do not see how you can leave without me.”
“I have something I have to do.”
“And what is that?”
The indulgent mood was still holding, despite the warning note in his tone; he’d listen, but Luke needed an oblique approach if he was going to bend that hyperactive paternal instinct to his own point of view.
“So, you remember Hoth, right? The planet where hell froze over?”
A flicker of amusement rippled the fabric of the Force. “Yes, and if you intend to tell me that you wish to return there—”
“Yeah, not while I’m still breathing, thanks.” Luke looked at his hands. “I almost died there, did you know that?”
A stiff silence; he could feel Vader’s muscles go rigid. “No,” he said tightly. “I did not. In the battle?”
“Before that. It was so cold there we had to ruggedize everything to triple specs before it would work, so up until a few days before you all showed up we were still riding tauntauns out to place sensors for the local grid. I stayed back at the end of a patrol to check out a meteor strike, in case it was a probe droid.”
“Never found out. I got mauled by one of the snow monster things that live out there. Killed my tauntaun, knocked me out, dragged me back to its den. I managed to get away, but by then it was nightfall and I was probably fifteen klicks from base. At night it drops to negative forty out there, and a blizzard kicked up on top of that, I had no idea where I was. I don’t know, I got maybe two or three klicks before I collapsed. They told me later I was probably five minutes away from freezing to death. Maybe less.”
A pause. “But you did not. You drew on the Force and—”
“No,” Luke said. “Han came looking for me.”
Vader was silent, but for the respirator.
“He heard at base that I hadn’t checked back in. He grabbed a tent and a space heater and started out. Even though visibility was down to three meters and the temperature was at minus-twenty-five and dropping. Even though they were sealing the base gates for the night. He tracked me through a damn blizzard and he found me and he kept me alive for ten hours until they could get speeders out for an aerial search the next morning."
Still Vader said nothing.
“That’s what I meant when I said there’s a lot you don’t know about Han. That’s why I went to Bespin even though I knew you wanted me to. I owe him my life.” Luke paused, looking out at the decimated torrent-ravaged forest. He swallowed. “You owe him my life.”
Vader finally spoke. “You will attempt to retrieve him from the Hutt.”
“No,” Luke said flatly. “I’m going to. Hope you don’t have any soft spots for Jabba.”
“What do you think?”
I think you’ve got exactly one soft spot and I’m it. The thought came too fast to suppress; he shoved it down to analyze (and probably panic about) later. “So. I can’t go with you.”
“I suppose it has not occurred to you that I could effect Solo’s retrieval more quickly, and with vastly less effort and risk.”
“Yeah. Kind of like you could have just shot me with a stun blast at Bespin the second I landed. But you didn’t. Because it was personal.”
What he didn’t say was: it’s safe to let me go now, because I’ll come back. This is personal too. But he had a suspicion Vader would hear every word he didn’t say.
Vader turned to face him. “If it is personal,” he said, “then of course you must fulfill your obligations.”
Luke stared. You’re kriffing me. There’s no way this actually—
“Where did you leave your ship? Would it have survived this?” Vader gestured at the charging deluge.
Han is never going to believe this. I’m never going to believe this. “Maybe,” said Luke, dazed. “It was over the next ridge.” He pointed south, where the water twisted away from the rising land and chased the fold of the valley towards lower ground.
“When the current lessens, I will take you to it.”
“You will?” Luke stilled, a deep pounding hope inside. “Really?”
“Really. If it is not flight-worthy, I will secure you alternate transportation off-world.”
Luke put his head in his hand and did not cry. Not when his father patted his boot again, nor when the current finally dropped some four hours later and his father taught him not only how to swim but three different strokes, nor when they found his stingship still dry in the gully of the heat vent, nor when a heavy hand grasped him by the chin as he settled into the little cockpit, ready to launch.
“I trust you will convey my regards to Captain Solo, when you have retrieved him.”
“Actually,” said Luke, “I probably won’t. Not sure he’d take it well.”
Vader made a considering noise. “Perhaps not.”
He spread his hand against Luke’s cheek, bent his head close one last time. “We will see each other again soon, my son. I will watch the sky for you.”
Luke closed his eyes and nodded. Why does it have to be so hard?
Vader gave a soft snort. “Because you are my son. The pinecone does not fall far from the tree.”
Luke glared at him. “No sense of humor.” He grabbed his flight helmet; Vader let go so he could put it on.
"One request, my son. In the future, kindly restrict your destructive talents to military targets, and refrain from demolishing valuable commercial infrastructure that does not even belong to the Empire.”
“I said I didn’t—oh, forget it…”