Kierlbräst was a middling little moon—rocky and cold, a desolate expanse of purple-gray rock and gray-gray sky shooting out as far as the eye could see—but miles beneath its rocky surface were thick belts of attaxium, the key metal in the center of hyperfusion powercores. Theoretically it was under the legal dominion of the planet it orbited, Cortolla—in the briefing there'd been a description of a bloody history of occupation, all motivated by power-seekers salivating at the prospect of cheap, quality attaxium to light hyperspace engines to the next conquest. The ill-fated Zygerrian Empire, toppled by Republican task forces compromised of eager Jedi Knights, the former Imperial Mandalore, toppled by a combination of forces too complicated for Luke to even begin to unravel, then to the Republic, an early Separatist spoil of war, then to the Republic again, just months before the Republic shifted into the Galactic Empire. It was a story repeated in a thousand different variations on a thousand different worlds. The Rebellion had been running guns and ammunition and bodies to Cortolla for years now, the local system cell fostering and feeding a number of different militant liberation organizations on the ground all over the planet, and finally that effort had erupted into all-out warfare to finally burn the Empire's fingerprint off of Cortolla. Grainy holofootage reels echoed Cortollan fighters on the ground crying out izbecki herr Cortollai, and though Luke didn't speak the local language, he'd heard enough desperate and jubilant cries for freedom to figure what it essentially meant. A thousand different bloody histories meant a thousand different rallying cries.
It was to be a two-pronged effort; Cortolla's freedom fighters would retake their home planet, and Rebel High Command would designate a special attack force to destroy and ransack Kierlbräst's Imperial mining facilities, freeing the slaves who worked the attaxium mines in the process, most of whom were wookies. Leia had tapped Chewbacca to help with organizing the Kashyyk Rebel cells to process all of the freed slaves in the aftermath; Kashyyk was one of the Empire’s most profound casualties, a planet ripped to shreds and a population hacked off and spread across the galaxy as the Empire’s free laborers, but as such, they were, together, one of the Rebellion’s largest and most passionate demographics. They’d been the foot soldiers that built the Rebellion that the rest of them inherited now. We follow the fighting spirit, Chewbacca had said, once. It would be good, for Chewbacca, to help organize the relief. Kierlbräst's attaxium had been negotiated to be shared with the Rebellion in return for over a decade of its support, and Command was eager to see the Empire ripped from the face of Kierlbräst, as a tactical and personal mission—and in the chaos of the three months following the public discovery of Darth Vader's defection to the Rebellion, there would never be a better time to strike. Imperial forces were spread thin, fracturing into pieces at the lowest ranks of the Imperial army; stormtroopers, it seemed, were by and large more willing to face defecting to the Rebellion or facing a court martial for fleeing the army altogether than to meet Darth Vader on the other side of the battlefield. Luke grimly supposed that was fair enough, because the one and only duel he'd had with Vader had quickly become one of the worst moments of his life.
All of the last three months had been the Rebellion taking advantage after advantage after advantage, hitting the Empire everywhere they knew it would hurt the most, while the Imperial military floundered, trying to figure out how to win battles when Darth Vader wasn't leading them, trying to figure out how to lead stormtroopers who didn't want to follow when it wasn't Darth Vader leading them. The Imperial military had a population that eclipsed Tatooine's nearly seven times over, an internal culture that varied by rank and service in ways that were inscrutable to Luke, who hadn't grown up in the Empire, much less around its military—but, clearly, one of its staunchest butchers changing sides had shaken it to its core.
It was simultaneously the most thrilling, terrifying, and exhausting time in Luke's life—they were gaining crucial ground, and even with half the forces and a quarter of the equipment they had the Empire on the backfoot. For the first time in his life, he had his father by his side, actually on his side, putting all of his considerable power and destructive force to work for the Rebellion—and as many headaches and sleepless nights and screaming matches as that had been, and would continue to be, Luke would take every moment he could get. There'd been weeks of sleepless nights at the makeshift detention facility Vader had been transferred to following his initial surrender, with Luke sitting in on every session, feeling like a living lie detector, some brand of Jedi security theater. Oftentimes he'd rub his prosthetic, miserably wondering why they thought that—if Vader truly wanted to kill them all—Luke could do anything about it. It'd been hellish, a gray cell and a gray examination table, Force-nulling cuffs for Vader that he could've ripped through with brute strength alone, listening to a mechanical baritone rumble about ordering the Empire to burn homes and cities and carving through innocent people because the Emperor desired terror-as-power, the proposed trap for the Rebellion that lay in wait in the Endor system, the second Death Star the Emperor had commanded. A litany of horror and the strange, dull way Vader recounted it all.
There'd been a window where the Empire wouldn't have missed Vader, who was nearly a mythic figure even within his own holdings, and a mythic figure with a demonstrated tendency to disappear and reappear on the Emperor's will. Vader’s notorious eclectic behavior and witchy tendencies worked with them, for once, but inevitably that window was brutally short. Vader’s surrender wasn’t a secret even the Rebellion, that traded in and was founded on the power of discretion, could hold for long. They had raced against the clock to get as much of a handle on the situation as they could, because whatever would happen after would be wildly, wildly unpredictable. After that—as the Empire held the proverbial iron to the fire—the scramble to strike, to utilize those fractured internal Imperial politics and sensitive intelligences, became overwhelming. Luke had been on four battle-torn planets in as many days, jetting around the galaxy supporting liberation efforts with the power only a Jedi could offer. The terms of Vader's defection—and subsequent detention—had been negotiated hastily, and would likely be revisited at a later date, but for the moment they involved Vader becoming something of a special task force all himself, assigned, essentially, to seek-and-destroy missions, taking Imperial bases that were too well-fortified for a traditional battalion. Darth Vader as a prisoner of war had excited the Rebellion, but Darth Vader, the Rebellion's personal beast of burden, excited almost no one—except, of course, Luke. And some days Luke wondered just how crazy that made him, but most days, Luke was too tired to wonder at all.
For a while, they'd been on other ends of the galaxy, their only communication the hesitant, small bond in the Force that existed between them, scattered feelings and senses. In the Force, Vader had been closed off, well-shielded, reaching out only when Luke reached first. But now they were both in the same rubble, on the same moon, on the same Kierlbräst—and Luke could feel him, just from the way the world seemed to freeze when Vader inhabited it. It almost convinced him that it was all real, the sharpness of it, the ice. It reminded him of Hoth, and how all of Hoth had been almost too sharp to understand, too real.
With the Force, he sensed the line of that cold, its energy—like a star, when it burned so hot it was cold, like sunstroke, when the body got so overheated it began shivering—and followed it out of the hollowed-out, smoldering mine base to its source, a dark ridge carving out a place against a darkening sky. Vader stood at the base of it, his respirator echoing soundly, like a smudge of charcoal on a purple-blue bruised world.
"It's been a while—Father," Luke said. The wind almost ripped the words out of his mouth, in the gust that whipped against him, but when he angled it so the spine of the rock cut the wind for him, the roar and the bite of the chill were lessened.
"My son," Vader greeted, and the glint of the dull light shifted—Vader had inclined his head. There was the crunch of rock, and if Luke strained, the low hum of motors, and then Vader was on one knee before him. There was something intensely ritualistic about the gesture; he had knelt before Luke, once, when he had formally surrendered, and Luke had taken it as a rather courtly gesture of sincerity, but in the private of the night and the distant smoke from still-smoldering rubble, it seemed like something Vader had done more often than mere dramatics would imply. It struck Luke as significant, but he couldn't pinpoint why.
Luke shifted. "There's, ah, no need for that, Father."
Vader dipped his head—leather and metal creaking as he bowed even lower—and then, slowly, he rose, towering again over Luke. It seemed to take more effort than it should have, but the specifics of Vader's oblique armor eluded Luke even now. He knew, at least, from feeling Vader’s hands, that he had durasteel prosthetics for both, and he knew that during the interrogations, Vader had gotten so agitated about mentions of his armor that they’d had to shut it down for a day and a half.
"I sensed you when you entered the system," Vader rumbled.
"I'm glad I didn't surprise you," Luke said.
"There is nothing I do not sense. The Force heels to me, and I to it. You would not have surprised me."
Sure thing, Luke wanted to say, but—for all the speaking they had done, not much of it had been casual, and quite a good deal of it had been unpleasant. Luke loved his father, against all odds, but he had no idea how to speak to him, and it wasn't like anyone else really knew, either. A lot of the time it even seemed like Vader didn't really expect to be spoken to, so maybe even he didn't know.
Luke was exhausted, thanks to days of hard fighting and traveling afterwards, so he settled on the ground with his back against the rocky outcropping, stretching his legs out in front of him. He squinted up at the white-speckled sky. "There's a guy from Ryloth, he was a mechanic on Hoth," Luke said, talking around the fact that his friend was dead, and dead because of the Empire, "that studied astronav at one of the big schools on Corellia. He gave me one of his old map books. He said if he were in the Galactic North, he could get just about anywhere, no navcomputer required."
"It is not excessively difficult," Vader said. "Provided you have the right teacher."
"You can do astronav?" Luke asked, lifting his head. "In your head?"
"It is a necessity in my—line of work," Vader said.
"Who taught you?"
Vader shifted. "I taught myself."
Luke snickered. "The right teacher, then."
Vader's breath cycled once, and then twice. "I know the stars closer to the Rim more precisely, than those of the Core. I am comfortable in that Galactic position. But I am proficient Coreward, as well, by necessity."
"That's cool," Luke said. He gestured to the Southwest sky. "What's out there?"
Vader turned, and was silent for a long while, before saying, "Truthfully, my son, that is the direction of the Tatoo system."
"Of course it would be."
The Force slithered about Luke, cold, but in a sense—nearly leaking heat from Vader, like he held the heat inside of his chest, like one gold thread of lava through all the black. It pressed against him, nearly physically, checking for pressure points, checking for injuries—it was as harmless as Luke had ever felt the Darkness, and he could almost see it, the bloody holes where Vader had ripped out its teeth so it would flow more gently. Luke could almost smell it, the blood, and every breath he took tasted like smoke, and there was the gritty itchiness of sand in the corners of his eyes, and hot enough that hell had frozen over, and Luke shivered despite himself. If he closed his eyes, he would start hearing crunching bone, and children screaming, he knew—he had felt this before, Vader's intensely strange way of looking him over, though it wasn't typically this harsh, this loud. It was almost clumsy.
Soon enough, it retreated, leaving Luke gasping for breath, somewhere between heaving and shivering violently. "You can just ask how I am," Luke gasped out.
"That will never be pleasant, my son," Vader said. In the Force, he was—mournful. But there was a strange shadow to it. "You should rest."
"Not yet," Luke said. "How are you faring, Father?"
"I am efficient at that which I do," Vader said.
The mournful feeling turned into a muffled sense of apology, and then, all at once, the air around them was suffused with warmth, layering itself around Luke's shoulders like a heavy fur cloak, the kind of warmth that sank into his bones and then warmed him through and through. It was—nice, nicer than Luke would have expected the Dark Side to be wholly capable of, but then again there was that strange core of Light that flickered deep within Vader, and maybe, perhaps, this wasn't something Vader had learned to do as a Dark Lord.
As if to answer his question, Vader said, "A lifetime ago, I trained a student."
Luke sat up. "An Inquisitor?"
"A Jedi," Vader said, which only prompted more questions for Luke, but he held his tongue. "She was often—cold. I learned quickly how to alleviate it."
"You trained another Jedi?" Luke asked.
The wind picked up for a brief moment, barely swaying Vader's thick cape. "A story," he said, "for another—for another day, my son. For another time. When the stars quiet."
Luke's mind buzzed with desire—the promise of real, firsthand knowledge of what it had once been to be a Jedi, and real, firsthand knowledge of who Anakin Skywalker had been before he chose to give up that name, and the faint, ghostly glimmer of hope that whoever Anakin had trained once, they were still alive, and maybe they wouldn't mind if Luke wanted to talk to them. It was achingly lonely, being the only person in all the galaxy—including the man himself—who seemed to give a damn about what had happened to Anakin Skywalker. Luke wasn't about to force anyone to care about someone with a list of victims that included the populations of whole planets, but the idea that there might be someone—somewhere—who already did gave Luke a faint hope that it wasn't as lonely a life as it felt.
"When the stars quiet?" Luke asked.
"They are epicenters of the Force," Vader said, distantly. "They scream, like they are alive. They howl like the wolves on Malachor. It is ceaseless."
Luke blinked. The Force rang an alarm, but what it was warning Luke of, he didn't know. The Force around Vader rippled, knotted, furled and unfurled and then ice grew on the rock closest to him, freezing water reserves Luke hadn't even realized were there, even as the blanket of warmth around Luke only intensified in temperature. Intensified nearly uncomfortably, like sitting too close to a flame, like the light of double noon.
"Father," Luke said, warningly.
"You do not understand, my son," Vader said, turning, one hand tightening into a fist. "You do not understand the immensity around you. What you stand to lose. Your rebels—they cannot fail."
Luke frowned. "I don't think you can preach about my rebels failing when three months ago you were slaughtering them gleefully."
Vader slammed a fist against the rock, the action so sudden and violent that Luke flinched. With a dull moment of clarity, Luke understood that Vader's prosthetic hands must have been both incredibly heavy and incredibly durable, because when Vader pulled his fist away, there was a cracked crater in the rock, and his black gauntlet was nothing more than scuffed and dusty.
"You will die if they fail!" Vader bellowed. "Or then it will be not death—it will be a fate worse than death. It will be the fate that makes you beg for death. It will—it will be—what will it be? Immensity. It will eat you alive, my son. He seeks you. He shows me."
"The Emperor," Luke said, softly, because the Force rippled with oily unease, and—unbelievably, fear, blind, animalistic, irrational fear, like caustic acid, strong enough to make Luke's eyes water. Unbelievably, because Vader was the very image of fear, but then there was only one person in the galaxy Vader could possibly fear, because there was only one point in the galaxy farther and darker than Vader himself.
"He seeks you," Vader said, ferociously. "Across the stars, my Master seeks you. He is ceaseless. There is no light that touches my Master that is not destroyed. He is the end of all things, the death of all hope. He shows me what he will—he shows me, my son."
Luke stood, slowly, like Vader was a wild animal he could startle—but the Force crackled with danger, so Luke thought he may very well could. He held out a careful hand. "Father," he said, evenly, "are you alright?"
"I am ceaseless," Vader answered, "and efficient in that which I do."
"I was asking if you're alright," Luke said.
Vader was silent for a long moment. "By what metric do you inquire."
"I'm trying to understand the extent to which you're being you, the extent to which you're serious, and whether or not you need immediate medical intervention. Do you feel alright?"
"By what metric is such a thing," Vader said, savagely. "I feel the Force screaming in warning. I feel my Master clawing at my mind, endlessly, across all these stars. The danger is urgent, and it is present. It is coming towards you, ceaselessly, and you are concerned about me."
Luke raised his hands. "I was just asking. You don't feel well, is what I'm saying. There's something off, here.”
"Of course there is," Vader practically snarled.
"Where'd you leave your ship?" Luke asked, suddenly.
The rapid conversational shift did as Luke hoped it would, and threw Vader on the backfoot; Luke could nearly feel his father's scrutiny, as Vader turned Luke's words over in his mind. He was looking for something, nearly hunting for it, but whatever it was, he failed to find it. The whisper of Vader's mind was much louder than Luke had ever known it; it pressed around him in the Force, like the eyes of anooba snapping in the night, the keen and starving eyes of an impeccable carnivore. It was how Vader looked at everything—keen, and starving, never less intense than carnivorous. He was always looking for something.
"It is a distance West of here," Vader said, finally.
"So what are you doing all the way out here?"
"Privacy," Vader rumbled, after a moment. There was a pungent, intense feeling—if Luke didn't know any better, he would have called it shame. Vader was normally well sequestered behind protective layers of the Force, the majority of his internal feeling drowned out by hot and heavy rage like a hurricane swirling about him, but Luke could read him clean like a book, then. The loudness of it, the immediacy of his presence.
"From what?" Luke asked.
"My taskmasters," Vader answered, shortly.
Luke dipped his head. He was aware the Rebellion had commissioned several agents with more or less corralling Vader, as best as anyone truly could—Luke hadn't formally met them, but one of them was a grizzled old clone trooper that Artoo had liked a lot, that Luke had barely gotten a moment to wave at. "They know you're here, right? You're not… violating any terms?"
"They are aware," Vader intoned.
Luke couldn't tell if he'd struck a nerve or if he hadn't, but there was something important in that admission, he knew. "I just don't want anything to happen to you," he said, honestly.
Vader stilled. The Force lightened, rapidly, that catastrophic darkness—that wildness—easing, sharp edges and the smell of metal and fire fading to something not quite soft, but certainly softer. But still hungry, in a soul-deep way; desperate, nearly, to find that not-quite-softness, to keep it. To hold onto Luke himself with a vice grip. That fear Luke had sensed was for Luke.
Luke used his outstretched hand to take one of Vader's. Lifting it up, though Vader resisted not at all, it was even heavier than Luke had thought it would be. "I'm not going anywhere," he said, firmly. "Let's walk out towards where you've landed. I'll walk with you. Just to stay close."
Vader's hand rose, achingly slowly, and then brushed Luke's face—Luke startled, but steeled himself, and refused to flinch. Vader's hands then, gently—stiffly, still, and Luke idly wondered if Vader's prosthetics were working correctly—took Luke's face in his hands, and stumbling fingers explored his face, equally careful and unforgiving. I know there's definitely something wrong now, Luke thought, confused, but he was also touched, in a lot of ways, by Vader's clumsy attempt at gentleness. Vader swept his thumbs underneath Luke's eyes, traced the lines of his nose with an index finger, thumbed again down his cheekbones—in repeating patterns, Luke realized, like Vader was mapping his face out by touch. Maybe he was.
"My sight fails me," Vader said, answering Luke’s wandering thoughts. Again, there was that offness to his voice—that shadow, but it was so hard to pick up on anything with a modulated voice. But the Force around them was choked with a grief Luke could barely breathe around. "I cannot see your face clearly, my son. But it is all that I desire."
"You seem a little sentimental," Luke said, swallowing against a thickness in his throat. All I ever wanted, all I ever dreamed about, was my father saying that to me, did you know that, did you, Luke wanted to say, but he wasn't sure what was wrong with Vader, yet. Wasn't sure what the man was prepared for, prepared to hear. "I'm a little worried about that. You've got me a little worried, Father. Why don't we start walking?”
Vader roughly drug a palm down Luke's cheek. "Worry for a thing like I. For a thing—a thin g like I.... He will destroy you, young one. His words are poison. His presence is breathtaking. I cannot let this continue. I cannot stop it. Tell me you will run. Fly into Wild Space and let this undeserving galaxy rot in every—be brave, and do not look back."
Luke reached up, and looped a hand around one of Vader's wrists, where Vader's hands still idly thumbed his cheekbone, reluctant to let go—and if it was how Vader was seeing his face, Luke maybe understood that reluctance. As odd a sensation as it was, Luke —liked, seemed to be too small a word, for the tenderness he never thought he’d feel before.
"I'm not running away," Luke said, firmly. "And the Emperor won't touch me, Father. Have a little faith that we can defeat him, together. A little hope, a little faith."
"It is not so simple. I see this in my meditations. He shows me," Vader said, his fingers stretching upwards to the ends of Luke's hair. "I should see—would that I could—you. This is a poor.... substitute. I cannot feel. I cannot feel your—but I... am a good navigator. Would that I could, I would look at you, my son. Truly see you, at last.”
Luke tried to stave off the dizzying, improbable joy that rose in him by focusing on the absurdity of standing there, far from a smoldering mine and the jubilant celebration of victorious soldiers, Darth Vader feeling his face intently. Don’t get overwhelmed now, Luke told himself. It’s absurd. This is all absurd. Think about what he’s saying. "The Emperor shows you? Or—the Force itself?"
"Sith Master and Sith Apprentice are connected, permanently, mind to mind," Vader said. "The Master forges the bond when he wishes, and the Apprentice endures it. It cannot be severed until the death of the Master. The Master alone controls it. In my meditations, he wishes—retribution, through this bond. Retribution on you, my son. You must run. There is no other choice."
"That's—you can't cut it off?" Luke asked. He felt more than a little out of his depth, handling a decidedly unbalanced Sith Lord, discussing the finer points of the Sith psychic arts. He would—he would wing it, the way he always did, but the Emperor having an internal, unstoppable connection to Vader's mind seemed like a severe violation, of an esteemed fellow Sith Lord, and as poorly as it seemed to bode for Vader's privacy, it had serious implications for Alliance intelligence. There was something heinously wrong, some infection Luke was digging at.
"He sees nothing," Vader answered. "Not from me. I have never hidden from my Master in such a fashion. It is taxing. It is not how this is done. That is why you must run."
"Not in a million years, Father," Luke said. "We do it together, right? Just like our walk. We're doing that together. Are you ready?"
Luke headed them off vaguely West, trusting that the Force would guide them; but it was strange and off-putting, to walk beside Vader. They hadn't done much walking in the detention center, so Luke was unused to how small he'd feel, next to Vader's bulk. Stranger still—Vader was unsteady, pitching oddly, weaving strangely among the rocks. He would stop for no reason and then start in an entirely new direction, and Luke had to call out to him with the Force, because Vader was no longer responding to Luke's voice unless he was squarely by Luke's side. His words became disjointed, his conversation even more inscrutable than before—and, to Luke's surprise, a good deal of it slithered into Huttese. The voice modulator stripped any accent from it, but it was, absolutely, the Tatooini rural dialect of Huttese, the same one Luke had grown up speaking. When it was not in Huttese, and snatches of Basic, it was a gut-churning, ominous growling that gave Luke chills to listen to, like howling wind, like dying screams, the guttural noises animals made when they were in too much pain to think. But it had a pattern and a lilt, so Luke thought it was at least a kind of horrible language. The Dark crowded Vader ravenously, when he spoke it, and Luke thought it was maybe related to the way of the Sith, but he didn't ask, too focused on trying to keep Vader from falling over.
"Can we revisit the part where I ask you if you're feeling alright," Luke grunted, when Vader's metal arm crashed into Luke's shoulder.
"This is the desert," Vader said.
"It's not. We're on Kierlbräst. It's rocky and cold, but they get enough rain for these grasses. Not a desert."
Vader’s vocoder blatted out an untranslated noise as a thicket of static, and Luke watched, in grave awe, as the clutch of grass nearest Vader withered and died in seconds, becoming brown and brittle underneath the curious attention of the Dark Side of the Force. "The grasses," Vader rumbled.
Alarm shot through Luke like a bolt of lightning. "I need to know if we can make it to your ship, or if I need to contact someone," Luke said. "Father, it's urgent, and I need an answer.”
Vader moved his weight from side to side, as if he were getting his footing, adjusting his balance. "I am not certain."
"Alright," Luke said, softly. “Do you have a medical droid, onboard your ship?”
“Droids,” Vader said.
Luke wrung his hands. “What about—do you have a commlink, on you? Is it programmed with the ship’s console code? Can I see it?”
From behind the strap of his belt, Vader pulled a small, white-glowing communicator, and held it out. Luke took it, and then, promptly, Vader stumbled forward, metal slamming against metal, and then hit the ground on his knee, the vocoder bleating static.
Luke knelt beside him, hands hovering—he wasn’t sure where was safe, or painless, to press his hands, to hold Vader up. Vader buckled forward and one of his palms slammed against the ground, the computer on his chest flashing an ominous series of red lights.
Luke depressed the button, rolling it around. There were only two programmed comm codes—one of which Luke recognized as his own—and Luke rang the one that was unrecognizable to him, and then a blue, blurry Emdee unit flashed back at him.
“I guess the Force is with me, sometimes,” Luke said. “Hi. I’m Luke Skywalker. I found my father, I’m sure you know him, but he’s—I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong, but he’s disoriented, and he can’t stand upright. I don’t think I can get him back to his ship on my own. Are you his assigned medical droid?”
“I am Emdee Eight,” the droid said. “Permission to track your location, Luke Skywalker?”
“Permission granted,” Luke answered. “This commlink has a tracer in it? What am I saying, of course it does. Yes, permission granted.”
Emdee Eight cut the connection quickly, and Luke blinked—they were rather brisk, for a droid, but it wasn’t particularly like droids were always friendly. Medical droids were programmed with a certain level of personable attitude, for the sake of their patients’ comfort, but Luke supposed that didn’t always mean medical droids couldn’t be a little bit more brusque.
Luke had more important concerns, at any rate.
“Would it be more comfortable to lie down?” Luke asked, and finally, he braced an arm underneath Vader’s, taking a small fraction of his weight.
“I have surrendered,” Vader said. “I have—surrendered.”
“You did. That was months ago.”
“Months,” Vader repeated. He listed to the side opposite Luke, and Luke tried to hold onto his arm, keep him upright, but Vader rolled with the motion. His shoulder armor rattled against the gravel, and then Luke pushed him all the way over, so Vader was flat on his back, legs tangled in his cape.
Luke spread his hands on the flashing chest computer, squinting, looking for any kind of miniscule labels for whatever those lights actually meant. “I can’t read any of these. Father, I don’t know what any of these mean,” he said. “Can you—tell me?”
“I do not know what they—what they are,” Vader said. “I do not see them. I do not use them.”
Luke’s frustration spiked. “You don’t—you don’t know? What in Farfalla’s Diamonds are they there for, then? That’s useless in ways I can’t—can I use the Force, to look you over, the way you did to me earlier?”
“As you wish, my son,” Vader said. “All that you wish.”
“I want a clear answer, Father. A yes or a no.”
“I gave you an answer,” Vader growled.
Luke sighed. “You told me I could do what I wished. It’s not about what I want, it’s about what’s too far for you. If you don’t want that, I can help you, while we wait, it’s just—”
“Do it,” Vader said.
Luke lifted one of Vader’s hands, and then folded his own around it, a physical connection between the two of them—having felt the sensation, Luke thought he could recreate the act decently. He closed his eyes and steeled himself, and then with the Force he brushed Vader’s mind, finding the hot, boiling areas where it was inflamed, around points of pain; but it was too much, too soon, because there were a thousand points for a thousand pains. There was a hideous tearing at his thighs, his arms, a liquid agony pooling across his skin, stabbing at his face and in his chest and in his guts, a pounding headache like a sledgehammer against his temples and a livid fever, thinking like oil on glass, rapidly and out of control and something else, something—
When Luke came to, it was merely seconds later, but he was on his palms and vomiting into the dirt. His body ached like one all-over bruise, and his head hammered, his pulse racing and dipping like it was dogfighting. “Why are you so hungry,” he gasped out, heaving again and bringing up nothing but bile. That phantom sensation, that something else—he hadn’t realized it was hunger, until he’d said it. “You’re starving.”
Luke squeezed his eyes shut, breathing in deep, trying to center himself—tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes, burning in the cold. “I don’t,” he said, raggedly, “I don’t even know where—where you’re hurt.”
There was a sinking feeling Luke had that made him think that, perhaps, his father wasn’t injured at all; that there had been a resignation in Vader’s mind that Luke had sensed, that all of that pain had felt well-worn and old, that as horrible as Luke had found it, that was simply how Vader lived. Luke screwed up his face, hissing against the remembered feeling of something piercing the flesh on his face, the hot, swollen skin around it. The remembered feeling of breathing with lungs that felt full of water, the twisting nausea, decades old hunger, and then, rippling through it all, a heavy, soul-deep weariness, a desperation for sleep, it all felt like a faded holophoto. Fingers had run over it a thousand times, fraying the edges. Used to it might as well be written on the back.
Luke pushed himself upright, wiped his mouth roughly with his sleeve, and sat back on his heels. “You get—intravenous nutrients, right? You still get hungry?”
Shame rippled through Vader, brushing against Luke’s folded knees like lapping waves. “Yes. It is—strange. It is—ceaseless.”
“I don’t blame you,” Luke said. “I’m sorry. That was invasive. I didn’t—expect. I’ve never done this before.”
“Apologize not,” Vader said.
Luke scrubbed his hands through his hair. “I guess it’s a wait, then.”
It wasn’t much longer, before a shuttle touched down with the roar of engines and hot weals of wind whipping at Luke’s face. The shuttle was a good deal larger than Luke had expected, and it took an agonizingly long time for the ramp to hit the rock and for Emdee Eight to rattle down the ramp.
“Luke Skywalker,” the Emdee greeted. “Any noteworthy and serious changes in condition?”
“He’s been a lot less responsive,” Luke called. “Father, your medical droid is here.”
“Droid,” Vader said. The Force whipped and lashed out at the ground on Vader’s other side, cracking the stone. “No. No.”
“Relax, relax,” Luke murmured, lifting Vader’s hand and squeezing it. "I'm not leaving. I'm not."
The Emdee unit shuffled down the ramp with a hovercot trailing behind them, and then led it and lowered it down on Vader's other side. In a swift motion the Emdee had pulled it under Vader with a practiced ease, despite Vader's size. The Emdee tapped a few buttons on the hovercot and it rose, and they guided it to the ramp. Luke sensed, before it happened, the long and low swirl of the Force that promised carnage, and he pulled on his connection to Vader, breathing into it, Father, I'm here, and I won't let anything happen to you.
Vader stilled. The Force receded like the relaxing tide. "My son," he said. "My son—I do not deserve—my child, taken from me. My Masters, taking my… my son. What—where—this is the desert. It must be.”
"He does, in fact, seem disoriented," the Emdee said. Luke thought she was almost amused.
The Emdee pulled the hovercot through the entrance of the shuttle, and down into a hall in the ship's belly that seemed to serve as an emergency operating theater. It was long and white and the ceiling was low enough that Vader could not have stood, and the nearby bacta was horizontal and pressed against the wall, nestled in thick black cables and color-coded wires. It was a grim-looking little place, with a lot of medical equipment shoved into a space that wasn't entirely capable of fitting it; and it felt miserable, in the Force, like fear lived and crawled in the walls like an infestation of desert spiders. Anakin’s fear, Luke realized—an inescapable, heavy dread.
The Emdee transitioned Vader to the padded examination table in the center—which was, kind of hilariously, too short for him—and then immediately plugged an interface port from their mechanical wrist into the chest computer. So maybe at least a droid can make some sense of it, Luke thought.
"Where do you need me?" Luke asked.
"My patient dislikes me very much," the Emdee said. "I am unsure why. It makes performing my functioning very difficult, Luke Skywalker. This is as close as I have been able to get to him. I would like to ask that you keep him calm so that I may perform my functions. Can you do this, Luke Skywalker?”
"I can try," Luke said.
"What has my Master planned," Vader rumbled. "What has he—no, no, it was not supposed to be—"
Vader broke into a loud, bellowing string of Huttese—Luke winced, when he recognized it was one of the Exaltation Creed, the ceremonial words of worship of the Hutts, learned and taught on all Hutt-ruled worlds. Luke remembered learning it, his uncle teaching him with a sorrowful twist of the mouth and hard eyes. I’m sorry, son, I’m sorry. But everyone has to learn, because if you don’t know it when you need to, they’ll shoot you for the disrespect, it’s not right, but that’s just the truth, he’d said. Those words sat heavy in the back of Luke’s skull —it’s not right, but that’s just the truth, the grave acquiescence to the hell around them, that if you didn’t properly grovel to the Hutt Empire and the rulers that considered themselves gods and kings both, they’d leave your corpse in the gutter. In an out-of-body way, Luke thought it was kind of ironic, to be listening the blackened right hand of the Emperor bellow flatteries to Hutt rulers like the two were interchangeable, that all of Darth Vader’s Imperial jingoism fell apart under pressure; but mostly, Luke thought it was horribly, horrifically sad. His gut twisted, again, when he realized what grammatical case Anakin was speaking in. Huttese was a separated language, with different grammatical cases indicating societal caste—and it hit Luke, all at once, that the only Huttese his father had spoken in his life would’ve been the case of slaves. Luke knew where his family came from, knew it in his bones, grieved it in his chest; but he hadn't been sure how much Vader remembered, or if it was still ever something Vader thought about. Luke supposed he had his answer.
"I want to remove his armor," the Emdee said. "Not all of it. Enough to access an injection port. Enough to draw blood. You are like he is, Luke Skywalker?"
Luke squinted at the droid's glinting viewports. "I'm his son."
"You possess the powers he does," Emdee Eight said.
"The Force? Yeah. Yeah, I can help."
Emdee Eight moved to bring out a clear plastoid breathing mask, hooked to an external ventilator. "Helm first, Luke Skywalker."
"Father, I'm going to take your mask off," Luke repeated. "Do you understand?"
"I sensed her," Vader said. "She was alive. She was alive. She is alive—where is she—”
Luke brushed Vader's mind with the Force—there was a dull, distant kind of recognition, but the tunnels of Vader's mind burned and withered at once, frothing with agony and grief and rage. Tumultuous, a rot living deep beneath. "He's—not all there," Luke said. "I think he knows it's me. On some level. I’m hoping.”
Luke lifted the helm, revealing a sprawling mess of gold-brass sensors, and, beneath them, mottled scar tissue, white, purple, red and furious. Vader jerked, and Luke shushed him quietly, and then hooked his hands around the mask itself, and pulled slowly. The mask dug itself in—Luke hazily remembered the sensation of sharp, stabbing pain in the face, from his poor attempt at sensing Vader's misery—and then it gave way, and the Emdee swept in to fix the clear mask around Vader's mouth.
Luke flipped over the mask in his hands, realizing, with some kind of intense feeling, that he was holding an integral piece of what had made Darth Vader the terror of the galaxy, and on the back of the mask were red-lit lenses, silver panels and bloodied needles that matched wicked-looking holes in his father’s face. He had seen his father’s face once before, in the detention center—so very briefly—and he had seen it all before, the welts of red-purple scar tissue, the half-melted cartilage and deep-set eyes framed by nearly black shadows, milky slate blue eyes and gray pupils, thick with cataracts. It seemed hollower now, thinner, with new cracks in the skin around his mouth and eyes, leaking sluggishly hot red blood that gathered in thick faults—something in Luke’s chest thudded hard, painfully. Vader wasn’t the only one who didn’t know the face of some of his only living family very well.
“Father,” Luke murmured. “It’s good to see you, Anakin.”
“Anakin,” Vader rasped. “That was my name. That was my... name.”
Luke dipped his head. “Yes. Yeah, it—yeah, it was.”
Vader’s face twisted, but Luke didn’t see the expression for long, because the Emdee unit pulled the hefty collar from around Vader’s neck, and then barked out hasty orders for Luke to sit Vader up so they could wrangle off the durasteel pauldron. It was a lot more difficult than Luke had thought such a thing could be, because the pauldron was massively heavy, but eventually Luke was able to use the Force to knock the thing to the ground.
“That can’t be comfortable,” Luke said, after the clang of it hitting the durasteel deck faded. “Can it?”
“I do not know,” the Emdee answered. “He is moving.”
Vader had started to buck upwards, groaning—a haunting rasping sort of noise, without the voice modulator. Luke pressed a hand against his chest, to ease him down. Luke had no illusions that Vader could have crushed him if he wanted, if he was at his normal strength—but Luke could sense his fatigue, could almost see the strength running out of him and spilling out onto the floor. In his mind’s eye, he saw a different operating theater, a silver table and a group of droids, the whirring of saws and the obscene ridges of a spread rib cage, and blood running out of him. Luke squeezed the bridge of his nose, trying to rip the image out of his mind, but he didn’t think he’d made it up. It seemed to just crawl into his mind, nestling like shrapnel. They ended up restraining him, to pull back the armorweave and access the injection port in his chest. As the Emdee moved to flush out the blood draw port in Vader’s neck, Vader twisted, and Luke—realizing what was about to happen before it did—flicked his breathing mask off of his face with the Force. He hadn’t needed to, because the only thing Vader heaved up was air and a little spit. Emdee shifted him back down—Luke felt Anakin’s confused panic spike fast enough it made him dizzy to be near it, so he crossed quickly and, without thinking, laid a hand over Vader’s forehead.
It burned hideously to the touch, but, more than that—Vader stilled entirely, stilled completely. “My Master,” he rasped.
“No,” Luke said, his gut twisting, blood running cold. “No, no. Your son.”
“She was alive,” Vader gasped out. “She was alive—my Master, you have left her—it is like fire. It is like fire.”
He means my hand, Luke realized, and he lifted his hand, guilt strangling his chest. He hadn’t been—thinking. But the Force whipped around Luke’s arm and pulled his hand back down, desperation and pain driving him. Luke wondered how often anyone touched Anakin, secluded as he was; or, if anyone ever did. Between the movements, Emdee slipped in and drew blood from the implanted silicone port in Vader’s neck, filling several tubes at a rapid pace.
“It’s me,” Luke said. “Your son. Anakin’s son.”
“That was my name,” Vader said, dazed.
Luke closed his eyes, just for a moment. His chest hurt so badly he was almost surprised that, when he opened his eyes again, there wasn’t a blade there, running him through. “Do you remember where it comes from?”
“No,” Vader rasped. “No—yes. No. It was—my name—from my Master. I knelt to him, and he made me… anew. There was red. Red, red—where is it?”
“It’s actually an older story,” Luke said, his eyes tracing the fluttering Emdee unit, as they dipped between blood tests. Emdee Eight plugged an IV drip into the port situated in Anakin’s chest, no doubt picking up on the sharpness of Anakin’s bones against his skin—or, at least, Luke hoped they had. They bustled about, listing off high blood pressures and rapid pulses and high temperatures, in the attempt to discover what, actually, had gone wrong in Vader’s body.
“Tell it to me,” Vader murmured.
Luke thumbed one of the carved ridges on Anakin’s forehead, watching with fascination—with glee, with horror—as Vader sighed, and his eyes fluttered shut, as the Force buzzed with ache and relief. He was trembling, Luke noticed, beneath all that armor. Trembling, and his arms spasmed, leaving the durasteel prosthetics to thump hard against the cot. But mostly he noticed how much that one light touch commanded all of Vader’s attention, so the pulsating, rotting anxiousness that thrummed through the Force could fade, now that Vader wasn’t so directly focused on Emdee Eight, or the equipment that cloistered around them.
Luke leaned down a bit, to make sure Anakin wasn’t straining to hear. He wanted Anakin to hear it—maybe more than he should, motivated by some kind of eagerness, that as ethereal as Vader was to Luke, they still shared a home. “You’ll start remembering it as I tell it, I think. Everyone—everyone where we’re from—knows this story. The Hutts, they had slaves to do the cooking, and the cleaning, and the washing, and the sweeping, they had slaves for everything. You know, they get lazy. They’re not meant for the desert. Not like us. And the worst job, the absolute worst one, in all the palace, is feeding the anooba. Not even the Hutts’ hired taskmasters want to do it. The pens smelled like dogs and piss and they were barely trained, and they liked to bite.”
Vader shifted, beneath Luke’s hands. His skin was so hot. Luke couldn’t imagine what he was seeing, with a fever that high. “I know this story. I remember.”
“I told you, everyone does,” Luke continued. “But, you know, no one wants to feed the dogs. They’re rail-thin and hungry, and they want to eat so badly they’ll eat the hand that feeds, too, you know. Because no one ever feeds them. They only really get to eat when someone dies, and the corpse gets dragged off. But one of the bondsmen that swept the halls of the Hutts’ palace, they say he got a devious little idea, and he started taking his rations out to the dogs. And he’d swipe from the kitchens, too, and take it out to the anooba, and he did it so often the anooba started realizing that if they ate him, they ate the only person bringing them any food at all, because he did it over and over. He gets lashes, for swiping from the kitchens, and he gets hungry, but he keeps doing it. And then one day, when the slavedrivers decide they’ve had enough of his stealing, they call the dogs on him. but they won’t attack the bondsman. The bondsman is the only one that’s ever kind to them. They attack the guards, and they feast. And the bondsman’s name was Ananke. That’s—that’s where it comes from.”
“I have not heard that story in many years,” Vader said, quietly.
Luke bent down and pressed a kiss above his hand, to Anakin’s head, and felt a twist in his chest when Vader shuddered. “It’s a good story,” Luke said. “One of my favorites.”
Ananke, technically, meant friend of dogs, or friend of beasts, depending on what hemisphere of Tatooine you were in, but in Mos Eisley it was always friend of dogs. The grandmother that Luke had only ever known as a gravestone, however, had named her son Anakin, adding the diminutive to the end of the name. Little friend of dogs, was the full meaning. Luke wondered, sometimes, what his grandmother had been like, to have gone out of her way to do that, but as a child those thoughts had been followed with the warmth that came from knowing that his own parents had quite literally named him with the only Huttese word for love, that loving little names were a tradition in a family that had been torn apart by time and circumstance and slavery. He was the only one who could appreciate the strangeness of it all. It was lonely, out there, with the fractured pieces of the family he almost had, and the fractured pieces of the family he still had left.
“You may—call me… Anakin,” Luke’s father whispered. “If you wish. As you wish.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Anakin,” Luke said, quietly.
Anakin fell out of lucidity after that; he dry heaved for a long time, wracked with shudders and spasms, screaming his already thin voice hoarse at shadows, screaming names Luke didn’t recognize, pleading with something that wasn’t there to stop. Luke used the Force to snap down the table’s restraints, after Anakin lurched forward and clawed at his face with his hands—they were saved from the added worry of a facial wound from the prosthetic’s durasteel edges thanks to acute timing and luck. Get it out, get it all out, he has done something to me, get it out, he’d been babbling. By the time Emdee Eight had completed an analysis of Anakin’s blood samples, Anakin had worked himself into a knot of panic and fury intense enough that he had fallen slack against the table, eyes blown wide, the only sign that he was aware whatsoever being the occasional slam of the Force against a wall, or when the Force would draw ragged claw marks into the steel, in swirling, impossible arcs. The temperature near Anakin, too, fluctuated madly, going from frost gathering on durasteel and transparisteel to it steaming off seconds later, metal groaning as it expanded in the heat and contracted in the cold rapidly. Back on Tatooine, Luke had seen any number of bantha calves get stressed to the point where their minds simply stopped working, and they collapsed, stiffened, hearts racing beyond the ability to do anything about it. That was what Anakin looked like, with his nearly grayed-out pupils fixed on an invisible point, eyes wide as anything —no wonder he was trying to feel my face, Luke caught himself thinking. I don’t think he can really see at all. It would explain a lot of the strange movements of the Force, near Anakin—how it seemed to flow like lava, expansively, pressing against everything around it. Anakin was creating maps, in his mind, all the time.
“Please tell me you can sedate him now,” Luke said. “He’s just—confused, and in pain, Emdee. If it’s safe to sedate him, I really think we should. It’s pointless to put him through this.”
“Luke Skywalker,” Emdee Eight said, a holoprojection of cramped Aurebesh and flicking numbers lighting up from a projector rooted on her chest. Her viewports studied it intently. “This toxicology test is highly abnormal. I believe this is the root of the current issue. There are traces of toxins that I am not programmed to identify, and I am not certain it is safe to give him even the mildest sedative in my inventory. I am currently accessing the holonet and searching relevant toxicology databanks for information. I would like to take secondary samples, including a saliva sample, to narrow my search. But the traces of toxin I have uncovered are unconventional, to say the very least. It does not resemble any chemical type I have been programmed to recognize.”
“That’s great news,” Luke said, sourly. “I love great news. Emdee, do you know where—everyone else stationed on this vessel is?”
“I have dispensed automatic warning messages of the situation, as is our established protocol in a medical emergency,” the Emdee said.
Luke dipped his head. “Great. Um, good. So, he can’t be sedated? Not even a chance?”
“I would not risk it at this time,” the Emdee said. “There is a lot happening with this patient that I am unaware of, and he is not in a state to provide his own medical history. I can download what data I can from the central interface, but there is a lot of data to perform analysis of. It would seem that the device logs its readings at a constant rate. Until I have a clearer image of what chemicals are still present in his system, I cannot recommend any more be added. It will all take time, Luke Skywalker.”
Luke dipped his head. “Okay. That’s—okay. I can do that. I can do that. Sure I can.”
Luke dug out a folding chair from one of the storage racks, and then unfolded it next to Anakin’s side. To keep Anakin’s temperature down without a fever reducer, Emdee lowered the cabin’s temperature, and then kept ice packs and cool cloths under his armpits, and over his head, because though the armor apparently came with an internal environment, with it removed to the waist and the clunky controls on the belt disconnected, it wasn’t functional. While Emdee puzzled back and forth on toxicology screens and running analysis on the data the central computer collected, Luke dug up flattened pillows and sheets to tuck under Anakin’s torso, in an attempt to make him more comfortable on the stiff cot. Luke left him restrained, because Anakin seemed to go from eerily pliant to desperately trying to claw to freedom in a near instant, and in a moment of startling clarity, Anakin snapped the cuff around his left wrist with the Force and lurched for the snarled, rope-like scars where the stump of his right arm met his prosthetic, and dug his fingers in deep, trying to rip his arm out of the prosthetic port itself in grand bloody fashion. Not again, not again, you will not do this again—my Master, please, he’d been saying. Luke had nearly gotten a couple of his fingers crushed by Anakin’s metal hand, prying it away from the bloodied gash where he’d tried to rip his prosthetic arm off in an attempt to break out of his restraints. I am not there, you cannot take from me, he’d gasped out. I will kill you, I will kill all of you, I will peel your skin from your bones—even fire grows cold—I will bring my heel on your spine, crush you, crush you. At some point, during that, Luke became aware on the edges of his senses that there were other people near the ship, and at a point the Emdee slipped away to update them, no doubt, on what was occurring. Chemical withdrawal was the dubious descriptor she had decided on, but withdrawal from what chemical remained rather up-in-the-air. It was during this stage that Luke’s touch lost its calming effect from before, because Anakin only raved further about his master, his all-seeing power, alternately his guiding and brutal hand. Everything seemed to lead back to that mysterious presence that was so profound Luke could almost sense him occupying the room, just the passing smell of burning oil, and an odd kind of humid coldness that laid heavy on the skin.
Somewhere between it all, Luke found himself wrung out and tired, and he felt awful for it—awful in the way that made it feel like there was oil coating his skin—but when Anakin crawled out of the depths of his own mind because the dry heaving had started again in earnest, Luke was grateful. He could, at least, brace an arm against Anakin’s broad back while he heaved uselessly into his breath mask. Not even bile would come up, so occasionally Luke would take a fast, fast moment to wipe spit out of the inside of the mask, and then fix it back to Anakin’s face. But the exhaustion seemed to ground Anakin, and the florid hallucinations and ramblings faded to a choking sadness, but Anakin was aware enough to wrangle some of that emotion closer to himself, instead of letting it pound the Force like a hurricane. When Luke held him, he shuddered again, and Luke let himself rub a hand over a patch of corrugated skin graft, heart thumping hard when Anakin was sometimes mindless enough to lean into it.
The scars on Anakin’s back were thicker, and heavier, and more painful-looking, the cracked skin over his shoulderblades separating and weeping blood every time Anakin leaned forward to heave. It was the kind of scar tissue that made Luke’s gut churn, not because it was hideous to look at—on a place like Tatooine, he’d grown up seeing all sorts of brutal, healed-over injuries, and he spent his life after Tatooine on the frontlines of one of the galaxy’s most brutal wars to date—but because he knew pain like that was catastrophic. He’d pulled pilots out of starship crashes and burning cockpits with their flesh roasted down to the bone, in so much pain they forgot their names and their language and even how to scream, so they’d choke on their own spit and gasp out hoarse noises. But he’d never met anyone who had been burned as badly, and over so much tissue, as Anakin had. The worst part—over them were vivid pink scars, long and sharp and horizontal, scars Luke recognized from the electro-whips preferred by slavemasters on Tatooine. Implicitly, he knew, that they weren’t from Tatooine, because although his knowledge of his father’s life was fuzzy at best, the years between his father and Tatooine were more substantial than his years on Tatooine had been, and with burn scars like Anakin’s, there was no way evidence of that treatment would have survived. The scars were too young. He'd gotten them after, and Luke didn't want to think about where. He’d never met anyone with burns as bad as Anakin’s, and he’d also never met anyone who had been flogged on top of those scars—Luke knew, intimately, just what kind of brutality his father was not only capable of, but happy to inflict. Luke knew, intimately, what his father could do even to the people he had a vested interest in protecting. But there was something utterly obscene, about layers of scar tissue and skin that was weeping blood, skin grafts that fixed in badly and bones that were too prominent, and masks held in place by austere needles and lash scars like canyons carved into someone’s flesh. There was something so obscene to it that it brought Luke nearly to tears if he thought about it for too long.
“You must run, Luke, you see,” Anakin rasped, crashing back down after a round of heaving. There had to be something that could at least take the edge of the nausea off, because truthfully Luke didn’t think Anakin could be conscious much longer. He wasn’t entirely sure how Anakin still was, even—and a large part of him desperately wanted Anakin’s body to give out, and slide into unconsciousness, because then at least he wouldn’t be trapped in some waking nightmare.
“I don’t see, actually,” Luke said. “I don’t want to argue with you, Father, not when you feel like this. I just want you to rest.”
“That is when I see it,” Anakin said, eyes glassy.
Luke scrubbed his face. “The things that the Emperor shows you?”
Anakin coughed a bit, and then winced—through their bond, Luke had been able to sense, through Anakin’s confusion, that all the dry heaving had led to his abdomen feeling whittled out and sore. There was a lot of medical technology implanted in his gut, most of which Luke didn’t know a thing about—he would have to fix that, after this. There was so much he would have to fix, after this. But no wonder, that Anakin was wincing. Luke had been vomiting in the dirt after sensing that level of agony for half a second.
“This is his doing,” Anakin rumbled.
Luke let his hand fall to Anakin’s shoulder—Anakin jumped, a bit, and resettled. “What do you mean?” Luke asked.
“I do not know how… you can bear to touch. I do… not understand, my son.”
“Well,” Luke said, swallowing, “when I was a kid, I didn’t have a mother or a father. But what I did know, the second I knew my own name, was that they had loved me, because I knew that they had named me luke, and I knew what that meant. Huttese was my first language. And now I have my father, and I still know what that means. I know that you’re only here, with us right now, because you chose me. I think that’s worth believing in.”
“We should have… named you —friend of dogs.”
Luke leaned his head down, and brushed his cheek against Anakin’s shoulder. “I think I like the name my parents picked for me,” he said. “You keep going back to the Emperor, and what he’s showing you. Tell me about it.”
“He desires you… as his new apprentice,” Anakin said.
Luke snorted. “Best of luck, to him, on that.”
“It is not… a joke, my son. Do not dismiss his threat.”
Luke shook his head. “That’s the thing, Father. I’m not. I’m really not. I just know that I have you, and Leia, and Chewie, and Artoo—and Han, when we get him back. I have people I’m fighting for. I’m not giving up on them, no matter what the Emperor tries to give me, or what he tries to do to me. I know it’s nothing to joke about. I’m just—confident.”
Anakin’s gray eyes fixed on him. “Confident?”
Luke grinned, just a bit. “You know what everyone says about flyboys. Fight enough dogfights and nothing really scares you.”
Anakin huffed. “They say that about pilots,” he said. “They always… have. Something about the flying—makes you brave. You fly well, my son.”
The feeling warming their bond was pride, helpless, deep pride. Luke ducked his head. In another lifetime, he might have been able to say I learned from the best, but this was a sadder lifetime, with sadder words to be said about it. “I try,” he said.
“It is your name, too,” Anakin wheezed. “The flying. I would have… given you the stars. Given you the galaxy.”
“I just wanted a father,” Luke said.
It looked like Anakin had something to say, to that, but then he was lurching forward again, compelled by his empty stomach to throw up anything in it. Luke braced a palm flat against his back, thumbing Anakin’s leathery skin, murmuring the kind of things Luke remembered murmuring to the bantha calves of the small herd they used to have, when they were ill. They’d always had banthas, growing up—bantha milk, bantha wool, and calves were good to trade, and their neighbors had a bantha bull penned out south and they traded water for breeding access. Easy, easy, you’ll see the suns again, Luke would croon, to weepy calves digging their hooves in the sand, wailing in discomfort.
When Anakin was done, he slid backwards—and before he caught his breath entirely, he gasped out, “Your mother chose that name. Your mother chose that name, for—for me. We had… we had… she chose that. Because I had said it, in our, in our—wedding… vows.”
“Oh,” Luke said, intelligently. It felt like he’d taken a vibro-pulse shell squarely to the chest.
“So very like her,” Anakin mumbled, and his eyes fluttered shut.
Luke cupped Anakin’s shoulder, thumbing a long, straight surgical scar sewn into the flesh there—it seemed that Anakin’s body had finally given up on the idea of consciousness, exhausted beyond the pale. It wasn’t really sleep, that Anakin was getting, just fruitless unconsciousness, a body dug so deeply into overwork that it had to fight its way back to the concept of rested. So very like her, he’d said. Luke idly wondered what his mother would have said, about Luke, his weird stories from a small farm lightyears away, a title he didn’t feel like he’d earned yet, the grim acquiescence of a lifetime lived under greedy empires and the father he was still sitting beside it all. The courage that maybe didn’t come from strength of conviction or internal peace, but the reckless kind that came from years of full-throttle flying into hostile skies against an Empire with quadruple the manpower and triple the equipment, knowing the chances he was about to die were higher than the chances that he wouldn’t, barreling through turns and spins so fast his X-Wing threatened to come apart and still thinking it’s got to be faster than that, it’s got to be faster than that, or Leia’s going to be furious at me for dying, and she’s already lost so much. For a moment he wanted nothing more than to meet his mother so badly the desire would’ve taken him out at the knee, had he been standing.
After a while, Emdee Eight jolted upwards, out of the data analysis trance they had seemingly fallen into. “I have not discovered the precise nature of the chemical in question,” they announced, “but I have discovered evidence that he was dosed safely with other drugs in the timeframe that he would have been taking it. I believe this is the only information I am going to be able to attain, Luke Skywalker. I will proceed with further treatment.”
“I guess that’s as close to good news as we can get,” Luke said.
“I believe the nature of this chemical defies scientific reasoning,” the Emdee said. “Your irrational natures may make more sense of it than myself.”
The smell of burning oil clogged his throat. What’s the point of anything the Emperor does, Luke thought, savagely. It hadn’t entirely registered in his mind, everything the Emperor had done to his father, the way his father had begged for just the memories of it to stop—but when it did, Luke thought he may never hate a man more than he hated that one. “Understood, Emdee,” Luke said, softly.
“I believe my patient is positively affected by your presence, and so you may stay,” the Emdee unit said. “I have informed the rest of the crew of the situation. They are onboard, if you require their assistance in any fashion. A new course is being plotted to the medical frigate, star traversal designation Voyager.”
“I’ll come with you,” Luke said, immediately.
The droid dipped its head, so to speak, motors in the neck whirring. “Acknowledged, Luke Skywalker.”
This is going to cause some trouble, Luke thought to himself, because he probably wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place, and there’d be a ripple effect where he was missed. But Command couldn’t care too much. They felt better when he was the one near Anakin, anyway.
As it were, Luke sat in the soft darkness, listening to the Emdee unit move about, changing the IV bag, measuring out doses of drugs Luke didn’t know the name of. At some point his own exhaustion caught up with him, and nearly against his will, he slipped forward until his cheek was pressed against Anakin’s bare shoulder, and slithered into a dreamless, tired sleep, the sleep left for the weary. But it was a satisfying rest, too, for reasons Luke didn’t really know.