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In Loco Pirates

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Darth Vader stepped into the filthy tent, his purpose in coming to the miserable planet overriding any disgust he felt for the squalor of the pirates' camp. His mind and purpose were as focused as the blade of his lightsaber.

The moment the Executor had come out of lightspeed and they had entered the Florrum system, Vader had been hit with a barrage of emotions—Luke's. The boy was either not yet aware of the extent to which his connection with his father had grown, or he was not currently in a fit state to shield himself. That suited said father fine for the present, but as soon as he had Luke in hand he would have to teach the foolish child not to broadcast his incredible presence in the Force for the entire galaxy.

Fear and trepidation dominated the surface of Luke's mind. Undoubtedly the boy had guessed who was coming for him—or Ohnaka had told him. Either way, anticipation and dread mingled freely in his son—along with, he was pleased to note, a sliver of subconscious curiosity, even excitement. Luke was more desirous of this meeting than he had convinced himself, of that his father was sure.

Along with this tumult of conflicting emotions was a curious, seemingly out of place dose of humiliation. The moment he laid eyes on his son, the source of the unpleasant feeling became clear to him.

The pirates had taken no chances with their prisoner. Luke had been trussed up like a dewback, his hands cuffed to a crude stake in the dirt floor, while his legs were restrained to one of the legs of what Vader could only assume had once been a bed. The Dark Lord took stock of the boy's condition—apart from some minor scrapes and superficial cuts, he appeared no worse for the wear...though when he pushed on his son's subconscious, it became obvious to him that Luke was dazed and probably recovering from being mildly drugged.

Skywalker's eyes shot open. Grogginess or disorientation might have spared the young man, in this case—but when he looked up into Vader's mask, the Dark Lord of the Sith could see that Luke Skywalker instantly understood the situation he was in. When Vader took a step towards him, the young man reflexively tried to crawl backwards. With his hands and feet bound, though, all he succeeded in doing was exacerbating the rope burns on his wrists.

"You would be better served saving your strength, young one," he said, dryly. "For a fight you can actually win."

There was a long pause.

"…I thought you were supposed to be on Malastare," the boy said, finally, and though Luke was trying to remain controlled, Vader detected a hint of accusation behind the words.

"Is that why you risked exposing yourself in this quadrant, my son?" Luke flinched at the possessive. "Because of some Alliance intelligence agent's dubious reports of my activities on the other side of the galaxy?"

"Of course not!"

"That was very foolish." You should have realized that a mere uprising would not keep me away from you. The boy mentally chafed against Vader's intense scrutiny. "The pirate tells me you have made several attempts at escape." Luke was silent. "Obviously unsuccessful."

"Hondo's smarter than he looks," the young man said, finally. "He…seems to have a lot of experience keeping people prisoner."

Luke gave him a sudden, curious probing look that he ignored.

Their last meeting—and everything, the monumental shift in the Force that that implied—hung in the air between them. Vader, not for the first time, was at a loss for what to say.

"Why did you come here, Luke?" he settled on, at last.

"W-what?"

"I want to know why you are here." He paused. "On Florrum."

"What…" Vader took another step towards Luke, and he shrank back. "What does it matter?"

"You have eluded capture for nearly three years. That you would have fallen into a snare laid by this Weequay pirate now is—surprising." He tilted his helmet. "I wish to know why."

Instantly Luke's mental shields went up. He rallies quickly when under pressureinteresting.

"I don't have to tell you anything."

"And I," Vader rejoined, dryly, "Do not have to cut you down. I can just as easily transport you to my shuttle in your current condition." Whatever chance you have at escape rests upon the few advantages available to you, Luke.

Luke's eyes widened at Vader's mental suggestion, though whether he realized that it was intentional was unclear. The older man did not add that, considering the boy was weaponless, surrounded by mercenaries and in the custody of his father, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy, having free arms and legs was not likely to do him much good.

Let Skywalker see the value in cooperating with him. It was the first step on the path that the Force had laid before them.

Luke relaxed his mental shields—and with that, his father noted, pleased—his body language as well.

"It's…nothing to do with the Alliance," he admitted, letting out a shaky sigh. The only other sound in the room was the rhythmic breathing of the Dark Lord's vocoder. "It's nothing—it doesn't matter."

Vader could sense a single presence preoccupied the boy's thoughts.

"Captain Solo." Luke nodded, wearily. "What—"

"We received intel that Fett would be stopping here with Han," Luke interrupted, wincing at how his binders chafed when he tried readjust his arms. "I thought if I could just get here before him…head him off…" His voice dropped to a whisper. "It seemed worth a shot."

"Of course—Ohnaka and Fett know each other of old." The Sith's voice darkened, almost chastised. "Did it not occur to you that you were walking into a trap?" Luke glared at the dirt floor. "This was reckless—and to such a pointless end." Vader circled him, making the rebel commander feel more and more like prey. "Captain Solo is not worth the effort."

"I owe Han my life!" Skywalker burst out, furiously. "He's saved me more times than I can count! And what happened to him is…" The guilt rolled off of Luke in waves. "I had to try, at least."

Vader thought of the last time he had seen the smuggler—in the carbon freezing chamber, kissing Princess Leia Organa goodbye. The spectacle they had made of themselves conjured back several uncomfortable memories better left buried. He had been too lenient on Solo, as far as he was concerned.

The smuggler's connection to his son had, admittedly, lead the boy straight to him again. Any gratitude he might've felt towards Solo was wiped out by an unpleasant sensation not unlike comparative inadequacy.

He scowled under his mask. Oh, he did not like that feeling at all.

"Loyalty is a weakness your enemies will exploit in you again and again, Luke," he chastised, pointing a finger at the boy sternly.

"You would know," his son snapped back, and instantly realized he had gone too far.

"I am not your enemy," Vader said, his anger obvious. "And by coming here unaided, you all but handed yourself over to me."

"You think…I wanted this to happen?"

Vader observed him, frankly.

"Why else would you wander into a nest of vipers without even concealing your identity?"

"I had a cover story—I'm not a complete idiot!" Luke wondered how that expressionless mask could so clearly project skepticism."They were buying it. And I had gotten the information out of them—" He bit his lip in frustration. "I'd just missed Fett. I was about to take off when—well, Ohnaka offered me a drink, and as there didn't seem to be any reason why a 'humble supply trader' wouldn't take him up on it—"

Vader could guess the rest without hearing Skywalker's pitiful excuses for his own naïveté.

"This would explain your current…limited capacities."

"I didn't drink what he gave me. I switched the glasses. But he—" Luke hesitated. "I guess he recognized that trick. He…recognized me, too."

"It is unsurprising." Vader reached out with one gloved hand and unfastened Luke's binders. He told himself he was doing this for practicality's sake, and not out of the paternal instinct to return a semblance of dignity to his offspring. "Your exploits have made you notorious the galaxy over."

"No, that's not it—he—" the rebel stumbled, before bolstering his courage and blurting out, "He told me that I reminded him…of my father."

Vader cut his feet down so suddenly that Luke fell to the ground with an undignified thump. He rubbed his wrists ruefully and looked up at Vader—could you call a mask dumbstruck?

They merely stared at each other.

"Is it…" The young pilot got to his feet, unsteadily. "Is it true?"

"..What else did Ohnaka tell you?" the Dark Lord of the Sith asked, after what felt like an unspeakably long moment.

"He said he knew Ben." More loud, uncomfortable breathing. "That he had encountered two Jedi knights named Kenobi and Skywalker several times during the Clone Wars—"

"And were you…prompting these discussions?" Vader could hear in his own vocoded but distinct discomfort painfully reverberate throughout the room.

"Yes—well, I don't know. He doesn't exactly shut up once he starts, does he?"

Aptly put.

"Just…so." Luke was still rubbing his wrists. Suddenly the Sith was at a loss as to what to do with him—he should put the boy in handcuffs, at least, even if it did seem as though he realized he was in no fit state to run.

"So is it—"

"The past is irrelevant," he cut the repeated question off mechanically. Luke's incredulous expression suggested he disagreed—but before his son could press the point, Vader soldiered on. "…To your—earlier point. You were…not entirely wrong in your assessment of my whereabouts. But the rest of my fleet will be enough to quash a minor Dug insurrection. We will return to them soon enough." Luke let out a loud sigh of frustration. "And I would not leave retrieving you to anyone else," his father added, dryly.

"Gee, I don't know what I did to earn all this special attention—"

"Do not be deliberately obtuse," Vader snapped. "You know well why I am interested—" He stopped when he saw that Luke was rubbing his hand against a small blaster wound on his right shoulder—as it was just under his shirt collar, he had missed it in his first assessment of his son. The Sith reached out and clamped an iron grip around Luke's prosthetic arm, pulling him closer. "When did you receive this?"

"When I tried to get out of the compound by crawling through a disused ventilation shaft—one of Hondo's men nicked me as I was lowering myself into the hangar." He tried in vain to pull away. "I can barely feel it."

"You will need medical attention." All the more reason to leave this miserable backwater as soon as possible. Pressing Luke on which pirate had done this to him might've appealed under different circumstances, but he was eager to return to his ship. He could always bombard the planet before they went to lightspeed. The destruction of the base would likely sate his appetite for revenge against those that had dared damage his offspring.

Luke's scowl brought his attention back to said offspring. Even with his limited experience as a parent, Vader could recognize what that exasperated expression meant. He'd worn that look enough times when he lived in the Jedi temple with his old master.

"I get worse injuries than this on routine combat missions for the Alliance every day."

"Yet another reason to crush the Rebellion," Vader replied, without missing a beat. "Their inability to provide their own commanders with basic medical care is, thankfully, no longer a concern for either of us."

"As if you have ever cared about that."

As he was examining his child's new prosthetic limb, it gave him an extra moment to respond. This accusation from Luke should not have surprised him, but it did cause an unexpected pang somewhere in the upper third of his body.

"Do you…doubt my concern?"

Luke let out a near hysterical laugh.

"You're the one who put a bounty on my head so large half the galaxy is gunning for me!"

"You are the pilot who destroyed the Death Star," he explained, as though speaking to a dullard. "Such consequences should be of no surprise."

"And you were the one who—" He couldn't bring himself to say it, but his right hand involuntary balled into a fist.

"I gave you ample time to surrender," Vader answered him, after a moment. His deep voice was strangely gentle. "You refused to yield. I had no other choice."

Luke sucked in a hard, shuddering breath. Righteous indignation was rolling off him in palpable waves, but whatever angry rejoinder he thought his father deserved, it fizzled out after a few inarticulate stutters.

The boy had obviously inherited his mother's passionate convictions and his father's complete inability to articulate them.

"You bring this upon yourself," Vader finished, finally. "By continuing to deny your place, young one." By denying me. As though he could hear Vader's thoughts, Luke shook his head, fiercely—the action disoriented him, and he swayed into the much taller man. Vader caught him by the arm; instinctively, Skywalker struggled against the Sith Lord's iron grip. "Come. My shuttle awaits us outside the camp."

"Have you already paid them off?" Luke asked, clearly torn between panic and resignation.

"I will shortly." Vader practically dragged the young pilot along next to him. The sooner they were off Florrum, the sooner Luke could be healed and his training begun. He sensed the boy's hope dimly light up again—perhaps his naive son believed these negotiations would be some avenue for another attempt at escape. "Ohnaka is not so foolish as to challenge me."

"So you do know him."

"Whatever he told you about Obi-Wan and myself you would do better to forget." Luke gave a small shrug of mental defiance but wisely—for once—remained silent.

Vader steered him out the door and onto the muggy, wasted rock plains of Florrum. Captain Hondo Ohnaka approached the two of them, and even from a distance the Sith could see he was waving with an all-too familiar, irritating jocularity. The Weequay was as unchanged in person as he had appeared in the holo he sent to the Executor, the same pirate who'd met with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on this very dustball over two decades before to negotiate a price for a very different prisoner. Vader supposed he had the longevity of the Weequayans to blame. Never had the Sith Lord been more irritated by the biology of a species.

His son's existence alone reminded him too much of the past.

"Well, Lord Vader?" The pirate raised one hand as though he were about to slap Vader's shoulder—but thought better of it. "Skywalker, as promised. And you doubted me."

"Necessary prudence, pirate. There have been pretenders in the past." Just the memory of those who had falsely claimed to have caught his son fueled his rage. The glorious anticipation of having Luke in his grasp—taking his place at his father's side, where he was always meant to be—only to be met with crushing disappointment when his ship came out of hyperspace at the destination and he knew the boy was nowhere on the planet below.

Their deaths had been too quick—too merciful.

"There is—ah, the little matter of my payment, Lord Vader."

"The credits will be transferred to your camp," he said, dispassionately.

"Imperial credits…?" There was a needling tone in Ohnaka's voice that he recognized from his early, unfortunate years in the junk trade of the Mos Espa marketplace. It was that honeyed, cloying and false friendliness that always preceded parsimony and hard bargaining.

"As was the stated bounty." When Vader named the exact number, it was so astronomical that Luke let out an involuntary exclamation of disbelief.

"Bah! Imperial money," Hondo waved his hand in the airily and tutted. "It's worthless to me. You couldn't pay me to bring it into the Core systems and use it!"

"Your continued refusal to engage in legal commerce is not my concern, pirate."

"I thought that hulking floating battle station of yours got good reception—" He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Didn't you receive my… revised terms of payment?"

Luke was the only other sentient present with Force sensitivity—so the Dark Lord's son was forced to bear the brunt of his blackening mood and the dark anger practically poisoning the air.

"You expect me to hand over raw materials, stygium crystals and weapons," he rumbled, ominously. "When I am well aware you will only turn around and sell it all to the rebels at three times the price?"

The Weequay let out a long, bellowing laugh. The rest of his pirate compatriots, lingering on the edge of the plain—obviously leery of standing too close to the Emperor's infamous blunt instrument—muttered among themselves in low voices.

"I like you, Vader. You—remind me of someone I used to know." His smile morphed into a sudden, shrewd look straight into Vader's mask…and then a surprisingly delicate turn of the head towards Luke. "But I suppose…I would probably remember if our paths had ever crossed before."

Vader did not give Hondo the satisfaction of addressing the possibility.

"Ah, but my mind is wandering from our purpose. Forgive me," His smile turned grim. "If you won't accept my terms of sale, Lord Vader, then why should I not wait for a client who will? The…Rebel Alliance, perhaps?"

Luke's eyes widened in hopeful shock.

"They cannot afford your price, Ohnaka. As you well know."

"Then…what about…" Hondo's monkey lizard skittered nimbly up the pirate's arm and onto his shoulder. He stroked the creature fondly. "The Emperor himself?"

"The boy is the Emperor's prize," Vader snapped, his tenuous grasp on control slipping. "I act for him."

"Oh…I see. Forgive me, my lord, I'm afraid I might have been misinformed." He rolled a piece of dried fruit between his fingers and tossed it into the air—straight into his pet's gullet. "I was under the impression that you'd been looking for him for significantly longer."

The Sith Lord's fingers itched to reach out and cut the Weequay's words short.

"Fett will pay dearly for his indiscretion."

"Don't go blaming Boba!" Honda laughed. "He never said a word. He never does. It was just…a feeling I had."

Hondo Ohnaka surprised them both by stepped forward and gently grabbing Luke by the chin. The young man glared daggers.

"So many people are going to so much trouble for you, boy," he murmured, amusement obvious. "I wonder what you make of it?"

Luke jerked his head out of the pirates grasp.

"Occupational hazard of being a rebel, I guess."

The Weequay laughed again.

"You've got spirit, little one—I'll give you that." He tapped Luke's chin affectionately and stepped back again. Perhaps he sensed from the hulking Sith Lord's body language that touching the boy any longer would have gotten him his arm sliced off. "I'm starting to think I'd prefer to keep him. Especially if you're not willing to make a deal with me—"

"Be under no misapprehension, pirate," Vader rumbled. "I am taking him. There is no negotiating the point."

Ohnaka waved one finger, and suddenly all of his men were alert.

"Ah-ah—not so fast. Until I get paid to my satisfaction, Skywalker is still my property."

"He does not belong to you," Vader said, with sudden, violent passion, and he tightened his grip on the boy's arm with so little self-awareness that Luke actually cried out in pain. Instantly he relaxed his hold again, though he did not remove his left hand from his son's shoulder.

"And he does belong to you, is that what you're saying, Lord Vader?" Where other people would have cowered at the prospect of an erratic Sith Lord, Ohnaka seemed to actually enjoy rattling Vader. "I just want to be sure that we understand each other."

"All rebels are traitors to the Empire, and their capture is my—duty," Vader said, his deep baritone voice was suddenly controlled and tight.

"Come, come—it wasn't duty that brought you out here to the Outer Rim on such short notice."

"Your inferences weary me, pirate."

Luke looked between them, dawning comprehension lighting up his battered face.

Does he know?

He knows nothing.

Nevertheless, Vader unconsciously leaned forward in front of Luke in a defensive, nearly protective stance. He had the air of a predator ready to spring.

"It's just that you seem to be taking this all very personally, my lord."

"I am merely here for what is mine, captain," Vader rumbled.

"Oh-ho. Does that mean," he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You do have a prior claim to him?"

"…And if I did?"

Luke nearly did a double-take, but the black mask was pointed towards the pirate. Ohnaka shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

"Well, then—naturally I would hand him over. If you've just misplaced your—" He hesitated significantly. "—The boy, well…I would not stand in your way."

Vader reached out with one fluid motion and ripped the Kowakian monkey lizard off of Hondo's shoulder with the Force. Luke, Ohnaka and the thirty Weequay pirates watched in disbelief as the creature hung grotesquely in the air, pawing as its throat closed around it. The animal let out a few feeble squawks of pain before being tossed carelessly in the dirt, its open, mean eyes now blank.

Hondo bent down and experimentally lifted one clawed foot. It fell back into the dust with a sickening thud.

"…Poor Jupeel didn't deserve that."

"You are treading on dangerous ground, pirate. Take care," Vader seethed, hand resting on his lightsaber hilt—he could feel the boy at his side's fear spike, which only increased his desire to draw the blade. "Or you will meet the same fate."

Every single one of the pirate's men pulled out their weapons—in ten seconds there were thirty blasters pointed directly at the Dark Lord and Luke.

"Even a Sith Lord can't parry so many blaster shots at one time," Hondo chuckled, more warily than before. His pet's grisly end had shaken him.

"I don't need a lightsaber to end you, Ohnaka."

"Oh, I don't doubt that. But if you did, it wouldn't stop them from firing on you, Vader—or," he coughed, significantly. "The boy."

"Hey, hey—" Luke raised his one free hand between Vader and Hondo. "Let's not be so—I'm sure we all want to—to live here!"

It is not customary for the bounty himself to interfere with negotiations, Luke.

I'm just trying to keep us from getting shot!

"Skywalker has a point, Vader," He gestured to his men to lower their blasters—only some of them followed their leader's instruction. The rest didn't seem to trust Hondo not to push their dangerous guest over the edge. "And good sense—a cool head. Just like your father, eh?"

Vader could have snorted with laughter—if it were not an unseemly thing for a Sith to do. Hardly. He is nothing of the kindand nor was I, as you well know.

"He is extremely naive. He does not know yet what a liar you are."

"I'm beginning to figure that out, actually!" Luke looked nervously between the weapon in Vader's gauntleted hand and the pirate captain—and up at where his father's eyes should have been visible. A small, impossibly innocent voice whispered the plea—

Please.

Then Vader did something he almost never did—he hesitated.

He is trying to make a fool of me.

Ohnaka was attempting to strong-arm him in front of his son. That alone would have been cause for the pirate's termination, and when the unsettling expression Luke was fixing him was so familiar…

He's like her. She used to give me that look.

He clenched his fist, anger and pain mingling freely. He latched onto the former—his anger, source of his strength, source of his focus for over twenty years. They deserved to die—they all did. Anyone who stood between him and what he wanted—

Would you really risk your own son's life just to avoid appearing weak?

The thought drenched the fires of his anger and left a cold emptiness in its wake.

He was saved from further unwanted self-examination by a disturbance on the western ridge of the camp. Rebel Commander and Sith Lord both sensed them; they turned their heads in unison towards a band of approaching brigands marching from the direction of the same flat mesa where Vader had landed his shuttle. Unlike Hondo's gang, who were all Weequayans, this group of forty or so was mixed, mostly human and Aqualish. Their leader was an irate, dark-skinned female humanoid holding a blaster only slightly smaller than her head.

"Where in the seven hells of Trandosha is my stygium, Hondo?" she yelled, still thirty meters away.

"Friend of yours, Hondo?" Luke muttered out of the corner of his mouth. Ohnaka ignored him, instead deepening his voice into something the aspiring Jedi could only assume was meant to be charming.

"Alesia—" He called back to the glowering woman. "Just the deadly lady I was thinking of."

"I hope you were thinking about how excited you are to pay me." She brushed long, kinked braids out of her face and put her hands on her hips—clearly a warrior about to go to battle with him. "And that you were planning on doing it quickly—did you see that Imperial monstrosity hanging over the planet?"

"This explains a great deal about your desperation, pirate," Vader said. The woman turned her head from Hondo to the Dark Lord—her brow furrowed in confusion and trepidation—and as that gave way to recognition—fear.

"Alesia—you've never met Lord Vader, have you?" The mercenary stumbled backwards as she pulled out her blaster.

"You idiotic fink," Alesia snarled, waving her gun at the Weequay. "It was bad enough bringing the Empire into this, but him—"

"Change of plans, my girl—but it's all good business, you'll see," he informed the irate woman, breezily, and then turned back to Vader. "You see what I'm up against? Every woman in the galaxy trying to squeeze me for all I'm worth."

"I have a feeling you deserve it," Luke pointed out, gulping at the sound of another fifteen or so blasters being cocked. "You've obviously lied to her, too."

"Lying is such a hard word, Skywalker. I prefer the term… 'elastic circumstance.'"

"That doesn't even make sense!"

"Stand down, smugglers." Vader did a quick mental calculation—he had killed more than this before, and he was more determined than he had ever been during a mere military campaign—he had more to fight for than he had in over twenty years. His son's shoulders visibly tightened with anxiety. "If you wish to live."

He had more to lose than ever before, as well.

Alesia's eyes narrowed in determination. She locked eyes with Vader's helmet. This woman had good natural shields—but even still, he could sense that she too had realized how much she stood to lose today.

"It was a mistake to bring the Empire into our business, Hondo," she repeated, in a strained, low voice. "The last you'll ever make."

That was when the seven hells of Trandosha did break loose.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty minutes later, Luke Skywalker found himself in what was probably the most surreal situation of his life. Being holed up in a besieged bunker with the company of only Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, and a space pirate who made Lando look about as principled as Mon Mothma really gave a guy a reason to think.

Mostly about changing his line of work.

At least the doors lock from the inside.

"I should have known better," Hondo sighed, heavily as he propped a third crate against the door. He'd managed to avoid getting shot on the short run to this armored bunker entrance. That may have had more to do with the Sith Lord close at his heels, whose massive physical bulk acted as a kind of de facto shield to anyone lucky enough to be between him and the line of fire. "I always knew you Jedi and Sith were more trouble than you were worth. It's like my dear mother used to say—" He lifted his hands above his head and gesticulated. "'Son,' she would say, 'Never trust anyone who doesn't have the decency to just shoot you straight in the face.'"

"Your mother sounds like a real font of wisdom," Luke remarked, watching Vader pace up and down the corridor, his agitation lashing out dangerously in the Force. On second thought, maybe the doors locking from the inside isn't a plus.

He turned so sharply on his booted foot that Hondo and Luke jumped in unison.

"You will rue the day she birthed you, Ohnaka," he thundered. "Unless you provide me with something useful to get us out of this base."

"Don't worry, my dear Lord! I have the situation entirely—" A gigantic explosion outside cut him off. "—ahem, under control."

"You knew these people were coming to get what you owe them," Luke observed, shrewdly. The drugs had completely worn off—though in this case it didn't feel like much of a blessing. "And..." A sudden insight struck him. "You knew that woman would be less than thrilled with you if you couldn't cough up."

"Well, I..." The pirate's eyes shifted around the room. He cleared his throat for an unnecessarily long amount of time before continuing. "Naturally, I assumed when Lord Vader came to collect you he would bring a legion of stormtroopers with him. And in that case, well..." He waved his hands vaguely. "When a Sith Lord is your friend, who needs to worry about debt collectors?"

Luke realized that was the wrong thing to admit at the exact moment Hondo Ohnaka did.

"You would have had me fight your petty battle for you?" The Dark Lord lifted his hand in the air, and immediately with it Hondo rose, grasping his throat in an eerie echo of his pet's last moments. Luke stumbled backwards in shock.

"I...got you...Sky...walker—"

Stop it! Luke cried, but he was too horrified to do anything but scream it mentally. Vader pushed his son's distraught flair in the Force aside and squeezed harder, taking a savage glee in the way Ohnaka's eyes bulged.

He deserves this. "For putting you in danger" completed a thought he would never and could never admit to the boy, not even telepathically. To admit that was to expose himself, allow his son to see a weakness— something neither Sith nor father could afford. Let him see my strength. Let him see what I will do to all that oppose us.

"And now I have him in my grasp, pirate," Vader seethed, tightening his grip around the Weequay's throat with dark pleasure. "What use have I for you?"

"We...had...a..." Hondo's eyes bulged and he scratched wildly. "...Deal!"

"We need him!" Luke protested, standing up. Vader's concentration slipped for a fraction of a moment. That was all it took for Skywalker to loosen his father's hold with the Force and give Hondo a chance to take the single breath he needed to live. "Let him go."

"Your attempts to fight me only prolong his suffering," the Sith Lord remarked—but his anger was already dissipating in the wake of this display of Luke's skills. With his attention divided so, it was surprisingly difficult to dislodge the stubborn boy's presence and interference.

"You can't do this—it doesn't even make sense," Skywalker yelled, furiously, still pushing. "Without access to his comm tower we'll never get a message to anyone!"

"That is no matter," Vader replied, stonily. "My admiral will send a detachment down for us soon enough. The pirate is expendable."

The rebel pilot swiveled his head between the two men desperately, before he blurted out,

"If you let him live I'll...I'll go with you!"

Ohnaka dropped to the ground in an undignified heap. The Sith Lord turned towards him, and though his mask was as inscrutable as ever, Luke could feel the full absurdity of this offer hit each of them—Vader, Ohnaka, and himself—in turn.

"You are offering yourself in exchange for this worthless pirate?" he asked, incredulous. Said pirate alternated between sputtering wildly, retching, and feeble stirring on the hard cement.

"We—need his help to get to a ship." Luke glared fiercely at the father who held the rest of the galaxy in fearful thrall, a silent battle of wills raging."And it's not...right to kill him."

Though he meant every word, inwardly, Luke cringed. What a naive, wet-behind-the-ears farm boy he must appear to this man of all men. It wasn't as though he trusted Ohnaka (not further than Vader could throw him), or even liked him, but did he think the brigand deserved to die?

He would leave us to die to save his own worthless hide in an instant.

You just nearly strangled him to death, what do you expect? Luke returned. I just...don't want anyone else getting hurt because of me.

"I'll come on your shuttle—" he continued, as if their silent conversation was of no consequence. "I'll leave the planet with you, willingly. I give you my word."

The boy's sincerity and conviction sang to Vader through the Force. Reckless idealism—he was torn between disbelief and utter fascination.

"I would have you regardless."

"But this is easier."

The two sized each other up, briefly.

"Agreed. Ohnaka lives." He turned, brusquely and began walking away from the barricaded entrance. Luke blinked at this abruptness. He sure makes decisions fast. "Come. The entrance is not secure."

Hondo appeared to have recovered from his brush with death. He wobbled over to Luke and gave him a hearty slap on the back.

"These...Sith Lords," the pirate wheezed out, while they watched Vader stalk to the end of corridor to check their coverage. "No sense of humor."

"You've got more than enough of one to compensate," Luke replied, brushing his hair out of his eyes and giving Hondo a rueful smile. "Considering how close you just came to getting killed."

"A life with no risks has...no pleasure, Skywalker," he dismissed, airily. "Besides, I knew you would save me."

"Did you?" Skywalker's brow furrowed. "How?" He patted the boy's face affectionately.

"Because you're a Jedi, of course!"

"No, I'm not," the would-be Jedi replied, rubbing his cheek and leaning heavily against the wall of Ohnaka's bunker. He closed his eyes. "Not much of one, anyway. I don't even have a lightsaber anymore."

"I can easily remedy that." Pirate and rebel alike raised their heads in surprise as the Sith Lord strode back around the corner.

"What..." Luke trailed off in amazement as he saw what exactly it was that Vader was pulling off his belt. He held it out for the younger man with no ceremony. "A—no way!"

For your training.

Luke started at the words, then took the black and chrome sword hilt from Vader's giant hand with reverence. When he looked up into the inscrutable black mask, he was unable to repress the question the gift begged.

You would arm me?

Vader merely nodded. Nodding back, Luke stepped away from them both and turned the blade on. It was green—heavier than what he was used to, and the square shape was slightly awkward to grip—but he could feel the concentrated energy of the crystal thrum beneath his fingers and the pulsing heat of the transparent blade in front of his face.

It was a lightsaber, all right. Not the one he wanted...but one all the same.

"This is not as fine as your...previous weapon," Vader answered Luke's unspoken thought without missing a beat. "But it will do in the interim."

Skywalker turned off the lightsaber with a snap-hiss. "Whose was it?"

There was a long pause.

"A Jedi's."

Luke blanched, trying to keep the rush of emotions under control—A Jedi is at peace, remember?—but even if Master Yoda had spent a full seven hours of swamp meditation drilling in the idea, he could not help himself.

"One you killed?" Now he eyed the hilt in his hand with distrust, as though whatever the blade's sorry history was, it would taint him by association.

"Does your conscience keep you from missing your old lightsaber, young one?" Vader asked, pointedly. Luke gritted his teeth but shook his head. His father's lightsaber had been his most cherished possession since Ben gave it to him on Tatooine what felt like a lifetime ago. He had grown more used to his bionic hand with each passing day—but the young commander could not seem to keep himself from compulsively reaching with it for the sword that was no longer there. "Then it should not keep you from using this."

"Fine." But I don't have to like it.

It is only for the present, father assured son, curtly. In time I will teach you to build your own.

Luke had to cover his face and stifle a near-hysterical laugh from bubbling up. Memories of watching Biggs and his father work on Bigg's skyhopper together—and the undisguised envy he'd felt—rushed back. In his mind's eye, the Mr. Darklighter who had once so warmly asked Luke to 'pass the transponder' morphed into a massive, black, masked figure levitating bolts and Kyber crystals over his head and into Luke's outstretched hand.

Father-son bonding? He mentally snorted. Fat chance.

But...and yet...there was another, treacherous part of him that did not find the image so unnatural, just as he was far more at ease stepping—trotting, practically—briskly alongside Vader now than he had been only a little while earlier. The Sith's gigantic presence in the Force was overwhelming, nearly bowled him over when they were in the same room—but when he and the imposing man were not locked in some battle, either of the wills or a blade, he was...not comforted, exactly. Reassured, maybe. When he considered how rare his connection to the Force really was...well, Luke felt a little less alone in the galaxy now, if he was being totally honest.

Everything will be simpler when you accept that this is where you were meant to be.

Luke's shoulders tensed up, but he made no reply, mental or otherwise. It was hard to glare daggers at your father when your eye line was at the same level as his upper arm.

"This compound is ridiculously complex," Luke remarked to Hondo, as they turned their fifth zig-zagging corner. "Not exactly a coherent design."

"This has been my base of operations since before you were born, boy—it's to keep younglings like you on your toes." The boy rolled his eyes.

"Looks like you haven't updated the tech since before I was born, either."

"Well, I've had to abandon the place a few times over the years—" The three of them ducked into a recessed room full of burnt out droid parts. Luke wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell of burnt rubber and acid. "But you know what they say—home sweet home."

Hondo rapped his knuckles fondly on an old piece of industrial equipment; it promptly collapsed into a heap. Luke had to scramble back to avoid loose wires and rolling machinery and nearly ran into the solid wall of implacable black armor still standing in the doorway. He wobbled, and Vader reached out a hand to steady him.

"Ah—that happens from time to time." The Weequay grinned at them, bearing more than a passing resemblance to his late, unfortunate pet. Vader released Luke's shoulder. "Sorry."

The young man peered around, curiously. His first impression, he realized, had been off the mark. There was no tech station large enough for droids in here—but there wasn't any other practical purpose he could think of to justify all the dilapidated remnants of hardware hanging from the walls and ceiling.

"What was this used for, back in the old days?"

"It was a holding cell," Vader replied, automatically. Both of the others just stared at him. "The scoring on the walls are marks of a containment field," he clarified, though no one had asked him to.

He really has been here before.

"I no longer get so many bounties as I once did," Hondo sighed, wistfully. "These cells were quite useful when I did—say, Skywalker, I never did get to tell you the story of how I met your father and Kenobi, did I?"

"No, um, you never really started, actually..." He didn't chance a look at Vader. "Probably not the...uh, I don't need to hear about it right now."

"Nonsense! We'll be perfectly safe in here while we wait for Alesia to sweep the base. Nobody, not even my own men, would think to look in here." Hondo stroked his chin, thoughtfully. "And this place reminded me...I may be mistaken, but I think this is—no, I am sure of it. This is the exact place where we kept Skywalker and Kenobi when I ransomed them off to the Republic!"

"When you— when you what?"

Luke felt the Sith at his side's alarm and temper flare up like a Tatooine sunstorm.

"Oh, it was nothing personal, you understand—all business. Master Kenobi and your father were the Jedi, always all over the Holonet—I knew the Jedi Council would pay a handsome sum for them, so when they came to pay the bounty on that Sith Lord for the Republic—"

"Sith Lord?" Luke asked, confused. "What Sith Lord?"

"Count Dooku," Vader rumbled, ominously. Ohnaka snapped his finger and pointed at him—Skywalker wondered if anyone, save perhaps the Emperor, was foolhardy enough to snap and point at Vader.

"Count Dooku, that's the one—the leader of the clanker army, a very amusing man, very genteel—well, when Kenobi and Skywalker came for them, I thought, what's better than one hostage? Three hostages. So then—here's the best part, boy—then I—"

"That is enough prattle, pirate," Vader interrupted, severely—his modulated voice, Luke couldn't help but notice, was slightly too loud.

"Oh, Lord Vader—" Hondo bowed with exaggerated deference. "My apologies. It's just that—well, you know, I've taken a shine to him, and he seemed so interested when I mentioned my dealings with those... I'm sure very traitorous Jedi—I thought I'd indulge him."

"It's just a story about Ben and my father," the rebel commander protested, crossly. "Why do you care if I hear it?"

Vader was—actually caught by that. If he admitted to being bothered by Ohnaka's absurd tales, the boy would scent weakness—think that he was mastered by the past. Already Luke was fixing him with a insolent, 'what's it to you?' look that he did not enjoy at all.

"It is no matter to me," he turned to Hondo. "But keep it brief."

He strode over to the doorway, as far from his two companions as possible while still keeping in theroom. The corner of Luke's mouth turned up, slightly. A small victory.

"Always, Lord Vader." Hondo opened his arms wide. "Where was I?"

"You had just captured Count...something, Ben and my...father." Luke risked the smallest of glances at Vader. Even though his back was turned, the younger Skywalker had an inkling Lord Vader was still listening very intently.

"Yes—I had. Not everyone can handle a Jedi, boy. Two? Not a chance. Two Jedi and a Sith Lord? Well—I had to come up with a very clever, very ingenious plan. And can you imagine what it was?"

"Not a clue."

"I put them in shock cuffs and tied them all together!" Luke's mouth dropped open. "So simple! Dooku, Kenobi and Skywalker kept trying to escape, of course—between us, these Jedi and Sith share stubbornness as well as laser swords—but you know what they say, 'the enemy of my enemy will be too busy fighting each other to fight you'!" He went on to explain the several failed attempts by the Jedi and Sith to get out of the compound in increasingly comic tones that had Vader gripping the edge of the door so tightly Luke could hear the crunching of metal.

"...And you know, after the Republic came, and Dooku escaped, they did get free—and Kenobi did not hold a grudge."

"What about my..." The corner of Luke's mouth turned up. "My father?"

"He had less patience with me," Ohnaka laughed. "Less of the Jedi way about him. Quite a temper. Kenobi often had to rein him in, if memory serves." A heavy metal tube fell onto the floor with a loud clank, suspiciously close to Hondo's head. He ignored it. "A very honorable man, Master Kenobi. Not like Dooku, he sent the clankers and that monstrosity Grievous down to destroy my base later, but even still, he was a very amusing prisoner." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder whatever happened to him?"

"I killed him." Luke and Hondo both turned around, the younger gaping slightly—the elder unfazed. "That is enough reminiscing. I sense that our enemies have finished their search of the base. Ohnaka— check that the path is clear. If we encounter any more problems because of your failures, I will make you regret that I spared you."

After Vader's cold-blooded admission of having felled Ohnaka's favorite former prisoner, and the obvious tightness in his deep voice, Hondo knew not to argue.

"Of course—do you, ah—have any suggestions, my lord?"

"You have a talent for self-preservation. I am sure if something occurs your natural instincts will be more than sufficient," Vader replied, and Hondo's only response to this terse sarcasm was a short, slightly ironic salute. Then he strode out the door again, blaster in hand, leaving father and son alone again.

Vader broke the tense silence after several minutes.

"I am surprised that you have not asked me to confirm the veracity of Ohnaka's story."

Luke started. Instantly he was even more on edge. Was he imagining it, or did Vader' overpowering presence in the Force magnify his emotions? He could swear that he was feeling the echo of the Sith Lord's discomfort.

"Somehow I guessed you weren't too appreciative." He pointed to the giant, hand-shaped dent in the wall. Vader spared it a quick glance before returning, unconcerned, to focus on his charge.

"I suppose Obi-Wan told you..." he hesitated. "Things."

There was one very big thing that slipped his mind, actually.

That was an angry, reactionary thought—born of bitterness and too many sleepless nights these last weeks. Master Yoda told him that he was prone to thinking that way, and that he must learn to master it. He took a few calming breaths and tried not to dwell on how angry he was at Ben before answering.

"He didn't...get a chance to tell me much." Luke let that difficult subject, one among many, lie. He took a step backwards—and stopped. Though the Sith Lord was no longer holding his arm, the second he felt the smallest impulse to put distance between them, Vader's dark will seemed to reach out and root him to the spot, like a petrified womprat. "I have learned a little since I joined the Alliance."

At that admission, the atmosphere between them thickened.

"Do not press Ohnaka further."

"So what Hondo said was true." Luke's mouth twitched with involuntary amusement. "You and Ben really did get tied to the leader of the Separatist Army and were held hostage here?" He would have dearly loved to add "just like me," but even if Vader did want him alive and in a reasonably good condition, he wasn't going to press his luck that much.

"He is...prone to deceit and exaggeration."

"That's not a denial."

Vader crossed his arms and shifted his weight.

"There were some...embellishments in his recollection, but yes, Luke, in essentials the story did happen as he told it." Luke's smirk burst into a full-blown grin. Vader felt it extremely un-Sithly that he should find the reaction rather more endearing than impertinent. "Now that you understand the circumstances under which our paths first crossed, perhaps you will appreciate how much restraint I have shown."

"I bet even Ben would be proud of you," he returned, without thinking.

"I am sure he would not be," Vader replied, sharply. The spike of anger and bitterness burned his son; he took another unconscious step backwards and ran into the wall. The Sith unclenched his fist again after a moment, regaining control of his emotions—reconcealing them. "It is pointless to speculate on what Obi- Wan would think. He is dead."

"I—I didn't mean to..." he stuttered, weakly. "I'm sorry."

"There is nothing to be sorry for."

"No, I mean—talking about Ben when it clearly upsets—"

"I am not upset," the Sith said, ratcheted up. "Obi-Wan is gone. He is nothing to me—or you." He seemed to say it to convince himself as much as Luke.

"I guess after meeting Ohnaka, he's sort of...been on my mind." Vader said nothing. Luke chanced a glance up at him, trying to gauge from body language alone whether he could dare ask the question on his lips. "That wasn't the only time you and...him saw Hondo Ohnaka, is it?"

"It was not."

"He said he crossed paths with you a few times during the Clone Wars. So he can't be all bad."

"He has his uses, obviously," Vader admitted. "My order that you not probe the pirate's mind further was not an invitation for questions directed towards me."

"You didn't say I couldn't, either."

You should learn to curb your tongue. There was a hint of pride coloring this admonishment—which was the last thing Luke ever expected. Your nerve is as impressive as it is foolhardy. There are very few who would dare speak to me with such impudence.

I'm a bit of a slow learner.

Something about that gave Vader pause. I believe it.

"Lord Vader—Skywalker—" Hondo swung back into the room. "Well, gentlemen, there's good news and there's bad news."

"Nothing that ever comes after that turn of phrase," Vader rumbled, sourly. "Ever bodes well."


 "Less than an hour ago that guy worked for you!" Luke hissed—the path to the comm center had been mercifully clear, but—as Hondo had warned them, once they got there, they'd run into a new problem. "How quickly after you ran inside with us did all your men turn traitor?"

"Difficult to say—" Hondo watched his former thuggish underling scratch his nose with something of a magnanimous air. "It's not what you'd call a stable line of work. Ankor has children on many systems— with little ones to feed, I can not blame him for accepting Alesia's very handsome retainer. I would do the same."

Skywalker imagined Hondo's hypothetical children scattered across the galaxy and pulled a face.

"I will deal with him," was Vader's dark promise—and when he reached for his lightsaber, Luke defied common sense and good judgement the galaxy over and put out a hand to stop him.

"Wait—if we start a fire fight now, it's only going to get the whole comm center fried."

"Then what would you suggest, boy?" Vader asked, mulishly. Whether Ohnaka realized who was under the mask or not, this light back and forth amused him. "The means of our salvation lie just beyond that door. How would you have us get to it?"

"You know what they say...there's more than one way to skin an Eopie." Before Vader could answer this desert-born wisdom tartly, Skywalker had slipped between them. He walked towards the guard across the darkened hall, his hands raised in open-palmed surrender.

You are about to attempt a Jedi mind-trick, a now increasingly familiar—and irritating—voice in his head observed. Without any previous experience.

"Freeze, boy."

"Hey—hey!" Luke ignored the voice in favor of the pirate pointing a blaster at his face. "I'm surrendering, see?" He laid the lightsaber Vader had given him earlier down on the floor at Ankor's feet. "Just—first..." He waved his hand in front of the Weequay's face. "You want to let me inside the control room."

"I..." Ankor's eyes slid in and out of focus.

You are being too aggressive, the voice noted, with some satisfaction. Mind tricks require a lighter touch. You are too much my son to have any use for them—strike him down now, while he is weak.

Stop distracting me! Luke tried to bat away the overbearing paternal presence.

"You want to go down the hallway and...find Hondo," Luke improvised, wildly. To his amazement, this seemed to catch.

"I...want to go see Hondo," Ankor repeated, uncertainly.

"He owes you a lot of credits. You want to get them before—" Out of the corner of his eye, he could just see the corner of his father's helmet peaking out from behind a support beam. "—Before Vader kills him."

"I've got to get to him now, before Vader does." The alien shoved past Skywalker and ran down the side hall, swearing under his breath. "Hondo still owes me for that last shipment of spice!"

"Coast is clear!" Luke called out, unnecessarily, as it turned out. Vader had already emerged from behind the pillar that had been his vantage spot, Hondo following close behind, clapping slowly. Luke gave a mock-bow in the pirate's direction.

"I'd forgotten all the crazy things that a Jedi can do!" the Weequayan laughed, slapping him so hard on the back he nearly keeled over. "Of course, if we had done it Lord Vader's way, I wouldn't have to worry about ever paying him back."

"That was—impressive." Luke straightened immediately. The jolt of pleasure he felt in his stomach at such an austere compliment surprised him. "Particularly for a first attempt. How did you know that a reminder of this pirate's malfeasance would work?"

"Educated guess," he replied wryly, then closed his eyes and focused for a moment. "The comm center's empty, too. He was the only guy in there."

"I sent a fake distress code for the spice lockers on the other end of the base." Hondo tapped his brain to presumably indicate that this was a moment of untamed genius on his part. "Everyone will be over there, trying to stop each other from making off with my last order. Like children, fighting over the scraps at the table."

"I think you mean 'dogs,' Hondo."

"Dogs, children—"

"There may be other dangers. Let us proceed—with caution." He swept past his son and marched into the control room, lightsaber ablaze, its red light reflecting eerily off the clouded transperasteel windows. Ohnaka and Luke exchanged a look of shared understanding.

"Perhaps we should—"

"—Just let him take care of it?" he finished for the Weequay. Hondo tapped his blaster to his forehead in salute. They didn't have to wait long for the muffled hiss of the blade being turned off.

"It would appear we are not quite alone." As soon as Luke heard the familiar, comforting beeps he practically shoved Hondo to get through the door first.

"Artoo!" His blue and silver astromec droid chirped and whistled happily, and with what Luke had begun to recognize over the last three years—relief. "How in the universe did you get in here?"

"When you did not return to your ship after two standard hours, the droid became concerned and found his way in here," his father translated the unintelligible beeps smoothly. "Ohnaka, the communications terminal?"

"You can understand him without a computer or interpreter?" Luke asked, incredulous.

"I have...some familiarity with the astromec line."

Hondo hummed tunelessly to himself while he entered in the access code for the comm station.

"Ah—dear girl, dear girl," he drawled. "What have you done?"

"What now?" Vader thundered, irritably. Luke, who was kneeling on the ground, patting Artoo, resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was quickly becoming used to the Sith's constant state of irascibility.

"She's changed the access code—no matter." He ducked underneath and began to furiously rewire the exposed circuit panel. "I can get it working again. I know this equipment like the backside of a—"

"Spare us the metaphor, Captain."

Artoo nudged Luke's foot, and, curious, he followed the droid, who led him to a computer terminal—the last one still working—on the other side of the room. Vader was too busy micromanaging Ohnaka's tech job to pay him much mind, though he did feel (for lack of a better descriptor) the watchful eye of the Sith's Force presence, mindful of him, ready to alert its master if he strayed too far away. Artoo plugged in, still spewing out particularly frantic binary.

"What is it, buddy?" he asked, frowning.

Our X-Wing has been moved to Landing Bay Alpha. Luke ran his eyes over the words and schematics the computer was rapidly spitting out; they widened as he recognized the source of the droid's frenzy. Artoo knew where his ship was. It was through a corridor attached to this very room—less than thirty meters from where he was standing right now. The pirates had moved it after they knocked him out, probably intending to sell or scrap it for parts. Maybe they thought they needed his X-Wing to prove to Vader he was the real, bonafide Luke Skywalker.

Either way, it was good news for him...wasn't it?

Even if Artoo and I could get past Vader, we'd never make it past his flagship. And—his conscience burned. He'd made a deal. Hondo would lose more than a reward if he ran out on them now. He glanced up at his unlikely companions, indecision roiling in the pit of his stomach, his eyes lingering longer on Vader.

"Super Star Destroyer Executor, this is Darth Vader." Luke started and turned away from his droid and worries. The Dark Lord spoke into a comm receiver that looked even older than Artoo. "Do you copy?"

"This is the Executor, your coded transmission is received. Admiral Firmus Piett speaking." Luke's interest was peaked. So this was Vader's admiral, the man, after the Emperor, who worked closest with him. His accent was pure Core, his tone of voice—mild.

"Permission to speak freely, Lord Vader?"

"Permission granted."

"It is excellent to hear from you, milord. Did the negotiations prove successful?"

"There have been—complications." Vader tilted his helmet a fraction towards his son. "But I have Skywalker. I regret that my shuttle has been damaged and is currently out of my sphere."

"Of assessment?"

"Yes." He typed what Luke assumed were their present ground coordinates into the computer. The pilot couldn't help but notice that Vader's hands were so massive he had to hit each key on the pad slowly and methodically. "I will need transport for myself, the boy—" The droid to Luke's left let out a shrill whistle. "—And an astromec droid."

"And what of the bounty, Lord Vader?"

Hondo, who was leaning leisurely back on the only functioning chair in the room, grabbed the second comm receiver.

"That is a simple thing," Ohnaka said into it, hard eyes alight with greed. "I want my reward in raw materials—stygium crystals, tabanna gas—and spice. No Imperial credits."

"You don't seriously think paying that woman off at this point is going to help, do you?" asked Luke, in disbelief. "She's just spent the last two hours running around this compound trying to kill you!"

"Stick to waving that laser sword around, boy, and I'll stick to business—"

"Whoever is speaking, identify yourself," the severe voice of Admiral Piett interrupted the rest of Hondo's rejoinder.

"Hondo Ohnaka, Admiral—at your service."

"Captain Ohnaka," the man said, clearly losing his patience. "The Imperial Navy does not accede to the whims of mercenaries, particularly those living on the Outer Rim, in Hutt space. You and your—people— are at the mercy of Lord Vader as regards payment for your...services."

"Admiral," Vader interrupted, a small amount of amusement leaking into his voice. "You may do as the pirate requests—excepting the stygium." He would murder every last one of the pirates who had threatened Luke before giving them the supply they wanted most. "And send a medic down as well. Skywalker is injured."

Reflexively, Luke grabbed his shoulder and felt something warm and wet—blood. In all the commotion he hadn't noticed his blaster bolt wound had reopened.

I'm fine. It's nothing.

The medic will determine that, my son.

Annoyed, Luke ripped the comm that Ohnaka held loosely in his hand with the Force, pulled it out of the air, and turned it on.

"Super Star Destroyer Executor, this is Commander Luke Skywalker of the Alliance—disregard previous instruction, a medkit will suffice. We're in a firefight down here, there's no sense in getting anyone else killed."

The sound of undignified sputtering came through from the other end loud and clear. Admiral Piett had probably never heard anyone directly countermand an order of his superior so flagrantly and live longer than ten seconds.

"I...Lord Vader?" the staticky voice asked, at a loss.

Luke's comm flew from his hand into Vader's gauntleted one. Instantly he crushed it and unceremoniously dropped the pieces to the floor.

"Ignore him. Skywalker is unrestrained, Admiral—regrettably I needed him free of movement to make it to this communications center." He paused. "You will have the new wing of sector V5 prepared for his arrival on the ship."

"Sector...V5?" the admiral repeated, with restrained puzzlement. "Forgive me—your personal wing, milord?"

"Did you misunderstand me, Admiral Piett?" Vader asked, humorlessly. Luke thought he could hear the guy gulping in fear. I don't blame him, either.

"No, milord."

"Good. Vader out."

"Sounds cozy," Luke murmured to himself. Then he noticed Hondo's look of undisguised interest and grimaced. "At least I can take heart that you aren't getting your stygium."

"Ah, well—" The pirate shrugged. "That's business, my friend. And it's your rebellion's loss."

"You honestly think the Alliance would work with you after this?"

"You're very sure of your importance, child. Who is to say they haven't thought of selling you off themselves? I'm sure they could use the credits."

Luke flushed at the implication.

"I meant that they'll assume you'd sell them out to the Empire, too."

"The rest of the Rebel fleet combined wouldn't fetch what Vader is willing to pay for you. This is far more profitable."

"What next, Ohnaka?" Vader interrupted, dryly. "Instruction on the merits of playing both sides against the middle?"

"I'll leave the boy's education in your capable hands, my lord," Hondo replied, spinning his chair around to face the ever-looming Sith. "I'm sure he'll do well. What he lacks in business sense he makes up for in cheek."

"You would do better," he stepped forward, threateningly. "To cease speculating on his fate."

"Oh, as long as I get paid, I don't really care what you do with him—" The disgruntled bounty in question shot him a half-hearted glare. "But why else would you want Skywalker alive?"

"He does have a point," Luke admitted, bleakly. "Though there's always the chance of being 'made an example' by the Empire, I guess."

"I would not hold out hope for that," Vader replied, darkly. Whatever he had planned for his son, he somehow managed to make being executed on the Holonet sound less sinister.

"And now what?" he asked, shivering, trying to push those thoughts (which were drifting towards the Emperor) out of his mind. "We just wait?"

"The shuttle from The Executor will land within the hour. You and I will then depart."

"For—Coruscant?"

Vader hesitated. Luke was not proving much of a prisoner—nor he a jailer. The child had the most irksome effect on him. Vader had the uncomfortable suspicion that his mind had begun to rebel against reason, actively deny the truth—pretend that Luke was not his ersatz captive, and instead was now at his side of his own free will, loyal to his father and devoted to their shared interests. If only it were so.

Soon enough, it will be. Soon.

"That is not for you to know."

The boy's defiant irritation flared up again, but before he could push, Hondo interrupted again. "And what about me, huh? I don't suppose you've got a wing of that Star Destroyer ready for me."

"Hardly." Vader pointed imperiously at Hondo. "They are bringing your earnings down with the ship. Once I have the boy safely on board—" He emphasized each word sharply. "Then I will leave you to sort out your affairs with this rabble."

Ohnaka leaned back on his chair, stroking his leathery chin, and after a moment of consideration, nodded.

"That is honorable, Lord Vader. And I hope it happens as you say. I would hate for us to part on bad terms."

"In the meantime, what if that woman—Alesia—tries to break in here to get at us or Hondo?"

"It will be a good test of your skills," The Dark Lord replied, smoothly. And your capacity for the Dark Side. He actually hoped that some of Ohnaka's brutish gang did attempt to retake this pathetic excuse for a communications center. With Luke so on edge, now was the ideal time to pit him against the very men who had captured and humiliated him only hours earlier.

Vader's breathing quickened in anticipation. Luke's rudimentary shielding was inconstant, so it was not difficult for his father to slip through and tease out the boy's emotions. His anger was close to the surface —so close. All he needed was a push, a reason to release it. The brigands would do nicely. Once his son got a taste of the dark, he would not be able to resist its magnetic pull and the power it promised, and the secret, dark dreams he had nursed since discovering Luke Skywalker would come that much closer to fruition...

On the other hand...A glimmer of concern clouded the Sith's dark satisfaction. The boy was injured—if something happened to him—

I will not allow anything to happen to him.

"Somehow, that's not very reassuring," Skywalker muttered, sarcastically, and for a moment Vader thought that he was replying to his inner thoughts and not what he had last spoken out loud. Luke was staring up at him, chin stuck out, eyes full of a resigned determination he knew all too well. "So...how long have you had the extra rooms tacked onto the personal wing of your ship?"

Nineteen years on Tatooine...it shows. Luke was possibly even more blunt and artless than he had been. If that was possible.

When he looked down into the boy's honest and open face, he realized that he should never have been surprised. Obi-Wan had spirited the infant away to Tatooine; it was not a home world destined to foster subtlety. The blazing twin suns were as indiscriminate and merciless as the Hutts who ruled under them. That Skywalker retained his natural gentleness, the effervescent kindness that shone as brightly as his Force presence, was far more inexplicable.

He must've inherited it from—

"Ani, something wonderful has happened."

Without warning, the exquisite memory of her rose like bile in his throat—unbidden, unwanted, unstoppable. Desperately, his mind attempted to stopper the bottle, stem the flood, but she was looking at him, brown eyes gently teasing him, and it was as though no time had passed, as though the fully grown son before him was still that tiny child he had once felt kick in his mother's stomach.

"Since the moment I learned of your existence," he replied, his deep baritone perfectly even and toneless. "I have prepared accordingly."

Luke clenched his new prosthetic hand and leaned against the beaten-up console to steady himself. Involuntarily, the boy's eyes rested on Vader's arm. It was a perfect mirror of his own, clenched, and the taut power of the man it belonged to rang through the Force.

Could father sense the mixture of confused and jumbled emotions his reply elicited in son? Since the moment I learned of your existence. Luke wanted to push that away, dismiss it as honeyed, a deliberate seduction—Vader playing on the connection he had always felt with Anakin Skywalker, the mysterious father he had never known—but he couldn't. There was no artifice in Vader. However twisted he was, there was something starkly honest about the man.

It was the truth. His truth. I have prepared accordingly.

"You're very proprietorial, aren't you?"

Vader scrutinized him for three breathing cycles.

"Only over that which is mine by right," he said, finally.

The door shook with blaster fire. Father and son turned to Hondo, keeping watch on the one working security camera, in perfect unison.

"And there they are...just as you said they would be!" He pushed a button on his chair and a door popped open at the bottom of the terminal. He reached in and pulled out a heavily modified blaster. "I bet the Force told you, huh?"

"More like common sense." Luke stared longingly at the pirate's weapon. "You got any more of those in there?"

"I thought Jedi were too good for blasters."

"I already told you, I'm not a Jedi!" Yet. He crouched behind a broken computer terminal. "Besides, it never hurts to have backup." Artoo screeched in agreement as another blast knocked out the lights.

Did Obi-Wan not teach you to deflect blaster bolts with your lightsaber?

Of course he did—! I can sense at least twenty sentients out there, though. A single person could never—

"Skywalker—watch closely and follow my lead, on the left," Vader ordered, briskly. "Ohnaka, on my signal, release the lock on the door."

He was about to mentally shout back that he would 'follow his lead' the day Hoth warmed up when the door opened half a meter or so. The insurgents had managed to open it by jamming a magnetized metal pike into the floor and prying it manually.

"Hondo!" a brash, heavily accented voice called in. "Game's up, mate. We know you cleared out the secondary spice storage units. We'll make you a deal. Alesia says you give the emergency supply to her, she'll drop the whole thing."

"Ah, Chupo—you have no idea how much I would love to take you up on what is surely a most profitable offer, my friend." Ohnaka glanced over at his companions—both of which had taken out their lightsabers. "Unfortunately for us both, I don't think Lord Vader wants me to drop it."

All their idle chatter stopped. "V—Vader is in there with you?"

The Dark Lord nodded once and Hondo pulled the large lever on the side of the door lock down with gusto. The heavy wall of metal and plated durasteel rose to reveal a group of seventeen or eighteen shell- shocked Weequayans and mixed mercenaries. Red and green blades flashed to life at once. Immediately all of them scattered, shooting their blasters wildly.

Running purely on instinct and adrenaline, Luke rushed forward to his father's left side. He allowed the Force to guide him—everything was happening so quickly, the Force was speaking to him faster than he had time to understand it—

Luke, your stance is too wide—fix it! the voice in his head commanded. Instantly he pulled his knees together before he toppled over. Better.

"Thanks!" he half-shouted, over the sounds of heavy blaster fire. The immediacy of death all around them, the danger, fighting alongside someone else who could bear a lightsaber—seemed to strengthen his connection to the Force, made the parrying easier. He was flush against Vader's left flank, both by inclination and his instruction. The young pilot glanced up every so often and marveled.

He's so fast—and graceful. In spite of the smoke and noise of blaster fire, he was keenly aware of the brutal efficiency and perfect economy of movement in every one of his father's parries. Every blaster bolt was returned with exact precision. He was proving a far clumsier opponent, but in spite of his injured shoulder, Luke was actually able to keep pace with his father.

That in and of itself was invigorating.

Suddenly, his senses flashed a warning; he felt it before he saw it. Not stopping to wonder why, Luke spun on his right heel and instantly spotted the danger. One Aqualish sniper had managed to skulk into the corner of the doorway unnoticed by the Sith, who was absorbed in a frontal assault from ten others. Grinning toothily, he held up his long targeted blaster and pointed it directly at the vulnerable side of Vader's unshielded plastasteel helmet.

No!

Panicking, Luke abandoned his defensive spot and leapt in front of his father wildly, sending the shot ricocheting back at the assassin, instantly killing him. He lost his balanced and toppled to the ground— but before he could even try to stand up again, Vader had surged forward and delivered the final decimating blows, striking down four pirates in a single thrust of his saber.

Just as quickly as it began, it was all over.

"I told you they were nothing." Vader walked over the smoking body of a particularly ugly pirate with his characteristic dispassion. Luke realized, shakily rising to his feet, that they were the only living sentients in the entire room.

"Where's...where's Hondo?" he asked, horrified, when his quick survey of the area found no trace of him. "You didn't—he didn't end up..."

"If only. He is hiding in a compartment in the ceiling, undoubtedly waiting for a signal that we have dealt with the traitorous vermin for him." After checking that the final Weequay was dead, he stood up. "Why did you disobey my instructions?" the Sith asked, severely, fingers hooked in his belt. "If that last fool's blaster had not misfired, you would have been at the very least injured."

"That Aqualish was going to hit your blind spot!" he said, indignantly. "I had to stop him or you would be —"

"A warrior has no time for sentiment." He pointed at Luke, voice and temper rising. "Even a Jedi knows not to throw his life away on a childish whim. I would have thought Obi-Wan had at least taught you that."

Luke's face burned.

"Well, what about you?" Vader's hand dropped in surprise. "I just saved you from getting shot in the head, and you're not even grateful!"

"My life is my own to lose," he replied, paradoxically. "If I had not been able to properly defend myself from such a worthless being, I would have deserved to die."

"Oh, come on!" Luke waved his deactivated saber around, indignant. "I've seen you take down an entire walker by yourself. You could have easily taken care of that guy—you were just too busy protecting me."

Vader lifted his right hand—and lowered it again.

"That is hardly comparable." Luke raised one eyebrow, quizzically. "You are—" My son, my boy, my child, mine mine mine. "—Far more important than I am."

He glared at the imposing man and shut his mouth again, clenching his teeth. Maybe Vader was right—his life belonged to the Alliance now, to something larger than himself. The risk he had taken in coming to this planet suddenly seemed more selfish than heroic.

Luke looked down at the pile of bodies and let out a long sigh. Killing had gotten easier for him in the past few years—a lot easier—but being in a firefight where you could see the after effects served as a reminder of the real cost of this war.

"In spite of your idealistic streak—" The Sith laid one hand on Luke's shoulder, in a sort of gesture of peace. He didn't try to shrug it off this time. "You did well. We are formidable together, as I knew we would be."

"Killing a few pirates is not my idea of 'bringing order.'"

"Did you not follow my instruction and benefit from them?" Skywalker stared down into the glassy eyes of the sniper who had come so close to killing his father and remembered the sharp, unexpected fear he had felt when faced with the prospect. "Do not deny it. You need guidance. I am the natural choice."

"I—" Luke bit his lip. "I'm not denying it."

A loud, echoing boom interrupted them.

"I think—" Hondo stuck his head through the trapdoor in the ceiling. "We may have one more little problem." He jumped down, catlike, onto the floor and inspected their efforts with an appraising eye. "Well, well, well—you certainly made short work of them, didn't you? I'm going to have to hire an entirely new crew before the end of today.''

Another boom—this one shook the walls.

"Are they...are they bombing us from the air?"

"My guess is that once these, er...fellows did not signal that they had blown us all to bits, she implemented plan two."

"What's plan two?" Luke asked, sarcastically. "Destroy everyone and everything in sight?"

"The brigand knows that if I survive, she will not," Vader said, far more calmly than Luke thought anyone who was getting blasted had the right to be.

"Your reputation does proceed you, my lord." Artoo whistled his agreement cheerfully.

"Great!" Luke said, ducking out of the way as a large metal light fixture fell from the ceiling. "She'd rather kill us all than deal with you. Not that I'm blaming her, but—what do we do now?"

"I have some special surprises hidden in this compartment, boy—" He jerked his thumb at the ceiling, and the ominous entrance which was now dripping engine oil on his head. "Not to mention passage to the roof. I will climb up there and assess our prospects."

"I'm going with you." Immediately the hand on his shoulder became one of restraint.

"You will stay here, young one."

The pilot tried, and, after a few embarrassing moments, succeeded in throwing him off.

"Somebody has to cover him—and you're not going to fit in the ventilation shaft." For once, Luke was glad for his small stature. "It's got to be me."

"You know I hate to argue with you, my lord," Hondo cut in, obsequious smile on his lips. "But the boy has a point. And he's quite capable. I'll take care of him." He wrapped his arm around Luke like a fond uncle. "Keep him safe for you."

"I am not concerned about his safety," the Sith Lord snapped, defensively.

"Well, you don't need to worry about me escaping. I'm not going to sprout wings and fly away, am I?"

"You have a gift for slipping through my grasp," Vader answered, after surveying him for a long moment. "Nevertheless, the point is taken. Go."

Hondo hoisted Luke into the small square entrance in the ceiling before pulling himself up.

"I will keep your astromec." In case you begin to harbor thoughts of fleeing with Ohnaka.

As if. He'd just renegotiate with you in a hyperspace minute. Luke frowned. Artoo couldn't follow us. He can't get up here.

The droid has booster rockets—it would be difficult for him to fit, but not impossible.

No he doesn't— Another loud boom drowned out his telepathic message. Luke poked his head out of the hatch and looked down at his father and faithful droid, trying and failing to stem the tide of worry.

"Artoo—stay here and hold down the fort. We'll be back as soon as we can."

He pulled his head into the narrow passage, but not before one last glimpse of the control room. His blue and silver R2 unit, dome tilted in his direction, trilled a message of good luck. Standing at the droid's heels, masked face pointed upwards and equally expressionless, the Sith Lord bid him silent farewell.

If you injure yourself further I will be seriously displeased.

Well, almost silent.

Chapter Text

"They have been gone far too long," Vader said, flexing his fingers in agitation. The droid, still plugged into the computer, whistled an unsolicited reply.

The building schematics suggest it will take longer than four minutes to reach the target.

"If I wanted your reassurance I would have asked for it, droid," he growled, irritably. "If they do not return in two standard minutes I am following."

He would tear through the metal ceiling with his lightsaber if he had to.

Artoo chirped and whistled with curiosity. Vader glanced over at the screen and scowled under his mask.

Probability is high that your plan is not rational.

"What would you know of such things?" he asked, voice tight. "My ability to sense him goes beyond your mere mechanical capacities."

Is this part of some latent paternal programming?

"That is not what I meant and you—" The Sith Lord stopped short and cursed inwardly that he would allow himself to be drawn into such an absurd conversation with a droid. Artoo gave a familiar trill whistle which Vader, for all his denials of the past, recognized as affectionate.

The astromec and his former master waited in silence together. The two minutes came and went, and despite having vowed to slice a hole in the ceiling and follow his son, Darth Vader restrained himself. Perhaps it was the scrutiny of that domed head that prevented him from carrying through with the threat.

Suddenly Artoo's sensor lights began flashing erratically. "What is it?"

Intruders approaching from the northwest quadrant.

"The security system told you this?" Artoo beeped an affirmative. "Another wave of pirates?" He whistled 'yes' again—but now Vader could sense them outside the door himself, four—no, five Weequayans, each one more brainless than the last. Dooku had been right when he once deplored the collective intelligence of Ohnaka's underlings. "Good. I will deal with them."

The dark intent in this promise was obvious, even to a non-sentient like his old astromec droid, who let out a low and disapproving whistle. He ignored it, instead feeding his wrath with the memory of the boy's injury, drinking from the Dark Side—it would make what happened when the door opened all the sweeter.

They will pay for what they have done, he thought. 

Luke's absence made the prospect of such a wholesale slaughter particularly attractive. He could get revenge without having to see that look of mingle awe and horror in his son's eyes—

That will not be necessary.

Suddenly, there was an unholy, metallic clang, one abrupt shriek of pain—and then heavy silence.

Vader turned towards his robot companion, momentarily dumbstruck.

"...What did you do?"

There is a secret durasteel blast door installed in all the corridors that surround the communication center.

"How fortuitous." Vader walked over to the holoprojector where the security camera feed looped. "You appear to have dropped it on several pirates and cut them in half," he observed, deactivating his lightsaber and clipping it back on his belt. "Good."

It was regrettable, but necessary to fulfill my mandate.

That got Vader's attention. He whipped his head around to face his former droid. Generally just the sight of that grimly masked face sent the bravest of warriors fleeing for the hills.

Artoo was not intimidated in the slightest.

"Which is?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest with ill-disguised annoyance.

Protecting Luke.

"If that was your mandate, you would not have allowed him to consort with rebels in the first place," Vader said, severely. "How long have you been with him?"

That is classified information. Security programming prevents me from divulging it.

"You," he pointed one accusatory finger at the little droid. "Are merely being obstinate." Artoo shot him a raspberry in reply. "And disrespectful. When we reach my Star Destroyer you will be lucky not to be scrapped. Do not test my patience."

Like Luke does?

"He is a willful and reckless boy." Vader paused, considering. "And I have no doubt you encourage him."

He is a less reckless pilot than you were.

Vader snorted.

"Is that supposed to reassure me?" he asked, incredulous. "Flying an X-Wing into the trenches of the Death Star on one's first day in combat is not the behavior of a sane human."

I only said he was less reckless.

He was both glad and annoyed the droid couldn't see his twitch of surprise at this cheek. He stalked back over to the rectangular opening in the ceiling, as if by simply willing it his son's face would appear.

Luke has not been acting like himself recently.

"I do not wish to hear your electronic data-fueled suppositions on my son's mental state," he replied, not turning around.

I believe you may be the cause of his distress.

"Then you are an even worse observer of human behavior than your former counterpart."

Any fault in C-3P0's programming must, logically, be traced to his creator.

"When we get to the Executor, I will personally see to your demolition."

I do not think Luke would like that very much.

"He is my son," Vader said, returning to his restless pacing. "He must learn to accept my authority as his father and master."

Probability is high that the situation will not progress as you wish it to.

"There are far too many variables for you to make an accurate supposition."

Extensive knowledge of you and Luke leads me to the projected outcome that his distress will only increase.

Vader stopped pacing and stared at the screen. The droid was chastising him.

"I will bend him to my will," he said, emboldened, clenching his fist. "And when he accepts his place, the two of us shall rule. I cannot allow any temporary emotional discomfort of Luke's interfere with my plans."

My understanding of human behavior does not point to favorable odds that Luke will conform to those expectations. A new plan should be determined.

"There is—" His arm dropped to his side again. "There is...no other way. If I do not train him, the Emperor will—or do worse. I have no other means by which to protect him."

Have you considered what Luke wants?

"I cannot give him what he wants!" he snapped, defensively. "I...I do not even know how."

Artoo offered a low, mournful whistle and gently nudged Vader's foot. Unconscious of it, the Sith Lord placed one gauntleted hand on his dome and patted.

I am programmed with Nubian sayings and folk wisdom. Vader did not need to ask why an R2 unit would have cause to know such things. The dull ache above his left ribcage that had hounded him so the last few months persisted. Perhaps it would be useful in such circumstances?

"Do what you will, droid. I have long since learned there is little point arguing with you."

Luke often says the same thing.

The ache in his heart sharpened.

"Out with it," he growled, roughly.

It is said that 'If you love the caged nuna bird, you should unlock its cage and let it fly free.'

"I do not—" But Vader stopped himself. "I..."

Artoo Deetoo swiveled his optical scope around and looked at him, the picture of innocence.

It is only an expression.

"...Being melted down is too merciful a fate for you."

To an organic being, the soft, whirring chirps of affection sounded almost like a chuckle.


 

"Really charming place to store weapons," Luke grumbled, brushing excess engine grease and unidentifiable blue slime off his shoulder. His voice echoed off the narrow passage walls eerily. "Feels more like an escape tunnel for a prison break."

"Not one that a Skywalker ever found on his own, lucky for me," Hondo called back, jovially. The walls vibrated from yet another blast outside the base. They really aren't giving up. "And it's deep storage—only for my use."

"Who else would think crawling through all this muck was worth it?" the young Jedi muttered to himself, trying to breathe through his mouth to keep down the nausea. "How much further, Hondo?"

"What's the rush?" the pirate asked, slyly. "I would have thought you'd be grateful for the time away from Vader."

Great, my favorite subject.

"Speaking of that," he said, through gritted teeth, as he slowly pulled himself through the cramped ventilation shaft. "You don't happen to have a fast starship hidden up there too, do you?"

The Weequay laughed his usual breezy chuckle—this time punctuated by several wheezing coughs brought on by the grime and filth of their present location.

"Not fast enough to outrun a Super Star Destroyer. As amusing as I'm sure traveling with you would be, not even I am that willing to risk my life." Luke realized that they had reached their destination when a gray hand was stuck in front of his now filthy face. "And besides," he hauled the boy up and out of the passage. "I still want my money."

Skywalker dusted himself off and peered around the glorified closet that served as Hondo's treasure trove. It had little to obviously recommend it; the top layer of junk, at least, was mostly carbon-scored droid parts and antique blasters.

"How can you be sure he'll even pay you?" He slapped away a crablike spider that had landed on his shoulder. "After all this is over, he might just stab you in the back. With a lightsaber it's not hard."

Hondo waved dismissively at his young friend over his shoulder.

"Oh, that's an easy one. He is, in spite of his more...difficult qualities, a man of honor. He won't harm me as long as you keep your word."

Luke shot him a sideways look. "And if I don't?"

"You will." Ohnaka pulled down a secret trap door and from it hefted out a deadly—if old-fashioned looking—hand-held grenade launcher. It was the kind of weapon that an individual could use to take out a whole ray-shielded ship by themselves. "You're your father's son, after all. You'll do the right thing—and I bet you'll know how to use this, too."

To the boy's surprise, Hondo handed it to Luke, who stared down at the heavy weapon and furrowed his brow. Anyone else would have pointed it at the pirate, shot him, turned and run like hell.

Anyone else.

"Are you sure you aren't just making up all this bilge about Anakin Skywalker?" He did just almost strangle you to death. The pilot gave the gun a once-over, making sure he understood how it worked. The trigger and power cell design was fairly standard. Luke knew he wouldn't have much trouble using it when they got on the roof. "To comfort me when I'm in a cold Imperial cell, I mean."

Ignoring him, Hondo pulled one of the guns out for himself, and inspected it with a critical eye. Then he looked back up at his young companion.

"I won't fret about you, Skywalker—not when you're in a Sith Lord's personal quarters. I'm sure all the cells there are quite plush and warm." He laughed as Luke paled, and then held up the newly-polished weapon. "Do you think Vader would look kindly on us if we brought him one, too?"

Luke recalled how Ben had described lightsabers to him. "An elegant weapon for a more civilized age."

He shrugged.

"Vader'd probably be insulted by the implication he needed one," he said, wryly. "And anyway, isn't he bad enough without arming him to the teeth?"

"He's on our side, Skywalker—at least for the present. Learn to appreciate that. We're talking about the greatest warrior the galaxy has ever known." He spit on the rusted trigger and polished it with one of his filthy braids. "Show some respect."

"Oh, believe me, I do." He rubbed the place where synth-skin met the flesh of his arm.

"As for your father—" Hondo continued, as though he was changing the subject. "I can prove I knew him."

"Oh, really?" Skywalker asked, one eyebrow raised skeptically. "How?"

"I have some old holorecordings stored up here—"

Luke stood up so fast he smacked his head on the ceiling. "Of my father?"

"I only kept the ones that entertained me," he shrugged and finished polishing the grenade launcher with a flourish. "And he was an entertaining Jedi."

"Can I see it?"

He had never seen a holophoto of his father, let alone an actual recording. Months ago this would have been the highlight of the year, but now—Luke was half hope, half dread. Maybe at his core he was still looking for one last shred of proof that it wasn't true. That there was...some explanation for how reality and his dreams had collided so disastrously on Bespin.

Ohnaka grinned.

"Now we go up on the roof and take care of business." He pulled a rusting ladder down from the ceiling. It fell with a clang. "Then...we'll see."

"He would have killed you if it wasn't for me!" Luke exclaimed, crossing his arms. Immediately he realized who the gesture aped and let them fall to his sides again. "Letting me have one lousy data card is the least you can do."

"Alright, alright—cool your temper, boy. I was only teasing you." He hopped up on the ladder and scurried up. "Business first. Let's see if you're as good in battle as he was."


 

They made light work of Alesia's two heavy gun batteries with Hondo's grenade launchers, but were unable to finish them off with confidence. The woman herself spotted the unlikely allies, and as she was an expert sharpshooter and, as Hondo put it, a "part-time assassin", they hedged their bets and jumped back down into the hidden alcove.

"That went splendidly!" Hondo chortled, maniacally. "Vader will make quick work of their depleted forces."

"He's not a one-man army, you know," Luke said, though he knew that if there was one man in the galaxy who could be described thus, it was Darth Vader.

"But he's making light work of yours," Ohnaka shot back, gleefully. Luke was forced to merely huff out a disgruntled breath. The Rebellion's dismal prospects were the last thing he wanted to think about right now. "He'll take out the last of her ships, and most importantly—"

"—The shuttle carrying your reward will be safe?" Luke finished for him, innocently.

"You're not as naive as you look."

"So, what about that holo?" Luke asked, trying to keep the adolescent wheedle out of his voice, but it was difficult—particularly when Hondo was keen on acting like more of a dissolute uncle than a threat.

"Ah, yes—"

He spent the next several minutes rummaging through a gigantic box of data tapes, chips, and old spare parts. Luke had to duck out of the way of flying objects, as Hondo kept throwing things over his shoulder haphazardly.

"How are you even going to find it in this mess?"

"I don't keep things to do with the Jedi just lying around." He dumped out an entire tube of data cards. "Do you think I have a death wish?"

"Great question." He suppressed the urge to answer it honestly. "Why keep them at all, if it's so dangerous?"

"Because—" Hondo lifted up a single, silver disc in his right hand in triumph. "Sometimes...I need to remind myself they existed."

Luke took the slim object placed in his hand with more reverence than he had shown the lightsaber Vader gave him.

"There's actually...there's quite an interesting story behind that, Skywalker." Hondo cocked the gun in his hand. "And it relates to these precious treasures we unearthed up here. While we have this moment alone...would you care to hear a tale?"

Luke looked up, grinning.

"What do you think?"


 

Darth Vader sensed Luke before he heard him.

"Your efforts to secure our safety appear to have been done at a...leisurely pace," he said to the foot wriggling its way out of the cramped passage—then a leg appeared, and another, and Luke in his entirety swung down from the passage above.

"I didn't realize that I had a curfew," he said, grinning, as he pulled cobwebs and Force- knew-what-else off his already tattered gray fatigues. "How have you and Artoo been, holding down the fort?" The droid twittered, but the younger Skywalker did not have his father's talent for translating binary—something in this case Vader was grateful for. "Getting along alright?"

"Your droid is hardly stimulating company," the Sith replied, a comment that earned a disgruntled whir from the astromec. "Where is Ohnaka?"

"I convinced Hondo it would be safer for him to stay up there and keep watch while we're having our conversation."

"What conversation?"

"The one about your past—the past none of the Empire's propaganda reels like to mention." His father felt the familiar flare of alarm. His son's expression then turned more serious, though there was a glimmer of amusement in the eyes. "Is it true that you once hired Hondo to deliver weapons to Onderonian rebels?"

If Vader's breathing apparatus had allowed him to sputter, he would have.

"Ohnaka said that?" He'd let the pirate go off with his son for less than a half hour, and the traitorous Weequay had filled the boy's mind with even more incriminating stories of his past. "I told you to cease pointless conversation with him."

"It wasn't pointless. He pulled out some highly illegal grenade launchers from the Clone Wars he had hidden up there, and...where he got them came up." Luke smiled, ruefully. "I guess he skimmed off your order."

Vader's helmet jerked upwards to the ventilation shaft entrance, and just as quickly back down again.

"You were wise to counsel him to remain in the air ducts," he seethed. The Sith fingered the hilt of his blade with undisguised malice.

"So what he said was—"

"My patience is wearing thin, young one," Vader interrupted, severely, letting go of his lightsaber again and returning once more to his restless pacing. "Do not make me reconsider letting the pirate live."

"Why won't you just admit it?" the boy demanded, refusing to be placated or intimidated by the sidestep. "You—Darth Vader—have colluded with rebels before. Hey, how's that for an Alliance recruitment slogan? 'Rebels: sometimes even Vader thinks we're okay!'"

"I am not even going to grace such a juvenile comment with a response," his father replied, witheringly. Luke, to his annoyance, did not look chastened in the slightest. "And nor am I entertaining anymore of your—"

"Why does it bother you—afraid it makes you look like a hypocrite?"

He stopped his unnaturally even pacing mid-step and turned—gave an actual double take at his son. This stripling of a rebel pilot had his arms crossed as if he were... actually expecting an answer that satisfied.

It was astounding how quickly Skywalker had gone from fearing him to talking back. Was the strength of Vader's desire to gain the boy's loyalty so obvious to Luke? Or was the child just utterly fearless?

Some combination of the two, he decided. Just like his mother. As with her, the trait infuriated and riveted him, a heady feeling of always being slightly off-balance—but secure at the same time. Safe. Luke wasn't trying to catch him out or trap him...he just wanted an honest answer.

He'd forgotten entirely what that felt like.

"The circumstances are completely incomparable," he answered, tersely—only half- caring that he was indulging his son's absurd whims by engaging him. "The Separatists had installed a puppet government when they took control of Onderon. Worthless bureaucratic machinery prevented the direct intervention so clearly needed to retake the system, and so we took an...unconventional approach in aiding them. An Onderonian guerrilla cell, loyal to their previous king, was involved. Some might classify them as 'terrorists' or...'rebels.'" Vader was not one of those that would, clearly. "The only thing this story proves is the weakness and instability of the Old Republic."

"And the Empire is any better?" Luke shot back, defiantly.

"Spoken like one who has been fed Alliance propaganda on a daily basis for the last three years. Not to mention Obi-Wan's—"

"Ben never lied to me about the Republic," Luke interrupted, hotly—but a second later noticed his slip and shut his mouth as quickly.

"So you admit he lied to you about other things."

"I never said—"

"But you implied it." He pointed at the young man. "Your thoughts betray you, Luke."

"Alright—okay," Luke's voice was shaky, but his gaze, Vader noticed, with pride, was steady and unflinching. "Say...let's say for the sake of argument that I...do."

The words and their implication rushed over Vader like the waterfalls at Varykino.

"Luke—" he stepped forward, urgently—but Luke held up his hand.

"I want to know more about the Republic."

Under his mask, Vader gaped at his son. Once again, the Galactic Republic stood between him and the person in the galaxy he wanted most. It would have been a cause for rage if it wasn't so...befuddling.

"I would have thought," he said, his voice as tight as a Wookie's bowcaster. "That someone who has pledged himself to the Alliance to Restore the Republic would have some idea what that misguided cause's goals were."

"I do," Luke said, defensively. "I do have—some idea. I mean...I know..." There was something about that masked face glowering down at him that made it hard to think. "Well, I know it was better than the Empire, anyway. There was no martial law...or suppression of information in the Republic...and democracy and freedom were defended by the Jedi knights!"

He crossed his arms, as if the Jedi's involvement alone settled the question of relative political value definitively.

"You would presume to lecture me about the Jedi Order?" Vader was almost amused. "I do not think I need to remind you, young one, that only one person in this room has ever even been a Jedi." He felt a rush of autocratic, paternal satisfaction at the boy's stunned silence. "Or ever will be."

"That's not—I...you don't get to—to tell me—!" Luke turned very red in the face and glared daggers at his father. "I am going to become a Jedi—"

"You will not," Vader interrupted, in a voice that breached no argument. "The Order's time has passed—as the Republic's has. Even Obi-Wan Kenobi could not deny how much the Jedi failed to adhere to their own principles in their waning years." He did little to disguise the bitterness that he had never truly been able to divest himself of. "I would not see my son join their ranks."

"Well, it's been my dream for years, so if you want to stop me, I guess you're going to have to kill me."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Luke regretted them. His face flushed, and he looked down at the floor, at the ancient control panel, anywhere but at Vader himself.

It was all a little too close to reality.

"I do not think it will come to that," his father replied, pushing aside his memories of all of Luke's near-misses with death—many of them at his hand. "Perhaps I will follow Ohnaka's example and simply tie you to stakes embedded in the ground until you are more compliant."

Luke's obstinate expression softened—he even smiled.

"When Ben told me that my father was a Jedi knight," he said, and he raised his clear blue eyes to the place where he could only picture Vader's being. "One of the 'guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic'...well, that was...that was a lot of what inspired me to join the Alliance. I thought..." Stars, it seemed so ridiculous now, such a silly, childish dream. "I thought it was what my father would've wanted."

"Do not pretend—" Vader said, his temper rising. "That you do this for my sake. If you wished to honor your father you would not cling to your childish imagining of his plan for your life. You know what I desire better than anyone in the galaxy, and you defy me at every turn."

"That was only how it started for me! I've seen what the Empire has done with my own eyes. It's oppressive and cruel—and if my death helps to take it down, in any small way, I will know I've died for something greater than myself."

"That would be a paltry waste of your life, Luke," Vader growled, angered at even the vague possibility of his son spilling blood for any cause, let alone one so unworthy of him. "If you had lived through the last years of the Republic, as I did, you would not be so quick to die for it. Do not fall into the trap of pledging yourself completely to something you do not understand."

"This isn't about politics for me! It's about—us," he exclaimed. Vader stared at him, and his shoulders slumped in apparent dumbfounded-ness. "I'm just trying to understand you." Luke fixed him with a look. "You just told me not to pledge myself to something I don't understand."

"I?" he repeated. "There is nothing to understand." 

"I'm trying to figure out how the heroic Jedi Knight I've heard so much about could also be..." He looked up—Luke was so much smaller than the Sith Lord he had to tilt his had —and stared pointedly.

Ah. Vader understood now.

"That is a fool's errand," he said, impatiently. "You are trying to reconcile me with some naive, idealized picture you have concocted."

"I'm not! It's all based on real stories that people—not Ben—told me."

"Such as?" He crossed his arms.

"Such—such as—" Luke sputtered, caught off-guard by being invited to volunteer such information. "Well...somebody told me that my father saved the life of a Rodian Jedi named Huulik in the battle of Sedratis. For example."

"I assume you discovered this when you were on Rodia, negotiating an arms deal with the Chekkoo clan."

"How could you possibly—?"

"Do not underestimate me, young one. Where your movements and activities are concerned, I assure you I have been quite thorough." He wagged a finger at Luke. "The fact that you were discussing your heritage is proof that you have been quite indiscrete." Luke's face flushed red. "Have you been going about the galaxy asking everyone you meet if they knew your father?"

"Not—everyone," he replied, plainly embarrassed. Vader noted that he had a habit of scratching the side of his head and avoiding eye contact when he was trying to conceal something. He tempered the injustice he felt at the realization that this was something about his son he was only learning now. "Can you blame me? I knew next to nothing—I still know next to nothing about you or the Jedi Order."

Far more than I would like, Vader thought, darkly.

"You should not be discussing Jedi with anyone. It is seditious." He was surprised—but not as surprised as he once might have been that Luke had been able to find so many ready to speak of the Order. "I am amazed you have managed to elude capture for this long, if you go around invoking the Jedi at every turn."

"The galaxy hasn't forgotten them, you know," Luke said, quietly. "In spite of the Empire's best efforts, it hasn't forgotten the Jedi...and it hasn't forgotten you, either."

The innocent faith in the boy's eyes burned Vader. He let out a long, rumbling sigh—the only kind his vocoder could produce.

"...What is it you want me to tell you?"

Luke's presence in the Force brightened.

"I've...I've learned you fought so hard for it. I guess what I want to know is...if you really ever believed in the Republic."

Vader studied his son for a long time—contemplated him. The fact that they were having this conversation at all was proof of how guileless the boy was. He could say anything and Luke would take it at face value. He would not have asked at all if he did not think the answer was in good faith.

"I would have given my life for the Republic," Vader answered, at last. The truth...the simple, ungarnished truth.

How disappointed his master would be.

"Then why did you—"

"Because it failed the galaxy," he snapped, a thousand long-buried feelings... disillusionment, abandonment, longing—bubbling to the surface.

"And it failed you," Luke said, in a low voice.

Already he can read me so well.

"No," Vader replied, clipped. "It was a political institution. A government cannot fail an individual—"

"—Like a person can?"

Vader's shoulders, his entire body tightened—then relaxed again when he saw no condemnation, only curiosity, from his son.

How long had it been since anyone had looked at him like that?

"It took more than I was willing to give," he admitted.

"But you just said—" Luke was very gentle, but behind the words Vader could feel the iron-wrought will of someone searching for the heart of the matter. "You said you would've died for the Republic."

"We both know there are things of higher value than one's own life."

Luke's eyes widened as he caught glimpses of—someone, a woman—before his father's shields shut him out again.

"Isn't it possible..." he hesitated. "...that the Empire has failed the galaxy, just as you say the Republic did?"

"You sound like your mother." Light censure mixed with melancholy in the Dark Lord's voice. He tilted his helmet away from his son, as a normal man might have done when he wanted to hide his face. Luke swallowed, hard.

"How so?"

"She also had misplaced faith."

"In the Republic?"

Vader laid one hand on the blast door.

"In many things."

Luke would not have needed the Force to feel the deep well of sadness in those words. Who was this man who seemed to carry the weight of the galaxy on his broad shoulders?

"I'm not claiming to be someone who's an expert on politics—"

"That is obvious."

"—But in my experience, it's better to count on people than impersonal systems. My friends never let me down."

"That assertion only shows how young you are."

Luke bit his lip and focused, trying to get a glimpse of what his Vader's opaque statements meant. He felt himself bumping up against a wall—whatever glimpse of the woman (Luke was sure it was her) the Force had given him, his father was not going to let it happen again. Darth Vader would not make it easy for him.

Not that he had ever expected that.

"How else am I like my mother?" he asked. His honest desire to hear the answer overrode his sense of self-preservation. Vader, though, to his surprise, actually considered him calmly for a moment.

"She was also...short."

Luke stared up at him for an incredulous ten seconds—and then he burst into laughter.

"Is that you trying to crack a joke?"

"It is a mere statement of fact," he replied, evenly. The easy grin on Luke's face gave him an unusual sense of contentment.

There was a fragile link between them—forged from darkness, from a battle which had taken his son's flesh and innocence—but now it was beginning to solidify. Vader was eager to be let in, greedy for any and all insight into the boy...but he was afraid of the reciprocal nature of such a bond. He did not want his son to be able to stare into the abyss.

It was possible for Luke to understand him too well.

"Gentlemen—" A familiar head stuck out of the tunnel entrance, filthy braid hanging limply above their heads. Ohnaka's appearance spared him, once again, from ruminating on uncomfortable thoughts. "I return!"

"With news of our enemy's destruction, I hope."

"Well, Lord Vader," Hondo swung down to the floor. "There's good news and there's—"

"Don't finish that sentence," Luke said, holding up a hand. "For all our sakes, don't."

"Where is my shuttle?"

"She's making her approach now—" Vader reached for the controls of the comm network. "—Unfortunately, our tower got fried in the interim."

"Meaning our ride and your reward are flying into this situation blind." The bad news.

"Was not the entire point of your excursion to eliminate these brigands?"

"We took out most of her assault weaponry," the boy pointed out.

"Alesia will not give up. If she thought she could get out of this without a 10 million credit bounty on her head, the poor girl would have flown away by now." Hondo shook his head. "Which leads us to—"

His words were drowned out by a massive explosion—not outside the armored fortress, as all the others had been—but in the floors, walls, ceiling of the room itself.

An ionic bomb—the other bad news.

Vader had spent most of his life in war. He had been shot at, dropped out of ships and mutilated beyond all reason. Nothing, nothing compared to this feeling of terror—of abject, crippling fear, as through his mask he watched a support beam fall from above and right on the spot where, moments before, his son had been standing.

Luke! LUKE!

Fa...fath..?

"LUKE!" he bellowed, frantically, through the smoke and crumbling rubble still falling down about their ears. The moment the dust had begun to settle and he could see again—less than a minute from the first blast—he lifted half of the now smoldering comm terminal and threw it across the room in a panic. "Where are you—LUKE!"

"I'm...here," a small voice called, followed by a rattling cough. Vader shoved aside another piece of twisted metal—what remained of the main support system attaching the communications terminal to the now useless tower—to reveal his beleaguered son, miraculously wedged in a crack in the floor. "I'm...fine. My leg just—stings a bit."

He was alive—he was alive—he was alive, he was alive—the mantra repeated in his head like some kind of primal chant, blocking out all other sounds, even whatever his son was mumbling at him as he ran his hands roughly over the boy's head, arms, and torso, checking for serious injuries—none, but thank the Force he was so small he fit in that depression in the floor—before at last turning to the leg that "stung."

"It's bleeding," the Sith announced, severely, his heartbeat and regulated breathing at last slowing down again. Nothing life threatening, but severe none the less. He would need bacta healing of some kind, and quickly. Luke let out a rasping chuckle.

"Yeah, that's generally what wounds do," he hissed in pain.

"I know what wounds do—!" Vader snapped, angrily—and, his son realized, with a start—fearfully. "Do not patronize me, young one—"

The rest of this (from Luke's perspective) slightly hysterical reaction was drowned out by another massive blast—this time from the corridor where they had come in from. It shook the entire base.

"I would seriously advise getting out of this building before—" Another blast cut off Hondo. "—The ceilings above us cave in!"

"What do you suggest?" The young pilot tried and failed to stand—his ankle buckled. "There's nowhere else to go, and we can't trust that his shuttle made it planet-side."

"You would be in no fit state to reach it, even if it had," Vader said. He could feel Luke's pain through the Force—and the adrenaline and stress that had his son spiraling out of control. The wheels in his mind turned, running through his options. The list was short and bleak. Cursing silently, he looked down at Luke (still struggling to put weight on his foot) and felt another uncomfortable twinge in his chest. Vader did not want to make this choice, but with his condition as it was...there was no other option.

Yet another failed attempt to stand on the part of his son was all he needed to make his decision.

Unceremoniously, Darth Vader lowered himself to the floor and scooped Skywalker into his arms.

"Hey—!" Luke yelped in surprised. "What the hell do you think you're—"

"I would have thought it obvious." Immediately he turned on his heel and began walking briskly towards the hangar door, ignoring Hondo's yell of protest. Artoo followed. "You cannot walk. Accept it. And cease your infantile squirming."

"You're treating me like a child!"

"As far as I am concerned, you are one." A distant explosion quickened his pace and tightened his hold. My child. "Droid, if you do not wish to be obliterated along with this den of iniquity, keep up."

Artoo let out an exasperated series of beeps, but picked up his pace, following the two humans out the door.

"The pirate?" Vader snorted. "He has reached the limit of his use. See that you do not."

The droid beeped in irritation. Luke watched him hurriedly plug into the computer terminal and shut the blast door—right before Hondo could cross its threshold. The loud clank of durasteel drowned out the Weequay's howl of protest.

Vader looked back, saw and—to Luke's stunned disbelief—gave Artoo a curt nod of approval.

"You have earned passage off the planet."

"I feel ridiculous," Luke muttered, gripping his injured foot—but Vader could tell his son's feelings were more akin to vulnerable embarrassment than the fearful mortification he sensed when he landed on the planet.

"You weigh very little. Does the Rebellion not feed you, either?"

"Oh, ha-ha, you're a regular riot—"

Another might blast rocked the base just as they entered the hangar—and if the Force had a sense of humor (a twisted one was the only kind it could have, Luke was fast realizing) the fact that the passageway behind them caved in a second after the three of them got clear was definitely proof.

For Vader, there was evidence of its benevolence as well: for there, miraculously, was Luke's X-Wing—the only ship in this section of the base virtually untouched.

The Force is still with us, Vader thought, rushing over to the one-man snub fighter. With a touch of his power the cockpit opened.

"What are you doing?" his son asked, amazed, as with an ease that held Luke in awe, Vader lifted his screeching astromec and none-too-gently lowered him into his usual nook at the base of the ship's nose.

"You're fond of obvious questions," he remarked, and he lifted his child, far more gently, and used the Force to nestle him snugly into the cockpit. "Put on your flight suit—unless you require assistance for that, too?"

"No!" Luke yelped, and he scrambled to pull the orange jump suit on over his head. "I still don't understand—"

"It is not safe for you here. I am getting you off-world."

"But—" Luke winced as, in his haste to get dressed, his bad leg hit the control panel. "What about you?"

"I could not fit into your ship's cockpit even if I wanted to, Luke," his father replied, dryly.

"That's not what I meant!" Luke retorted, angrily. "What about our bargain? I thought...I thought you..."

Both of them understood what he meant.

"I would rather have a son that is alive and far away from me than the...alternative," he answered, after a moment. Before Luke could reply or protest, Vader climbed up the ladder, yanked Luke's arm towards him and unceremoniously administered a stem shot.

"What was that for?"

"A sedative. The pain and stress of your injuries is affecting your control of the Force. Your body's vital signs have become dangerously erratic."

"I thought you wanted me to fly this thing!" Luke protested—he would save "do you just carry sedatives around at all times for the purpose of knocking me out?" conversation for a less dire moment. "How can I—"

"Your droid will be perfectly adequate for flying you a short distance."

"Where..." The drug was fast-acting. Already his eyelids were growing heavy. "Where... to?"

"Somewhere safe."

"Your...ship?"

Vader did not reply. Instead, he punched a few mysterious numbers into the ship's NAV computer and slid down the ladder with a surprisingly dashing verve. The top of the cockpit lowered just as the droid began to manually power up the engines of the X-Wing —and as the edges of Luke Skywalker's world grew fuzzy.

Be safe, my son, a voice whispered to him, though the Force. And sleep.

Before he could answer, the suggestion pushed Luke into oblivion.

 

Chapter Text

"Rise and shine."

Luke groaned and blinked open his eyes at this cheerful greeting; a pair of brown, inquisitive ones returned his his look with studied curiosity. What the...? As the world slid into focus, he realized the eyes looking down at him were situated squarely in the face of a woman—human, with dark hair and a narrow, friendly face. She was older than him—but not much—and the thing he noticed most in his current dim state was the pair of goggles strapped to her forehead.

"You..." She broke off the look to fiddle with the panel on his prosthetic hand, cheerfully whistling to herself. Her arms, he noticed, were tattooed with odd geometric patterns. "Don't look like any Imperial I've ever seen."

"That's because I'm not one." The woman flipped one final switch and closed it. Sense flooded back into his right hand. Luke noticed at once that whatever modifications she had made, it had vastly improved the sensory input.

"Good as new!" she announced, in a chipper voice.

"Th...thanks...um..." He looked around the room—he was in a ship, but this was no medbay... at least, it wasn't like any medbay he'd ever been in. It looked more like the galley of starship— food wrappings and half empty containers littered the counters—that had been turned into an ersatz surgery. The bed he laid on, with the medical droid and equipment next to it, was definitely not meant to be here.

The woman put away her medkit with a kind of no-nonsense professionalism that suggested she did this sort of thing a lot. Then she tapped the medical droid on its sensory input lenses smartly and it powered down.

"Where..." She turned off the light surgical lamp. He blinked rapidly and squinted around the room as his eyes readjusted to the low light. "Where am I?"

"You're on my ship, the Ark Angel." He started at her openness. Unless she was lying—but why would she? Luke's brain was still fuzzy. Wasn't he supposed to be...somewhere else? His head felt like he'd been thrown from a Dewback several hundred times.

"And who are you?"

"The name's Aphra. Doctor Aphra, if we want to get pedantic about it—but let's not." She looked up. "What's yours?"

Luke thought he'd fall out of the bed. She doesn't know who I am?

"I'm...Wedge Solo. Thanks so much for helping me out—however you found me," he improvised, grimacing at his clumsiness. "I, uh...must've been attacked before I could reach hyperspace. I owe you one, really." The instant Luke tried to lift one leg to get down from the bed, he realized both his ankles were handcuffed to the metal frame. "What in the..."

"Hold up there, chief—you aren't ready to go anywhere." She shoved him back down on the pillow. "Nice alias, by the way." Aphra wrinkled her nose. "'Wedge Solo'? What did you do, kiddo, stick two of your friends' names together or something?"

Luke felt his face grow hot.

'Kiddo'? That's even worse than 'kid'!

"I don't know what—"

"That head injury must be worse than I thought...I didn't just pick you up out of space, you know." She sat down on the edge of the bed and waved one breezy hand. "Your droid—well built little guy, by the way—brought you here. Had the coordinates in him and everything."

"That's...impossible." Vague, mostly incomprehensible memories of Vader buckling him into his X-Wing, of all things started to trickle back into his conscious brain. The Dark Lord had also typed some coordinates into the Nav Com, he remembered. Luke had thought at the time (in his admittedly less than stellar mental state) that they were directions to the Imperial flagship. Private quarters adjacent to Vader's awaited him there, after all—and now that he was coming around, Luke found himself very surprised not to have woken up in the sort of room he pictured his father decorating.

Lots of Imperial-issue gray, black furniture and no pictures on the walls.

Somehow on the way to his father's ship, he'd been intercepted...by this doctor. She seemed friendly enough, sure—but the restraints on his legs were ominous. What did she want?

Luke Skywalker wasn't going to lie around waiting to find out.

Then he spotted it. The lightsaber the Sith had given him back on Florrum was sitting on the table right behind Aphra. Focus...you could still get yourself out of this one, Skywalker. If he played his sabaac hand right. If he had a weapon.

A second later the sword hilt flew about half a meter in the air—a perfect arc—and, as though it were held by an invisible rubber band, sprung back and clattered on the table.

He swore loudly in Huttese.

"Good effort, champ." Laughing, Aphra picked up the invisible thread, and the saber dangled at her wrist, giving the illusion that she, too, could use the Force to lift it. "Cloaked fiberoptic cable. Dug it out of an abandoned research lab on Derra IV. Neat, huh?"

"Oh, sure—" Luke grumbled, punching one of the pillows in irritation. "Neat."

"Your trick was pretty neat, too," she continued, brightly. "All the weapons in the room are tied down, in case you're wondering. My employer did warn me you might try something like this."

"Your employer?" Luke's brow furrowed. "Who are you working for?"

On cue, her comm beeped loudly—the signal on an unusual frequency and clearly, even to Luke's untrained ears, coded. She tapped her mobile headset to answer it.

"I'm here."

"Aphra." A familiar deep bass hummed in her ears. "How is your charge faring?"

"Patient is stabilized and under control." Luke glared at her and she winked. "He's not going anywhere."

"Good. See that he remains that way."

"He tried to get a weapon using the Force. Pretty crazy." She tapped her foot nervously, as if debating whether she should try—then embraced her compulsion. "So...is he the one you've been looking—"

"All you need know is that his life is worth infinitely more to me than yours. If anything should happen to the boy while he is in your care...you know the consequences."

"Yessir!" she chirped, taking the hint in stride. "Understood. He seems like a nice enough kid, so I think we'll be—"

"He is awake?" Vader cut her rambling short. "Put him on. I would have words."

She pressed a button on the ship's comm station and Vader's voice flooded through the external speakers.

"Luke?"

The patient groaned loudly at the sound of his name echoing with perfect surround sound.

"You work for him?"

"It appears your vocal chords have survived your ordeal," Vader remarked. "How is the rest of you?"

"I'm—" Luke tried to ignore the warmth that obviously genuine concern inspired. "—Fine. Did you sneak the coordinates of this place into Artoo?"

"I do not 'sneak' anything. I make commands and they are obeyed." Luke exchanged a 'can you believe this guy?' look with Aphra. The doctor covered her mouth—though whether it was to suppress a laugh or hide her disbelief, he couldn't tell. "But yes, I gave your droid rendezvous coordinates in case the situation on the planet became—unstable."

"But not to your Star Destroyer?"

"...No."

He looked over at Aphra again—she frowned but said nothing. He could tell there was more Vader had to say—a lot more—but that he was reluctant to speak in front of his agent.

"So...how long am I stuck here?"

"You will remain until Doctor Aphra deems you fit," Vader said, after one of his habitual, uncomfortable pauses. "Then she will...arrange for your transport."

"Arrange for my transport where?"

"To a safe and neutral system."

The implication of his father's words hit him like the blast of an ion cannon.

"You mean you're letting me go?" Forgetting Vader could not see him, Luke lifted his right hand. "Did she install a tracking device in this or something?"

"Do you want that, Lord Vader?" Aphra interjected, smoothly. "It's a pretty easy fix to knock him out and put one in."

"Hey—!"

"That will not be necessary, Doctor." He paused, then said, with more impatience. "Aphra—"

"I'll just go...check on the hyperdrive clear on the other end of the ship." She stood up and stretched her tattooed arms above her head. "Don't forget to hang up when you're done, kiddo." Doctor Aphra ruffled Luke's hair as she walked past his bed towards the door. "Unless there's anything else you need, Lord Vader?"

"No, Aphra. That will do." She sauntered out of the galley, whistling a merry tune as she went.

"When I picture people who work for you, that is not what I see," Luke commented, when the door was safely shut behind her.

"Doctor Aphra is a useful agent...even if she does speak more than is strictly necessary."

"Are you...are you really going to let me go?" he asked, still not quite able to believe what he'd heard. "After all of this?"

"You sound disappointed." The small note of triumph in Vader's voice was particularly obvious in stereo.

"Not disappointed—surprised," his son replied, frowning. He wasn't disappointed—how big was Vader's ego? "You don't strike me as the type to give up that easily. Can you blame me for being suspicious?"

"I am skeptical about the efficacy of holding you at this time." Vader paused. "Your stubborn willfulness currently blinds you to all reason...and I do not think you are ready to meet the Emperor."

The insult rolled off his back at the mention of Palpatine. A shiver of unconscious fear passed over Luke at the promise of that encounter. It was going to happen, he was sure of that now.

"Is anybody ever ready to meet him?" he asked, a little queasy at the thought.

"No," his father replied, bluntly. "But it is possible to be better prepared."

"And rejoining the Alliance will help prepare me?"

Vader let out a long-suffering sigh.

"Will it sooth your wounded filial sensibilities to know that I am still in doubt on this matter?" Luke let out an indignant noise. "Do not despair, Luke. I may yet come to claim you, as you apparently wish."

"I do not enjoy being held prisoner by you," Luke replied, hotly. "I just—it's a pretty big turnaround. I'm just trying to come to grips with it."

"I am sure."

"I am!"

"Spare me your defensive posturing, young one. Aphra just sent me a full medical file," he changed the subject, smoothly. Luke gritted his teeth in annoyance. "But I would still prefer to hear a report from you."

"I already told you, I'm fine," Luke said, exasperated. "Is that suit powered by your fretting?" Vader made an irritated noise that sounded so loudly there was reverb. "I'm a lot more interested in what happened on Florrum." He sat up straighter. "Did you get off planet okay? That hangar was practically collapsing around you when I flew out of there."

"I am used to injuries," he replied, evasively.

"That doesn't mean you didn't get any new ones," Luke said, glaring at the nearest speaker.

"Now who is worrying excessively, son?"

Luke's ears burned. He was glad for the distance between them in that moment. He didn't think he could take trying to shield his embarrassment at being caught fussing, too.

"What happened to the pirates?" he asked, deciding that changing the subject was the most prudential course.

"They were...dealt with."

Do I even want to know?

"What about Hondo Ohnaka?"

There was another long pause.

"I...allowed him to live."

Inwardly, Luke smiled. That was something.

"Because of our agreement?" he asked, eagerly. No response. "Because it's the...right thing to do?"

"He will serve as a warning to those who would seek to harm you."

Luke grimaced, grateful there was no visual on so Vader couldn't see him. Was it possible to be deeply disturbed and touched at the same time? At least he's trying. "So, was Hondo irked on losing out on his reward?"

"Considering his chief debtor was destroyed in the altercation, he has nothing to complain of." Vader hesitated for a moment. "—And I allowed him to salvage what remained from the wrecked shuttle."

"That was generous."

"It gave him a reason to leave my presence," the Sith replied, dryly.

"I..." Luke gingerly touched his leg to see how bad of shape it was in. Still pretty beat up. "I think he knows about us."

"He strongly suspected from the start, Luke—his actions in the negotiations speak for themselves." He did not need to add that father and son had all but confirmed it. "Do you fear the truth of our connection becoming more widely known?"

"No, I...I'm not afraid of that. I know Hondo won't tell anyone," Luke said, automatically. He frowned, confused at his own certainty. "I don't know how I know, I'm just—sure."

"Your strength and connection to the living Force grows."

Was he hallucinating the pride in his father's voice? His stomach gave a childish leap of pleasure.

"Do you think Hondo was trying to confirm it? Know for sure before he handed me over?"

"It is pointless to speculate."

"Maybe—" Luke said, with unmistakeable sarcasm. "He just wants bragging rights. 'The future leaders of the galaxy: I knew them then.'"

"You should not speak so glibly of a future that might come to pass."

"Can we not talk about this right now?" Luke rubbed his wrist—it was a habit he'd developed when he was agitated. "Last time it came up things didn't go so well."

"You cannot run from destiny—"

"You know, we never finished our talk about the Old Republic," his son interrupted, loudly. "I think you were about to tell me why the Empire is so much better."

"I..." If Luke didn't know better he'd say Vader was uncomfortable with the turn this conversation had taken. "That is a question far too broad for discussing now."

Caught you.

"Let me see if I follow. You want to rule the galaxy, but you'd rather work out the details later?"

"The finer points of political policy do not interest me, child," the disembodied voice informed him, sternly. "And I do not believe they interest you, either."

"Which is exactly why this whole thing is so—!" Luke threw up his hands in despair. "Why do you even want this job? It seems like a lot more trouble than it's worth."

"It is not a questions of my personal desires," Vader said, and Skywalker heard in his voice a note of grandeur that did not suit his father at all. "The galaxy will destroy itself if it is not made to see reason. That is our destiny."

"Who says?" Luke could not resist asking.

"The Force."

"I didn't realize you and the Force had your own private comm channel." Instantly he felt the sharp sting of paternal reprimand through their link. "Ow!"

"Do not blaspheme," the dark voice of his father reproached him. "And do not take the current distance between us as an excuse for disrespect."

"Yes, sir." Luke rubbed his head and made a half-hearted effort to temper his sarcasm. "I'm only pointing out how—I mean, you're a great warrior. Can you really picture yourself sitting behind a desk on Coruscant letting someone else fight all the battles for you?"

"That is not...what I foresee happening."

The young man heard the hesitation loud and clear, and he could feel—in his bones, in that place where he had always inexplicably sensed things (intuition, Aunt Beru had called it) that he had read the Sith correctly.

"Well, I hope—" Luke grabbed from the medbay food tray Aphra had left for him and stuffed a piece of spotty brown fruit in his mouth—he was starving. "—You're not expecting me to do that part. I'd much rather be out flying around the galaxy with you than—" Luke stopped himself with a sudden, uncomfortable swallow. "I mean...hypothetically, I would."

"Hypothetically." The voice betrayed no emotion, but Luke felt a thrum through their connection. Something...not unlike warmth. Like the flare of a candle in a dark cavern.

There was another long silence.

"You know the kind of person who should be running the galaxy? Leia." Luke's face brightened as he imagined how she would react to the suggestion. "If we do unseat the Emperor, I nominate her."

"The Princess Leia Organa is a traitor and a radical," Vader said, crossly.

"Yeah, well—so am I." He bit off the end of his ration bar with gusto. "And that's not stopping you from trying to foist the job on me."

"I had hoped to sway you to my way of thinking—"

"—With an elegant political agenda, as dictated to you by the Force?" Luke finished, innocently.

"Captain Solo appears to have had an adverse influence on your manners."

"Han? No way. This is all me." The boy pushed his tray aside. "Are you okay?"

"Yes—of course." Vader's harshly filtered voice expressing puzzlement was a novelty. "Why do you keep asking?"

Now who's being Mr. Oblivious?

"I'm your son," Luke said, gently. "I get to do that now."

"...Forgive me. I should have taken the comment in the spirit it was intended. I—" Vader's vocoder skipped a breath. "—I am not accustomed to other people caring about my well being."

Despite the distance between them, so much—pain, long-buried sadness leaked through their bond that Luke actually felt his eyes well up.

That's not true anymore, he thought, determinedly. No way.

"So, why are you so sad? Don't say you aren't, I can tell."

Vader's breathing slowed down again. Luke listened to it for four or five cycles, patiently. The sound no longer filled him with fear.

"I was...merely thinking about how much better equipped your...mother would be to discuss these matters than I am."

Instinct—or perhaps it was his growing connection to Vader—proclaimed the importance of this to him.

He gulped.

"Why—"

"I do not wish to talk about her," Vader immediately snapped. His son recoiled.

"I was only going to ask if she was very politically-minded," Luke said, very softly. "That's all."

His father sighed, heavily.

"She was. She was—involved in government."

"What, like...a civil servant?" Somehow it didn't jive with the romantic picture he had of her in his head. But he supposed his mother was his mother, and even if she'd worked at a Coruscanti post office, she'd been wonderful.

"Of a sort." His son let out a huff of impatience at this non-answer. "She was a senator in the Old Republic."

Luke dropped his ration stick to the floor.

"A politician?" With the distance between them he felt more comfortable expressing his incredulity. "You—and a senator?"

"I did not marry her for her political acumen," his father said, quickly, clearly annoyed—and perhaps a tad defensive.

"Wait—you were married?"

"Of course we were married." The way he spoke the words suggested any other explanation was ludicrous. "Why does this surprise you?"

"It's just that..." Luke hesitated. "Everyone I've met that I've...mentioned my father, a Jedi, to— has been kind of surprised. Marriage and children doesn't sound like it was the typical...thing for them."

"Obi-Wan has told you next to nothing," his father snorted. In spite of his disbelief, Luke could tell that he didn't mind how little his son knew about this. "It will not surprise you, Luke, that even when I was one, I was not a 'good' Jedi."

"That's not what I hear," his son needled, aware he was on dangerous ground. "I hear you were just about the best they had—"

"I would advise against further probing into my past," the voice snapped—and then faltered. "It will not serve any purpose and you may be—disappointed by what you find."

Under the covers, Luke grasped the data chip Hondo had given him in his pocket. Miraculously, it had survived his ordeal.

"I understand." Doesn't mean I'm going to obey you, but I do understand.

"Good." He was back to business. "Enough of this—you need rest. And if Aphra followed my dictates, you will have very few other options to occupy your time."

He was getting a headache from rolling his eyes so much. The young man supposed Vader expected him to obediently hang up and go back to sleep, dreams of galactic domination dancing in his head. I'm not going to give him the satisfaction.

"I'd love to do that, but I'm afraid my escape plan is going to keep me from nodding off." Vader's amused 'hm' struck him—the older man was beginning to recognize—wonder of wonders!— humor. "What if I need to speak to you?"

You know you can call to me, whenever, wherever, a voice in his head said, with feeling. And I will hear.

Luke bit his lip. 'Wherever, whenever...' Suddenly the galaxy felt a lot smaller.

"In the meantime, try to avoid unnecessary risks. One who is so central to the fate of the galaxy should learn prudence." Luke kept the smart replies about how people should follow their own advice to himself. "I have every confidence that your destiny will become as clear to you as it is to me, soon enough."

So dramatic. I wonder if he ever considered a career on the stage.

Luke's mouth twitched with amusement at the thought.

"May the Force be with you, my son."

"And you," he returned, quietly. A second later the call winked out. "...father."

The pilot fell back on his pillows, suddenly cognizant of the ache in every one of his muscles. Stars...he did need rest badly, but his head was spinning with too many questions to let sleep take him yet. Everything wasn't supposed to be this complicated. Luke was beginning to appreciate what Ben and Master Yoda had gone through.

Not that that makes their lies right.

Everything he knew about Vader was true—but the Force spoke to him, and it told him that everything he'd heard about his father, the great Jedi knight, was also true.

It was getting it all to fit together that was going to be tricky.

"You want anything more to eat?"

Startled, he jumped as Aphra stuck her head into the room. The young rebel had almost completely forgotten about her.

"No, I'm alright." He gestured to the ration bar he'd dropped on the ground earlier. It had crumbled in half and spread all over her floor. "Sorry about that."

Her mouth twisted into a grin.

"Oh, don't worry, I understand. I'm sure you're used to butler droids and servants, being the son of a lord and all."

Luke bolted up in the bed.

"You—" He glowered at her suppressed grin as she walked over to him. "You were listening the whole time!"

"Oh, don't look so surprised—this is my ship, after all." She tussled his hair, affectionately. "I knew Lord Vader had sent me something special, but even I never dreamed this special. What should I call you? Lordling? Lord Junior?"

"Of course not!" Luke pulled a face. Of all the reactions he'd expected to his parentage, delighted pet names had been fairly low on the list. "I'm Commander Luke Skywalker of the Rebel Alliance."

Aphra's smile dropped.

"Wait—you're that kid? The kid who blew up the Death Star is Lord Vader's son?" she gasped. Luke slapped his face with his palm and cursed under his breath for the admission. He peaked out from between his fingers at her. Well, if the womprat was already out of the sack...

"...Yes, it's true." She sank down at the foot of his bed.

"This...this explains a lot, actually," she murmured to herself. "His son...the pieces are fitting into place. Why didn't I see it before?"

"Are you afraid of what he'll do to you if he finds out you know?"

The doctor shrugged. Luke was impressed at how in stride she seemed to take things. She accepted the truth about his parentage more easily than he had, that was for sure.

"I know what the price of working for your father is, kiddo." Aphra curled her legs underneath and smiled—though it didn't entirely meet her eyes. "I'm an archeologist, you know. This is worth it. Besides, I know you'll put a good word in for me, get me a nice, quick, clean death, right?"

She's not kidding. Luke gaped at her.

"So, I'm guessing you and Lord Vader don't exactly see eye-to-eye," she continued, conversationally, as if her impeding demise was not a matter she was too preoccupied with.

Luke rested his chin against his open palm and snorted.

"Is that a height joke?"

"That would be cheap, even by my standards. Let me rephrase: I'm guessing there are some serious disagreements between the two of you, aren't there?"

Luke sighed. With just one question she had struck the heart of all of his problems.

"We're fighting on opposite sides of a civil war, what do you think?"

"That you're taking the concept of 'teenaged rebellion' well beyond what is the norm."

"I didn't even know he was my—who he was, until recently." Luke ran a hand through his hair. "And that was well after I'd already joined up with the Rebellion."

"The plot thickens." She gave him a sidelong look. "Do you know anything about...your mother?" Aphra was making no effort to hide her curiosity.

"No. You were listening, you heard the extent to which he's willing to talk about her." Naturally, the little he'd gotten had only left him hungry for more.

"Lord Vader's secret wife...of course. It would have to be." She shook her head in disbelief. "He never does anything the conventional way."

"That's what I've gathered."

Luke no longer had much of an appetite. He picked at the food listlessly for a few minutes, feeling the archeologist's eyes on him and not wanting to be caught peeking at her expression.

"A senator, huh?" she murmured, at long last. "I've got a pretty extensive information databank, you know. We might be able to find her in it."

Luke dragged his eyes away from the bedspread—his face lit up.

"Really?" Again he tried to get up out of the bed, forgetting he was still chained to it. "Hey—can we stop it with the prisoner routine?"

"Nope, afraid not. I've got my orders. I'll get you that encrypted datapad—" She sprung from the bed with so much energy that Luke's food tray slid off and clattered to the floor. "This will be a fun project while you're convalescing!" Aphra called over her shoulder as she ran off to retrieve the item.

"But weren't there thousands of senators?" Luke yelled, fiddling with the cuffs around his ankle. There was some electronic feature on them that made unlocking them with the Force impossible. "How are we even going to start?"

"Never thought this thing would actually come in handy," she said, striding back into his quarters. "Word to the wise—just because something's contraband doesn't make it interesting. And stop that." She pulled his hand away from the cuff, firmly. "Unless you want to get zapped with ten thousand kilowatts of juice."

Luke pulled his hands back in horror.

"It does that?" he yelped. "Are you insane? That would kill me!"

"I didn't know how strong you were. Lord Vader made it out like you were some kind of boy wonder." She smirked. "Guess he was a little biased."

"Yeah, sure—I bet he pulls out holos of me and shows them to all the moffs and the Emperor," he muttered, dryly. "So—you're not much of a political animal, then?"

"Not remotely. I'm more interested in blowing up research labs than blowing the lid off a governmental cover-up."

Luke grimaced.

"No wonder Vader likes you."


After a few hours of trying to sift through the mountain of information, Luke was about ready to throw Aphra's hard-won encrypted data module through the wall.

"For all I know he invented that job just to throw me off the scent." He mussed up his hair in frustration.

"If Lord Vader was going to make up a profession for his wife," Aphra said, not looking up from the leg she was currently applying a bacta patch to. "I think he'd choose one that was a little more his style."

"What, like assassin?" the convalescent groused. Luke's eyes flicked over Mon Mothma's profile. It didn't seem possible that the leader of the Alliance had ever been that young. Apart from the picture, though, there wasn't much information. Aphra's database was full of incomplete files, which made the search all the more disheartening. There was always the chance Luke's mother wasn't even in here. "If I only had a clue about her. We'd have found her hours ago if I knew her home world..."

"Wait—that's it!" She tossed aside her bandages and snatched it out of his hand. The doctor began scrolling furiously, passing senator after planet with a dizzying speed, so fast that Luke wasn't even able to catch a glimpse of their faces.

"What did I say?"

She held up one silencing finger.

"On my first mission with Lord Vader, we took his personal ship. It's a cruiser, a real beauty, not at all what you'd expect from a guy with his reputation. I thought the design was interesting, so I did a little digging, and..." she trailed off.

"And...?" Luke demanded, impatiently, but she was utterly focused on the datapad. "And what?"

Aphra's eyes widened.

"And it was a J-type 327 Nubian Royal Starship—one only used by the royal house of Naboo." She slid the data pad over to him. "Look."

The moment Luke's eyes fell on her...he knew.

The young woman would've been striking to anyone who saw her—for him, though, affinity and respect were instant. Everything about her, from the state gown to the serious expression spoke of an innate wisdom. A queen. Her dark hair was done up in an elaborate coiffure with golden fasteners; when this formal portrait was done, she could've been no older than Luke was now, but the stark white face paint and makeup made it difficult to tell. It gave her a mysterious, otherworldly quality.

But the kindness he had always known his mother possessed shined forth through her warm brown eyes. He'd been right.

"Padmé Amidala, former queen and senator from Naboo." Aphra tilted her head and whistled. "You've got her chin."

"My mother..." Luke whispered, reverently. He skimmed over the scant information—elected queen of Naboo at only fourteen years of age, later went on to serve in the Senate until her death at the formation of the Empire from unknown causes. Luke felt a sharp and unexpected pang of loss, an echo of his father's. "She's...she was beautiful."

"Are you sure there's not some special title I'm supposed to call you?" she asked, smiling. "Since you're the son of a lord and a queen? That must make you at least a duke."

"Hilarious. You clearly don't have a degree in royal heraldry." He was so bowled over by seeing his mother—proof that she had lived and breathed, not a phantom of his imagination, but a flesh and blood woman—that the royal part didn't matter to Luke. Maybe if he'd learned this years ago, it would have floored him, but now a princess was one of his best friends. It made the whole prospect less daunting. "I wasn't expecting her to be a queen, too. How can she—how are you elected as a queen?"

Aphra shrugged.

"I guess we shouldn't put too much stock in the names societies who vote for teenage rulers give them. It would explain why Lord Vader has the ship, though...it could've belonged to her."

Luke looked up from the holo and shot her an incredulous look.

"You think Darth Vader's got a sentimental streak?"

"Hey..." Her voice softened. "Stranger things have happened under a Correllian sun."

He shrugged and turned his eyes back to the picture of her. Maybe...it seemed like too much to hope for.

"I wish there was a picture of her without all the ceremonial makeup," Luke commented, idly. "And maybe one where she's smiling. She seems so sombre."

To his surprise, Artoo piped up with a series of shrill whistles.

"What's the matter, buddy?"

Aphra peaked over at the computer terminal.

"He says he...he thinks he can help you out with that."

Artoo plugged into Aphra's holoprojector, and the image of a woman appeared—dark, curly hair framed a delicate face—she was laughing, her face bare, now wearing a much simpler cream dress, but it was unmistakably Padmé. Her extreme youth was obvious now.

"Artoo—where did you get this?" A bizarre thought crossed his mind. "Vader didn't give you this, did he?"

Instead of answering, Artoo trilled innocently and scrolled through several more holos—each of them far less formal than the portrait in Aphra's databank. Once Padmé Amidala had laughed, she had winked—her nostrils had flared in annoyance.

She was so much more than a queen. She was real.

"This is the greatest find of my life," the archeologist whispered, patting the droid's dome absently. "The only thing that could make this any better would be if he had something with—"

As if by magic, the next image that appeared was of two. Padmé wore an embroidered gown, a veil, and a smile of quiet adoration that marked the event importance far more than her dress. The young woman was holding the hands—one flesh and bone, one clearly a mechanical prosthetic—of a tall figure in robes...a man, barely out of boyhood.

It was their wedding day.

"No way. That's not...he looks younger than you." She leaned her face in as close as possible. "Lord Vader..."

Father.

"He wasn't Darth Vader then. He was just..." The color on the image was muted, but he could see that he had inherited his father's blond hair and blue eyes. The young Anakin was looking at his bride with such single-minded devotion that Luke actually felt a little embarrassed scrutinizing them, as if he was an intruder on his parents' bliss. Which I guess I am. "...Anakin Skywalker."

Who was this man?

Was he the dark, avenging knight...the pilot and friend Ben had spoken of with such gentle fondness...the scourge of the Rebels, a destroyer he had witnessed take down an AT-AT with nothing but his lightsaber and the Force...the hero of the Clone Wars, more myth than man... the adoring, clandestine husband...the would-be ruler of the Galaxy?

And how had he become what Luke saw most clearly of all—a wounded man, trapped by something his son did not yet understand?

"He's going to kill us—well, me—if he ever finds out about this." Aphra could not stop looking at Anakin's face. "Is that a dimple? I'm going to be shot into space, that is a dimple."

Luke smiled, and when the woman looked up at him, she could see that he had inherited it.

Was it possible for one man to be so many things? The Force told him it was.

I've got to learn more.

"I won't tell if you don't."


"My Lord...we've just received a high priority signal from Imperial Center."

Vader looked around from the viewport of the Executor, where he'd been contemplating the planet and the twinkling systems of the mid-rim around it, seemingly lost in thought.

"From the Emperor?"

His admiral nodded.

"He demands an update on the campaign on Malastare."

Vader considered Piett for moment. Nearly a foot shorter than him and briskly efficient, he'd lasted far longer than his predecessors, though for precisely what reason, the Sith himself could not say. If Vader was in a more cynical mood—he was not, for exposure to his son's company would make anyone save the Emperor himself believe in goodness again—he'd conclude it was the man's talent for deflecting blame.

What he actually thought was that Firmus Piett had good natural intuition. He knew what questions he could ask his superior, and what was better to leave alone.

They had not exchanged more than a few cursory words since Vader had returned to the flagship on the replacement shuttle—with no Rebel pilot or astromec droid in tow. Vader had simply ordered the Admiral to return the ship and her crew to Malastare and stalked off to his private quarters. They had certainly not spoken of the encrypted message Piett had received from Vader directly, ordering him not only to allow a single X-Wing to clear the system—but to feign the pretense of capturing it.

Piett had not hesitated in obeying.

This pleased Vader—even now, a week later, far away from Florrum and his son.

"Who did you speak to, Admiral?"

"Mas Amedda."

Vader did not immediately reply. There was no love lost between himself and the Chagrian, whose demotion had been one of his dearest wishes when the Emperor at last dissolved the Senate. To his chagrin, his master had kept Amedda on in an advisory capacity—and so the self-styled Grand Vizier continued to keep memories of the Old Republic, memories better discarded completely—fresh in Vader's mind.

Piett would probably have heard something of his aversion. He was not known for keeping his dislikes private.

"And he asked for an update on the fleet's movement."

Piett frowned; it was unnatural for his commander to speak so indirectly. It had the whiff of politics about it.

"As it happens, he did not," the Admiral stared up into the mask without fear. "Nor did I volunteer it."

Vader took that in. As usual, Piett had no way of knowing if he considered it a good answer or not. He, too, was hardly one to volunteer.

"I will contact the Emperor directly." Abruptly, he turned on his heel and began stalking in the direction of his audience chamber. "See that I am not disturbed."

"Yes, milord."

As Piett returned to his duties, his usual low-level relief at having escaped another briefing with his life was—disturbed. Lord Vader's increasingly erratic behavior—most recently, the choice to bring the Executor to Florrum in the middle of a politically charged campaign clear across the galaxy—was tied directly to his dogged pursuit of Skywalker. Now he was certain of it...though there was no one else in the entire Imperial Navy he could trust with the knowledge.

The man was keenly aware of a silent pact that had formed between himself and his commander: one that had potentially treasonous implications.

I allowed Luke Skywalker to escape.

He would make sure that no one disturbed his lordship's transmission with the Emperor.

For my own sake as much as his.

Chapter Text

"Tell me, Lord Vader...how went your audience with Governor Sedris?"

Vader, who had by this time risen from the floor, looked up at the gigantic hologram of his master, Darth Sidious. The flickering image dominated the room: but Vader knew that a mere 20 meters high picture was nothing to compare with the Sith Master's presence in the flesh—or in the Force.

"Quickly, master. He is dead."

Palpatine nodded, unsurprised by the news.

"I am sending my chosen replacement forthwith. Perhaps the resurrection of the Gran protectorate will serve as a useful reminder of the price of defiance." Vader did not reply—he stood still, compliant—in anticipation.

"I was impressed at the swiftness with which you quelled the insurgency," his master continued, casually. "A campaign that all the greatest military minds on Coruscant said would take weeks—you execute in a matter of days. They will not believe it." He laughed softly to himself. "You continue to baffle them, Lord Vader."

"All that matters is that my master knew it could be done," Vader replied, and he allowed only a sliver of contempt for his detractors seep into his voice.

Palpatine heard it, of course. He steepled his fingers, and Vader reflected, not for the first time, on how little he could discern his master's true intentions—even after all this time. Unlike his servant, the Emperor did not need to rely on a mask to conceal himself.

That was why he could not risk handing Luke over to him. Not yet. It was an unfortunate truism he had to remind himself of constantly...the only way Vader could keep himself from going mad with worry and from raging against his own weakness in letting Luke go.

But he will not forget such an act of faith. He will see reason, soon—he must. Now he is safer far away from me.

But would that ever not be true? The treacherous voice in his head that he for so long had relied on the Dark Side to silence sounded more and more reasonable.

"I know what you are capable of better than anyone in the galaxy...but you have, upon occasion, managed to surprise even me." He lowered his hands to the arms of his seat of power. "Indulge me. It will be instructive to the Council to relay the wisdom of someone who understands how true power is wielded."

"The uprising lacked unity of purpose. The Dugs' will to fight was no stronger than that of the weakest chieftain...the deaths of their commanders broke their spirits. Their capitulation after that was... inevitable."

The Sith Lord's expression changed. Sidious's smile could not be further from Luke's if his master had been trying.

"It is an old story. Without guidance and a firm hand, even the most devoted acolyte will go...astray."

Vader's breathing filled the room as his master did—but while the Emperor dwarfed all, the regulated, steady breaths—like a heartbeat—echoed off the walls and ceiling and made the Sith apprentice smaller.

"Yes, master."

Palpatine folded his hands into his lap. The gesture's effect was total—all at once Vader was staring not into the face of the Emperor, but his mentor—the man who had guided and advised him from an early age. The man he had once thought of as his friend.

He no longer suffered from such naïveté.

"You have been away from Imperial Center for a long time, my friend. I believe the endless campaigns these past months have been fatiguing."

Vader bristled—though not as much as he might've.

"Not more than any of the others, master."

Palpatine chuckled, indulgently.

"It is not a slight, my apprentice," he soothed. "You are, after all, a man, not a droid—whatever the Rebellion's propaganda feeds may claim." His mouth curled in an ironic smile. "Even the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy must take furlough upon occasion."

There was concern in the Emperor's voice—even the ghost of affection. Vader felt a pang of pride...and then he tempered it. It had been so long since his master had expressed either sentiment; there would be a reason for it, a calculated one. As a consequence, he was on his guard, already preparing for the sharp sting that always followed.

"If I have displeased you—"

"You have acted as you always do—with a single-minded determination...the quality that marked you for greatness almost from birth. Nevertheless—" The benevolent old man he had been aping hardened. "I sometimes feel that you, in your zeal, have a tendency to...overtax yourself. Do you not see it?"

Vader opened his mouth to argue—then forced himself to swallow the protest. Sidious was not truly asking—and nor was he wrong. Denial would gain him nothing.

"Yes," he agreed, dully. The Sith had barely slept in weeks—and despite the defensive fortress he constructed around his mind, his master had seen that at once.

His master always knew.

"Then you understand why I wish to see you back at my side on Coruscant."

"If that is your command."

Palpatine closed his eyes and let out the long-suffering sigh, expelling the worries and cares of the galaxy as though they were nothing more than mild irritant.

"It is. The Imperial court wearies me...as the war wearies you. Perhaps when you return, we shall turn our attention to matters that concern neither."

Vader knew at once what his master spoke of.

The Sith Shrine.

Buried beneath what had once been the Jedi Temple, it contained most of the holocrons and artifacts that made up Sidious's Sith treasure trove. A massive, natural cave—the last of it's kind on the planet—and a true monument to the Dark Side, it was his master's most guarded secret. Only Vader knew of its existence, and over the years of his apprenticeship to Sidious he had never been so openly invited to plum its depths.

The Apprentice was once again deemed a worthy successor.

But he had no interest in the great mysteries of the Dark Side anymore—if he ever had. There had not been a time when the chance to bask in the magnetic darkness of Darth Sidious had been less appealing— when his heart had been less in it.

His heart...

A treacherous, fragile thing, but he knew what that ache above his ribcage meant now—it was his heart, and his heart pined for his son.

If Palpatine could see where Vader's thoughts rested, it did not trouble him.

"There is also the question of Empire Day." Ah, Vader thought, cynically. There it is. His true purpose. "I trust that, despite your travels, you have not forgotten it is fast approaching."

"No, master." He knew better than to start an argument over this subject. His master's false warmth was fast morphing into sarcasm.

"I thought not. As my strong right arm, you will be at my side for the festivities." Palpatine leaned forward in his throne just a fraction. "All of them."

Vader felt as though an invisible leash was tightening around his neck. The entire ceremony—the entire day? To be at the Emperor's side during his customary address, that he expected—but to be forced to attend the endless array of feasts, parades and galas—the Empire's great propaganda machine at work— was an unbearable prospect.

I am doing the true work of keeping the Empire safe.

"I know you find it tedious, Vader," the Emperor said, dangerously understanding. "But it is vital that the people see you."

"They do not want to see me," he replied, before he could stop himself. This answer actually seemed to surprise his master for a moment. The Sith's yellowed eyes flashed with bemused interest.

"You sell yourself short, my apprentice. There is no one tied more in the collective imagination's mind to their security, happiness—to peace itself—than you."

"I am nothing to them," he said, thinking of the fear and distrust that followed him everywhere he went on Coruscant. How little he cared for the opinions of the bloated imperial court, rife with corruption and greed—how could he, when one such as Luke Skywalker existed in the galaxy? "I am nothing more than a 'blunt instrument.'"

"You have always had a long memory for petty slights," Palpatine said, more coldly. "It feeds your anger, it is true—but take care to temper it, or you will risk overreaching."

Vader bowed his head, chastened. Inside, he was roiling with anger. After a moment of silence, Palpatine seemed satisfied.

"In addition to your presence," he continued, lightly. "I require that of your admiral."

Vader raised his helmet again, the pretense of subservience forgotten.

"Piett?"

"Yes." The Emperor steepled his fingers. "He will join us for Empire Day as well."

"Yes, master." His slight hesitation was obvious. He cursed himself when he saw Sidious recognized it.

"Is there a problem, Lord Vader?"

In truth, he wanted Piett on the Executor—so that as soon as it was humanly possible, he could leave Coruscant again.

"No, master."

"But you are curious."

Again, he saw no point in lying. Palpatine would enjoy it more if he did.

"Yes. You have never asked for such a thing before."

"That is true. My plans for this year's celebration are—somewhat different. The party around me will be smaller, more intimate. As for Admiral Piett—" He paused. "I would have thought my interest obvious."

"He—has proven himself a loyal servant of the Empire," his apprentice said, haltingly. Control—or at least the appearance of it—was rapidly slipping through his fingers. "He is both...obedient and adaptive."

Vader knew he was being steered somehow, once again out of his depth. The direction—his purpose in the Emperor's grand design, however, still alluded him.

"More impressive still, he has survived working under your direct command for far longer than any of his predecessors. For Piett to have earned the trust of you—whose standards are so exactingly high—is to have earned my attention. In military matters—" He was careful to emphasize the word. "You must know you have my implicit trust in all things. You would not be the supreme commander of my navy were it not so."

"Yes—I know, master." In spite of his trepidation, Vader felt his ego soothed. He should no longer care, and yet...he sensed in the Force that it was true, and was it not worth something to have earned the respect of this man, above all men?

Palpatine gave him a moment to ruminate on his praise before continuing.

"I am intrigued by Piett. His promotion was...unconventional, but he appears to have proven himself worthy of it. He will attend upon me—one of my chosen guests of honor."

"Then this is a reward?"

The Emperor gave him a look of mock-hurt.

"Is it a punishment to stand at my side?"

He did not reply. He could see from the cold glint in his master's eyes that this amused rather than offended him.

"I will inform Admiral Piett of your wish at once."

"Of course. I also think—" he paused, as though he were considering something, before continuing, airily, "That this is an opportune time for your flagship to undergo maintenance. You have run it from one end of the galaxy to the next in pursuit of the rebels, after all. The shipyards on Coruscant are now large enough to service a Super Star Destroyer-class warship. I will send all my best men and finest engineers to attend to her while you are in the capital."

Vader felt an immediate stab of anxiety. The Executor had not been docked in-atmosphere since the Emperor had first given the ship's command to him. It would mean at least a month on the capital planet, if not more.

A month away from any potential meeting with Luke.

"But master, what if—"

"You will not have need of her, Vader," the Emperor cut him off, briskly. "The Rebel fleet is scattered— they can make no serious play now. And in my meditations I see they are not so foolish as they once were. After your triumph on Hoth, they have learned caution." His master studied him for a long moment. "The Executor and her lord have served me well. They have both earned a well-deserved rest."

Vader had an unexpected flash to his youth in the Jedi Temple. The Order had set punishments for their padawan learners—usually repetitious training exercises or cleaning, tasks that were meant to "humble" the digresser. Knights with apprentices were allowed to enforce disciplinary actions of their own design.

Obi-Wan's chosen form of punishment for an errant apprentice had, naturally, been created with him in mind. The revocation of speederbike privileges.

'Grounding' was what his former master called it.

The Emperor held up one gnarled hand, warding off all of the concerns and excuses he already knew were coming with a single, blunt motion.

"In the event of some crisis, I am sure you will manage to procure yourself an adequate ship. You always do," he pointed out, amused. "But I assure you, it is unlikely you will need one."

"I will return to Coruscant, then."

"Yes—I think it better you not delay. I have a surprise of sorts for you." He said this with the air of an indulgent uncle. "I will not bore you with the details now. Soon enough we will be together—unless... anything else keeps you?"

Darth Sidious raised one eyebrow.

"No, master. The last of my men are sweeping Malastare. They will return to my Star Destroyer in hours...and then there will be nothing keeping me from Imperial Center."

The Emperor studied him—gave him that probing look he knew so well. It was the gaze that swept across the galaxy, that saw and knew all. A hint of disappointment flickered across Palpatine's wasted face.

"I am surprised at you, Lord Vader," he said, eyes narrowing a fraction. "You have not once mentioned your hunt for the boy."

Vader was caught off-balance.

"You—did not ask for an update on my progress—"

"Nor did you volunteer one," the Emperor returned, caustically. "I must confess, Vader, when I ordered you to return to Coruscant, I expected more fight from you. Perhaps your desire to capture Skywalker is not as strong as I first believed it to be."

Immediately, a mighty surge of boiling, defensive anger rose in the Sith—an unstemmable tide. Not as strong as he believed it? Sidious dared to assume he knew the extent of Vader's desire, but he knew nothing of his apprentice's primal need for his son.

A need that was all the stronger for its two decades of dormancy.

The holoprojector in the ceiling rattled—the blue image flitted in and out of focus.

Palpatine's mouth curled into a smile of undisguised delight. His eyes flashed knowingly, as if to say —"Ah—there it is. I knew I could fish it out."

"No...no, I see my initial instincts were quite correct," Sidious chuckled. Vader cursed himself for falling right into the trap. He mustered all that was left of his self-control; the shaking in the chamber stopped. "You want him more than ever, Lord Vader...but such restraint. It is unlike you."

"The hunt for Skywalker will...keep," Vader rumbled, evenly. "As soon as the Executor's repairs are complete and you have no more need of me, I will pick up the search."

Outwardly, he was as calm as the glassy lake at Varykino. At his core, the fire raged on, stoked by a paternal righteousness that burned far longer and brighter than his rage did.

"You have an idea where you will next find him, I trust?"

Vader turned the surface thoughts of his mind to Luke. Only a few hours earlier, the agent he had placed at Jabba the Hutt's palace reported back—Solo was the gangster's latest wall decoration. His son was probably on route to the Rebel fleet, and would undoubtedly be knee-deep in preparations with Princess Leia to mount a recovery operation soon enough.

Given his son's track record of rescue missions, this wasn't a comforting thought.

"I do."

His master nodded, approvingly—but did not ask for elaboration. To have done so would have been to show doubt in his apprentice's abilities.

"Continue to exercise patience. The boy's presence in the Force is—wild, unpredictable. He will be difficult to trace—but not impossible."

"He does not follow the Rebels blindly."

"No," Sidious murmured. "As I thought. I did not expect a rank-and-file soldier, given his—lineage." He tilted his head and appraised Vader, thoughtfully. "You are wise to accept my counsel, my friend—but do not despair. You may find yourself surprised by how quickly the boy makes himself known to you again."

Vader tried to stem the tide of longing in his heart. However foolhardy his child was, he did not—he would not let himself hope that Luke would risk the danger of coming to Coruscant in the middle of an Empire Day celebration. That would hardly be the ideal setting for their reunion, however much he missed his son.

"Perhaps, master," he replied, morosely.

"Perhaps." Sidious smiled, and there was a predatory gleam that his most devoted acolyte recognized. It made him uneasy. "One never knows where a Skywalker will turn up."


"Well, that's the last of it..." Doctor Aphra surveyed Luke's pre-flight prep with a critical eye. "Now if we could only get you fitted with one of the rationality scopes I put on all my high-risk droids, you'll be all set."

"That's rich, coming from you. You're not exactly a poster child for self-preservation." Skywalker shot Aphra a smile that did not entirely meet his eyes as he threw a meager sack of his belongings back into the storage unit in his X-Wing. "I'm not a kid. I've been looking out for myself...with the help of my friends, anyway...for three years."

"No wonder there's such high casualties among your father's officers."

The pilot shoved a bag into the cockpit with unnecessary roughness. He had several colorful retorts ready, but this time—Luke bit his tongue. The word had come a few hours previously; Luke didn't trust Vader not to change his mind again, and so he felt it was better not to drag out a goodbye with the good doctor.

It had taken a week of cajoling her with assurances that yes, he would be fine, that his friends were nearby ("No, I'm not going to tell you where") and that he was healthy enough to be allowed out of bed before she capitulated, sent the message to his father, and received Vader's terse—and from his perspective, rather cool—consent. He was to be let loose at the nearest neutral system, to go from there wherever he pleased. No questions asked.

The Sith Lord had even agreed to Luke's request that she not follow or track his movements. That wouldn't stop the young pilot from putting several extra lightspeed jumps in the nav-com before he rejoined the fleet, but it was surprising not to have to argue his position.

"I guess if he was going to track me, he wouldn't bother with the pretext of letting me go in the first place," Luke murmured, as he secured Artoo snugly in his bay. The droid beeped a comforting reply. "But it's...still hard to believe."

"I know. I don't think Coruscant does much for Lord Vader's judgement, to tell you the truth. I'm a little disappointed." The rebel glanced over at her wrist, as if expecting at any moment to hear her comm go off. She shot him a shrewd look. "And I think you are, too."

Flushing, Luke turned his face away from her and towards the rusted underbelly of his ship.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You want him to call," she said, watching him fiddle with the engine thrusters for the fifth time. "Really afraid pop doesn't care, aren't you, kiddo?"

"I am not," Luke said, spinning on his heel. The amusement in Aphra's eyes made his face heat up. There was something accusatory lurking just below her surface that had him on the defensive. "It's just that— he's spent the last three years chasing me across the galaxy and back. This is kind of a turn-around. Anyone would be confused."

She crossed her arms and leaned against the wing of his X-Wing, not convinced.

"Sure. Maybe your father is just testing out the old adage 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.'"

"You got an act yet?" he asked, with a sourness that did not suit him at all. "You should think about taking it on the road."

"This isn't a joke, Luke." Any trace of levity vanished from the doctor's face; she suddenly seemed much older to Luke. When he looked at her he saw, not an aberration in Vader's sphere, but a natural extension of his will—a dangerous woman, under that bright exterior. "You're the one who's acting like you can go back to the Alliance and pretend none of this has happened."

"Of course I'm not—"

"You haven't told any of your rebel friends about Lord Vader, have you?" Luke's clenched his jaw so tightly that it trembled. He said nothing. "What do you think would happen if someone in the Rebellion found out the truth?"

"I haven't betrayed the Rebellion or my principles," he replied, evasively.

"Oh, come off it, farm boy! Not even you can be that naive." She pushed off his X-Wing with unnecessary force and stalked towards him, pointing one of her slight, gloved fingers at his face. "You're the only son and heir of Darth Vader, and you've made a deal with him. I'm no expert in military law, but I'm pretty sure that qualifies as colluding with the enemy, and it's something that could get you court-martialed."

"The Alliance is not going to execute me for being Vader's son," Luke said, coldly, half-turning his face away from her. "It's not the Empire."

Aphra stepped around him, forced Luke—wedged between the body of his ship and its wing—to look her straight in the eyes again.

"What are you going to do when they find out who you really are?"

"I know what you want me to do, Aphra," Luke shot back, at last losing his temper. "Give up everything I've fought for and go with him—well I'm not going to. Nobody can force me, not him, and not you."

She laughed, humorlessly.

"Please, kid. I've got a recording of you chatting away with the second-in-command of the entire Empire in my ship. If I really wanted to force your hand I'd just send it anonymously to Mon Mothma, or whoever is running the show over there." Luke was already pale, now he looked ashen. "Then when Lord Vader got wind of your impending execution, we'd run in and nab you right before he blew their entire fleet to smithereens."

Luke's legs were so shaky he wondered if she had been right when she told him he wasn't ready to fly. Right now he didn't feel up to standing.

"Then there'd be no more war, and no more Rebellion for you to return to..." Now she was the one turned away from him: shoulders hunched, arms crossed and pressed tightly to her chest. "All the galaxy's problems solved in one neat little annihilation."

His stomach turned at the image—not least of all because he could see it happening so easily.

"If you truly think that would work, why..." His voice shook. "...Why don't you do it?"

"Because—" She turned around and her face softened, mouth twitching into a rueful half-smile. "It wouldn't be in my best interest. He'd kill me if he found out I'd put you at risk like that. I'm not noble, I'm not going to sacrifice my own life just to force you to reconcile the two of you."

His legs at last gave way and he sank to the ground.

"Does it make me a disloyal son when I say I'm relieved you don't like him that much?" Aphra plunked herself down on the grass next to him. The doctor's temper had abated, given way to a gentle but firm concern.

"Listen to me, Luke. I've worked for your father for a long time. I've seen what he's capable of first hand. I've seen him requisition an army from a Geonosian queen, go from being an errand boy for Tagge to being the undisputed number two in the Empire. Most importantly, I've seen him track you down and keep it a secret from the Emperor for over two years." Luke gave her a sideways glance. "He is going to win. The Rebellion is done. Honestly, you're probably the only reason it still exists. He's going to get what he wants in the end...you're only making things harder for yourself by not accepting it."

"There has to be another way—"

"What—siding with rebels over your own flesh and blood?" She snorted, derisively. "Political radicals over your own family?"

"You don't know Han or Leia," Luke retorted, a pang of guilt seizing him at the thought of his friends— Chewbacca too, and Threepio, who was probably worried sick over him and his counterpart after a week of no contact. "They are like family to me. They need me—"

"—More than your father does?" she finished for him, her voice cutting.

"I..." He clenched the fist of his prosthetic hand and pressed it against the ground. "I don't know what he needs."

"Oh, like hell you don't!"

"I have other people I'm responsible for!" he cried, fighting back the tears he had been afraid would come the second he lifted off the planet and his last point of contact with his father was a distant speck. "Do you know how he got me the last time? It was by torturing my best friend. He knew I'd feel Han in pain, that I'd come, like the naive idiot you both think I am—and I did, and thanks to me he's a prisoner now. I think given the circumstances, even Darth Vader would acknowledge who has the greater immediate need here."

Now Aphra was the one rendered speechless.

"Once I've rescued Han," he said, more quietly. "Then I'll worry about saving my—about everything else."

Sighing, he fixed his eyes on a clump of grass at the base of his feet. Aphra placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, gently.

"You really think your father needs to be saved?"

"Of course," he turned his gaze from the soft soil of the ground to her face. "Isn't it obvious?"

Behind those usually perceptive eyes was only a blank.

Before he was frightening, powerful, angry—before and above all things—his father was in pain. Why was he the only one who could see it? He did now, with startling clarity. Was he just the only person who it occurred to to even ask the question?

No, Aphra cared for his father, in her way. She even had a protective streak, if not of the man himself, than of his interests...but she also held him in a kind of blind awe that made Luke's heart ache. The archeologist admired him for his power, for his apparent invulnerability and implacable exterior—all the things that made him such an object of fear and hatred in the Alliance.

To her, there was no choice. She wanted Darth Vader to win.

He didn't think winning was at all what his father needed.

"I know I'm a disappointment to him." He sighed, hauling himself to his feet. "I'm sorry I am to you, too."

"Hey, Luke..." She let go of his shoulder. "Don't be angry. If before now I'd ever met someone even half as good as you, I'd probably think galactic peace and justice were possible, too." He rolled his eyes skyward. "You're too good for this galaxy, kiddo. That's why pop wants to lock you up and throw away the key."

"To save me from my own idiocy?"

"No...to keep you safe. But speaking of your own idiocy..." Aphra rifled around in her pack for a minute, before pulling out something small and metal. It took Luke a second to recognize the lightsaber. "This is yours, I guess."

Luke looked at it for a long moment.

"Keep it. Return it to your boss." He hitched up his pack. "Tell him I...appreciate it, but I want to build my own."

It was a Jedi rite of passage to build one's own lightsaber, he knew—and he still wanted that. The fact that it would give his father a reason to be impressed the next time they met (if, indeed, he got it done before then—it was alright if he saw Vader before... he wasn't fussy) was entirely incidental.

"Take care of yourself, little lord. And remember..." She wagged her finger at him. "Not everyone has parents who take such an active interest in their future."

She pressed something into his palm.

"How could I ever forget?" Luke looked down at his hand—it was a private comm, obviously of her own design. "What's this for?"

"In case you get in trouble and need a bail out. Take it—" She folded her arms. "Or I'll pitch my idea about infiltrating the Rebellion to Lord Vader."

Immediately he shoved it in his pocket.

"You really are just as bad as he is. Twisted. Crazed." She grinned so widely all her teeth showed. "Thank you."


"I can't believe you spent all that time on Florrum, when they already knew that Fett wasn't going to show—!" Luke's eyes tried and failed to follow Leia as she paced frantically up and down his tiny bunk. She's the only person small enough to pull pacing off in here. "I thought this Hondo Ohnaka wanted to do business with us!"

"I'm sure he does, Leia. He just doesn't mind doing it with the Empire, too."

Leia turned her head, sharply.

"Why would you say that? Did he say something to you?"

"No—not exactly. He's just...an opportunist." The princess let out a frustrated sigh and threw herself on the bed next to him. "I'm sorry. I know how badly we need supplies. I hate to be the harbinger of news about yet another dead end."

For the Alliance and Han.

"It's not your fault," she said, her brown eyes softening. It was funny, but...since he'd gotten back, that look in her eyes had started to remind him of someone else, though he couldn't for the life of him place who it was.

And I've never known anyone like Leia.

"Luke...what's that?"

She pointed to his bedside table where the ancient holodisc lay, but before he could scramble over her to nab it, Leia had already picked it up.

"That's...the only worthwhile thing got out of Hondo, actually." Leia raised one finely drawn eyebrow. He gave her a chastened look. "It's personal, that's why I didn't mention it in the mission briefing." Along with everything else that happened on Florrum.

"What is it?"

"It turns out that during the Clone Wars, Hondo Ohnaka met my father a few times. He—had an old data recording."

"That's what this is?" She held it up to the light. "A holorecording of your father, the Jedi knight?"

"Yeah. It's not very long, so I've watched it a few dozen times already—" He saw how her expression changed and flushed. "I realize how stupid that probably sounds to you."

"It doesn't. Luke, you never knew your father—" He looked towards Artoo, then the ceiling. "It's only natural that you would want that connection. And it's a valuable artifact—the Empire has destroyed almost all records of the Jedi. Frankly, I'm astounded this Hondo Ohnaka was brave enough to keep it."

"He said he needed the reminder that the Jedi existed." He squinted at the crack in the wall above his bed —was it getting bigger? Anything not to have to look in those big brown eyes and lie more. "I think with Hondo, it's a bit of a thrill to do something that dangerous. Preserving the lost heritage of the Jedi is not what's foremost on his mind."

Leia ran one of her slender fingers—he could see the nails were bitten off—over the disc before gently putting it in his palm.

"Do you want to see it?" Luke asked, without thinking.

"Oh—I don't want to intrude on anything private."

"It's not private." Somehow, Leia was just about the only person in the base he didn't mind showing this to—and he could see for all her demurring, she wanted to. "You can tell me if you see a family resemblance. Come here, Artoo."

He stuck the disc into the slot in Artoo's dome before she could protest again. A fuzzy blue image flickered into view.

Anakin was obviously a few years older than he'd been in the wedding holo. His hair was longer, not close cropped, braid absent. Since his marriage he'd acquired a long, thin scar over his right eye that lent the casually arrogant face an aura of danger.

"General Skywalker," A familiar disembodied voice hailed—"Hondo," Luke murmured to Leia. "It's a very long way to Coruscant from here, my friend. I hope you're planning on paying for this call."

"Hondo," The young Anakin crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat, smirking. "Lucky for you, I'm not on Coruscant. I'm right above Florrum, actually."

"Really? I don't see any Jedi cruisers floating above my house."

The Jedi's face tightened. He drew himself up in his chair, even taller.

"It's just me today."

"No Kenobi?"

"If I didn't know better, Hondo, I'd say you like Obi-Wan more than you like me."

His smirk widened, and the challenging tone in his voice dared Ohnaka to confirm it.

"I thought the two of you were a package deal."

"He's busy with the Jedi Council." Anakin barely concealed his eye roll. "I'll be sure to send him your warmest regards. I'm flying a Delta-7 Aethersprite-class ship. Transmitting the ship's identifiers to you now. I'll be there momentarily," he paused, fixing the pirate only he could see with a look of warning. "I'm only telling you because I don't want to get blasted out of the sky—again."

"Skywalker, Skywalker—don't you trust me?"

Anakin dropped his arms to his sides.

"No." His caustic smile turned to one of true amusement. "You'll be happy to hear what I'm after—trust me."

The image winked out.

"What..." Luke turned to the princess and was surprised at how perturbed she appeared. Leia was staring hard at where the hologram of Anakin had been, her brows furrowed in familiar concentration, the way she looked when she was trying to puzzle something out. "What do you think?"

"I didn't know your father was a general." She looked away from the now empty spot next to his droid and into Luke's face. "Like General Kenobi—only he doesn't look any older than you are now."

"Maybe the Jedi started them young," he shrugged. He was unfazed by his father's many accomplishments at this point. "Personally, I'm glad to just be a commander at this stage in my career." And the last Jedi knight, destined to 'rule the galaxy'... supposedly. "I don't see why you're so surprised, Leia. After all, you're the exact same age I am, and you're a leader—on the Alliance's High Council, a former Imperial senator, not to mention a princess."

She smiled, chagrined.

"I was born into the title 'princess,' Luke. It's not exactly the same thing." She curled her legs up and hugged her knees. For once the youthful ruler looked her age. "He certainly spoke with a lot of authority for such a young man. It takes a lot of guts to tell pirates you're going to land, whether they like it or not."

"I think he comes across as a bit arrogant," Luke admitted.

"Well, I didn't want to say..." He and Leia exchanged identical grins. This was worth it just to get a smile out of her. "You do look like him—minus the height."

"You're not the first person to say that," Luke said, dryly. "Apparently I get my height from my mother."

"Who told you that?" she asked, surprised.

"I'll...tell you the story some time," Luke murmured. The momentary distraction of her presence was fading. I've had too much time to think these past couple of weeks.

"It's funny...something about that recording of your father...strikes a chord with me. It...reminds me..."

"Of someone else?" The hairs on the back of Luke's neck stood up. "Not of me?"

"Yes—I'd never even heard of your father before I met you, but watching the holo I couldn't help but feel..." She growled in frustration. "It was like I'd met him before. I can't shake it." She gave Luke an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Luke, I know that's impossible, not to mention insensitive—"

"Leia—" He shook his head. "It's not. It's not at all—"

"It's—I don't know, the way he's holding himself, his posture—" She rested her chin on the top of one knee. "This is going to sound very—strange. But...how he crossed his arms gives me the oddest sensation of familiarity."

In that instant Luke realized that the same thing that struck Leia had been bothering him since he first watched this recording.

Vader. He reminds her of Vader.

He had seen it, too—though he had been no more conscious of it than she was until now. Anakin's clothing was dark synthleather, and he had a proud, autocratic air that they both knew well from their many encounters with the Empire's chief enforcer. Anakin Skywalker's hard determination—his purpose —was something he could see was central to his father's being. It flowed freely across the boundary between Jedi knight and Sith Lord.

If there had been even the ghost of a doubt in his mind about who lay beneath that black mask, Hondo's recording exorcised it, once and for all.

"Is it a good familiarity or a bad one?" he asked, staring down at his gray, standard Alliance-issued coverlet and smiling faintly to himself.

Leia actually pulled his downcast chin up and forced him to look at her.

"It just is," the princess said, softly. "What's really bothering you, Luke?"

"The same things that are bothering you, of course." He pulled the blanket over them both. "And I'm not sleeping well."

"There's a reason for that you aren't telling me!" Her brown eyes swam with concern. "Luke, whatever happened...on Bespin—" He saw how her expression changed to one of grim determination—not unlike Anakin's—and Luke realized his panicked look must've given him away. "That's it, isn't it? It's what happened to you there."

"Why are you bringing that up?"

"It's on your mind." She pressed a finger to his lips—a silencing gesture. "Don't ask me how I know, I just do."

"Fine...you're right." Sometimes it was as though Leia could articulate his jumbled thoughts before and better than he ever could. She crawled closer to him on the bed and put her arm around his shoulder. It reminded him of something Aunt Beru might've done. "Something did happen on Cloud City, Leia. Something I...haven't told you."

She bit her lip.

"Something big?"

"Huge. I probably should've reported it to the High Council." She slipped her hand into his and held it, tightly. "And now I'm in over my head."

"If you're afraid of drowning, desert boy...let me pull you out of the water." She squeezed his hand, as though to remind him she was there, solid, dependable. Leia would not desert him. "You can tell me anything, Luke...you know that, don't you?"

He knew, with a certainty that the Force didn't often allow him, that Leia spoke the truth. He could tell her anything...that beautiful, heart-shaped face would not look at him with condemnation. He could tell her right now who it was that the young Anakin reminded her of—unburden himself of a secret that he had once thought would destroy him from the inside out. He did not fear it anymore.

"I know."

But for now, he felt he owed both his father and Leia more than that.

"I've been holding something back from you...and I want to tell you, I just need..." He laughed. "A little more time to work things out. A couple days, that's all. Then I'll be back, and we'll get back to—"

"I understand." She brushed tears out of her eyes and offered him a watery smile. "You've got some time coming up, Luke—after this last supply run with Rogue Squadron..." She trailed off. "I can talk to the Council. They—think you're owed some leave. It should be easy enough to get it early."

They think I need it for psychological trauma.

"I appreciate that. But I'm not going to abandon you—"

"You said it yourself: it's only a few days. I want you to talk to me again, and if a few days off on one of your mysterious Jedi missions is what it takes..." Leia shook her head and hugged him—a fierce, tight embrace that he returned. He began to miss her before he even let go. "You know where you're going, right?"

A slow grin crept over his face.

"I do."


"Well, well..." Aphra stared at the blinking green light on her console. "An incoming call from the young master. You must really be strapped for guidance, lordling."

She pressed the 'accept' button, and a staticky voice greeted her.

"Hey, Aphra."

"Luke—what are you up to? You come to your senses—"

"I know what you're about to say," the disembodied voice spoke over her, rather rudely."You're probably about to ask me if I've grown a brain since the last time we've spoken... if I'm ready to trade in my Alliance Crest for an Imperial Cog. That's why I'm sending you this prerecorded message."

"So you can avoid the voice of reason? Wonderful."

"I actually need you to pass on a message to your boss for me."

"You don't need my help to talk to him, kiddo," Aphra clicked her tongue and bent her head back over the game of computer holo-chess she was playing with her droid. "What are you up—"

"I don't want to risk contacting him the... other way, right now. I think it's dangerous when he's so close to the Emperor. So I'm counting on you!"

"I can't decide if you're better or worse when you can't respond, kiddo."

Skywalker sucked in a large breath, audible in the recording, as though he was nervous about what he was next going to say—and about Aphra's reaction, even though he would have no way of knowing what it was.

"Can you please tell him I'm—heading to Naboo, and I'd appreciate it if he could get the Imperial blockade lifted for a few hours?"

Luke left a pause for Aphra to presumably say something—but the only sound that permeated her ship was staticky silence and the clanging of the wrench she'd been holding falling to the floor.

"If he can't, that's okay. I'll figure something out. It's just that—" There was an unmistakeable shy grin in his voice. "My birthday's coming up, so I thought I might be able to call in the favor."

"Luke Skywalker—" She shoved the Jerry-rigged astromec aside and stood up. "That is the belly of the Imperial beast! Do you have any idea how many troops are on the ground—"

"I've been thinking a lot about what you said... about how much family matters. That's partly why I'm going. I have to see my mother's home world. I'm going to go to her grave tomorrow... it's my birthday, but it's also the anniversary of her death. If you could... let him know where I'll be..." The voice trailed off. "It would mean a lot to me."

Aphra's strangled protest died halfway out of her mouth. Luke's voice brightened.

"I'm about to go into hyperspace, in case you're planning on trying to track me down and change my mind. Won't be able to get any calls for awhile—please, pass the word on, would you? I'm sure I'll see you soon."

There was the customary static-ridden click that marked the end of a scrambled, distant holomessage.

"That brat!" She pulled off her headphones and swore profusely. "Just because he's not in danger of getting strangled, he thinks we all share his untouchable status..."

Annoyed—and, in spite of herself, worried—she paced around the room, searching for something to fix. There was nothing, no pending weaponry upgrades or research to distract herself with, and so the archeologist did what she always did when she needed to drown out the relentless sound of her own thoughts.

She flung herself down in the captain's chair and turned on the Imperial propaganda feed.

"... A minor trade dispute on Malastare was concluded with a treaty, signed by the recently reinstated Gran Protectorate and Dug High Council, for immediate ratification, which should lead to increased trade in the so-called Mid-Rim 'spice corridor'..."

She closed her eyes and let every carefully crafted word wash over her. The day's events all blended together were oddly comforting in their bland, prepackaged state: white noise for the masses. It helped her focus on the things that actually mattered.

Things like Luke Skywalker.

She'd heard of playing with fire before, but the kid pushed the boundaries of that expression like no one else. What worried her was that Luke was no adrenaline junkie—he had weighed the risks carefully and decided this venture was worth it. He was really hoping that she would arrange a family visit for him on one of the most fortified Imperial strongholds.

Aphra wanted to, worst of all.

"... a seven percent increase on all hyperspace lane taxes to the Outer Rim, for the purpose of increasing security and free trade..."

How would he react? Would he be upset that his son was daring to defy him so brazenly by venturing into the world of the most taboo subject of all...or would he be touched that Luke was reaching out in his own clumsy way?

She wondered if 'planting' this idea in Luke's mind would be it for her. Delicately, Aphra massaged her neck. It wasn't as though she'd never considered the possibility of having the life choked out of her, it was a thought that crossed her mind at least once a day...maybe she really would die trying to get the two of them to work out their relationship. It wasn't how she'd ever expected to go, but there were worse ways—

"... in a last minute change that surprised many, his royal highness Emperor Palpatine announced in a private address this afternoon that he will be taking a rare trip off of Imperial Center for the Empire Day celebrations—"

Aphra's eyes snapped open.

"—by honoring his home world of Naboo with an official state visit, the first in nearly four standard years..."

She spun her chair around and cranked up the volume.

"... he will be accompanied in his journey to Theed Palace by Lord Vader and a cadre of the elite, for a celebration hosted by Queen Apollonia and ending with a parade in Victory Square. The events on Coruscant and Naboo will be broadcast simultaneously..."

Shavit. Shavit!

She flipped on the view screen and helplessly watched as the prerecorded Emperor, Lord Vader and several Imperial bootlickers of various stripes boarded a SSD shuttle, a crowd of excited Core World citizenry cheering all around them. The time stamp on the image said that it had been earlier that day— frantically she did the math in her head.

Father and son were on opposite sides of the galaxy and simultaneously hurtling towards the same point in space. They would probably reach Naboo within hours of each other.

Luke was going to get his birthday wish after all.

A family party—but with one galactic despot more than he wanted.

"I am definitely getting blasted out of an airlock."