Han entered the kid's apartment without slowing, but Gorn must have heard him, and came running out of the staffroom door to grab for Han's sleeve as he passed.
Han and Indo had returned to the kid's apartment that first night, when Luke's summons had taken him to the Emperor immediately that he'd entered the palace. He hadn't returned all the next day, though Indo had been his usual inscrutable self, maintaining a stony silence. Han had stuck around after his shift, but Indo had swapped shifts so that Gorn and not Ashtor would take the unaccompanied night shift in case of Luke's return, so eventually Han had gone to his own quarters around midnight, knowing that Gorn would let him know if anything happened.
The comm came in just after three. Han had thrown on a shirt and pants and run there.
"Where is he?" he rasped. "What happened"
"I have no idea." Gorn set forward to keep pace with Han. "I saw a light on and the end of the enfilade was open-in Luke's rooms-and when I walked down, there he was, sitting on the floor. He'd opened that canvas that arrived last week up, and was just staring at it."
"Have you spoken to him? What did he say?"
"Spoken? No, you don't speak to him when he's like this-you know that."
Han felt his heart drop. "Like what?"
Gorn looked down uncomfortably.
Han slowed at the start of the enfilade, where the jacket Luke had been wearing when he'd first gone to face Palpatine lay abandoned on the floor as if simply dropped, his boots discarded as if kicked away unheeded. Gorn slowed as they reached the final room before Luke's private quarters, though Han could feel his own pace quicken in worry.
He stopped at the doorway, eyes drawn to the distorted mercury glass doors; a single bloody handprint, smeared and dried, made his heart skip a beat. Setting forward, he heard Gorn stop behind him-felt him grab at the back of his shirt to slow him-but nerves drove Han forward into the room alone.
Luke was sitting cross-legged on the floor almost in the center of the empty space, staring fixedly at the new canvas which had been hung unevenly on the wall before him, its ashen grey wrapping discarded in a bundled ball beneath it, dragged daubs of dry blood visible on its surface.
Han took a slow arc into the room which enabled him to come sideways on to Luke to show his presence; enabled him to see the blood on the kid's pale face, left to dry unheeded. There was a tear in his shirt; a smattering that had dried to dirty red-brown. It was untucked, half-buttoned and creased. His scuffed knuckles tightened just slightly at Han's slow approach, bare feet moving against the dusty floor. He didn't turn though, didn't move at all, his attention riveted on the huge canvas that hung on the wall before him, those about it removed and piled up against the wall beneath.
Han hesitated, momentarily uncertain what to do. The golden rule laid down by Indo was that you didn't go near; that you left him alone whenever he'd faced Palpatine's harsh retribution. That you let him come out of it in his own good time or you paid the price.
But this was the worst, by far, that he'd ever seen the kid. This was serious. And he couldn't do it. Couldn't look the other way and keep his head down… How could they do that? How could they all look away from this? Han faltered barely a single step, and that only for fear of offending, before he set forward to sit cross-legged on the floor beside Luke, looking up at that same huge canvas. Kid didn't move, didn't acknowledge Han at all.
"So," Han said, carefully keeping his eyes forward on the new acquisition, knowing from his own harsh childhood that Luke wouldn't want attention; that any attempt at direct help now would be rebuffed. "What are we looking at?"
"You like it?" The kid's slight, youthful voice was a distant murmur. "It's Capellan."
"It's a big green squiggle," Han replied, half-closing his eyes as he tilted his head.
Luke smiled slightly, but that unsettling veneer of insular stillness remained, as if anything greater might shatter the fragile hold he had on himself.
"It's perfect," he murmured, eyes tracing the canvas. "It's…expansive… Makes you feel you can breathe deeply. Like you can open your ribs up and breathe."
Luke paused for a few seconds in study, in which Han risked a sideways glance. One eye was swollen half-shut and his lip was split, his neck deeply scratched above a red-soaked collar, skin scuffed and gouged and bruised-but he sat straight-backed as he stared at the canvas, not once turning in acknowledgement or rejection of Han's gaze.
"Yes…and now I've made a mark on it."
Han glanced to the canvas. Two small, bloody handprints showed at its edges, where it had been lifted to be hung. "See, I thought they were meant to be there."
The kid smiled. "Very existential."
He wasn't exactly opening up, Han knew, but this was definitely something new, for anyone's presence to be even tolerated right now. Han remembered well this moment from his days with Shrike; remembered that to have any kind of concern or consolation offered, was too much to bear. He was intensely aware that he was very deliberately being allowed a step closer than ever before. Maybe the kid knew that Han understood all this, having been through the same…maybe he just needed someone-anyone-here right now, so he could stop having to think about whatever the hell had happened. Han hardly dared breathe for fear of breaking the moment.
He looked away, taking a second to gather himself, and hiding it behind an examination of the huge canvas. Bold calligraphy was quickly scrawled in dense moss green paint in a language he didn't recognize, the two huge, intertwined characters crowding off its edges. He stared without seeing, all his attention on the brittle stillness of the kid beside him.
Luke held his gaze on the canvas, and Han wondered again whether he was deliberately avoiding having to think on the day's events. Wondered whether this had always been the case-this ever-changing gallery of color and vitality and creativity: an obsessive attempt to create another reality completely removed from the daily grind of his life.
"It's Oridago," Luke said, as if he expected Han to know.
"What, is that a style, the language, the artist, what?"
"Artist-Goland Oridago. He's Capellan, still relatively unknown, but it won't last. Early pieces are always the best, when the artist isn't too beaten down by other's expectations. Later pieces tend to reflect outside pressures."
Han nodded, seeing all the canvases here with a new awareness; who'd have thought the kid knew this kinda stuff? A second thought occurred, as Luke's words sank in: too beaten down by other's expectations."What does it say?"
Luke's voice was calm and distant, tempered by awareness of the irony: "It says, 'Seek Solitude'."
A stretched span of silence, in which despite the words they sat companionably together, staring at the near-abstract artwork.
Han finally set his head to one side, his eyes still on the canvas, voice tinged with teasing humor. "You sure it's the right way up?"
The kid smiled without turning. "It is for me."
"You look tired," Han tried at last.
They'd been sitting there for a good while now, and Han's legs were buzzing. The kid did look tired, the dark shadows which were always under his eyes pronounced, his stance tensely wired, though his shoulders were sagging. Occasionally he moved to resettle his weight, letting out a near-silent groan.
His gaze flicked down at Han's words, as if he were momentarily pondering his response before finally admitting vaguely, "I am. Very."
"C'mon, let's get you some sleep, huh?" Han rose, but Luke remained still, eyes on the canvas, forcing Han to pause. "You coming?"
Kid's voice remained distant as he studied the canvas, engrossed. "No, you go. I'll stay here."
Han sighed. "I'll go get you a blanket and something to sleep on."
The kid nodded dreamily, and Han didn't know if he was lost in the artwork or his own thoughts, in his attempt to forget what had happened. In the end, he supposed it didn't matter; kid needed looking after just the same.
A murmured voice woke Han from where he slept on the only furniture in the room, the single straight-backed chair he'd rightened to sit in.
Indo was crouched down before Luke, his voice very quiet but casual. "Luke…Luke, are you awake?"
Han glanced to the windows, where dawn was just beginning to lighten the sky. They'd slept maybe an hour at most. It occurred to Han that Gorn had probably contacted Indo about the same time that he'd contacted Han, so the Viscount must have waited by choice, until he'd felt the moment was right to try to wake Luke, long experience meaning he'd know exactly the right tack to take… Experience, Han reflected bitterly.
Luke moved just slightly with a sigh, small and heavy with sleep.
"We should head over to the medicenter. Just stop in, yes?"
Luke didn't speak as Indo rose, offering his hand. "Can you stand?"
The kid made to do so, but let out a low noise somewhere between a gasp and a groan as his beaten body, stiffened in sleep, tried to move. For the first time ever, Han saw Luke reach out and take his hand, as Indo leaned in to help him upright.
They passed Han at a slow, broken pace, Luke limping badly, the blanket Han had given him still wrapped about his shoulders. Indo glanced just briefly to Han as he stood, all other friction between the two men forgotten beneath greater events, though Han didn't know if it was the kid's condition or Indo's private ambitions that fed his apparent concern. He waited a few moments until they were several steps past before he dropped into pace behind them.
Walking to the medicenter took almost twenty minutes. The kid stopped often, twice simply sitting down in the deserted corridors without comment. Both times, Indo simply waited without watching the kid, looking down the somber, darkened corridors or fastidiously straightening the cloak he wore. Han held back and followed his lead, figuring that Indo had enough familiarity with Luke that he chose to play this down. They made it eventually, and despite the early hour an elderly medic was already waiting, coming out into the corridor to guide the kid to a side room loaded with already active medical paraphernalia.
Han and Indo were ushered out as the kid wordlessly eased himself up onto the scanner bed.
They were left alone in the brightly lit corridor as the door closed, both looking briefly to the wall-wide sheet of transparisteel before it hazed to privacy. Han had dropped his head to rub at his temples, where a mighty headache was developing, when Indo spoke out quietly beside him without turning.
"I hope you're happy now. I hope you're pleased with yourself."
Han turned. "Me?"
"You know the rules here. You know that this is what happens when Luke tries to avoid or disobey the Emperor's orders. I'd finally steered him on an even keel-years of work-before you came along with your self-righteous questions and your petty little defiances and flouting of the rules, encouraging Luke to do the same. Well, this is what happens-you know that. When you're as far up the ranks as Luke is, the Emperor tolerates no insubordination, no disobedience-none." Indo turned, his lip curling in open hostility. "It's so very easy to encourage him when it's Luke who faces the reprisal, not you, isn't it? I had everything under control, I was making a life for him here, finding a path he could walk without driving himself half-insane…but no. No, you had to interfere. Well take a good look at what it's gained you-what it's gained him. I hope you're proud of yourself."
"A life for him here? There is no life for him here…this is his life here! You're not gonna carve out a niche for him, you're gonna carve him until he fits into a niche!"
The door slid silently aside and the old medic stepped out, glancing behind him. "Perhaps you could shout a little louder, gentlemen; I'm not entirely sure they heard you in the upper turrets."
Han looked down, chagrined, as Indo stepped forward to look into the room. "How is he?"
The medic took another step into the corridor to close the door as Han briefly saw the kid laid on his back, eyes shut, a drip already in his arm.
"Knocks and cuts. He's broken his nose, broken his cheekbone-that's a new one-snapped his clavicle and broken three ribs, all to the front. He has a few relatively minor internal injuries, but nothing that won't heal. I've put him on a diociethylate drip as a precaution against infection, and put a tri-cogeal inhibitor in it, for the spice withdrawal." The medic paused, eyes on Indo. "He's not taking that stuff-not in my medibay. He'll be clean when he leaves…for what it's worth."
Indo nodded. "When will that be?"
"He'll be out in five days. Give him another week before he returns to duties."
"Thank you, Hassett," Indo said, looking to the door.
"We'll be treating the fractures shortly," the medic murmured. "It'll take a few hours for him to come round fully from the anaesthesia, and I imagine he'll sleep for a good few hours after that. You'd be better coming back aroundmidday."
The medic turned to walk away as Indo did the same, and Han stared, not believing what he was hearing. "Wait a minute…that's it? The kid's in a medicenter with internal injuries and broken bones, and that's all you've got to say?"
Hassett didn't even look at Han, instead turning to Indo, his voice dripping cynicism. "He's new around here."
"Relatively," Indo replied.
The medic nodded knowingly. "They all think they can change the galaxy."
Han's voice rose in outrage. "I'll tell you what I think, huh? I think I just heard a medic look at a sixteen-year-old kid with internal injuries and say, 'He's broken his nose, snapped his collar bone and broken his ribs', when everyone here knows damn well who actually did it, and it wasn't the kid. Why the hell does everyone just let this stuff happen?"
"Keep your voice down in my medicenter, soldier," the medic growled, finally looking to Han. "You want to shout at someone, you know where you should be heading. If you're real lucky we might meet again, when I'm trying to put you back together…but I wouldn't count on it."
"So that's it?" Han glared, wound up and ready to fight, but no one was interested. Indo simply stared a few seconds more then turned to leave, and the medic looked him up and down with the dismissive confidence that only advanced years could muster.
"If you intend staying in my medicenter, you'd better cool down and pipe down, because I've got no time to be nursing your frustrations… So are you staying, or are you following your boss?"
Han forced his shoulders to relax as he glanced back to the closed door of Luke's room. "I'm staying till he wakes. And Indo's not my boss. I don't give a damn what he thinks."
"Well then that makes two of us," the medic said casually as he turned away.
Han took a step forward as he nodded to the room. "Hey, can you really get him cleaned up? The spice, I mean."
"I always do. If I get a chance when he doesn't realize it, I'll put CTZ dopamine in his drip the last day, as well. He's wise to that one now though, and takes out his drip. If I do get it into him, he won't be able to take any more spice without triggering a gag reflex, but without regular administration the CTZd only lasts a week or so." The medic glanced down the corridor that Indo had left through, his features hardening. "For all the good that does."
Han followed his gaze. "Actually Indo comes down pretty heavy on the kid about spice-just…in the wrong way."
"Is that a fact?" the medic asked dryly. "Then how comeAntillesis detoxing in my medicenter again?"
"Indo's just too… I dunno…he deals with it too head-on. Sneaks round to find the kid's stashes, then waves 'em under his nose and destroys 'em. You know Luke, he's not gonna be put off by that. I'd've thought Indo would've worked that out by now. You can't threaten a kid who…who lives like this." Han looked down, sighing. "I'd just gotten him to the point where he hadn't taken any in a week or so-I'd got him a whole week without any."
"That what he told you?"
"He started again on the way back to Coruscant," Han shrugged. In a way, he couldn't blame the kid; he'd known exactly what he was coming back to.
The medic straightened. "Well, he'll be clean when he leaves the medicenter. For a week, anyway."
And then it would be back to normal, Han knew-or the warped version of normal that permeated this stark, severe place. He stared at the darkened shadows of the grand palace hallway beyond the white medicenter corridor, then back into the room where the kid lay, quiet and unresponsive.
"I can't stay," he said at last, shaking his head as something constricted within him. "I can't keep standing by and watching this. It's too hard."
"Then go," the medic said levelly. "You won't be the first."
Han turned back to the room, torn, and the medic shrugged, unmoved.
"Go. He won't be surprised. Either people care enough that they can't stay, or they care so little that they do. Either way, he's alone here. He always has been."
Han scowled as the guilt from the medic's knowing observation bit deep then, realizing the old man's eyes studying him, he glared, unable to keep the edge from his voice. "You could do more to help-you know what's going on."
"I know a hell of a lot more than you," Hassett observed without rancor. "And because of that, I can tell you for a fact that you can't help him, son. You can't change things from the outside."
"I'm not on the outside."
"Of this, you are. When you know what's really going on, you'll understand that."
"Well then why don't you tell me," Han pushed, unable to keep the scorn out of his voice.
The ageing medic gave a weary smile as he turned away. "Sorry, son. You don't repeat things, not around here. Not about people who have the power to make you disappear."
"You won't help him?"
Hassett paused. "I help him every time he comes in here. I do what I can, and that's all I can do. If you intend to stay, you'd do well to get the same thing into your head-and let me give you a little tip, in case you decide to hang around. For all the spice that you say Indo goes looking for and destroys, the boy still manages to keep up his habit, doesn't he? Every time he's in here, I treat the breaks and the bruises…and every damn time, I clean him up. But I can tell you for a fact that the day that he leaves, he'll be back on the spice. By the time he reaches his own rooms, he'll go looking for it-and he doesn't have to look very far."
The days in the medicenter went quickly, egged on by Luke's foot-tapping and finger-drumming, and his constant claims that he was fine now, really. He could probably go. The medic, Hassett, maintained the air of someone who had seen it all many times before, and found it no more impressive this time round. In fact Han couldn't quite work out what was keeping the kid here at all-save perhaps Indo's constant allusions that when Luke returned to his quarters his lessons would resume in earnest, with extra hours to make up for those lost.
Today was the kid's last day though, and true to Hassett's predictions, Luke was watching the medic like a hawk.
"What's that?" Luke narrowed his eyes as Hassett paused with the intra-flow syringe he held, preparing to inject it into the drip tube in Luke's arm.
"This is a booster of diociethylate to last the next seven days, in case of infection. The scans are still showing some damage to your kidneys…and not all of it's from injury. As young as you are, you can't keep expecting your body to simply keep taking the misuse you subject it to."
Luke narrowed his eyes, and with the medic's discreet reference to spice, Han knew the kid was checking for the truth in Hassett's claim that the fluid was an anti-infectant. Clearly mollified by what he'd sensed, he settled just slightly as Hassett injected the clear fluid into the drip line. "Why don't I get a medidroid like everyone else?"
The medic didn't look up from his task, laconic voice all business. "Because you barely do as I say-if I sent a Four-one-B in here, you'd ignore it completely. The last one I used on you ended up in a heap on the floor with its main logic circuits burned out."
"You shouldn't have been trying to use it to inject me with CTZ then, should you?"
"Would it kill you to go a few weeks without spice?" the medic asked, eyes on his task.
"What do you care?"
"I'm your medic."
"Right," the kid said, disbelieving. "So you're not the one who checks stuff for Indo, then?"
"No, I'm not," the medic said casually, pulling the syringe from the drip. "I'm your medic, not his."
"If you're my medic, then why do you keep trying to put CTZ into me?"
Hassett finally looked the kid in the eye. "Because as a medic, son, I can tell you for a fact that the spice'll kill you, eventually…once it's ground that body and that smartass mind of yours into chubb."
The kid tried, he really did, but beneath the shrewd, impassively delivered words of the straight-talking medic, the glare wouldn't come. For once, beneath that knowing gaze, Luke broke first and looked away.
Leia pulled her hood higher as she walked down the darkened street in the Shades, the same district on Coruscant that she'd first met Luke Antilles. Beside her, making her more aware than ever of her small stature, Chewbacca sauntered along with the kind of confidence that only a Wookiee could muster, when walking in the deepest levels of Coruscant's shady underbelly.
He'd greeted the chance to get out on a mission with his usual enthusiasm; his history of experience in working with Jedi before Leia was even born, had meant that he and Leia were often teamed together, and the Wookiee had developed an attachment to her which Leia knew that Obi-Wan secretly felt couldn't hurt in any tight situation-though he'd never said as much to her. Still, Chewie was brave and honorable, and Leia was more than glad to have him along in any mission. The only problem, she reflected wryly, was that he didn't exactly melt into the crowds.
Wookiees seldom left their own planet in any great numbers, a fact that had only added to their mystique, and the Empire had certainly wasted no time in using that to put forward the misinformation that they were insular and intolerant of other species. So nobody had really noticed when they'd ceased to be around almost entirely, their race subjected to little more than legalized slavery in the service of the Empire. After several years disrupting the Empire's slavery program on his own, and having been caught and served time as a slave himself before he'd broken free with the help of that rare being, an Imperial soldier with a conscience, Chewie had eventually come to the conclusion-with a little quiet persuasion from Obi-Wan-that to disrupt just one facet of the Empire wasn't enough; they needed to cut off the head of the monster. He'd joined theAlliancesoon after, encouraging others of his clan to lend their own strength to the fight.
So now they were here, on the trail of that rarest of all beings: a Sith with a conscience. Leia had a sneaking suspicion that she'd only been allowed this mission because Obi-Wan was as curious as she was. Whether he even for a moment believed that Luke Antilles could be convinced to help them, she didn't know, but she'd been primed with a very specific task-to find out whoAntilleswas. That was what Obi-Wan had asked of her, just before they'd set out. No-not just find out who he was, it had been more specific than that…to find out whoAntilles believed he was. That was what her Master had said.
An interesting choice of words, but he'd offered no more, so Leia hadn't sought to push him; in her ample experience, her Master could be slippier than a Hutt's slime trail when he didn't want to be tied down.
She looked up to the darkening sky high above, a thin ribbon of amber and blue hemmed in by endless tiers of sheer-sided buildings, which jutted out to cast deep shadows over those unfortunates who dwelled far below. Down here in the Shades, the brooding bulk of the Imperial palace seemed an invulnerable fortress for all its nearness, isolated and impenetrable-as did its inhabitants, Luke Antilles included. But fortunately, Leia had a little help, courtesy of her unfathomable Sith.
Smiling to herself, she recited one more time in her head the comm code that Deak Autrey had given her…
They arrived back in Luke's apartment early in the morning Han, walking through the main enfilade and into Luke's own rooms to the rear of the apartment one step behind Indo, who pushed the repulsor-chair which he'd insisted the kid use despite loud protestations.
The first two rooms beyond the glass divider were silent and empty, as they always were, save for the bright splashes of many canvases. But the room at the end-Luke's room, where Han had first seen the wide drifts of hundreds upon hundreds of sketches scrawled over months or even years on every inch of reachable wall space-was unrecognizable.
The bed which had been dragged into the far corner to create that small, safe den which the kid had slept in, had been straightened and pushed to the center of the wall beneath raised privacy blinds, neatly made, its starched cover turned back. The chest of drawers that had been emptied and left askew, its drawers upturned to cover with more drawings, was gone, to be replaced by another entirely. And the walls…the walls were pristine white, not a sign of their previous state left, the endless sketches which must have been scrawled hour on hour in the dark of many nights all gone without a trace.
Han stopped dead in shock, staring. It had been the only room in this whole dismal, austere apartment which had seemed in any way connected to the kid. Everything else had always seemed like a museum or a stately home, antique furnishings arranged in static, unvarying groups to best show off the room or themselves, no sense of anyone at all living there, let alone a kid. Yes, Luke's room had been unsettling and surreal, an outpouring of all that he kept so tightly hidden, but at least it was Luke; it was what was actually going on in the kid's head, it was his one retreat.
Han's eyes went to him, still sitting in the repulsor-chair that Indo pushed forward. His head lifted as he glanced about the room, but the outrage that Han had expected-that he felt himself right now, on the kid's behalf-didn't come.
Instead he simply looked about, calm and quiet. "We may be in the wrong apartment."
"I had thought that perhaps you would have been accompanied into the room by medics," Indo said, no hint of an apology in his tone.
"Right, sure," Luke stated evenly.
Indo stopped the repulsor-chair before the bed and the kid climbed in without comment, rolling onto his side and pulling the covers up about his head. "Dial the window light down as you leave," he said coolly.
The Viscount stood for a few seconds more but Luke didn't turn, so eventually he walked to the door, pausing to darken the privacy shields in the windows. Han turned to go with him, but as he reached the door, Luke spoke out again. "Han…stay?"
Han glanced at the Viscount, whose sabacc stare cracked just slightly to pinched features and narrowed eyes. Lifting his chin, Han turned about and walked back into the room, pulling a chair from against the wall to sit closer to the bed, though the kid didn't speak again for a long time.
Luke's second day back in his apartment started off as quiet as his first. Han had wandered down and into the kid's private rooms just in time to see him making a dash back for the bed he was supposed to be sleeping in, one arm wrapped around himself to support broken ribs. Frowning, Han had glanced to the wall of the pristine room-and saw the first two sketches already made, small and close to the corner, in the spot where he knew the kid generally slept. Without pausing, but without making a big deal of it, Han walked straight over and crouched to view them. It was the medic Hassett, and Han, dressed only in a white shirt, marking the memory as being from the night that Han had sat with the kid and stared at the canvas.
"So…the reason you don't like Hassett is that he tries to keep you off the spice, right?"
"No, the reason I don't like Hassett is that he gives me some self-righteous lecture every time I go in there, then forgets me the other three hundred and fifty days of the year, because it's more convenient that way. I don't know why he dislikes Indo so much-they have a lot in common."
Han ignored all of that, sticking with his own opinion. "He said you wouldn't need to go far for spice when you got back here."
Luke looked down, pulling the sheets a little higher, and Han sighed. "How much have you had?"
The kid looked up, offended. "None."
"Thanks for your faith."
"Faith? I'm actually speechless-and impressed."
Even that much praise sat uneasily with the kid, who cast about for something to say. "Yeah, well…I'm bored."
"Bored," the kid repeated. "You know, bored."
"Well, go do something."
"I can't. Something is generally spice, and since you're responsible for me not doing what I normally do, you have to entertain me."
Han glanced to the single inactive datapad abandoned on the bed. He knew that Luke had spent some time trying to track the possible connection they'd found between Vader and Tatooine, but here in the palace, it was difficult to do. All datapads were connected in to the main hub, and access to was routinely monitored for key words, Luke had casually informed him. Somehow, he didn't think the kid would leave it there, though. He'd already pulled bits and pieces down, under the guise of investigating the Rebel, Darklighter. "What about your lessons?"
"Do youseeIndo standing next to my elbow, nagging me?" When Han still stared, Luke shrugged. "I'm still recuperating…the medic gave me another three days yet."
"Why don't you do a few anyway, if you're bored?"
"You're starting to sound like Indo," Luke dug. "If I say I'm well enough to do one then believe me, he'll say I'm clearly well enough to do twelve hours a day."
"Not interested, huh?" Han walked round to sit on the chair near the bed, still bemused by the normality of the room.
"I feel that the educational establishment and I are coming to a natural denouement," Luke said dryly.
"After ten years?" Han disparaged.
"Five, actually. I didn't start until I was eleven. That's why Indo thinks I have to make up for lost time…and then some."
"Why didn't you…" Han broke off, already knowing the answer. "You were with Palpatine."
The kid glanced down. "You don't like him, do you?"
"It's got nothin' to do with like," Han shrugged. "It's about how he treats people."
"By people, you mean me?"
"No, I mean people, everywhere. I mean Toprawa, I mean Alderaan…I mean the construction of the Death Star."
Luke frowned, jaw tightening, and Han pressed on. "Don't tell me you don't think the same sometimes. Why else didn't you tell me about the Wookiee slaves for so long?"
The kid chewed his thumbnail, but Han remained silent, so eventually he murmured, "It gets easier-to deal with."
"No it doesn't, not really, does it? Painting it over isn't dealing with it, no matter what Indo seems to think." Han glanced across the spotless walls to the first dark smudge beneath the far window. "You can see that already."
Luke looked up, face a mixture of betrayal and indignation, and Han shook his head. "I didn't mean that. Well I did, but not like… Ah, you know what I mean. I just don't…I don't understand why you stay."
Luke scowled, instantly troubled, so Han tried again. "C'mon, you must have one hell of a reason." Han dipped slightly, trying to meet Luke's eye as he lowered his head further in avoidance.
"It's between me and Palpatine. It has to stay that way."
"He tell you that?"
The kid drew his knees up and rocked slightly forwards and backwards in the bed, mouth tightly shut. This wasn't simply another evasion, Han knew. It wasn't his usual reticence; it ran deeper. "Listen to me, of course you can tell people. What d'you think'll happen? Indo didn't walk away, did he?"
"Indo doesn't know."
Han fell silent a beat; kid told Indo everything.
"Well then, tell me." Hoping to break the moment with humor as he had done so many times before, Han tried, "Seriously, what could you tell me that's worse than what I know?"
Luke glanced to him, momentarily mortified, but Han held steady. "I told you, I'm not gonna just turn around and walk away. And if that means I'm stuck in this damn uniform and in this dismal, miserable cavern of a building, I at least want to know why. I think I deserve that much."
"The reason doesn't matter. You still don't understand, do you? Even if I wanted walk away, I couldn't… This is his galaxy-his. He owns everything in it."
"He doesn't own me."
"No? You're wearing his uniform and enforcing his word as law. The Oath of Allegiance you recited when you joined up was to an image of him, in front of two Imperial flags. The pay you draw is from his authorized offices, and you live under his roof. Are you sure?"
Han tapped his head. "I mean up here."
"Really? So you're saying the Oath of Allegiance you made with the words, 'unto death' in it, meant nothing to you?"
Han shook his head, knowing this was something that would need more work than any one argument could achieve…and wondering whether maybe he didn't have the answers to those questions himself. He thought briefly of his determination on Dewlanna's death, to repay the debt he owed her. To the unknown Wookiee slave he'd risked his career to save, to Bria Tharen's death at Toprawa, to the kid sat before him who'd done that in Palpatine's name, and who still held unwavering loyalty to him even when he'd just put Luke in a medicenter…and it was getting harder every day to hold to that Imperial Oath, made to a malicious old man who had no such honor himself-Han knew that now. So what kept him here?
His eyes remained on the kid, still agitated and uneasy at Han even coming close to the truth, aware that it was a promise he'd made to someone else entirely…someone he wouldn't let down.
Luke frowned under Han's scrutiny, perhaps sensing the play of his emotions. "What?"
Han hesitated, not quite knowing how to start… "You know, Shrike… I grew up under his hand, and he was a short-tempered, loud-mouthed, vicious son of-"
"You should probably stop right there." There was humor in the kid's words…but he meant it.
"I'm just sayin', Shrike…his word was law and he made damn sure you understood that. Took any opportunity to underline it. Son of a nek never once pulled a punch or gave a single inch when…"
"Is there a point to this?"
"Point is, I walked out of there. Turned my life around. It wasn't easy, because I didn't even know that I wanted it, let alone needed it. I just…I realized that whatever the hell it was that I wanted from my life, it wasn't that. And it didn't have to be that-no matter what Shrike said."
The kid turned away, quiet for long moments as he considered. "This Shrike…did he come after you?"
"A few times. Like I said, it wasn't easy…but I don't for one minute regret it."
A standard non-military comlink chimed, muffled by distance, and both ignored it
"And this Shrike, did he have the whole Imperial fleet-every military base, every border, every trooper, every agent and every bounty hunter at his disposal?"
Han hesitated, and the kid nodded without looking, those old eyes far too knowing. "Thought so."
"You can't…" That chime again, and Han frowned. "What is that-is that you?"
"No, I thought it was…oh!" The kid lunged up, then let out a yelp, grasping at his broken ribs as he doubled up. Han set instantly forward.
"What is it? What!"
"Not me, the floorboard-go to the floorboard third from the far wall, this side!" One arm wrapped about his ribs, Luke gestured to the floor as Han strode quickly to the corner, aware that the chime was getting louder.
"Here? Where is it, where am I supposed to be looking?"
"Floorboard-under the floorboard!"
"You're kidding me." Han crouched, counting three in from the wall. "How do I get it up?"
"Stand at the window side and press with your toe against the plank, right at the wall-hurry up!"
Han toed the floorboard and the far end lifted. Underneath were a mix of bits and pieces-several styluses, a small wooden box, a piece of rolled flimsiplast…and the comlink the kid had bought from a street vendor when they'd last gone to meet Leia Skywalker. It chimed again, and Han picked it up. "What do I do?"
As Han lifted it to his mouth, not sure what the hell he would say, the comlink cut off.
Luke collapsed back down into his pillows in exasperation. "Great, fantastic."
"Well if you didn't leave it under the floor…"
"Indo would take it off me. Or at the very least, have a mirror receiver set up to monitor all messages."
The comlink pipped again, a brief message-waiting tone. "You got a message."
"Play it on speaker."
Han walked back, passing the comlink over for the kid to retrieve the message. After a short pip, a woman's voice came on, wary and reserved.
"Deak Autrey… I know who you really are. What I don't know is why you did what you did. I need to speak to you, face to face. If you want that, then meet me where we spoke before, an hour beforemidnighttonight."
The message cut with another pip as Luke began keying through the comlink's menus. "Scrambled-probably high-end military. I'd need a few more messages to be able to trace it back to her frequency, even using Ubiqtorate programs."
"Is this a good time for me to point out that it would be an insanely bad idea for you to speak to her?"
"I'm not going to," Luke said. "You are."
"Like all hells I am."
"…oh, and don't talk about me-don't let her lead the conversation in that direction," Luke added pointedly.
It was nightfall, and Han's shift had finished hours ago, but he was still in the kid's room, getting a final low-down on the do's and don'ts of speaking to a Jedi. He'd argued not to go, of course. In fact he'd gotten as far as walking to the window with the comlink in his hand, intending to throw the damn thing out, but had been stymied by the fact that all of the windows in this room seemed to have been screwed shut, lighting a brief memory of the kid claiming to have climbed all over the outside of the palace. Han could just imagine Indo employing that unique brand of blunt Indo-logic, and figuring that this'd stop the kid.
He'd given it another few minutes of arguing, but when Luke had started to go all tight-mouthed and told him to forget it, Han knew that he'd just wait until everyone was asleep and then try to haul his ass down to the cantina himself, broken bones and all. So now, he was getting his final prep-because if he didn't go, the kid sure as hell would. That and the fact that while he was there, Han figured he had a few home truths to tell about what had happened to the kid because of the Death Star's destruction, even without that yellow-eyed Sithspawn knowing that Luke had shot Vader off the woman's back-though that could be difficult to voice if he wasn't allowed to mention Luke at all.
"How can I not talk about you when that's clearly the only reason she's here?" He'd've claimed that this seemed a more ridiculous and precarious situation the nearer it got, but actually it had seemed both of those right from the offset.
"Just arrange another meeting." The kid had his most soothing voice on, which meant he figured pretty much the same. "Tell her I do want to talk to her face to face, but I'm…indisposed. Don't say why. And tell her I'll know if she tries to read your thoughts."
Han frowned. "Yeah, about that…"
"She won't," Luke reassured. "Not if you tell her not to, and remember what I taught you about misdirection. We went through this ages ago, on the Immortal…you have been practicing it since then, haven't you?"
The kid raised an eyebrow, but pushed on. "She'll sense general emotions, but keep in mind that you can confuse that by just being aware of what you're thinking; attribute existing emotions to other things. If you're nervous that she'll realize what we're doing, admit that you're nervous, but tell her it's because you don't want to get caught speaking to her. She'll pick up on the fact that you're nervous as soon as you're close enough, but if you've connected the reason to something other than what we're doing, she may take it at face value."
"I don't think I do know what you're doing."
"That's good, tell her that."
"And don't let her lead your thoughts. If you think she's trying to lead you, you need to take control; put a strong thought in your own head to break the line of thought she's leading you along-think of her naked, or something."
"Great, now I'm not gonna be able to get that out of my head the whole time," Han muttered.
"Remember, she's a Jedi and you've done nothing wrong. They have a strict code-if you tell her not to read your thoughts, she shouldn't."
"Shouldn't or won't?"
"More to the point, if she starts trying to utilize the Force this close to the palace, tell her Palpatine will pick up on it. And don't lie to her."
Han tilted his head, but the kid was adamant. "As long as you don't tell a direct lie, you can still conceal facts. An outright lie can be detected, but unless she specifically goes into your thoughts, misdirection is harder to pin down, because it could be for so many reasons."
"What do I say when she asks me if you're Sith?"
The kid blinked twice, youthful face a picture of hurt and innocence. "Do you think I'm Sith?"
"I dunno-are you?"
That blameless countenance melted instantly, replaced by a more familiar, worldly grin. "There you go, you don't know."
"I'm getting a headache."
"It's fine-it works. Indo uses misdirection on me all the time, and it drives me insane."
"I think that's just Indo in general."
Han stepped quickly out of the speeder-cab and into the Bad Break Cantina, intending to be seen by as few people as possible. He'd taken three different ones to get down here, and walked a few streets in between, and was pretty sure he wasn't being followed. But there was no point in taking chances.
She was sitting on the same high stool, in the same smoky, dingy cantina, with her back to the door-but then, maybe she didn't need to actually be watching it to know who was coming through, Han figured. Certainly when he got closer, he saw her shoulders brace a little beneath that same heavy mouse-brown cloak she wore.
"Hey." What else could he say? He didn't really know how to approach someone under these circumstances. In fact, he wasn't even all that sure just what these circumstances were.
She turned to glance to him, then back to the door. "Where is he?"
He wanted to tell her the truth right then; how much trouble the kid had gotten into, the injuries he'd received-not for helping her, that would have been far worse, had Palpatine known the truth-but just for failing to stop her. But Luke had been adamant; nothing about him-nothing at all. Stick to the script. "He…told me to say he was indisposed."
"With the Emperor?"
"I know who he is-who you both are."
Han shrugged. "Let's just agree that there was a little dishonesty on all sides, shall we?" He put his hand out. "Han Solo."
She looked at it, then back at him. "Leia Skywalker-but then you already knew that."
"Alright, alright. You win that one."
Those big brown eyes took him in, leaving him feeling uneasy. "He, uh…he said to tell you that he'd know if you tried to read my thoughts. More to the point, he said that this close to the palace, the Emperor would…I dunno, pick it up or somethin'."
"A good point," she conceded, still studying him. "Not because of Palpatine, because of him. He never told the Emperor that I was on Coruscant, did he? Why?"
"You're gonna have to ask him that."
"I would, but he's not here."
"I know. I have the same problem with him, constantly."
She frowned, and it made a small wrinkle between her eyebrows as those big doe-eyes regarded him. Don't think of her naked…"Damnit!"
"Nothing, nothing. So…uh…yeah. Here we are."
"Why did he help me, over the Death Star?"
"I don't think he knows himself."
"No? How about why didn't he hand me in, when I was on Coruscant? Does he not know that, either?"
"That's between you and him. I'm just here because he had no way to contact you to change the meet time, but he knew he couldn't make it. He didn't want you to think he'd not shown up by choice."
"How do you know him?"
"I'm his adjutant."
"Really?" She arched one eyebrow at him, and there was humor in her disbelief. "Because our Intel says you're a TIE pilot."
"I was a TIE pilot. Now I'm an adjutant."
"That's quite a promotion, overnight."
"What d'ya want, my life history?"
The edges of her lips tweaked at his indignation. "Would you?"
Han couldn't help but smile. "It's a long story."
"I have time."
"You're kidding me. You know, if you go straight up sixty stories, you can actually see theImperialPalacefrom here."
"Yet here I am, talking to a Sith's adjutant…and still in one piece."
"Don't look at me, Doll, I have no idea what he's doing." Han considered a moment. "Which isn't uncommon."
That appealing little frown remained…and Han shook his head as unwanted images drifted into his thoughts again. "Okay, I got a question for you…why do you want to see him?"
"You haven't answered mine yet," she said gamely. "And I've told you why-I want to know why he did what he did. And I want to…to know if I can help him."
Han glanced away. "Good luck with that, Sweetheart. I've been tryin' for a while now."
Her eyes narrowed. "Trying how?"
This wasn't going so well. How had the kid managed to persuade her so easily last time? Then again, she hadn't known that he was a Sith and Han was a soldier at the time.
"Look, I've told you all I can." Han glanced about. "We should…we should probably go."
"Hell yeah, I'd get the death sentence for speaking to you!"
"Afraid you'll leak some military secrets?" she teased, amused.
"Believe me, Sweetheart, around here the if's and but's don't matter a whole hell of a lot. I could get it just for being here."
"And Luke Antilles?"
Han paused, quieting. "You have no idea how much he's already risked for you."
That frown again, which wrinkled her brow above shrewd eyes that were just a little too perceptive for Han's comfort. The kid's words floated back into Han's head, about breaking his own line of thought by… "Damnit! Okay, I gotta go."
He backed up a step, and she stood…and she was tiny, barely shoulder height to him. Han paused, taken aback. "Y'know, you guys are never what I think you'll be." She looked at him quizzically, and he glanced quickly down. "After you."
His first indication as they stepped out and he glanced about streets so deep beneath Coruscant's spires that they existed always in twilight darkness, was the vague awareness of a mild commotion in the shadows nearby. Out of the very corner of his eye, Han saw someone rush forward-someone big.
Before him, Leia's eyes opened wide as she lifted her arms, yelling, "No!"
Han swung about, going for the gun he'd carried concealed in a shoulder holster beneath his jacket-
He wasn't nearly fast enough. The Wookiee was on him in an instant, bellowing as it wrapped huge, hirsute arms about him from behind, pinning one of Han's arms to his body and the other, which had been going for the blaster, awkwardly against his own face as it lifted him clean off the ground.
Leia had lunged forward to pull at the howling Wookiee's arms, for all the good it would do. "Chewie, wait! Don't hurt…what?"
Han heard that last too, as he struggled to turn and see through his own fingers. "Ho, wait a minute, I'm who?"
Leia looked back to him, shocked. "You speak Shyriiwook? Chewie-Chewie, put him down."
Finally lowered from the stifling bear-hug, Han turned-and sure enough, it was the same Wookiee slave that he'd earned himself a court-martial for helping half a year ago. It clapped one huge hand onto his shoulder, chuntering as it leaned in to loom over him.
Han tried a weak smile. "Uh…Chewie…Chewbacca, right?"
The Wookiee grinned, showing wide rows of white teeth with huge canines, before loosing another long run of broken barks.
"Owe me? Nah, you don't owe me nothin'." Han knew what a Wookiee life-debt was, and couldn't really see himself getting that far back inside the Imperial palace with a Wookiee in tow. That was the reason he'd snuck off last time too, when he'd helped the massive Wookiee; not much room for a Wook in his old squadron's bunkroom, either. "Seriously, we're quits."
Leia's eyes were on Chewie now. "So wait, this is the same pilot who helped you…you're sure?"
Han turned, affronted. "Thanks a lot."
She tipped her head in amusement…but reappraising him; Han could see it in those big brown eyes. "Well, aren't you just full of surprises, Lieutenant Han Solo, the regularTIEpilot who happens to be a Sith's adjutant, but lets Rebels take pot-shots at his Emperor's Death Star-and helps Wookiee slaves in his spare time."
Han tried a grin. "I'm a complicated man."
"Really?" She leaned back, folding her arms as her voice turned teasing. "Because I had you down as a simple man in a complicated situation."
"Don't sell me short, Sweetheart."
She wrestled a genuine smile from her face, looking down to hide it.
The Wookiee leaned in again with a barked question, and Han turned quickly.
"No, seriously, we're quits." Han was pulled helplessly in by one great big arm about his shoulder, hearing the edge of desperation in his own voice as he spoke, his next words to Leia near-indecipherable as the Wookiee shook him companionably. "Tell him we're quits."
"I don't know," she said wryly. "I think you have a friend for life, there."
"Can he be a long-distance friend?" Han tried to turn his head, but the Wookiee had him held so tight that he could barely move. "I like long-distance friendships."
The Wookiee hucked a laugh, shaking him affably one last time before he released Han to put a hand on Leia's shoulder, as she nodded in confirmation of his words.
"Well, since Chewie committed to help theAlliance, to free any and all from slavery in honor of what you did for him, you're off the hook, Solo. From him, at any rate. And now you have at least one glowing recommendation of your integrity."
"Yeah? It change your view of me?" And why did that even matter?
"I'm still thinking about it." She smiled genuinely, and it lit up her face like a nova. "In the meantime, when will I seeAntillesagain?"
Han shrugged. "He'll be up and about in a few days, I guess-and I'm figuring he'll want to see you sooner rather than-"
"Up and about? What do you mean?"
Han felt his composure slip a crack and struggled to get his thoughts into gear, aware that he'd allowed himself to be taken off guard by that smile. Got to remember she's a Jedi.
"Look, you gotta speak to him about that. Will you make the meet?"
"Can I trust him?"
"You're asking me?"
"I'm asking the man who Chewbacca says saved his life."
Han glanced away, uncomfortable. He was happier when she'd been suspicious. "I trust him."
She set her head on one side. "You're very good at not answering questions, Lieutenant Solo."
"Thanks, he's been priming me all evening."
"So can I trust him?"
Han pursed his lips as he scratched at the back of his head, disinclined to lie to the feisty little brunette. "He throws the occasional curve-ball, but like I said, I trust him."
"You're not a Jedi hiding out a stone's throw from the Imperial palace."
"No, but you are-and like you said, you're still in one piece, even though he knows you're here. Three days' time, at ten in the evening-the alleyway opposite the public G-free dome, two stories down. Will you meet him?"
"I'll meet him." She glanced about and pulled the hood of her heavy cloak up, hiding her youthful features. "Don't be late."
Han walked quickly through the main esplanade in the kid's apartment, not wishing to be caught by Indo and trying to keep the bag he'd brought with him tucked under his arm and out of sight. He'd expected to have to go clean through to the kid's rooms, but he saw Luke look up from a chair by the window in the Red Room, a datapad depicting some readout of a binary sun system resting on his knees. Han had learned a while ago that Indo had all the datapads that Luke used routinely wiped of any drawing program before they were first handed over.
Luke instantly put the pad down. "How did it go?"
"Fine. She'll meet in three days' time, like you asked." Han paused, then walked over to hold the bag out awkwardly. "Here, I got you something."
The kid took it slowly, eyes remaining on Han for a few seconds more before he finally pulled the bag open with one finger, as if it might explode in his hands…then he reached inside and lifted out the traditional fabric-bound sketchpad and its accompanying pack of graphite sticks.
He looked quizzically at Han, who glanced away, uncomfortable. It had seemed such a good idea at the time. "You can't just keep on drawing on anything. You need proper paper. Good quality, hand-made paper. Even I know that."
Luke opened the sketchpad to the first sheet of thick ivory paper, running his fingers over its heavy-toothed surface in silence.
"The guy in the store said you should use graphite too, to draw with, not any old stylus you can fleece somebody out of."
"I've never drawn with graphite." The kid opened the narrow box to look inside, tone level, self-conscious, even.
"Well then I guess it's about time you learned."
Luke glanced abruptly back down the enfilade. "If Indo finds out…"
"I'm sure you'll find somewhere to hide it. Open up another floorboard, maybe."
The kid grinned-the first time Han had seen him do so since their return to Coruscant. "It's a lot bigger than a box of spice."
"But a lot better for you."
"I don't think Indo would agree."
Han glanced away. "Yeah, well, it wouldn't be the first point we've argued on."
"I don't know what to say."
Kid genuinely didn't, Han could see that. He looked afresh at the generic, impersonal décor of the stark apartment, his mind going to the rooms beyond the mirrored door-Luke's rooms…all completely empty.
"Say, 'Thanks, I'll try using it instead of the nearest available flat surface'."
"Thank you-very much."
Han narrowed his eyes. "The wall thing?"
"Let's not get carried away."
They were silent a moment; a comfortable, companionable silence, before Han glanced down. "So…she wants to know why you helped her."
"Did you tell her?"
"Me? I don't even know what you're doing on a good day, let alone…then."
"Do you think she read your thoughts?"
"I dunno, you tell me?"
"At that distance? I have no idea."
Han straightened. "You said you'd know."
Luke shrugged. "I thought it best you go in there with a little confidence-even if it was unfounded."
"Thanks…Thanks a lot."
The kid glanced down. "I shouldn't meet with her. If Palpatine finds out…"
Han remained silent as pale blue eyes now stared at him instead of those big brown ones, set with that same shrewd judgment.
"What, no 'Finally, you're seeing sense'?"
"I dunno…she seems genuine enough."
"You've changed your tune."
Han glanced down. "I think she wants to help you."
Luke leaned back, arms crossing to wrap about his body. "She doesn't give a damn about me. As far as she's concerned I'm a Sith who uses my abilities in support of the Emperor, and that makes me her enemy. Remember that."
"Maybe she's different," Han said with a shrug. "You are."
Luke scowled, voice hardening. "Don't. Don't try to convince yourself that I'm something I'm not."
"You sure I'm the one you should be saying that to?" Han asked quietly.
The kid stared…but the hard glare fell slowly to something more evasive as he looked down uneasily...then rose and walked from the room in silence.
Leia knew long before he reached the head of the side-street where she waited. She knew streets away that he was coming, his sense-the presence that had been so utterly and completely muted, previously-now a blaring declaration of the abilities he'd kept so perfectly shrouded.
The alleyway was a long dead end on a busy street almost seventy stories down from the main concourse, offering night-time entertainment to suit every taste. The street that it connected onto sparked with fritzing signs and the effervescent glow of city life that could have been any entertainment district on any Core world, but ten steps down this dead end the shadows were already thickening, and the noise of the street and the bustle of youth which had taken this part of The Shades for its own, had already dropped to an indifferent background murmur.
She turned as he reached the head of the alleyway, Solo at his back, as ever. He looked straight at her, his face hidden, silhouetted by the glare of the blinking lights beyond…and right in front of her, his presence in the Force evaporated to nothing, leaving him just another anonymous face in the crowd. Anyone, anywhere.
Was it a taunt, she wondered? Or was it simply defensive? Because by the time he'd stepped closer, leaving Solo at the head of the alleyway with eyes on the street, Antilles had a thousand barriers wrapped tightly about himself-but subtly; deftly. A skillful defense which fit like a second skin.
Leia tipped her head to one side as he came closer, unable to quite remove from her voice the contentious dryness which Obi-Wan would have so disapproved of. "Well if it isn't Deak Autrey."
The weak glow of the street signs barely illuminated his brief smile-and somehow, it didn't look nearly as naïve as the last time she'd seen it. "Well if it isn't 'I'm just looking for a friend who works at Sinto Barracks, I won't get anyone into trouble'."
Though he said it with amusement, Leia's eyes narrowed at the counter-accusation. "You said you weren't in the military."
"We're not the military."
"Ubiqtorate run the military," Leia rebuffed knowingly.
"No, the military run themselves. We just give them direct orders sometimes." That faint smile widened, though the tone of his voice remained coolly urbane, no trace of the eager youth that Leia had met previously. "Actually running them would take up far too much of our valuable time."
"You're splitting hairs."
There was a wary fascination in his eyes as he looked her up and down. "In my defense, I didn't know who the hell you were when we started speaking."
"So you just lied to me on principle?"
"No, I lied to you because I was trying to uncover a Rebel insurgent."
Leia took a mental step back at that, as curiosity cooled her initial belligerence and set her intentions back on track. "And you found one-but you didn't hand me in. Why?"
"Because I realized you were a Jedi."
"Yet you still didn't hand me in. Why?"
Antillestried a game grin. "You're a 'glass is half empty' kind of person, aren't you?"
She wasn't willing to be pulled off subject so easily. "Why won't you answer? It's a simple question."
He glanced down, seeming uneasy for the first time. "Because I don't have a simple answer."
He shrugged. "I'm here, now…why don't you just draw the lightsaber you have concealed at the small of your back and try your luck? I very much doubt it, but you never know, you might actually kill me."
"Why would I? You've done nothing to make me believe you're any real threat to me."
"Still, that's what you're supposed to do when you come across a Sith, aren't you…" He tilted his head, though his tone was more perceptive than challenging. "Or is it more complicated than that?"
Leia glanced down, her voice quieting as a little more of the wariness Obi-Wan had sought to instill in her gave way to curiosity. "You must know why you helped me over the Death Star. You knew it was me, didn't you?"
"Not until you were in the trench. Why were you hiding your presence?"
"Because Vader was there and…my job was to make the trench run, not play out some ancient Jedi-Sith grudge match."
He studied her, eyes narrowing, leaving Leia to worry that he'd sensed her sidestep. She held his eye without blinking, aware that her own shields were in full force…and he shrugged, loosing a wicked grin. "I don't know, I've found it's always worth taking any opportunity for a potshot at Lord Vader."
She stared, confused at the animosity in his voice…then shook her head. "Why did you fire on another TIE-please?"
Antillessoftened a little at the last, then frowned. "I would have let Vader take the shot if I'd known what you'd do next."
"You knew why I was there. The Death Star had already killed hundreds of thousands-destroyed an entire planet-I sensed it."
"And you didn't sense those on the Death Star, when you destroyed that?" There was an edge to his voice though he was trying hard to hide it.
"Yes, I did, and I regret it deeply-regret its necessity-but…" Leia paused as realization hit her. "You sensed it too, didn't you?"
"Of course I did."
She quietened, curiosity taking hold of her again. "What…what did you feel?"
"I felt the same as you did-or do you think I'm some kind of monster that feels nothing?"
"I think you're Sith." She allowed no accusation in her quietly spoken words. "Am I wrong?"
He hesitated, perhaps at the hope that Leia had allowed to creep into her voice, and though his next words were meant as a challenge, they'd lost their bite. "Do you expect me to apologize for that?"
"I simply want to understand why a Sith did what you did. What's going on in that head of yours, Luke Antilles, that you'd help a Jedi, and regret those deaths?"
He lifted his chin as if she'd levelled an insult. "I'll tell you what I regret-I regret giving you the opportunity to take that shot and destroy the Death Star. I regret that I was the one who had to go back and tell my Master."
"I wish I'd been there." Leia sensed a flare of outrage from Solo, where he stood at the head of the alley. When she glanced at him he looked quickly away, though he desperately wanted to say something-she could sense it quite clearly.
It was Luke who spoke though, cool words issued with a distant smile. "You should have told me. I'd gladly have swapped places with you."
She hesitated a second, shrewd enough to recognize a subtext even if she didn't know what it was, and reminded all over again just who she was dealing with. He smiled a great deal, as most of the men of his age that Leia knew on countless Rebel bases, did…but there was no joy here; no youthful exuberance or flirtatious fun in those ready smiles, which lit his face but never his eyes. They, like his sense in the Force, remained always calculating and impenetrable. "Speaking of Masters, mine tells me that I shouldn't trust you-that you have ulterior motives."
His reaction was instant, a wildfire flare of emotions that tore through him, overwhelming all barriers for just an instant; resentment and fascination and grief-actual grief-though nothing showed on his face. Instead, the internal turmoil was clamped down on with iron will, so that all that was left was a brief widening of his eyes as the muscles about them twitched, then relaxed to that dispassionate gaze again, distant and wary. "Your Master…is Kenobi."
He hesitated, seeming to Leia to be testing the water somehow. "And you don't see the irony in standing here, telling me that?"
"No…no, not at all." Again that undertone of hidden implications, as private knowledge shaped another half-smile. "As it happens, your Master's right. I do have ulterior motives."
He paused…and something seemed to take him, an uncertainty that went to the very core of him, quieting his voice and dropping his head as that shrewd smile melted away. "I know there's so much that my own Master can't or won't answer. Answers I need to make sense of my life…of my loyalties." He frowned, his manner that of someone daring to speak a terrible truth for the first time. "Answers I'm beginning to wonder whether Kenobi has."
The moment stretched in silence, the distant hustle of the street fading to nothing as Leia stared, trying to judge the weight of his words against Master Kenobi's constant warnings. Her senses strained to the limit against those impervious shields, in search of even an inkling of the doubt that had come so easily and sincerely into his voice…too easily, perhaps?
A delicate, barely felt prickle skittered up her spine, making her lean back subconsciously…
He frowned, not lifting his head as he murmured quietly, "I lost you, didn't I?"
His voice had changed completely from near-breaking to wryly knowing, and Leia blinked at the difference, struggling to regain her equilibrium, though she had no intention of letting him know that… Finally, she hid her disquiet behind a knowing tip her head. "Pretty much."
"Damnit!" He straightened, more amused than repentant, no trace of compunction in his voice. "Where did I lose you? It was the 'Answers I need to make sense of my life' bit, wasn't it? I heard it as I said it, but…"
She raised one eyebrow, quietly proud of the inkling of misgivings which had given her reason to doubt. "Well, at least you stuck with it."
"I briefly thought about bursting into tears-despair, you know-but you don't seem the overly sentimental type. So much for all that Jedi compassion."
"We tend to save that for people who mean what they say."
"Please," he grinned, "that was exactly what you wanted to hear."
"Yes! If it was true."
Luke glanced impatiently to the side. "Fine, you know what? I need a drink. Do you need a drink?"
She hesitated, head spinning at this latest about-turn in tactics. "I don't drink."
"Neither do I."Antillestook three long steps backwards to rest a hand on Solo's shoulder and turn him about. "But Han here is dying for one, and he knows a great cantina a block from here. Best to get off the open streets anyway. Tell your Wookiee friend who's standing point in that alleyway over there that he's welcome. Han has a soft spot for…"
Solo glanced down andAntillesbroke off to turn to him, obviously sensing that same flare of guilt that Leia had-and more, judging from his next words.
"You're kidding me. How the hell do you know him?"
Solo looked up. "Would you stop reading my-"
"Please, you practically blurted that out. You may as well have said it out loud anyway." He pushed on without pause, leaving Leia relieved that he hadn't sensed her own momentary shock at Chewie's detection. "How do we get to the Blue Lekku from here?"
Solo jerked straighter, seeming shocked. "Seriously?"
"Maybe you're right."
The comfortable comradeship between the two men was obvious-more than Leia would have expected between a Sith and…anyone. She wondered silently at her own father, eyes narrowing as she looked afresh at Luke Antilles, realizing that for the first time, she was looking at someone who was in daily contact with her father as he was now-as Darth Vader.
A well of curiosity sprang up inside her at that, for the first time in years. Obi-Wan spoke of her father little and in such remorseful terms that Leia had never pressed him, and she knew all that Vader had done, but…this man too was unapologetically Sith, and yet he seemed so…
Antillesgrinned, genial as ever. "Bad Break Cantina it is, then." He turned, stepping back to clear Leia's path. "I believe you already know the way to that one?"
Sitting in a booth to the rear of the Bad Break Cantina, semi-darkened now that the kid had distinguished the glow-light in the center of the table with a brief stare and tip of his chin, Han reflected that he didn't know about the Jedi sitting opposite him, but his own head was spinning at the fast turn-around of the kid's tactics. He'd tried two or three in quick succession back there, more than willing to drop each one the moment that he perceived of them as failing, leaving Han, if not Leia, struggling to keep up-but then maybe that was the point…for the Jedi, not him; he was just collateral damage, Han reflected wryly.
He glanced to the Wookiee who sat opposite him in the booth. Already watching him, Chewbacca grinned affably, white teeth in the low light, seeming altogether too pleased that he had met up with Han again. Sitting beside Chewie, the diminutive Leia Skywalker seemed elegantly tiny and delicate, even when she straightened indignantly, that dainty little frown wrinkling her brow.
"I know how to use the Force," she claimed authoritatively; something Luke must have said had clearly put her on the defensive yet again. "You've only been taught how to misuse it."
Luke grinned, unfazed. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
She took a breath to argue, then stopped; visibly reined herself in-Han saw it quite clearly. He smiled inwardly, impressed despite himself. The kid could generally push pretty much anyone's buttons if he was actually trying, and for all the fact that she was a Jedi, Leia Skywalker was quite the little firebrand…yet she hadn't let herself get dragged any further into that one.
When she lifted her head to face Luke again, her expression and her voice were equally earnest. "I didn't come here to argue or to take sides."
"I think you did that when you chose to become a Jedi."
"As you did, when you chose to become a Sith."
"I didn't ch-"
The kid broke off, a brief pause that finally took Han's eyes off the brunette.
She frowned. "Didn't what?"
"Didn't come here to argue, either."
Luke hadn't once mentioned Kenobi after that first testing of the waters, Han noted. No matter what his latest tactic, he wasn't about to just out and out say what he wanted. He'd been better trained than that. Still, he must surely be bursting to ask about the father who'd abandoned him; Han sure as hell was.
Instead, the kid sat back, eyes on the drink he'd claimed to need but hadn't touched. After that first burst of strategies, he'd now fallen to silence, seemingly waiting for Leia to take the lead. She stared, shrewd and unhurried... But eventually she licked her lips, bending forward just a fraction. "I need to know something."
"Have you spoken to Vader about me-at all? Even mentioned my name?"
Luke's chin lifted a fraction, unable to fully mask his aversion. "No, why would I?"
She hesitated. "You surely confer?"
"Confer?" That amused Luke so much that he turned to Han. "Do we confer?"
"I wouldn't say confer, exactly," Han said, speaking out for the first time. "But you sure as hell both strive to get your points across."
Leia glanced between them…then shook her head as she blinked quickly, her manner that of someone determined not to be dragged into another dead-end. "Vader and I…have a history."
Han had to smile at that. "Welcome to the club."
When she stared, Han shrugged. "Vader and everyone have a history. The guy goes through life accumulating grudges-from and for people."
"Oh, I'm so far down the ranks that I don't qualify for a full-on grudge. I just come under general disdain."
Leia looked to Luke, who leaned back further into his seat beside Han, almost proud. "I'm full-on antipathy. Mutual."
The Wookiee loosed a series of short, barking hucks in laughter, clearly warming to the kid. Leia on the other hand seemed, if anything, put out by their words. She pulled that little frown that set a wrinkle between her eyebrows. "Why don't you like him?"
Han leaned forward to point at the still clearly visible scar that Vader's saber hilt had left above Luke's eye, not so long ago. "See that?"
Luke half-turned, but Han had already realized that he'd slipped again beneath that tawny-eyed gaze.
She stared in confusion. "Vader did that?"
She reached out-actually reached out to Luke's face, making Han hold his breath-but the kid jerked quickly back, far enough that his head brushed the wall behind him. Still, he instantly sought to turn it to his advantage.
"Yes…I ask too many of the wrong questions."
"What kind of questions?"
"…What about him?"
Again Luke looked down, playing reticence now, though Han knew damn well that this was where the kid had been going all along. "I want to speak to him-though I know he won't agree."
There you had it-the sting. Kid had taken his time about it. Han held his breath, and Leia looked to him instantly. Luke leaned forward, bringing her attention back to him.
"I'll bet you had to work pretty hard to persuade him to let you come here, didn't you?" He paused divisively. "It felt like he was withholding something from you-some knowledge he wouldn't share…right?"
"He was worried."
"After I'd already saved your life, and let you walk free twice, when I could have handed you in?"
"He was trying to protect me."
"From the man who saved your life."
"But won't tell me why."
"I've just told you why. I want to speak to Kenobi."
She stared, thoughts clearly racing. "Who are you? How did you end up here-do you know?"
Luke paused a fraction, and Han could hear the calculated testing of the waters as he spoke. "What has he told you about me?"
It was excruciating, this need for information on both sides, with neither willing to give anything up. If Leia Skywalker thought she was going to drag even the smallest speck of information from the kid about his past, then good luck to her, Han reflected wryly; she'd be the first. Kid didn't let slip that kind of information at the best of times, let alone when facing a Jedi-even one as eye-catching as this.
She leaned back, eyes narrowing judiciously as those ruby lips pursed. "You're expecting me to trust you, to recommend a huge risk to Master Kenobi which could easily place him in mortal danger, but making no concessions yourself."
"Have you so little faith in your own Master's abilities?" the kid avoided. "How could I be a threat to him?"
"You have a tongue in your head," she said knowingly.
Luke smiled. "I'll meet him anywhere, at any time-name a planet, somewhere neutral, I don't care. You don't need to tell me any more than you want to in advance. Just give me the planet, and you can tell me the details minutes before; I'll come."
"I'm assuming a Sith in the Emperor's service can mobilize quite an impressive force, even at short notice," she observed dryly.
Kid tried his best boyish grin. "You overestimate my importance."
If she'd fallen for it before, knowing now that he was Sith, Leia Skywalker wasn't biting. "But not my Master's. Palpatine would give a great deal to have Obi-Wan Kenobi in his possession."
"He'd give a great deal to have you in his possession too, but you still walk free."
Leia nodded in skeptical allowance. "Perhaps you're playing the long game."
"I've no intentions of hauling Kenobi before the Emperor to answer for his crimes, I assure you. If he ever stands before my Master, it won't be by my doing."
Han glanced to the side, wondering what the kid meant by that. He wouldn't have lied; he'd told Han often enough that you couldn't tell a direct lie to a Force-sensitive, and certainly Leia's eyes narrowed now as she sought to get the measure of his words…and let them pass, unchallenged.
Instead she leaned forward, voice earnest. "Who are you?"
Luke narrowed his eyes knowingly. "Did he want you to ask that?"
"Give me something-let me trust you."
He sighed, fingers drumming in quick succession on the dirty cantina table, but even Han could see that she wasn't taking any message to anyone without some gesture on Luke's part. Kid remained silent for long enough that Han figured it was an answer in itself, but the brunette still stared, expectant…
Eventually he made a brief sigh, part frustration, part resignation. His flatly spoken words were quickly delivered: "I came here with Bail and Breha Organa when I was seven-Kenobi knows that-and so do I." Luke moved swiftly from the booth, pausing only a second as he stood, to add, "I know everything…you want something to take to your Master? Tell him that."
Han moved to follow the kid, and Leia's eyes came to him, uncertain what to do when Luke had terminated the conversation so abruptly. Used to this kind of brusqueness from him, Han only tipped his head in a half-shrug, knowing there was nothing he could say to explain the acrimony in Luke's final words. She had no idea of the raw nerve she'd touched, simply in asking for the truth.
Luke walked quickly onto the darkened street, and into the crowded rush of minds searching for fast gratification-laughing and joking, high on alcohol or spice, or both. The youth nearest to him almost walked into him, and without thinking, Luke used the Force to nudge him back a step. He staggered and recovered, not even noticing.
Solo cleared the door behind him and Luke set off immediately into the night, looking to get off the street before the Jedi reached it, aware that she was already rising. Knowing the Shades well, he walked quickly down a side street opposite, taking a staircase set into the side of the building and following it up onto a first floor balcony, where it led to an eatery serving greasy meat, spiced and fried to hide its low grade. He stopped on the overhanging balcony, hidden by the blinking neon sign which hung down from the balcony above.
She emerged to look left and right down the street before murmuring something to the Wookiee, who did the same. Luke remained still, masking his presence as he watched. Just as she was about to walk off, he was gripped by a sudden curiosity as to how good she was-what her capabilities actually were. Among the teeming throng of thoughts and minds, a mass of mental static, he let out the barest flicker: a faint, silent sliver that-
Her head snapped around and up, eyes instantly locking onto his.
He loosed the barest trace of a smile, knowing that though her eyes wouldn't see it, she'd sense it all the same. He'd expected anger from her at the realization that it had been a test, frustration that she'd given so much away unwillingly. Expected her to turn about and stride off, indignant…but she didn't.
Instead she stared, trying to burrow beneath his barriers, even now. He took only his hope to see Kenobi, and let a little of that past, to be sensed-but nothing more. Let her take that back for them to ponder over together, she and the man she so clearly revered. The man who'd treated her like a daughter. Protected her and taught her, when he'd abandoned Luke without a second thought.
She blinked; one last connection of soft, brown eyes imparting without inhibition all of the compassion and fascination that welled within her beneath that veneer of wary caution, then she turned and was gone.
And quite suddenly he felt a pang of…something. Some brief agitation that tugged within, a rush of whispered disquiet. He blinked abruptly in dismissal of the tremor which tightened his chest as it held about his heart.
If she was fool enough to trust him, then the failing was hers. He should feel no guilt over it-and he didn't. He didn't.
His eyes held on the corner past which Leia Skywalker had now disappeared, resentment and longing and involuntary fascination burning within him with equal heat. What must it be like, to grow up basking in the knowledge that you were the one chosen above all others? But then she clearly didn't even know that Kenobi had turned his back on his own son, to train her.
The question burned with the power of years unanswered; what was so wrong with Luke himself, that his own father had discarded him so easily? What was she, that he was not? What had made her worthy, and Luke such an utter disappointment, even then?
He frowned, wrapping his arms about himself, well aware that the habitual animosity with which he'd isolated and protected himself for so long now was flawed. Leia Skywalker's unknowing reminder of Kenobi's rejection had underlined that, showing it for the sham it was, a trained reflex that existed only to buffer a deeper abandonment.
Slowly, he became aware of Han's voice behind him, raised in query.
"Nothing," Luke dismissed quickly.
Han stepped closer to glance down to the street below. "You're not…y'know, thinking of turning her over to Palpatine, are you?"
"Offset the Death Star's loss against the opportunity to flush a new Jedi out of hiding?" Luke was silent for long seconds. "I actually think Palpatine would consider that a fair exchange."
Han straightened, discomfort fairly blazing out of him, and Luke tempered his own resentment at the knowledge of it, forcing his shoulders to drop as he turned away to pass Han and walk back down the narrow plasteel steps. "Relax. I shot Vader off her back because I didn't want her dead. You think I'd hand her over before she gets me to Kenobi?"
"Don't do it like this," Han said quietly, as they reached the street.
"You can't use her like this."
"Believe me, I could use her a hell of a lot more," Luke said darkly, aware of the burgeoning protection that Solo felt for the woman. "I could simply bring her in, easily."
"Against a Sith? Yes, every time," Luke said. "And I should do it, we both know that. But I can't simply pull Kenobi's location out of her head, if I do. I couldn't even take it out of her head if she was in detention. That means that if I take her in, I hand her over to an interrogator. Is that what you want?" Luke let out a breath, reining his voice in to less confrontational tones as he glanced out into the street. It had fallen to a momentary lull as people thinned, the rabble of noise quieting. "Or maybe, just maybe, I should lie to her to get what I need, and we both walk away from this a little wiser, but for very different reasons."
Solo sighed, his unease palpable, and Luke felt a fresh flare of irritation at it, wondering if he was aware just what Luke was risking in withholding this from his Master. "Do you know how much Palpatine would like to get his hands on a half-trained Jedi?"
"Then why don't you hand her in now and have done with it?" Solo snapped, anger in his eyes.
Emotions flared in quick succession to fire wildly differing loyalties in Luke-to his Master, to his friend… He set off abruptly, leaving Han to stare after him. He wanted to be alone, wanted to be angry, to be callous, to stoke up the shields which shut any compassion out…and he knew he could; he'd done it so many times before, on his Master's command.
He was already into the street before Han shouted after him, "Luke…Luke!"
He paused but didn't turn, speaking quickly, for even this truth burned-intending to be gone before Solo even tried to follow. "Because…..because it's not worth our friendship, okay?"
Luke sat on the floor pressed against a corner in the dark of the library, an unlit spice stick between his lips, head leaning against the cool, dark wall. An internal room with no windows, it had always contrived to be a close space despite its size, and as such was somehow comforting-perhaps because he'd spent so many years in the windowless expanse of the Throne Room, in his youth, though that had hardly been reassuring. Probably it was simply that he'd spent so very long since then sitting in this room, while Indo paraded a string of ever more tutors and theories to be committed to memory.
Now, with no lights activated, the only illumination came from the long rows of end-lit reference cards which lined complete walls and reflected their soft blue glow over the dark gray scagliola paintwork-not that windows would have made much difference. It was so late that the night was beginning to feel like early morning…but still Luke couldn't sleep, the night's events running through his head.
Plus he wanted the spice stick…a lot. He'd made it up himself, from the batch of spice left in his room tonight, and the familiar process of making it had left him with an unfed craving-a raw need. His ribs ached and his head thudded thickly, and the smell of the spice and the taste of the paper made his heart beat faster in anticipation…but he didn't light it. Instead, Han's words, half lecture, half-challenge, played over and over in Luke's muzzy thoughts.
"You think you've got your reasons...hell, you might even be right, but trust me when I say that you may believe you've got all the time in the worlds, but I'm here on the outside…and I know what I'm looking at."
Luke lifted the spice stick free between trembling fingers, automatically holding it as if it were lit, half comforted, half tempted. His mouth was painfully dry. This was syadil-The Siren, they called it on the streets-sharper to the taste and harder on the senses in the amounts he needed, its paper pale blue-there must be no Ruby on the streets right now, he reflected vaguely. It wasn't his preferred choice, but he'd take it, if nothing else was available.
"That's what addiction is…everyone knows but you, and you still don't want to admit it."
Luke frowned, reflecting on the night-on Han's words. On how very hard he'd tried to hide the feelings behind them: "You're not…y'know, thinking of turning her over to Palpatine, are you?"
At the back of Luke's thoughts an insistent whisper was forming, as he began to wonder at Han's claim, just weeks earlier. "I'm not going anywhere, I've told you that. You want me to leave, you're gonna have to force me out the door, because that's the only way you'll get rid of me, understand?"
Big words…and despite himself-despite every possible experience to the contrary-Luke had damn near begun to believe them.
"Just…go away, huh? I don't want to…I don't want you here right now." Han's words, when Luke had dealt with the spy onboard the Immortal, as he'd been ordered. A man Han hadn't even known. Leia Skywalker he not only knew but, despite his claims to the contrary, was growing more and more entangled with.
So was it all conditional, this friendship, as every other association that Luke had been offered in his life had turned out to be? With Indo it had been lessons and adherence to the rules-at least on the surface. With Palpatine it had been unswerving obedience and loyalty…
Was Solo like everyone else? And if Luke failed to live up to those demands…would he too just up and leave?
Angry, Luke brought the strike-lighter in his left hand up to light the spice stick…then extinguished it, dropping the strike-lighter in frustration.
Instead, he pulled at the edge of the spice stick's paper, unravelling it and letting its contents spill onto the floor as he flattened out the small piece of paper and reached into his breast pocket to pull out a stylus.
Quickly and from memory, he drew the image of the man he remembered searching out in the old records of the military Intel hub, years ago. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Jedi knight, insurrectionist, radical…would-be assassin. Luke studied the image, lifting one hand to massage his pounding temple.
He hadn't told Indo anything about his meetings with Leia Skywalker, knowing that Indo would expect him to report it to Palpatine immediately-which Luke didn't want to do until he'd gotten, for once, whathewanted out of this mission: to meet Kenobi. To put this-all of it-to rest, once and for all, to his own satisfaction. And if that meant killing the man who'd tried to kill him…well then, he'd never had a father anyway; not really. If anyone, Bail Organa had held that role, but…
Luke stilled, caught off guard by his own errant thoughts, as they conjured memories of the man he'd tried so hard to purge from his past entirely. He heard Bail's shout, half-demand, half-desperation; heard Breha scream...
Straightening, he blinked that moment away, hand closing about the spice paper to crumple and drop it. But the memory had left its imprint, in a pang of near physical pain which still echoed despite…
The doors opened to let in a flood of light from the corridor beyond, making Luke blink rapidly as Ashtor paused to brush the light activation panel and lift the room's levels to something more workable. Still, it took him long moments to locate Luke, in his hidden corner.
When he'd done so he walked briskly to the main table, its wide span scattered with the datapads which Luke used daily in lessons or research.
"Tablets." He placed a glass of water on the table along with three small, blue caplets.
"I've taken them already," Luke lied without thinking. "Ask Solo."
It had become a little ruse between them, the tablets. Han had agreed not to ask Luke to take them when they'd been onboard the Vendetta, and as an extension of that, Luke had pretty much quoted him every night since they'd returned to the palace as having been the one who'd given him the sleeping tablets that Indo crammed him full of nightly, in an effort to keep Luke where he was meant to be. He had no idea if anyone ever checked with Han, but if they did, then he assumed that Han was backing him up, because no one had yet come back to Luke, tablets in hand.
What would he do, when Solo walked out because of Leia Skywalker? How much had he come to rely on him already, Luke reflected uneasily.
Ashtor straightened, disbelief fairly rolling out of him. "Solo, huh?"
"Yeah, you remember Solo." Luke rose, feeling foolish now beneath Ashtor's cool scrutiny, for being sat on the floor in a corner. "Tall Corellian-always talking…oh, but then you talk quite a lot too, from what I hear." He didn't meet Ashtor's eyes as he walked past him and out into the corridor beyond, waiting until he was far enough away that the man may or may not have heard him; he didn't care which. "Just not around here."
Ashtor watchedAntilleswalk from the room. Listened to the soft tap of his boots as he receded down the main concourse… Smartass. He wondered briefly if the kid had picked the thought up; probably not, or he'd be back here by now. He lowered the lights, about to leave…when a flash of reflected light fromAntilles' abandoned strike-lighter caught his eye and made him glance again to the corner. Frowning, he raised the lights and walked forward. On the floor about it was a milled, pale grey residue…spice probably, knowing how much Antilles smoked-though this didn't look burned or… Ashtor crouched down; to the edge of the high skirtings was a small piece of pale blue paper, crumpled into a tiny ball and discarded. Reaching out, he lifted it and carefully straightened it. It was a pale blue-grey spice paper, ripped to one edge. On it was a small sketch of an unknown man, his hair cropped short enough to stand upright at his temple. Ashtor frowned, not recognizing the man as anyone from the palace…then quickly pushed the spice paper into his pocket, glancing behind him.
Having done so, he knew he'd need to avoidAntillesfor the rest of the night. But then that was their usual routine anyway; that would suit them both just fine…
The holo onboard the Wookiee scoutship was small, but even at this size, Leia could see the quiet relief in Obi-Wan's face that all had gone well. She'd contacted the Rebel homeshipIndependence as soon as she and Chewie had blasted off from Coruscant, and left a brief message of reassurance, before Chewie had taken the craft to lightspeed. Now, safe a full day's travel from the capital planet, they had paused again to make contact with the Independence for a more in-depth appraisal of her contact with Luke Antilles.
"It went well?" Mon Mothma was in attendance too, and leaned in beside Obi-Wan, her voice hopeful.
"I'm still here," Leia said by way of reply. Above that…she wasn't entirely sure. Though on reflection, she had realized one thing; she'd left Luke Antilles just as curious of her as she now felt about him.
"You spoke to him?" Obi-Wan asked. He was, Leia noted, far less sanguine than Mon.
"Eventually," she replied. "Though he wasn't giving anything away. Solo-Han Solo, the pilot on the image we were sent after the Death Star's destruction-came to the first meeting alone. Luke didn't come at all, I don't know why."
"So there were two meetings?"
"Two, yes. And again, Luke Antilles chose the location of the second one, so he had prior knowledge, should he have wished to set a trap."
Obi-Wan straightened slightly, and Leia knew him well enough to know that it was because he'd warned her not to take unnecessary chances. "Luke came alone, save for Solo," she added quickly, in reassurance.
"Did you…get a sense ofAntilles?" Obi-Wan asked.
Leia frowned. She'd known that he would ask this-it had, after all, supposedly been her remit for speaking with him again-so she'd spent the day and night since the meeting thinking on it…but she still wasn't sure she had an answer.
"He's very…very conflicted, I think. He puts forward a confident, self-possessed façade, but…I don't know, I get the sense that there's a lot going on underneath-a lot of uncertainty."
Mon Mothma leaned forward. "In his actions?"
"…No." Much as she wanted to say otherwise, Leia knew she had to tell the truth. "No, I think his loyalties are clear-cut. Perhaps…perhaps he's curious...about me-and you, Master Kenobi. He wants to meet you."
Leia nodded. "That's the reason he gave for…everything. He wants to meet you-to speak with you."
Obi-Wan straightened and glanced to Mon Mothma, who seemed equally worried. Leia frowned. "Surely that's a good thing?"
"Do you believe you can read the motives of a Sith, Padawan?"
"No, Master, but…" The wary doubt written all over Obi-Wan's face held her to silence, as Chewie keened quietly beside her.
She'd always had the impression that Luke's appearance on Coruscant had surprised everyone, even Obi-Wan. Certainly she remembered a great sense of urgency in her leaving Tatooine, and it had clearly been Luke's appearance on Coruscant which had prompted that.
Her mind went briefly back to that image-of the boy, pale and thin and dressed in dark clothes, who had been forced with some reluctance out onto the balcony of the Imperial Palace by Palpatine. He'd leaned back, trying in those first few moments to pull away from the open balcony, but strong hands had gripped onto his shoulders, and so he'd let himself be walked out and stood, tense and silent, eyes on the massed crowds below, until the Emperor had turned him about to return to the darkness of the room.
She knew it so well, that image; had seen it so many times. Had been fascinated by the boy's stillness, his mute acceptance of something that he so clearly didn't want.
Obi-Wan had told her about Luke Antilles' past, of course-that he was a Force-sensitive of unknown origins and rare power, who came briefly into Obi-Wan and Master Yoda's hands during the Jedi Purge. Knowing that they themselves were being hunted, and knowing to keep the child then would have only made his chances of being discovered greater, they had passed him into the care of a staunch, if secret, supporter: Bail Organa, Viceroy of Alderaan. There he'd stayed, anonymously hidden…until the age of seven, at which point Palpatine had found him and taken control of him, killing his benefactors for no other reason than to hide his seizure of the child.
Nine years ago; over half his life lived in the dragon's lair…probably it was all that he remembered, now. Leia frowned briefly, wondering for the first time how much of the man she'd seen, had been forced upon him.
Wondering again what lay beneath those perfect Sith shields.
"He's invisible in the Force, Master. When we met…I sensed his presence as he neared-he allowed that much-but the moment that he saw me…" Leia paused, shaking her head. "He was ten steps away and I was looking right at him, and his presence in the Force shrank to nothing-nothing at all. I stood right before him and sensed nothing."
It was something a Jedi couldn't do-not like that. They could hide their physical presence, hide their specific signature within the Force, but not their effect upon it. Perhaps by the nature of their attempts to live in concert with it, the actions of any Jedi impacted upon the Force more than most, and the ramifications of those actions from moment to moment left a subtle ripple visible to those skilled enough to sense it. It could be minimized by distance and by conscious dampening, but unlike a Sith, who made no such efforts at unity with the Force, it couldn't be removed entirely.
Obi-Wan sighed. "If he can hide himself completely, then his identity as a Sith is unarguable."
Mon's head tilted down, elbows resting on her desk and chin in her hands, her manner that of someone in grave thought. "But does that mean that he's irredeemable?"
Obi-Wan turned just slightly. "Once you make that choice to walk a darker path, you cannot pull back."
"Surely one can feel regret; compunction. They're basic sentient traits."
"I sensed…" Leia hesitated, trying to categorize her memory of the meeting. "So much was reflex-antagonism to mask a deeper pain. He seemed…agitated. He said to tell you…to tell you that he knew everything."
"Yes. When I asked him something of his past, as you'd suggested…he asked immediately if you'd told me to say that. Then he said…" Again she paused, taking care to recall the words exactly. "He said that he came to Coruscant with Bail and Breha Organa when he was seven, and that you'd know this. And he said…he said that he knew everything-that if I wanted something to tell you, I should tell you that."
Obi-Wan glanced briefly to Mon, and it was Mon's more expressive face that Leia watched closely.
"That was all?" Obi-Wan asked.
"That was everything," Leia admitted. "Like I said, he wasn't giving anything away. He only admitted that because he wanted to meet you."
Obi-Wan leaned back, scratching at his graying beard, and Leia searched her mind for anything more that could be of value. "He's…he swings between unrepentant deceit and deeper reluctance. He can be very…disarming. As can Solo. I asked Luke if he'd told Vader about me-if he'd mentioned my name, even once-and he…I got the feeling that there was no amity lost between them. In fact, I think the words he used were mutual antipathy."
At this Obi-Wan sat forward slightly. "There was no…connection?"
"He said…he had a scar above his eye, a recent one-a deep one-and Solo let slip that it was from Vader. I don't think Luke had intended for him to…but he tried to use it, once Solo had."
"To use it?"
"He said that Vader believed he asked too many questions-about you. He'd already said that he had questions he thought you could answer...but then he backpedalled completely."
"Questions about himself?"
"I don't know. More…about his life, perhaps, or what he'd been taught. Would…" Leia hesitated, then asked anyway, uncertain why exactly she did so. "Would you have trained him-had things been different, had Palpatine not found him…would you have trained him, Master?"
Obi-Wan looked down, frowning. "Master Yoda advised caution. He had his reasons, and they were sound." Leia remained silent, drawn in further by the hesitancy in Obi-Wan's voice, remembering Luke Antilles' words: "It felt like he was withholding something from you-some knowledge he wouldn't share…"
Obi-Wan sighed into her silence. "We knew even then that Luke had great potential-sufficient to destroy Palpatine-and far more than with you, we feared that the moment we brought him out of hiding to teach him, we risked bringing him to the attention of Vader and Palpatine."
Leia frowned, aware that her own training had begun late, when she was twelve. Still… "I've remained hidden despite that…"
"Yes, but you are not him, Leia. Your signature in the Force is naturally more difficult to detect. The moment Palpatine realized the boy's existence, we knew that he would commit all possible resources to finding him."
"But surely that's a greater reason to have trained him?"
Obi-Wan paused… "Is there something wrong?"
Leia glanced quickly down. "No, Master, I just…I feel there's something missing from this picture. Why would Palpatine hunt down Luke with such zeal, and not yourself or Master Yoda?"
"Because Luke had such potential. Master Yoda and myself were a threat because we were Jedi…Luke too was a danger because of his abilities, but he was untrained; unformed. He would have been a greater draw because that potential power was open to corruption."
"Surely we all have those same temptations? How am I any different?"
"You have not lived in the company of Sith," Obi-Wan said gravely.
Leia frowned, taking that to its logical conclusion. "Then if you'd retrieved him from the palace, even as a boy…you still wouldn't have trained him?"
"Once he had been with Palpatine or Vader, even for a short time…I very much doubt it. He would have been tainted. The risk would be too great, especially with him."
"So then, if he chose to reject his Sith teachings now…?"
Obi-Wan's regard sharpened. "Has he given you any indication-any at all-that this is the case?"
Leia hesitated…then lowered her head. "No, Master. He made…made a brief reference to such-twice in fact-but the first time, as soon as he'd said it he made light of it, and the second…he has incredible shields. A Sith's ability to block you out. His control is amazing."
"Remember that," Obi-Wan cautioned. "Remember that he led you to wonder at his beliefs, without once giving you true reason to. His kind…they are often charismatic, because to us they are unfathomable. We search to understand-to help-and in trying we're pulled ever deeper, until we lose all objectivity." Again Obi-Wan glanced down, voice self-censuring. "I ignored the advice of the Jedi Council to Master Qui-Gon, and continued to train Anakin after Master Qui-Gon's death. My mistakes gave Anakin access to the power that Darth Vader now holds, and it led to the downfall of the Jedi and the Republic. I won't make that mistake again, I won't bring another Anakin into the fold, nor give him that hold over me-or anyone else."
"But he's not…"
"Leia, I would not have you hold the weight of culpability and regret that I do-ever."
Leia stared…it was so rare that her Master faltered, but there was true pain in his eyes-and urgency. "You cannot trust him, you know that?"
"I know that, Master."
"Be sure," Obi-Wan urged. "This man is a Sith, and eventually he will face you with a lightsaber in his hand, and no Sith is to be underestimated in this. Their training is based around a martial stance, and make no mistake, they do not hesitate. Remember that. No matter what you learn of him, you cannot trust him-ever."
Leia glanced down, but Obi-Wan wouldn't let her avoid this. "He's been under the control of two Sith for most of his life-hecannot be anything else. I fear…too much burns within him, too much pressure, with one so young. I see a being that burns brightly…but briefly. His kind, they are driven, and those nearby are often consumed. Take care you don't stand too close to the flames."
Leia nodded, and they sat in silence for a moment-and yet she still couldn't step back, even knowing the risks. What was it about Luke Antilles, she wondered, that compelled her to act so out of character, to allow emotion to overcome logic? Because it drew her in, his presence in the Force, this dark and twisted thing. And with not a single fragment of fact to fire it, she knew the heat she felt was a flare of hope that the struggle she'd sensed at the very core of Luke's being, was that of one who railed against the path he had been locked into by another.
With the comm over, Obi-Wan took the time to think on all the facts-or rather, the few new ones, about the boy who had grown to a man in the shadow of a Sith Emperor.
About what, if anything, was salvageable.
The official NewsNet image of Emperor Palpatine and his retinue standing on the balcony before the crowds on the event of the eleventh annual State Celebration to honor the formation of the Empire, was when Obi-Wan had realized just how completely his and Master Yoda's hopes for reinstating the Republic had gone awry. It wasn't an instant realization, since even then these events had become an annual occurrence-the only time when the Emperor appeared, even at a distance, before his subjects. So aside from the much-harassed Alliance Intel's usual study of just who exactly had gained the status to make it onto the wide sweep of the balcony this year-and so who was in the Emperor's favor-they had no reason to look more closely.
So it had been almost a week before Intel had sent the encrypted package containing the short, digitized and cleaned up version of images with their standard annual 'who's who on the balcony' report to Obi-Wan, still stationed on the Rim world of Tatooine in his hidden vigil. A full week before that tingle of portent at the back of his thoughts resolve into something dark and solid, making him stand slowly as he stared at the enhanced image, all other perceptions of his isolated, sand-dusted abode falling to a distant blur. Because there, practically dragged out of the darkened interior to be paraded on the wide Pageant Balcony, was a fair-haired child…
Dressed all in black, he was gaunt and pallid, squinting in the light, and by all rights Obi-Wan oughtn't to have even recognized him, so much had he changed…yet he had known with a terrible, all-consuming certainty who he was looking at. The Force practically resonated in its eagerness to share the terrible truth.
It had taken him an hour to reassemble, with trembling hands, the long-distance comm system that he'd dismantled and hidden in the cave close by. Three more to establish a link and bounce the message between endless commsats until it reached its destination: Mon Mothma, who had already risen to become the de-facto leader of theAlliance.
Then came the rumors, from Coruscant itself-that Palpatine had found a savant, a child whom he had begun training as a Sith. A boy who could and would kill on command.
It had been decided almost immediately to bring Leia to greater safety, and Obi-Wan had set out that day to ensure it. When he'd settled Leia with Mon under the safety of the Alliance, he had travelled to Dagobah with the news, though like himself, Master Yoda had already sensed that tremble of premonition…so a plan was formed-one which had ultimately been disastrous.
They would take the boy back. Master Yoda had put forward a more…final solution, should it be necessary. But Vader's son was still a child, and having woken from vivid nightmares and cursed Anakin many times for turning on the children in theJediTemplemassacre, Obi-Wan could never himself agree to the same, even if he had been capable.
It was only on the night that Obi-Wan, Master Yoda and a group ofAlliancecommandoes had put the plan to snatch the eleven-year-old boy from the Palace on Coruscant into operation, that they realized they'd been lured into a trap. The image had been purposely released by Palpatine to draw the last of the Jedi out of hiding.
Master Yoda, travelling from Dagobah to aid in the rescue of what would in all likelihood be a hostile and powerful child, had lost his life in the raid. Backed into a duel with Vader, Obi-Wan himself had barely escaped, and only then because of Master Yoda's sacrifice in confronting and detaining Palpatine. They'd never even reached the boy.
So now, only he and his padawan Leia remained of the Jedi Order…facing off against three of the most powerful Force-users ever to have lived. It had become a game of hide and seek on a galactic scale, as Obi-Wan had wrung his mind for any way in which he could turn the balance back in the Jedi's favor against the Sith. Any thought of returning to try again to retrieve the boy was gone; Obi-Wan was now the last of the Jedi, and his responsibility had to be to Leia and to the Jedi Order, because if he were not here to train her-not here to pass on the ways of the Jedi-then who would? Fear of leaving her alone and only partially trained had held Obi-Wan back from action for so many years.
His hope had been that, until now, there seemed to have been very little movement from Vader's son, whom Obi-Wan had seen several times when Luke was a child on Alderaan-enough to know that he had inherited his father's power and connection to the Force. He hadn't for one moment suspected that Palpatine, in his eagerness to control both Vader and the boy, would lead Anakin to believe that his son was dead-hadn't thought that even the Sith Master would be so callous.
And now the boy was grown, wanting to speak to Obi-Wan. And knowing Luke's abilities, if he agreed, would Obi-Wan be facing his killer? Could he afford to leave Leia alone in the galaxy, on the offhand chance that Luke simply wished to talk, as he had claimed to Leia?
Her knowledge that Vader was her father-argued long and hard for by Mon Mothma-had been hard enough, but at least she had some context to place the facts within. Vader had long since made his decisions, and Obi-Wan and Mon had taken great care to teach Leia that the creature who inhabited that black suit for years before Leia knew the truth, had little in common with the man who had fathered her.
With her typical stubborn strength, she had held tenaciously to her own surname, despite Obi-Wan's attempts at dissuasion. Vader had moved on, she'd said with dogged resolve; Skywalker was her name, now. She'd already grown to the age of twelve with it, and it was part of her; it always had been. She wouldn't be cowed out of that by a man who had long-since given it up. Again, it was Mon who had championed Leia's cause, claiming that when the time came, her knowledge would be a strength, not a weakness. To dissuade her from any empathy or compassion was to give Vader ammunition to turn on her. Instead, Obi-Wan and Mon Mothma had dedicated a great deal of effort into keeping her very existence hidden from the Empire for as long as possible, sure that Vader would not hesitate, even when he discovered the truth.
Leia was her father's daughter in at least one respect, because Obi-Wan had found, over the years, that if she chose to do something, no matter how foolhardy or how dangerous, then she would do it. Her insistence on making the stop at Coruscant to try to re-establish contact with their Sinto base informer had been a prime example. Obi-Wan, always looking for the clean solution, had not intended to even tell Leia, but had been stymied by Mon Mothma's mention of Derrig's failure to contact them-and off she had gone. It was, to Leia, as simple as that; a job needed doing, and on her present course returning to theAlliance, she was travelling near to the right system…of course it should be her who went! The fact that it had put her in the middle of a nest of Sith had never entered into the equation for her, nor had the fact that she was one of the last remaining Jedi. She wouldn't be cowed in anything. Ever.
The confidence of youth. He very much hoped that she still held it if she had to duel her brother one day. What he hadn't said to her in their discussion today-what he would never shake her confidence by speaking aloud-was the truth that both he and Master Yoda had known as those swaddled babies had grown. Had stood and walked and exhibited their first inklings of individuality within the Force.
Because her brother was also his father's son-in more ways than Leia, in truth. It had been so clear even in childhood that his mind and his spirit would be more attuned to combat than Leia. She was the conscience, the philosopher, the thinker. Diligent and determined, she had grown up needing an answer to everything, and if the answer was deficient, she needed to know not just why, but how it could be changed-how she herself could change it. Never afraid to fight to have her voice heard, at sixteen it was already clear that she was a natural and intuitive leader, willing to stand up and speak out on all she held dear. Her strengths would have brought her to a chair in the Jedi Council early, had the situation been different.
Luke…Luke, as a child when Obi-Wan had visited him, had also been a whirlwind of questions, always excitable and eager, always pushing, always seeking out the next challenge. Nothing was wrong with any of this, to be sure. Tempered with the deeply instilled sense of right and wrong which his guardians would have instilled in him as he grew, it could have been so easily channelled into the teachings of the Jedi and would have combined to make Luke a pre-eminent Knight, Obi-Wan knew that-and so did Palpatine. But discovering the boy, he would have seen a very different potential. Seen a still-impressionable child with a fierce will and a wayward impetuousness, traits which could so easily be misdirected, given the opportunity…and there-there was the reason that he would have sought control of the boy-and the reason for Obi-Wan's fear, when he had gained it.
Mon had maintained always that due to his formative years with Bail and Breha, Luke was an unknown element in all this, but stung by his past failures with Luke's father, Obi-Wan knew that he could no longer afford such ideals. And now there was another unanticipated complication, it seemed.
Because it was clear that Luke had some kind of influence on Leia, even if only at a subliminal level; Obi-Wan hadn't missed the fact that after just a few meetings, Leia now referred to him by his first name. Clear that she harboured some unspoken fascination. Was it the Force which had brought them together? Did her unknowing brother feel that same pull? With so much at risk, once again Obi-Wan felt that he simply couldn't afford to take that chance.
Should he refuse to see the boy at all? Ask of Leia that she do the same-cut all contact? Headstrong as ever, she would want a valid reason. Having seen the boy taken by Palpatine, Master Yoda had believed that if she one day had to face her brother in a duel between Sith and Jedi, knowledge of their long-broken bond would only hinder her in the one situation in which even the slightest vulnerability or hesitation would mean certain death. How much easier to ask of her that she face down an enigmatic unknown, rather than her own flesh and blood. Still smarting from his catastrophic failure with Anakin-from the terrible results of his inability to finish their duel on Mustafar-Obi-Wan had agreed.
He had always known on some level that the battle he'd begun with Anakin would one day be brought to conclusion, and as an extension of that, had always believed that Leia's battle was elsewhere. That her destiny and her brother's were inextricably linked.
Though years had passed since Mustafar, the results of Obi-Wan's failure had only compounded, as the Empire grew in power. He would not-could not-allow either himself or Leia to make the same mistakes with Anakin's son.
Yet…after all that he had judged Palpatine for withholding the facts from father and son for his own advantage, how could Obi-Wan claim that same right with Leia?
Perhaps he should have tried to retrieve her brother at least once more, in the interim years, regardless of the risks. If Palpatine had let the boy out of his sight just occasionally, it might have been possible but in truth… No, in truth, the boy was already eleven by the time that Obi-Wan and Master Yoda had known he still lived. He'd already been four years under the control of a Sith Master. Luke would have been a liability, even had they recovered him.
Should he have changed his decision to let either child go with Bail Organa in the first place…or was he yet again blaming himself for that which had been beyond his control, as Master Yoda always claimed he had done with Anakin? Was he too ready to take on the burden for events which were not of his making?
Leia's Force signature was so very different from her brother's, muted in childhood, as all children's were. Untrained, she could have probably withstood even close proximity to a Sith in relative safety. How, then, had her brother given himself away, so young? What had led Palpatine to even suspect? For Bail and Breha to have taken Luke to Coruscant had been foolhardy but still, he was untrained; it should have been survivable.
Questions, Obi-Wan reflected. So many questions that he hadn't the knowledge to answer-and not knowing, how could he best decide what to tell Leia? His mind went back to Mon Mothma's words just a few weeks earlier, on the subject; that whatever the decision, it must be an informed choice-only then could it be reached with a clear conscience.
And there was, he supposed, just one way to get the answers he needed: go to the source.
Speak to the boy.
It was a slow change, a gradual awareness, like a storm front closing in, so that Luke became conscious of it only in retrospect, as the pressure built and hovered like a heat-haze in the distance, a mirage at the very edge of his perceptions, a whisper on the wind. It wasn't a threat, this tremor; wasn't the rolling rumble of distant thunder. Yet he was conscious of it in his own restlessness and the heightened state of his own awareness which made him stare at the familiar, searching for the change that had taken place.
By dusk the following day, the whisper was a word that he couldn't quite speak, hovering on the very tip of his tongue. He'd mentioned it to no one and done nothing about it, save to mark his own restlessness, but alone now as Han, Gorn and Indo had left for the night, he found himself standing before the windows of the Red Room with the lights not yet activated, staring out over the city and listening to the stillness as he looked again for that disparity; for that variation in the familiar.
He watched for almost an hour, arms wrapped about himself, unease bringing his perceptions ever more tightly to bear… It was there, somewhere, in the mass of life that ebbed and flowed. Scattered in the static and furled within itself with delicate, precise sensitivity, it was there…waiting.
He turned abruptly and walked from the room and the apartment. Ashtor stood as Luke passed and voiced a question as to where he was going, but Luke didn't answer. It was only when he was two levels down that he realized himself; he was heading for Han's quarters. He needed to speak to Han.
He took little-used corridors, knowing every one here; every turn and shortcut and dead end. These unused hallways were barely lit, their dark walls encroaching despite their lofty scale, cold surfaces echoing that same subtle disturbance that grated so very slightly. Barely there but all-encompassing, it somehow contrived to hide in the shadows, though it shone like the light of day.
Lost in his thoughts, Luke didn't notice the dark figure that stalked towards him from the opposite direction, looking up only when he was almost upon it. His step broke stride and he instantly chided himself as Darth Vader neared, mental barriers rising as he berated his own inattentiveness and cursed Vader's ability to hide his presense so completely from Luke when he so wished, aware that there was no way to avoid him now without it being an obvious capitulation, and he wasn't about to concede defeat so readily, even in this.
Each slowed as they reached the other, and Luke braced for the first volley that would inevitably come.
"What are you doing here?" Vader didn't even attempt to cloak his belligerence, though Luke was hardly threatened.
"I wasn't aware that I was required to hand over an itinerary of my every waking hour to you."
"Run back and hide behind your Emperor's throne," Vader ground out, "and whisper all that you see to him."
Luke raised his chin, smiling a dare. "Guilty conscience, Lord Vader?"
That stark, faceted helmet twitched as Vader lifted his chin. "If you have an accusation, make it to my face."
Luke smiled broadly, and started walking. He was level with him before Vader turned his huge bulk just slightly, bass voice murmuring, "You are withholding something."
Not wanting to be made to lift his head to look his antagonist in the eye, Luke took a casually measured step back. "From you? Yes. Why would I tell you anything?"
"From the Emperor."
Luke froze for fraught seconds beneath Vader's stare before he managed to drag a brittle poise about his unease, sufficient that he held that obsidian gaze without blinking, though he knew that Vader had a greater ability to read him than his Master. Despite the antipathy each of them held, for some reason, they had always been able to read each other well.
"I am watching you," Vader growled ominously. "I am not as trusting of the Emperor's toy Sith as he is. And when I catch you, it will be red-handed, and the transgression will be such that Palpatine's protection will cease on the spot."
Luke drew deep for sufficient nerve to call Vader's bluff. "You're welcome to take any facts that you have to the Emperor."
"You have secrets." Vader's gloved hand rose to point as he aimed a knowing threat. "Yourself and the Corellian pilot."
"You're making accusations against the pilot who saved your life above the Death Star, now? Or have you already conveniently forgotten that?"
"Perhaps if he had turned more of his supposed skill to the defense of the Death Star…"
"Perhaps if you'd done the same," Luke parried. "You were flying lead; the X-wing was under your sights. And don't claim empty regrets to me—you and I both know you didn't give a damn about the Death Star."
"No," Vader acknowledged without compunction. "But it could still have been made to serve the Empire's cause."
"The Emperor's," Luke corrected sharply.
"As you say so very often," Vader rumbled. "Perhaps a little too often."
Luke squared his chin. "I've no doubts about where my loyalties lie—none."
"And the Corellian?"
"Solo's past is in his personnel file. I'm sure the Emperor has read it." It was a vaguery; an irrelevant truth to dodge greater scrutiny, though even this was a gamble, with Vader.
"And so you think he simply allows Solo's presence here? He tolerates nothing less than total obedience."
"Yet you're still here."
Vader tilted his head, and Luke sensed the sneer he couldn't see as Vader threw his earlier words back at him. "You are welcome to take any facts that you have to the Emperor."
"Don't I always?" Luke started walking, wanting to end this verbal battle before it came to blows, which would see them both knelt before the Emperor and forced to validate their actions. He was three paces away before Vader's words stopped him.
"Perhaps you will do so when you speak to Palpatine about the Force disturbance tonight…or were you walking these back halls because you were on your way to speak to another first? Hardly the actions of a loyal Hand who claims he has nothing to hide."
Luke paused—and Vader's self-satisfied voice was absolutely sure. "This disturbance is connected to you."
He should laugh and walk on, Luke knew…yet he couldn't help but turn, though he gave nothing away in the tone of his voice. "Why?"
"You tell me."
"There's no reason."
Vader straightened to his full, imposing height as his satisfaction rippled outwards. "Then why did you turn?"
Distracted and unsettled, Luke reached Han's apartment and keyed the code into the door lock, sure now that the gradually building tremor in the Force had something to do with him, though he couldn't figure out how—or why he needed to tell Han that. The door clicked free and he entered quickly, his desire to speak with Han mounting—
The apartment was silent and dark, Solo not inside.
It had been early evening when the message had reached Han's comlink. The sky was just beginning to fade from overcast blues to true black, so that the massive slabs of dark stone which dressed the tall corridors absorbed what little light was left to render the silent hallways deeply shadowed as Han made the long, familiar walk from the kid's apartment to his own more modest quarters, his shift over. The gentle buzz of his comlink made Han frown; what the hell had the kid done this time—Han was barely three levels down, and Ashtor was already comming him. He pulled his comlink, reflecting sourly that this was a new record, even for…
It was a written message, brief, and with no return comm code: 'Meet me in two hours. Same place, alone. Try not to elevate that general disdain into a full-on grudge in the meantime.'
Han stared, wondering what the hell it meant. General distain to a full-on grudge? The next words instantly clarified the message's source: 'Chewie says hello.'
He came to a stop in the hallway, staring at the message. How the hell had she gotten his comm code? 'Same place, alone.' Why did she want to speak to him, and not Luke? What the hell was he supposed to do now? He glanced up as an unknown aide walked past him, staring. Scowling, suddenly wondering whether he'd been muttering aloud, Han picked up his walk again, eyes dead ahead.
'Same place, alone.'
Should he go? He slowed to glance behind him, wondering whether to head back to the apartment and tell Luke…then resumed the walk to his own quarters. Maybe he should just blank it and pretend he'd never received it. Yeah, a little selective technical failure seemed by far the smartest course. He lifted his comlink…and saw again, 'Try not to elevate that general disdain into a full-on grudge in the meantime.'
And it came back to him; he'd said it to Leia, of himself and Vader—that he didn't rank high enough to be worth a full-on grudge from the man, he only warranted general disdain. Han rolled his head, a smile coming to his lips in spite of himself…and he slowed again, staring at his comlink.
What the hell, he could find out what she wanted. That wouldn't do any harm, right?
The Bad Break Cantina hadn't gone up any in the world since his last visit. Every other lamp was still on the fritz, every other chair still had its fake hide ripped or written on, and the floor was still mildly tacky beneath his boots, probably from the same spillages as last time—always the sign of a classy joint.
Leia Skywalker was sitting in a booth to the rear of the big room, already watching him as he made his way through the uncaring crowds on the main floor. When he got to the table, there was a glass waiting before an empty seat. He sat and took a wary sip.
"Corellian brandy," she said. "Chewie said you'd drink it."
"Not on my pay," Han groused automatically, glancing to the Wookiee, who leaned back to fold hirsute arms across his wide chest, chuntering that maybe Solo should make the most of it then, because at that price he wasn't going to get another. Han grinned, amused at the Wookiee's offhand camaraderie.
Leia glanced down, then back to Han. She still had the damndest big brown eyes. "Thanks for coming," she said at last.
"I nearly didn't."
"I nearly didn't ask you," she admitted. "Chewie persuaded me. He thinks you're reliable, and a Wookiee is generally a good judge of character."
"Yeah?" Han lifted his eyebrows, taking her in. She didn't exactly dress to kill, wearing rough-spun layers in sandy tones, but those big tawny eyes were at once sharp and soft, and her shoulder-length chestnut hair had the kind of sheen that you could… He straightened, dragging himself back to the moment. "Actually that's true, about Wookiees. Maybe I should trust you for the same reason, since you're with one." He glanced to Chewie, tipping his head. "I'm assuming you're here by choice, and she doesn't have your mother tied up in a tree somewhere?"
Chewie hucked out a laugh as Leia tilted her head. "Well, now we've got that cleared up." She flashed a dry smile, which suited her, then glanced down. "But seriously, I'd like to think I can trust you."
"I have my moments," Han claimed. She took a breath to speak, and Han pushed quickly on before she had a field-day with that one. "You haven't seen any of ‘em yet. How'd you get my comm code?"
"We uncovered and stole the plans of the Empire's new superweapon—you think we'd have that much trouble with a comm code?"
He took another sip and let the brandy burn enjoyably. "So what else do you know?"
"About you?" She looked him up and down appraisingly. "I know you spend way,waytoo many credits on uniforms, Lieutenant Solo."
"Hey, they made me spend that! And since you know me well enough to comment on my dress sense now, you should maybe call me Han."
"Han." She nodded, her brow wrinkling as her voice took on a serious tone. "What I don't understand is why you keep putting that uniform on."
He looked away, uncomfortable. "I know—at the very least, they could pay for the damn thing."
"I'm serious. How can you give those people your allegiance?"
Han glanced down, and Leia frowned, leaning in. "Or are you beginning to wonder that yourself?"
He sighed. "Maybe you're right, and I'm that simple guy in a complicated situation."
"Actually, I take it back. I think you might be that complicated man in a very simple situation."
Han toyed with his glass. "Trust me, it's the situation."
"Really? Because I'm starting to think that deep down, it's pretty clear-cut for you. What's complicated about—oh, Luke Antilles."
Han pursed his lips. "He's a good kid—despite all evidence to the contrary."
She watched him closely, dark eyes narrowing. "You really believe that, don't you?"
Han nodded just slightly. "I really do."
"So…" Those big hazel eyes held his, solemn and serious. "If I bring Master Kenobi here….will he be safe?"
Han glanced down, trying to make light of it. "On Coruscant? I'm gonna say no, actually."
Leia leaned forward and rested one delicate hand on his arm. "Han, this is…this is so important to me. Obi-Wan brought me up, he kept me safe, taught me everything. He gave so much to do that, and I don't want to let him down now."
Han sighed deeply as he looked from Leia to Chewie...even the damn Wookiee was staring at him, expectant. This was what she'd asked him here for, he realized. "Look, you gotta ask Luke that."
"I have a feeling I wouldn't get a straight answer."
"What makes you think I ever do?"
"But you know him."
"I'm not in his head! I know…" He quietened, glancing down. "I know the kid's got questions…important stuff. You're asking me to—"
"I'm asking you to help me keep a good man alive…please."
Han sighed, dragging his hands through his hair before he looked back at her. "I told you before, Luke can throw a few curve-balls, but he's basically okay."
"Basically or reliably?"
"He's…you just said that you grew up with Kenobi, right? That he's always been there for you, taught you all you know. Now imagine that had been Palpatine."
"When I look at Luke Antilles , I don't have to—and that's what scares me."
Han made a brief gesture with one hand. "I dunno. I just don't know. I can tell you that he tells the Old Man absolutely everything…but he hasn't told him this. Not any part of it. I think he's got some big stuff he needs to sort out—and I think your Obi-Wan Kenobi does, too."
"He does." She watched Han closely, sharp eyes penetrating. "But he won't tell me what."
"Well then you're just gonna have to trust 'em both, aren't you? Give 'em their space; truth's got a habit of outing."
Leia's gaze turned down to the untouched drink on the table before her, thoughtful. After long moments, she looked up at Han, an impish smile brightening her features once more. "The Old Man?"
Han shrugged, grinning. "Ol' Yellow Eyes—don't tell him I said that."
Chewie hucked a low laugh as Leia leaned back. "How in the galaxy did you end up at the Imperial palace, Han Solo?"
"Honestly?" Han grinned. "I got in a bar fight—actually, scratch that, it was Luke who got in a bar fight, I just pulled the Weequay with the vibroblade off his back."
"And that got you personal access to the most elite institution in the galaxy?"
Han glanced down, suddenly somber. "He doesn't have a whole lot of people he can trust, back there. He's pretty much brought himself up…with Old Yellow Eyes haranguing him every step of the way."
"So Palpatine raised him?"
Han felt his jaw tighten. "No, Palpatine dragged him up by alternately ignoring him and putting the fear of all hells into him. Still does, every damn chance he gets."
"But Palpatine trained him as a Sith."
Han glanced away. "He didn't want it."
She leaned forward, suddenly intensely interested. "Why do you say that?"
"I just know. Know how much it's messed him up. Palpatine's got him screwed up so tight that he can't see anything else. Can't imagine anything else."
She hesitated, thoughtful. "Do you think he'd turn his back on it, given the chance?"
Han sighed. "I don't know, Palpatine's got his claws in deep. I know he can't be what the old man wants him to be, though, even when he's ripping himself apart trying." Han let out a short, mirthless laugh, realizing it afresh as he tried to explain it to someone else. "Every single day's centered around dealing with that—how to give Palpatine what he flat-out demands without…without losing himself, I guess. But he can't see that—not yet. Sometimes you're just too close, you know?"
She stared at Han for a long time… "Do you think I could help him?"
It was the earnestness in her voice that stopped Han from dismissing her words with a rough laugh. "You?"
"Master Kenobi says...he says that the Dark Side is absolute—that once you've committed to that path, there's no turning back. I think…I can't imagine that fate is that cruel—that he's damned so young, by another's hand." She straightened slightly, voice adamant. "I won't have it."
Han had to smile. "Oh you won't, huh?"
Beside her, Chewie barked out a low caveat, placing one massive hand on Leia's shoulder like a proud uncle, and Han tipped his head. "That right? Well I should warn you, the kid's no pushover himself, either."
Leia arched her eyebrows. "I can be pretty persistent."
"Yeah? He can be pretty damn headstrong himself… obstinate, wilful…you name it. You know how most humans are made of sixty-five percent water? He's made of sixty-five percent stubborn. Doesn't mean anything, it's just a reflex action…like breathing."
Leia shook her head, short, shoulder length hair swinging to brush the top of her shoulders. "Sixty-five percent isn't that much over fifty…and fifty is just plain undecided."
"…Yeah, you tell him that."
"Well then, what's your approach?" She tilted her head as Han raised his eyes in question. "When we last spoke, you said you were trying to help him."
"Damn, you have a good memory!" Like the kid, Han realized. "It's just…it's a little more complicated than that."
"Then we simply have to remove the complications."
He laughed at her mettle; at the indomitable look in her eye. "You really don't take no for an answer much, do you?"
"Not unless it was the answer I wanted. If a thing's worth fighting for, then you should—why wouldn't you?"
Han nodded, seeing absolute sense in that, and warming to their similar viewpoints. On impulse he brought his hands, which were loosely clasped one inside the other on the table, forward, and reached out his index finger to touch the back of her hand. It was pale and cool; she had a callous on the inside of her thumb.
"I know exactly where you're coming from."
She leaned back slightly, tilting her head in that appealing way. "You know I'm a Jedi, don't you?"
"Don't let it ever be said that I put my job before my gut feelings." He grinned. "Or somewhere around there."
She arched an eyebrow. "I mean, we have certain boundaries. We don't allow emotional commitments."
Han straightened a fraction. "Seriously?"
"C'mon…" He tried a lopsided grin as he leaned closer. "There're exceptions to every rule." She let a smile curl her lips, and Han couldn't take his eyes off them. "Y'know, likeTIEpilots who help Wookiees."
"Not this rule, pilot."
He wondered whether to push it…but sat back, grinning. "You're killing me here."
"You give in that easily?" she asked, amused. "I thought you said you didn't take no for an answer."
Was that a maybe? Han leaned forward as if sharing a confidence. "Well it's kinda difficult with two meters of wary Wookiee watchin' my every move." He turned as he said it, voice raising as he stared gamely at Chewie, who loosed a purposely-toothy grin of those clean, white, big incisors. "Kinda cramps my style."
"I don't think you'd let anything do that," Leia said, in that dry, teasing tone. She stood, shimmying out of the booth. "See you around, Solo."
"Hey—you gonna bring Kenobi?"
She glanced down, suddenly solemn. "It's not up to me. All I can do is tell him what you said."
Han too, fell serious. "I think the kid deserves it—and I think Kenobi knows that, regardless of anything else. Tell him that."
Leia stared a second, but nodded without pushing it any further. "I will."
Han returned to his quarters alternately grinning, then wanting to kick himself for being so stupid as to go—and then just talk to her, like she was anyone! What the hell had he been thinking? He shook his head; of course, he knew damn well what he'd been thinking; he'd been thinking big tawny doe eyes and a mouth that tilted appealingly when she was about to launch some deadpan rebuff with the kind of understated spirit a man could….only not, apparently. Jedi code! What the hell…where did baby Jedi come from, then? That only took his mind back to Luke and Kenobi, and Han's guilt for going at all flared afresh. He shook his head, keying the code into his apartment door and walking down the short, darkwood internal corridor. Damn palace! He was gonna paint the whole place white one day! All mile-square of it.
He hit the lights to his main room—and jumped a foot in the air because Luke was there, lounged sideways on one of the chairs, his back against one arm, legs hanging over the other.
"You're kidding me, right?" the kid said laconically, head tilted. "You have some kind of trouble radar, I swear. But whilst most other people's help keep them away from it, yours drags you towards it."
So much for telling the kid in his own good time. "Oh, you've got room to talk…and how the hell did you get in here?"
"You gave me your lock code, remember?"
"Is this like when I gave you that sixty credits that you took out of my pocket?"
"No, you actually did give me the number." The kid paused. "I knew it anyway, but still, you made the gesture. And speaking of gestures…meeting a Rebel? On Coruscant, no less?"
"What, you do it all the time."
"Yes, but I'm Sith. I can do that kind of thing and not get caught," the kid said with smooth confidence. "Plus if I did, and I got called on it, I'd have no problem in handing said Rebel Jedi over. You, on the other hand…" Luke didn't finish the sentence, instead lifting a blue-papered spice stick from his pocket and pulling out his strike-lighter.
Han stepped forward and took it from his mouth, crumbling it between his fingers. "I thought you were off spice."
"I figured this was a special occasion." Again the kid paused. "It is a special occasion, isn't it?"
Han dragged his hand back through his hair, not even sure himself.
"You don't know? You don't know if you want to get arrested, thrown in a cell, interrogated to make sure you didn't hand anything over, then marched out in front of a firing squad?"
"That's rich coming from the guy who dragged me out to meet her in the first place."
"Oh no, you came looking for me that first time."
"And the third time—when you sent me out to meet her alone?"
Luke stood to pat his pockets, clearly looking for another spice stick. "I know, this is all my fault," he said dryly. "Naturally, I should have assumed that you'd fall for the woman who just destroyed the Empire's latest piece of multi-billion-credit technology with the loss of all aboard. What was I thinking?"
Han stared. "Fallen for her? I haven't fallen for her!"
"No? Why did you go alone?"
"She asked me to. I wanted to see what she had to say."
"That could only be said to you—on your own."
"Well you didn't exactly go out of your way to make her comfortable talking to you, last time."
"That's because I have the good sense to keep my enemies at arm's length when I'm using them. It keeps everything so much cleaner." Han glanced down, and Luke let out a disbelieving laugh. "But of course you now think I shouldn't."
"You know, she actually wants to help you," he said quietly.
"Right," the kid said. "Just like when I said I actually wantedto hear about that Baron's munitions plant. The fact that I was trying to find out whether he was sympathetic to the Rebels, didn't enter into it. Because in those kind of situations, dealing with known enemies, we all tell the truth, don't we."
"Get to Kenobi another way—not like this."
"She's the first opportunity I've had to even get close to him in ten years."
"Well then ask her! Tell her the truth and ask her!"
"Yeah, I can just imagine how that conversation would go: 'Here's the thing, see: I'd very much like to talk to the man you clearly worship about the time a few years back, when he led a military incursion into the Imperial palace to try to kill me in my sleep, so eager was he to get rid of me. Oh, and apparently he omitted to mention this to you ever, but I'm also his son. Yes, we do have something of a millennia-old vendetta going, Jedi and Sith, and yes, I'd very much like to address the fact that he's already tried to kill me once, but I hope you won't let that influence your decision as to whether or not you should take me to him'."
"If you tell her, she'll do the right thing."
"Yes—for her own Master! She's loyal to him in the same way that I'm loyal to Palpatine—don't think for a moment otherwise."
Han glanced down. "She asked me that—about you and Palpatine. I told her that it wasn't about that, it was about you needing to talk to Kenobi."
"Oh, you told her that? Tonight?"
Luke's flat voice was quietly reproving. "You're now passing information about an ongoing action to a Rebel agent, you know that?"
"Ongoing action? It's not an ongoing action, it's your private business."
Kid glanced down, frowning. "Things may have changed."
"There's a disturbance in the Force—a shift of events, like a bow-wave coming."
Han lifted his palms up, shaking his head. "What the hell does any of that sentence mean?"
"It means something's about to happen. Something so important that it's impacting on…" Luke hesitated, struggling to put something that was clearly second nature to him, into words Han could understand. "It's going to change things sufficiently that I can already sense it happening. Whatever it is, it's already started."
Han hesitated, and Luke stepped forward. "What?"
He sighed, and looked up. "I got the feeling that Kenobi's on his way to Coruscant, now. That's what Leia wanted; she wanted to know whether she should let the meeting go ahead."
Luke straightened, eyes widening, and Han knew that he'd just filled in the final blank for the kid.
"Here? Why the hell did he come here!"
"He's not here yet. Leia said—"
"This is too big. Palpatine will know…if I've sensed the disturbance then he will have, too." Luke turned about on the spot, then back to Han, increasingly agitated. "I didn't think he'd come to Coruscant…is he insane!"
"You said you wanted to meet him."
"Not here! Palpatine will…"
The kid broke off, caught once again between warring loyalties; his knowledge that he should hand Kenobi over to Palpatine and…and what?
"You don't want to hand Kenobi over, do you?"
"If Palpatine becomes involved, Kenobi's dead—instantly. For the first damn time ever, I'm doing something that I want to do—that I need to do! I won't get this chance again. Even if I handed him over to Palpatine alive, I wouldn't get this chance."
Even if…Han straightened, realization crawling under his skin. Until now, he'd assumed that Luke had wanted to do exactly what he would want to do in this situation; to shout, to demand answers, maybe even accuse, but…his memory dredged up Luke's claim to Leia:
'I've no intentions of hauling Kenobi before the Emperor to answer for his crimes, I assure you. If he ever stands before my Master, it won't be my doing.'
Luke wouldn't have told a direct lie to a Jedi; that was how this worked—how the kid had taught Han himself: misdirection, not lies… And both of the scenarios the kid had named to Leia required that Kenobi be alive.
"You're gonna try to kill him, aren't you?"
Luke looked away, jaw set. "There's no try about it."
Han stared for long seconds… "You won't do it. I don't believe you could."
Kid straightened, resolve written in his every move…but it was half-front and Han knew it, though that only seemed to make Luke angrier. "Think of it as following in my father's footsteps—he seemed more than capable of coming after me when I was eleven."
"Even if you did, how would you explain that to the Emperor?"
"If he'd met me away from Coruscant, as any sane man would have done, it wouldn't have been a problem! Now he's come here…" Luke paused. "I'll tell Palpatine everything—after the event. If Palpatine finds out Kenobi's here, he won't even let me close."
Han shook his head, thoughts on what he'd said to Leia, as well as the stupidity of Luke going against Palpatine's wishes in this—not on killing Kenobi; he didn't believe Luke would do that, not when it came down to it. But the kid had said often enough that the Old Man went insane if he even mentioned Kenobi's name, let alone admitting that he'd purposely deceived Palpatine for the express intention of speaking to him. "That won't be enough, and you know it. You said yourself that this is the one thing…" Han broke off as that cold, creeping comprehension rolled up his spine again in realization of Luke's hope to offset the Old Man's fury: I'll tell Palpatine everything. "You're actually thinking of handing Leia over to him, aren't you?"
Luke looked down without speaking, and Han felt his anger rise. "You said you'd let her go."
"I can't protect her—not now that she's brought Kenobi here."
"Hells, Luke, there are some things you just don't do!"
"No, there are some things you don't do. This is exactly what I do, I made no bones about that, ever. I would have helped her if I could—for you—but I can't, not now. I should have handed her over a long time ago, we both know that…but I held back. This is why you shouldn't get involved; this is why you never get involved. You just smile and you fake it, but you don't ever let them in."
Han straightened. "Does that include me too?"
"You're putting me on the spot?" Luke asked. "For doing my duty?"
"No, I'm putting you on the spot for doing as you're ordered without pausing to think for yourself. Without bothering to look at the consequences. That's why you don't let people in—it's so much easier to do whatever you're told that way, right?"
"I'm not going to apologize for living up to the expectations placed on me by the Emperor."
"Is that what you thought about Toprawa?"
Luke's eyes narrowed, injured at the accusation. "You think I regret it? I don't. I regret your involvement, but Bria Tharen was a Rebel and a traitor…just like Leia."
"You're serious, aren't you?" Han asked, incredulous. "You need to take a good long look at yourself and what you're doing in your precious Emperor's name."
"No,Lieutenant, you do." The kid straightened, on the defensive. "You need to stand in front of a mirror and take a look at that uniform you're wearing…and try to live up to it. Since you're so damned determined to teach me some principles, the least you could do is have a few of your own."
Han blinked, shocked…and fury soon followed. "That's it, I'm done with this. I'm done with this whole place and I'm sure as hell done with you."
"Well then get out."
"Get out? Fine, how's this: I quit! I'm done."
Han wheeled about and strode out without once looking back, ignoring the fact that it was his apartment, or the way that the door slammed home on its runners as only Luke had the ability to make them do.
He marched down dour corridors in furious silence, jaw clamped, lips a thin line. He'd had it—he'd had it with the kid, with this whole crazy place. Let them court-martial him for dereliction of duty, he didn't care! Anything would be better than this. He paced for a few minutes more before turning about and heading out of the palace, intending to make his way on foot to the Shades. Let anyone dare try to mug him tonight…just let 'em try!
It took him a half-hour of walking, one block out and ten blocks down at a time, to clear his head sufficiently that he slowed to a halt, looking about. Damn, he needed a drink! Glancing about to orient himself, he knew he was far enough down from the higher levels that the cantinas here were a mix of mid and low-level, populated by beings looking to have some fun or ply their trade without trouble. There were enough cantinas and tapcafes to have a choice, many of which Han knew well by now, so he passed the first, which was too classy, and the second, which was way too loud, and entered the smoke-filled main room of the third, walking straight to the busy bar and catching one of the barstaff's eye.
"Corellian ale…in fact, make it a chaser."
Flicking her lekku behind her back as she glanced briefly at his uniform, the Twi'lek pulled the ale with professional ease, turning to lift an ornate bottle from the shelf as the ale glass filled, so that ale and chaser arrived together.
"That'll be nine-sixty."
An older man serving behind the bar stepped up as she held out her hand. "S'okay, Sinda," he glanced to Han. "These are on the kid in the corner. Your lucky night."
Confused, Han glanced through the crowd…and sitting on a stool against the wall, a loose half-smile on his face, was Luke.
Han turned back to the bar for a moment, glaring at his drink…then he shook his head wryly and rolled his eyes skyward, before gathering his drinks and heading toward him. "I don't believe it. How the hell did you get here?"
"I walked, like you did."
"I mean how did you know I'd come to…you know what, don't even bother to answer that." He downed his short, swallowing a few times against the fire which burned a hot trail into his stomach, before looking at the kid again. "You are an absolute asshole sometimes, you know that?"
"You treat people like dirt..."
"You mess with their heads."
"You continually try to push 'em away,"
"Then just when they think they're finally getting to understand you, you explode in their faces."
"And quit just agreeing with me an' grinning."
Calming a little, Han glanced down, unable to stay mad when the kid was giving on everything he said. Sighing, he shook his head. "Why d'you do it, huh? You let people get so close, then you just…"
"Stop agreeing with me!"
The bartender leaned over the bar to catch Luke's attention. "Hey—the officer's ale and chaser…that's nine-sixty."
Luke glanced back to Han. "Can I borrow some credits?"
It was near dawn by the time they got back to the palace, the soft, frost-laden light setting a serene haze to the massive structure's steep angles and looming bulk as it disappeared into the low clouds, its unremittingly dark blue stone softened to a misted indigo.
The comlink on the kid's belt buzzed, and he ignored it, instead turning to Han. "I was thinking…"
"About the fact that you owe me nine credits sixty?" Han joked loosely.
"What you said—about your leaving." There was no smile on the kid's face this time. Instead he hesitated for long seconds… "You were probably right; you should."
"You should go—leave. I can get you a full discharge, and you could go where you want. Start again and…"
"Wait a minute, why would I go?"
Luke's head turned briefly to Han, though he wouldn't meet his eyes. "Why would you stay?"
His comlink buzzed again, and this time Luke lifted it to look at the ID, then turned it off.
Han frowned. "Are you gonna answer that?"
"No, it's just Indo. If you left now, you could—"
"I'm not leaving. That was just you driving me insane."
"You have to go." There was something determined and desperate in the kid's voice. "You can't stay here any longer."
"You're kidding, right?" Han dismissed. "I haven't gotten nearly my credits' worth outta these uniforms. They haven't even stopped itching yet."
The kid wouldn't be cajoled. "I'm serious. I shouldn't have brought you here in the first place. People…they don't stay with me very long—or they don't stay in one piece."
"Gorn stays, and he's in one piece."
"You think I'd've come out here after Gorn? And before you start defending him, I know there's nothing wrong with Gorn, he's just…I don't even know his first name."
"Really? Actually, that kinda suits him." Luke shook his head. "The point is, I'll have forgotten that tomorrow."
"No, you won't. Indo's endless hours of tutoring—you remember everything."
"No, I remember things that are useful—things of value. Therne, I'll forget…and that's the point. Haven't you worked it out yet, Han? Or did you just not listen, no matter how many times they all told you—because they're right. I'm…" he laughed sourly, "I'm a dangerous man to know."
Han came to a stop. "No, you're not—Palpatine is. And he's just as dangerous to you as everyone else. Remember that."
"I can take care of myself."
Always that mantra; wouldn't let anyone else even try. "How, by doing whatever the Old Man tells you? 'Cos it seems to me like you've been doin' that for a long time now…and how's that working out?"
Luke shook his head. "You can't…you can't say things like that. Things like that make people disappear. I can't protect you—not from him."
"Luke, d'you want to be that guy who just does whatever the hell he's ordered for the rest of his life? You've spent years with all these damn tutors, learning all this stuff, and in everything they've taught you, they haven't taught the one thing you actually need—they haven't taught you to think for yourself."
"I'll be out of here inside a year."
"No, you won't. You'll never be out of here, 'cos you'll just carry it with you wherever you go. And don't tell me that's not so bad, because we both know the truth. You want me to leave? I'll let you in on a secret: I can't wait to go…when you come with me."
"You know I can't do that."
"You stay here and you're dead."
"So are you."
Han frowned…and the military comlink at his belt chose that moment to buzz an incoming comm. He lifted it; Indo. "Yeah?"
Even on the comm, the Viscount oozed disdain. "May I assume that you are presently with Luke, Lieutenant Solo?"
At least he didn't wait for the excuse. "Please inform him that the Emperor issued a command almost an hour ago, summoning Luke to his presence immediately."
Having no spice on him, Luke was forced to make a brief detour to his own apartment before he felt ready to answer the summons, though he knew it would delay him further, and had no idea what Han would say when he reappeared with it. As he entered, thoughts on what he'd say to Han, Gorn stepped from the cluttered staffroom beside the door, his face somber. For a second Luke stared, wondering why he was here at all, at this hour. Gorn remained still, face solemn—and Luke glanced down the long corridor and into the three-room enfilade which led to his own rooms, knowing…
At the end of the last room, standing to either side of the mirrored doors, were two Red Guard.
Royal Guards, here; Luke's heart skipped a beat, skipped another. His Master rarely deigned to come down here, invading the one safe haven that Luke had. Was he here now to find out why his summons had been ignored for over an hour…or did he know something? Anything—everything. Was this a dangerous accusation, or a simple reprimand?
He faltered to a stop as Gorn still stared, pointedly avoiding announcing the Emperor's presence, so that Luke could have simply turned and walked from his apartment; avoided this entirely. On Palpatine's order, he no longer left himself visible within the Force—his Master wouldn't know he was standing at the doors to his own apartment right now.
But he'd pick it out of Gorn's head if he had to wait too long, and so Gorn would face his wrath—and for nothing, because even if Luke managed to get out of the palace right now, he'd have to come back eventually.
Beside Luke, Han slowed, eyes on Gorn. "What the hell are you doin' here at…"
He trailed off, seeing the Royal Guard.
Luke pursed his lips and nodded once in unspoken thanks to Therne, then walked on towards the mirrored divide, knowing Palpatine was waiting beyond its broken reflections.
At the end of the enfilade in the Red Room, Indo turned from where he stood to one side, stock-straight, hands clasped tightly together, face dour. His glare went immediately to Han, probably already suspecting that something was going on, and believing that Han would be involved somehow—in fact, he likely believed that Han was instigating it once again, despite Luke's repeated dismissals. He had, of late, become a niggling voice in Luke's ear, taking any opportunity to cite Han's insubordination his flagrant disregard for authority as dangerous examples to follow, with only one eventual outcome.
Luke hesitated, glancing back to Han, voice a quiet murmur. "Wait here."
"I'm coming in."
"No, too much is fresh in your mind."
"Not this time. Not with him." Luke quickly took the civilian comlink from his pocket and handed it over to Han, looking to give him something to do, to stop the argument that was already forming on his lips. "Here. If it sounds, it'll be Leia. Tell her I'll meet wherever she wants, tonight." He hesitated at Han's misgivings. "I won't hand her over."
"What'll you tell Palpatine?" Han asked quietly, eyes on the Royal Guard.
Luke didn't reply but walked on, thoughts on exactly that, given his words to Han. He reminded himself afresh to play the game his Master had taught him by so many harsh examples: never lie. Lies are easy to detect. Always tell the truth, just never the facts.
A few days' delay, that was all. Once he'd spoken with Kenobi, he'd tell his Master everything—save Han's involvement. But if Palpatine pulled the truth from Luke now, he'd refuse him the opportunity to go after Kenobi; deny him any contact, Luke knew that.
If he held silent now, and went to face Kenobi alone then yes, he would pay, he would be punished. But it would be too late for his Master to change anything or forbid him. It would be done. He would have faced his father.
Whatever the cost, it was worth that.
The high doors swept open in silence, and Luke entered the unlit room, turning immediately to the bank of windows which looked out over the dawning city, knowing that was where his Master stood.
Dressed in dark vermillion robes, a wide cowl of figured velvet hiding his features, Palpatine didn't turn, eyes and attention remaining on the sprawl of the ecumenpolis below.
The doors closed as Luke knelt in genuflection in the empty room, deeply uneasy at his Master being here in his one safe haven, and waited…
And waited. Palpatine remained still, his back to Luke, the heavy train of his ruby robes pooled at his feet.
Was he waiting for Luke to offer something? Guilt-ridden panic began to slowly congeal in the pit of his stomach. Was he being given on last chance to tell Palpatine everything, now? Did he give up this one chance, this only chance—because that was what it would be, if he told his Master; Kenobi would be found and killed in short order, and Luke's only opportunity to ever put his past to rest would be gone.
And he couldn't give that up…wouldn't.
Head lowered, he felt a spear of regret at the realization that he hadn't had spice in over a week. He should have taken it; stupid, to listen to Solo. If he'd not stopped, he would likely have known no more of the disturbance than the vague awareness that his Master had, so that when he faced him now, Luke wouldn't even have had to lie. Wouldn't have had to worry what he could and couldn't hide from his Master when—
Luke's thoughts paused as he wondered, quite suddenly and for the first time, whether that dangerous, deep-buried knowledge that his Master's attunement was not as finely balanced as his own, could actually save him…because it afforded him more subtle control; the ability to hide beneath even his Master's close scrutiny. His heart missed a beat, then pounded in his chest, at the very notion…
Without turning Palpatine spoke, grating voice low and demanding. "What has happened?"
His tone was distant and distracted, but no less the threat for it. Again the knowledge of what he was considering beat against Luke's resolve—but the words came from him without conscious thought. "I don't know, Master."
"But something has happened…and you did not think to come to me?" Luke lowered his head further in silence, and Palpatine continued quietly, as if considering. "I sense a disturbance in the Force…fractured and diffuse."
The muscles of his back twitched involuntarily as Luke struggled to suppress the desire to automatically raise further shields in place, instead working to veil only the thoughts and memories of speaking with Leia, knowing that her presence was what his Master had sensed.
"It is not the first time I have sensed this disturbance." His Master turned, the pallid glow of dawn rendering his raised cowl a hollow pit from which sulphurous yellow eyes gleamed brightly. "And it is, therefore, not the first time that you have sensed it."
Luke glanced down, then immediately made himself meet his Master's eyes. They narrowed, the rustle of heavy cloth marking a sideways tilt of his head, as his Master regarded him. "And so what did you see, my little blue-eyed boy?"
He blinked, mind racing to pitch logic against long-ingrained fears. What did his Master know, and what was nothing more than vague words which Luke read his own guilt into?
He was so close—so close to speaking with his father, to asking him why. Why he'd deserted his son. Why, knowing Luke was alive, he'd still abandoned him here, to this. So close to the truths that had been withheld, to the answers he'd craved for as long as he could remember…
Han's words still rang fresh in his mind: "You've spent years with all these damn tutors, and in everything they've taught you, they haven't taught the one thing you actually need—they haven't taught you to think for yourself."
He straightened his back, sure that his Master must be able to hear the pound of his heart. He'd never lied to him—not like this, face to face. He hadn't even done that with the Death Star. He'd made his report while still onboard the Vendetta, and had never been asked to re-state any of it—never been given the the chance to offer validations or caveats. Palpatine had been far beyond listening to anything, by the time Luke reached Coruscant to face him. To face him…did he risk that fury again, now, for abstract answers that should no longer even matter?
He stared into his Master's eyes. Just in this—only this once, only in this…
"Nothing, Master—I saw nothing." It was said too quickly and he knew it, his shock at his own daring throwing him off-center.
"No?" Palpatine stepped forward and leaned down to take Luke's chin in his hand, using the motion to prompt him to stand. Luke rose, his Master's hand still resting lightly against his face, something that had always unsettled him. Palpatine smiled just slightly, leaning forward. "Then why are you afraid, child?"
Even touching the boy's face, Palpatine could sense nothing in the Force, and momentarily regretted his order just months ago, that the boy should conceal his presence. He could of course rescind that order, but to do so now would have been an admission both of an error in ordering the boy to do such in the first place, and of his own inability to read him now. Still, he needed no Force contact to see the slight widening of the boy's eyes, or feel him shrink back from his Master's hand.
He wasn't blind. He knew the boy had the potential to be more powerful than himself. Power was a wonderful gift, given to be used, and under his careful tutelage the boy had learned to do just that, left from childhood to hold his own against the likes of Vader. And he was certainly coming of age—even Vader had noticed that…or rather, had fallen prey to it, in their recent duel. Yes, despite his reluctance to use them, the boy's sporadic powers had begun to expand and develop, of late. And it was an interesting conundrum, for Palpatine…because much as he'd thought that he had wanted this—wanted the boy to finally realize his potential to serve—in fact he'd found that the more the boy's abilities expanded, the less sure Palpatine had become…the more threatened.
But then power itself wasn't everything. Palpatine prided himself on the knowledge that he was an exemplary tactician, a consummate manipulator…and he was confident that it was this that gave him the edge over the boy, just as it had with his father, when Anakin was still at the height of his power. Though his methods, of course, were very different this time.
In this instance, what was important was not the power Palpatine held, but his willingness to use it. Like training a wild nek, one had to be always ready to demonstrate one's dominance. Obviously the animal was stronger and faster, the clear advantage held, but if a trainer owned it from infancy and had never hesitated to use force to demonstrate what was, at that time, his own superior strength, then such lessons were written deep into the creature's psyche, and the trainer's willingness to take any opportunity to underline and reinforce those beliefs maintained such perceptions, despite changing circumstances.
And so the boy now stood, wide-eyed and nervous, eager to please and deferring completely to his Master's will…as it should be. As it had been with Maul, before him. Anakin…Anakin had been the exception to the rule, and proof of its efficacy; had he held Anakin from childhood, had he trained the young boy's mind and honed his body and his skill, then he was confident that the duel at Mustafar would have come to a very different conclusion, and Anakin's power would have remained intact. As it was…Vader knew no more of what this present Force-disturbance was than Palpatine did.
It had been deeply gratifying in so many ways, that Anakin had lost all that had set him above Palpatine…but deeply galling, too. Because at the time, with that power gone, Palpatine had wondered where he could possibly turn, to recreate it…
He smiled at the boy. "Tell me all that you see?"
"Now." Palpatine kept his voice quiet; one did not need to shout, to convey a demand. "Tell me what you see, right now."
Still wary, Luke closed his eyes and opened his mind, answering instantly the command in his Master's voice.
The flow of the Force rushed like a river around him. A thousand images: the minds and thoughts and intentions of those close by. The grating presence of his Master just steps away; the absolute confidence, the simmering resentment that Luke knew he fired by his very presence, which he'd never quite understood. It came like a tide about him as he cast his mind outwards, a flood of information and awareness which he immersed himself within, allowing it to saturate his senses without picking any single course to follow. "I see…nothing. Nothing specific."
Cool fingers slid down about his throat without tightening, as his Master's voice came in a whisper.
Sinking deeper within its embrace, Luke tilted his head, attuning himself to the myriad of feelings and emotions which resonated within the Force; snatches of thoughts and memories tumbled briefly in crystal clarity then fell back into the flow as he released them, widening his senses, but without truly looking for traces or allusions. "There's nothing. People, moments…"
His Master's voice, as much sensed as heard now. He saw himself, briefly, through his Master's eyes. Sensed the complex mix of greed and antipathy which had pushed the grasping hand to slide lightly from his chin and rest about his throat…
Palpatine loosed an open-lipped smile, appreciative of the power he sensed being wielded, finally seeing the potential he'd always known should exist, from the very first time he'd seen that seven-year-old boy, eyes wide, knowing in a way that no child ever should that his life was unravelling because of the dark-dressed man standing before him. Years of careful manipulation had been invested, praise and punishment both, into controlling the boy absolutely. And now…now he was finally seeing all of that potential come to fruition.
He watched, fascinated, aware of the connection that the boy harnessed so naturally, just as his father had once done, an attenuation which surpassed any before, developing more every day, now. It had always drawn him, this locus of power; had always filled him with pride that he had guided it, and resentment that he himself did not hold it. He stepped in, the only sound of his movement the whispering drag of heavy fabric, as he paused before the boy.
"Look closer," he murmured, pushing him on for no other reason now than to see the extent of his power.
Luke frowned, spurred into refining the connection ever more precisely, though he let it slide unnoticed past the disturbance itself—he didn't want to see it; didn't want to sense it. Instead he pushed further, looking to hide the omission with escalating contact in an ever-widening field. The Capital, the continent, the planet…
The slightest tremor of a breath touched his face, and abruptly Luke was aware of Palpatine, so close that the old man's breath on his cheek lightly lifted the fine hairs of his face—
He pulled back, awareness returning in a rush of incandescent intensity, incredible synthesis centered on a single spot, a single point of awareness…
…and he saw.
For a fraction of an instant, everything was clear, everything was lucid, everything remained in focus, from the single breath of an old man to the turning of a galaxy…
That background scratch, that he sensed occasionally at the very edge of his heightened senses; a presence completely familiar yet somehow removed, a fraction displaced, a shade offset. That nebulous feeling of fractured familiarity, like a well-known tune in the wrong key.
He jerked just slightly and his Master was there instantly, pushing for more. "What do you see?"
"Nothing—it's not the disturbance. It's…"
A building, hunched and stark against a darkened sky of roiling clouds. Musty corridors, cold and empty. A secret, long-hidden in the dark of dour corridors and dusty rooms.
Obeying without thinking, Luke focused on it; completely, intently, every fraction of power turned to it…
"Tell me." His Master's voice, from far away.
"A corridor…very long and very dark. Well hidden."
"Where is it?"
"Very close…and very far away."
"Both. In the center of everything." He sensed the frustration flare in his Master, but they both knew that Force visions were never as simple as sight alone.
"Where does it lead?" hissed Palpatine.
"I don't know. It's barred."
Palpatine frowned, frustration curling into annoyance, which gnawed within Luke's awareness. "Break the bars"
Luke blanched. "I can't."
"I…shouldn't, I don't think."
"I don't know—but I shouldn't breach this." He knew it absolutely; this was forbidden territory.
His Master's frustration bored into him. So much of Palpatine was visible to Luke in this heightened state, so he sensed with shared clarity the shadow of uncertainty which rippled down his Master's spine to settle like a cold weight within. Sensed his Master's knowledge that something was wrong; something closed in about him, perfectly hidden. "Break the bars."
"They're too strong."
"You haven't tried."
"I can't." The answer—the knowledge—was categorical.
Palpatine gritted his teeth. "Then find another way in. Subtlety, subterfuge. Find a way."
"Do as I tell you!"
Luke sensed the distant shock which ran through his body from his Master's hand, but he was too detached, too widely spread within the Force, for the physical to be real. Only the demand remained. And he could do this, he knew; could force his way in, or could creep around and through defenses that were near-perfect. Because near-perfect wasimperfect…
With effortless, innate dexterity, he scattered himself lighter, ever more delicate, ever more elusive, until the solid became insubstantial—or perhaps that was himself.
Passing so subtly that it was without even a tremor, he paused, taking measure. A memory—a knowledge, as expertly hidden as the building which crouched, squat and dark and foreboding. Endless halls, dim and unused…a room. Technology; automated, ongoing. The precise, synchronized tack of mechanical movement, the steady, regulated hubbub of air in fluid…and everywhere, a dark, intense red. Every surface in this place; in this one room. "Underground," he said at last, though it was more a general awareness than the image coalescing. "It's underground, enclosed…technology…air in water." He heard that sound distinctly, the low babble of bubbles in liquid—smelled the tang of medically sterilized fluid.
It hit him again with an almost physical force: "I shouldn't be here."
"Why? Show me what you sense." His Master's voice, clipped by impatience.
That familiar weight, that inevitable blunting burden as his Master climbed inside his thoughts…then something twisted. His awareness seemed to turn within itself and inside out, ripping violently away to leave Luke gasping.
"What happened? " His Master shook him as Luke struggled against the shock. "Answer me!"
"I don't…it was you—the connection broke apart because of you. I shouldn't have been there anyway." Why did he keep repeating that—why did he feel a surge of guilt dragging him down, that he'd refined the vision, even at his Master's command? What stood equal to that? Because something had. Some conviction had pushed with equal influence, and even now had the power to hold him to silence.
"What did you see?"
"I didn't…I didn't see anything, Master."
"You said you saw technology…air in water."
Luke searched, one thought still clear-cut —perhaps because it wasn't a part of the vision itself, but connected with it, in some fundamental way. "You knew…you knew that something was wrong; something closed in, hidden."
Immediately his Master's hold slackened, eyes becoming distant. "I sensed…some spectre that hovered, unseen." That strong hand loosed him entirely and Palpatine brought it to his own throat, as if feeling some invisible force tighten there. "Something comes…something stalks, wrapped about with a pitch black cloak of—"
Ocher eyes flicked open as Palpatine paused, and Luke knew instantly who his Master suspected. He'd sensed all that his Master had; the vaguest awareness of a distant threat, indistinct as shadows shifting on the tides of a night sea, whilst changing events ebbed and flowed about it.
But then his Master had never needed the tangible; suspicions were sufficient to push him to conclusions. "Perhaps the man who has served me for so long, now covets the throne for himself."
"Then remove him." All else was momentarily forgotten beneath the chance to gain this. What had begun as a vague hope to distract from Leia Skywalker's presence, had taken on greater import with the opportunity to bring down Vader. "You said you'd give me this—this chance to face him."
"When you were ready."
"I'm ready now, Master—let me prove it."
Palpatine brought one pale hand back to Luke's cheek as if in affection. "You are a good child."
If he'd dared, he would have knocked his Master's hand away, frustrated by the epithet that he hadn't yet managed to shrug free of, and Palpatine knew it. As it was, he shook his head, voice halfway between appeal and demand. "I'm not a child. Let me prove it—let me duel him!"
Palpatine raised his wrinkled brow, his words harsh though his sense was almost indulgent. "And if he took your head from your shoulders? Years of work, spent moulding something of value from the crude little creature that came here, would have been wasted."
"His only advantage is strength, and I'd pick my arena. I'd never be fool enough to fight him in an enclosed space—you taught me better than that. Master, this is connected—this is all connected, I can sense that." Whatever Vader had seen when he'd claimed earlier that the disturbance was connected to Luke, he was wrong—it had been Vader; this was all connected to Vader!
Palpatine's eyes narrowed. "What do you sense, that makes you see this?"
Without thinking Luke turned his awareness outward, an expansion without check, cast widely and aggressively, searching for the nuance that had made him so sure. Instantly he found something new in the subtle undercurrent of the Force about him, and grasped for it.
It existed scattered within the space between awareness and intuition…he tilted his head, searching to single out that mote in the storm, that flaw in the uniform…
He sensed Leia's presence at a distance; knew it distinctly, an unmistakeable fusion of compassion and boldness. Something within him warmed at it, but he pushed it aside, focusing past it and through it… A second presence separated out, distinct and enigmatic, almost perfectly concealed, even to him—and Luke knew with a terrible realization who it was. He withdrew hastily, dropping a fog over his thoughts. A brief moment; a flicker of awareness as an old man's voice, tinged with amicable bemusement, sounded a future echo: "I can tell you everything…everything that's been withheld."
Luke opened his eyes, staring at his Master for long moments…
"What did you see?" That rasping grasp; an instant, avaricious demand.
Kenobi was here, now. Luke remained still, the moment convulsive with possibilities…
"It's gone." He lied directly to Palpatine. Looked his Master in the eye and lied to him. "It's gone, now, whatever it was. Vader's connected though, I know it."
His Master's gaze held for long seconds, something sinister in his stillness. And Luke stayed silent, held centered, a thousand shields in place as he looked to his Master without blinking…
And finally Palpatine smiled, pale lips against stained teeth, and once more asked the only question that had ever seemed to hold any true relevance to him. The only thing he had ever required of Luke: "Will you always be my servant, child?"
Luke scanned his Master's face, needs and desires skewing wildly as he considered all that he wanted…to see Kenobi, to stand face to face with him and ask his father why he had deserted him—to look him in the eyes as he said it. To demand why he'd been abandoned in favor of his father's precious cause, his Rebellion. To ask him why he'd been so willing to murder his own flesh and blood when Luke was still a child, when it was Kenobi's fault—his fault—that Luke had come to serve the other side of his war. How many nights as a child had he laid awake in the somber silence of the echoing Throne Room, cold and trembling and lost, with those thoughts racing through his mind? How many times, as he'd faced his Master's vicious temper, had he wondered why his father had discarded him so completely? How many questions burned…
One chance…one chance to ask and find the truth. Answers that only his father would know, closure that only Kenobi could give. And hadn't his Master always taught that one should use any means to gain what one needed?
He let out the breath he'd held in frozen lungs and locked chest; forced the barest hint of a smile to his lips as he held his Master's gaze. "I'll always be as you made me, Master. Everything that I am, I am because of you."
Standing to tense attention as he waited for either the Emperor or Luke to walk from the enfilade, Indo became aware that Solo, still standing to the far side of the big, austere room, was watching him. He turned briefly, and the Corellian's chin lifted a fraction, eyes narrowing.
Indo turned away with studied disinterest, his thoughts on the boy rather than Solo. He'd been aware since Toprawa that something had been going on between the two, some secret that they kept to themselves, and was growing less patient by the day with it. Solo was a wayward influence on Luke, when Indo had worked so hard to bring him this far. He knew now what the Emperor's intention was; that Solo would be tolerated here for just this test, to see whether Luke would learn to turn his back of his own accord. As a consequence, Indo had remained silent, knowing that the Emperor would wish no compromise of his test…but it was difficult, as the boy fell ever more under Solo's influence. Turning back, Indo became aware from the Corellian's tenseness that something was wrong tonight—more so than usual—and curious as to why Luke hadn't taken Solo in with him. Perhaps he knew of the Emperor's muted dislike of the man.
Realizing that he was under scrutiny, Solo turned to stare at Indo again, then looked slowly away to walk to the wide span of windows, where dawn was beginning to soften the sky to the gray tones of early morning. He didn't try to speak to Indo about Luke's role here any more, present or future; he knew such pointless complaints would fall on deaf ears.
The comlink in Solo's hand—the one that Luke had quickly given him—sounded a chime, and he strode quickly from the room, bringing it to his mouth. Indo listened to his receding footsteps and murmured words as he walked the full length of the enfilade, probably specifically to be sure that Indo couldn't hear what was said.
To the majority—Solo included—Indo knew he was considered a cold, calculating man of acute, even blinkered focus, who pushed his charge to the very limits. He didn't particularly care—their opinions were unimportant. For himself, Indo had found a mission in life, one that coincided with the goals of the Emperor himself, no less, and that was to make Luke Antilles all that he could be. If it was necessary to push the boy for that, then yes, he would do so—without hesitation.
But despite all the steps that Indo had taken to prevent it, it seemed that Luke was growing away from him now. Solo was getting too close, sufficiently so that Indo was beginning to feel his own influence slip, and he hadn't invested so much for so long, to see his labor lost now simply because some wayward ex-pilot had elbowed his way into Luke's life, causing him nothing but grief along the way. There was clearly more that had happened during that fateful day of the Death Star's destruction, for instance. Indo wasn't blind—and he certainly wasn't stupid. Solo's influence here was becoming dangerous…to Luke, and therefore to all of Indo's intentions for the boy. And that alone was reason to remove him.
All this upheaval, for the sake of one more lesson… The boy had been exposed to many over the years, and it had always been left to Indo to pick up the pieces, as it would be this time after Solo's removal, he was sure. Though it had become easier over the years, as Luke had learned not to leave himself vulnerable…which left Indo all the more baffled that the boy should choose to do so now.
What particular lesson had been taught with the Emperor's customary clinical efficiency on the day that Luke had first been handed over into Indo's care, he did not know; to this day, Luke would not speak of it. But at the time, the sight of the traumatized child who had withstood four long years of vindictive maltreatment had fired something within Indo which had been impossible to ignore.
By this time, Indo's own son, the reason for his existence and the center of his plans for so long, was dead. Everything, everything that he had centered his life on, was gone in an instant, in the space of a lost breath. All his work, all his ambitions for Dubrail, endless years of tireless coaching and schooling and advancing. All gone…
Eleven months. Eleven months he lived in a gray and empty world, adhering to hollow duties…
Until he had been summoned to a private audience with the Emperor, and once again been given a direction. The Emperor had even commiserated with Indo for his loss. Had commended the way in which he had always sought to guide his son's future; channel the boy's potential. Could he do it again, Palpatine had asked? Could he take another charge, and turn raw potential into realized capability? Could he start tonight?
The child delivered to Indo later that night was completely unresponsive—so much so that he had summoned a medic for fear that the boy had sustained an injury or suffered some kind of seizure. Luke was taken to the Palace medicenter where he remained locked in this still, impassive state for days, reacting to nothing, neither eating nor drinking despite his malnourished state.
So it had been Indo who first coaxed words from the silent, slight, malnourished child. Indo who had lifted him, feather-light, skin and bone, back into the bed which he would always crawl beneath when left alone. Had quietly removed the small hoards of food he would hide about his rooms for fear of being starved again. Had rearranged the furniture of his bedroom again and again, when the boy was strong enough to begin to drag it into the corner to make a makeshift hide-away, night after night. Had gradually tried to direct the uncannily silent, insular child back to a more balanced state.
It was a long time coming, but within that tolerance came acceptance—a connection.
The turning point, strangely enough, had been the annual ceremony to commemorate the Emperor's accession, and though it was only months after he'd been delivered to Indo, Palpatine had decreed that Luke would attend. The boy had been outside only once in the last four years, and that had been only five months earlier when, dressed in new clothes and practically dragged by Palpatine from the Throne Room to the Great Hall which led out onto the long stretch of the Pageant Balcony, he had been hauled, struggling mutely, into the wide open space and the bright light of day. The crowds which had been waiting in their thousands on the terraces far below for their Emperor's appearance, had loosed a mutual roar of recognition which had cut the air like the rumble of thunder, prolongued and deeply intimidating in its scale—all the more so at this distance, where their numbers blurred into a sprawling, crawling mass as they surged forward.
Luke had stood frozen on the balcony for less than a minute, gripped tightly the whole time by the Emperor. When he'd finally been allowed back into the Hall his nerve had failed him and he'd crumpled against the wall, hunching forward as he'd heaved short, wracked breaths which shook his whole frame. Like everyone else Indo had glanced, just once, to the disturbed child, wondering at the Emperor's actions—because they would have had a purpose.
But he'd done nothing more—nobody ever did.
Now, he found himself responsible for the boy's second steps into daylight in four years. New, tailored clothes befitting his station were ordered, boots were measured and fitted, his wild hair cut short. Nothing elicited any reaction.
By Indo's nervous arrangement, a tracker had been sewn into the lining of the boy's shirt, and another placed in the heel of his boot, in case he bolted. Guards were assigned.
The morning was bright and sunny as the cortege made their way down through the palace for the short journey to the huge, grand, Congregation Hall to one side of the palace grounds, traditionally used for all large events requiring the attendance of planetary representatives and the Royal Houses.
Holding tightly to a handful of fabric at the silent boy's shoulder despite his obvious unease at this, Indo had walked Luke to the private gardens on the top of the public levels of the palace, where a fleet of black speeders awaited to take dignitaries to the event.
At the high double-doors the boy had stopped dead with such force that Indo stumbled to a halt, and looked down to see the boy standing at the threshold, squinting in the light, eyes darting cautiously. They stared at each other in silence, Indo unsure what was wrong. For a long time they remained like this, Indo frowning, the boy glancing back to the guards behind him then down to the threshold again, deeply uncertain.
"Outside," he'd said simply at last, his voice very small.
"Outside," Indo acknowledged, hiding his surprise at the breaking of this self-imposed silence.
"Outside here?" The slight, pale boy had drawn his clenched, scarred hands to his chest in uncertainty, and finally, Indo realized both what he was asking of the child, and what he was offering him.
"Whenever you wish," he'd assured.
Gently taking hold of his sleeve, Indo had stepped over the threshold and into the bright warmth of the sun. The boy still hesitated, feet planted, forcing Indo to pull lightly as Luke had leaned back in resistance, unmoving, as if unable to make that final step.
Finally Indo stepped back inside the threshold, taking a gamble. "Another day, perhaps."
The boy took a step back into the shadows of the room and Indo thought the bluff had failed… But then he shook his arm free, pursed his lips and, lifting his hand to shield his eyes against the daylight, took two quick, tense steps out into the sun...then froze, turning back to look at Indo and the guards beyond.
Understanding the import of the moment, the difficulty and the daring of the act, Indo had smiled. Luke simply stared. He didn't smile for almost a year; it was no longer in his vocabulary to do so.
But he had studied Indo's face closely. Perhaps it was the first time in years that someone had done this to him.
It brought home, as he looked at the slight, scarred, serious boy, just how damaged he was. How far he would have to come to achieve any level of normality. How much he had lost.
But he had taken the first step. Alone.
It was a long, hard road.
It started just minutes later when, still riding high on the back of his achievement, Indo had tried to guide the boy ahead of him into the waiting sedan speeder, and Luke had recoiled, twisting away in panic though he didn't yell out—he almost never did. He'd very nearly made it past the guards before one of them had grabbed him, lifting him just clear of the floor to stop his struggle—and Luke had bristled as he always did at any contact, thrashing wildly, arching his back to claw at the man's helmeted face.
"No, let him go," Indo yelled quickly, before this escalated. "Put him down!"
On his feet again, the boy instantly backpedalled further, eyes wide, recoiling until he hit the palace wall behind him, head jarring at the impact.
"Luke…Luke!" Indo held his arm out without touching, trying to stop the boy from sidestepping back into the room to his right, seeking to break his sudden overreaction. Surely he remembered speeders—what was he panicking about? "Luke, it's a speeder, that's all. It's just a speeder."
The boy's eyes remained wide, hands flattened to the wall behind him. Around them, other guests awaiting their provided transports were beginning to stare, or worse, trying hard not to, as they whispered between themselves.
"Luke, it's just a speeder." …and then Indo had remembered. Remembered just exactly how Luke had come to be here in the first place; the explosion that had left him alone.
They spent the next forty minutes watching dignitaries line up and step into speeders. Watching them take the short trip over to the Hall. Watching the speeders slow and their passengers step out safely. Watching the speeders turn about to make another trip…and another, and another.
"We have to get into this speeder," Indo said at last, when they were the final party standing on the rooftop platform. The boy pressed back, chin pulling in, lips a narrow line as the sedan waited, doors open, bobbing slightly in the wind. His new clothes had been pulled awry in the struggle, and Indo daren't try to straighten them.
"Luke, everything will be fine." He had no idea what to do. Slight as the boy was, Indo knew he could probably have one of the guards restrain him and bundle him into the speeder, but then what? Even if they managed the short trip, what state would the boy be in at the other end of it, where Indo was supposed to deliver him to the Emperor?
Luke stared resolutely at the ground before him, his perpetual frown deepening…and Indo had no idea of how to proceed. He wasn't the right person for this. The boy was too unstable, too disturbed. He sighed, shaking his head. "The Emperor is waiting."
Pale blue eyes lifted to Indo's—and he saw the way forward. "The Emperor ordered this, Luke—that you do this, now. Do you want to keep him waiting? Will you go against his command? You know he'll come back here, soon…"
The boy glanced down, one hand lifting to his lips as he gnawed compulsively at his thumbnail.
"What will you say to him, Luke, when he arrives here, incensed. What will you say, when he comes for you?"
Luke blinked slowly, still chewing at his nail…then glanced up towards the speeder. Indo didn't rush him, simply moving aside as he gestured silently for the guards to take another transport. Luke paused one more time, hands clenched to fists as he froze for long seconds at the speeder's door…then he climbed inside, still small enough to stand upright a he stared dead ahead, body tensed, back straight.
Indo had, of course, felt a brief flare of guilt at holding such threats over the head of one who had already faced so many—but it was for the boy's own good. The intimidation wasn't his, after all, nor had it been a lie; the Emperor would indeed have come looking for the boy with all haste if he had failed to arrive at the Hall. Better, surely, that Luke knew that. Better that he always knew the truth, when no one could protect him from it.
And so it had gone. Indo had never hidden anything from Luke. Never made light of, or underplayed it. His position here was to facilitate the boy's progress, and he could hardly do that by lying to him.
It had been less than a year before the disappearances had begun. Though Luke's rooms were always locked at night, Indo would arrive early every morning and unlock the door to find him gone, with no explanation for months as to how, though he always returned in time for his first lesson, crumpled and dishevelled.
Then people began to contact him, asking diplomatically if he was aware that the boy was…outside of the palace.
Outside of the palace, where?
Outside, climbing the wall.
Luke had taken to scaling the external walls of the palace. Hundreds of stories up, on the upper ziggurat and the turrets. Accusations were levelled, and it had been forbidden in no uncertain terms. It became, in fact, the first thing that Luke had acquiesced and agreed with totally to Indo's face…and then gone off and done exactly the opposite, once alone.
The windows had been sealed shut. The boy had then taken to going further and further afield to get out. Indo had confronted him, and for the first time ever, Luke had argued back. The Emperor's name had been invoked, and Luke had hung his head, contrite—then done it again, within days. Unable to stop it, Indo had instituted the nightly regime of sleeping tablets, to ensure that the boy remained in his room. The comms lessened…for just four months. When the next comm came, Indo had thanked the man, then ignored it entirely. Luke returned for lessons, on time. Nothing was mentioned again—ever.
The beginning of longstanding habits.
He'd never truly had a childhood, but at fourteen, Luke grew up.
The uniform was delivered unexpectedly just a month or so before Luke's fourteenth birthday, with no mention of its impending arrival by the Emperor. In a life already burdened with so much, Indo watched Luke struggle as lessons were rescheduled, continuing well into the night, and Luke began to experience first-hand the pressures of his future position, desperate as ever for the Emperor's approval. And still, occasionally, he would disappear. Of course, Indo knew that by now, Luke was leaving the palace—that his night time wanderings were taking him further and further afield.
He requisitioned members of the military to stand shift watches outside Luke's rooms in an attempt to curb his night-time comings and goings, but as before, found that despite this, he had no effective way to limit the incidents. Why he'd thought that guards might work, after the boy's frequent break-outs from the Throne Room in his youth, Indo didn't know.
But as ever Luke always came back, ready for lessons the following morning as if nothing had happened, so though Indo didn't like it, he tolerated these passive defiances with little more than ongoing reprimands.
Still, the boy was beginning to crack under Palpatine's constant pressure, his explosive outbursts more and more extreme despite everything Indo did, whole rooms destroyed in moments, anyone who tried to interfere in genuine danger…and just when Indo thought this whole house of cards would come tumbling down…everything calmed. Luke calmed.
More than that, over the space of just a few months, he became increasingly insular. He disappeared more, retreating to the roofs and outcroppings of the massive ziggurat, finding ever more hidden corners in the sprawling palace. He missed lessons.
Most importantly, the abilities which the Emperor so valued the boy for, began to wane.
Then Luke had disappeared altogether.
For the first time, Indo had made a conscious choice not to inform the Emperor, aware of what he would do to the boy. Luke had been found late that evening in the lower levels of the main ziggurat, by which time Indo had been forced to quietly cancel lessons and claim the boy's illness. It hadn't been so very far from the truth. When he'd been found huddled in the corner of a storage bay in the lower ziggurat, Luke was barely able to stand—certainly unable to string a coherent sentence together. Fortunately, of the twenty men out looking for him, it had been one of Indo's staff who had not only found Luke, but been shrewd enough to take in his surroundings, and so had picked up the burnt-out stubs of the spice sticks.
Someone had supplied the boy with cardom, a base spice cut with nine or ten others, and seldom clean, Indo had since learned. He knew a great deal of all the variants, now.
After two days of being unable to keep even fluids down, it was when Luke had started coughing blood that Indo had risked summoning a medic. This particular batch, it seemed, had been cut with toxic compounds to bulk it up for resale. At fourteen, Luke had needed dialysis and regenerative treatment for kidney damage. He was five days in the medicenter in all. And each day, Indo had stood in the shadows of the room, wondering whether the endless hours and effort he'd invested in training yet another young mind had been in vain. And occasionally, now and then, he'd thought of Dubrail…wondered if his own son had reached this point, and dealt with it in a very different way.
It had taken Luke over a month to recover.
Within two, he'd disappeared again, overnight. Search parties were sent out, first into the palace then, more worryingly, farther afield. There had been no way to hide it from the Emperor this time. It had been two days before they'd found him, curled up and near-comatose in a drug-den at the back of some squalid cantina in The Shades.
Back to the medicenter—a full week, this time. Then he'd had to answer to the Emperor for his actions, and was consequently returned there for a further two days, as the Emperor had clarified his opinion of such a flaw.
You could perhaps have put two such drug-related incidents in such a small time scale down to his inexperience…but at barely fourteen, Luke's unique existence—a fractured childhood endured among the best and the worst of humanity, with every strength and vice that such encompassed, enacted daily about him—had left him sharp and world-wise beyond his years. He was hardly the innocent, and perfectly capable of looking after himself. No, it wasn't hard to work out just exactly why Luke had been so unlucky; he hadn't. After a lifetime of having his place in the greater scheme of things made crystal clear by the Emperor, the boy had little sense of, or interest in, his own self-preservation. He wasn't unlucky or inexperienced…the fact was, he simply didn't care.
And what did one do, under such circumstances? Again, Indo had no experience, and neither the intention to, nor the option of bringing in any kind of outside help. Yet it seemed the greater the pressure, the more the boy had begun to fall back on spice—and the pressure would only ever increase, here.
He could perhaps have returned to the Emperor to discuss his concerns, but considering Palpatine's previous response had been severe enough to put Luke in the medicenter, Indo had been reluctant to involve him again, particularly since Luke would know that it had been he who had done it. And if the threat of further reprimands from the Emperor himelf hadn't stopped Luke, then Indo knew that nothing he did would.
Better then, surely, to deal with the practicalities of the problem, whilst maintaining his disapproval, as Indo had with earlier habits. To try to limit the obvious risks whilst turning a blind eye to the actual problem itself, in an effort to ensure that his charge came to no further harm. The boy had grown out of his night-time climbs across the outer walls of the palace, eventually. He would grow out of this too, given time—and Indo would still be here, the dependable constant.
For a while, this mix of tacit tolerance and public disapproval had worked—it still worked now, to a degree—and in the process, it had fostered that all-important interdependence which meant that Indo would remain with his charge, as Luke rose through the ranks. Commander already, and set to join the Emperor's elite—where would he be in five years' time? Indo knew of course, that Hands severed all contacts with their past…but he didn't believe the boy would remain such for long; he had greater plans for Luke—had set his aims and his eyes on the one other post which required the unique skills that Luke embodied.
The Emperor probably knew to some degree that Indo coveted Lord Vader's position for Luke; certainly he must know that Indo withheld certain facts in working towards this goal, but likely allowed it because such ambition served his own purposes. All the boy's flaws…his brittle volatility, his hidden vulnerabilities, his obsessive nature—all these things, Indo had taught him to control—and that had bought Indo a certain immunity. A certain leeway, provided that his goals and the Emperor's remained the same…which they so clearly did. Though he would never be so vulgar as to say it aloud, Indo knew that he was training Lord Vader's replacement.
And he would do just that—would give his Emperor a pre-eminent second-in-command, superior in every way; loyalty, obedience, ability…an advocate more deserving of his rank and status than Lord Vader could ever hope to be. What were a few petty transgressions or compromises along the way, compared to that?
Nearing bootfalls marked Solo's return to the room, and Indo watched him as he slowed to a halt, tucking the comlink out of sight as he waited for the Emperor to leave… The man radiated a concern that Indo simply did not feel, at the Emperor's involvement in Luke's life. Disapproved of so many of the measures that had been put in place to help the boy to deal with that fact.
For a second Indo faltered, questioning why he felt no such anxiety, rare doubts whispering. Would Indo have pushed his own son this far? As much of Dubrail's life as he'd been prepared to sacrifice to see him excel, would it have been equal to this? Would he have turned away and allowed, even assisted so much, in his pursuit of private ambitions?
Aware of Indo's scrutiny, Solo turned to stare stonily…and Indo straightened, lifting his chin, his momentary doubts quickly quashed beneath the knowledge of all that he'd achieved.
Solo was wrong, wallowing in a mire of his own petty, provincial values.
Yes, the Emperor had trained the boy to excel in a way that no others could, but it was Indo who had grounded him and given him the stability and the means to endure, and he wouldn't be made to feel ashamed of that by some petty rank and file nobody.
He'd done what he'd had to, to achieve so much—and he would continue to do so, to maintain it. He turned and walked from the room, leaving Solo to his self-righteous vigil. Let him stand and wait; Indo had no need to. Long-established inter-reliance ensured that as Luke went from strength to strength, he would always carry Indo with him.
Despite all of Solo's attempts to force himself into Luke's life, because of Indo's own actions and the hard choices he'd made, he had not just older, but far, far stronger ties.
It was late in the evening, and Ashtor started his shift as he always did, with a brief walk-around for his first check of the evening, setting off from the first of two staff rooms just inside the locked entrance doors, then past Indo's office, its door open to allow the Viscount, who was working late tonight, to see any and all who passed down the corridor to the apartment's only exit.
He turned left into the smaller hallway that led to the library, but the light was off and the room empty, its wide table cluttered with datapads and reference chips. Turning about, Ashtor walked through the study opposite and the morning room. Both were empty, but then neither were ever used, their hard-edged furnishings stark and uninviting.
Back in the main corridor he turned right and into the esplanade, walking its length through cool, empty rooms laid out with carefully arranged antiques whose harsh, austere ascetics lent themselves to straight backs and self-discipline. They'd all been chosen and laid out by Indo, of course, and were very much the palace style, but despite their value, for once Ashtor didn't covet ownership.
At the mercury-glass division which marked Antilles' private rooms, he paused…but he'd seen the youth nowhere else, so he walked forward, and the doors snicked open and slid back. Into the first room, empty save for one upright chair, placed before one of the newer canvases… The second room, devoid of furnishings entirely but cluttered with more damn canvases—Antillesran his own private gallery back here. Ashtor had wondered more than once whether one or two of the smaller canvases would be missed.
He stopped to knock against the doorframe of the third and final room, braced to hearAntillesgive his usual curt dismissal without ever opening the door…nothing. He tried again, and again waited without an answer, before finally brushing his hand to the door release plate.
He didn't enter as it opened; there was no need. The room, like its predecessors, was dark and empty. Ashtor frowned; no one had gone past him, and Indo had been there all evening. He wasn't particularly surprised that Antilles had slunk off yet again, just annoyed, as he headed back for Viscount Indo's office, aware he'd get it in the neck; Indo wasn't in the best of moods, of late.
The Viscount was, as anticipated, far from pleased. The first thing he'd done, interestingly, was to comm the Corellian's quarters…with no response. Ashtor waited, taking the rap with his head down, until the Viscount had left the apartment. Then he walked quickly back into the morning room to pull out his own comlink.
He had a standing order from the man whom he truly answered to—the man who'd promised to take Ashtor into his own staff as a Commander, whenAntilleswas gone from the palace—to report any and all ofAntilles' comings and goings as they happened for the next few days. Something was clearly about to hit, here. Just a few days ago, when Ashtor had passed on the scrap of spice paper he'd found in the library with the scribbled image of an unknown man on it, Lord Vader had actually visibly reacted, holding the pale blue scrap of paper between gloved fingers for long seconds before he closed his hand into a fist, crushing the paper in the process… Then in the early hours of this morning, the Emperor himself had arrived atAntilles' apartment, an unheard-of event!
Of course, Antilles' near-nightly disappearances were far from unusual, but the order Ashtor had received from Lord Vader was to report any and all happenings, and if nothing else, the Viscount's reaction tonight to something as commonplace as Antilles' disappearance, spurred Ashtor to act now.
The comlink connected with a brief tack, and Vader's voice was as curt as ever. "Report."
"Antilleshas left his apartment, M'Lord."
"Probably just minutes ago. He was here when I arrived, but I just did a brief walk-round, and he's gone. Viscount Indo's gone to Security, to try to track him down."
The line fell to silence, and Ashtor resisted the urge to ask whether his superior was still there, aware of Lord Vader's short temper. Still, those who served him well moved through the ranks quickly—certainly more so than Indo's recruits, who gained nothing more than a year or two's service before they were released, and Ashtor's ambition went further than that.
"Stay where you are, and report immediately if you hear more."
"Yes, my Lord."
He told Ashtor nothing, of course…but from the tone of Lord Vader's voice, Ashtor knew that some bigger action had just been triggered…and thatAntilleswas at the center of it.
Luke paused to look behind him as a sliver of a shiver brushed his spine. He glanced up at the narrow ribbon of darkening sky high above the crowded buildings of the Shades, but they were so far down into the depths that the palace itself was no longer visible, all of Coruscant's bright lights and renowned luxury reduced to a faint glow at the edges of the deep, man-made crevasse of endless buildings. He glanced about, unable to shrug the distant feeling that someone was out there, trying to track him in that instant…but he wasn't being followed, and nothing specific caught his eye or his searching senses, so he turned back and resumed walking.
Aware of Luke’s brief search as he stood beside him, Han took a second longer to look the street up and down with the easy confidence of a trained soldier, but seeing nothing amiss he continued on, taking a subtle step closer to Luke. It had become…comfortable to have Han come with him. He'd never really had anyone to watch his back before. Indo had long maintained a military presence in his apartment at the palace, and they even accompanied Luke out on various tasks from time to time…but they were generally far more likely to be sent out to look for him to bring him back, rather than actually willingly accompany him anywhere. And he would never have asked anyway, firstly because he hadn't trusted any of them sufficiently, and secondly because they were generally the kind of career-oriented soldiers who saw the military as a convenient stepping stone on the ladder, like Gorn, rather than the type who could be counted on if things got out of hand—which seemed to happen regularly, for some reason, in Luke's experience.
Han was…what? Reassuring, perhaps. He could be relied on in a tight corner. He wasn't afraid to wade in there, and by and large, it was to Luke's defense. It was something new to Luke, this steadfast integrity. Something valuable. And also, occasionally, something trying.
"So, I have a question." He was trying so hard to sound casual, Luke knew, radiating a forced, nonchalant air. "I was wondering where we left the whole Leia…thing."
The temptation to string him along was incredible…but somehow Luke didn't think Han would see the funny side. "Fine, I give you my word, okay? I'll let Leia walk free—this time. But that's it. I can't do this any more, and she can't come here again. If she does, next time we meet…the slate's clean."
Han still stared, mouth a thin line, but Luke was adamant. "Let's just remember the truth here: Kenobi came after me—he started this. He didn't go after Vader or the Emperor, both of whom were trained Sith…he came after an eleven-year-old. A soft target. I don't know what face he projects for Leia Skywalker, but those are the facts; he brought a commando team and a second Jedi, and came to kill his own son, in the dead of night. Remember that."
"None of which has anything to do with Leia."
"You're right—which is why I'll let her walk free."
"And how do you think she'll feel? You once said to me that Leia would be absolutely loyal to Kenobi, like you're loyal to Palpatine. What would you feel, if you found out that you'd unknowingly led Palpatine's killer right to him—given him that opportunity?"
Luke glanced away, lifting his hand to gnaw at his thumbnail as he walked. "No one could kill Palpatine."
"She probably feels the same way about Kenobi."
"Well then, she's wrong."
"You can't do this to her."
"She'll get over it."
"No, she won't. You want to know what'll happen? I'll tell you." Han stopped, forcing Luke to do the same as he continued with absolute surety. "She'll take you to Kenobi because for some unknown reason, she trusts you. If you do go against him you'll probably kill him, I'll give you that—"
"Oh, just probably? Thanks."
"But let me tell you, once she realizes that you used her, she won't forget. She won't forgive…and she will come after you—you know damn well she will."
"You think that wasn't going to happen anyway? What do you think he's training her for?"
"She hasn't once done anything against you."
"Which means nothing. I haven't done anything against her…yet."
"Don't do it, not like this. He's like a father to her."
"Well then, isn't she the lucky one…" Luke bit out as he turned to walk on. "Because he never was to me."
They were actually at the door to the Bad Break cantina when Luke's comlink buzzed for attention. Halting, he pulled it out.
"Are you at the cantina?" It was Leia's voice.
"Yes," Luke said, knowing in that moment: "But you're not inside."
"You need to go two blocks east."
"Are you gonna make me wander round all night?"
"Two blocks east."
The comm cut and Luke cursed, turning about—and paused…
"What?" Han stared at him.
"…Nothing," Luke said distractedly, jumping at shadows. "Nothing's there."
"I don't think you're gonna do it," Han said, as they started off again.
"Is that a fact?"
"Yeah. Even now, with that look on your face, that you're thinking, 'I'm gonna do it anyway, just to prove him wrong', I still don't think you're gonna do it. You're smarter than that."
Luke turned to deliver a sideways dirty look, but wouldn't take the bait, so Han continued anyway. "You're smarter than that because you know the difference between what old yellow eyes keeps on telling you is okay, and what's actually okay—what you should and shouldn't do. And I know that you're angry and you got somethin' to say—hell knows, I would have, too—but I'm pretty damn sure you can say it without a lightsaber in your hand."
"We're here," Luke said by way of reply.
Three steps in front of Han, Luke could separate out Leia's presence easily at this distance, though she was still shielding. He blinked at that, considering; how could he tune into her so well—a Jedi, wary and shielding? It had taken a concerted effort to find Kenobi…how could he pick her half-hidden sense out of the background clutter of a crowded area like the Shades?
She stepped out of the shadows alone, no Wookiee backup this time.
"Do you still want to see him?" She didn't say a name, though everyone knew who she meant.
Luke nodded without speaking, his heart hammering against his chest; this was it—it was happening. He was going to stand in front of the father who had abandoned him and then tried to kill him, and despite years of dreaming of doing so before now, he was actually going to do it at an age where he knew damn well that he was more than capable of guaranteeing the outcome he wanted.
"I don't think you're gonna do it… You're smarter than that."
Luke ground his jaw, digging in mentally. Not against Han's words, but against his imminent disappointment when Luke did, because he was long past any kind of deliberating on whether or not to act. He deserved this—more importantly, Bail and Breha Organa did. They had trusted Kenobi…they deserved revenge. Retribution.
"You know the difference between what old yellow eyes keeps on telling you is okay, and what's actually okay—what you should and shouldn't do."
Luke shook his head, focusing on Leia. "…What?"
"I said, we're going to the Raparee Cantina. When I've checked—when I think it's safe—I'll contact him and…"
"I have a suggestion. You can refuse, if you want." He said it on impulse, mind searching for excuses to skip past Solo's words.
"There's a storage depot owned by a company named Mykos Shipping."
Leia narrowed her eyes. "Mykos Shipping is a Black Sun cover operation."
"Yes, it's a front for smuggling. Mykos Shipping owns the storage facility where they hold inbound contraband."
"How do you know that?"
"Because Palpatine does. He allows it to remain in exchange for certain benefits."
Luke continued without even acknowledging the question. "Because of that, the local law enforcement are under orders not to patrol there or interfere…which also means that it's about as far away from them as you can get, this close to the palace." It was a logical suggestion…though that wasn't why he'd named it now.
"How do you know about Black Sun's dealings?"
"You think Xizor doesn't answer to the Emperor, like everyone else?"
Her silent suspicion rolled out into the Force unchecked, but Luke only shrugged. "You don't have to take the suggestion." Take it—ask where it is.
"… Where's the storage depot?"
"It's on the Intos installation, which is close by here." Luke held his voice level, senses stretched to their limit to read her. "I thought you'd know it…it's a skyhook."
Not a flicker of her lashes gave the game away visibly, but her sense in the Force flared briefly in shock at his mention of the word skyhook—and Luke had all he'd wanted.
She'd been there during Operation Skyhook, at Toprawa—and probably Kenobi with her. That was why the fleet had struggled to… He paused, another thought occurring; was that why Vader hadn't fired on the Rebel corvette in those last moments—had he sensed Kenobi onboard, and wanted a more personal defeat? He stored the information away, knowing its value, in implicating Vader one more time for his failure to retrieve the plans which had led to the Death Star's destruction. Then he brought his mind back to the moment, aware that today would demand his total attention.
Leia still stared, wary, but Luke no longer cared whether she took the suggestion or not; he'd gained all he'd wanted from the skyhook's mention. He let that disinterest out for her to sense, and she came to a decision. "I'll comm Master Kenobi. How far is it from here?"
"Not far. South of here, by airspeeder."
"How exactly are we going to get in, if Xizor's lackeys are there?"
"It's a smugglers' run—there are ways to get all over it without using obvious corridors. There are also three fully-automated landing bays. I have the shield door harmonics for two of them."
"Get around, don't you?"
He let a brief smile touch his lips. "You have no idea."
"Do you have an airspeeder near?"
"No, but there's a public land and store bay a few levels up. It'll take me about a minute to break into something we like the look of."
"That long? I'm disappointed." She lifted an eyebrow, and there was something in her expression that hinted at recognition of a peer, her sense almost mischievous. "I can half that."
They slowed as a group as they reached the base-level deep-storage bay on the Intos skyhook, where Kenobi had already acknowledged to Leia that he would wait. He hadn't asked for any codes to get into the skyhook, and Luke hadn't offered any, but judging from his acknowledgement a short time ago, he didn't seem to have had any problems.
Luke stopped before the wide sliding doors, aware that his chest was tightening and his breaths coming shorter, not helped by the anxious unease that had wound gradually tighter in Han as they'd gotten closer, or the tightly battened-down uncertainty in Leia Skywalker, for bringing him here at all.
Not a trace of a presence emanated from beyond those doors. He could have opened himself and stretched out into the Force, and probably picked something up, Luke knew, as he had in the early hours this morning, but he felt somehow…reluctant. Uneasy at exposing his presence here, though he couldn't say why. Kenobi, probably—what else could it be? Luke frowned, finding his resolve in his annoyance at his own reticence. He'd come here with something to say. What Kenobi felt about it one way or the other was immaterial.
He'd also come to do something…
He glanced again to Han, close by, and Han took a slow, deep breath, eyes on Luke, his expression telling that he'd said all that he wanted to on this—it was up to Luke now.
Straightening, Luke walked forward and pressed the door release. It scraped back partway on old runners, stopping not much wider than Luke's shoulders, the bay beyond illuminated only by dim security lights which filtered down from the high ceiling to form pale pools by the time they reached the scuffed and crate-covered floor.
But Luke had walked into Palpatine's presence, knowing he was at fault and that retribution would be swiftly and mercilessly exacted, in far more ominous chambers than this. Squaring his shoulders, he brought his hand briefly beneath his jacket to the small of his back, where he wore his lightsaber fastened horizontally to the clip on his belt, concealed from view. Then he set forward, pressing the doors to close behind him.
Han watched the kid from the far side of the wide corridor which had led them to the deep storage bays. Watched him square his shoulders and straighten before he stepped inside.
Briefly, Luke's hand went to the small of his back, where Han knew that the kid had taken to carrying his lightsaber, if the lines of his clothes could conceal it. Han's lip twitched briefly in unease, though he'd known that Luke would bring it.
Beside him Leia Skywalker moved slightly, still staring at the spot where the door had closed, as if she could see beyond. "Does Luke always wear a lightsaber?"
Han coughed, scowling. "He's started to, yeah. He's training to be a Hand." It was hard to keep the censure out of his own voice, let alone his thoughts. Leia turned immediately, and Han tried to shrug it away. "You know them, right? They're Force-sensitive—all of them, I think."
"Don't ask," Han said, resigned. "I have no idea who or how many they are."
"But Luke does?"
"Kid knows everything—all the dealings that go on."
Leia followed his eyes back to that closed door, and Han turned to settle on the wide trunk pipe that was bolted to the wall at sitting-height, prepared to wait this out—unless he heard the thrum of a lightsaber of course, in which case, he was prepared to go hurtling in there and try to hold the kid back. He looked back to the doors, rubbing his chin as he listened hard…nothing yet. Leia glanced to him briefly, then back to the door, as vigilant as Han was, if for entirely different reasons.
"So…" Han groped for something to say. "No Wookiee today, huh?"
"He's waiting with the ship. You never know when you might need a pilot to do a fast pick-up."
Grinning, Han opened his mouth to speak—and Leia brought her head round quickly. "Don't say anything."
"Me?" He tried a mock-innocent look, and it brought a smile to her face, despite the gravity of the situation.
"You really are just a pilot who ended up in the wrong place, aren't you?"
"Hey, I never said I was just a pilot. As it happens, I'm a great pilot."
"Is that a fact?"
"Carida trained," Han said proudly, to illustrate his point—then broke off, realizing who he was speaking to.
"You don't have to apologize. There's nothing wrong with having made a bad decision when you were young." Leia paused, those expressive brown eyes studying him. "It only becomes a mistake if you know the truth, but still don't act on it."
"Yeah, well…real life's just more complicated than that," Han murmured, looking down.
Leia glanced again to the closed bay door, then stepped closer to sit beside him on the trunk pipe. "I know."
"And speakin' of acting on things…" He reached out to rest his hand on hers, where it leaned on the dusty pipe, using his thumb to rub against the inside of hers; that callous again. Han lifted her hand to look at it and, eyes still on that closed door, she let him with little resistance.
"You know, Luke has a callous on exactly the same place on his hand."
She glanced down, and frowned. "Which hand?"
"Left-handed, then." There was something in her tone that hinted at someone tucking away relevant information…then she shrugged. "It's from lightsaber practice. You take the weight of the hilt against the inside of your thumb there when you rotate it through complicated moves, and you tend to do that with your dominant hand."
Han glanced down, feeling once again that he had somehow ended up in some strange altered reality, where all that was casual and everyday had changed completely. She slipped her hand from his to rest it on his arm.
"You look after him, don't you?"
"Somebody's got to."
"Do you think… Luke, he's spoken with me, he's helped me, he's here now… do you think he'd turn away from the Empire?"
"I dunno, it'd be hard to move him on that."
"Kid's grown up with the Emperor. The old man's been in his head too long—not even Kenobi'll change that." Han remained silent about the greater issue; that if Kenobi thought he could start playing the father card it was too little too late, and the kid would tell him that in no uncertain terms. And if Luke actually came through for Han and did the right thing in there—actually gave Kenobi a chance to explain himself and maybe even sort this out—then it was for Luke and Kenobi to choose when to tell others. That was big stuff—the kind you didn't mess with, or just blurt out without permission.
As to Luke's loyalties…Han felt on more solid ground there. "Old Yellow Eyes is a great believer in sewing the seeds early. And Kenobi helped, when he came to the palace to try to assassinate the kid. He can't just act like that didn't happen."
"Obi-Wan did what?" Leia asked, jolting.
"The assassination attempt," Han repeated. "When Luke was eleven."
"What! No, that was when Master Kenobi first realized that Luke was still alive! Before that, no one had seen him since the murder of the Organas, when he was seven. Everyone assumed that he'd died with his parents, as the official statement said. When they realized that he was alive, Obi-Wan and Master Yoda tried to get him out—to rescue him. But it…it went bad, and Master Yoda gave his life trying to gain Obi-Wan the opportunity to get Luke out." She frowned, outrage and growing alarm competing in her voice. "Is that what they told Luke—that Obi-Wan and Master Yoda were trying to kill him?"
"That sly-assed son of a nek," Han growled, shaking his head.
Leia's head turned to the closed door. "So Luke thinks he's gone in there to...to face the man who tried to kill him?"
"That ain't the half of it."
Leia stared…and suddenly those big brown eyes widened and she was rising, already a swift step towards the door.
Han made a grasp at her wrist to stop her. "Wait! Let them sort it out."
"Are you insane? Han, I picked it up from your thoughts…you think—"
"I don't. I don't think he'll kill him. Okay, I think he came here intending to kill him." Han shook his head, more sure now than ever. "But he won't do it. He won't. What, d'you think I'd just let him walk in there to kill someone?"
Leia twisted her wrist free as Han pushed on. "Leia, you gotta let him work through this. This has been part of his life for so long…but he can get through it. He can."
"And risk Master Kenobi's life?"
"C'mon, have a little faith."
"In a Sith?"
Han's voice softened. "How about in me?" he tried somberly. "He won't do it. I know him…and he won't do it. Or how about in your own Master? Even if Kenobi doesn't know about the assassination thing, he knows the rest. Let 'em work it out—that's what they both came here for, isn't it?"
Her shoulders settled just slightly, though her eyes stayed on the closed door. And maybe, somewhere in the back of his head, Han knew that he too was listening, waiting to hear the bass thrum of a lightsaber igniting.
Luke had halted three paces into the room, to stare at the man who had abandoned him, newborn, to Bail and Breha Organa, so that he could return to his precious war. Had he known? Surely he'd known that it would be their deaths when the Emperor found out that they were harboring the illegitimate son of a Jedi?
And now he was standing here. Just standing, a slight smile on his face and in his eyes—as if he was blameless; guiltless. As if he didn't realize that in doing so, he'd ripped Luke's life apart and damned him to drown in the Darkness which had turned him inside out and wrung him dry. He'd had no idea—no idea whether Luke would survive. Worse, when Luke had, he'd come searching for the son he'd walked away from. Come searching to end what gruelling existence Luke had eked out beneath his Master's harsh and constant demands. A swell of fury rose up inside Luke, burning his gut and tightening his throat. Yet Kenobi still smiled—he actually smiled at Luke as walked forward, his voice warm and amicable, even as it held an edge of wary caution.
"Luke. You're a long way from the palace, young man."
He was old. Older than Luke had expected up close, deep lines about his eyes, with a short, grey beard and fine hair, almost white with age. He held out his hand in greeting, and Luke looked coolly down to it, then back to Kenobi.
"Actually, I think it's you who's a little too close to it. You should be more careful." He didn't even try to disguise the threat in his tone, but Kenobi only held that ambiguous smile.
"I probably should. But I very much hoped that the gains would outweigh the risks."
"This time around," Luke said dryly. "Come to finish what you started when I was eleven?"
"I don't know," Kenobi admitted frankly. "I perhaps hoped so."
"You'll find me less of a soft target this time. I don't need Vader or Palpatine's help—I can defend myself."
The old man's pale eyebrows pulled together to twitch into a soft frown, though his voice remained cordial in that controlled manner. "Defend yourself?"
Luke felt a flare of outrage that he was even trying to claim—what? Ignorance of a raid that he himself had led? "I know you led the insurgency force that tried to kill me, when I was just eleven."
"Kill you?" The shock that rippled out through the Force seemed genuine, laced with indignation. "Luke, we were trying to extract you. We were trying to get you away from the Emperor and to safety."
"Of course you were."
"Why would we try to do anything else?"
"Because I was Sith."
Kenobi tilted his head, voice gently reproving. "You were a child."
"I'd already killed on command, you knew that. I know when the information went out."
"All the more reason to get you safely away."
"When I was eleven," Luke grated acerbically. "A little late, wasn't it?"
Obi-Wan stared, hearing the undisguised antagonism in those biting words… Yet the young man before him showed nothing of himself in the Force, bound up so tightly that his presence was not merely unreadable but completely undetectable, even at this close proximity. Standing just steps away, Obi-Wan not only had no sense of him, but no sense of any distortion or omission within the Force, just as Leia had warned, his cool, calculating control far more chilling than any threat spoken aloud. He was perfectly hidden…as only a Sith could hide.
Uncertain how to continue—how to talk the youth down and gain something of value from this, even if it was only understanding—Obi-Wan settled back to perch onto the edge of one of the many packing cases in the bay, all claiming to contain laboratory supplies. He crossed his ankles as his cloak settled about him, consciously taking a non-aggressive stance and forcing his muscles to relax as he nodded to the low crate close to Luke. "Take a seat."
It wasn't as arbitrary as it seemed; if the youth was sitting, then Obi-Wan would at least have a moment's warning if he chose to attack, a course which was so clearly twitching at the edge of his thoughts.
The boy raised his chin. "I'll stand."
"Very well." Obi-Wan tried another smile, which bounced off those unyielding shields, and again left him questioning his own sanity for coming here. But he'd had to know. Aware now that Vader had no knowledge of or hold on his son, Obi-Wan had to find out whether Luke could yet be salvaged. For so long he'd believed not. Even now he still held the flicker of hope in check, though a large part of him feared and prepared for the worst…
For so long, he'd told Leia nothing of her twin's existence, aware that her natural compassion could so easily be twisted by her brother, and used as a weapon against her. But the realization of Vader's ignorance had changed everything, because the question had become what, if anything, the boy whom Palpatine had stolen away knew of his own heritage... and without that deeper blood connection, how great was Palpatine's hold on him?
But the danger that Luke represented, particularly to Leia, still had to come first. Which meant that once again, after years of certainty, it had come to Obi-Wan to make the decision as to what truths, if any, could or should be revealed. "Leia told me that you wanted to speak with me?"
The youth's face and his stance changed not a whit, but everything about him had moved from agitated to aggressive…and Obi-Wan had no idea as to why. Nor why there was such venom in his next words.
"You're lucky I haven't ripped her apart already."
Obi-Wan straightened just slightly. "I'll tolerate no threats to her, Luke."
"You think you could stop me?"
Not wanting to be drawn into counter-threats, Obi-Wan held silent. Luke too remained still, so that for long moments they were left to a wordless test of brinksmanship…until again Obi-Wan sought to dispel it, beginning to wonder why the boy had brought him here. If he'd wanted to kill him, Obi-Wan was beginning to realize that the youth would most definitely have drawn his saber by now…yet despite his obvious animosity, he hadn't.
Or was it simply that he had something he wanted to say, before he did? "You called me here, Luke…you told Leia that you had questions that only I could answer. Questions about the Force, perhaps?"
"For a Jedi?" Luke was instantly dismissive—but then that was what he would have been taught, Obi-Wan reminded himself. "I already use it more completely than you ever could."
"You use it more callously, perhaps," Obi-Wan said without admonishment.
"It's a tool to be used, like the lightsaber at my belt."
Obi-Wan resisted the urge to look down, knowing that he'd seen none as the young man had entered…yet Luke clearly wanted Obi-Wan to know that he carried one. He held his nerve, and smiled. "The Force is not something to be used indiscriminately or without consideration—save for knowledge and defense."
"Please—you dabble and paddle like you're afraid of it."
"I respect its power."
"And look where it got you—all your kind. Destroyed en-masse by a single man, who wasn't afraid to channel its power. By a Sith."
"All that it gives you, the Darkness takes from you in return…" Obi-Wan paused a fraction, looking to gain knowledge by default. "Look at your Master."
Then it was Palpatine and not Vader, who had supervised the boy's training. "He's an empty shell, twisted and consumed by greed and paranoia."
"And you're a toothless old man, clinging to past glory."
Obi-Wan hesitated at the venom in the boy's voice, in defense of his Master. "Listen to your words, Luke, filled with anger and bitterness."
The youth lifted his chin, unrepentant. "Well, I've had a lot of practice, thanks to you."
"I failed you, I know that. But it was by necessity, not by choice."
"Really? Or was it simple convenience? Jedi don't form attachments and they don't have children. I was an embarrassment that you couldn't get rid of quickly enough, isn't that the truth?"
Obi-Wan stared, hit by the unanticipated broadside of the boy's knowledge. After Vader's ignorance, he had hoped… "You know your heritage?"
"Palpatine told me. Did you think he wouldn't tell me just how easily you walked away?"
"Nobody walked away, Luke. You were taken from us when Bail and Breha died. It—"
"Because of you!" Luke stepped forward, fury igniting as he bit out the words. "They died because you left me there, with them!"
"No, it was Palpatine who—"
"No! You're just as responsible. You didn't give a damn what happened to them—or me! Did you hand me over to them in the first place—was it you who did it?" There was raw accusation in his voice. "You signed their death warrants, it could only ever have been a matter of time."
"I didn't know that. I thought their power and position would protect you, and Bail and Breha were eager to—"
"You knew the risks, you knew it put them in danger!"
"I did know…and so did they. But children rarely have any traceable connection with the Force until they are taught such, Luke. When we handed you over, you were just as any other baby. I travelled to Alderaan yearly to check on you, though you were probably too young to remember. I had been there just five months earlier."
Luke stared, taken aback; facts…after years in a desert of ignorance, this mild, dangerous old man was simply giving them away, their truth ringing a pure note through the Force. "You were there?"
"I came every year…don't you remember? You pulled my beard that year because you thought it was false. Bail turned crimson." Kenobi smiled slightly, the memory warming his sense. "I believe that's the one and only time I ever saw the Viceroy lost for words."
Luke stared, unprepared for this. The mundaneness of it, the smallness, the…solace of a moment from his childhood recounted openly for the first time, a glimpse into a past he'd been ordered to dismiss and forget…and it was hard to hold onto his anger. His shoulders dropped just a fraction, voice loosing its edge as he sought the answers to questions that had plagued him since childhood, but which he'd long-since learned better than to dare ask. "What happened—why did Palpatine realize?”
As those sharp eyes came back to him, Obi-Wan felt a burning power scorch the mental shields he held in place, though the boy clearly considered this little more than the Force equivalent of a searching stare.
"I don't know, Luke, I truly don't." Obi-Wan shook his head slowly. "You'd had no training, no knowledge of how to summon the Force, and therefore there should have been no way for Palpatine to have detected you at such an early age. I'm sorry…I'm so sorry." He held against the searching power of that penetrating stare, putting a lifetime of experience and ability into maintaining dense shields…
"It was me, wasn't it?" There was something in the boy's voice—something horrified and all too knowing, and Obi-Wan felt the iron reserve that he'd held as a shield against the boy softening.
"I truly don't know, Luke. There's nothing to be gained in trying to—"
"It was me. I did something which made Palpatine aware—I must have."
"No. You were a child. Even if you did somehow…"
The flare of appalled realization which razed out from the youth made Obi-Wan flinch.
Luke continued, gaze skipping across the floor as he recalled distant memories. "My mother said she'd lost a pearl hairpin. I told her I'd find it. I could find things sometimes, even then, just by walking a room and concentrating. Not looking, just closing my eyes and concentrating on the object. I told her I'd look—I promised her I'd find it."
He looked again to Obi-Wan, eyes and sense horror-struck, the impenetrable shields he'd held in place cracking, forgotten beneath greater concerns. "I walked the rooms that day when they were gone, looking for the pearl…" He stumbled backwards a step, sitting heavily down as the back of his legs hit the edge of a packing crate, words whispered within a breathless gasp. "I did it…when I looked for the pearl, I did it…"
The last vestiges of determination Obi-Wan had held to remain coolly detached, began to fracture at the despair in the boy's voice—and he didn't even try to steel against it. Because this was what he'd come here desperately hoping to find, even whilst bracing for the all too likely reality that he wouldn't. This…this was compassion. This was humanity. This was regret…and as all those brooding, implacable shields crumbled,thiswas what lay at the core of him…and it was not Darkness. It was the boy who lay, curled and repressed, at the very heart of the creature Palpatine had built about it. It was the five-year-old child who'd run in circles about Obi-Wan's legs until he was too dizzy to stand, laughing as he'd crumpled to the ground. It was the baby Obi-Wan had held in his arms, innocence itself.
Still caught up within that moment Luke shook his head slowly, voice a cracked whisper. "I was using the Force, to look for the pearl hairpin. I didn't know that's what it was, or how to control it, but I was somehow tuning into the Force, without knowing it…and Palpatine sensed that—of course he did! I…" Luke lifted his head, blue eyes bright. "I did it—I killed them. I set it all in motion… I'm responsible."
At that appalled, grief-stricken certainty, Obi-Wan realized just how willing the boy was to take all blame. "Luke, this isn't your fault. None of this is your fault."
"I did it."
"No. Palpatine acted, not you. You did nothing wrong. This is what he does—what he's always done. He sees something that he wants, be it the power to rule, or the destiny of a child, and he takes it. He removes any and all obstacles in his path—destabilizes, disassembles or destroys them without compunction—and then takes what he desires. Bail and Breha Organa were nothing to him, Luke. He's killed thousands…"
"Stop!" The youth rose, taking two stumbling steps to the side to back up further, hand out before him.
"Luke, listen to me—"
"No! I didn't come here to listen to you spout propaganda."
"And why did you come?"
"To..." His voice quietened again. "To ask you why. Why did you leave me with them—why did you leave me at all?"
He was trying so hard to hold onto his previous anger, Obi-Wan could see. To stir it again, for his own protection. But the revelation of just why he'd been discovered had shaken his very foundations, so his voice, when he next spoke, was more bewilderment than accusation. "Was I worth so little to you?"
Obi-Wan stepped forward, easily finding compassion for the youth who should be his sworn enemy. "Don't ever think that. What we did…we believed it was for your own safety. Master Yoda and I were prime targets and the Rebellion did not exist. We did it to protect you."
"I should have…" The youth's head dropped, quiet words almost an appeal. "I should have been with my father."
"That's the last place you should have been, Luke. Surely you know that."
His head snapped up. "Why, because I'm Sith? Because I was always destined to be? That's what my Master says. Is that why you abandoned me and taught her?"
"No," Obi-Wan said gently. "No, Luke. We all have the same potential for good and evil—even your father."
The boy frowned, a shadow of confusion crossing has face. "…What?"
"He didn't abandon you, Luke, he believed you dead. We allowed that misconception, to protect you from him."
The boy stared…for the longest time, he simply stared. Obi-Wan could sense his mind racing as he fought to pull sense from what had been said. "What are…are you saying that you didn't know I'd been born? You said you gave me to Bail Organa yourself—you just said that!"
"Me?" For a moment Obi-Wan too struggled…and then realization bloomed, making him step forward. "Luke…Luke, who is your father—what did Palpatine tell you?"
The youth almost spoke then hesitated, bracing himself, aware that something was very wrong. "Y…you're my father—I already know that. That's how…that's why you were able to hand me over to Bail Organa."
Obi-Wan's hand came to his mouth, such was his shock. What had Palpatine been doing, to… stunned thoughts caught up with themselves, and he realized what a perfect lie it was. How completely it would have turned a young child against those he hoped to have it one day destroy. What control it would have given him, of a boy believing himself forsaken and dismissed by his own father. What seeds of hatred and hostility it would have sown.
All of Luke's resentment, all of his indignation and antagonism was instantly explained. His driving desire to meet Obi-Wan—to speak to him face to face. His all too obvious antipathy when he finally did. What must he have thought, coming here? What must Obi-Wan have seemed, in his casual detachment? Without thinking, he reached out to take the youth's arm—but something stopped him even at this; some tamped down spark which emanated from Luke in reaction, told in the barest twitch backwards, though it flared in the Force. This boy—this poor, misguided, dangerous youth—how completely and coldly he'd been lied to and used. What a perfect weapon it had made him.
"No…no, Luke," Obi-Wan said gently at last. "I'm not your father."
For a fraction of a second the barest frown twitched the boy's features, but aside from that he didn't speak or move. He simply stared in silence, struggling to assimilate the impossible.
"But you do know your father," Obi-Wan said carefully. "You know him quite well, in fact—you have most of your life. Luke, your father is…well, you know him as Darth Vader."
The youth’s eyes dropped and a breath escaped him as if he'd been dealt a body-blow, leaving Obi-Wan uncertain as to why this would be so dire a fate as to instil…
Vader's appalling oath when he'd spoken to Obi-Wan of Luke, came to mind, vitriolic hatred sparking every word. "The day the boy stands alone is the day that I will take him to pieces and leave him to a slow, agonizing death."
Leia's appraisal of Luke's relationship with Vader came fast on its heels, as one of mutual antagonism and antipathy: "He had a scar above his eye, a recent one—a deep one—and Solo let slip that it was from Vader…"
Obi-Wan blanched in mortified pity, only now realizing the blow he'd unwittingly delivered as the youth backed up further, shaking his head in breathless denial.
Luke stared…simply stared, the revelation too great to even begin to comprehend in this moment.
This was wrong. He shook his head in refusal because heknew, had known for so long, just exactly who his father was. It was terrible and it was damning, but heknew. He'd known since he'd first come to Coruscant. Had known because… "Palpatine had tests done years ago, when I first arrived. He told Vader that…" Luke's heart stopped, skipped a beat in his chest as realization hit him broadside; his own words to Han, months earlier: "There're not many people who could lie to a Sith… except another Sith."
"He lied." Luke said it aloud as a hole opened up beneath him, a chasm filled with questions. "Palpatine lied to Vader about who I was—he lied to me."
"Palpatine will only ever work to his own ends," Kenobi said quietly. "He cannot be trusted, ever. Are you sure you should give your allegiance to a man who would do such a thing so readily?"
For a moment longer Luke didn't react, barely listening, lost in his own disillusionment…then he straightened as Kenobi's words sank in, instantly on the defensive again as the argument moved to more familiar ground. "As opposed to you, a radical who rebels against the legitimate government?"
"The Empire is not a legitimate government. It gained power by a military coup."
"This from the man who's trying to claim it by militant force."
"Are you defending him—still? He deserves neither respect nor loyalty—especially from you."
"But you do, I suppose?"
Kenobi's expression softened at the challenge, a half-smile coming to his lips. "That's not what I'm saying. I'm asking you to give them to someone far more important…yourself. You're better than this, Luke. You have a rare gift. Don't waste it, or ever think otherwise, and don't let another lead you to do so. You don't have to live your life by the orders of someone who lies and manipulates you for his own ends."
Luke took another step back, aware that without once drawing the antiquated saber at his belt Kenobi was delivering blow after blow, each one battering against the shields Luke had spent a lifetime constructing, on the knowledge of who and what he was.
"Luke, you deserve better than this. The man you give your loyalty to will only ever pull you down and use you. You have the potential to do so much, don't let him steal that from you. Don't let him drag you down into Darkness when you're capable of so much more."
There was a frightening sincerity to Kenobi's words, an undisguised desire to give true solace, and it buckled Luke's world beneath him. How could the man possibly have faith in him?
"This…this holds me together."
"No, it doesn't hold you together, Luke…you do that, all on your own. You don't need anything else—you certainly don't need this."
"It's not what I need, it's what I am."
Abandoned to his fate, he’d become what he'd needed to be—what Palpatine had wanted him to be. Alone amidst the chaos of constant, raging, ruthless persecution, he’d dug deep and found a way to endure…and used it. He always would. Because when everything else fell apart, this remained, offering the strength to survive.
The Darkness was part of him, and had been as far back as he could remember. It had kept him alive when nothing else could, had given him the strength to withstand the savage discipline of a Sith Master. It had sustained him for years, his rock when everything else was chaos. It was all that Luke had. His loyalty, his willingness to serve…they were all that he was. The only parts of himself that held any real value, Luke knew that—had been told, so very often by his…by his Master.
And now Kenobi stood here, claiming that the very thing that gave Luke even an iota of worth, was wrong. That his loyalty and his ability to summon the Force in his Master's name, were wrong. That everything…everything he'd believed about his past was wrong…
What gave him the right to take all this from Luke now, simply because it didn't conform with his view?
"You don't betray your Master…ever." It was the mantra he'd had drilled into him since childhood, the only thing that had ever earned him even a shadow of praise, for obeying.
Obi-Wan watched the youth pull back, saw him reach for the familiar and grasp it like a lifeline, bludgeoned by too many truths.
Palpatine had poured so much into creating his fledgling Sith, that much had been clear from the boy's mindset when he'd come here tonight. From his belief that there could be only one response to any grievance. It was palpable in his blind loyalty even now, when the truth had shaken him to his core. He could sense Luke's resistance flare, a reflex antagonism than cut in to protect himself from that most damaging of emotions—hope. How often had the growing child dared to do so, only to have Palpatine rip it apart and stamp it mercilessly down, that the young man before him would resort to such lengths to protect himself from it, now?
But despite everything, despite every deception and oppressive manipulation that Palpatine had beaten into him, the boy was still standing here. He spoke the words and clung to the dogma with absolute, ground-in conviction…yet he still remained, eyes on Obi-Wan, willing to listen, to consider that his view of the universe might be incomplete, though it so clearly went against everything that he would have been taught.
And if he was willing to listen, then Obi-Wan had so much to say.
"Luke, I can tell you everything…everything that's been withheld. But I must ask something of you in return."
Sky blue eyes came to Kenobi's, so much like his father's—and deeply wary.
He wouldn't convince the boy today, Obi-Wan knew that. The lessons that Palpatine had pummelled into the child he'd held for so long were too deep to overrule in a single moment, no matter what the lever. But if he could win his trust… Again Obi-Wan hesitated, looking into those eyes so much like Anakin's, aware of all that had been lost at his father's hands.
"I want to tell you the truth…but it can be a dangerous thing. A powerful thing."
This time Obi-Wan felt the barest shimmer of a presence brush against his own dense shields, subtle and diffuse, fine as a pinprick and gone the moment he sensed it. But those blue eyes narrowed knowingly.
"You want to know that I won't use the knowledge as a weapon."
Had the boy read that? Obi-Wan hadn't sensed his shields breached. Strength—brute strength—was what his father had derived from his incredible connection to the Force, but his son—he'd turned that same capacity to hidden subtlety so finely honed that his ability was almost invisible, even this close. Why would he learn such a thing, for a Master who only ever valued raw power? And how potent was he, to do it at all?
If Obi-Wan told him the truth, was he honing a weapon for or against Palpatine?
He paused, looking to the Force for guidance…
A dark chamber, vast and echoing, lit by the glow of naked starlight unfiltered by atmospheric diffusion… Steps, to a single chair—a throne. Something bright and hard flashed in the light as it clattered awkwardly down them…a lightsaber, abandoned.
'I won't fight you.' The disembodied voice was more a thought than words, a willingness to sacrifice all: 'I won't fight you.'
"But I will." Another mind, another will, words spoken harsh and loud with just as much determination and commitment—but shot through with a Darkness that gave no ground, made no such concession…
He opened his eyes slowly, reality bleeding back in around him…to see Luke do the same, those pale blue eyes instantly aware. Had he seen? Had he picked his way again into Obi-Wan's mind? "Who spoke—"
"I don't know." Luke's reply came as Obi-Wan asked, his answer overlapping the question. There was a stretched instant as Luke glanced to the side, angry at having given away so much unintentionally.
He was powerful…uniquely so. With a dreadful realization, Obi-Wan knew that his sister wouldn't bring him down. Leia's abilities were honed and exceptional…but she was compassion and empathy, whilst he was assertive and martial. As it had always been. But then, one did not always have to fight with the physical, and the greatest skill that Leia possessed was her ability to judge clearly… And she trusted Luke Antilles…Luke Skywalker.
Despite everything Obi-Wan now knew—despite Luke's willingly blind loyalty, despite that soul-deep twist of Darkness…should he do the same?
"I need to know that I can trust you," Obi-Wan stated solemnly. "In order to do that, I need to ask you some questions about your past…and I must ask you to open your mind when you answer them."
The youth leaned back, that reflexive need to protect himself instantly cutting in.
"You would ask the same in my position," Obi-Wan said, seeing no way to lie to the boy. "That's the exchange, Luke; the truth for the truth."
Obi-Wan gave him a moment then reached out his hand, intending to rest it against Luke's face to better get a sense of him, and again Luke leaned back, maintaining the distance between them. "Please?" Obi-Wan asked…and Luke grated his jaw as he glanced down, deeply uneasy. But it was in acceptance, not avoidance.
Obi-Wan felt the youth tense as he lightly rested the tips of his fingers against Luke's face, felt his whole body primed to fight at a simple touch…felt the conscious effort that was required simply for the boy to drop his shields sufficiently to be read, even partially. Wondered momentarily how long it was since the boy had truly trusted anyone.
"Luke…I need you to tell me whether you've told anyone—anyone at all—about Leia."
Truth, amid a maelstrom of suppressed agitation, to be this vulnerable.
"But Vader knows about her anyway," Luke added. "He knows from the Death Star."
"He knows her name?"
"I don't think so, no. But if he knows she exists, and that she's been trained, he'll be putting all his effort into finding her."
"Does Palpatine know?"
Guilt, deep and painful, wiring the boy tighter.
He could have told his Master, Obi-Wan realized;should have told him, but had chosen not to.
"Why did you not…"
A flare of panic scorched across the link and into Obi-Wan's attentive senses as Luke turned quickly away, recognition lighting a second later as he whispered, "Vader!"
Every possibly shield had slammed into being, cutting Obi-Wan off entirely, but he'd sensed in that same second all that Luke had: Vader's presence, close by and searching, looking specifically for Luke…taking the opportunity inadvertently offered as Luke had dropped his shields, to zero in on his position.
"Stormtroopers—he has stormtroopers with him—around fifty, I think." Luke was already walking for the door. "You need to get out, now. There are—"
Obi-Wan turned at the same time as Luke did. The storage bay's door was still sliding back on its runners as Leia stepped in to stride quickly forward, her eyes on Luke. "What did you do?"
He didn't answer her as she neared, but simply stared, unintimidated.
"You dropped your shields," Leia accused. "You've never done that before—ever. Was it so that someone would know you were here?"
Behind her the dark-haired Solo entered, several steps back, his sense equal parts confusion, alarm and concern.
"Leia, he did that at my request," Obi-Wan said quickly.
"Something's wrong," Leia said. "Can you sense it?"
Luke didn't hesitate, or try to soften the blow. "Vader's on his way here, now. He has four units of stormtroopers, who are spreading out. They know where I am."
"You need to be gone by the time he gets here," Luke said.
"How close are they?" Leia asked.
Obi-Wan sensed her own capable abilities begin to widen as she spoke, intending to lock the stormtroopers' positions down.
"Don't!" Luke said quickly, arm rising. "He doesn't know you're here—either of you. He only sensed me, because I wasn't shielding. You need to get out now, and stay well ahead of him." He paused, head tilting and turning slightly as his senses burst out like the shockwave from a detonation, potent and all-encompassing. "They're splitting up. He knows I'm on the skyhook."
"Why would Vader come after you?" Leia asked.
"Maybe he figures he owes me," Luke said vaguely, attention split. "And for him to bring that many troops along, he's pretty sure he's got something on me."
Obi-Wan glanced about. "How close are they to the skyhook?"
Luke narrowed his eyes in deliberation. "Close enough to be in the corridors before we get to our transport."
"I presume you know a way out which will get you to it without crossing their paths?"
Luke nodded. "I told you, this is a smuggler's run. I know ten."
"Then I'd appreciate your ensuring that Leia gets back to the transport."
The boy nodded, used to taking orders without hesitation—then paused. "What about you?"
Obi-Wan settled back against the packing crate. "I believe I'll stay here."
Luke stared for long seconds…then shook his head. "It won't change anything."
Obi-Wan tightened his lips slightly, holding firm. "Perhaps not."
"It won't buy his gratitude, to tell him," Luke said bluntly—but then, perhaps such brusque directness was all he'd been subjected to. "He'll still want you dead."
"Perhaps I know him better than you think."
"You knew who he was maybe, not who he is now. I know Vader, and I can tell you, this will change nothing, not for him."
Obi-Wan remained silent, and the youth straightened, a little of Leia's rambunctious nature showing in him now. He glanced to Leia, then back to Obi-Wan, his desire to speak obvious.
Obi-Wan turned, the only calm voice amid rising alarm. "Leia, could you give us a moment?"
"Master, you can't seriously..."
"Please, just a moment."
Leia stared for long seconds, bursting to say so much…then turned about.
She was barely out of hearing before Luke spoke, fast and low. "I know what you're doing. You think you can buy Leia's safety by removing her from Vader's attention and centering it on yourself. If you do, you'll be buying it with your own life."
It was clear from Luke's face that he also understood what he himself would be giving up, in allowing it. All the answers that Obi-Wan had promised…they could all be lost to a single swing of a saber blade.
Yet it was also clear that he was willing to respect Obi-Wan's decision.
He sighed, glancing about at the storage crates that were stacked haphazardly here and there, remembering what they contained. Walking to one nearby, he used the Force to prise open its seal, revealing neatly packed laboratory vials, and lifted two clear. One, he opened, and the other he pressed hard against the edge of the crate, shattering it. Pulling its sharp edge across the heel of his hand, he allowed a small trickle of blood to quarter-fill the first small vial, then capped it and held it out to Luke. "For proof."
Luke shook his head, but Obi-Wan pressed on. "I'm sure that there'll be moments when you doubt, or when others will try to make you. Take it."
Luke frowned as he took the vial without looking up. He stared at it for long seconds, misgivings obvious…then he shook his head, finding his voice again. "You should leave. I can't and I won't protect you from Palpatine."
Luke scowled, instantly offended. "I'm not afraid of Vader."
"Well then, why should I be? Besides, I have something to discuss with Anakin."
Obi-Wan nodded with a gentle half-smile. "That's your father's true name: Anakin."
Luke stared, frozen for long seconds… "He hates me."
Obi-Wan felt a wave of pity roll through him at the youth's absolute belief in that fact. "Things can change."
"Not that." Luke glanced quickly to his right. "They're closing." He looked back to Obi-Wan, who met his eye quietly. "Don't fight him."
"I'm not looking for a fight, Luke. You know that."
"He is—he will. If you duel him, you'll lose." Again he turned to the side, his mounting tension telling of the troops closing—and of Vader.
Obi-Wan nodded towards Leia, who came quickly forward, the words she'd been waiting to say coming fast. "Master, we can all get out of here together."
"Leia…I need to speak with Vader."
"About what? There's nothing left to say—how many times have you told me that?"
"I was wrong," Obi-Wan admitted simply. "I need you to leave, and it has to be now, if you're to remain undetected. You need to get back to the scoutship—Chewie is still waiting, and the number of troopers out there will only rise, now."
"Chewie can come to us."
"No, if they know we're onboard the skyhook they'll be waiting for any ship that breaks the traffic flow to try for an extraction."
Leia glanced to Luke, and he looked down, avoiding her eyes.
"Leia," Obi-Wan took her face in his hands, his voice calm and quiet—but grave. "I need you to do this. Our destinies take us all on different paths, you know that."
"And this is mine—I'm sure of that. I have to speak to Vader."
"Then let me stay!"
Obi-Wan smiled against her concern. "No. You need to return to the scoutship—you know that Chewbacca won't leave until you do. Every minute you defer now, you're placing him in greater danger. I'll contact you as soon as I'm able, for a pick-up."
"There must be a way to…"
In the silence, as Obi-Wan looked into her earnest brown eyes, it was Luke who provided a reason, turning away to mutter it, though Obi-Wan didn't know if his impatience was real or feigned.
Leia glanced to him. "What?"
"I said, you never question an order in the field—any soldier knows that."
Leia frowned. "I'm a Jedi, not a soldier."
"Really? Because if I'm not mistaken, every intel text on the man who taught you that, names him as General Kenobi. And I'm pretty damn sure you're not planning to negotiate your way past four full units of stormtroopers—who are, incidentally, still closing."
"He has a point," Obi-Wan said mildly, wishing to side with neither. "Time is short."
Leia scowled, first at Luke in annoyance, then to Obi-Wan, in reluctance…but she nodded, at last.
"Remember," Obi-Wan cautioned, aware of what might come to pass. "Always, always think before you act—of your own intentions and of other peoples, and always consider the consequences. Never act in haste."
Again Leia nodded, so clearly wanting to say more, and Obi-Wan held her eye with the barest knowing nod. "And remember, the Force will be with you—always."
As she turned to set reluctantly off Luke glanced away, senses trained on the closing threat, then back to Obi-Wan. "He's…he's heavy on his feet and more vulnerable to low attacks—don't try to press him from mid-ground. And you can goad him into an aggressive attack even if he knows he's in a poor position."
Obi-Wan nodded slightly. "One always could."
"C'mon!" The pilot, Solo, remained at the sliding door, but he wanted to be gone.
"And keep moving," Luke said as he began to back away, heading for the storage bay's door. "Stay on open ground. Don't let him corner you or you're dead."
"Luke…" The youth paused as Obi-Wan spoke out…and for a second he hesitated, uncertain what he'd intended to say. So much, with so little time. "Promise me you'll think on everything we've spoken about—on Palpatine, on your place here…you don't have to follow in Vader's footsteps." The boy glanced down uncomfortably as Obi-Wan added, "He was a good man, once—a good friend—but Palpatine led him down a Dark path for his own advantage. Don't let him use you, too. If you choose to take nothing else from the past, then at least learn from its mistakes."
The troopers were close now; Obi-Wan glanced to the side in the same moment that the boy did, aware of the stony intent of military minds. He looked back to Luke. "You'll hold to your word?"
Luke nodded solemnly. "I'll get her out."
"Luke!" The Corellian took a step forward, agitation fairly blasting out of him. "We need to leave—now!"
Obi-Wan looked to the Solo, aware of his brotherly concern as he gestured to Luke, who turned to jog quickly away and out of the storage bay…and of Solo's genuine, very different concern as Leia passed him, his hand going briefly to the small of her back. He glanced to Obi-Wan and nodded once, the gesture part acknowledgment, part unspoken promise that he'd do his part to get them out…then he was gone, leaving Obi-Wan to stare into the shadows of the echoing room feeling…what?
Hope for the boy was too strong a word. He had walked a Dark path for most of his life, and Jedi teachings held that one who had walked in Darkness could never return to the Light, but… Obi-Wan allowed himself a momentary smile; always, with Skywalkers, there was a but.
Because that horrified tumult of emotions that had wracked Luke at the realization that he was in some small way involved in Bail and Breha Organa's demise had been too real and far too visceral to have been manufactured.
And Darkness did not regret. It did not feel remorse, nor pity, nor compunction.
So what was Luke? He quite clearly had the education and the skills of a Sith…but did he have the disposition? Palpatine had, by all accounts, spent a great deal of time and effort grinding that into the youth, but…but. Again, that but, as Obi-Wan came back to that moment—to the wretched grief that had poured unchecked from the boy at Bail and Breha's deaths…and he couldn't condemn him.
Certainly Luke had known what Obi-Wan had chosen to do in facing Vader, aware that it would buy Leia the time she needed to escape. And the boy had respected that. Again, hardly the actions of a Sith advocate—as was walking away from Obi-Wan at all, let alone to aid another Jedi's escape.
Yet Obi-Wan hadn't told Luke that Leia was his sister, nor Leia that it was her brother who had agreed to shield her from Vader. It would be easy to claim that he'd not had time, but much as he wanted to trust the boy, it had been prudence that had held him back. Even now.
So for the time being, this was the safest option, with Leia buffered from the truth by the simple fact of Luke's obviously habitual caution, which meant that he wouldn't simply blurt out to Leia what Obi-Wan had told him. He'd already avoided doing so, consciously holding back when trying to persuade Obi-Wan to leave, in front of Leia. He'd undoubtedly hold the truth of his own father's identity secret, first for fear of Palpatine finding out, and second because, judging from his reticence when Obi-Wan had wanted to ask questions, he wasn't inclined to let people into his life or simply give information out. Even if Leia remained in contact with him, it would take a good deal of trust and communication on both their parts, for the inter-related facts to come to light. If they formed a rapport, then the rest would fall into place and they would learn the truth, each from the other. If not, then Leia would carry no weakness, as Master Yoda had always intended. It was the best Obi-Wan could hope for, in the moment.
His thoughts went briefly back to Luke's claim that he knew Vader—knew the man that Anakin had become, rather than the youth that Obi-Wan had fought beside. Was he right, and nothing that Obi-Wan said would impact on the composure of a true Sith? Obi-Wan stilled in consideration of that, for the first time realizing that if that were true, then telling Vader of his son would effectively sign the boy's death warrant. If Vader chose to take that knowledge back to his Emperor, the very fact that Palpatine had kept it hidden for so long meant that he would doubtless feel threatened enough by its exposure to fall back once more on the Rule of Two, and choose to keep only one Sith adjutant… And since Obi-Wan was sure that the boy wouldn't willingly tell his Master any of this, it would soon become clear that though they both knew the truth, only one had taken it back to their Master.
Should he, then, withhold the truth? Obi-Wan glanced to the bay doors, freshly uncertain as to whether to stay or withdraw… Surely he had to give Vader this chance—had to give Anakin the opportunity to reclaim so much of himself. But he wouldn't put the boy in danger to do so, Obi-Wan decided. More importantly, he wouldn't risk Leia. She was the final hope, to prevent the galaxy from falling once again into the darkness of another Sith dynasty, and he couldn't risk that. At all costs, that was what he would protect—with his life, if necessary.
He glanced to the door, sensing the pall of true Darkness that clung to his old friend and enemy both, closing now. Perhaps the riddle that was Anakin's son would be for another to untangle. For now, he must concentrate on the moment, as Qui-Gon had always admonished him.
He tucked all knowledge of dangerous truths away deep within, as he settled back once more on the storage crate, and waited. If he did tell Anakin of his son's existence tonight, it would be in his own time and on his own terms.
Vader strode through the wide, empty corridors of the massive skyhook, two units of stormtroopers marching hot on his heels, the other two already divided up to make sure that no one slunk off unnoticed. This time he had him—he hadAntillesat fault…and he very much suspected he knew how.
The brief, flickering flare of Antilles' signature within the Force, reluctant and deeply wary, had uncloaked and then snuffed itself silent in seconds, but it was all that Vader had needed to pinpoint him as being onboard the skyhook.
He rounded a bend leading to the deep storage bays, attention momentarily taken by two Bothans and a Choi as they backed up against the wall to let the unexpected Imperial presence in their midst pass unhindered. All were armed, but apparently intelligent enough to know when to leave their blasters in their holsters.
Vader knew, of course, that this skyhook was owned by Xizor, the Falleen head of Black Sun. Given the choice, Vader would have removed him and the whole of his seedy crime syndicate long ago, regardless of its size and reach, but his Master tolerated it for his own private reasons, and so Vader and Xizor had been left to an uneasy antipathy of intermittent rebuffs and rebukes. Xizor would doubtless be contacting the Emperor right now, asking in the most politic but slighted terms why exactly four units of stormtroopers and Darth Vader himself were walking down the corridors of one of Black Sun's numerous stash-sites on Coruscant.
And what a reason to be able to cite, when asked. Surely—surely the boy wasn't fool enough to try to meet Kenobi? When Ashtor had produced the stolen scrap of paper with a sketch of Kenobi on it, Vader had wondered… He knew that the sketches were a way intoAntilles' head, and so the image meant that Kenobi was in the boy's thoughts. And that his actions of late had been more taciturn and wayward than ever, but still…
It had been the complex twist of veiled connections which had hovered at the very edge of Vader's awareness to pull the disparate fragments together. The recollection of that same cloaked aura just weeks ago on the Death Star, when Kenobi had tried to hide his presence there, that had made him think—made him hope. He may yet be wrong. But if Antilles was trying to engineer a meeting with Kenobi on Coruscant, it would be one of the most foolhardy and damning things he'd ever attempted—and if so, then Vader intended to catch him red-handed.
There could be other reasons for his being on the Intos skyhook, of course. But Antilles' disappearance coupled with his knowledge of the Black Sun safehouses—that they, like the narrow corridors of unmonitored space by which Xizor ferried his contraband cargo ships into and off of Coruscant beneath the radar, were not patrolled by official channels—meant that it would be one of the few safe places that such an event could possibly take place.
He came to a stop before the tall double-doors of a storage bay, feeling the tingle of a Force-presence from within… And quite suddenly, it unmasked—and Vader knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the vague hunch he'd chosen to play was real.
This was it; this was his opportunity. This was Kenobi, here, on Coruscant! He could kill the father and bring down the son in one fell swoop.
Taking his saber from his belt, Vader took a step forward—and paused, looking to the side. Because another Force-presence sang out, brief and bright:Antilles! Vader glanced back to the closed doors, realizing that half his quarry had fled already.
He snarled, torn momentarily, then whirled about, barking an order. "Captain! Take both units and work your way across the skyhook. Commander Antilles is to be hunted down and apprehended, at all costs."
"Do as I order! You're authorized to use any force necessary to stop him, do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir. Do you require part of the unit to remain here?"
Vader looked back to the bay doors, the trace of a satisfied smile audible in his voice; this time…this time, they finished it. "No, Captain. This will be brief and conclusive."
Vader watched, torn, as the stormtroopers set off in search of Antilles as ordered, then pulled his mind back to the moment to enter the darkened storage bay, knowing that Kenobi was somewhere within. The boy was going nowhere; there were enough troops in the skyhook to bring him to heel, for an ignominious return to his Master...if he even made it that far. No; Kenobi was his first target.
A half-pace short of a full-out run, Han followed Luke as they moved quickly down the empty corridors of the skyhook, Leia a step behind. To date, everyone had had the good sense to keep quiet and keep moving, but when the kid slowed at a five-way crossroad Han had to ask, words clipped as he gulped in breaths.
"What the hell happened—how did Vader end up on our heels?"
Luke glanced to him, attention still on the multiple exits. "I dropped my shields for a moment, to let Kenobi read me." He shook his head in self-censure. "Stupid thing to do anyway. Vader must have been already looking for us, and when he sensed me he used it to pinpoint our location. I knew—I knew something was wrong!"
Han's mind went briefly back to the number of times that the kid had paused to glance about him on the way here, clearly trying to pin down a hunch.
Leia, who had taken a few more steps before she stopped, turned back to him as she glanced about. "What, don't you know which way to the transport?"
"I know exactly which way leads to the transport," Luke replied without looking. "I also know there's about eighteen stormtroopers between us and it."
She took the lightsaber from her belt. "I can deal with that."
Han took a fast step forward. "Woah, let's not get over-zealous here!" Avoiding Vader was one thing, mowing down Imperial troops was another entirely.
Luke's reply was more logical. "You can't use a lightsaber, otherwise the troopers will report to Vader that there's a second Jedi here, and you can't use the Force or he'll know you're here anyway."
"We need to get out! I need to get to the scoutship and be ready when Obi-Wan signals."
"You need to do as you were ordered by your Master, and that was to get out under the radar."
Han stepped in, looking to head off the fight. "What about the smugglers' passageways?"
Luke shook his head. "Either Vader knew about them, or Xizor's people have been ordered to co-operate."
"They're in the passages," Han groaned. "What about the transport?"
"They're not that high up yet—and as long as they think we're down here, they're not about to be. Do you have a blaster with you?"
Han reached beneath his jacket to pull out what now seemed a pitifully underpowered holdout pistol. "I got this."
Luke glanced down, a momentary smile dispelling his grim frame of mind. "Seriously? What were you gonna do with that?"
"Hey, it's got ten shots."
"Through armor? And did you miss the bit where I just said there were eighteen stormtroopers heading this way?"
Han straightened. "I'm not gonna fire on Imperial troops."
Leia tipped her head. "Maybe I should just go on my own."
"No," Han held firm, turning to her. "We're goin' with you."
"No," Luke said. "You are."
"You go with her. I'll stay down here and draw their f…their attention."
"No way—absolutely not."
Luke's eyes and attention drifted off again. "The stormtroopers are splitting up, searching by level. You two need to find somewhere to lay low, and give me some time. I'll draw them back down, away from the transport."
"No," Han said categorically. "We find another way out…another transport or something."
"There are more stormtroopers in the bays than there are in the corridors, and you can pretty much guarantee that any bay that isn't guarded is probably empty. Your best chance is still the transport we arrived in."
"That doesn't mean we split up."
"I don't need anyone's help," Leia reiterated.
Luke turned. "I told Kenobi I'd get you out—let me do what I said." He paused; a moment's hesitation. "Xizor has a narrow flight path that he uses to smuggle ships in and out of the Capital. The co-ordinates are directly above this skyhook. When you get back to your scoutship just lay low and wait—the troopers won't stay on the skyhook long, Xizor will make sure of that. When it's clear, set a geostationary exit point through the outer atmosphere from directly above the skyhook, and you'll be in that unmonitored flight corridor—you'll have a clear exit."
Leia nodded. "I have to come back anyway, to make the pick-up as soon as Obi-Wan signals."
Luke nodded numbly, glancing away, and her voice softened and became more resolute in the same breath. "I know what you're thinking. I'm not stupid, I know he's in danger…but he'll get out. He's faced Vader before. He'll get out."
Kid only nodded again, turning to Han. "I'll keep going down. If I make enough noise, they'll follow me—I'm the one who Vader will have sent them after, anyway. They're probably not even looking for anyone else."
"No, uh-uh. What if they open fire?"
"Seriously, you think a stormtrooper with a blaster will bring me down?"
"No." The memory of what had happened when the Sinto spy, Derrig, had tried to pull a gun on the kid was indelibly etched into Han's mind. "But I think eighteen might."
"Just go. Take normal corridors, as if you work here." Luke had started pushing Han backwards, impatient as ever. "When you get back, tell Indo you knew I'd disappeared so you went looking for me, but didn't find me."
Han stared, torn, but the kid was already backing up to disappear around the curve of the utilitarian hallway. Han glanced back to Leia, and she tilted her head. "A Sith against eighteen stormtroopers? He's the last one you should be worrying about." She tugged at his wrist. "C'mon, Flyboy, let's take a stroll."
The wide door of the storage bay dragged reluctantly aside on rusted runners, letting a bright splash of light from the corridor behind Vader reach into the echoing bay. Beyond that, the broad room's broken, scattered shadows held sway, their diffuse limits marked only by emergency lighting which picked out the hard edges of storage crates grouped several high, obscuring the view. Slowing as he entered, Vader glanced about…and laid within a patch of wan light in the center of the floor was Kenobi's lightsaber.
His old Master walked into view across the stretch of darkened shadows, and Vader lifted his head, hand tightening about his own saber. "What tricks this time, Obi-Wan?"
"No tricks...truths. But dangerous all the same."
"Only to you, for being fool enough to come here to speak them—and to the boy, for being gullible enough to listen. I knew," Vader gloated as he closed, "I knew he'd eventually damn himself by his own actions."
"When the Emperor finds out that he was here…" Vader didn't bother to finish, the threat implicit.
Kenobi nodded. "Because he couldn't risk Luke finding out the truth."
"He already knows the truth."
"Indeed?" Kenobi said mildly. There was a wariness to the old man now, a sense of something withheld. "And you?"
"I know what the boy is to you—or what he was. He's long lost now. Palpatine owns him completely…or did you think that coming here could reverse that?"
"I had hoped," Kenobi admitted, a moment of considered introspection shadowing his senses. "Perhaps I have no right to step in so late. Had I known, I would have done so long ago. Maybe if I had…" He hesitated again, seeming quite suddenly his age; an old man, harried and beleaguered, and plagued by doubts.
Reaching the center of the room Vader stepped forward to place a booted foot upon the surrendered lightsaber, laid on the scuffed floor.
Obi-Wan glanced only briefly to it, then looked searchingly to Vader. "Why did you do it, Anakin? You betrayed your beliefs, your principles, your comrades…why?
"You were like a brother to me, Anakin!" Old accusations jumped across the decades, still charged with disillusionment.
Vader lowered his free hand…and Obi-Wan's lightsaber lifted to it. He clipped it to his belt, eyes never leaving Kenobi. "You are appealing to a man who no longer exists. You burned and buried him on Mustafar."
"No, you alone killed him. You betrayed him and vanquished him." Obi-Wan shook his head, voice soft. "Tell me why—and I can tell you so much. So much that can be retrieved."
"I want nothing of that life! It was small and it was chained, limited by you and your kind!"
"And what is it now? Have you found fulfillment and triumph…or is it an empty, barren void? There were no chains, Anakin—save those of responsibility, and we all carry those. If we're wise, we carry them lightly and with pride."
Vader shook his head. "Still lecturing, even now?"
"No. Still looking for some fragment of the friend I had such faith in…even now."
Luke slowed, using the wide curve of the utilitarian corridor to hide him from the two stormtroopers barely ten steps ahead. He'd been following them for the last few minutes, waiting until the loop corridor they'd been checking finally took them past a turbolift. The massed troopers had considerately divided first into three groups of six, then into two-man elements in order to cover the myriad of corridors on the skyhook, which also, incidentally, made them easier to pick off—with a little work.
He hesitated, reining himself in as he glanced quickly out at…what? They weren't enemies. But an inconvenience was an inconvenience, his Master had always taught him—and Luke was looking at the receding backs of two, right now.
Stepping clear of his cover, his hand slid to the lightsaber at the small of his back as he brought his other arm up, fingers splayed—
For a second he closed his eyes, hand tightening about the saber hilt without pulling it free, aware of how vulnerable the concentration and pinpoint precision required to reach into two minds with sufficient force to overload them without permanent damage made him, if only for a second or two.
Both troopers went down with barely a noise, save for the rattle of their armor hitting the hard deck, and Luke let his hand drop free of his lightsaber as he set forward.
Slowing as he reached the downed troopers, Luke turned to summon the turbolift before he grabbed the blaster rifle from the nearest and put his heel to the downed trooper's shoulder to drag his helmet off, turning it as he lifted it to check that the internal comlink was set to an open channel. He pulled it on with barely a moment's hesitation; it wasn't the first time he'd worn or used one.
A momentary pause, in which to get his thoughts in order and look about to confirm the level he was standing on, then he spoke quickly. "All units, we have a positive sighting on level eight, I repeat, we have a positive…wait! Hey, wh—!" Holding the trooper's blaster out from his side, Luke fired two fast shots into the floor before him, then yanked the helmet off and took a second to push it back onto the trooper's head—no point in making it instantly obvious what he'd done—before rising to walk to the turbolift, aware that he'd have company very soon.
He could have lied about the level, of course, but it would have taken only a second to contact their troop transport, wherever it was, and have it pin down the locators set into the downed stormtroopers' armor. And as he'd bent a moment ago, he'd noted that the troopers Vader had brought with him were 501st. Not so good; the 501st were still comprised mainly of Fett clones, and had a well-deserved reputation as crack units, tried and tested under fire. He'd been lucky to have crept up on the first two; now that they were expecting trouble, he doubted he'd be so again.
Still, having called them all down here, and so away from Han and Leia, Luke had every intention of getting off level eight in the next minute. As the turbolift door slid back, he set the level for five, the lowest level that still contained landing bays, running through his memory of their locations.
"C'mon!" Hitting the door release on the still-deserted landing bay they'd come in through, Han set forward at a run with Leia three steps behind him. They'd reached the skimmer without a problem, which was more worrying to Han than if they'd had trouble, because it meant that the kid was making one hell of a noise somewhere else.
Lifting the gull-wing door he dropped into the pilot's seat, only to have Leia nudge him. "Move over."
"You know I'm a pilot, right?"
"Yes, I was there above the Death Star, remember?" she said dryly as she pushed him again. "In fact, I think you opened fire on me—more than once."
"Uh…I think that was Luke," Han said—and instantly regretted dropping the kid in it.
Leia tipped her head. "Whatever. More to the point, do you know how to jump this thing?"
"Not this particular one," Han allowed cagily, finally giving way to hunch over onto the opposite seat, since it was Leia who'd jumped the skimmer to get them here in the first place.
As the small civilian craft shot clear of the bay and Han let out a silent sigh of relief, he stared at the holdout blaster in his hand, not entirely sure what he would have done if he'd come up against stormtroopers anyway. He'd gone through basic training with many, before Carida; shared barracks with them on countless ships, knew some by name…
But Leia had risked so much in bringing Kenobi here, for no other reason than that she knew on some deep level how much it meant to Luke, even if she didn't know why. Done it because she saw how messed up the kid was, and wanted to help him—said that Kenobi wanted to help him…and Han had no idea who was who in this damn war any more. No idea who he should be standing behind. The Empire he'd sworn to defend didn't exist, he knew that now. Leia was right, he'd been a kid not much older than Luke was now, and desperate to make some kind of life for himself, when he'd spoken that oath.
And what was he doing right now? Helping a Jedi evade capture…a Jedi, no less. Up until this moment, he'd somehow convinced himself that this had just been about the woman with the quirky smile and the big brown eyes, but that wasn't the truth of it—that wasn't the truth of it at all.
Han blinked as another realization hitting him broadside; because here he was, claiming to Leia that Luke'd never even consider betraying the Empire…and what the hell was the kid doing right now, too? A stray memory lit, of when Luke had corrected Vader on the Death Star. Vader had claimed that something was done "in the Empire's service," and Luke had said pretty damn categorically, "in the Emperor's."
Han stared into the night as the small skimmer raced through the high-level fast lanes, feeling that despite the ambush and the tumult and the hasty, headlong dash for escape, some kind of epiphany had taken place.
Leia turned to him, alarm in her voice. "What?"
"In the Emperor's service," he said quickly. "Not the Empire's, the Emperor's!"
"Listen!" He took her arm, and the skimmer slewed slightly. "Luke—you asked would he leave, would he leave all this behind."
She risked another glance to him, frowning.
"Look at this!" Han said, pointing behind him though the skyhook was no longer visible, having long-since disappeared beyond sight. "Look at what he's doing right now! You want to know whether he's worth saving, well look! He doesn't give a damn about the Empire. It's Palpatine who's got his claws in him. That's it—that's all of it. That's what all this is!"
It was so obvious! That was why the kid blanched at what he did in the Empire's name. That was why he remembered all those people; because he knew—he knew that it was wrong! He'd have no part of it at all if it wasn't for Palpatine. "It's Palpatine—Palpatine who holds him here, and nothing else! He serves because it's Palpatine's obsession, and that's enough for Luke."
"Han…" She hesitated, then said it anyway. "He serves because he's a Sith. That's—"
"He's not a Sith—I know you think he is, and I understand that. But you both…you just got off on the wrong foot." She raised her eyebrows at that, though she didn't turn from flying, and Han brought his hands up in allowance. "Okay, he does a good job of puttin' up a great front, I know that. But…I don't even know what to tell you—all I can say is, he's not Sith. He's not like them."
"Han, I'm sorry, he's…"
"Eyes!" Han straightened, leaning back to hold a finger up in adamant realization. "His eyes haven't changed! A Sith's eyes change, right? Luke told me that once, when Old Yellow Eyes was digging at him for something, and he dragged that up—that the kid's eyes had never changed. A Sith's eyes change to red or yellow, and his haven't!"
Leia shook her head. "You can't use that as a guide, Han. Sith can hide themselves in plain view—they can make themselves seem normal, project an image of themselves to others. Palpatine did it for years, before he took power."
"No, uh-uh. Palpatine's on the kid's back all the time about that. Why would Luke disguise it from the one person he wants to impress? Plus he uses spice too much. I've seen him pretty spiced up, and I know for a fact that it limits control of his abilities—that's why he takes it in the first place! I've seen him off his face, and his eyes never changed." Excited, Han straightened. "And that's another thing; he lies to the Emperor about his own abilities, takes spice specifically to make them seem less—to avoid Palpatine's demands. He can't…he's caught in that vicious circle, and he just can't see a way out. You want to help him, then get him out of that. Get him away from Palpatine, and you might…hell, you might even get through to him!"
"Well then, help us. You want Luke out too, I know you do. You want him away from all this. But you just said yourself, he'll always go back to Palpatine. The only way you'll stop that is to help us get rid of him. Permanently."
"I can't…" Han paused, struggling not for words, but with the very concept itself. Loss of faith in the Empire was one thing, actually going against it was another entirely. He'd still made that oath, and he still had some sense of principles. And of course… "You're talking about the Emperor. You think it's that easy?"
"Not at all. I know exactly what I'm asking." The skimmer slowed as it dropped down to street level on the very edge of the Shades, coming to a smooth stop. Leia reached out and rested her hand on Han's arm, big, earnest eyes holding his. "Han, you're in an unprecedented position. You've ended up incredibly close to the Emperor almost by default. He controls everyone around him—everyone. But because of Luke, you've somehow slipped in beneath that net. You have the opportunity so very few do—to make a difference. A huge difference—a real one—at the source of the problem. Help us."
He stared in silence as Leia searched his eyes—but she didn't push any further. "Think on it—please."
Turning about, head swimming, Han climbed from the low-slung skimmer. The level they'd stopped on was high enough and close enough that the upper levels of theImperialPalacecould be seen as he walked around the idling skimmer to her side, massive lights illuminating its famous blue stone façade.
She almost spoke, hesitated a moment…then smiled briefly. "I'll contact you."
"You'd better. 'Cos I sure as hell have no way to contact you, and…aah, hells—"
He leaned forward and took her face in both his hands, pulling her in to kiss her before she could begin to object. It was brief and it was heartfelt, and when he leaned back—and it was him who leaned back—she stared, shocked.
"That's why—and believe me, that's one hell of a reason." Han winked once, then backstepped. "Go—quickly!"
She grinned, and slewed the skimmer about in a tight skid before lifting it skywards again. Han watched for a few seconds more, shaking his head. "You sure can pick 'em, Solo."
Not at all sure whether that was a good or bad thing, he turned to look again at the brooding mass of theImperialPalace, an ominous, towering outline which quickly wiped the smile from his face as it silently waited for his arrival, with all hells ready to break loose.
Luke remained still, hand to the locked door of the room he'd taken refuge in, as the stormtroopers paused outside to check the door. He'd pulled his saber, and now had it resting, inactive, against the door panel on the inside of the room, waiting to see if the troopers had an override code. If they did, presumably one of them would be standing directly in front of the door panel right now in the corridor outside, to input it. His thumb rested on the inset activation button of his saber hilt, the nozzle pressed against the panel, so that if activated the blade would cut cleanly through the panel and the interconnecting wall, and into the hallway beyond…
"Locked." The muffled voice was both competent but accepting, and the sound of booted feet moved off, leaving Luke to breathe again.
Waiting until they retreated beyond hearing, Luke deactivated the lock and released the door. He paused a few seconds more in the empty corridor, widening his perceptions to take in the whole of the skyhook. Skyhook—that probably hadn't been such a great idea, all things considered. If he'd been on the ground, he could have had any number of escape options; now, onboard a skyhook, he was a fish in a barrel, limited to just a few guardable exits, and needing transport even for those. The corridors above him were crawling with stormtroopers, all heading down now that they knew where they needed to concentrate their efforts, and his intention to get out of here as quickly and as quietly as possible was beginning to run into problems.
The sound of running feet snapped Luke's head up as his gaze flicked to the cross-corridor. The curves that protected him also hindered him, in that he was as blind as his pursuers were—but he had one advantage that they didn't.
Multiple minds, focused and intent, were heading his way. Six more stormtroopers, probably coming in from their ongoing search on level eight, were not far behind. Luke glanced to the doors of several small storage bays and offices off the main ring corridor, but hiding wasn't really getting him anywhere; he needed to get to the transport bays before more troopers converged on this level.
Setting off at a jog to stay ahead of his new pursuers, Luke headed for the bays.
To one side was yet another bay door, and Luke sensed just two troopers inside—sufficient that there might be a transport in there? For two troopers, it seemed worth a shot. He could sense four more on the next level up, in almost the same position, and the six who were behind him were closing fast, another four coming in from the opposite end of the curved loop corridor now. With little time to spare Luke reached the door at speed, trying to remain out of sight as he took hold of the battered bay door frame in order to slow himself down sufficiently to slap the activation panel, barreling through as the bay door slid aside. Still moving, he took two hasty steps forward—and stopped dead.
He saw the first stormtrooper in the same moment that the man saw him, and for a brief second of still shock each stared at the other…then the heavy laser cannon mounted to the side of the troop transport that the trooper was standing inside—the one that had doubtless brought them all here in the first place—lifted and took its first shot.
Luke threw out the Force in a protective bubble, both hands out before him to try to channel enough power to counter the incoming blast. He'd never even tried to dispel something this big before, let alone unprepared. It hit like a bodyblow, sliding him backwards as it dispersed in a wide arc about him, then instantly it was gone and he staggered forward two clumsy steps, almost falling from having been braced against its power. The bay door behind him opened, and he swung about, hand out to it. Instantly it closed again, barely halfway through its cycle, so that he had a brief glimpse of troopers on the other side, blaster rifles raised, before he threw himself to the side in anticipation as the Force blared a warning.
The blaster canon mounted on the troop transport to the center of the bay lanced another powerful blast into the space where he'd been stood, taking a good portion of the wall out in an explosion of fine debris, fragments of which stung his back and arm as he blinked against its brightness.
A splash of small arms fire peppered the wall before him and as he backstepped Luke realized that the bay was easily twice as high as he'd expected, and the troopers whom he'd thought were on the level above and therefore safely out of reaction distance, were actually standing on an open gantry high up to the side of the bay, with perfect fields of view. As he ran for the only shelter available—beneath a maintenance scaffold with a plate-plasteel walkway—the bay door opened again, and the stormtroopers who'd been on his tail spewed into the bay.
Turning, Luke pulled the lightsaber from his belt and planted his legs, barely lighting his saber before the hail of bolts came in. He brought the amber blade in sharply to intersect, sending them ricocheting back towards their firers and forcing the men to pull back with warning shouts, looking for cover as one of their party fell awkwardly, clutching his leg. Briefly, in the first moment that he'd had to even think rather than just react, Luke reflected that if Vader hadn't been completely certain that Luke was on the skyhook, then he sure as hell would be now.
Vader advanced slowly, resentment and animosity boiling down into hardened resolve. Did the old man think that he could buy his own safety, in surrendering his weapon? Vader's grievances went well beyond that. It wasn't murder, it wasn't execution, it wasn't even revenge. Obi-Wan's actions had stripped Vader of everything, every possible hope, every potential future. He deserved retribution.
Obi-Wan held his ground, still trying to appeal, when the judgment was long-since decided. "We've fought so many battles, Anakin…are you willing to pass those enmities onto the next generation? Are you willing to lock them onto that same path?"
"Your padawan," Vader said knowingly.
"What are we doing, Anakin, that we train children to take up the fight? Is this all that's left to us?"
"Let her take up arms against me, for taking her Master from her." Vader thumbed the activation of his lightsaber's hilt and the blade sprang forth in a flare of scarlet, humming with power, vibrating in his hand as the blade coruscated, held low, but close enough to Kenobi to cast a crimson glow that stained the pool of light in which he stood, unmoved.
"She would not lay blame—not with you." Obi-Wan shook his head. "Nor would I ask her to."
"Then you think she'll bring down Palpatine?" Vader laughed roughly. "You think she'll succeed where the rest of the Jedi fought and failed?"
"She has a pure heart."
Vader laughed. "Even Antilles could take her down. Or is that what you fear—your own bastard son, willing to bring down your padawan. Is that what you came here hoping to stop?" Vader tilted his head, voice mocking. "Then let me indulge you, Master Kenobi…for old time's sake. I'll remove the threat of the boy…or rather, Palpatine will, when I take you back as proof of what he's done. "
"I won't be taken back, you know that. I hold too many secrets."
Vader tilted his head, unmoved. "I have no need of prisoners. A corpse is proof enough."
"I deny you even that," Kenobi said calmly.
Vader scowled, curling his lip at the old man's games. "The choice is not yours."
Again he came forward, and this time Obi-Wan backstepped, just slightly. Did he know? Did he comprehend the depth of his error now, in thinking that Vader wouldn't attack? Did he understand that this was the end? Vader grinned beneath his mask, hand tightening about his saber.
He halted as he prepared to step forward, momentarily thrown by the glaring flare that burst out into the Force with Antilles' unique signature, twisted through with a jolt of shock. Kenobi too tilted his head, momentarily distracted by the brief outburst, then his attention came back to the moment as he lifted empty hands in appeal.
"Anakin, that which you left behind, that which you cut all ties with, it has the power to change your life—even now. There's so much to reclaim…"
"There is nothing of that life that I want!" Vader came forward, two steps from the old man now, saber sweeping to the side, tip down. "Everything that I wanted, everything that I acted to save, is gone, because of you. You brought Padmé to Mustafar."
Obi-Wan's eyes turned down as if not seeing the blade—as if not understanding that it had been brought back to lay a blow. Instead his eyes filled with guilt and understanding, then came to Vader, searching intensely. "Would you do it again now? Give everything that you served, everything that you are, to save that which you hold dear?"
"I hold nothing close—save for my revenge on you. And the time for that is now. You go to your death knowing that your son will follow within the hour—I'll see to that."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "There is still something that has the power to change your life entirely. But I cannot tell you unless I have faith that you will act rightly in this. I have made mistakes, I know that, but I will not compound them. Padmé came to Mustafar of her own will, but I didn't stop her from speaking to you. I thought that she could reach you, that she could fire the compassion and humanity within you…and she paid the price for my blind hope. I won't make that same mistake again—I won't hand another to the slaughter."
"Then step to it yourself, for your own blind trust."
Vader brought the blade forward in a lunging stab with all the power of his shoulder and torso behind it, taking that last step forward as he did so. The final stride had brought him so close to Kenobi that as he buried its blade, the hilt of his saber jarred as it was stopped by the old man's ribs, and Obi-Wan reached out his hand to grasp Vader's shoulder, his face raising, eyes wide.
"Anakin!" The word was a shocked choke, the last breath of a dying man.
"For Padmé," Vader growled.
The old man's chest strained as he stared, struggling for one final gasp of air, though none came…then, strangely, the barest trace of a smile touched his lips and he nodded his head just once as his face fell calm, letting the words out with his final breath. "For Padmé."
Disturbed, Vader pulled the blade free…and before his eyes, the heavy cloak that had hung on Kenobi's shoulders sagged—and the man himself faded to nothing, the clothes he had worn falling to the floor in an empty heap.
Vader backstepped to stare at the rags, Kenobi's final words still sounding in his thoughts. Why—why had he agreed? Had he claimed that he'd somehow made the sacrifice for her? How? How had his death been anything more than long-awaited revenge?
He glared, ill at ease, until another thought occurred:
"I have no need of prisoners. A corpse is proof enough."
Antilles! Vader swung about, a guttural growl escaping him.
There were Obi-Wan'snobleprinciples; there was no sacrifice for Padmé—it was to save his own son's worthless hide. Now Vader had nothing. No proof, no… He paused, straightening as he slipped his hand beneath his cloak…and brought out a lightsaber.
Three shots from the gantry above Luke twisted him about, as more stormtroopers crowded onto the walkway, kneeling to regain sight of their target. Luke angled his blade to ricochet the bolts back onto the damn troop transporter, hoping to give the trooper who manned the mounted cannon there pause to consider his own vulnerability. Whether it was a hit or not, the man disappeared from view, giving Luke a few moments' grace from the heavy fire.
It was brief. The far door slid open to allow another group to enter the crowded bay, weapons drawn. The sound of blaster-fire reverberated around the bay as bolts flared, exploding on impact or batted aside to impact in sparking flares on the tall struts of the maintenance tower that Luke had retreated beneath, to limit the angles of fire.
Another flurry of shots came from the gantry, spanging on the plasteel over Luke's head and spraying him with fine splinters of red-hot debris. He glanced up, aware that there were too many troopers and blasters up there.
Taking a step back, he used the Force to tumble the maintenance tower he stood beneath onto its side before him, forcing the troopers on his level to take cover as it came crashing to the ground. It afforded him extra cover from those on the bay floor, though his protection from those on the gantry was now non-existent. He looked up to the threat from the crowded gantry…
It took a second, no more, to draw the Force in and cast it out. To focus it with unerring accuracy on the multiple support struts of the high gantry. Every strut, every strength, every weakness in the structure glared, crystal clear. Luke threw up one hand, mentally tethering himself to the bay floor as he caught a solid Force-hold of the long, trooper-crowded gantry.
It moved with a brief, screeching wrench, tumbling men to their hands and knees as it cracked free of the wall behind it. A second more, a heightening of concentration and control—and the structure yanked free entirely, its supports shearing and buckling beneath it as it was pulled wholesale from the wall, bright flares of sparks marking where power cables had been threaded through individual support struts. In a cacophony of noise it toppled forwards, throwing those who weren't already holding on for their lives free as it came down, dragged as much as falling. Troopers on the bay floor scrabbled and ran to get clear as it tumbled and collapsed with a massive, thundering roar, the impact shaking the ground and raising a wide cloud of dust and debris.
Luke was already moving, using the dust for cover as he backed quickly to the bay door behind him. It slid back as he reached for the release—
And Luke was staring into the faces of two stormtroopers, standing to the other side of the door and hitting the release in the same second.
Never hesitate, his Master always said; had drummed into him again and again. Hesitate and you've already lost. Hesitate, and I'm wasting my time trying to teach you. Hesitate and you're useless—worse than that. You're a hindrance. An embarrassment. Never, ever hesitate.
Out of options and with a blaster being lifted at point-blank range, Luke brought his saber round whip-fast. The blade cut cleanly through the trooper's armor, slicing his head and part of his shoulder free as his body fell lax, armor clattering onto the scuffed floor. The second trooper yelled out in shock, bringing his blaster round. His first hasty shot went wild in a bright flash as Luke flinched, barely altering the angle of his saber blade as he brought it round in a wide sweep to intersect with the trooper's raised wrist. The blaster fired again as it fell, one white-armored hand still gripping it as the trooper spun away, dropping to his knees.
Luke glanced into the corridor; the last unit of twelve troopers had arrived and were crowding forward, blasters raised. He slammed the door control, forced to back into the bay as two bolts splashed against the heavy door.
Sparing a second to glare at the control as he backed further, Luke used the Force to twist the components within, making it flare with a brief spark of fried circuitry…and turned back, saber raised, as the first two shots came from troopers already inside the dust-fogged bay.
"Ceasefire—ceasefire!" It was the unit commander, shouting so loud to be heard above the noise that Luke too heard the command.
Silence… The pall of dust from the downed walkway mixed with smoke and ozone from blaster damage as everybody stilled, waiting…even Luke paused, panting as he stared through the haze.
The unit commander stood slowly from cover, his voice strong and clear and fearless. "Commander Antilles, I'm Sergeant Coric."
Luke waited, still breathing heavily. He knew the man, by reputation rather than personally. One of the old guard, an original template Clone who'd been around since the Clone Wars.
The trooper squared his shoulders as he displayed the kind of initiative that had kept him alive this long. "Sir, we have standing orders to detain you on Lord Vader's command…I'm respectfully asking you to stand down, Sir."
He sensed it just a second later: the momentary, visceral fracture which flared to an expansion within the Force so wide and absolute as to lose cohesion entirely.
He'd sensed Jedi die before, of course. At his Master's hand, and at Vader's—and a few at his own, as he'd grown. But this was different; this was a quantum expansion of consciousness in the very same moment that it was snuffed from existence.
Luke flinched as it passed through him, thin and diffuse, suppressing a shudder both mental and physical.
The die that had been cast when the old man had arrived on Coruscant had finally fallen—as he'd known it would. A momentary regret took him, thoughts elsewhere, despite his own predicament…then his attention came back to the moment as he stared at the white armor about him, suddenly disinclined to continue.
To fight on was pointless, anyway; either Leia was long clear of the skyhook, and therefore any foolish act of revenge, or she was still here, and nothing that he did would stop her from returning to face Vader.
He straightened, letting his senses open out to encompass the entire skyhook…then the surrounding area…then beyond, searching for that now-familiar sense of pugnacious resolve. She wasn't there, already far enough away that for her to return now would be futile. He could have fought on; it would have been difficult but not impossible to get out of the bay and elude the troopers in a running fire-fight. It was what he'd trained for his whole life; to fight…in his Master's name.
Only this wasn't. And even if he got away with minimal injuries, he'd eventually have to return to his Master and answer for himself, he knew that. In his final act of recompense to Kenobi, Luke straightened and deactivated his saber, knowing that if he left now with the troopers, Vader would look to return soon afterwards, thus removing him from the skyhook in case Leia did return.
That was it; he was done. He owed the old man nothing more, for the truths he'd told. Perhaps he'd owed him nothing anyway; the knowledge certainly wouldn't make Luke's life any easier—if it was true at all. As he'd warned Kenobi, it had changed nothing—the old man was still dead, and Luke was still here, facing down the barrel of a blaster, at Vader's order. And he had yet to answer to Palpatine.
Taking Luke's inaction as compliance, the Group Captain walked forward, lifting his hand. "Your lightsaber please, Sir."
Luke glanced down to the lightsaber that he still clutched…then held it out to be taken. Veteran that he was, Captain Coric didn't relax his guard, just because he'd taken the weapon from a Sith. "We have instructions to escort you back to the palace. I have to ask you to return in the troop carrier, with us, until we can verify ongoing orders."
In contrast to his wary deference, the remaining stormtroopers about the Group Captain advanced with weapons aimed, widening their half-circle to guarantee multiple lines of fire. Luke wondered briefly how many blasters he could deflect at once…but it was immaterial now. Instead he smiled at the blank white façade of the trooper's helmet. "Well, I was heading that way anyway."
One of the troopers pulled out a set of binders and Luke looked at them briefly, then back to the Group Captain. "No," he said in calm refusal.
For a moment the standoff held, while the Captain weighed his options…then he half-turned to his comrade. "That's okay, trooper. We were told to take him back, that's all. Sir?"
He stepped aside to gesture to the waiting transport, and the surrounding troopers who were still capable of standing pulled back and rearranged to clear a path, blasters still raised and trained.
Luke sat in the rumbling, clattering discomfort of the troop carrier, surrounded by watchful troopers and trying hard to resist the urge to check the pocket of his jacket, where he'd stowed the vial. No one had searched him…despite their loyalty to Vader, no one was entirely sure what was going on here and Luke was sufficiently highly placed that the unit Captain had wisely decided they'd do their duty with the minimum of ruffled feathers.
Luke sighed as he glanced down, unable to even begin to process what Kenobi had said. Nor should he. It was surely more likely that Kenobi had lied than it was that his Master had. Vader never had been and never would be anything more than an undisguised and unapologetic enemy—Luke's situation right now underlined that.
He looked again about the transporter, aware of many wary minds…and it brought home to him just how completely and utterly this had gone wrong. He'd had a plan before, an intention. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't popular, but it had incorporated within it both Luke's and his Master's wishes. He would confront his father, Kenobi, say what he'd intended to say, do what he'd intended to do, and then bring the body of the dead Jedi who had eluded his own Master for so long, back to the palace. He would have finally had the answers he needed, his Master would have had Kenobi…and Luke would have been the one to bring him in, a gesture hopefully big enough to buy him immunity from his Master's ire, that Luke had disobeyed him in going after Kenobi in the first place.
It had a downside, in that it wouldn't have mitigated Palpatine's wrath entirely, but he knew that it would have been sufficient to make it uncomfortable, rather than unsurvivable—and that was a price that he'd been willing to pay.
Now—now, he had nothing. Worse, because of Vader's involvement, his Master would know that Luke had disobeyed, in seeking Kenobi out. And if everything Kenobi claimed was true, then the faux-pas Luke had committed in disobeying his Master was dangerous bordering on catastrophic.
Luke's eyes skipped across the beveled flooring of the troop transporter, sheer desperation forcing his mind to race, dragging logic together under pressure, as he'd been taught week after month after year in preparation for a life in his Master's service. Willfully ignoring the fact that this situation was anything but.
Facts; what were the real facts? That was what he'd had drummed into him; you worked with the facts, not with assumptions. How much could his Master actually know, about what had happened tonight? Luke had been careful—very careful. He'd known the risks, even with his abandoned plan in place. He closed his eyes, mentally running through the information that each person had; himself, Vader, and Palpatine. In fact, Palpatine would know only what Vader told him—and Vader would tell the Emperor all he knew, immediately—but how much could Vader know? He'd been confident enough to bring stormtroopers, but nothing more—and he would have done, if he'd had advance confirmation. He would have made this into a show that Palpatine would have had to sit up and take notice of. And how could he know more in advance—even Luke hadn't known Kenobi was coming here! Plus, Vader had zero knowledge of what had happened before he'd arrived at the storage bay door; who was there, or for how long. All of Palpatine's knowledge of the situation would rely on Vader's, which was clearly limited, and on Luke's retelling of his version of the facts, which his Master would expect to be contrary to Vader's; they always were. Luke and Vader were at constant loggerheads, they'd always argued and contradicted.
How much could Luke work around that?
He moved in his seat, uncomfortable at the thought. But the fact was, he knew now that he could…he could lie to Palpatine. His system clear of spice, he'd looked his Master in the eye in the early hours of this morning and done so. And he could do it again tonight, if he had to; he could lie to his Master.
Luke brought his hand to his mouth, chewing at his thumbnail, unable to think of it in those terms—he couldn't afford to and he didn't need to. This was about Vader wading in and thinking he had the upper hand. It was about Kenobi disclosing knowledge that he knew—he knew was too dangerous to ever repeat; Luke had worked that out already.
He glanced about at the straight-backed stormtroopers, angry for allowing himself to end up in this situation. Furious at Vader, for instantly pushing to take advantage of it. Fuming with Kenobi, who had put him in this position in the first place…and he hesitated. Because that was what he needed to be—angry. At Kenobi, at Vader. Anger could get him through this. He needed to hold on to his resentment of Kenobi, because it was something that his Master would understand. Compassion, pity, forbearance…they were not things he'd ever felt for Kenobi, so if he went into his Master's presence now harboring such thoughts, he'd instantly condemn himself. What smoldering strands of regret he felt now, he had to shut away. He couldn't afford such shows of weakness.
Slowly, as he looked for any angle, determined as ever not to give Vader this victory and knowing that his Master would anticipate that—would expect Luke to be fuming at Vader's actions—a new plan formed: damage limitation.
Palpatine remained silent as Antilles was marched into his audience chamber by an armed guard of twelve troopers, the boy's sense tightly locked down, though a smoldering ember of indignation flickered steadily. Yet physically he exhibited every possible sign of one knowing he was in the wrong, his head down, lips pursed, avoiding his Master's eye. It wasn't the first time that he had been dragged before Palpatine with a stormtrooper escort in the early hours of the morning, nor the first time that it had been at Lord Vader's order…but the facts—what few had come out already from the fleeting report by the stormtrooper captain—were exceptional.
The stormtroopers came to a parade-perfect halt before the dais, taking one perfectly synchronized side-step to open up about the prisoner in their midst, then snapping their heels in a smart salute. Antilles hesitated a second, then stepped down onto one knee, his slight form almost lost amid the ranks of armor as he said nothing, keeping his head low.
"His lightsaber," Palpatine said levelly without looking from the boy.
The Stormtrooper captain marched forward to stop at the edge of the dais and place the saber on the floor at Palpatine's feet.
"You are dismissed," Palpatine said with barely a glance to the trooper captain. Recriminations and reprisals were not for outsiders.
He waited until they had wheeled about and left, the door which opened briefly into the outer chamber framing a sea of fascinated faces. Midnight was hours past, and though Court had been discharged only slightly earlier than usual, any who had the wherewithal to have earned a place for themselves here, wouldn't be so stupid as to simply leave without first finding out just exactly what had caused the Emperor to dismiss Court in the first place. Viscount Indo was among them, Palpatine knew, having been roused from his bed when the first report had come in from one of Vader's 501st units requesting a landing in a secure bay and citing the prisoner they'd been ordered to bring in. Indo had apparently been unaware that the boy was even gone…perhaps his efficacy was no longer as great as Palpatine had assumed.
The stony silence held for long seconds as Palpatine studied his advocate, still kneeling, head down. When he finally spoke, he made sure there was no hint of allowance in his voice.
"I awarded you the privilege of carrying a lightsaber just weeks ago…and this is how you acknowledge that honour—by turning it on Imperial troops." The boy at least had the decency to remain still, head down, knowing that his Master's opening salvo was not yet done. "I am told that in the last few hours, you left the palace without my permission and entered a property held by Lord Xizor, with neither my nor his approval. Would you care to explain yourself? Or perhaps you would prefer to start with why exactly Lord Vader felt it necessary to order stormtroopers to detain you when you did so, and why you chose to evade them like a common criminal, subsequently placing fourteen of them in the medicenter and three in the morgue."
The boy stood, a little of that fire flaring. "They came after me!"
Palpatine released a swift Force-blow which knocked him back two staggered steps, more for effect than anything else. "Don't ever raise your voice at me! Why did you kill my stormtroopers?"
"They weren't acting in your name—Vader was directing them, and they were interfering with an ongoing action on your behalf!" There was a lot of bluster in the boy's words, and a little desperation, too. A twist of guilt.
Palpatine narrowed his eyes. "Namely?"
Before Antilles could reply the tall double doors burst open and Lord Vader strode into the room, his satisfaction rolling before him unchecked—as did his intention to accomplish more to feed it, given the opportunity. He didn't even bow in acknowledgement to Palpatine as he walked forward, his attention on Antilles alone.
At least the boy had the good grace to react, all other emotions drowned beneath his outrage at Lord Vader's disrespect. Everything about him changed with Vader's arrival, his whole demeanor veering from uneasy apprehension to hostile belligerence, eyes narrowing as he turned more fully to Vader, his body taking on a martial stance.
Without hesitation Vader threw something across the room at head-height, aimed for the boy. A small cylinder little more that two hands in length, it caught the light in a brief flash as it arced across the room, instantly recognizable to all present. Antilles made no move to catch the lightsaber hilt, simply twisting aside so that it continued on to hit the wall behind him, then bounced back across the polished marble floor of the dais to clatter slowly down the gilded steps in a flare of reflected light, coming to rest close to the boy's feet.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi is dead." Vader's words, spoken with a taunting finality, were clearly aimed far more at the boy than at Palpatine himself, though they still had the power to fire a wave of undisguised pleasure which lifted Palpatine's lips in delight, both at the removal of the last Jedi, and in anticipation of what the boy's reaction would be.
Before him, Antilles remained still and straight, face hardening at the knowledge of hisfather'sdemise, though nothing else was readable beneath already raised shields. He didn't bother to look to his Master for support, knowing from long experience that he'd get none. But then it seemed he didn't need it.
"Congratulations, Lord Vader—you killed an old man." Antilles glanced momentarily down at the lightsaber as he spoke, completely dismissive. Whatever reaction Vader had hoped to prize from him, he clearly had no intention of obliging.
"I killed a Jedi Master," Lord Vader growled. "After you chose to walk away leaving him alive."
Palpatine's head moved slowly back to Antilles, fury quieting his words to a hissed whisper. "You were with Kenobi?"
Antilles turned, eyes wide, the reason for his earlier anxiety now clear. It was Vader who spoke though, bass voice triumphant.
"He fled when my troops arrived at the skyhook that they'd chosen to meet on, in hope of hiding their transgression."
For a split-second Antilles tilted his head as his lip curled at Vader in provocation, then he turned back to Palpatine, speaking quickly. "I was there just minutes before Vader, and I'd gone for the same reason—to bring Kenobi in."
"And how did you know to go there?" Vader challenged.
"I didn't," Antilles stated flatly as he turned to Vader, defending from two fronts now. "You were following me, you know I didn't go straight there. I was being led around, trying to make contact with him."
"And how did you know to even try?"
"Because this was an operation months in the planning! Months, to get them to trust me! And then you wade in and destroy the whole thing, splitting them up and forcing me to try to go after his accomplice. I didn't walk away, I tried to salvage an operation that you'd ruined, only to be rounded up by your troopers and dragged back here, letting her escape!"
"A planned operation which you chose to say nothing about?" Palpatine interceded with quiet menace.
The boy turned back, finding some degree of deference at the tone of his Master's voice. "It was barely more than a follow-up to the Sinto spy, Master. The contact was the same Rebel agent who provided the first link to the listening post in the Auril Sector—I didn't bring her in at the time because I thought I could use her again, to gain other information. Then when I realized she knew Kenobi, I began to wonder if I could use her to draw him out. But it was scarcely past its initial stages! Kenobi coming here was without warning and completely unexpected."
Palpatine remained silent, eyes hooded, and the boy spoke out again, fighting to hold his nerves in check.
"She contacted me tonight to say that she wanted to meet, so I went. I hadn't expected her to bring Kenobi—hadn't expected him to be fool enough to come to Coruscant, let alone the Palace District. I was already heading to the meeting place thinking I was meeting her alone, when she moved its location—and again. When she finally showed herself, she said Kenobi was here and wanted to speak there and then…so I went along with it, intending to arrange to meet again. For the second meeting, I would have pushed to have it at a time and place of my choosing. Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to name the location, we would have been aware and prepared, and if I did, we could have mobilized any amount of troops. You could have been there yourself, concealed, waiting…"Antilles stepped forward. "It would have worked!"
Palpatine ignored all of the last, remaining with the relevant point. "You didn't try to comm security forces, when you realized whom she was taking you to meet?"
"My comlink is still in my quarters—Indo will tell you that—I knew she'd check, and tell me to leave it."
"And do you do everything she asks?"
The boy straightened, knowing he was at fault, but still fighting his corner. "I didn't want to give her reason to distrust me—I didn't think she'd bring him yet…didn't know if she ever would! By the time I knew what was going on I was already with her, and would have lost the opportunity entirely if she'd even suspected anything. She'd already taken no chances, moving me from place to place so she could watch from a distance to make sure I had no tail."
Palpatine remained unmoved. "You have other ways to contact me."
"Not with her." He glanced down, and for a second seemed to hesitate…then looked back to his Master. "Kenobi's trained a padawan."
Palpatine straightened on his throne, all lesser acrimonies forgotten beneath this new threat. "To what degree?"
"I don't know—sufficient that none of us knew she was here." He looked back to Vader, his nerves instantly lost as his voice raised in angry accusation. "I would have learned more, but Vader burst into the skyhook like a rabid nek, so Kenobi and his padawan split up. I had to make a choice, so I left Kenobi to go after the woman, because I knew Vader would head straight for Kenobi—in fact I doubted that Vader had even sensed the padawan yet—had you!"
"And how did you know?" Palpatine asked coolly and quietly.
The boy turned. "What?"
"You just said yourself that none of us had identified Kenobi's padawan…yet you knew not to use the Force to contact me. How?"
"I didn't—not at first. When we met I reached out to touch her, to use a Force persuasion…and I knew then."
Antilles hesitated—but it was genuine; an attempt to recall detail under pressure. "To convince her to meet me again."
Vader twitched straighter, instantly grasping the opportunity. "Without your Master's knowledge!"
Antilles rounded on him. "As part of an ongoing operation!"
"One which you took upon yourself to conduct without permission."
Palpatine remained silent, allowing Vader and Antilles to argue; many a slip was made in the heat of such arguments, and the wary deference which each held for their Master was non-existent with each other. Already the boy's voice was rising in accusation.
"So you're claiming that you tell the Emperor every detail of every part-fulfilled mission? What about the action necessary to retrieve the Death Star plans, lost from the Tantive—did you explain those? Or the details of just how exactly you let them fall back into Rebel hands?"
Vader's head tilted threateningly, but his silence bought Antilles sufficient time to turn back to Palpatine, residual anger at Vader lifting his voice as he near-shouted at his Master in his frustration. "This was my operation!"
Palpatine lifted his chin as his eyes narrowed, and the boy's tone instantly dropped from heated to deferential, though no less impassioned.
"It was mine, to give to you—to prove myself! You want proof that I'm ready to be a Hand, well this was going to be it. But it was barely anything yet, and I knew that if…if I'd told you any sooner you would have given control to Vader, and he'd do exactly as he did tonight—he would have waded into a situation with no time taken to prepare, and blow months of work wide open." Again Antilles turned to Vader, frustration raising his voice and whipping his courage and boldness instantly higher. "Months of work!"
Vader folded his arms with a creak of black leather. "Kenobi is dealt with, just the same. There was no need for all your supposed planning."
"I drew him out of hiding!"
"You were plotting with him."
Antilles straightened, outraged. "With Kenobi? I had more of a reason to kill him than you ever did, you know that. But I put my duties first. I went there intending to bring him in. Killing him would have been a last resort if I believed I couldn't pull that off. And while you're so loudly accusing me of not taking this to my Master sooner, you might want to consider the fact that neither did you, when you realized. I had a reason—an ongoing plan. What did you intend…or did you not think even that far in advance?"
Vader lifted a gloved hand to point acrimoniously. "You are muddying the issue with irrelevancies."
"Irrelevant? Well let's go for something of relevance, then. What did you intend to do about the second Jedi, who you completely ignored…or did you not know she was there?"
"Kenobi was the prime target."
"To you, maybe," Luke dismissed. "Tactically, she was as great a threat; a trained Jedi, just coming into her own. But either you knew she was there and just let her go, in order to get to Kenobi, or you didn't even realize she was there at all. She was standing guard outside the storage bay as you closed in, and you didn't realize it—even that close, you didn't see it."
"She was cloaking her presence, as Kenobi was. As you were," Vader growled.
"Well then, how did you know where we were, Vader?" There was a triumph in the boy's voice, to Palpatine's ear; a sense of prevailing under pressure. "You want to explain the details of every mission…why don't you start with how you knew to come to the skyhook in the first place?"
Lord Vader was unimpressed. "You revealed your presence for a fraction of a second, that is all. Had I not been searching—"
"I was with two Jedi," the boy held, explanation enough. "When I realized you were close, I let you know where I was because I assumed that you'd surround the skyhook, summon reinforcements, set up perimeters… I didn't think you'd just come wading in because all you saw was Kenobi, and your own private vendetta! Which meant thatIwas the one who had to try to go after the woman. And when I actually got close, it turned out that no, the troopers you'd sent weren't going after her at all—you'd sent them after me! I was hauled up in the middle of the pursuit, and she got away, because you were still working to your own personal agendas. I think that's pretty damn relevant, don't you?"
Again, Antilles looked to Palpatine for arbitration, seeking to put Vader on trial. It was rare that the boy raised his head above the crowd and actually tried a little maneuvering of his own, Palpatine knew, though he was more than capable. Equally reassuring was the fact that despite Kenobi's appearance on Coruscant, Vader had come in here with guns blazing, and Antilles had instantly and vehemently reacted.
It had always hung in the back of Palpatine's mind that one day, father or son may come face to face with Kenobi before Palpatine himself managed to dispatch the ageing Jedi. But when Vader had dueled Kenobi on the Death Star, it seemed that the old man had said nothing...and tonight too, Kenobi had withheld his secrets; both father and son had been in his presence—Lord Vader until the end—and judging from their actions right now, it had changed nothing.
Lord Vader took another step forward, his tone broaching no dispute, though his argument was with Antilles alone. "Kenobi was a Clone Wars General."
"I hate to break it to you, Vader, but the Clone Wars finished nearly two decades ago."
"He was one of the ringleaders of the Rebellion."
"He was an old man," the boy dismissed with curt surety. "But he at least had the foresight to know that he needed to train a padawan. New blood. New threats. We've had a string of incidents like the failure of Operation Strike Fear, the destruction of the Death Star, and now we have the appearance of Jedi on Coruscant, of all places—Coruscant! That's how confident they're getting, with new blood.Iwent after the more relevant target."
"You went after the softer target."
"I left you with an old man," Antilles dismissed. "Remember, I was with him, however briefly. I saw how frail he was." Looking down to the abandoned lightsaber at his feet, he lightly kicked it across the floor toward Vader with the tip of his black-booted toe, as if it were unclean. "I should imagine you'll want to keep that. Proof that even in your pitiable state you're still capable of something, no matter how paltry."
Vader's back straightened and his chin lifted at the insult, his hand going unbidden to his own lightsaber, hanging at his hip—and the boy responded instantly with a half-turn, a subtle resettling of weight and balance as his outstretched hand lifted just slightly towards the dais. His saber, still at Palpatine's feet, lifted cleanly and launched into it, landing perfectly positioned so that his thumb rested lightly on the activation toggle, though his eyes hadn't once left Lord Vader.
"Oh please," Antilles stated, voice dripping a dry dare. "Go ahead."
Vader's helmeted head turned just slightly to the throne. Palpatine waited in silence, dry lips pulled back in anticipation, wondering how far either would take this unexpected challenge…and the boy spoke out knowingly.
"Looking for a little backup…or an excuse to back down?"
That brought Vader's eyes back to him, sense seething. "If you want me to teach you yet another lesson then I am more than willing to do so."
It was a subtle reminder; an underlining of their relative status in the past, when Vader had harried and tormented the boy ceaselessly, his strength and skill far superior to the still-growing child.
But their last practice session, which Palpatine had studied as a holo with great interest, was proof of the combatants' changing status. Because the truth was that the boy was no longer a boy, and they both knew it. Antilles was fast and he was agile, and despite Vader's superior strength, in that last duel it had been Antilles who had scored the first potentially mortal strike—and they both knew that, too.
Palpatine grinned wickedly at the boy's confidence that he could bring Lord Vader down in a fair fight. Not that it would ever be that, between Sith.
Both remained still, tensed to react, neither willing to make the first move which could incur the wrath of their watching Master, but both so very eager, as ever, to fight…
Then something unprecedented happened. The boy—the boy, who had spent his life training towards this—straightened, letting his hand drop to his side with an agitated flick. He didn't back down; Palpatine could sense that. This was something else entirely. Some uncertainty which sparked, unreadable, at the very core of him.
He turned his back on Vader to face Palpatine fully, voice lowered, though it labored with forced restraint. "With your permission, Master, I have duties. The trail on the woman will likely be cold by now, particularly since Lord Vader chose to come here to throw accusations instead of going after her, but it should be checked."
Palpatine narrowed his eyes, aware that Antilles' words were probably no more than an excuse to be gone…but he nodded in allowance, aware that the confrontation was spent.
The boy bowed and retreated, and by the time that he was through the door, Vader too was making his excuses, eager to follow, his anger at Antilles' counter-accusations clearly not yet spent.
"Kenobi's body?" Palpatine asked.
Vader paused a fraction, his unease palpable. "Gone."
It was rare that Lord Vader was at a loss for words, but he glanced aside, agitated. "Disintegrated…evaporated. It lost cohesion, at the moment of his death."
Palpatine nodded slowly, understanding now the brief sense of expansion that had bloomed out into the Force earlier. "There have been…theoretical techniques intended to maintain one's consciousness intact, upon death." He had himself studied them in various holocron, though his objective was not simple cohesion of spirit. No, he had a more pragmatic and corporeal goal. "I had thought that such techniques were Sith alone. It seems that perhaps the Jedi, too, sought and found a path." He allowed himself a brief smile. "A pity, then, that their lack of ambition meant that they perfected too little and too late, to save their kind."
Vader's chin tipped slightly as the low light of the massive chamber slid in abstract lines across the facets of his faceplate, and Palpatine straightened, briefly studying his own words, though he found nothing too telling in them.
Still, he was relieved when Lord Vader sought to move the conversation on. "And the woman?"
"One last challenge, my friend…though it appears that you'll be hard-pressed to beatAntilles to her."
Lord Vader braced at the unspoken challenge, and Palpatine excused him, well aware that Vader would seek to bait Antilles further tonight, though based on the boy's unexpected step-down, Lord Vader would not likely fire any reciprocation.
Alone again, Palpatine reflected on the night's events. Kenobi, the thorn in his side for the knowledge he possessed, was finally gone—at Lord Vader's hand, no less. Better still, the same blind antagonism that had always existed between Vader and his son clearly remained, meaning that the old Jedi had taken his secrets to the grave.
So all had transpired to Palpatine's advantage…save for the woman. He narrowed his eyes in thought, nails scraping across the carved armrests of his throne as his fingers tightened slowly to fists. An unexpected complication, and one that should be removed with all haste—though it seemed that Antilles was already looking to achieve just that, in his Master's name. Perhaps to make amends for his failure tonight…though it seemed that wouldn't have been that, had Lord Vader not intervened.
His thoughts went to the boy's earlier nervousness which, given the night's events, may have caused Palpatine reason to doubt…but Antilles' willingness to reveal Kenobi's padawan, and his glaringly obvious flare of antagonism when Vader had arrived, both served to allay Palpatine's fears that the boy had spoken in any depth with Kenobi.
And what did Kenobi gain anyway, by telling them? True, father and son might conceivably consider treachery, to topple their own Master…but what did that gain Kenobi? Perhaps his silence was because he knew that to instigate such a path would have placed a two-headed serpent on the Imperial throne—one of incredible power, if Lord Vader's willful drive was backed by his son's burgeoning abilities, which Kenobi would surely have sensed the moment he'd met with the boy. Certainly Palpatine had always seen the potential in holding the boy's loyalty, to exploit such abilities for himself.
And that loyalty would now remain forever, any possible revelations permanently locked away, thanks to his own father's actions. Palpatine leaned back, allowing a private grin to twitch his lips; yes, a most profitable day, indeed.
Luke walked the outer Presence Chamber without once looking to either side, heart pounding, fearing any moment that he'd be recalled, as his Master often did, allowing the promise of escape before summoning him back. For a second, he sensed a familiar presence in the crowded, milling chamber...but he walked quickly on, head down. The moment he was clear he picked up his step, knowing that Indo wouldn't rush to follow, but would feel obliged to make his way at a stately pace, as he always did.
He took a side corridor in avoidance, and another; a flight of steps down, until he was in the silence of an empty hallway, the hour well after midnight, its tall stone-clad walls echoing his footsteps…and finally, he slowed, dragging his hands through his hair as he came to a stop.
He chewed compulsively at his thumbnail, mind skipping back over the answers he'd cooked and combined from memories and earlier intentions, in his attempts to maintain a cohesive whole. He'd tried so hard to answer every question and not to lie outright, but they'd come thick and fast from two directions, and in that moment, tired and under fire, he couldn't be sure… Except that if he'd made even one error in there, his Master would surely have taken him apart without hesitation or mercy.
He couldn't do this, couldn't maintain the charade—and he'd yet to write a debrief. To lock down the vagaries he'd juggled on the spot, or have the report returned as imprecise. He chewed at his thumbnail again, mind searching for an excuse to be gone from the palace until this blew over. The Shield X project had come under the Ubiqtorate's attention recently, after the loss of one of its modified corvettes. Its research installation was far enough out beyond the Core systems that to take the case on would get Luke…
He paused, blanching for a second, then straightened resolutely as Vader ascended the staircase behind him to stalk forwards, intent clear.
Glancing just briefly at the escape of the empty corridor before him, Luke turned to face his opponent for one more round. As ever, Vader didn't prevaricate.
"I know that you spoke to Kenobi."
"Of course you do, I admitted it in front of the Emperor."
"What did Kenobi say?"
Luke hesitated. "…What did he say to you?"
"Nothing—nothing of worth," Vader dismissed without hesitation.
Luke nodded, unsure whether Kenobi had tried to tell Vader or not. Either way, it seemed the lines that were long-since drawn still held fast.
He'd lifted his hands to rub at his eyes before his numb mind even registered how vulnerable it must have made him look, and he tried to turn it into an expression of exasperation, though he didn't know how convincing it was. "You're welcome to read my debrief, when it goes onto the system."
"Because of course, it will tell the truth."
Luke raised his head. "More than yours ever do—or did I miss something when I read the report that you filed on Kenobi's escape from the Death Star?"
"That report was classified."
"I have clearance. Interesting, that the security images weren't available from the bay itself, where you dueled Kenobi."
"Unfortunately lost, with the destruction of the Death Star."
"The bay security images were lost before that. I checked, when I was onboard the Death Star." Luke held his ground as Vader stared in menacing silence, aware that even a sliver of weakness on his part would be mercilessly attacked. "I also noted that the troopers who were on duty in the bay, guarding Kenobi's shuttle, were all 501st."
"I would use no less."
Luke nodded, stony-faced… "I backtracked, when we were travelling to Yavin. There were images from the general security grid available, which registered the Rebel pilot's escape through the station's corridors…and I know what Kenobi's padawan looks like." In the precarious silence that followed, Luke chose his words with care, though his tone remained hostile. "Sometimes even you benefit from my not telling every detail, Lord Vader…remember that."
"I owe you nothing," Vader spat decisively.
"Really? Then you want me to go and tell the Emperor what I saw—that the accomplice who sprang the Rebel pilot from the Death Star's detention center looked remarkably like Kenobi's padawan…"
"The padawan is mine to dispose of," Vader growled.
"And why would your withholding knowledge of her existence threaten that? Or were you actually considering another alternative…a replacement for Galen Marek, perhaps," Luke pushed.
Vader leaned forward to loom threateningly over him. "What have you been whispering?"
"To Palpatine? Nothing. But I'll tell you this: he doesn't trust you already, I know that…and it would take very little to play on it. Like your undisclosed knowledge of Kenobi's padawan, perhaps."
He turned his back on Vader to start walking, not wanting to stay for yet more snipes and counter-threats, though he was well aware of the knife-edge he walked.
"This buys you nothing!" Vader shouted after him.
Luke didn't slow; didn't react at all, save a quarter-turn of his head, insufficient to actually look to Vader, his thoughts more on his own actions.
Because he should have said all of that in the presence of Palpatine. He'd come so close, using it to silence Vader, but then not following through with the threat. He could so easily have deflected the blame further from himself and put Vader squarely in the spotlight…so why hadn't he? He pursed his lips as he turned the corner to leave his adversary behind, doggedly refusing to look too closely.
Then again, to withhold it to throw in Vader's face privately had been useful; he now had leverage, and Vader knew it—which might just buy Luke a little space, for a short while. Because he would use it, if pushed; no matter what, he'd still use it—and Vader knew that.
He walked on mechanically, so tired now that he closed his eyes to do so, his body crying out for sleep, even as his mind raced. He clicked his fingers distractedly against his thumbs as he walked, aware of how much he needed spice, too. How much he needed that distraction. But he simply couldn't afford it right now.
Instead he laughed briefly, amused at the irony that Vader had unwittingly saved Luke's hide tonight. Just moments into his audience with the Emperor, Luke had already begun to waver. Already begun to falter, beneath those sharp ochre eyes. But Vader's appearance, and his obvious intent to try to use all of this to bring Luke down, had galvanized Luke's resolve, and he'd pulled his wits about him and aimed the rest of his claims squarely at Vader. Everything that he'd said had been to Vader, every manipulation of the truth that he'd pulled out had been specifically to counter him. It had gotten Luke through, when he'd been unable to look into his own Master's eyes.
Again he slowed, walking with leaden steps to the side of the empty hallway to lean against the massive slab of dark granite, cool against his forehead and cheek. Adrenaline waning, his skin stung from a myriad of fine cuts and grazes, and his limbs ached from the strain of the brief, brutal battle. Exhausted, he lifted his hands to wipe at his eyes…and paused, holding them out; they trembled, despite his clenching them to fists.
This had to stop. It all had to stop. He'd lied to his own Master—lied to his face!
After a long, fraught day of revelations, lies and losses, of being backed into corners, of being so close to the truth—to all the answers that had been withheld—and seeing it snatched away forever…of being forced to lie to his own Master, he knew himself that his composure was cracking. He was tired and he was weary and he wanted it all to just go away.
But now he had to face Han. He'd faced Palpatine and he'd faced Vader, and now he had to face Han, and keep it all together. Because he knew that the one person whom he didn't want to lose through all of this, was the one who was slowly, increment by increment, moving away.
Still leaning his head against the cool of the granite slabbed wall, as if to turn his back on the galaxy, Luke thought for the first time on what had been scratching at the back of his thoughts for hours: Han.
"I'm not going anywhere, I've told you that."
And he had—repeatedly. For some reason that Luke couldn't even begin to fathom, he'd genuinely meant it—at the time. Even when his loyalty to the Empire had begun to slip, he'd meant what he'd said to Luke…at the time.
Now…maybe it would turn out that he'd found someone who didn't cause him the constant grief, frustration and disappointment that Luke just naturally seemed to cause everyone, no matter whether he tried or not. Maybe it would be for the best, anyway. Luke had never in his entire life meant anything to anyone. He laughed sourly as he straightened to walk on; not even Kenobi, as it turned out.
Why should Solo be any different?
He keyed the code when he reached Han's apartment and trudged inside, knowing he was waiting. Han turned from pacing the floor and walked quickly to him, all concern…now, when everything was over. When Leia Skywalker was safely away.
"You need to calm down," Luke said as he entered, surprised at the composure in his own tired voice. At least Han'd had the good sense not to try to come barging after Luke when he was still with the Emperor. "I picked you up six levels away."
He wondered now why he'd come here—he hadn't even thought about returning to his own apartment to sleep, he'd just come straight here, from the audience with Palpatine.
"You okay?" Han walked forward, arms lifted, and for a disconcerting moment Luke thought that Han was actually going to try to grasp his shoulders—but he halted a half-step back. "I wondered what the hell had happened to you. Gorn said you were with the Emperor."
"I was," Luke said numbly.
"What did he say?"
"Doesn't matter. You got her away?"
"What? Oh, Leia? Yeah, I left her at the edge of the Shades, headin' back to Chewie, at their scoutship."
It was so easy for Han to be dismissive now, Luke knew, when she was safely away. He wondered calmly at what point it had occurred to Han to even think of what had happened to him, left with four units of stormtroopers on his tail.
"She said she'd comm," Han added, leaning closer in realization. "You're covered in nicks and cuts. What the hell happened?"
"Nothing. She didn't know, when you left her?"
Han stared for long seconds. "I'm…I'm sorry."
Luke turned to take a step towards the window, staring out into the Coruscant night in an attempt to distance himself from the unguarded emotions which accompanied Han's simple, sincere words. Instead, he let his eyes and thoughts be taken by the distant flow of traffic, a gliding stream of ever-moving light. So much that he'd been sure of had been pulled away too quickly, leaving him raw and bruised, with no idea of how he should react, when his Master had been so delighted, and yet Han was so appalled.
The silence hung until Han moved uneasily. "How?"
"Vader, of course. What did you think would happen if he tried to face off against Vader?"
"I thought…I thought he was just buying us some time."
"He was. Buying Leia time."
Han hesitated. "He knew, didn't he?"
Luke didn't turn. "Of course he knew."
"You did too."
A brief surge of guilt flared within Luke, and on its back a flash of anger at himself. He owed the old man nothing—he'd already repaid him for what truths he'd told, in risking his own hide to get Leia Skywalker away, and having to come back here to face his Master, knowing he was in the wrong. Being forced to lie…
"He didn't come to kill you," Han took a step closer, speaking the words as if they were some great revelation.
Luke half-turned, distracted. "What?"
"Kenobi. He didn't come to kill you when you were eleven years old. He came to try to get you out."
Luke turned away, dismissive. "Who told you that?"
"And so of course you automatically believe her."
"Course I believe her, why wouldn't I? It makes a hell of a lot more sense than what old Yellow Eyes told you."
"Why, because it was her who told it to you?" There was a twist of raw resentment in Luke's voice which Han clearly didn't understand.
"No, just…I don't know. If Kenobi was so set on killing you, why didn't he try again?"
Luke turned abruptly. "If he was so damn set on helping me, why didn't he try that again? He knew where I was, why the hell didn't he try again!" There was fury in his voice as Luke yelled the last—and desolation. About him, every object that had built up on the cluttered surfaces of Han's small room lifted as one to slam back with force against the walls. Even Han felt it, a surge of unintentional pressure that made him blink involuntarily as he staggered a step back. Close by, a faceted glass bottle teetered on its base, then toppled and fell, shattering to fragments as the pale amber spirits spattered widely. Luke turned, eyes ablaze…and came back to himself, subdued, his gaze remaining on the broken bottle as everything in the room tremored to stillness, words was a hushed whisper of bewildered regret. "Why didn't he come back?"
Han stared, his own voice muted. "Did you ask him that?"
"I didn't need to," Luke said quietly. "The reason was standing outside the room, speaking to you."
Exhausted and strung out, Luke walked back to his own apartment as the first muted rays of dawn lit the horizon and softened the sharp angles of towering buildings, wanting tonight to be over. The memory that Kenobi was dead, killed by Vader, still gnawed at him. Only hours ago, it had been Luke's one blinding passion, to turn his blade on the father who had deserted him, and now…was this regret, at the old man's death?
"Congratulations, Lord Vader; you've killed an old man." His own words played back in his head, because Kenobi had been just that: old and tired, weighed down by secrets and remorse. He hadn't deserved this. It had held Luke back long enough for Kenobi to speak…why hadn't it done the same with Vader?
But then why should it? Nothing held Vader back, ever. Nothing stayed his hand or tempered his anger. He'd told Kenobi that—warned him. Luke shook his head abruptly, fuming at Vader for his actions and Kenobi for his truths, and at the Fates that so constantly pummeled him!
Vader being his father was ridiculous! It was obscene! A trick or a falsehood or a mistake, or…his lips pursed to a thin line as logic lead him back through what must have happened to trigger Vader's presence there tonight, because it couldn't have been coincidence, and Luke knew damn well that he'd had too many shields in place and been hiding his own presence too well for Vader to have simply picked up on his intent before he left. That meant that it had been an outside agent who had given Vader the advantage, enabling him to follow Luke. He slowed to a stop in the wide, echoing hallway…because there was only one possible answer:
Ashtor—Ashtor had given Vader all that he'd needed to get to Kenobi.
The edge of a growl set on Luke's lips as he set forward again, adrenaline and anger pushing his dragging steps into a sprint, knowing Ashtor would be on duty until dawn; it was time for a reckoning.
By the time he reached the main hall of his apartment, Luke saw Gorn already standing in the main corridor, his back to Luke as he spoke quietly to Ashtor, who still sat in the staffroom.
He didn't pause, didn't think, simply lifted his hand as he let out a yell—and Ashtor was hauled bodily up and back by the Force, his chair toppling away at the violence of the act before Luke was even fully in the room. As Ashtor slammed against the wall five feet from the ground Luke looked once to Gorn, eyes wild and bright. "Get out."
Silent and open-mouthed, Gorn backed quickly from the room, stumbling over the spilled contents of the desk.
Han arrived at the apartment door running at full tilt, to see Gorn standing tensely in the stone-slabbed corridor outside.
Gorn's comm had come not long after the kid had left Han's quarters—so soon that Han had barely had time to wash his face, let alone consider actually laying his head down for even a minute's rest. Gorn turned, face pale, and a long scream cut through the air from within the apartment, breaking off to a breathless gasp.
Han set forward, and Gorn grabbed wildly at his arm, voice a hissed whisper. "No! Han, no, don't go in. Don't get involved. Only Indo can deal with this."
"He'll kill Ashtor." Han yanked free, knowing what was driving the kid, but Gorn grabbed him again, setting all his weight against Han's pull.
"Han—Han, listen to me! You can't step in, not when he's like this. Let Indo deal with it, he's on his way."
"Ashtor could be dead by then."
"Ashtor's dead anyway—about to be. You won't stop that, not when Luke's like this."
Han tore free and set forward, and Gorn took barely a step before breaking off, unwilling to follow, though he shouted a final warning.
It wasn't hard to guess where the kid was; a sheaf of hard-copy flimsiplast had fallen at the staffroom door to scatter out into the corridor beyond, unheeded. He rushed in, expecting to see Luke with his hands at Ashtor's neck…but it was something else entirely.
Body tilted awkwardly, pressed flat to the wall by an invisibly force as his legs kicked and scrabbled at the wall behind him like a trapped animal trying futilely to jerk free, Ashtor was struggling to bring his pinned arm forward to his face, where his nose and mouth bled profusely, a spattering of scarlet smearing the wall behind him.
"Luke!" It was half-shock and half-panic, both of which had stopped Han dead where he stood.
"Get out." Kid didn't even turn.
"Luke, listen to me…"
Luke's head snapped around, tipping slightly as it did so, something in the movement inhuman. "Get out! You couldn't even take an interrogation. You sure as hell won't want to see this."
Han shook his head. "Don't."
"You want to protect him—him?" To the far side of the room, Ashtor's whole body lifted away from the wall and banged back against it with sufficient force that Han felt it through the floor. The man let out a pitiful yelp, which fell to a gurgling rasp as blood rose into his mouth and he coughed it free. "It was Ashtor who gave Vader all the information he needed, like he always does. All of this is Ashtor's fault—all of it! Do you still want to protect him?"
Han felt his own fury well up, hands curling to fists…then stopped himself. It was a monumental effort, but he stopped short of Ashtor and turned level with Luke. "Just listen to me—"
"Why?" the kid demanded, every muscle taut, too wound up by anger to even begin to listen—but Han had to try.
"One day you're gonna understand. You're gonna see why you shouldn't do this, but for now…you're just gonna have to trust me."
"This is retribution," Luke growled, unyielding. "I'm entitled to that."
"Not now, when you're angry. Not like this. I know that what I'm asking makes no sense to you at all right now, and I know that I'm saying everything you've learned is wrong… but look back on all the time we've known each other and ask yourself this…have I ever lied to you—ever?
Han took a step past the wild-eyed kid…took another, to put himself in between Luke and the gasping Ashtor, a low groan escaping the battered man. "Just let this go. Wait. Please."
Still breathing heavily, wide blue eyes brighter than Han had never seen them before, the kid stared, furious. "Because of him, Kenobi's dead! The one link, my one chance at the truth—because of him, it's gone!"
"I know, I know that…but killing Ashtor isn't gonna bring Kenobi back, is it? Do you think he knew what Vader was gonna do? All he does is hand over facts, Luke. That's all. C'mon," Han soothed, "you've made your point, let it go. Walk away."
"Because of him, your precious Leia Skywalker was nearly another name on Vader's death list—d'you want to let that go too?"
Han kept his voice open and quiet. "No…but I don't want this on my conscience—not like this. And I don't think you do either."
The kid's head tipped forward threateningly. "Don't presume…because I don't give a damn about him."
"This isn't about him, it's about you. You're angry, I understand that, I do...but you'll never get this moment back, it will always be with you. You cannot change it once it's done—even you can't do that. Do you want to have this death on your hands? Like this? What will it change, about what's already happened? Nothing. The only thing it'll change, is you." Han took a step forward, hands outstretched, though he knew better than to try to touch the kid, even in reassurance. "You gotta…Luke, you've got to get a handle on this, or you're gonna end up like Palpatine—you're gonna end up no better than Vader."
Luke faltered; immediately brought his head round to stare at Han, uncertainty flashing across his face, as if Han had said something profound. He blinked, and backed up a step, breaths coming heavy as he looked from Han back to Ashtor… Another step back, and Ashtor slid down until his feet touched the floor, collapsing forward as they did, so that the man fell into a crouch on his hands and knees, his whole body wracked by huge gasps as if he could suddenly breath freely.
Luke took another staggered step back and wheeled about, jaw grinding, his own chest rising and falling as he fought for control.
Han felt a moment of relief at having finally gotten the kid to back down…and Luke turned instantly to glare, clearly reading the play of his thoughts as Han shook his head, striving to get his point across and keep talking the kid down. "This is the right thing…just walk away. Walk out the door. C'mon…"
Ironically, he found himself making the same corralling motion that Indo used so often, arm out to usher Luke to the door without touching him…and Luke moved another step back. Head tilted, lips a thin, hard line—but doing it. Holding it together and walking away from a situation that Han knew damn well he would only ever have been taught that he had every right to act on.
Still gasping, finally getting air down his bruised throat as he knelt on the floor, Ashtor grated quietly, "Bastard son of a Sith!"
And Han knew. He shouted out, lifting his arm—
Luke spun back, hand raising as his eyes locked onto Ashtor. It was instant, fast as the thought; Ashtor's head snapped violently back and to the side, twisting too far as his fingers clawed at nothing, eyes wide as a dense, wet, visceral cr-ack sounded. Han flinched as Ashtor's whole body dropped limp in the same instant, hitting the ground in a tumbling thud of loose limbs, mouth wide in a shout that would never be voiced…
Shoulders dropping slack in defeat, Han stared into the glassy, sightless eyes of a corpse, sprawled awkwardly on the cold floor. He turned to the kid, who stood frozen, hand still raised, eyes wide…and for a second, something showed in the flash of a frown on his face: revulsion, regret.
Then his eyes flicked to Han, and in an instant it was gone as he pulled back beneath that polished armor of cool indifference, lifting his chin in defiance as he glanced back to the corpse. "He's right, you know… Maybe I'm more like Vader than you realize."