"...Anakin? ...Anakin? ...Anakin!"
The whispered words seemed to slide into his mind, cutting deep, slicing right into his soul. Vader knew, logically, that she was not there, and that he should not let a dead woman haunt him. But that knowledge couldn't stop the ghost of Padm? calling to him, echoing through his mind.
It is your imagination, Vader chided himself. And it was. Just the memories of thirteen years ago tearing through his mind as he knelt at her grave, his armoured knees digging into the damp, muddy ground.
I would have surrendered my soul for you, he thought angrily, unable to tear his gaze away from the crude headstone that marked the spot where she lay. Perhaps I did. And what was my reward? Only your revulsion.
Ire rose in him then, a cold fury that protected him from any of the more soul-shaking emotions he might have felt at that moment. It was a familiar anger, an anger that had become a part of him during those long, empty years following his transformation from Skywalker to Vader. But it wasn't as overpowering as it used to be; it no longer seemed potent enough to quench the pain. In truth, it hadn't felt enough for weeks, perhaps even months - not since his agents had finally located his wife's grave, thirteen years too late for Vader to mourn her.
His gaze moved from the headstone to the earth beneath his knees. Almost impossible to believe her empty body lay here, beneath this frozen ground, unheralded and uncelebrated ? marked only by a crude, simple gravestone with only a name and date carved into it.
Even now, kneeling here, feeling the echo of the past pressing against his hands, his knees, it seemed unreal that she had been buried here, on the first planet to feel Palpatine's wrath after the purges. Kenobi should have known better than to bring her here.
It wasn't the fact that she was laid here, in a dark corner of a damp catacomb, that disturbed him. It was the fact that this was Theed, the capital of Naboo and Padm?'s home city, and he wondered why he had never before thought to look here. If he had ever contemplated investigating Naboo for her burial place, he must have rejected the idea so quickly that he couldn't even recall considering it. Naboo had been dead by then, reduced to rubble.
Reaching out a gloved hand, Vader scraped at the lichen obscuring the headstone, thinking, numbly, that it was probably fitting that she lay here. The whole planet was a grave - a grave dedicated to the Separatists. When Palpatine had taken his fury out on the Naboo, using them as an example to any remaining Separatists with ideas of rebellion, he had decimated the planet. The prototype lasers, which were even now being improved upon for Palpatine's pet Death Star project, had proved more effective than their designers had hoped for. The north continent was all but inhabitable now. The polar caps had melted, the seas had risen; all the other continents were steadily drowning.
Vader had seen none of it. He had not witnessed the extent of Palpatine's fury at the Naboo for harbouring dissenters - and at nearly losing his newest apprentice.
At the time, he had been... incapacitated, undergoing his transformation. All he had known upon waking in his suit was that Padm? was dead - and presumably by his hand.
But the story of his part in her death, the story he had held as a bitter cloak around his heart for so long, was little more than a savage lie by his treacherous master. Padm? had not died on Mustafar. Vader had not killed her. The headstone in front of him confirmed that, the numbers etched into the damp stone proclaiming a date over four months after the formation of the Empire.
Palpatine had merely smiled thinly when Vader had confronted him with his betrayal. He had smiled and chuckled, aware that the damage was already done, that Vader was in no position to retaliate. Because it was too late now - far, far too late.
And it wasn't just anger Vader felt towards the old despot. It was grief, horror, regret... emotions that he had thought long since deserted by him. But he felt them now, nonetheless. And they were spiteful and terrible.
He did not know what to do with them, yet he knew he must deny them purchase on his soul. For Palpatine was right: it was far too late. Vader would be a tower; he would be made of steel and silver. He would be untouchable, unfeeling, unreachable, un-
- and then, between one indignant thought and the next, Vader's mind was lit with a sudden fire that brought him crashing back to the present.
His thoughts exploded. Pain shivered through him, and he grunted in shock, collapsing to the ground even as he attempted to stand, to reach for his lightsaber, to defend himself from the unexpected attack.
He curled his hands into the dirt and hauled himself to his feet, searching for the source of the sudden agony ripping through his head. But he couldn't see, couldn't hear - violent colour swamped his mind, swaddled his reactions, and his vision screamed at the abuse. Sounds tore at his ears, and he was reaching instinctively - foolishly - to cover them when the first blaster shot ripped through his upper arm. Another shot came on the heels of that one, slamming into his thigh.
For a moment he lost all sense of reality, falling to his knees with a hiss of pain. Crimson flooded his vision, pain tugging him towards unconsciousness. He was reaching for the Dark Side to support him, help him, but for the first time in years it was sluggish to respond - too slow to beat back the pain of the blaster wounds, too slow to prevent his mind from sinking towards unconsciousness.
There was a sound ringing in his ears, like a bell was chiming in his mind, tolling his failure. He concentrated on it even as his vision grew so dull that the stocky figure who walked into view was just a wavering shadow against the darkness. The man grinned down at Vader with savage pride, and a flash of light glinted off the charged hypodermic in his grimy hand.
Vader's danger instincts flared. He was ordering his body to its feet, ordering his hand to reach for his lightsaber, but nothing was happening. With a paralysed body, a paralysed mind, he watched as the needle sank into his shoulder and liquid was forced into his muscles, bitingly cold.
How is this possible? What attacked me? Not this pathetic little man, surely? Vader wondered sluggishly, though he could barely think past the sting of the needle. Even as he struggled with his confusion, his mind began a quickening spiral down towards nothingness.
But not before he saw the boy.
The boy, standing off to the side, his hands curled tight with fraught strength, brilliant blue eyes watching Vader with an unreadable expression. Vader tried to hold on to the tatters of his consciousness, but they slipped through his grasp and he slid towards unconsciousness with an incessant image winking in his mind's eye: the boy's blue eyes, burning him - branding him.
Vader's vision shivered, wavering between a terrible darkness and hazy images that filled his mind with uncharacteristic trepidation. The places he saw as he was transported on a barge down Theed's swollen river should have been at least vaguely familiar to him - but they were not.
Darth Vader had been to Theed before - two times: no more, no less. He was quite capable of describing the details of each visit with keen recollection, and quite as capable of stubbornly avoiding the emotions that welled up with each memory. As it was, his third visit was turning out to be the least pleasant of them all.
He knew this city well. Or rather, he had known the city well. Because it was changed, was now only a faint likeness of the Theed Vader recalled. The atmosphere, once warm and welcoming, now felt cold and bitter - hostile and ailing, like the city was waiting to take its final breath.
Because Theed was dying, fallen from the podium of her glory days and rotting in the fetid waters left behind by over a decade of war and death. The crystalline rivers were choking on algae, and lichen pocked the once-grand stone walkways. Tattered canopies fluttered in the wind, the fabrics faded and the ends ragged and burnt black, snapping crisply at the darkened sky.
And the people had changed, too. Once they had been gentle, passive - now they were vicious.
"... kill him! Kill the murdering bastard, Jandon!" someone screamed, and the words lanced through Vader's brain with the wicked sting of a blade. A raucous cheer went up at the shout, and the barge beneath Vader's back jostled as if a hundred feet pounded their approval of the suggestion.
Vader's sense of preservation demanded he get up and fight back, but his body would not respond. The blaster wounds were deep and they were ugly: shattered machinery in his right arm and shattered bone and skin in his thigh. All he could do was lie still, pained and breathless, nausea twisting his gut.
His anger was worse than the pain, though - and Vader was angrier with himself than with his captors. They had managed to take him by surprise, a feat that should not be possible against a Dark Lord. And now he lay on the barge, weak as a baby and as vulnerable.
The Force barely responded to his touch. It was beyond his reach, beyond the sting of thoughts that bordered dangerously on the morose. Whether the block was from the blaster wounds or from the drug he had been injected with, or even an after-effect of the Force-attack that had assailed him, he did not know.
Approaching footsteps rocked the barge, and water seeped into the burning wound on his thigh, making his breathing hitch. Blurred faces appeared at the limit of his hazy vision - a raggedy band of youths, all bearing a starburst tattoo that cut across one cheek. All grinning - all celebrating his capture.
"Is he awake?" one of them asked, and poked Vader in the ribs with his foot. Vader grimaced but made no sound. "He's not awake." The boy sounded disappointed.
They're barely adults, Vader thought. They must have been children during the 'Wars. Children.
But children were not exempt from being the victims of war. Naboo had chosen sides, as they all had, and chosen badly. War was cruel on many levels, and the people living here suffered no worse than he had as a child growing up in the dusty hell of Tatooine. Let them understand misery - the Nubians had languished in riches long enough. All things come full-circle eventually. Even if that retribution fell upon the young, paying for their parents' errors.
Another boy - an older one, perhaps in his early twenties - snorted at his friend. "How would you know? He could be doing anything behind that mask." Then the youth paused, considering. "Let's get it off him," he said suddenly, and his fingers snaked down, reaching for Vader's faceplate.
Vader's breathing hitched in irate indignation, and they must have heard it because the boy stilled. His eyes went comically wide and he shot upright, turning to the front of the barge. "Hey, Jandon - he's awake!"
More footsteps approached, the vibration jarring Vader's injuries. A man appeared - a vicious looking man, eyes small and deep-set, looking at Vader with malicious amusement. This was the man who had shot him with the hypodermic, Vader realised, and he ground his teeth in helpless frustration.
"Well, well," the man said. "Welcome to Theed, Lord Vader. I hope you're enjoying your trip so far."
Vader grimaced. "Not thus far," he said, attempting to sound defiant, but he was shocked and dismayed by how weak he sounded.
The man - Jandon - laughed. "Oh dear, I am sorry to hear that." The gathering crowd of youths and young men laughed, and the sound made Vader's injuries throb. Jandon turned his head into the wind and took a deep breath. "You smell that?" he asked. All Vader could smell was decay. Jandon lowered himself to his haunches. "That," he said, "is failure. Your failure. And it is sweet."
Vader's anger was at the very edge of his self-control. "What do you want?" he demanded.
"What do I want? I want you die. Painfully... slowly." Jandon grinned a disconcerting smirk. "And soon."
"Tonight!" someone shouted. And someone else - "Do it now, Jandon!"
Jandon ignored them. "No, not now," he said, apparently to Vader. "I'll let you run it through your mind a bit first." There was no smile now, as he struck a thoughtful pose and said, "But there is someone here who's just dying to meet you." He turned his head into the wind and called, "Luke! Boy!? Get over here!"
Vader was frowning in confusion even as a quiet, nervous voice answered Jandon. "I'm already here," the voice said, and a young boy stepped around Jandon.
It was the boy Vader had noticed earlier, just before he had lost consciousness during the attack. Vader stared at him, fascinated by the youth's desperate dignity. It was hard to judge his age, but the boy couldn't be any older than twelve or thirteen. He was too thin, too small. Yet the boy's gaze blazed with an inner fire and a pain that threatened to drown Vader before the rivers of Theed ever managed to claim their once-saviour.
With a dirty scrap of fabric wrapped around his blond head and tatters of clothing faded by dirt and age clinging to a wiry body, he should have fitted in with the merry band of Vader's erstwhile kidnappers.
But he didn't.
He was also familiar, but in a way Vader couldn't capture with words.
"Ah, there you are. I thought you'd run off," Jandon chuckled, but the good nature of the words was shattered by the uncaring violence with which the man pulled Luke towards Vader and by the flash of fear that appeared in those arresting blue eyes. The boy said nothing.
"What is this?" Vader asked, confused and not a little unnerved. To be threatened with pain and death he might have expected, but to force this boy to face him made no sense. And Vader's lack of knowledge irritated him.
Jandon gave the boy a condescending shake and ran a hand through the raggedy blond hair. "This is Luke. Our little Force-user. I thought you two might like to meet - you've got so much in common," he said, with humour in his voice. Vicious, malicious humour. The crowd snickered at a joke Vader couldn't hope to share.
But one thing he now understood.
"You directed the Force-assault on me?" he asked the boy.
The boy's gaze brushed Vader's briefly, and something flared to life in the depths of his eyes before it puffed out like a spent candle. "Yeah, I did," he said, quietly, and grimaced as he turned his gaze aside stubbornly, to face the ruins of the flooded city.
And what, Vader wondered, did that mean?
"Our Luke is full of surprises," Jandon said, and the boy flinched. Vader felt anger burning in his chest. The boy was being played with, he knew, just as Vader himself was.
"What do you want?" he demanded, but Jandon just laughed.
"Make him tell!" someone shouted. "Make the boy tell 'im!"
Tell me what? Vader wondered, as his heart kicked at his chest in anxiety. Tell me what?
But he couldn't find the words to ask. He studied the boy for a moment. He looked intelligent, though weary. And sad. The grief of the whole world might have rested on those slight shoulders. The frown line that bisected his forehead might have been a permanent fixture, over-scoring eyes that seemed to be searching for something they never found.
Vader watched as the boy resolutely refused to turn back to face him, fascinated by the different emotions that chased across the boy's face, as if he couldn't quite decide how he felt... or perhaps because he felt too much of everything.
"Tell him, Luke!" someone called.
Something must have snapped at the sound of his name, and Luke made an attempt to back away, trying to push Jandon's hands off him. But he couldn't get past Jandon's thick chest and was held in place by a hand holding a fistful of his hair.
"Let me go," the boy said, sounding desperate. The sound seemed to drag pain across Vader's nerve endings, though he couldn't say why. The boy was held firm, Jandon watching Vader with undisguised amusement as the other youths jeered loudly. The boy absorbed it all with a quiet, anxious composure Vader struggled not to admire.
A stalemate appeared to have been reached - everyone was watching Luke, who was steadfastly staring at his feet, saying nothing. "Ah, pathetic!" the leader eventually snorted in disgust. He gave the child a shake before letting go of him. "You'd better pull yourself together, boy, and tell him, or I could get... irritated." The threat was indefinite but the boy flinched just perceptibly. "It'll be priceless," Jandon smirked, glancing at Vader with spite in his eyes.
A collective groan of dissatisfaction rolled across the barge. "No, make him tell!" one gang member called. "Make 'im -"
The barge jolted suddenly, and the crowd swayed and struggled to stay upright. Jandon looked aside. Someone shouted, "Nice docking, you idiot - you want to wreck the quay?!" and Vader realized they'd arrived at their destination, though he still couldn't take his eyes off the boy to look around.
Luke's fists clenched and unclenched spasmodically. He looked up, briefly, and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. His gaze settled openly on Vader, just for a moment, and Vader had the unpleasant sensation of being stripped to the bone by that gaze. Luke's mouth remained open, as if he were about to speak, but still - no words.
And just what, Vader wondered, was so very difficult for him to say?
Then the boy was swallowed from Vader's view by a mass of the youths who reached forward and grasped at him. He was unceremoniously hefted onto the shoulders of a half-dozen men, his grunt of pain drowned out by the complaints of the gang at having their game cut short. Vader felt nothing but a bitter sense of disappointment, and he couldn't say where it came from.
They carried him like that, as if he were already a corpse, already counted amongst the dead buried beneath the wet streets. Cracked marble crunched under their feet, the shattered remains of the main thoroughfare spread out in front of them like a mocking welcome. Welcome back, the Hero of Naboo. Welcome back Anakin Skywalker, saviour and destroyer, man who freed us and Dark Lord who doomed us. Welcome back.
Just once Vader glimpsed the boy again, walking in the midst of the group.
Vader concentrated, and -
Wait, he sent, or at least tried to. It was difficult to know whether his call had reached into the Force or not.
But perhaps it had. The boy turned slowly, painfully slowly. His fists clenched and unclenched again. "Who are you?" Vader asked, his voice sounding hoarse.
Blue eyes locked onto Vader's mask, and through his damnably weak Force-sense Vader felt a hesitant probe at his mind. Still, despite everything, the boy remained stubbornly dignified.
"Nobody," Luke said, turning away from Vader. "I'm nobody."
As the procession moved through the streets, deeper into the heart of the city, Vader could hardly recall his motivation for coming here. It had seemed utterly imperative at the time, utterly vital that he should visit the grave that he had hunted for so long. But now he had seen it, knelt in the mud with the mould and the dank air, he had to wonder - why? What had he hoped to find here, other than dead memories, shattered dreams turning stale?
There had been something winking evilly in Palpatine's eyes as he accepted Vader's trite excuses, but his shields had been iron curtains against any probe Vader might have dared to venture. Maybe the old Sith had known all along what Vader would find here.
"Chasing ghosts, my friend?" Palpatine had asked, eyes shining like twin yellow moons.
Burying his dreams was more like it. Burying them deep in the heart of Theed's rotting soul, next to her grave.
So perhaps Vader did know why he'd come here: to bury his past. Not to say goodbye, not to mourn - none of those things. They were unworthy of a Dark Lord. No, he had wanted to bury his memories under the drowning city. That was why he'd come; he'd found her grave, well over a decade too late, and Vader had come to finally, irrevocably chase her ghost away.
Instead, it looked like he might be joining his wife as another dead body amongst the ruins.
Vader's thoughts lingered on that possibility as the gang of youths carried him down into one of the catacombs that were scattered across the city, bearing him forward with high spirits. As an unruly crowd, they proceeded through the tunnels, going steadily down - down below the level of the floodwaters on the surface, protected from the flood by ancient stone walls and ceilings that looked aged and worn in the thready light that crept into the passages.
The catacombs ended blindly on a cluster of rooms that clearly functioned as cells and Vader watched through his pain-filtered world as his captors retreated to a huddle after they laid him on a mossy tablet of stone. The queasy green light of insect repellers made his stomach throb sympathetically.
They locked him in one of the rooms and then dispersed, the water echoing their laughter. Vader grimaced in distaste; they were patting themselves on the back so hard, it was amazing they didn't fall over.
Silence descended on his cramped cell. Insects buzzed him, or flung themselves against the green repeller and died in a flash of emerald light. Vader closed his eyes. His pain was fierce, swamping him. Had he the Force, he might have dampened it a little, perhaps even enough to stand and explore his surroundings. But the Force danced away from his groping touch, and irritation ate at him. He was left with nothing to do but chase his own thoughts through his head.
- How had this gang of hooligans known he was there?
- How long before the Refutable realised he was not coming back?
- What had happened to his lightsaber?
- Should the Force return to Vader, and should he manage to escape, was his ship still intact, or had it been raided and stripped?
But despite his admittedly desperate situation, and despite accepting that those concerns should be foremost in his mind, none of those questions rang nearly as loud in his mind as this one:
- Who is the boy, 'Luke'? And why do I feel I should know him?
Sleep, when it came, was a mercy.
He was dreaming. He had to be, because the strange, weightless paralysis that had crept over him only came from dreaming or from meditating - and, denied the Force, he was certainly not meditating.
"I cannot just leave her here," someone said, and although Vader could discern from the voice that the speaker was male, he could make nothing more from it. The voice, and all sounds in his hazy, shifting dream, had an odd, monotone quality to them, as if filtered through a malfunctioning comm system. "There is a chance she might yet recover if -"
"She is dying," another voice interrupted, equally as watery and indefinable. "Though the medics might not be able to tell us why, they are certain she has little time left. It is a miracle she has lasted this long. It is only a matter of time."
"Then I will wait. I owe her that much."
There was a soft grunt of disapproval at that. "We should not have brought her here. It is dangerous, whilst she still lives."
Images appeared in his mind suddenly, flickering and flitting rapidly as though he had no control over his eyes, and his gaze roamed aimlessly across the scene. A bright room, a conference table. Ancient stone and polished marble - a Nubian building, then, and from before war had torn it apart. Two figures sat at the table, both with bowed heads, their features unclear.
"You should leave now, as we agreed. Every moment you delay here endangers them both."
The figure on the left stood, moved away from Vader's field of vision. His eyes tried to follow, but the focus was blurred and uncertain. "We did not expect her to survive the night when we agreed that. I cannot leave Padm? here to die alone."
"She would not be alone," the other man said, "if we were to allow her family to know of the situation. She could -"
"That would be dangerous. Too dangerous. If Palpatine were to hear of this...." The man trailed off into silence.
There was a long pause, filled with a stillness that made Vader wonder if the dream had ended. But then the second voice said, "I cannot wait with you any longer. I must return home... with my daughter."
"You must do what you feel is right, of course." Another long pause. The room felt chilly, suddenly. "As will I," the man added in a whisper.
Consciousness came creeping up on Vader despite his best efforts to avoid it. A nervous tingle of unease was working its way up his neck, and he opened his eyes to the sickly green glow of insect repeller lights. He turned his head slightly to the side, despite the pain. Luke stared right back at him, both hands gripping a blaster, the barrel aimed squarely at a point between Vader's eyes.
He was too well trained to panic, too pained to jump up and attack. They regarded each other for long seconds that ticked away to the sound of dripping cave water. The repeller painted a finger of green light across the eyes of the boy, making them appear as intense as the emotions that rippled through the slender frame.
"If you intend to murder me, you should do it before I regain enough strength to defend myself," Vader said at length.
The boy's lips turned down in a frown that quickly transformed into a grimace. He shifted his grip a little. "It wouldn't be murder. It'd be justice," he said. The words echoed through the chamber. Uncertain, desperate - and they sounded rehearsed.
Vader tilted his head slightly. "Perhaps. Do it, then."
He watched, fascinated, as a fine tremor shook the boy's body.
"You want me to?" Luke asked, frowning, and the blaster dropped slightly. Those striking eyes widened in interest. His skin was heavily smudged beneath them, giving the impression of hours of worry and anxiety. Perhaps he had spent the whole night watching Vader's unconscious form, waiting for him to wake so that Vader would be conscious when he shot him -
But, no, that was not the impression Vader was receiving from his still pitifully weak Force sense. Instead, he had the feeling that coming in here was a rash decision, taken on an impulse, and that the boy was wondering what in all the hells he was going to do now.
Vader moved slightly, trying to alleviate the pain from his wounded thigh. The boy flinched, and his grip tightened around the blaster. It lifted again. Vader stilled.
"I have no wish to die a humiliating death in public," Vader replied. "You would be delivering me a mercy."
His eyes studied the scratched and taped-together blaster, and watched as the boy's grip on the weapon wavered. Vader's heart was beating a little too fast, and he found himself wondering which option he should be hoping for. Yes, his nonchalance was only a tactic to get the boy to put down the weapon, but it worried him that he sounded so certain. So desperate. Luke lifted a fine blond eyebrow, as if Vader had voiced his thoughts aloud, and Vader hurriedly tried to slam down his mental shields. He met only a sluggish response from the Force. Dismayed, he clenched his hands into fists.
That little movement seemed to catch Luke's attention, his gaze moving to Vader's hands. Then the boy shut his eyes, a look of disgust on his face as he let out a noisy exasperation. He lowered the blaster, shaking his head. His breath crystallised in the cold air as he stepped forward.
"This was a really stupid idea," Luke muttered, apparently to himself. And then to Vader, "Come on, we're getting out of here."
Vader struggled upright into a sitting position despite the pain. "You're a little young to be handing out executions," he said, his legs screaming at the brutal treatment. "And I do not believe your friends will be impressed with your actions."
"They're not my friends," Luke snapped angrily, and Vader was taken aback by the vehemence. Luke sighed nosily, waving the blaster. "They're.... never mind. Come on, get up."
"You realise it will not matter whether you kill me in here or outside. They will still know it was you."
"It doesn't matter."
"I see." He paused. "I doubt you will survive their retribution."
The boy shrugged, and for a moment he looked incredibly young and vulnerable. "Yeah, I know..." he whispered. "Come on, get up."
Vader stood slowly, the pain flooding his body. He gasped, and felt his thigh muscles begin to collapse from under him.
Luke looked up sharply and took a step forward, reaching for Vader even as Vader felt a wave of healing energy break over him. The shock of that Force-touch stole his breath and then returned the ability tenfold as his lungs gasped hungrily for air.
Incredible. It felt like a lock had clicked open.
The Force had not been returned to him, but he felt renewed. Buoyed. The boy clutched him, preventing him from falling and, remarkably, Vader found the strength to stand. He had to resist the urge to grasp the boy and demand to know what he'd done. The communication of such energy should not be possible unless a mental bond was present, which clearly was not the case. But that healing energy... it was undeniable... and inexplicable.
It almost felt... familiar.
But, no. That was plainly impossible.
He straightened his spine. His knees didn't buckle and send him crashing into the filthy water, as he had expected them to. Luke had slung a slender hand around Vader's waist and was trying to hold him upright. Vader looked down at the boy, watched the gaze turn stubbornly away from his own.
"How are you doing that?" Vader finally asked.
The boy looked abashed. "I... don't know. It just sort of happened when you started to fall."
Incredible - and impossible. Who was this child?
"You are not the sort of child I would expect to find collaborating with those... thugs," Vader said softly.
The boy stiffened. "Yeah, well, so what?" he snapped.
"Who are you?"
Luke shrugged. Another wave of healing Force took the demand for an answer from Vader's lips, but he heard Luke say, "You don't want to get inside my mind. It's even uglier than yours."
And Vader wondered at that, but it seemed unwise to anger his captor - or rescuer, whichever he was. "Very well," he finally said.
Luke didn't look particularly pleased with that response, but he said nothing. He attempted to urge Vader on a step, but despite their combined efforts Vader faltered and nearly went crashing to the cold water. Luke's hold on him tightened, preventing him from falling completely, but he still ended up on one knee. The boy struggled to pull him upright and, in truth, without the efforts of Luke's healing Force Vader would probably have stayed on knees indefinitely.
There was something terribly familiar about that touch of the Force, and something horribly disconcerting about the sheer strength of it.
"Come on," Luke urged. "We have to get out before they wake up."
Vader snorted. "From what I heard of their celebrations, I doubt any of them will be sober for some time." And hadn't it been frustrating, lying there listening to them drinking themselves out of their minds, utterly unable to take advantage of the situation?
"You don't know Jandon like I do," Luke said, and Vader didn't like the waver in his voice as he said it. The boy tucked his blaster into a patched-together holster he had strapped to his thigh. Vader stared at it for a long while, considering the situation - the boy was apparently fearful of the gang, and yet he had come to Vader in defiance of them.
Apparently to kill me, although that doesn't explain why I'm still alive.
"Maybe I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet," Luke said, with a strange wry humour, though his voice sounded strained as he pulled Vader back up to standing.
Vader stiffened. Had the boy pulled that thought directly from his mind? "I see..." he said at length, uncertain what concerned him more - that the boy was keeping his fate on a leash, or that he had slipped into Vader's mind so easily.
"Come on," Luke urged again, and Vader grudgingly acknowledged that going with the boy appeared to be the lesser of two evils. He took a step forward, and then another, each one somehow less painful than the last, cushioned by crude but effective Force use.
Clearly the boy's Force-skills were instinctive; he hadn't been taught. Probably he was a product of his environment, stumbling through life and surviving through whatever means he could, the Force coming to bear in his desperation.
It sickened Vader that the Force could be so twisted out of the measures of Light and Dark, and possessed him with a curious rage towards whoever had brought up the boy. He could easily recall the confusion he had lived through on Tatooine, when he had lived with an unknown supernatural power that some were scared of and others wanted to exploit.
And maybe that was what Luke was doing with this gang. If so, Vader felt a strange sense of anger on his behalf. Anger, and an uncharacteristic appreciation of the boy's gall.
Perhaps Luke had again picked up on his thoughts, because the boy faltered and stared up at Vader, casting him a look so full of longing and desperation that, despite the boy's support, it nearly brought Vader to his knees, stunned by the emotion behind it.
Bewildered by his own reaction to the boy and annoyed with himself for taking such an inexplicable interest in the child, Vader felt an urgent desire to do something to escape this situation. He gave the boy a push towards the lichen-covered wall and pulled the blaster from the holster, turning it around and pressing it to the boy's temple. The youth looked betrayed for a moment, and then his expression fell into one of distaste - with himself or with Vader, Vader couldn't tell.
"I should've known you'd do that. She always told me you-" Luke stopped suddenly, as if aware that he was talking to himself. He seemed to brace himself, but Vader didn't pull the trigger, and Luke frowned.
Vader shook his head. "She? Who is 'she'?" he snapped.
The boy clenched his jaw and looked down. "What you waiting for?" Luke asked.
Vader's finger hovered over the trigger, disconcerted by the misery beating off the boy. "You came here to kill me. Why should I not kill you?" he asked, as much to himself as to the boy, perplexed by his own hesitancy.
Luke lifted his gaze back up to meet Vader's and smiled humourlessly, and it was... someone else's smile. So familiar, it plucked every nerve in Vader's body.
"I didn't come here to kill you - I... I came to rescue you." Luke shrugged, looking downcast and... lost. "Don't ask me why."
Luke's lips formed a thin line of defiance. "Pull the trigger already."
Vader frowned, unused to being on the receiving end of such orders.
Suddenly, the boy's fragile calm snapped. "For Sith's sake, pull the trigger! What are you waiting for?!" The words came tumbling out, and Luke's voice wavered with the telltale sign of tears. His breathing hitched and he grimaced. "Do me a favour - pull the trigger. I don't care. Pull the trigger!"
"Why?" Vader asked, and he felt destiny pressing at his chest.
"Why what? Why kill me? 'Cause I don't matter, and I never have! I'm just... just some orphan kid no one could be bothered with! So go on - you'd be doing me a favour."
A chill swept through Vader. "What do you -" he started to say, but was interrupted when the boy's eyes flashed in anger. That look.... It sent a quiver of anticipation racing down his spine. "Who are you?" he asked, and the boy flinched.
"Does it matter?"
Still the boy remained stubbornly silent. His harried breath crystallised in the air. Vader's palm itched around the handle of the blaster. Suddenly, he felt anger clawing at his thin pretence of control. "Tell me!" he demanded. The words from one of the drunken gang members came back to him, in the disguise of an omen: Make him tell, Jan!
Perhaps his anger had fuelled his ailing Force abilities, because the boy opened his mouth then, even as he flinched. "Sky-" he started to say, and then choked on the word.
Vader staggered forward. The barrel of the gun dropped and before he knew what he was doing he was grabbing the boy by the front of his shirt, even as his injured knee finally gave out and he stumbled to the floor.
"Say it," Vader demanded, although he already knew what he would hear.
Luke grimaced, eyes red-rimmed with tears and a bitter anger. "All right, okay," he said. "My name... my name's Luke Skywalker," he confirmed with a sigh, looking aside. But, oddly, he seemed more relieved than frightened. "What are you waiting for, Father? Just shoot me and go."
Vader's breath froze in his chest. He couldn't think of a reply.
The silence stretched.
Luke looked up at him from under his lashes, his expression stunned, as if he was surprised he wasn't dead yet. "What are you waiting for?"
The world had warped around Vader, and what he was waiting for was the universe to end. He was vaguely disappointed when it didn't.
In retrospect, of course this was his son. The confusion he felt tearing through him and making his hands tremble wasn't from the fact he could have a son, but from the circumstances.
How? How had his son been brought up on this dying world? How had he survived at all?
Those brilliant eyes were shining with bitterness now as Luke watched his father intently. 'Luke' - Vader wanted to laugh at the irony. The name meant 'light' in Nubian, but the boy had lived in a darkness his father had created. Cynically, he wondered if Kenobi had engineered that little irony. But - no. Padm? would never have let her son grow up like this.
Had she even lived long enough to have any say in the matter? The date on her gravestone suggested not - or did Vader just want to believe that she would not have chosen this life for their son?
Looking down now, Vader recognised that the boy's familiarity had not been merely a product of his pain-hazed imagination. Luke was familiar. He reminded Vader not only of Padm?, but of himself. Had his wife seen that and hated it, sought to punish the child for the father? No, surely not. There was a story here, waiting to be told.
Belatedly, he realised he was holding the boy in a bruising grip and he released his hold, forcing himself to breathe.
Luke was watching him intently, and Vader wondered what he hoped to see. "How?" he asked, though it felt like a woefully inadequate response to the situation.
Luke just shook his head. "You really don't want to see inside my head," he said, and laughed despite the situation. He ran a hand through his straggly blond hair.
Vader replied almost instinctively. "Do not be so sure."
Luke looked away suddenly, but Vader caught the fleeting expression of desperation that flitted across his face. The pale hands fisted. Finally, he looked back up at Vader, and his expression was blank again. It was a practised move, Vader realised, designed to show indifference when he felt nothing of the sort. "If you're not going to kill me, then we should leave. The others will wake up soon and I don't want to be here when they do." Luke took a breath, closed his eyes.
A torrent of questions flooded Vader's mind, but the boy was right. There was no time for any of those questions, no time at all. "Very well," he finally said, and felt a strange relief that he wouldn't have to listen to the boy's story just yet... because he was sure whatever the circumstances were that had conspired to confine his son on Naboo, they were not pleasant.
Luke watched him guardedly as Vader leaned against the wall and attempted to stand. The pain shot down his leg, and he dropped back to the ground with a grunt. Luke reached out - instinctively, Vader thought - and more of that healing energy slid through Vader's veins.
Had it really been just moments earlier that he had thought how impossible this was because there was no bond between them? It felt like the answer should have been blindingly obvious from the moment he had first set eyes on the boy. He should have known.
I did not kill Padm?, he thought. I realised that when they found her grave here, laid down after the city's destruction. So why did I not stop to consider what happened to the child she was carrying? Was I blinded by rage at Palpatine - or did I not want to know?
And if I did not want to know... why not?
Something seemed to whisper at him with Padm?'s voice, lightened with wry amusement - "Because you are not ready for the guilt you will feel... but when you are, he will turn your world inside-out..." - and Vader, unnerved, shook the words from his soul.
"I will need your continued assistance if we are to leave this place," he said at last.
Luke looked at him curiously, sending another wave of Force-energy his way. Vader found the strength to stand and straighten his back. "Does it help that much?" the boy asked, all innocent wonder for just a moment.
Vader looked down at him, almost tempted to grip the boy's shoulder in reassurance - and then he wondered just where in all the hells that impulse had come from. "Indeed it does," he said, and accepted the physical support as well as the mental when Luke put an arm around his waist. "It would help more if I could access the Force, however."
The boy flinched. "Oh," he said, very quietly.
Something nagged at the back of Vader's mind. "I suppose my inability to do so is an after-effect of your... stunt in the catacomb earlier," he said. Was he chiding the child? It certainly sounded like it to his own ears, and that dismayed him.
Luke shrugged. "I... no - it's the drug Jandon gave you. It blocks your access for a while."
Vader sighed. For a wild moment he had hoped the boy was somehow responsible for his continued inability to feel the Force. "We -" he started to say, but they both stilled abruptly at the sound of something falling into the water with a crash, somewhere down the corridor. A reminder that they didn't have time to stand around talking, Vader thought. "We should go. We can discuss this later."
They made slow progress, hampered by the uneven ground and by Vader's injuries. Litter and detritus rolled down the streets in the stiff night breeze as Vader and Luke struggled up and out of the catacombs. The wind caught the boy's hair, blowing it in a golden haze around his head.
Vader hated to admit weakness, but he clung to his newly-discovered son's support and the boy said nothing about the weight he was shouldering.
A light rain soon soaked them through. The soft, murmuring sound of it hitting the ground and the tattered canopies was the only sound in the air; there was no noise of animals or of people. Occasionally, Vader thought he saw the hard glare of eyes watching them move painfully by, but they disappeared into the darkness when they decided he and Luke presented no danger.
There were so few people left here, only those without the means to escape the city or with nowhere to go even if they could. The old, the poor, and the young. Like the youths in Jandon's gang, probably orphaned or separated from their parents in the initial strike. With no immediate place to go, they had been left behind in the city when most of the adults, consumed by desperation and consequently ignorant of the need of those around them, had fled.
Or so Vader presumed. In truth, he had paid little heed to the reports his agents had presented to him on the state of Theed - he'd been too busy reading and re-reading the line that told him Padm?'s grave had been found and had not thought to read beyond that.
Luke moved agilely through the sunken streets, with an economy of movement Vader had noticed earlier and found so distasteful. Suddenly those skills of skulking were not just useful, but added a bitter reflection to Vader's thoughts. The pale moon sent down a few spears of light down through the ever-present, not-quite rain.
"I trust you know where we are," Vader said, taking a moment to rest against the cracked wall of a building. He gripped his useless right arm with his left. Luke walked forwards a few steps, stopped at end of a shattered street and turned his face to the sky.
"We have to get out of the city," he said.
Vader's breath was coming in painful spasms. "Indeed," was all he could manage for a moment. Then - "And where then? My ship is -"
"They looted it; burned it. Forget it."
Vader frowned. Why had they destroyed a space-worthy vessel? It was mindless. He would have expected as many of the youths as possible to cram aboard the ship and attempt to escape their shattered planet.
"I know where there's another ship," Luke was saying, drawing Vader's attention away from his bewilderment. "It's a long way past the borders of the city, but I know how to get us there and -" As Vader's muscles spasmed again, Luke broke off his explanation and frowned, moving back towards Vader. As he approached, the pain dulled, and Vader allowed himself a moment of wonder at how potent the effect was. He had little experience of healing techniques, and little aptitude for them, but clearly the same could not be said for his son.
How easily the designation came to mind, when just hours before he could not have conceived of it.
His son. It was... unthinkable, unbelievable... undeniable.
He started forward a few steps, Luke beside him. And didn't it feel right for it to be that way? Bare hours after meeting the boy, and yet - so right. He shook his head briefly, before noticing Luke's concerned expression.
"Are you okay?" the boy asked, putting a hand out as if to hold Vader upright. "You felt a little... weird there, for a minute."
Vader did not know what to do with such concern from the boy - it had been years since anyone had shown concern for his welfare, and for a moment Vader swung between the temptation to bristle as if his pride were hurt, and the equally strong temptation to accept the concern as it was meant - earnestly.
In the end, he opted for the truth. "I am... weary. My injuries are slowing me down considerably."
Luke frowned, looking down at Vader's nearly non-operational right arm. Vader had the ridiculous temptation to hide the useless limb. Luke bit his lip, looking abruptly young and fearful. "It's over a day's walk to the ship... you'll never make it like this." He paused. "We could find somewhere to rest, but..." Luke trailed off, then looked up, his gaze once again intense and serious. "But we don't have much time."
Which was probably true. They were not going to be easy to track, but Vader didn't doubt the gang had a method for doing so through such familiar territory, otherwise Luke would not be so jumpy.
"Very well," he said, straightening his back. "Then we continue."
Luke nodded, subdued. Then, suddenly, he seemed to brighten. "Hang on! I think... yeah... a bit further on, there should be one of the research stations. I found it the other day. It's secure and it's underground and it's... well, it should be safe from... from Jandon. We could rest there, for a while at least," he offered, looking up.
Vader paused, considering. If he became too tired to walk, they were in more trouble than if they stopped for a short while. Luke walked silently at his side, a constant beacon of healing energy. The boy also radiated exhaustion, though, in every move he made. Perhaps he had even sat up all night, wondering what to do since his errant father suddenly appeared in his life. Vader tried to imagine it, tried to picture Luke sitting in a cold catacomb chamber, turning the blaster over in his hands, his mind awash with indecision.
"Can't you touch the Force at all? Keep the pain away?" Luke asked suddenly, turning to him. Vader looked down at him, for the first time really noticing the smudged crescents cupping his eyes and the unnatural pallor of his skin. Strange how those things became suddenly salient now he knew who the boy was.
"Very little," he said, hearing the frustration in his voice. "The pain is... intense - too intense." Even as he said it, he tried yet again to reach out to the Force with mental fingers. Very little happened, though; the Force was closer, but still damnably far away. He resisted the urge to sigh.
"Well," Luke said slowly, and Vader looked down with a vague sense of amusement when the boy squeezed his arm reassuringly. "Maybe it'll return a bit more, later."
Was that supposed to be comforting? "Perhaps," he agreed, quietly.
Through the thin drizzle, an austere building appeared, the walls so crumbled and maligned that the outline was indistinct and hazy. "There it is," Luke said. "We can stop there, at least for a bit. That'll confuse Jandon, that's for sure."
Luke grinned, briefly, and the sight made something inside of Vader crack a little. Then he frowned. Luke had called the structure a 'research station', but Vader recalled no such buildings on Theed. The Naboo had had little interest in science, preferring to explore more aesthetic pursuits, and his instincts tingled with apprehension. Sunken steps led down into several inches of floodwater and an apparently locked door.
Vader caught the echo of the Force stirring in the crude, untrained way his son seemed to have developed, and the boy homed in quickly on the lock. He cursed, softly.
"No good. It's seized," Luke whispered. His breath formed clouds of icy air.
"Perhaps there is another way?"
"No - wait."
Luke reached up and took off the dirty bandage that was wrapped around his head. Vader winced before he could stop himself when he saw a deep red scar running down one temple. Now was certainly not the time.
Luke ran his fingers over the wet fabric, and pried out a small round disk barely the size of a credit. Vader felt the urge to ask what it was, but Luke was focused on the task. He put the disk over the lock and ripped off the control panel. Then he twisted open the circuits, rerouted and -
The thing clicked as the small disk beeped and the door slid upwards. Luke turned around, prideful. He held up the disk. "It's a mini code-breaker," he said, turning it over in his hand. "Found it a few days ago. They're pretty rare these days."
Did he want congratulating for his scavenging? Vader wondered. If he did, Vader could not bring himself to do so. After an uncomfortable silence, Luke turned away and ducked inside the doorway.
"Well... uh... come on, it's down here. Watch it, it's wet. "
Vader followed hesitantly, cradling his limp arm. Inside, there was not the airy corridor and grand, tall rooms Vader had expected from the exterior of the structure. Instead, a set of steep steps led immediately down from the entranceway into an interminable darkness.
Luke descended them quickly, with the impatience of youth, and Vader followed him more cautiously as the door closed behind them, shutting in the darkness. Vader's breathing reverberated in the small space, and water dripped down the steps in a rhythmic tap, puddling at their feet.
At the foot of the steps was another door, and Luke's quiet tinkering told him the boy was working on the locking mechanism. Vader wondered briefly where the boy had learnt such skills and then decided that perhaps he didn't want to know.
A spark leapt from the control panel, briefly illuminating the area with ghostly blue light, and Luke cursed softly, pulling his hand back and sucking his finger. "Blast it!" he muttered.
Vader was dismayed to find that he had reached out as if to pull the boy away from the dangerous circuitry. He stared at his left arm as he slowly lowered it. Where had that impulse come from - the impulse to pull the boy back from danger?
You need him if you are to get out of the city, a cold part of his mind suggested logically, but it lacked the ring of truth.
Luke was still struggling with the splice.
"Perhaps I can -"
"I've got it," Luke said defensively, and Vader snorted in annoyance, recognising his own mile-wide streak of stubborn pride in the boy's character. And Luke had reason to be proud - the door swung upwards after another moment's work, Luke grinning up at him. "See?"
When Vader did not reply, Luke just shook his head and rolled his eyes before walking through the entranceway.
The opening door had revealed a stone corridor lit by low, sickly white light. Vader wasn't sure what he had expected to find inside this building, but it certainly wasn't this. The tunnel that stretched ahead of them was cold and hollow, and ancient, filled with the oppressive taste of stale air and the memories of centuries.
It was so unlike the typical Theed architecture that it gave Vader pause. The tunnel curled away to the left, disappearing steadily downwards. This was a part of the catacombs beneath the city, Vader realised, recognising the architecture from the similar structure in which Jandon's gang had taken shelter. He took a cautious step forwards, but then stilled, the pervasive doubt still in his mind. Why had the Naboo built such a structure within the catacombs? Just what kind of 'research' had been done here, beneath the heart of the city?
Luke had walked on a few steps, the shadows engulfing him. He turned back to Vader, beckoning. "The control room's down here," he said. "Come on."
Vader followed him, eyeing curiously the closed, sealed chambers they passed. The tunnel widened abruptly around a sharp left turn, opening into a chamber lined with pre-Empire technology. At the centre was a large control area, dominated by a plastiglass screen that might once have displayed images but was now cracked across the centre, the liquid crystal having leaked out and dried on the crazed 'glass surface.
Luke moved swiftly past it all, heading to a row of storage cupboards at the far end and rummaging through them. A true scavenger, Vader thought briefly, and resisted the urge to call the boy back. He doubted the child would have obeyed, anyway.
Instead, he took a seat at one of the consoles, relishing the sudden easing of tired muscles. He stared at the control panel, but nothing was familiar to him. Finally, he swallowed his pride and turned to his son. "What is this place?"
Luke's head was still buried in the contents of the cupboard. "They used to do some sort of research here - something to do with the war," he said, the words muffled. "There are a few of them dotted around Theed, and a much bigger one across the city where they did most of the work. I don't know what they did here, but it's the only one I've ever managed to get past the front door to, other than the one Jandon's gang holes-up next to, and he emptied that years ago. They're all underground... no one really knows who they were doing this stuff for, though. The Empire, I guess." Then he reappeared, holding up a box triumphantly.
He walked towards Vader, looking young and bright suddenly. He sat down in one of the mouldy, over-stuffed chairs, looking distinctly proud of himself. "Are you hungry?" Luke asked, pulling out bars of emergency rations from the box he had found.
"I... do not eat without removing my mask, which is not possible in this atmosphere."
Luke blushed brilliant red and looked away. "Oh, ah... yeah, sorry." He turned a ration bar over in his hand, not looking at Vader.
"You should eat, though."
The boy smiled briefly, as if he had been waiting for permission. He tore off the top and started chewing hungrily. Vader nearly - nearly - told him to slow down or he'd make himself sick, but he bit back the words just in time. Instead he said, "If this is a research facility, it may have its own power supply. And if it has communications equipment, we could -"
Luke was shaking his head. "No, it doesn't. None of them have any comm systems. And the power banks are dead."
"No communications system," Vader repeated slowly.
"Mmm-hmm," Luke replied, around a mouthful of food. "Someone destroyed most of the computers and equipment. This stuff," he said, gesturing around the room, "is all dead."
Vader turned that over in his mind, tempted to ask Luke what else he knew of this, because Vader had never heard of any such research from Padm? during her Senatorial days. But... perhaps it did not matter any longer. Probably it had been some amusement of Palpatine's that he'd lost interest in after winning the war. And if that was the case, it was likely that Vader did not want to know what his master had been up to. Because it was over now, whatever it had been. It was all over.
Vader leant back in the seat and closed his eyes. Everything ached, and yet they hadn't travelled far at all. Ah - if only he could access the Force, he could use it to boost his lagging energy reserves and they could leave this place far quicker than at the slow crawl they were managing so far.
There was a strangely comfortable silence as Vader rested and Luke ate. A mocking part of Vader's inner voice thought distastefully of how inappropriate it was for a Dark Lord of the Sith to be comfortable in such a situation but, still, he could not bring himself to find it troubling.
Although he had been to Theed on two occasions, he had little memory of the city's layout or its size, and he spent several minutes trying to picture in his mind where they were or where they might be heading.
"How far is the city limit?" he eventually asked Luke, unable to picture their location. The boy jumped at the sudden conversation, and then energetically wiped his hands on his tunic and leant forwards.
"Well, imagine this is the river," he said and drew a wavering line in the dust on the nearby console. Vader nodded. "This is where the Palace used to be. And the docking port, the waterfalls - they're all long gone, of course."
"Of course," Vader echoed, although in truth he knew little of the city's current state of destruction and disrepair.
"Okay, well, Jandon's gang is based here," Luke said as he pressed a finger down in the dust. Vader noted that at the mention of the gang leader, the boy paused for a fraction of a second before seeming to shake himself free of some melancholy. "And we're here," he said.
Vader frowned. "That is closer to the city centre than where we started from," he pointed out.
Luke nodded. "Yeah, I know, but all the south side of the city is impassable. We have to get here," he stabbed at the dust again, "where we can cross the river and go west, then we can get out through the old residential district."
Vader studied the makeshift map, dismayed at the circular route the boy had plotted for them. "You seem to know the city well," he said, looking for reassurance that the boy knew what he was doing.
Luke, however, frowned at the statement. "I've lived here all my life," he said defensively.
Vader's mouth was open before he knew what he was going to say, and he was within a breath of saying - Where? With who? Why? - before he shut his mouth with an abruptness that jarred him. It wasn't that he didn't want to know the answers to the questions... was it?
Vader realised Luke was looking at him, puzzling him over, the ration bar forgotten in his hand. "You are certain this is the fastest route?" Vader asked, at last. Again, Luke looked affronted, and the childish delight of a few minutes ago was gone from his expression.
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"And where are we going?" he asked. This was safer ground. He could stick to the practical problems and deal with all the fallout of the discovery of his son once they were on safer territory and he had the Force to ground him. "My ship is -"
"I told you, it's been looted and stripped. Forget it."
Luke turned to him, Anakin's eyes looking him over and weighing him up. Vader had no Force shielding, and he felt naked without it. And cold - even the lining of his suit couldn't keep out the creeping frost. It burrowed its way into him, although he had the nagging feeling that it wasn't just the physical cold that chilled him. There were realisations yet to be had, if he would just accept them. But he would not. He could not.
"I presume you are not foolish enough to bring us out here without a plan."
He knew the words were wrong as soon as they were out of his mouth. Luke's eyes looked wounded, and his lips quirked into a self-mocking grin. "Perhaps I am."
Vader shook his head. Frustrated, he was frustrated. Once with himself, for being so weak that he couldn't stand, twice with this damn planet and three times with the Force and its ironic sense of retribution.
A reply - a denial that any son of his would ever be foolish - was on his lips, but Luke had swung his chair around, his back to Vader as he searched through the box he had found earlier. "Like I said, I know where there's a ship that's not looted, though," he said. "That's where we're going. It's... well, you might as well know... it was my mother's ship. I've got the beckon call for it. It's damaged, but it'll still show us where it is."
"Padm?'s ship?" Vader asked, sucking in a harsh breath. "It's still here?"
Luke nodded slowly, perhaps wary of Vader's sudden agitation. "Yeah. When she died the ship was still out in the - Father!"
Vader had stood up suddenly, agitated into movement by Luke's words. His sudden, careless movement sent blinding pain shooting through his leg and he gasped in pain. But even as he did, he was almost grateful for the violent pain in his mind. It burned away the questions he knew he should ask, but that he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answers to yet. There would be time for those, time when they both got off this planet, when he had the Force back, had re-found his centre.
Small hands were pressing down on his forearms, urging him to sit again, and he looked down at Luke, stunned by the fear he saw there. He was frightening the boy, he realised, standing there like a statue, hands clenched in pain. He sat back down slowly, less suddenly than he had stood.
"Here," Luke said, digging into his box and pulling out a handful of small, white packets.
"What is that?" Vader asked.
Luke held them out to Vader. "Med-patches. Haven't seen any of these in... well, in years." Vader looked down at them, undecided. Luke frowned. "What's wrong?"
Vader paused, again. It was getting to be a habit. "I am... unused to relying on drugs for pain relief."
Luke looked puzzled. "Huh?"
"The Force is a powerful ally - I have not required medical pain relief for some years."
Luke snorted. "Must be handy. Round here, people would slit your throat for one of these."
Vader didn't doubt it. "Honourless people," he muttered, in disgust. He refocused on the more important issue of what this ship was they were heading towards, and how far it was. "Padm?'s ship - how do you know it has not been looted like my own? How do you know where it is? Why do you have the beckon call?"
But something about Vader's first comment - honourless people - must have struck a nerve for Luke, and he didn't answer. The boy went pale, and stood abruptly, walking away towards the blank screen. Vader could barely access the Force, but the boy radiated anger. Luke turned suddenly, eyes flashing in fury. "How can you say that?"
Vader remained silent, unnerved by the sudden temper his son displayed. And, yes, this was another one of Anakin's traits, coming back to haunt him.
"How can you say that?!" Luke repeated, clenching his fists by his side. "You... you did this to them - to all of them. If anyone is honourless then it's you."
Vader's temper flared in return. He was on his feet before he knew what he was doing, his hand stretching out, forming a fist -
- and nothing happened.
Luke stared at him, eyes wide. Apparently he knew exactly what that gesture spelled for him, and apparently Vader's anger was potent enough that even untrained, the boy could feel it beating at his skin like heat from a raging fire.
"I should'a known," Luke said slowly, backing away until his back hit the cracked plastiglass screen.
The words hit Vader somewhere near the solar plexus, and he dropped his hand abruptly. "You should not anger me -" he started to say, but Luke had turned away from him, facing the screen, spine stiff and straight as a saber-blade.
Vader supposed there were words of comfort or apology he should be using right now, but they wouldn't come to him, and he sank back down to his chair. This time, the silence between then was tense and uncomfortable. Eventually, Luke spoke.
"You better get some sleep, Father. We have to get moving again soon." The boy sounded exhausted suddenly, and he moved away from the screen to go sit in the chair furthest from Vader, turning so his back was to his father.
Father. The title echoed in Vader's ears, sounding at once alien and familiar. He wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come. And then the silence had lasted so long that he felt that if he did say something now it would be too loud, too jarring.
Eventually, despite the agitation of his thoughts, he slipped into an unquiet sleep.
Another dream. Equally as indistinct and fogged, but this time there was the feeling of movement, of being carried as if he were no bigger than a infant. A rocking, urgent motion, as the figure that held him hurried along an airy, echoing corridor.
"It will be a matter of days, Master," a voice said, from above him. The same voice as before, the words rumbling through him. All Vader could see through his watery vision was the outline of cloth where his face was pressed to the man's shoulder. But still, the identity of that figure finally registered. Obi-Wan. Anger and hatred burst within Vader then, but he did not have the control over his dream body to do anything more than cling to the enemy that held him.
Were these memories, then? Luke's memories? But could such a young baby form memories, let alone discern the words in them? Perhaps this was the Force speaking to him, inching its way back into his mind, trying to guide him through the mystery of the past.
"Days we may not have, young Obi-Wan," another voice said, and this one was easily recognizable: Yoda. If possible, Vader's anger clawed higher, scratching through his mind uselessly, offering him no strength. "Take the boy, you should. Agreed this, we did. To Tatooine he must go. Safer, it is."
Obi-Wan didn't slow, and he was travelling too fast to have Yoda there with him; it must be a conversation over communicator. Light blinded Vader momentarily as Obi-Wan left the building and emerged into bright daylight. He felt his body flinch, and then he was shifted so that he looked up in Obi-Wan's agitated face. The man gave him a small smile, touched a finger to his cheek, and Vader wanted to scream at him. "He has already lost his father. And Padm? - she is still aware, Master. She knows what is happening. I cannot take him away from her yet. We do not even know why she is fading, or how long she will live."
"Senator Organa has -"
"- made his own decision," Obi-Wan interrupted, in a sharp tone that Vader had rarely heard from his old master. "Master, we do not even know if Palpatine is looking for them. With Anakin dead-"
"Dead is he, hmmm? Thought, I did, that uncertain you were of his fate."
Obi-Wan's face tightened with an unreadable emotion. "Luke has been calling for his father constantly, Master. If Anakin were alive... he would have been here by now."
Mutely, Vader raged at that. I was alive! he wanted to scream at Obi-Wan. But I was undergoing the transformation you forced upon me! I was not even cognisant enough to hear my own thoughts, never mind my son's calls! How could I have known?!
"Humph," was all Yoda replied to that.
"And, Master... I sense that there is something more going on in Theed than we are aware of."
A long pause. Obi-Wan must have passed into the shade of a building, because sudden darkness flooded Vader's sight before his dream-eyes adjusted. "A vision, you have had?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No, but there is something about the city... a darkness...."
A longer pause this time. And then Obi-Wan slowed, coming to halt in a narrow doorway. "Be wary of your heart, Obi-Wan. Lead you astray, it could. If seek to find a reason to stay on Naboo you do, then find it you will."
"I only want to give her more time..." Obi-Wan whispered. "The ship is hidden not far from the city. If we have to leave quickly, we can use the beckon call...."
And then Vader felt gravity shifting around him as he was lowered. His arms flailed briefly, and he caught sight of his own chubby hands waving in front of him, trying to catch onto something. But he was laid gently on a bed and clutched a fistful of soft, silky fabric in his hand.
He was turned with gentle fingers to face the woman he'd been placed beside, and a face swam into view. Her face, a spectre of the past. Tired, worn, pale - filled with gentle love. His mind came to a shuddering halt as he recognised the gentle presence his child-mind instinctively latched onto through the Force.
He stared at her, reeling. He had almost forgotten... almost forgotten how devastating her beauty was. "Luke," Padm? whispered to him, and smiled that breath-taking smile. She leaned down, kissed him softly on the forehead, and settled her head back on the pillow, looking exhausted from even that slight movement.
"I will investigate the city, Master. There are still those in palace who remember me and may help me if I am... discreet... in contacting them."
"Understand your heart, I do," Yoda replied, sounding old and tired, "but... risk the boy's future you should not, Obi-Wan. Our only hope, he may be."
"Vader? Father? Father?? Come on - wake up!"
Maybe it was the urgency in the voice, or maybe it was the title Luke had used, but Vader snapped awake with a jolt. Luke was gripping his left arm, shaking him roughly.
Vader reached out and grabbed him, stilled him. "What is it?" he rumbled.
Luke looked abashed. "We... we've overslept. We've been asleep for hours. We need to get moving. "
Vader just shook his head in self-disgust and braced his usable hand against the chair arm to try and regain his feet, quickly realising the import of their negligence. He blamed himself, really. He should not have allowed himself to sleep so deeply, he -
Pain shot through his legs and he went back down to the seat again in a very un-Dark-Lordly manner. He growled in frustration. This was not the situation he had envisaged when he had decided to visit Naboo. He had not imagined that his world would be turned inside out and his dignity so undermined by a band of hooligans and a wayward son. He was supposed to be dignified, aloof and untouchable. He was stable and unshakable and -
- a father.
He was a father.
Despite the urgency of the situation, the thought lanced through him, as potent as the loss of his Force abilities and his ailing health - more potent, in fact, and in so many ways.
The thought was brought home harder as he watched, dazedly, as Luke struggled to take his weight and pull him upright. The boy failed, staggering back a few steps and looking chagrined. Then, as if realising that he wouldn't lift Vader on his own, the boy offered him his hand.
The skin was pale alabaster, but the gesture was strangely sincere. It tore at Vader. When had anyone ever offered a Dark Lord their hand? When had a Dark Lord ever had need of that helping hand?
Now, he thought. Right now. And it wasn't so bad.
There was a faint smile playing on Luke's lips and Vader worried for a split second that he was broadcasting his thoughts again. As quickly as it was there, the smile was gone again. Back was the sad, terrible face of a lifetime of grief and struggle. That grim expression didn't suit the boy's innocent features, Vader thought. It forced maturity onto a child barely into his teenage years and Vader had much preferred the childish innocence that had shone through oh-so-briefly before their argument. But that light-heartedness was gone now, replaced by fear and urgency, and the thought entered Vader's mind that the destruction of Naboo had robbed Luke of his childhood.
But, no, Vader had done that. By his decisions.
Well, he'd been wrong then. His decisions had reaped poor consequences, not just for Vader, but also for his son. Hard to believe how long ago it was that he had made those decisions. And time, like the river, was swiftly flowing away. And look what it had made - a son.
"Father," Luke said urgently, and Vader snapped back to the present at the sound of the word. "We need to move."
Vader nodded and with effort got to his feet, Luke's now-distinctive healing Force slipping through his veins, cooling the aches. "Lead the way," he said, and Luke smiled.
Vader realised with dismay that Luke had not been exaggerating. When they climbed the steps back up to street-level, a sickly-coloured sunset was already beginning to wash the sky. Vader cursed inwardly. At least five hours had passed, and they had no idea how close Jandon's gang was on their tail.
Vader hurried as fast as his body was capable of going, Luke sticking close to him, seemingly aware that his proximity increased the effect of his instinctive Force-healing. The boy was astute, Vader had to give him that.
They struggled through the ancient streets that formed the centre of the city and out towards the more modern structures of the commercial areas. All about him, the destruction was immense - collapsed buildings, sunken and broken streets, the sodden, charred remains from old fires spotted with the growth of lichen and other damp-loving plants.
It became apparent that they were approaching the swollen banks of the river when the ground became uneven, saturated and sodden underfoot.
"Careful," Luke warned, still holding tight to Vader as they struggled on, "sometimes the ground collapses here onto cellars and catacombs. It's unstable." And Vader was judicious enough to listen to the boy's advice.
In the distance, a bridge came into view, but Vader's hopes for an easy path across the river died when he saw that it had collapsed in large sections, crumbling into the river. The first strut of the bridge was a good fifty metres into the river - unreachable, or so it seemed.
"Luke -" he started to say, but once again the boy seemed to have taken up residence in his mind, because he knew what Vader was about to say before he'd even begun to voice the words.
"It's crossable," Luke said, "I've used it before, when... well, I've used it before."
Vader frowned, but said nothing. As they approached, he realised his silence was well-kept, as it became clear that those parts of the bridge that had collapsed had been crudely in-filled with various pieces of flotsam, sheets of metal and plastisteel blocks that might once of been parts of buildings but were unrecognisable now. It made for a rough, treacherous bridge across the swollen river, but a bridge nonetheless.
They were almost halfway across the precarious structure when the first blaster shots came flying in.
"Get down!" Luke shouted unnecessarily, and Vader was uncertain whether to feel insulted or alarmed that the boy tried to shield him with his body. From in-between the ramshackle structures of the bridge, blaster shots were fired, pinning them down. Vader gripped Luke to stop him from running away. Their attackers could have killed them with their first shots had they desired to do so. Apparently, they didn't. Vader still had Luke's blaster attached to his utility belt, and his hand itched for it.
"Show yourselves!" Vader called, ignoring Luke's look of alarm.
There was silence, punctuated by the sound of blaster fire before it abated. Slowly, a figure lifted itself from the wreckage, a ragged youth by the looks of him, features obscured by the backlighting of the sunset and by the cloth that was wound around his face, covering everything except the eyes. Vader made a move forwards, but a rally of shots stilled him and he waited impatiently for the figure to approach.
"You cannot pass," the boy said, coming to a halt a few metres in front of them, balancing agilely on the broken bridge.
Luke stiffened at the voice. "Jee?" he whispered. And then, louder, "Aljeed - Jee, that you?"
The figure didn't seem surprised to have heard his name. "Hello, Luke."
"Jee! Boy, am I glad it's you! I -" More blaster shots spat at them as Luke made a move forwards, and Vader hauled the boy back against his chest, feeling indignant rage in his chest. He resisted the urge to grab the blaster from his belt, knowing he could not out-shoot all of them without the Force to aid him.
Jee whirled around. "Hold your fire," he shouted, and turned slowly back to them. "Stay where you are, Luke. You can't cross."
Luke flinched from the acid tone of the other boy. "I...." He trailed off. Then he seemed to shake himself. "Let us past, Jee - we're being followed."
The boy didn't change his stance. "We know. They're about a mile behind you," he said, his tone unemotional.
A mile? At that distance it was even possible that Vader and Luke would be visible on the bridge, black spots against the setting sun.
"A mile? Hells..." Luke said, and started forward again. The other boy brought his blaster up, pointing it squarely at Luke's chest.
Vader was moving before he had time to think about what his reaction to the threat should be, and was abruptly between Jee and his son. "Let us pass. We do not intend to disturb you or your friends," he said, attempting to suffuse the words with the Force.
Apparently, it didn't work. The boy laughed, sardonically. "Too late - they'll know you came through here." Then he sobered abruptly. "You cannot pass. Go back and find another way."
Luke attempted to manoeuvre himself around Vader, but Vader was in no mood for the boy's unnerving tendency to place himself in danger. He kept the boy firmly behind him.
Luke huffed in annoyance, yelling, "What are you doing, Jee? We're friends, let us through!" The words where muffled by Vader's cloak.
Jee shook his head. "Sorry, Luke, I can't let you. Jandon will -"
"Jandon will do whatever he wants, he won't care what you do!"
"That's not true and you know it. You, of all people, should know that."
Something in that last sentence made Vader's nerves tingle in apprehension - something in the older boy's tone made him feel abruptly nauseous. "What do you mean?" he asked, before he was truly aware he was going to ask it.
The cool eyes regarded him for a moment, before flicking to where Luke was still attempting to get around Vader's stranglehold on him. "You haven't told him," Jee said, clearly addressing Luke.
Luke stilled abruptly. "Shut up, Jee. Just let us over."
"What - ?" Vader started to ask, but then a shrill whistle split the air and Jee whirled in alarm.
"They're coming - get out of here. You can't pass," he hissed, already running back to his bolthole.
"Jee!" Luke called, and with the blaster lowered Vader finally allowed his son to face the other boy. "Wait! Don't - remember what he did to you last time? He'll do it to us, too. You can't just leave us here!"
Jee stilled halfway down his bolthole. "It's not just about you, Luke. I have to look after the others."
Luke's fists clenched and unclenched. He looked behind him, and Vader followed his gaze, but there was no sign of their pursuers yet. "I can help you," Luke said.
"No, you can't," Jee replied.
"We have med-supplies and rations."
The youth paused, just for a moment. Then he shook his head. "Not good enough," he said, dropping down through the structure of the bridge, almost out of sight.
"That's not all. We've got a key for the research stations," Luke called after the boy. He took a step forward, and again a blaster shot spat at his feet, sending molten metal flying into the air.
"No farther!" someone called, but Jee had stilled and was looking at Luke curiously.
"A genuine key?" he asked. "For the bunkers?"
Luke nodded eagerly. "We used it earlier. It's where we got the supplies."
Jee was silent for a moment. Vader felt frustration tearing at his control, but he knew better than to push the older boy. Finally, Jee nodded. "All right, follow me -"
"Alj!! What you doing!" someone - a much younger voice - yelled angrily.
"What do you think? I'm buying us some meds!" he called back. He turned to them, looking torn despite his defiant words. "This way," he finally said, and Vader needed no more encouragement.
Jee's bolthole led down through the structure of the bridge, winding all the way along its length to the other side of the river. It required Vader to climb over broken and twisted metal, and with his incapacitated arm and injured leg, he had to accept Luke's help supporting him as he clambered awkwardly over the structure. He wondered bitterly if it was even possible for his pride to be more bruised than it was now.
The youth, Jee, stopped when they reached the bank, waiting impatiently for them to catch up. With closer inspection, it was clear to Vader that the youth was several years Luke's senior, though his coverings made it impossible to guess his exact age. His gang clustered around him, all Luke's age or younger, dirty and dishevelled, toting heavily taped-together armour. They eyed Luke and him warily, with eyes older than their years. Jee held out a hand for the blaster that still hung from Vader's belt. Vader handed it over with a suppressed snarl of displeasure.
Vader had assumed Jee wore a scarf around his face to shield his identity, however that appeared to have been a hasty assumption. None of the other children were similarly covered. Then the reason for the covering became clear as Jee unwound the cloth.
Luke didn't flinch, but Vader couldn't help a gasp of surprise - and disgust. The boy's face was covered in scars, horribly deep scars, mottled red and white.
"If you're coming with us, I can't let you see the route in," the youth said, reaching out to yank Luke's bandana over his eyes and then handing his own covering to Vader. "Cover your eyes."
Vader looked down at the cloth in his hand, his dignity seriously under threat. "Is this necessary?"
"It's necessary," Jee snapped back. "Unless you want to go back over the bridge and face Jandon?"
Luke squeezed Vader's arm. "Come on, Father," he whispered. "We don't have a choice."
Vader grimaced, but after a few moments of silent fuming he acquiesced, tying the cloth behind his helmet. Without the Force and now without his eyes, Vader had never felt so blind.
Somebody in Jee's gang snickered, and Vader went to rip the cloth away from his helmet, but Jee quieted the laughing boy with what sounded like a harsh slap.
"Enough! We've got to get moving. Come on. And shut your sniggering, or you can stay behind!"
Someone grabbed hold of his useless right arm, pulling him forward as the gang set off at a swift pace. Vader felt a slight pull in the opposite direction as Luke grabbed at his cloak, trying to catch up.
"Don't worry, it isn't far," he whispered as he drew level with Vader.
"So you have been here before?"
He expected a nonchalant reply, but when there was nothing but silence Vader turned to him, damning the cloth that stopped him from reading his son's expression
"Yeah, once," Luke replied, eventually. Then quickly, so quickly that it had to be a distraction, he pushed another swath of healing energy through Vader's aching limbs. "Don't worry, it's not far now."
Feeling inexplicably nervous about the future, Vader chose not to pull the boy up on his avoidance. Not yet, anyway, and not whilst they had an audience.
Luke's Force-healing helped to cool the burning of his wounded pride, as did Vader's concentration on his lingering feeling of impending trouble. Could the Force be returning to him? If so, it had rarely felt so... ominous.
And maybe Luke sensed his unease, because - ludicrously - the child gave Vader's left arm a squeeze and another rush of warmth seemed to go through him, travelling along the bond he still couldn't yet reach for himself.
It seemed to take an intolerably long time to reach their destination - time spent walking over uneven ground, ducking when they were told, climbing steps and then descending more steps. With his injuries and a growing sense of unease sapping his strength, it was a difficult journey for Vader. But eventually Jee called them to a halt and announced they could remove their blindfolds.
Vader's immediate reaction to their surroundings was wary disbelief. For a moment he thought they were back at the research station where Luke and he had spent the previous night, but then he realised that this structure was much larger than that one had been, and the air was cleaner.
But the layout was the same: a long, worn stone corridor stretching into the distance, with chambers branching off intermittently. Unlike in the other catacomb, however, these chambers were not sealed, they were open. Vader stared inside them, seeing the outline of clinical equipment in the shadows, the glint of metal in the half-light.
"This is a medical facility," Vader said, almost to himself.
"Not quite," Jee replied, before pushing past him and walking forward, the younger boys falling into line behind him. "It's actually an old biotechnology research facility." He turned as he reached the halfway point of the corridor, throwing Vader a challenging smile. "You coming? We're not in the shielded area yet."
Vader frowned, but even as he opened his mouth to voice the uneasiness that was putting his nerves on edge, Luke pushed past him. "Come on, Father. I've been here before. It's the research centre I was telling you about last night, remember? It's all right. Cold, but we're safe here." And when the boy started walking down the corridor, Vader found his own legs following him.
They reached a closed door that might once have had a vacuum seal around it, but that had degraded years ago. As Jee cycled it open, Vader asked, "What did you mean by 'shielded'?"
Jee raised an eyebrow at that, pausing in his work. His gaze flicked briefly - suspiciously briefly - to Luke before he refocused on Vader. "Shielded from the trackers Jandon's gang have. This facility created the technology they're using, along with methods for shielding from it."
Vader stood absolutely still, suddenly aware that he was missing a vital wedge of information, the word biotechnology reverberating through his mind. He shook his head, turning to his son, who had fixed his gaze to the floor. "What trackers?" he asked slowly, dangerously.
Luke bit his lip, clearly gathering his courage. Finally, he looked up just as Jee finished cycling the lock. "I didn't want to worry you -"
"Worry me!" Vader repeated, incredulous. "You didn't tell me that gang of thugs could deploy tracking devices because you did not want to worry me?!"
"Well, I -"
"Did you not think I needed to know? You let me assume they were tracking us manually. Had I known they had the technology to do so I would have -"
"I'm sorry, okay!" Luke suddenly shouted, the noise bouncing off the close walls. He was flushed with - was that anger? Embarrassment? Something else? Impossible to tell, with Vader's sense of the Force so damnably weak. "I couldn't tell you!"
Vader stared at the boy, at the agitation clear to see in Luke's tense form. There was something here... something more... something the boy wasn't telling him. "Why not?" he asked, his tone broking no arguments.
Luke looked away.
"Why not!" Vader repeated, demanded, and the boy flinched. A second passed, filled with taught silence. And then another. And another -
"Oh, enough!" Jee suddenly interjected, rolling his eyes. "We're not in the shielded area yet. You can argue about this when we get there, when we're all safe." And with that, he turned on his heel and walked off, the band of children scurrying after him. Luke broke free from Vader's stare and hurried to follow.
Vader narrowed his eyes at his son's retreating form, well aware that Jee had just thrown Luke a lifeline - and that his son had grasped it. The boy paused and looked back at him beseechingly, and Vader felt something inside of him turn over at the appeal to a compassionate side he didn't have.
But he couldn't stand here all night, simmering. And if he shouted any more at Luke, he might repeat the mistake of the previous night: his threat to choke the boy. And he wouldn't do that again - never again.
Silently vowing to get some answers from his son about why he was here and what was going on in this ill-fated city, Vader strode forward.
Vader frowned as he took in the thick metal sheeting that lined the interior of the cavern. The frown deepened as he surveyed the raggedy occupants settling down against the walls, looking absurdly out of place in such a clinical setting. One boy, perhaps as young as eleven, held a lit taper in his hand, and Vader watched as he took a long draw on the stick and then passed it along.
"Don't look so disgusted, Vader," Jee laughed, brushing past him. "At least they pass it around. Most people in this city wouldn't."
Vader kept his mouth firmly disengaged from his thoughts.
Jee turned to Luke. He looked at him for a moment, a strange, sad familiarity in his eyes, and then shook his head. "Always said you would run, and damn the consequences."
Luke looked uncomfortable. "I guess...." He shifted his weight on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation.
Vader frowned again at the veiled exchange. His irritation flared. "Consequences?" he snapped, hearing the confusion in his voice.
At that, Luke averted his gaze. He looked so painfully young. And Jee... the scarred boy raised a jagged eyebrow. He opened his mouth to talk, but Luke interrupted.
"Don't, Jee...." Luke's expression fell. His voice now sounded as young as he looked.
"I wasn't going to," Jee said. The boy looked at Luke with an expression of regret. Then he eyed up Vader, adding, "Though I think it's too late now, kiddo." He ran a hand through his thin hair. "Listen - you can stay here tonight: the next lab over is also shielded, and it's empty so you can have some privacy. Get some sleep. You look like you could use it." As he said it, he held out his hand for Luke's bag and the promised supplies and rations. "Where's the key?" Jee said.
Luke took it from his pocket and passed it over, numbly.
"It better work," Jee said.
"It does. Well, at least on that one station, anyway." Luke said, and then looked up at Vader warily, his eyes flashing to Vader's wounded arm. He turned to Jee, visibly bracing himself. "Look, I know I said you could have the supplies, but he's exhausted and in pain - can't you spare a couple of patches?"
The plea caught Vader off-guard. It was a pointless thing to have asked; the youth would not help them. He had only led them here in return for the supplies. There was little point appealing to him.
Jee looked at first irritated, then troubled. He shook his head and turned to survey Vader. "No. He doesn't need them badly enough. We need to save them."
"Jee, come on... just a couple?" Luke took a step forward in suppliance and Vader rested his hand on his shoulder, keeping him within protection distance.
Jee looked aside. "No. Get out of here, kid. Go get some sleep."
Vader watched Luke's face fall in disappointment and betrayal. His lips thinned into a line of anger, and he sighed. "Come on," he mumbled to Vader, and turned to leave the room.
Vader's gaze was fixed on him, watching him go. He turned as he felt a hand on his arm, and Jee leaned in. "Make sure you get it all," he whispered. "His story, I mean. But go gentle or I'll do Jandon's job for him." He walked away, rifling through the bag Luke had given him.
Annoyed by the threat, Vader glared, but there was no real heat behind it. This young man was a minor player in his life, a minor irritation on their road back home. But his son... his son mattered far more.
Vader took an uncertain breath, his mind screaming at him that whatever Luke's story was, he just didn't want to know. But he knew he couldn't live in ignorance any longer. It was faintly amazing that he had managed to avoid demanding answers before now. He was long overdue the brutal truth. Slowly, feeling the pull of inevitability on his feet, he followed Luke from the room and into the medical suite in the next room.
Luke was sat on the floor, staring determinedly at his hands. He had managed to make himself incredibly small and insignificant, curled over his knees with his face turned away. Vader reached out an uncertain hand and just as quickly retracted it.
Ah, where to start? What to ask first - When? Why? With who? There was a sympathetic pain in his chest as he looked down at the bundle of misery that was his son. The mask of nervous defiance had melted away. He looked like a hurt child....
"You should not... have suffered... like this."
His left hand again wavered over Luke's shoulder. He heard the boy take in a shaky breath of his own.
"Don't...." Luke turned his face up to him, the grimace scrunching up the starburst scar on his cheek.
"I need to know," Vader said.
Luke's eyes looked huge in the dim light. "Why?" he asked, and it was a legitimate question. Why? Because he needed to know if there were further dangers Luke wasn't telling him about? Because of idle curiosity? Or because he wanted to know - for himself, as a father?
"For many reasons," he finally replied, and Luke didn't seem pleased with that answer. He shook his head. His lips were pressed firmly together, and his eyes were shining.
"You need to know but you don't want to know," he said, obviously working to keep emotion out of his voice. Vader heard it all the same.
"That is not true." But even as he said it, he felt Luke's keen gaze stripping him. "Tell me," he said.
For a minute, Vader thought his son would resist, but in the end Luke gave in and pushed his hands threw his hair, removing the bandana and displaying that scar on his temple again. "All right," he said, and then paused. "Where do I start?" He looked up at Vader, as if seeking guidance.
And it was a good question. Vader considered the answer for a moment, but one question was uppermost in his mind. "How did you come to be here?"
The boy wrinkled his nose at the question. "I... I don't really know. I mean... I know my mother was killed here just after I was born. Dan? said-"
"Dan??!" Vader said, shocked. She had been one of Padm?'s handmaidens, back before the Clone Wars. Words from a dream flashed through his mind - 'There are still those in palace who remember me and may help me if I am... discreet... in contacting them....'
"She told me my mother had died, along with the Jedi who was with her."
"Obi-Wan...." Vader muttered, more images from his dreams flashing through his mind. So they were memories, those images that plagued him when he slept. How strange that the nightmares that haunted him now were images of the past, and not the future.
Luke looked up at him curiously. "Yeah, that was his name. I don't remember either of them. I wasn't supposed to be here. This wasn't supposed to be my life!" He took several deep breathes of the damp air. "I was... Dan? said the Jedi was going to take me to Tatooine, but he was delayed. I think... well, Dan? said my mother was dying and he wouldn't leave until she'd gone, but then the war came here and it was too late. He never made it to the ship, I think. I don't know. But I ended up staying here, somehow, with Dan?."
Vader looked down at his black-gloved hand where it rested against his son's arm. But he said nothing. Somehow, he had the feeling that this would be his only chance to hear Luke's story. The prescience unnerved him. Eventually, he had to ask, "Did Dan? raise you, child?"
Child. How did such a simple word gain such endearment, coming from a Dark Lord's lips? This was not right... it simply couldn't be right.
Yet, why then did it feel so right?
"Yes. Well - kind of."
"Tell me," he said, and it sounded like a command. If the fingers of Vader's left hand tightened any further, he was going to leave bruises. With a desperate effort, he forced them to relax.
Luke did not seem to notice; his eyes were closed and he looked distant, as if lost in memories. Vader felt the muscles in his stomach tighten.
"She did, for a while. But then... well, then Jandon and his gang, they looted our house, took everything. That was when there was still some food left, and housing. It's probably flooded by now." Luke shook his head. Blond tendrils dropped into his eyes. Vader was halfway to brushing them away before he realised what he was doing and lowered his hand again. "They took me, too."
Vader swallowed thickly. Four simple words that spelled... what?
He looked away, almost unwilling to listen. When he looked back, Luke was watching him with wide eyes. "I'm not a member of Jandon's gang, I'm one of their slaves, Father. Dan?... I think she resented me. She didn't put up much of a fight." Luke shook his head slightly. Something in his posture had again closed Vader's throat and that damn pain in his chest was back again.
"She didn't call for help," Vader said. He was not surprised to hear anger in his voice.
"She didn't want..." he gulped, "didn't want you to find out...."
"And I never did." Would apologising help? No, he didn't think so. He had done nothing explicitly wrong, anyway. At least that was what he told himself. How was he to have known? Naboo was a perfect place to hide an unbeknownst son, just as Tatooine would have been. "What did she tell you of your mother?"
Luke looked wistful for a moment. "That she died when I was very young. I... don't remember her. But Dan? loved her, I think." His expression became forcefully passive as he added, "But she hated you."
Vader sighed mentally. He tried to picture the handmaiden, but failed. He had barely met her. And she, a woman he'd met only in passing and who hated him, had raised his son.
"She told me all about you," Luke continued, a pinched expression on his face. "What you did to the Jedi. To my mother."
A burst of anger flashed through Vader at that, but it died quickly, because there had been no accusation in Luke's voice, only a wistful sadness. "I was trying to save her," he whispered, and was only aware that he'd voiced the words aloud when Luke answered him.
"I know," he said.
There was a long silence. Vader reached out, briefly touched the scar on Luke's temple with his gloved fingers. "If she knew where Padm?'s ship was, why did she not leave in it?" he asked.
Luke shifted uncomfortably. "She didn't know. I mean... I didn't know it was there until a couple of years ago. I... I had this dream... and I recognised some of the places, so I went to them and... I found my mother's grave - and I found this," he said, and pulled out a small bullet-shaped object from his pocket. Vader took it from him, and turned it over in his hand, recognising it immediately. It was a remote activator for a ship - more specifically, for a Nubian ship. "It was in a box... next to where my mother had been buried... it wasn't working. I figure it was damaged when she and the Jedi were killed, but I don't know. Dan? was dead, so I couldn't ask her. And I couldn't get away from Jandon...." He trailed off, staring blankly into space, perhaps remembering all too vividly finding Padm?'s grave - and Vader knew how that had felt.
Vader held up the device. It was taped together by duct tape and webbing. The power light blinked fitfully. "You repaired it," Vader said, unable to keep the flash of pride from his voice.
Luke glanced up at him. "Yeah, well, kinda. I got a location out of it and then it died again. It's pretty useless now."
For a moment, Vader tried to imagine what growing up on Theed's shattered streets would have been like. Post-war Naboo was a cruel simulacrum of her old, austere grandeur. It was an apocalypse of the Empire's making, though - didn't that make him ultimately responsible for this?
"If you had been raised as you should have been, this would never have happened. I would not have allowed it."
Luke was shaking, just a little. "It doesn't matter, anyway," he said.
Vader clenched his hands. "Yes, it does. So Dan? died... when?"
"I was seven. Since then, I've been...."
"What, my son?" Was that the first time he had used that title? It felt oddly appropriate.
Luke looked aside. "You don't want to know."
Vader wanted to tell him that of course he did. He needed to know. If he knew all the details, he could set about reaping his revenge.
Luke seemed to catch that thought because he looked up suddenly. "Don't you see? That's exactly why you can't know."
But his imagination was running wild. The uses you could put a Force-sensitive child to in a band of mercenaries. Stealing, attacking, mind reading.... The memory of Padm?'s tomb came back to him, the sensory assault that had rendered him immobile for a second too long.
"It can be no worse than what I have done myself."
The admission shocked him, and Luke grimaced as the first tear slipped down his cheek. Inordinately distressed by it, Vader was thumbing it away before he really knew what he was doing.
"We're both slaves then, you by choice." Luke shrugged and he reached up and fingered the scar on his temple. "I had to be made to obey," he grimaced. "Nothing's ever hurt as much as that hurt."
Vader's anger was still rising, but it was a cold, empty anger. Where he would have expected righteous fury, he felt only curiously saddened. "What did they do?"
Luke was shaking now, and that troubled Vader deeply. "I... I was stubborn. I wouldn't obey them, kept running away." Luke was leaning towards him, Vader noticed, although his searching eyes were fixed on a point in the distance. Vader put his operational left hand on the boy's arm. He was icy cold. Uncertainly, Vader wrapped his arm around the trembling shoulders to pull the boy closer. So he could gain heat from Vader's body, he reasoned. Although why then did he not simply take off his cloak and offer it to the boy? Luke's forehead rested on his shoulder.
"What did they do?" Vader repeated.
Luke's fists curled around the wet black fabric of Vader's cloak, brushing the pile one way, then back again. "They had drugs from the research station. I thought I was going mad. I didn't understand they blocked the Force. But they couldn't break me, so they implanted a tracker. I was confused, I couldn't... I didn't understand what was happening to me. I ran away again, tried to get home, but Dan? wasn't there. She... they'd already killed her. Then they found me again. The tracker... it tells them... you know... that's how they're following us, now."
Vader's arm tightened. "Relax," he said. "Breathe. It is only a memory - it cannot control you."
Ah, but who was he trying to convince? The memory of Padm? had been stalking him ever since his last fight with Obi-Wan, and whilst it hadn't controlled him, increasingly he had been seeing someone he no longer recognised when he looked in the mirror. The Corellians had a saying that if you no longer knew your reflection, it was time to change your face. Now he understood why.
"They followed me and...." His voice hitched, but he carried on talking as if Vader hadn't spoken. "And they were angry. Jandon was really angry and he... they took me back. I never really got another chance to get away, and I didn't dare, not after what they did to Dan? to get to me."
"It was not your fault."
"I should have -"
"There was nothing you could have done."
"But that's not all..." Luke said shakily. "I attacked you. I attacked my own father. I'm...."
It had been too many years since he had had to offer wordless comfort, and he was wholly unprepared when it was required.
"I hate..." Luke started to say. He stopped.
"Do you hate me?" Vader asked, waiting for the answer as he had waited for no other answer in his life.
Luke levelled his red-rimmed gaze on Vader, his shoulders stubbornly set. "No," he said. "No, I don't hate you."
"Alive, Vader is."
The words slipped into his mind, and he stirred instinctively at the name. The man who held him - Obi-Wan - tightened his grip. "No," his old master whispered, more emotions in his voice than Vader could name. "No - he can't be."
Yoda's voice was sad, tired. "True it is, Obi-Wan. Retrieved he was, by Palpatine. Treated. Replaced, much of his body has been. But gone, is Anakin."
"But...." Obi-Wan trailed off, any fight left in him seeming to be expelled in one long, tortured breath. Pain shimmered in his eyes, the hint of despairing tears. "I am sorry, Master. I could not kill him."
"Blame you, I do not," Yoda said, at length. "But shield the boy's thoughts you should, or Vader will learn of his existence. Muted, their bond should be. And leave now, you must. Grows stronger every day does Vader. Soon, strong enough will he be to seek them out, with or without the bond."
He saw Obi-Wan shake his head. Even though his vision was wavering and blurred, Vader could see the exhaustion on the Jedi's face. "I know, but there is something going on here, Master. Palpatine has been conducting research into bio-engineering, he's developed Force-suppressing drugs."
Vader heard Yoda gasp. "Research, you say?" So, the research here had been a pet project of the Emperor's, Vader acknowledged abstractly without much surprise.
"Through Separatist scientists. One of Padm?'s former handmaidens showed me the facility and I infiltrated it."
"Rumours of Separatists on Naboo there is in the Senate," Yoda said, thoughtfully. "Arisen, dissenters have, since the disappearance of Senator Amidala. Angry, is Palpatine. Fears for the safety of the Naboo does Senator Organa. Believes, he does, that Palpatine will discover Amidala and destroy Theed in his rage."
"And destroy any evidence of this research at the same time," Obi-Wan added, and Vader felt a cool, logical sense of inevitability settling within him.
There was a long pause, a stretched, thin silence, during which Vader's mind raged over the possibilities. Had Palpatine attacked Naboo because of the Separatists there - or to get rid of two problems with one stone: to hide this research, no longer needed now that the Purge had been so successful, and to kill his apprentice's wife at the same time? Because, surely, if Vader had known that Padm? was alive when he had recovered, he would have abandoned Palpatine to pursue her. And the Emperor would not have stood for that.
"And Senator Amidala," Yoda said, "she lives still?"
"Barely," Obi-Wan replied, pain in his voice. "She calls for Anakin constantly. It as if... she can feel him." A strange look passed over Obi-Wan's face. "Master - could they have a bond -"
"Follow that line of thought you should not, Obi-Wan. Leave, you should. Now." Vader saw Obi-Wan tighten his jaw and look down at him. "For the boy," Yoda added. "His mother is lost."
And Obi-Wan just stared down at him. "As is his father," the Jedi whispered. "But I cannot leave her to die alone as I did Anakin."
Vader's eyes razed the room, gaze sweeping over the sleeping children. So young... all of them around the age Vader had been when he had been liberated from slavery on Tatooine. It made something inside of him ache with old memories, old fears. These were the post-War children of Theed, born after the destruction of their planet. And what, he wondered, had happened to their parents? Perhaps it had been the same fate that had befallen Dan?.
Jee was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the room, sorting through the supplies he had taken from Luke. Vader walked over, stepping around the sprawled legs and arms of sleeping children. Jee was working by candlelight, the flickering glow throwing shadows across his face, deepening the scars. Vader stopped when he reached him, feeling an uneasy mixture of pity and disgust.
"These children... they are all escapees from Jandon, are they not?"
Jee didn't even look up. He continued working, nimble fingers sorting the med patches into waterproof envelopes. "That's right."
"Which is why you are so concerned about trackers."
"Right again," Jee said. "There's no way to remove them. The scientists here did their job well. Unlike normal slave trackers, these are injected and travel in the blood. They imbed anywhere. No scars to show where, and they can't be picked up on a scan."
Vader gazed down on the bowed head of the boy. "And this technology was not destroyed in the attack?"
Jee was shaking his head, even as he continued working. "Most of the scientists tried to flee the planet, some of them made it... but they left their technology here. Jandon was left behind, too. His father was working on the tracker project. He was killed in the initial blast, and no one bothered to stop and take Jandon with them." Jee paused, a flash of pain in his expression. "That happened to a lot of the kids. When people run, they don't turn around to see who's not keeping up."
"Who were your parents?" Vader asked.
Jee looked up, eyeing Vader with sharp disdain. "Does it matter? They died. A lot of people died. A lot of people are still dying. But you should know that already - after all, this destruction was your doing."
"I knew nothing of this," Vader snarled back, meeting the boy's gaze. "I was indisposed for several months."
Jee shook his head and looked back down to his work. "Yeah, whatever. It doesn't matter anyway. The trackers were left here, and Jandon has the technology to use them to track these kids. Every one of them is screwed because of it."
Vader noted the omission. "And you?"
"Me? What about me?"
"You do not have a tracker, do you?"
For the first time Jee paused, settling back against the wall and looking up at Vader. A fleeting look of pain was quickly buried beneath a mask of passive indifference. "No, I don't. I was a member of their gang until I couldn't stand it anymore. Those days, after the strike, you had to throw your lot in with whoever had the upper hand or you'd be out of the food chain. I knew Luke whilst I was -"
The words came to a strangled halt as Vader reached out with his good hand and hauled the boy to his feet, pushing him up against the wall. His hand was around the boy's scarred throat, crushing it. "You... you watched whilst they murdered the parents and enslaved the children. You helped them," Vader snarled, but quietly so he didn't wake the sleeping runaways and cause a riot. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you."
Jee had dropped the medical patches. His fingers had instinctively started clawing at Vader's hand, but he stopped suddenly, sighing. With a pained voice, he said, "Go ahead. It'd be a mercy."
A memory of Vader's own words came back to him, slashing through his mind -
- you would be delivering me a mercy.
He relaxed his hand, just slightly. Jee looked aside, saying, "When I finally snapped, I tried to get most of them out, but I didn't manage it. Luke was one of the ones that got left behind. He was too old by then; Jandon was too dependant on his Force-skills and had him practically glued to his side. I went back to try and get the ones I'd left behind... and I was caught."
Jee went quiet, apparently lost in memories.
"And you believe they are safe here? Jandon must know of this institution," Vader hissed disdainfully.
Jee narrowed his eyes. "He knows it's somewhere in the city, but he's never found it. His father was just a technician; he never made it here. But me and Luke found it. Jandon only knows about the station they bunk down in, and the technology he got from there. He doesn't know they developed a way of shielding it. When we found this here, I got as many of the kids out of here as fast as I could."
Vader's hand spasmed with the pain reflected in the boy's eyes. "Do not try and persuade me that you are a hero. That was too little, too late."
Jee smiled grimly. "I know. But at least I tried."
The emphasis on the 'I' gave Vader pause. He dropped the boy, who rubbed at his throat ruefully. What he was suggesting cut a little close to the bone for Vader; the parallels between them so obvious they were blinding. And because of that, Vader stepped away.
"I did not come here for your life story," he spat. "I came to ask for your aid in leaving this city."
Jee arched a hairless eyebrow at that. "What makes you think I'm in a position to help?"
Vader snorted. "If Luke and I escape this planet, I give you my word I will return and evacuate you - all of you. But only if you assist us."
Jee eyed him with something like grim humour in his eyes. "You can't help us," he said.
"I can, and I will, if you aid me now."
Jee was shaking his head. "The trackers -"
"Will be of no consequence once you are away from Theed. Jandon cannot follow you into space."
The boy looked inexplicably confused by that, which was not the reaction Vader had been expecting. Then there was a sudden light of understanding in Jee's eyes, a disbelief Vader couldn't begin to comprehend.
"I see," the boy said, slowly, as if privy to a secret he hadn't shared with Vader. And that just plain irritated Vader.
"I fail to understand your hesitation. I'm offering you your freedom."
"No, you're not." Jee looked aside, down to the children still sleeping on the floor at the far end of the room. Vader could see no indecision there that was holding the boy's tongue... it was more like melancholy. Finally, the boy looked up. "All right, I'll help you. I owe it to Luke, anyway."
Confused, but satisfied with the answer, Vader replied coolly, "Good."
Jee bent down and picked up the med patches, stacking them neatly together and blowing out the candle. "It's this way," he said, picking a path across the sleeping bodies in the room.
"What is 'this way'?" Vader asked, following, careful not to trip over the children, as uncoordinated as he was with his injured leg.
Jee looked surprised. "I assumed you knew about it."
Jee frowned, shaking his head in disbelief. "About the speeder I've been working on."
"I can't believe Jee had this and he didn't tell me! There haven't been any working speeders in Theed since... forever!" Luke said, and Vader turned from piloting the open-topped, patched-together speeder, with more haste than was probably sensible through the chaotic streets of Naboo, to look at his son.
The boy had brightened considerably after the previous night's talk, as if a terrible weight had been taken from his shoulders and he could just be a boy... for a little while at least.
Luke was holding his arms out to the side, palms side on, as if he was slicing through the wind with the speed of their travel. The wind ruffled his hair, and he must have sensed Vader's regard because he turned and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry," he said.
"'Sorry'?" Vader repeated, confused.
"I guess you must think I'm an idiot right now, but this is... this is great. I never imagined I'd get to do this."
"To do what? To ride in a speeder?"
Luke flushed, and the words tumbled out, "Not with my father, anyway," before he bit his lip and looked away.
The warm feeling that swelled in his chest at that sentiment was vaguely uncomfortable, and Vader said, "Wait until you see your mother's ship."
Through his slowly returning Force-sense, Vader caught a flicker of melancholy at those words, and he turned to Luke again, trusting the piloting to his instincts. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Luke replied quickly - too quickly.
Was it that Vader had mentioned Luke's mother? Vader started, realising that he himself had not felt any of his customary emotions at the memories of Padm? - no anger, no betrayal, no hatred. Just... memories, melting into the past.
Or maybe it was more than that. He needed his Force-sense back to read his son properly. There was a flicker of awareness returning to him, a thready, tentative touch on the Force. But when he reached out with his still pitifully weak sense, the boy was strangely closed to him, despite their conversation the previous night.
He felt as if he was missing something vital still, but what it was he couldn't say. And probably it didn't matter. It would be something from Luke's past, his childhood, that could be dealt with once they were away from this damnable planet. Vader's focus right now needed to be on getting away, and quickly. There was simply no time to stop and demand answers from the boy.
Perhaps it was connected with Jee. Certainly as Vader had watched him bid goodbye to the other boy, Luke had seemed... downhearted. As if he didn't think he would see the youth again, although Vader had explained to Luke his intention to return and free Jee and his pitiful band of runaways.
He shook his head: his son was certainly erratic. He must have got that from his mother's side.
The speeder's engine finally stuttered and died. Vader hit the ignition again, but he knew nothing would happen. He'd already squeezed what little energy that had been left in the repulsors as far as it would go.
They'd travelled several miles, through and beyond the medical and business districts that circled the historical heart of the city they'd started from. Now they were out in the residential areas. It was quieter here, almost ominously quiet. Some of the buildings had collapsed, crumbled like kicked-in sandcastles. Vader's Force sense was returning, slowly, and yet he felt no people nearby, not even the fearful, distrustful people they'd been able to glimpse, just occasionally, in the inner city. The silence was almost deafening.
As he'd predicted, the speeder refused to start up again. He sighed and glanced around. It was nearing dark anyway, and it wasn't safe to be travelling through the rubble of the streets without lights.
He glanced over at Luke, who was sleeping soundly in the passenger seat, curled up, looking more like a young child than he ever had. Vader stopped for a moment and took his hands off the controls. He looked down on Luke, torn between the oddly parental urge to allow him to sleep and the more sensible one of rousing him.
In the end, he clipped the blaster Jee had relinquished back to him onto his belt and climbed out of the speeder. He moved around to Luke's side, opening the door and lifting the boy with his one good arm, balancing him over his shoulder. He was almost surprised by how light his son was. It felt like he held nothing more substantial in his arms than air and hopes.
With Luke pressed firmly against his shoulder, Vader turned and headed towards a sizeable detached dwelling a little along the cracked and broken road.
The door was off the latch, and he pushed inside, using his returning Force-sense to scan the area as best he could. But this wasn't as easy as it used to be. The Dark Side didn't swim to his call as it had before, and Vader felt irritation teasing his control. Still, it was enough to know that no one was home. Visual inspection confirmed that. The place was covered in a thick layer of dust that his steps displaced, sending spinning clouds of it into the air.
There was a large kitchen, and Vader bypassed it long enough to settle Luke onto one of the large couches in the lounge area before turning back and rummaging through the cupboards.
Given how scarce supplies appeared to be for Jandon's and Jee's gangs, he was almost surprised to find the cupboards bursting with items - food, drink, household essentials. He stilled, a tickle of foreboding running down his spine. This place was utterly empty, and obviously had been for years, so why had it never been looted?
He turned a slow circle, surveying the evidence of a hurried evacuation: overturned furniture, a litter of items that had spilled from bags, even a canvas sack in the corner, its bottom seam having given way and spilled supplies over the floor. The sack and its contents had been abandoned where they had fallen, left to sit, discarded, as whoever had left here had fled without the time to find another method of carrying the items.
Vader walked to the sack and emptied it. A number of useful items spilled into his hands: candles, for one, with a firelighter, and vacuum-packed foods. He stared at the items, feeling unsettled but unable to say why.
In truth, though, it came down to the question of why this house had never been looted, why the survivors of assault hadn't sought refuge here, as they had in the inner city.
Was it just that this was a richer area, that the occupants had been able to get off-planet rather than being trapped here when the spaceports were taken out? But if so, why had those who'd been left behind never come and pillaged here?
"Father?" A quiet voice asked, and Vader turned at the sound. Luke had propped himself up on his elbows and was looking at him through sleep-dazed eyes. "Where are we?"
Abandoning his misgivings for the moment, Vader returned to the lounge area, seating himself on the couch next to Luke. "I believe we are in one of the richer suburbs. The speeder ran out of power. Here, there is food." He handed Luke one of the vacuum-sealed packets and saw the boy's eyes light up. Clearly it had been a while since he had seen anything as appetising. He awoke quickly, shuffling upright and tucking his feet under him as he tore open the seal.
Vader busied himself with finding places to balance the candles and then lighting them. He settled back and watched with an alien feeling of fond amusement as Luke devoured the packet of food in less time that it would have taken Vader to merely assure himself that the contents were edible.
Maybe sensing Vader's regard, Luke looked up and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry - just haven't, you know, seen food like this for a while." He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "How far did we get?"
Vader considered that question, uncertain of the answer. The route he'd been forced to drive was circuitous, but he had remained roughly on the course Luke had outlined two nights ago, back in the basement of the research facility. How far they had actually travelled towards that place, though, was difficult to say.
In the end, all he said was, "We have taken many hours off our travel. Perhaps days." He paused. "We will rest here until morning, and then continue. Jandon cannot catch us even if he can track us, now, and it cannot be much further to the ship..." He trailed off because Luke was looking at him in alarm, his eyes wide.
"We can't stop now! We have to keep going!" he said, putting the empty food packet aside. "We can walk in the dark, it'll be fine."
Vader frowned. "We should rest. It could still be several miles' walk across the ruins and you, young one, are not used to such a high level of physical exertion."
Luke flushed at that. "I can make it," he said, and there was something almost desperate in his voice. "Honest."
Vader shook his head. "No. We will rest and - Luke!" Vader lurched forward as Luke stood up from his seat as if to protest more adamantly and suddenly doubled over in pain. The pain was strong enough that Vader felt it reach out to him despite his still damnably weak Force sense. He caught the boy by his upper arms and stared down at him. "What was that?" he demanded.
Luke was grimacing, clutching his stomach. "I've just... got a pain..." he said, and tried to sit back down. Vader sat with him, drawing him against his side. Something had flared in him when he saw Luke contract, something parental and protective. Convulsively, he clutched the boy closer.
"What sort of pain?" Vader asked.
Luke shrugged. "I don't know. It's gone now, anyway," he said, but he was breathing fast and shallow, and Vader felt that ominous trickle of worry press against his mind again.
"I'm All right, I'm All right," the boy said. "Just... tired." And he leant his head against Vader's shoulder, sighing.
Vader looked down at the blond mop of hair, feeling uneasy. But it was probably just the fact the boy had eaten too quickly and on a stomach more used to emergency rations than real food. There was no reason to feel so apprehensive... and yet he did. Absently, he traced the scar on the boy's temple with his gloved fingertip.
"Well, then, sleep. I will wake you before sunrise and we can start again. It can only be a few miles to your mother's ship... and then we can leave this accursed planet."
"Yeah," Luke said non-committally. He pressed himself closer, and Vader didn't really mind, though he knew it was probably undignified for a Dark Lord to coddle his son so. But then... was he still a Dark Lord? He wasn't certain. Even before he'd come to Naboo he had doubted his choices, doubted his master.
And now, after finding Luke, those doubts had escalated. It had only been days, but in that short time the years of Darkness and isolation had turned from feeling necessary for his survival to feeling utterly wasteful and wanton.
He sighed. If only he could meditate... but that would have to wait until they left Naboo and he had his son firmly by his side, safe and secure. Then, and only then, could he make plans for the future. For now, though, he must be patient.
"Luke," he said, on a strange whim, "when we leave here, I will show you the galaxy, as I never got to see it. Without the war and death and...." He trailed off, uncertain what he was trying to say. To promise he would always be there, as he had failed to be for the past thirteen years? Perhaps. "Luke..." he started again - and then stopped, because Luke had started snoring quietly.
Agitated voices scratched at his hearing, the words too sharp and quick for his infant ears to discern. He was staring at Padm?, but she was sleeping, her breath rattling in her chest. There was a fear in him that was purely instinctive, as his - or, rather, Luke's - mind reached for his mother and found only a whisper-thin link to her presence.
Then Obi-Wan appeared, leaning over them. "Padm?," he said, shaking her. There was no response. He cursed, softly. "Padm?!" Still no response. Panic fluttered in Vader's stomach. Obi-Wan turned around, addressing someone behind him. "She's unconscious. We have to leave - now. Dan?, take Luke." He reached over, lifting Padm?'s body into his arms. She stirred briefly, her head falling against Obi-Wan's arm.
There was a harsh wailing noise in the air - a baby, crying. Him, crying.
"Anakin?" Padm? whispered, then she contracted in pain, clutching at Obi-Wan. "Anakin!"
Pain kicked Vader in the chest, and he had no idea whether it was his own reaction to the scene or Luke's.
"What's going on?!" another voice asked, and a woman came into view, lifting Vader into her arms. "Jedi Kenobi? What's wrong with her!"
"It's Anakin," Obi-Wan hissed. "He's alive."
"No! No... Anakin!" Padm? whispered.
Obi-Wan's face, for possibly only the second time in Vader's life, betrayed true distress in his expression. "I thought he was dead. I was so sure he would die. But he didn't - he's... changed. And she - she can feel it."
Dan? stared at him. Without her handmaiden makeup and jewels, Vader barely recognised her. "How can she feel it? That isn't possible!"
"They had a bond," Obi-Wan said, closing his eyes in pain. "They are linked, mentally - physically. I did this to her, when I wounded Anakin. He survived through the Force, but she has no power in the Force to sustain her. And after the childbirth...."
"How do you know that? How can you -"
"I should have seen it earlier -" Obi-Wan began, but a thundering crash reverberated through the room, making Vader's teeth rattle. "It's begun," he said, and turned to run for the entranceway to the room.
"What?!" Dan? called after him.
"Palpatine knows she's here. He's told the Senate there are Separatists here - there are Star Destroyers circling the planet."
"We don't have time for this, Dan?! We have to get to the ship. You go in front. I can protect you both better that way."
Dan?'s hands clutched around his small body, tightening instinctively. Then she turned and ran, and the familiar snap-hiss of a lightsaber being lit flashed through his hearing. Out in the streets, people were running, screaming - dying. A firestorm raged at the edges of his vision, the flames billowing out waves of hot air tinged with the metallic taste of blood towards them.
"They're jamming communications - I can't call the ship. We're going to have to find a speeder and fly out to it. This way!" Obi-Wan called, and Dan? ran after him, her breathing gasping in Vader's hearing.
But Vader was focused upon watching Padm?, her face tight with pain. Memories - his own, this time - flashed through his mind. He had been insensible for many weeks, months even, and when he had finally woken, the sheer pain of his transformation had crashed through his mind: the fiery ache of the burn treatment, the sharp, piercing pain of the prosthetics being attached without sedatives.
He flinched from his own recollection of the sensations. The only thing that had dragged him through that dark time had been his hatred of his old master - his friend - and his fear for what had become of Padm?.
Hatred had sustained him, but Padm? had had no such power to call upon.
Time moved quickly then, racing through scenes of destruction and death, much of which he was shielded from by Dan?'s frightened clutch. Suddenly, with an abruptness that jolted him, someone was screaming. Dan?, he thought. And Obi-Want was telling her to run. "Take the boy! GO! Get to the ship!"
And she was screaming, "I don't know where it is! Obi-Wan! I don't - No! Padm?! Padm?!!"
And then the sound of fire crackling through the air, the feeling of being thrown violently backwards as Dan? clung to him. The thought, flashing through Vader's mind, that Obi-Wan had used the Force to throw Dan? clear of the danger.
And then - nothing.
They started out before sunrise, just as the first daylight rays began breaking through the gauzy morning clouds. As it turned out, they were nearer the outskirts of the city than Vader had dared hope. An hour of trekking through the residential streets led them out past progressively larger and larger residences, past more open space with overgrown grass and vegetation, and on towards the water meadows where Padm?'s ship had supposedly been hidden.
Padm?'s ship... hard to imagine it still existed, somewhere. He had hunted for it for years, never hearing any news of it. To think it - and its owner - had been here all along, buried under the rubble....
Vader was subdued, running the dreams from the previous night through his mind, feeling his hatred of Obi-Wan turning to dust.
Palpatine had attacked Theed knowing Padm? was there. And she had been killed in that assault. Palpatine had set out to rid himself of her, and he had succeeded. Palpatine, and Obi-Wan through his ignorance, had killed her.
Yes, Vader had turned to the Dark Side to save her and, in turning, had been instrumental in her death. But he had not killed her. If Palpatine had not attacked Naboo, would she have made it through? For the sake of her child, if nothing else? Obi-Wan had had faith that she might.
Vader rolled that possibility around his mind, disturbed by it, before locking it away for consideration at a later time. Right now he needed to concentrate on getting Luke and himself away from this planet.
As the mist burned away to reveal a day that could barely be described as dull, the last of the city streets gave way to fields. There was sign of a fire having raged here not all that long ago. The vegetation was scorched; dried flower heads swatted in the stiff breeze, mingling amongst grass stems so overgrown they reached above Luke's head.
Morning added an orange flair to a sky still streaked purple from the damage to Naboo's northern continent. Vader looked down at his son as the other squinted as if still unused to even this minimal light, or as if the light pained him somehow.
Vader felt a gut-wrenching fear suddenly, mingled with the rising sensation of an emotion he had long thought lost to him: hope. Luke was the trigger for both those emotions. The fear Vader could understand. The closer they came to finding this ship, the more Vader felt he had to lose. And the hope... the hope came from a more complicated place: filled with long-forgotten desires for a family, companionship... even love. And not only that, but from the hunger to know this child - to know him as his child. Vader had never felt such a fierce possession before, not even for Padm?.
He wanted to keep this boy beside him. He wanted to make up for the years lost to them both. Or to try, even if it would never be truly possible. And he felt such possession... such possession, it almost scared him.
But first they had to cross these planes, and the more they walked, the more pain Vader felt from his injuries. The burning ache in his leg peaked with every step he took. But the pain was worth it, and Luke continued to try and support Vader, though Vader's Force-sense had grown a little stronger overnight, and now he sensed exhaustion leaking from the boy in waves.
He knew Luke had been drained by the last few days' exertions. He also sensed that Luke refused to give in to that exertion, and he admired that even as he worried that to reach the ship before nightfall, Luke would have to push himself beyond the limits of his endurance.
To keep himself occupied, and to take his mind off those fruitless worries that lingered in the back of his mind, Vader spent time forming great plans in his mind - plans for the future, plans for Luke. Those plans had probably been there since before he had consciously started to think about them, seeded as soon as he set eyes on the Force-strong child.
Vader stumbled suddenly over one of the rough stones that had worn through the ground like old bones poking through ancient skin. His knee gave way as he stumbled, and Luke no longer had the energy to hold them both upright. They went down to the dry earth, Luke silently and Vader with a solid grunt of pain.
For a moment Vader just lay there, cursing inwardly at his own ailing body. Luke shifted, wincing, and Vader's hand went out to steady him. Luke lifted his palms and hissed in pain when he tried to raise himself back to his feet. Vader felt an odd nausea twist his gut when he saw the torn skin there. Luke slumped back down to the earth with a gasp of exhaled air.
"We gotta... get to... the forest," the boy hissed. His voice was weaker than Vader had heard it before, causing the worrying tingle of unease in his mind to turn into full-blown warning sirens, ringing urgently. But Luke's exhaustion didn't have to mean anything, really. Neither of them had slept well; both had been plagued by nightmares.
"If you can stand, I will attempt to follow," he offered.
Luke nodded, his jaw set determinately. He tried again to rise, but sank down to the ground for a third time. He wiped the back of his hand against a sweaty forehead.
A grimace touched Vader's lips. "Or we could rest a while," he suggested. He expected refusal, or tired agreement, maybe a smile of shared weariness. He didn't get any of those, though. Instead Luke turned his head up to the cold misty sky, looking at where the sun should have been, had it not been obscured by orange and magenta clouds. Luke blinked and Vader stared numbly at what he saw running down his son's cheeks: tears.
Before Naboo, how long had it been since Vader had seen anyone cry? Years, possibly. He was completely at a loss, and ill-equipped to deal with it. He had little energy left in his limbs, but he used what little he did have to reach out and pull his son closer - for warmth, of course. Luke came limply, but also seemed content to look away from him, staring at the distant, tree-lined horizon. He looked like he was searching for something with his eyes, though what it was Vader couldn't say. Something about that squeezed hard around what was left of his heart.
He had done this to his son - he, who had never thought to look to Naboo for his dead wife and child.
What was it he had thought after being captured by Jandon's gang? That all things came full-circle eventually? Even if that retribution fell upon the young, paying for their parents' errors.
Well, that thought had been correct: his son had indeed paid for his father's choice. His Force-strong, determinate, Light son who looked so much like he had once and felt everything so deeply, much as Padm? had. It tore pieces out of him to know that his decisions had forced his son to grow up in the dregs of Nubian society. To steal, beg... and what else? That was not all. He saw the grief etched clearly in the set of Luke's jaw, in his silence as he cried. Vader wondered, uneasily, if he had indeed got the 'whole story' as Jee had told him he should.
Luke finally turned to Vader. "I see her, you know."
Puzzled, growing cold and stiff on the ground, Vader could do nothing more than ask, "Who?"
Mother. He tasted the name mentally. Mother... Padm?. It was true, then, that they never die and leave you in peace. Here was her ghost, back to haunt him. Even as he thought it, Vader knew Luke was more than that, somehow. More than both of them, Anakin and Padm?, had ever been. "You mean when you visit her grave?" he asked.
Luke shook his head. Tears dropped down his cheeks again before he swiped them away almost absently. "No. I mean I see her - sometimes. Not often, just... sometimes.... I never knew her, I was a baby when she died... but I know it's her. She's trying to tell me something, but I can never figure out what." He shrugged, and the stare he turned on Vader was so full of longing that Vader didn't know what to say - he honestly didn't. That was a first for both Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader.
But he was saved from having to answer as a low booming sound rumbled through the air, making the ground tremble. Luke glanced around uncertainly and Vader followed when he rose to his feet and crouched low in the grass. Luke rose up, standing high enough to peek above the swaying blades. His eyes went suddenly wide and he let out a startled gasp.
"What -" Vader started to ask. But then Luke leapt aside as a knife sang through the air and buried itself somewhere in the grass. Cheers and hollers jumped around the field and Vader understood. Impossibly, they'd been found.
What little energy Vader had left from the Force after pouring his dwindling resources into their sudden flight across the plains, he directed into using his instincts to avoid the incoming barrage of knives and missiles, and to protecting Luke from them as well.
He kept the boy in front of him, as if he would shield him with his body. And in a way, he did. One knife found its target, but bounced to the ground when it hit plastisteel armour instead of the soft flesh it sought. The swaying grass revealed no shadows in the misty dawn light, and only the rustle of leaves told them of incoming attacks. Luke yelped when Vader again yanked him aside from another thrown blade. Vader had their blaster in his hand, but it was useless without the depth of Force contact necessary for pinpointing their pursuit.
How had Jandon caught up with them? It should not have been possible - it should not. But he and his gang had, and they were clearly incensed. Their hunting cries echoed across the plains, sparking fear in Luke so keenly that Vader sensed it despite his still dampened Force sense.
Vader paused, sucking in breath. Unfortunately, his respirator was neither quiet nor inconspicuous at doing so. Vader knew that if they stayed still for long, they'd be found by the noise it made if not by whatever it was that Jandon was using to track the tracer in Luke. But he had to pause, because they were lost. They'd run with the sole aim of escaping their pursuit, and now Vader did not know in which direction to turn for the ship they sought. He stretched out to the Force with his fear and anger, but the Dark Side skittered away from his touch, and Vader hissed in irritation.
He turned to his son. "Do you know which way it is?"
Luke shook his head as if to clear it. His skin, Vader noticed, was getting paler by the second, despite the exertion. "Luke? Which way to Padm?'s ship?!"
"I don't know!"
Laughter rippled high above them, like it was riding an ocean of swaying greenery.
"Think!" Vader urged.
"I am thinking!" Luke scowled at him.
Vader turned to him suddenly and grasped him by both shoulders. "Concentrate," Vader urged. "Calm down and reach out. The Force will guide you."
Luke licked his dry lips. "I can't -"
"Yes, you can. Had you been raised as you should have been, you would have been able to do this before you could walk. Trust your instincts." He crouched down like he was talking to a young padawan. "Do this, and we can leave. I'll heal all the scars, I promise, and no one will hurt you again, I promise."
Vader watched emotions flit across his son's face in quick succession before he settled on steely determination. So like Anakin.
Luke shook a drop of sweat from his forehead, furrowed his brow. One hand went to his temple as if in pain. Underneath his palms, Vader felt the boy tremble. It made no sense. They were both tired, yes, but this was different....
Then he felt, on the fringes of his ailing Force-sense, Luke's presence strengthening in his mind. And with that increased awareness, suddenly Vader understood - understood why the boy was so tired, why he kept expressing pain, why he acted so fatalistic. Because Luke was ill, very ill.
"I have it. It's this way."
Luke's reply broke through the shocked stuttering of Vader's thoughts, hauling him back to reality at the same time as he was dragged after his son. Vader followed, feeling stunned. Luke was ill. He'd sensed that keenly, brutally. More than ill - Luke's body was ravaged. He'd felt it, the slow death in each and every cell of the boy's body. It was inexplicable - and horrifying. Vader ran automatically, crouched in the grass, but inside he was reeling.
Luke was ill, deathly ill - but how, why?
As if to wake him from the stunned horror of his thoughts, another knife sliced open the air above their heads, followed by a giddy laugh. By the sound of it, their pursuers were drunk.
Luke kept running, tugging Vader along, his pale hand in Vader's own bigger, black-gloved palm. He cut them a path across the fields like a child bisecting a page, straight and direct. He was careful to leave the stalks as undisturbed as possible. Vader, his bulk larger and his leg shooting pains up his calf muscles, was less successful, but either the surface of the grass rippled too little for their pursuers to see, or they were too drunk to notice, because they made it to the tree line.
Or almost did, anyway. Because suddenly, a louder voice lighted though the melee of predatory cat-calls.
"Jandon!" a voice screamed through the air, "Jandon, I've got a lock!"
And then a familiar voice. "You hear that, Luke!? Got you now, kid! I swear, you brat, I'll finish what I started."
Luke stumbled as if he'd been struck, going to his knees. Vader came down beside him, crouching to find Luke trembling like he would shake himself apart. He touched his hand to Luke's forehead. The boy was burning up, his brow too warm. Vader felt his stomach turn, his heart clench in fear - how, why - why!?
Jandon called out again, closer now. "You remember the last time you ran, kid? That ain't nothing like I'm gonna do this time."
Luke flinched as if he'd been struck, wrenching free from Vader's grasp and half-crawling, half-stumbling to his feet. "No," Luke muttered. "No - no, no, no! Not again!" Then he tore off, running desperately for the cover of the forest. Vader pushed himself to his feet and ran after him.
He saw Luke fall like it was slow motion, like Luke suddenly just gave up on escaping and threw himself to the ground. Vader reached him in seconds, yanking him back to his feet.
Luke gasped in fevered pain and terror. The boy pulled away from him, ran on, fell again, sinking to the ground in misery and fear. "I can't," he said, looking at Vader. "I can't let him do that again. Please."
Vader didn't know what Luke feared Jandon would do - didn't truly want to know, he suspected - but he could feel time running down against them, ticking away with the rapid pulse of his blood in his ears.
He reached out and pulled the boy upright. Luke's skin was flushed, burning hot. "Come on, Luke, we'll get out of this."
But his words were drowned out by more jeering from Jandon. Vader didn't listen to the words, the threats - but Luke did, and he was shaking, caught by a fever and by terror. Whatever Jandon had done to Luke in the past, Vader swore the boy would pay for it.
"No," Luke whispered, and suddenly Vader found his arms full of shaking teenager, "No, not that." He buried his face against Vader's shoulder, and Vader didn't know whether Luke was begging him to stop Jandon or to resist punishing him for whatever he had done to Luke in the past.
"Hush, child. No one will hurt you now. But we must keep moving or they will catch -"
Vader went suddenly silent as he heard a familiar hum, the sound of approaching repulsors, and then he knew they were out of time. So that was how Jandon had caught up with them. He, too, had found a speeder somewhere. Vader came to his feet, lifting Luke up with his good arm, and started running, throwing his fate into the Force, trusting it to guide him.
Vader ran for the tree line. The grass ended where it met the forest, and Vader ran on, dodging the trees, running, running... crashing through the undergrowth, slapping aside wet leaves that grabbed at his thighs.
Finally Vader slowed, gasping for breath. He set Luke on the ground gently, horrified beyond measure at what he could now sense from the boy: hopelessness, resignation as his body burned with a fever. What was this from, why was he ill? How long had he been like this and Vader hadn't noticed, focused as he had been on the past and on covering the miles to Padm?'s ship?
"Luke?" he said, shaking the boy gently. When Luke did nothing more than groan in pain, Vader shook him harder. "Luke! Where is the ship - the ship, Luke!" No response, other than Luke curling in on himself protectively. "Luke, think. It will have medical supplies aboard. We can help you, treat you. We -"
"It's no good," Luke said, focusing on Vader with obvious effort. "You can't treat this."
It sounded like the truth - felt like the truth - but Vader couldn't even begin to accept it. "What do you mean?"
"This is the tracer, Father. It doesn't just tag you, it kills you if you get too far from the stations... from your... your owner. We passed that point hours ago." Vader looked down at him, feeling numb, not knowing what to say. What could he possibly say that would express the horror inside of him? Luke smiled, weakly. "It's okay. I knew when I told you I'd help you that this'd happen. I just wanted... to get to know you... before...." He trailed off as a spasm of pain made him curl tighter on himself.
"Luke," Vader said, reaching out, and this time he heard the despair in his voice... the anger. "You... you're dying," he said, and saying it aloud was almost too painful to bear.
Luke closed glassy blue eyes and nodded weakly. He shifted on damp ground before reaching out. Vader helped him upright, to sit against him. Luke clutched at the black material of Vader's cloak, clutching fistfuls of the fabric and bringing it closer around him, tucking it right up to his chin. "I didn't think you'd care," he said. By the strangled sound of his voice, he was crying. "You'd still get out of here alive."
Vader stopped the immediate rebuke before it could pass further than his mind. It was something he was doing more and more ever since this third visit to Naboo: thinking before he spoke. This was not threats and rhetoric for lives he cared little for. This was a life that mattered to him, and -
Force, what had he done? He was feeling love again. It was eating him from the inside out, a cancer that would have him waste away to nothing, lamenting his life. Or, at least, that was what the pre-Naboo Vader would have thought. But here, now, right now, was left clutching those feelings like a winning hand of Sabacc cards.
He pulled Luke closer. Those searching eyes that never found what they were looking for, did they see something in Vader that no one else had? Not even Vader himself? Gently, he reached out again and, taking hold of Luke's chin, forced the boy's gaze upwards.
"Is there no way to stop it?" he asked.
Luke looked up at him, still that sad frown turning down the corners of his mouth. "No. The virus activated as soon as we left the city limits. There's no cure; it's molecular."
"You should not have -"
"I had no choice," Luke interrupted weakly. "I didn't care."
Again the guilt hit Vader. He had done this; created a world for his son to live in that leached him of all hope. It was every parent's nightmare to leave a worse life behind for their children than the one they themselves had lived. Even unbeknownst parents.
Luke turned his face until it was hidden in the fabric of Vader's cloak. Under Vader's gloved fingers, the skin on Luke's face was pale as bones, fragile like parchment.
"I...." He looked up suddenly, his eyes seeming to swallow his face. "I only ever wanted to know you, Father, so I could hate you and stop wanting to... to love you." Luke's too-bright eyes closed briefly. "I wish I could have hated you. It would have been easier." He coughed, the sound rattling in his chest. "It's too late to do anything about it now, though."
Vader's immediate denial wouldn't be voiced. Finally he said, "It's not too late."
"For you? Yeah, maybe not."
Luke blinked almost sleepily. And Vader despaired. His hands tightened. Luke would not die. He would not allow it. His anger boiled upwards, raging at himself and at the Force for allowing him a last glimpse at happiness before snatching it away. Perhaps if he even now reached out with the full power of the Dark Side, poured all his horror and fear into his weakened contact with the Force, he could -
"Father... don't..." Luke said, his hand tightening on Vader's. "Please don't."
But if Vader didn't, then Luke would die. And he would be alone. Horribly, devastatingly alone.
He closed his eyes, the indecision tearing at him.
"Don't," Luke said. "If you do that... none of this, none of it will have been worthwhile."
And there was too much truth in that, somehow. If Vader reached out, immersed himself in the Dark Side, tried desperately and angrily to make Luke live - who would the boy end up living with? With the man Vader had been until so recently: a violent, uncaring man? What kind of life was that? The boy had risked everything, including his life, to save Vader. What kind of insult would it be for Vader to throw that all away now?
Luke sighed, sinking quietly, limply into Vader arms, his breathing more erratic. "Don't -" Vader started to say, but he didn't know how to finish. Don't leave me? Don't die? Don't ask me to let you die? He closed his eyes, despairing.
Was this what the Jedi had meant about accepting death, then - rejoicing in it? But what was there to rejoice in? His son was dying. His son was dying - and in his arms. Vader helpless to do anything, hideously aware that Luke had fallen into insensibility. He felt like he was losing himself.
A long-dead voice came back to him: Yoda, counselling in that irritatingly convoluted way of his. Accept death, you must. Or destroy you, the grief will.
But how - how did you accept death, accept your own inability to prevent it? Vader had ever struggled with that, with accepting a limit to his powers. But here was a terrible demonstration of his limits. Only Luke could find the ship that might, by some miracle, save him. Only Luke had the power to save himself. Not Vader. Vader had perhaps never had that power. And how could he accept that?
Because he had to. Because thinking otherwise would lead him into the kind of traps he had fallen into during Padm?'s final days. His desperation would not save Luke, as it hadn't saved Padm?. The Force might have intervened, had it deigned, but it hadn't, and Vader had never had the power to intervene himself. By trying, he had fallen so far he had damned not only his wife, but also himself and his son. He wouldn't make that mistake again. He swore it, with all that was left to him. He would not make that mistake again, that arrogant belief in the possibility of his own omnipotence.
He stayed on his knees for a moment, surprised to find that he had somehow come to accept that he had no control over his son's life. Not right now, anyway. It was liberating, in its own way, to accept that the responsibility did not solely lie on his shoulders. Luke had chosen to sacrifice himself for his father. Luke had chosen, not Vader, and Vader could no more change that choice than he could reverse time and change his own choices.
And that acceptance, he supposed, was a part of Light Side. Strange how it felt so natural.
Then, as Vader knelt there, reluctantly facing the consequences of Luke's choice, a low humming noise rattled the leaves of the trees, lower in pitch than the repulsors of Jandon's gang had been.
Vader opened his eyes. Over the treetops a shadow appeared, like a great bird of prey hovering and waiting for carrion. Vader stared, perplexed and amazed, as a ship descended - a Nubian ship, sleek and brilliant, lowering down in the clearing.
Vader watched it settle, uncomprehending and yet stunned with recognition. This was Padm?'s ship, dropping into the clearing with understated grace. But how it had got there...? How it had got here didn't matter, Vader realised, as sudden, wild hope sprang to life. He lifted Luke into his arms, the boy's unconscious body no weight at all, and ran for the ramp even as it started to lower.
A familiar figure appeared in the entranceway, backlit by the wedge of orange light.
"Master Kenobi?" it asked, in a familiar, prissy voice. "Master Kenobi, sir - are you there? Why, what a foolish question - you must be... why else would our remote activation have triggered us to - Oh, I say! Who are you!?"
Vader brushed past the droid, barely listening to his words, slapping the hatch closing mechanism, running for the med. station. Even as he ran, he wondered: was this fortune from the Light Side, then? From trusting in the Force to aid him, rather than forcing it? If Vader could just get Luke to the bunk, get the scanners on him.... How sophisticated could this virus be, anyway? Could it be a match for the ship's medicine and his own healing abilities combined? It couldn't be, could it?
... could it?
He was awake, crying into a muted darkness. Muffled sobs, struggling to gasp in breath to his young lungs, the air dry and hot. He could taste ash on the wind, and for a moment Vader flashed back to Mustafar and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh.
Then someone was grabbing him, lifting him up with shaking hands, brushing their fingers over his skin urgently, feeling his limbs for broken bones. A woman's face swam into focus: Dan?, her face streaked with soot and sweat. Her eyes roamed over him rapidly before she let out a sobbing, shaking breath and clutched him close, rocking from side to side in agitation.
But Vader - or rather, Luke - kept on crying, unable to tear his focus away from the burning hole rent in his mind, unable to understand the sudden, violent loss. She was gone - Padm? was gone, and Vader felt the tearing pain that was mirrored in his own soul.
He remembered with vivid, brutal clarity the moment he had awoken from surgery after weeks of being incognisant. Remembered Palpatine standing ready with his shattering news - "It seems that in your anger, you killed her." - and remembered the horror ripping him apart, shredding apart the remains of Anakin Skywalker. That same horror, just as primal and instinctive, was echoing in Luke's mind. But though it tried to flood down another bond, another link to another lost parent, it failed, blocked by adamantine barriers that bore Kenobi's signature.
And Luke just wailed harder.
Dan? stood, emerging from the shelter of a broken doorway and wandering down a fire-scorched street, her eyes desperate. She turned a full circle, with each step her breath hitching in her chest, her grip on him tightening. Devastation surrounded them. Even through the tear-blurred vision of Luke's infant eyes, Vader could see that the destruction was overwhelming. The buildings had crumbled as if battered by an unseen wind, and a firestorm had raced through recently, so hot and swift that it incinerated everything it touched, but moved on too quickly to take hold over a larger area. The road was buckled and cracked. Somewhere to the east, towards the river, there was the roaring sound of rushing water, drowning the distant screaming.
Then something must have caught Dan?'s eyes, because she lurched into a run. She fell to her knees, her grip on Luke tightening. And Vader, instinctively, tried to draw back, to disconnect from the image in front of him, from the bodies.
The horror wasn't unexpected. Nor, truly, was the sight of their burnt corpses. What shocked him was his reaction to seeing Obi-Wan's body, wrapped protectively around Padm?'s smaller frame - as if, right to the end, he had tried to save her. How much easier would it have been for Obi-Wan to have abandoned her for dead? How likely was it that he might have escaped the city alive with Luke, had he not been protecting Padm? and Dan? at the same time?
Vader drew back from those thoughts, aware that they would only lead him into spiralling possibilities that had long since passed. Through Luke's hearing he heard Dan?'s panicked sobs, stuttering her words - "No, my Lady. No... I... can't..."- and - "I don't... I don't know...where the ship... where the ship is!" - and saw her holding up the blackened beckon call and throwing it aside in despair.
Finally, after a meaningless amount of time, she drew back, regained her feet. "I don't know what to do," she whispered, addressing Luke with a look that was despairing and maybe just a little angry. "I don't know what to do."
Exhaustion lay heavy in his muscles, and Vader had neither the inclination nor the energy to move. He was aware, vaguely, of sitting on a smooth, cold floor, his upper body resting against the hard side of a bunk. The ship was unpleasantly cool. Though the engine made the deck plates rumble against his injured thigh, the only source of warmth Vader could feel was that which pressed against his arm and torso - his son's body, close beside him.
Vader blinked, lifting his head and ignoring the spasm of pain that movement sent down his back. For a moment, he merely watched the steady rise and fall of Luke's chest, the rhythmic flash of the med sensors attached to him. He glanced at the overhead monitors, which maintained a steady flow of statistics and lacked the alarms signals that had flared to life when Vader had first lowered Luke to the bed.
He sighed, relief eclipsing his exhaustion. It worked, he thought, though he was uncertain whether he referred to the medical equipment or his own surrender to the healing properties inherent in the Light Side of the Force. His fingers brushed Luke's forearm, but the boy didn't stir.
How long had he been unconscious? He had no memory of the time passing. He recalled charging through the ship, barely sparing the time to raise the shields against any outside attack. Barrelling into the med bay, lowering Luke to the bed, firing up the system - and silencing the immediate medical alert sirens with a crushing blow to the speakers.
Then - triggering the anti-viral serums, the automatic life-support, the intravenous bacta. And the Force. Dropping to his knees, reaching out for strength. A voice in his mind -
"He could even keep the ones he cared about from dying."
And the blinding, stupefying realisation that had all been a lie, because the Dark Side did not, could not heal. But the Light Side... clearly, it could.
Strange how unsurprising that realisation was. Vader had made no conscious decision to use the Light. There had been no bowing at another's feet. No ceremonious name-giving. No deafening sense of finality. Turning his back on the Dark Side had been curiously simple.
With a determined flare of energy, Vader pulled himself away from the contemplation of that simplicity and pushed himself upright, crushing the pain that sparked from his injuries.
He looked down at Luke, satisfying himself of the boy's steady, gentle breathing, and turned away from the med station bed. He wanted to pilot them away from this planet as soon as possible, but first he should at least dress his wounds. Although he was drained by his efforts to heal Luke, he was also conversely invigorated. The Force flowed through him, breathing with him, the energy rising and falling like water from a breached dam readjusting to its new surroundings, lapping at the corners of his mind.
He moved to the 'fresher station, flicking on the clinically white light as he peeled the remains of the fabric of his flightsuit away from his thigh. The fabric had clotted into the blood and exposed tissue; removing it tore open the wound anew. He took hold of the pain with the Force, channelling it away as he cleaned the wound and stripped a bacta patch from its flimsiplast packaging, smoothing the gelatine fabric over the burn.
He closed his eyes briefly, leaning back against the wall, feeling the Force swirl around his mind and dissipate the pain. Undeniably, the touch of the Force within him was no longer as Dark as it had been, not as angry and violent. But it was not quite Light, either. More... balanced.
Vader forced his eyes to re-open and rested his right arm underneath the bright light. He peeled away the burnt fabric covering the prosthetic. Beneath it, a vivid black burn marked where the blaster bolt had hit, shorting out much of the circuitry. There was very little pain there now, the majority of the simulated nerve sensors having shorted out in the initial bolt. But the damage was extensive. Yet despite that, perhaps with his instinctual skills with mechanics, and the ships well-stocked tool supply, he might -
The sound of a loud crash echoing down the narrow corridor jerked him back to his surroundings, and he was striding from the 'fresher before he'd thought to move. Luke was sprawled on the floor of the small med bay, picking himself up after apparently having lurched up off the bed.
"Luke," Vader said, shocked that he hadn't felt the boy wake. He reached for him as Luke's head snapped up and he stared at Vader with huge, confused eyes. The boy reared backwards at Vader's approach. "Luke?"
"Wha'?" the boy asked, and looked around incredulously. "What's going on? This isn't right."
Vader frowned and stepped closer.
A look of fear and despair crossed the boy's features. "Wait - are you... are you dead, too? Did Jandon catch you?"
"... 'dead'?" Vader repeated, slowly.
"Or am I hallucinating? This can't be real." Luke looked at him with wide, sad eyes. "What's going on?"
Vader shook his head, crouching opposite his son. "No, Luke. You are not dead. You are very much alive. As am I."
Luke stared at him fiercely, a hundred different thoughts passing over his expression. "I don't believe you," he finally said. "I'm hallucinating."
"You are not -"
"You're not real," Luke said, turning his face away and swallowing thickly. "This can't be real."
Sympathetic pain clenched the muscles in Vader's stomach. He reached out, hesitantly, with his left arm until his gloved palm cupped Luke's cheek and he turned the boy's gaze around to meet his. "I am real," Vader said, and as he said it he stretched out with his recently restored Force sense, reaching for the bond that had been vague and indistinct for too long.
The power of that contact took Vader by surprise. He sucked in a breath, the respirator labouring. What he had seen of his son's Force signature whilst healing him had given Vader some idea of what to expect from this reciprocal contact, but the reality of that touch staggered him. And, apparently, it had a similar effect on his son, because suddenly the boy was clinging to him, wrapping his arms around his neck and clutching at him like he would never let go.
For a moment Vader was at a loss what to do with such unexpected, unfamiliar physical contact. His hands came up of their own accord, to protect him, but instead he found himself holding the boy tighter, his parental instincts stronger than his habitual aloofness.
Luke was crying, Vader realised numbly, uncertain what he should do. His mind flashed back to the memories of his dreams - of a crying infant calling out for the lost, broken bond to his mother - and Vader sent wordless comfort along their connection. If anything, Luke's crying only became fiercer and Vader weathered it out, struggling to remember what his own mother had done to offer solace during his childhood.
Just this, he realised. Just held him, and not questioned his tears.
The realisation allowed Vader to relax a little, and he closed his eyes, exploring with mental fingers the complexities of the bond to his son. It was... extraordinary. He was present within the boy, as Luke was present within his own mind. Where one ended and the other began was uncertain. The join was too tight to see, too well melded.
Eventually Luke pulled back, his face flushed with embarrassment, a mirror to the feeling echoing down the Force. "Sorry," he said, and then sniffed. "I just...." He trailed off, shrugging.
Vader had no response to that. Any words he might have said would have sounded too sentimental to his own ears, yet he also had no words of reproach for the display of emotions.
In the end, he opted for turning their joint attention to more practical matters. "You should not be up yet. The medical facilities aboard have cleared the infection, but you should remain in the bunk and rest," he said, pointedly.
Luke blinked then and something seemed to snap into place in his gaze. He looked around, for the first time appearing to really see his surroundings, and a flash of wonder sparked in his eyes. He turned back to Vader. "This is -"
"Yes," Vader interrupted.
Luke's expression erupted into a grin. He pulled back and tried to stand - managed it, for at least a second, before turning suddenly pale and stumbling slightly. Vader reached out and braced him. "Careful," he said. "Your body is still recovering, and will be for some time."
"I want -" the boy started to say, but Vader stood and shook his head.
"We should leave this planet. Once we have strapped you into the medical bunk harness, I can pilot us away -"
"I want to watch," Luke said, the words tumbling out in a rush as he resisted Vader's uncharacteristically gentle urging towards the bunk. "I've never been in a ship before. I want to see it when we lift off - please?"
Force save him from himself, but something inside of him had wanted to relinquish his convictions in the face of that plea. He quashed the urge with brutal willpower. "No, you need to rest."
"But I can help," Luke said, with a frown of confusion as Vader used his much larger body to manoeuvre his son back towards the med station bunk. "You can't pilot with your arm out of action."
Vader snorted at that. "I can," he said, simply.
Pressed backwards until his calves hit the bunk side, Luke sat down with an expression of disbelief. "Come on," he said.
"I do not need your assistance."
Luke went tight-lipped, and Vader wondered if he'd snapped that last sentence out too sharply. He sighed. A few minutes in the cockpit watching take-off could not hurt Luke, could they? So why was he so reticent to allow the boy up there? Perhaps because he might feel the echo of the memories pressing at Vader's own mind, might sense the ghosts of a lost past walking through the ship, their shattered dreams turning stale.
"Father," Luke said quietly. "Father... I want to help. I can sleep when we're away."
Vader wanted to turn aside, or to swear viciously at his weakening resolve. The boy was irrepressible. The next few days - weeks, months, years - were going to be interesting. Yes - interesting.
"Very well," he finally said, shaking his head minutely. He proffered his hand and Luke took it, coming back to his feet. Before the boy could attempt to walk, however, Vader scooped him up and braced him with his good arm, a touch of the Force stabilising the boy as Vader turned for the med station door. "You may monitor the scopes whilst we lift off." A thrumming pleasure echoed across the bond, plucking at his nerves. Luke didn't reply, perhaps fearful that if he broke the sudden silence then Vader might suddenly change his decision.
"Oh! There you are!" A voice said - a very familiar voice. Threepio appeared in front of them when they exited the med bay; apparently he had been waiting, flustered, beyond the closed door since Vader had shut it on him earlier.
"Is Master Kenobi coming, sir?"
"No," Vader snapped, moving past him. Threepio followed.
"And... Mistress Padm??"
Vader paused, sucking in a deep breath. He closed his eyes. "Threepio?"
"Over-ride code 7283-623."
The droid went abruptly silent, frozen in position. Vader sighed in relief.
"Wow," Luke said, the words reverberating against Vader's shoulder. Then he laughed. The warmth of that sound crept through Vader's mind and pressed back the chill of too many memories that had long since turned to dust. Vader shook his head, moving for the cockpit.
Through the cockpit viewscreen they could see the dark undergrowth of the forest, the sunlight streaking down to the floor in bright shafts of orange light. It illuminated the members of Jandon's gang who stood around the perimeter of the ship and, even as Vader lowered Luke to the copilot's seat, one of the young men fired his blaster at the ship, the energy dancing across the shields. Vader snorted, feeling his fingers reaching for the weaponry - and sensing Luke watching him.
With a deliberate pause, Vader drew his hand back, flexing his fingers. It would be simple enough to kill them all. A flick of a switch, a press of a button. They would be dead in a heartbeat. They would all pay for what they had done to the son of Darth Vader, the son of Anakin Skywalker.
It would be simple enough - too simple. Much more complicated was the process of pulling back, resisting that urge, knowing that it came from an instinctive hatred and fear that he dare not allow purchase on his soul. There would be another time for dealing with men like Jandon... another opportunity, a better opportunity for putting right what had gone so wrong.
Vader sat heavily in the pilot's seat, flicking the sublight engines into a warm-start. He felt Luke watching him.
He turned back to the boy. "Do you wish them to die?" he asked him.
Luke started to answer, then stopped to consider the question. "I... don't know," he finally said. "Should I?"
Vader felt the question turning over in his own mind. "Wanting rid of them and reaping your revenge are very different."
"Oh..." was all Luke said to that.
Vader concentrated on the controls for a moment, until the majority of red lights had flickered over to green. He felt a familiar thrill go through him as he rested his uninjured hand over the flight controls. He turned back to Luke to find the boy still watching him with ill-disguised awe. "Are you strapped in?" Vader asked.
"Then... hold on," Vader said, and channelled power to main drives.
The ship leapt upwards with graceful acceleration, bounding off the forest floor in a kick of dirt and leaves. Luke let out a delighted whoop and then laughed. Vader struggled to turn down the corners of his smile, unused as he was to smiling, but lost the battle at the sight of Jandon and his men scattering, the forest floor receding rapidly, the stars clawing for them.
Vader's eyes flickered over the different controls, using a touch of the Force to adjust those that his right arm was unable to control. He glanced at Luke.
He wasn't sure what he expected Luke to say about leaving the planet he had lived on for the past thirteen years. Maybe a 'Wow!' or a 'I can't believe this is happening!' But he didn't get either of those. Instead, Luke turned his face away to the stars, biting his lip. "We're free..."
And Vader had nothing to say in return to that. He lifted his hands from the controls, sitting back. Luke's words from earlier came back to him, echoing in Vader's mind: "We're both slaves then, you by choice."
And the boy had been right. But that would change. It had already changed. Palpatine had yet to discover that, though, and the thought of where the next few weeks would take them gave Vader pause.
He shook his head, turning to watch the scopes as they climbed steadily upwards, watching magnified images of the landscape flicker across the screens.
Once the atmosphere was cleared, the last tattered remains trailing after the ship, he settled it into autopilot and turned back to his son. Luke was staring at the footage as it replayed over the monitor - the barren and broken landscape, the empty destruction broken by occasional, basic settlements well away from where the main cities had been. The ship was now too high to be seen by the people who had re-made their homes there, but Vader could imagine their reaction to seeing a ship cutting a line upwards through the burnt sky. Apparently, Luke could imagine it, too; an untouchable melancholy made him look much older than his thirteen years.
"I will have them relocated," Vader said, "to somewhere more habitable. If they will leave."
Luke looked up at him, dark circles cupping his eyes. He looked exhausted, suddenly. "If?" he said.
Vader inclined his head to the scopes. "Some of the settlements outside of the main destruction appear to be surviving quite well. They may choose to stay. They may not trust the Empire."
Luke snorted at that. "No kidding," he said. He paused. "But you might be right," he conceded. "Dan? said that most of the people who were left escaped the city for the countryside. They thought it would be easier to live out there."
Vader considered the merits of that assumption, seeing in his mind's eye the panic of the people, the screaming, the dead who'd been left behind, littering the street - it would have made sense to run. And those who stayed behind had been those without the taste or the knowledge for rebuilding: the young, the destructive, the ones who perhaps saw an opportunity for feudal power.
"Yet Dan? did not go with them," he said, almost to himself, thinking of a lone woman standing on a scorched street, a screaming baby in her arms.
Luke just shrugged and yawned. Vader turned the implications of that over in his mind.
Perhaps the handmaiden had not wanted to leave the city she had served in for most of her life. Or perhaps she had hoped for someone to come to her and Luke's aid - Yoda or Organa. But Yoda, Vader knew, had been discovered by Palpatine and destroyed as he emerged from hiding shortly after Vader had reawakened. Perhaps the events on Naboo had been the reason for Yoda breaking his solitude and risking detection - perhaps he had intended to come after Luke, but had not made it. Vader would never know. But, clearly, no one had come for Dan? and Luke. Or if someone had, they had not found her.
Had Dan? resented Luke for her situation?
Vader sighed, turning back to his son.
"Did you-" he started to say, but he stopped, because Luke had slumped down in the chair, curled up against the armrest, and was dozing. Vader reached out a hand to Luke's forehead, his touch enhancing his connection to boy and alleviating the instinctive spike of concern.
Luke was sleeping, that was all. He was exhausted and under-nourished, his body drawn to the point of collapse by the virus that had raged through him. But he was alive. He was alive, and Vader felt an elation lift him, spiriting his blood, quickening it with the thought of a dozen possible futures that could stretch before them now.
He needed to decide what to do next, where to take them and what to tell Palpatine. But most of all, he needed to just pause for a moment and take stock of the changes that had led him here, to this turning point.
Vader drew his hand away from Luke's forehead, resting it back on the flight controls. Beneath the wings of the ship, Naboo slowly receded. He glanced back at Luke, considering how close the planet had come to claiming the boy. And why it had come that close. Not because of hatred, or fear, or aggression, but for the sake of love. And love, he realised, could be more dangerous by far.
"Next time you believe you must sacrifice yourself for me...."
He'd been thinking aloud, trailing off as the concept of that rolled uncomfortably around his mind. But Luke answered him with a groggy, "Yeah?"
Vader grimaced, and turned to look down on his son with conviction. "Don't."
Luke smiled sleepily. Vader shook his head, not for a moment believing the boy would heed him. With a touch to the flight controls, the ship leapt into hyperspace, streaking towards a brighter future.
Original cover by Mina. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.