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Title : The Truth - Part 1
Author : M.J. Mink
Rating : PG-13
Characters : Vader, Luke, OC
Category : AU, drama, angst, adventure.

Disclaimer : Lucas owns them, not I.


Summary: As a child, Luke is told the true identity of his father and the knowledge has a traumatic effect on him. Eventually father and son meet - and neither is what the other expected.



When he was five years old, they told him the truth. The smallest details of that day were engraved on his memory. He was certain they were memories, because no one had ever talked about that day again. But the pictures in his mind were as vivid as if he had just opened his eyes and looked at them. ...Playing in the mound of sand he'd built in the center of the courtyard, hearing the adults’ raised voices, Owen and Beru and Ben calling him inside...

He was only five and, for better or for worse, the path of his life was changed forever.


Sit here next to me, dear," Aunt Beru said.

Luke climbed onto the sofa beside her, and she put her arm around him. He flew his toy speeder across her lap, making zooming noises until she took it away. “Pay attention, Luke. Uncle Owen and Uncle Ben have something to tell you."

“About school?" he asked eagerly. “It's only three days!" Three days until he could go to school in Anchorhead - finally! All the kids would be there, even the older ones. He was so thrilled, he could hardly wait.

“Partly," Uncle Owen said. “Luke..." He squatted on the floor and leaned forward, his big hand curling around Luke's shoulder. “You need to stop doing those...things...that you do. You can't do them at school."

“What things?" Probably those things that made Uncle Owen mad, but he didn't know how he did them and he sure didn't know how to stop doing them.

“Don't be difficult, Luke. You know what I mean."

“Let me," Uncle Ben interrupted gently.

Uncle Owen returned to his chair and sat scowling at them. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Luke, you have a special gift," Uncle Ben began.

"Can I have it now?" he asked excitedly. "What is it?"

Uncle Owen grumbled something.

"You already have the gift," Uncle Ben said. "You can do things that very few people can. You know things that other people don't. Not many people are like you."

"You are." That’s what Uncle Owen said. Just like damned old Ben, and sounded angry when he said it.

"Yes, I am," he agreed. "You and I can do these special things. But you must not let anyone else know that you and I are different."

"Are we bad?" he asked doubtfully. That's what Uncle Owen said.

"No, just different," Uncle Ben said slowly. "Luke, I have to tell you secrets that you must never, ever tell anyone. Only you and me and Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen know. These are very special secrets, dangerous secrets, and I'm asking you to be a grown-up about them and never repeat what I tell you. Can you promise not to tell?"

"I promise," he agreed enthusiastically. He liked secrets. "I know lots of secrets and I never tell."

That's good. But these are especially secret secrets. If you tell anyone, I could die. And you might die, too. People would kill us."

Now he didn't like these secrets. He was scared. He'd seen animals dead in the desert, and once he’d found a lizard that was really sick and he'd stayed with it while it died. It made him sad when it just lay there in the sand, empty.

He stuck his thumb in his mouth. Aunt Beru took it out, saying absently, “Don’t put dirty fingers in your mouth, Luke,” and held his hand.

"You and I have the power to access the Force," Uncle Ben said. "The Force is an energy field that surrounds us and -- Well, it lets us do special things that other people can't do."

"Like magic?"

"Sort of." Uncle Ben sighed. "Some people who use the Force are called Jedi. I used to be a Jedi."

"Am I a Jedi?" Luke interrupted.

"No, but you could have been," Uncle Ben said, looking sad. "Right around the time you were born, all the Jedi were killed by the Emperor and Darth Vader. I escaped and I have been hiding here."

Luke thought about this. He'd seen holos of the Emperor and Darth Vader. They both looked scary, and Uncle Owen said they were really mean. "Did they get killed 'cause they were bad?"

"No, Jedi were good."

"Then why did they get killed?"

"Sometimes good people die, Luke, when evil people want to destroy all the good in the galaxy. Do you understand why you can never tell anyone about you and me? And you can never let anyone know that you can do magic. That means you can't call your toys to you; you have to go over and pick them up. You can't tell people when something is going to happen before it happens -- like when a sandstorm is coming or when Tuskens are going to attack."

"But..." Luke stopped, overwhelmed. "Those are good things. To help people."

"I know. But you can't do that anymore. You will find other ways to help people."

He cuddled closer to Aunt Beru. She smelled good, like cookies. "Okay."

"You understand?"

He nodded, pouting. "But I don't like it!"

"Neither do I, Luke." Uncle Ben glanced at Uncle Owen. "There's something else I have to tell you."

"I still say it's a bad idea," Uncle Owen said harshly.

"It's necessary," Uncle Ben replied shortly. "Luke, it's about your father."

He put his thumb back in his mouth. This time Aunt Beru let him keep it there. He didn't like to talk about his daddy or his mommy. They died when Luke was very little and that still made him feel sad.

"There's no easy way -- " Uncle Ben paused and sighed again. "Luke, we didn't tell you the entire truth about your father. We told you he was a spice smuggler and a bad man. The truth is, your father is more than bad. He is... evil. He killed all the Jedi. He tried to kill me. If he found you, he would kill you. Or he would make you be evil like him."

That was a lot to think about. He felt a tear slip down his face. He thought his daddy was only regular bad, but he was really really bad? His daddy killed people? How could his daddy want to kill him? "But he’s dead."

"No, he isn't dead. He's -- "

"Ben!"

"I have to tell him, Owen. He has to know. It's the only way to protect him." Uncle Ben's finger went under Luke's chin and tilted his head up so their eyes met. "Luke, your father is Darth Vader."

***

Contrasting the clarity of that day, his memory of the long-awaited first day of school was blurred. Of course, over a decade had passed since then, so maybe he didn't remember simply because it had been boring. He did remember that he'd thought a lot about his father, feeling dazed and confused; he remembered because he still felt that way. When he was a child, My Dad the Smuggler had been a kick, an exciting, forbidden thing to boast about, and that was the lie Owen encouraged him to continue telling. But as he grew older, it had become something else, something darker. Luke Lars, the smuggler's bastard, they called him. Ugly as it was, he supposed it beat being known as Darth Vader's son, although that label might have given him respectability or at least fearful respect. Or maybe even self-respect.

In the old days, before he knew the truth, he'd been ignorantly happy with his life. Even at that young age, he and Biggs had tried some skyhopper racing behind Uncle Owen's back. He'd had dreams of adventure: flying in space, doing great things, being a hero.

All that had changed when he learned the terrible truth. His father was the weapon of the Emperor's wrath, the strong arm of the Empire. Luke had to be careful not to use the Force for even the smallest things, to always pretend and lie... or he would turn out the same. You would become evil like him.

To hell with all of it. Luke pulled the hat farther down on his face as he leaned back into the patch of shade offered by the 'hopper.

"So you're not going to school at all?" his best friend asked.

"Screw school." He drew a long draft from the glitterstim stick, blowing out puffs of smoke into well-practiced globes. He'd tried every variety of cheap, low-quality spices that he could buy or steal, but glitt was his favorite because it could make him forget who he was.

"But the university placement test is today," Fixer said nervously.

"So? Why do you care? We're screwed anyway. Our grades are so bad, we'll never get off this rock."

"Yeah, I’ll be stuck running this place. At least you can be a smuggler like your old man, get to travel."

The label would never leave him. "You're such an ass," he snapped, irritated. "You think it's an inheritance, like I'm automatically the member of some damned labor union?"

"How in hells would I know? I'm just a mechanic, always will be."

"Then why are you worried about the placement test?" he asked shrewdly. "You don't need a degree to fix engines."

"I'm not worried. I just thought..."

"Go then. Quit your friggin' whining and go!"

"I’m not going if you're not going."

He swore under his breath. "Damnit -- go." There was more emphasis in his voice than he'd intended, and he realized guiltily that he had just used It... the Force, the bane of his life. He wished It would just go away.

"Fine, I'm goin'!" Fixer yelled, pushing himself off the ground.

“Fine.”

After his friend stomped away, Luke ground the stick into the sand and closed his eyes, pretending he was in space and couldn't hear the muted sounds of Anchorhead echoing from the other side of the Station. There was no point in taking the test. Even if he passed -- and he probably would, despite his lacking of studying -- Owen would never let him leave Tatooine. In a few years, he could go on his own... but should he? He hated to agree with his uncle, but the logic was irrefutable: Luke Lars was dangerous. He carried the blood of Darth Vader in his veins along with the same destructive potential, the same evil. The galaxy doesn't need another Vader, his uncle declared often enough, and Beru always nodded in sorrowful agreement, her dark eyes holding a hint of fear as she studied Luke. Her expression haunted him and, now that he was older, he realized she had always looked at him that way.

But was it possible that anyone could be all bad? He'd seen the Dark Lord on newsvids and read about his exploits, his military campaigns, the political reforms he instituted that seemed to occur with less frequency as the years passed and the Empire strengthened. Luke thought it was only natural to be curious about his father and want to know him. It wasn't fair that they were apart. Unless the things Ben had told him were true. Maybe Vader would see him as a threat and kill him, or turn him evil. But maybe he wouldn't. If only there were some way he could see Vader, even just observe him from afar, just to get an idea what he was like...

Luke levered himself up to reach one of the brews he'd stashed in the back of the speeder. Popping the lid, he tilted his head back and swallowed a cool mouthful. A shadow fell across his face, and he glanced up from beneath the brim of his hat.

"Playing hooky, Lars?"

"What of it?"

Biggs Darklighter dropped onto the sand next to him. "Fixer says you're not taking the placement test."

"No point." Why was Biggs bothering with him anyway? They hadn't been friends for years, a long time before Biggs went off-planet to school. "What're you doing here?"

"Semester's over, I'm on break. Then I'm heading for the Academy. Officer training."

There was only one place young Tatooine males meant when they said "the Academy" in such reverent tones. The Imperial Naval Academy, the training ground for pilots and ground crew. They accepted almost anyone for ground crew school, but to be an officer and a fighter pilot -- that meant you were the best of the best. Even an insignificant backworld like Tatooine could produce a Navy pilot. "Congratulations," Luke said dully, chugging the rest of the brew.

"You could do it, too, if you applied yourself," Biggs replied, sounding like his teachers.

"I'm never leaving Tatooine."

"Why not? Just a couple more years and you'll be free. There's nothing to be afraid of."

"I'm not afraid!" he snapped furiously. Hurtling the empty bottle aside, he reached for another.

"Right," Biggs drawled. "You'd rather be a loser and a drunk than take a chance and get out. Move to Mos Eisley then; you'll fit right in with the rest of the failures."

Luke glared at the bottle. This is what had come between him and Biggs in the first place -- the truth. Biggs didn't understand -- couldn't understand the dangers he faced, and Luke couldn't tell him the truth. No one could know, ever. He maintained a sullen silence, resisting his desire to explain. The truth would only make everything worse. So much worse. Hi, I’m Luke Vader. Maybe you’ve heard of my dad.

"I wish you would talk to me. Maybe I could help." After a moment, Biggs added: "Is it Owen? Has he hurt you?"

"How many times do I have to say 'no'?" His anger dwindled into weariness. "It's not him, it's me. Just me."

"Stars, Luke!" Biggs shook his head, frustrated. "I can't help you if you won't tell me -- "

"I didn't ask for your help." And there's nothing you can do, anyway.

"Right," his companion said. "Well, good luck to you. You'll need it. I'll...maybe we'll meet each other again one day."

Luke watched silently as the older youth rose and walked away. "Biggs!" he called suddenly. "Good luck!" And be careful, he added silently.

Then he stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle, and settled down to do what Biggs and everyone else expected of him: get drunk.

***

Coming in too fast, he clipped the edge of the speeder's fender on the garage entry. He didn't care, but it made enough noise to bring Owen and Beru rushing to the scene. Luke ignored them and concentrated on finishing parking very carefully before climbing out of the speeder. His foot hooked on the door and he fell. Picking himself up, cursing, he reached inside and switched off the engine.

"You're drunk!" Owen raised his voice even though he was only an arm's-length away.

"Tell me somethin' I don' know." Luke pushed past him, heading for his room.

"Oh, Luke," Aunt Beru sighed sadly, but he didn’t respond, in no mood for another endless lecture about how disappointed she was in him. “We trusted you not to do this again.”

“No you di’n’t, you never trusted me,” he slurred.

“Of course we — ”

“Yeah, when? Maybe when I was three, did you trust me when I was three?” he shouted over his shoulder as he stumbled through the passage.

"He's just like his damned father," he heard Owen tell Beru, and fury rose inside him, heating his face and blinding his vision. How dare they?

"Anakin was never a drunk."

Luke paused behind the doorway, struggling to control his anger as he strained to hear them. Anakin? He'd never heard that name before. Fumbling for a stylus, he scribbled it on his palm.

"I wish we could enlist the damn kid and get him some discipline -- but there'd be hell to pay if..."

Their voices became indistinct murmurs. Staggering to his desk, Luke flipped open his datapad and scratched 'Anakin' on it, just to be absolutely certain he would remember it in the morning. Then he flopped onto his bed, closed his eyes against the spinning room, and fell unconscious.


It was afternoon before Luke felt awake enough to get up. He vaguely remembered Owen trying to rouse him at dawn to go work on 'vaporators before school, but to hell with that. He indulged in a quick sonic shower, then detoured to the kitchen to grab a leftover drumstick from the cooling unit. Back in his room, he remembered that he'd scratched something on his hand the night before. It was smeared and unreadable. He looked at the datapad lying open on his desk. Yeah. Something...

He snatched it up. 'nikn'. What the hell was nikn? No, that wasn't it, but close... inikn, enikn, anikn... Anakin. Beru said something about Anakin being his... No, that couldn't be. His father was Darth Vader.

Wasn't he?

Luke inhaled sharply. Had they been lying to him all these years? His heart raced faster as a feeling he hesitated to identify as ‘hope’ rose in it. He wished he could confront Ben and ask him what the real truth was, but Kenobi was gone, killed by Tuskens during a raid six years earlier. The idiot, throwing his life away trying to save some kid they'd snatched. The brat had died anyway. A fool's death, just like Owen had said. Protect your own. Never die for a stranger.

Whatever. Back to 'Anakin'. Maybe it was simply another name for Vader. Or maybe not. Either way, he needed to find out, and it was a sure bet that Owen and Beru would never tell him the truth, not if they'd kept this secret from him for this long. They must have hated him a lot to have told him that Vader was his father. Fine, the hell with them. Mos Eisley had better databases than Anchorhead. He would skip school -- well, not today, no point since the day was half over -- tomorrow and go into Eisley to do some research.

Hells, maybe he could even enlist. Maybe he could get into the Academy as a mechanic.

He vowed to be on his best behavior for the rest of the day so Owen would have no reason to be suspicious.

On second thought, his best behavior would make Owen suspicious.

With a yawn, Luke returned to bed to dream about a faceless stranger named Anakin who welcomed him with arms held open.


"You're not taking the speeder this morning."

Luke scratched his head and a strand of hair fell into his breakfast cereal. He fished it out and stretched it on the table where it swam in a small trail of milk. "Fine. You can drive me to school."

Predictably, his uncle declined. "I don't have time for that," Owen growled. "Damnit, if you take the speeder, I don't want so much as one more scratch on it."

"Whatever," he drawled, knowing how that response pissed off his uncle.

"I expect you to pay for the damage you did."

"Take it out of my pay." As if Owen ever paid him for his work.

"Get a damn job! And don't dilly-dally after school, I need you back here."

"Dilly-dally?" he repeated. "I never dilly and hardly ever dally. At least not when anyone can see me."

Owen pushed back his chair. "Your smart mouth will be the death of you one day."

"You wish," he called, but his uncle was already out of the room.

"You shouldn't bait him like that," Beru remonstrated gently.

Luke shrugged. "We'll never get along. Just accept it." He stood. "See you later." Maybe.

After Beru went back to her kitchen, he raided Owen's 'secret' hiding place, drawing a fistful of credits from the niche before sliding the door back into place. Then he threw a backpack with some clothes in the back of the speeder, just in case the Imps let him enlist. The dent in the fender was deeper than he had expected, and there were long white scrapes gouged into the dusty red finish. He rubbed his sleeve on them, but they didn't disappear, so he quit trying. Lifting the speeder out of the garage, he pressed the accelerator all the way down and took off like a laser shot. Wind rushed through his hair, occasionally snapping it into his eyes as he sent the vehicle through some sharp turns that it wasn't designed for. It stalled once, but he managed to restart it and zipped past the outskirts of Anchorhead on his way to Mos Eisley.

Reaching the city, he slowed down and entered at the garrison end, knowing the guards were used to seeing him and would just wave him through without a demand to see his papers. This city-entry inspection was stupid, really, considering the Imps didn't monitor the docking bays. All the excitement came from off-world, not from the boring moisture farmers or chattering Jawas.

He nodded to the trooper, not bothering to stop, and the white-armored figure gave him a disinterested flap of his hand. Luke cruised through the streets, checking out the action, which wasn't much at this hour. All the entertaining people were probably still asleep with hangovers.

He parked the speeder outside Offlander's Cantina, shouldered his backpack, and wandered indoors.

"Lars." Granv nodded at him from behind the bar, setting up his usual cheap Corellian ale. "How's school?" the man asked dryly.

He flipped a few coins on the counter and snorted. "Friggin' boring and a waste of my valuable time."

"Like you have so many more important things to do," the man mocked.

Luke narrowed his eyes. Alderaanis always acted like they were better than everyone else. "You bet," he replied easily. "I'm planning a big career following in your footsteps, serving scumbags in a filthy dive."

"As if you have any better prospects." Green eyes flashed at him. "You'll be dead before you're thirty."

"I hope so, I'd hate to get as old as you," he said flippantly. He downed half the ale. "Actually, I'm thinkin' of enlisting."

Granv smiled slightly. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

Flushing, Luke finished the warm beverage in two swallows. "I'm a little smart for a stormtrooper, bro. You won't catch me on the front lines, risking my life so some ugly old man can own another planet."

"Talking treason, boy." Granv took his empty mug and waved him away. "Get on with you. Go harass someone else."

With a sloppy salute, Luke grinned before departing.

***

The Central Databank was open, but with nothing to go on other than "Anakin", his search was hopeless. There were a gazillion Anakins in the galaxy, but not one named Anakin Vader or even Anakin Lars. What kind of galaxy was it where a kid didn't know his father's real name, Luke wondered wistfully. He didn't bother to look up Darth Vader; he'd done it so often that he'd memorized the Dark Lord's publicity blurbs.

Jedi and Sith and Force stuff were more interesting but harder to find. Mostly there were vague references to their sorcery, dismissing Jedi magic as sleight-of-hand and hinting that Sith magic was far superior and infinitely more secret. Over the last couple years he'd gotten some ideas to practice, like moving things around and using his voice to command others. What he really wanted to do was fly without a ship, but he hadn't found any references to that and wasn't yet ready to jump off a cliff to see if he could do it.

Finding nothing new about the Force had been added to the database, he left the Databank and wandered over to the garrison. A uniformed man was at the gate instead of a trooper, and Luke didn't know him.

"Hi." He leaned on the ledge of the gatehouse window.

The soldier gave him a bored look. "Whatever you're selling, we don't want any."

"I'm selling myself," Luke snapped, then bit his lip. "I mean -- "

"I know what you mean, and you should go to a brothel for that."

"I mean I want to enlist!" he declared indignantly. "I'm a mechanic."

"Uh-huh." The man eyed him skeptically. "What are you, about twelve years old?"

"I'm eighteen!" Twelve?

"Uh-huh. On your left, Room C."

"Okay." Well, that was easier than he'd thought it would be. Luke walked through the dusty yard, wondering if he really wanted to enlist. The uniforms were pretty cool looking. Maybe he could be an officer instead of a mechanic. The mechanics wore baggy gray jumpsuits and all looked alike. Trooper armor was the coolest, but then he'd get shot at. Besides, he'd heard that most troopers were clones so they probably wouldn't accept him.

The sign outside Room C said Recruiting with changeable lettering that today read "Lt. Jovay". Luke peered around the doorway. A young uniformed man sat at a table looking very serious as he studied a datascreen.

"Hi."

The officer jumped and hastily closed whatever he'd been looking at. His face flushed slightly.

"Come in. How may I be of assistance?"

Wow, he was polite! Luke decided to copy him. "I'm interested in enlisting. I'm pretty good with my hands. As a mechanic, I mean. Do you...um, have any openings?"

"We always have openings," Jovay said, chuckling. He was human and a bit older than he'd looked at first glance. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

One eyebrow raised. "How old are you?"

Luke hesitated. "Uh...seventeen."

The lieutenant rested his chin in one palm, focusing green eyes on him. "How old are you?"

"Nearly sixteen," he confessed in a mumble, stretching the truth by a few months.

"Come back and see us in two years." The dark head bent over a datapad.

Frowning, Luke folded his arms and didn’t budge. "Don't you have a junior brigade or something?"

Jovay looked up and laughed, leaning back in his chair. "Sorry, kid. Good try, though."

"If I come back in two years," he persisted, "can I really sign up? Can we check to see if I'm eligible?" If he said he was the son of Darth Vader, odds were that they'd let him into the Navy in a heartbeat. Probably as an officer. Maybe even an admiral.

"Sure." Either the officer liked his spirit or he was bored, because he opened a new screen and his fingers poised on the keyboard. "Name?"

"Luke Lars." He leaned forward eagerly. "I live outside Anchorhead with my aunt and uncle and I really want to get -- "

"No such person," Jovay announced. "Want to give me your real name?"

"Oh." He gnawed his lower lip, considering. "Try 'Luke Vader'."

Jovay frowned at him. "I don't have time for games, kid. Come back when you grow up."

"I'm not -- " He gave up. "Okay. But could you just...you know, check that name?"

The man studied him. "Are you an orphan?"

There was a crack in the military facade that Luke could work to his advantage. He nodded solemnly. "I don't know who my parents were. My guardian likes to compare me to Lord Vader, so I thought maybe... I know that's stupid, but..."

A bout of coughing didn't succeed in totally covering the laughter. "I'll check." Jovay typed something, then looked at the screen. "It says here that Lord Vader has no offspring."

"Oh." He hadn't expected confirmation, but it was still disappointing.

"You could have a blood test," Jovay said. "That would tell you the names of your parents."

"Could you do it?" he asked eagerly.

"Sorry, I can only do it for legitimate recruits." Jovay sounded genuinely regretful. "But there are several places in town that will do that for you."

"I don't have much money."

"Then try Murino's on Curved Street. He's cheaper than the rest, and you'll get the same results that you would anywhere."

"Wow, thanks!" Luke exclaimed enthusiastically. "You've been great! I'll see you in two years!"

The officer smiled and nodded, and Luke bounded out the door in search of his destiny.

***

He started on his way to Murino's, determined to stop nowhere, but Curved Street was full of interesting things to see. Some places -- well, he just liked to peek in the windows and watch until he was chased away. After a few sneaky looks at activities he suspected weren't entirely legal in any galaxy, he wandered into Kaslah's Parlor, one of his favorite haunts.

"Hi, Ka!" he called cheerfully to the old woman who was bending over a Rodian's rump, giving him a neon yellow tattoo that showed up very brightly on his green exterior.

"Yuh," she mumbled, tilting her head to examine her artistry from another angle.

"You'd better hope he doesn't -- "

"Mind dat mouth, boy!" Her grin took the edge off her words. "C'mere, give Ka sweetums."

"Ewww," he protested loudly, but complied, brushing his lips against the sun-ravaged skin on her forehead. Folding his arms, he watched her laserpen create an unfamiliar design. "What is it?"

The Rodian replied something incomprehensible. Luke doubted he would have understood even if the being's face hadn't been burrowed into the mat.

"Der god symbol," Ka said. "You here fer dat 'too you keep talkin' 'bout?"

"Only if it's free."

"Huh! You buyin' glitt today?"

"Maybe later, if I have enough credits left."

"Done. Up, you!" She slapped the Rodian's butt. "What buyin' today?"

Maybe a set of parents. "Stuff, nothing special." He averted his eyes from the Rodian redressing and opened Ka's cooler. "Can I have a brew?" he asked rhetorically, flipping off the top and taking a swallow.

"I go broke wi' cus’mers like you, boy. Good ting you so pretty ta see."

A blush warmed his cheeks, but he pretended not to hear her compliment. "Thanks for the brew. I'll come back later."

"You buy glitt, I give you 'too free. Maybe dat x-wing you likin'."

"That'd be great," he said fervently. "See you!"

Wow, he'd look terrific with the x-wing tattoo on his left shoulder! It could do battle with the TIE fighter already emblazoned on his right. Careful not to spill the ale, he flexed his arms out in front of him, imagining how envious Fixer would be. Fixer's folks wouldn't let him get tattooed. Of course, Owen and Beru wouldn't let Luke do it either, which is why he never showed it to them. Or let them know what he really did while he was supposed to be in school or at Tosche. Like he always said, what they didn't know would never hurt him.

Entertained by his own cleverness, he belatedly discovered he had passed Murino's and had to double back. It was a real hole-in-the-wall, not even a door. Pushing aside beaded curtains, he stepped inside and immediately wrinkled his nose in distaste. What a mess! A single bare table with two stiff chairs on opposite sides, all coated with a fine layer of Tatooine's finest sand. One interior door, closed.

"Anybody here? Hey! You got a customer!"

No reply. He tried the door — locked -- and prowled impatiently around the small room. "Hurry up! I don't have all day!" Plopping into a chair, he drank the rest of the brew, anxious to finish it before it got warm.

The door clicked, then opened. A redheaded man entered, hastily buttoning his shirt. He was probably a Corellian. They always found time for their assorted and varied pleasures.

"Good morning," the man said in a cultured voice, and Luke revised his opinion to Disgraced Alderaani, Banished to Tatooine. "I am Ewani Murino. How may I be of assistance?" He sat behind the desk without offering his hand. Definitely Alderaani, the snobs of the galaxy.

"I'm Luke, no last name. That's what I'm looking for."

Murino nodded; obviously he'd heard similar requests many times. "A blood test. Fifty credits."

"Fifty?" Luke exclaimed. He'd expected it to be three times higher.

With a vague gesture of his hand, Murino said, "Forty, then. Can't go lower."

He blinked a few times. "Forty it is," and handed over the credits.

"Thank you." The Alderaani went into the back room and returned with an old-fashioned, oversized datapad that he put on the table. "Push up your sleeve."

Luke obeyed. "Will it hurt?"

"Of course. Is that a problem?"

What a strange question! "Uh..."

"For a painless test, go to Quesnel's and pay five hundred credits." Murino pulled a dirty cord out of his back pocket and tied it around Luke's upper arm, since they both knew he didn't have five hundred credits. "Say 'ah'."

"Why?"

"Joke." The man sighed. "You people never understand jokes."

He was tempted to make a smart reply, but Murino had an ancient-style hypo in his hand -- one with a needle, for sith's sake! -- so Luke had no intention of offending him. "Sorry."

"Not your fault. Brought up badly. Working class." Murino smiled and jabbed the needle into Luke's arm.

"YOW!" he yelped, involuntary tears filling his eyes. "Kritpeth! Does it have to hurt that much?"

"Mmm... no, I enjoy inflicting pain," the Alderaani murmured absently.

Luke looked away from the vial slowly filling with blood. His blood. He felt queasy. “I thought you only needed a drop of blood for a test.”

“True.” The man squeezed his arm as if to pump out the blood faster. “The rest is for my collection.”

Luke groaned and hoped the guy was kidding. "Is it almost over?" he asked weakly.

"I'm done. You can open your eyes." Murino pulled the needle out of his arm, untied the band, slapped a steripatch on the wound, and reached in his pocket again. He pulled out something small and stamped the back of Luke's hand. "A medal for your bravery."

Irritably, Luke rubbed at the inked likeness of an Imperial Medal of Honor. "Thanks a lot."

"Welcome. Buck up. In just a minute more, you'll know who your parents are." Murino manipulated the datapad. "Galactic Database... Medical... Do you need both father and mother? ...DNA..."

"Both of them." Excitement filled him. In the midst of his pain, he'd momentarily forgotten why he was going through this. He leaned forward, sliding to the edge of the chair.

"Don't fall off and sue me. Huh, both parents. What’d they do, dump you here?"

"I doubt it," he replied coldly. "They probably died."

"Of course." The tone was one of polite disbelief... then it changed abruptly. "Oh, kritpeth demrat!" Murino cursed violently. "Krit! Give me your datapad -- quick!"

"What?" Luke panicked, throwing off his backpack and fumbling through it for the datapad.

"Hurry!" Murino cursed again. "No wonder you don't know who your father is -- godsdamnit, where's your datapad?"

Luke found it and threw it at him. "What's wrong?"

The Alderaani downloaded his information, then tossed the datapad back to him. "Now get out of here. My inquiry sent an immediate notification to the Imps, and it'll be forwarded to the base in a few minutes. They'll be after you."

He stood, bewildered. "But... I don't understand!" It Vader really was his father, why should he be afraid of stormtroopers?

Murino grabbed his arm and hustled him toward the beaded exit. "You're a Jedi's kid," he hissed. "The Imps kill Jedi kids...and now they know you're here. Get out of here -- off-planet if you can. And destroy that datapad once you've read it. Krit!" He looked at his own pad and the vial of blood. "I'm screwed, too." There was a pause. "But I'll talk my way out of it." Murino looked at Luke. "Which are you, deaf or stupid? Don't you understand? Get out, hide -- if you want to live."

Luke ran. After a block, he realized he was attracting attention, so he slowed and matched his gait to the other casual strollers in the business district. But his heart was racing and he could barely grab a breath.

Jedi kid?

Just who the hell was his father?

He took a shortcut through Shezar's Emporium and wound his way to Pleasure Street where he slipped into a narrow alley, hopefully unseen by anyone of authority. The datapad was slick from his sweating palm, so he wiped it on his shirtsleeve before switching it on. Heart pounding, he took a deep breath to steady himself and began to read.

There wasn't much, just bare bones to lure him on a search for details. But the names were there. Names, homeworlds... and one more notation.

Ancestry:

Anakin Skywalker, Tatooine

Padme Naberrie, Naboo

ALERT: Jedi

Skywalker.

Anakin Skywalker.

"Luke Skywalker," he whispered. He shivered, his eyes misting for a moment before he blinked them clear.

A name. At last he had a name, one that belonged to him and no one else. He wasn't Luke Lars or Luke Vader. He was Luke Skywalker.

It was a fine name.

He slipped the datapad into his backpack. No way was he destroying it! He wanted to be able to look at the names and hold them in his hand when he needed to be reminded that he had parents. In fact... maybe he could find out more about them right now!

Forcing himself not to run, he walked as quickly as he was able to the library archives. It was underground, beneath an emporium, unposted and unadvertised, and seemed to be frequented rarely. In fact, he'd never anyone else in it except the librarian. Luke had happened upon it by chance one day when he was exploring, and it was the source of much Jedi information that he hadn't found in the Galactic Database. The information was historical and mostly dull as dust, but today he had a purpose -- today he had a name.

The elderly librarian was sound asleep as usual, so Luke tiptoed past him and around the stacks of dusty datadisks until he saw the wall that had a small flap close to the floor. It looked like it was covering a vent, but he knew better. He crawled through it and slid down a ramp that led to the concealed room. It was cool with a hint of dampness, and he had to squat in front of the old screen because the low ceiling wouldn't accommodate even his less-than-impressive height. It was as if someone had wanted to hide the room, which seemed ridiculous because he'd found it easily.

The screen took its sweet time flickering on, as if it was deliberately testing Luke's patience. Eventually it was as ready as it was going to get, and he drew a deep breath before typing in a single word: skywalker.

Krit, he hated this old machine because it binged and bonged and clicked so loudly it could wake up the dead... although not, apparently, the old librarian. It took forever, probably two whole minutes, before data began marching across the screen. He squinted at the jumbled bright letters streaming across the dark background, wishing desperately that he could download what it was spitting out, but its ancient port wasn't compatible with today’s datacards, even the older type like he had. Part of the screen winked on and off, and he struggled to grab whatever words he could. ...akin... ywalker... edi Knight... pilot... Clone Wa... warrior... Jedi Council... to Chancellor Palpa... missing, presumed de...

Krit, krit, krit! His teeth ground together with the effort of not shouting the words aloud when the screen went black. Frustrated, he pounded the side of the monitor with his fist and -- it came back to life.

But this screen was different, promising a graphics selection. Could it be a holo of his dad? Or his mom? Or both of them? Excited, Luke tapped the icon and waited for another endless download. When it finally finished -- oh, it was a moving holo, those were so rare! Before he could consider the semi-miracle he'd been offered, a shaky scene appeared, old-style fighters exploding across the screen, zipping past and looping around each other in a ferocious battl --

"What are you doing in there?"

Luke slammed his hand on the off switch, leaped to his feet, hit his head on the ceiling, yelped in pain and screeched "Nothin'!" while he scrambled on all fours past the librarian, then ran for the exit to the street. The old man didn't follow him, and he hoped the guy wouldn't report him to the Imps. And he probably wouldn't, considering he was hiding Jedi information in his library.

Once on the street, Luke slowed and considered what he'd just learned. Not much, but enough to know that his father was an amazing pilot, a great Jedi, and something to Palpatine... an aide or a foe? He was determined to figure it out.

And where was his father? Missing, presumed dead wasn't the same thing as dead. He was certain that a hero Jedi would never abandon his child, so what had happened to him? What if...

What if his father or mother was alive? If he had any hope of finding them, he would need to access the genealogical records in the Galactic Database. But if the Empire monitored DNA research, they probably monitored everything. He would have to use a terminal that he could abandon quickly, a public one in a crowded place.

It wasn't something he dared do today. He needed to get home and confront Owen and Beru. Why had they lied to him? He wasn't Vader's son; he was the child of a Jedi Knight, a legend, a defender of the weak and helpless. Jedi Skywalker. All the magic he could do was because he came from a Jedi, not from a Sith -- how dare they lie to him! "Ben, why didn't you tell me?" he whispered. For a moment, he slumped against a wall, depressed by the betrayal. Then he shook himself back to reality.

Maybe he wouldn't go home. Why should he? He could find transport off this rock. It would have to be cheap transport, though, judging by the weight of the credit pouch in his pocket. Hells, he could work for transport. Ships always needed good mechanics. Or -- he could sell the speeder! It would serve Owen right for lying to him, and it would raise enough credits for passage from Tatooine to somewhere better.

Relieved and excited that he had a plan, Luke trekked back to Outlander's Cantina. On the way, he spotted a torn and dirty cloak that someone discarded on a stack of trash. Shaking out the sand, he held it up and couldn't see any bugs or blood, so he swung it over his shoulders. Cringing, he pulled the hood onto his head. He hated being dirty -- especially if it was someone else's dirt -- but this disguise would make him less conspicuous, just in case stormtroopers really were looking for him. There had been no sign of activity so far, and he wondered if the Alderaani bloodsucker was simply an alarmist.

He rounded the corner onto Straight Street and stopped abruptly. Krit -- troopers! He slouched against the building, pulling the cloak around him, wishing he had the ability to disappear. There was his red speeder.

And it was surrounded by a cadre of white-armored troopers and a uniformed officer.

Edging into a doorway, he peeked around the side of the building. Maybe they would leave. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe they were just standing around shooting the breeze and not actually looking for him.

Those wishes were smashed when a second officer joined the first. Luke recognized the lieutenant from the recruiting office. "Krit," he muttered in disgust. His immediate reaction was to panic and run, but there was nowhere to go. He needed a better disguise and a hideout. Maybe Ka could provide him with both.

There were troopers at the far end of Paradise Road, but none on Curved Street, so he hurried into Kaslah's Parlor, then strolled nonchalantly to the back room, hiding his face in the folds of the hooded cloak. Ka saw him, but said nothing as she continued to work on a human woman who was getting an ankle tattoo. Left alone, he raided her stash and crammed a handful of glitt sticks in the backpack he had slung under his arm. They'd be good for trading or selling, and he'd need something more substantial than a few credits and a smile to get him to safety.

He grabbed a waterstick from the counter and drank thirstily, then added a few more to his pack. By the time she entered, he was standing with his arms folded, looking completely innocent.

"You bad boy in trouble," she hissed at him as she wiped her hands on a stained towel.

"I need a place to stay until things cool down," he said in a low voice. "Just for a day or so."

"Not be here, no trouble here." She flapped the towel at him. "Go now!"

"I can't go," he whined. "There are troopers after me. I didn't do anything! They'll kill me!"

"Whiteheads!" Hands on her ample hips, the old woman glared at him. "You stealin'?"

"Of course not!" Palms raised in the air in a gesture of virtuousness. "They have me confused with someone else."

She snorted. "'Kay den. You stay, but you be quiet!"

He flashed her his widest smile. "Thanks, Ka, you're the best!"

She snorted again before moving slowly back to her customers.

The room was stuffy and warm, and he yawned. He was still keyed up, but it was safe to relax now, so he took a cold ale from the cooler, then prowled the cupboards looking for something decent to eat. She had a lot of food -- business must be more profitable than it appeared -- but none of it appealed to him. Something simple, like a banthaburger, would be great. Maybe she could get some decent food for him. He sidled to the door and looked for her. The shop was empty, so he walked cautiously through it. Then he caught a glimpse of her skirt outside the door and dodged to one side, edging closer to listen.

" -- tell dem whiteheads," she was telling someone, "dat Luke here an' I wan' reward."

Momentarily frozen with shock at her treachery, he watched a small child run past the doorway on the errand, and then he backed up until he was plastered against a freestanding display of tattoo art. Ka entered and headed toward the back. He glared at her, unseen, before slipping out the door.

Uncle Owen was right about some things, he thought bitterly. You can't trust anyone.

After that lesson in duplicity, there was no way he was going to seek refuge with anyone he knew. They'd all sell him out for money. He wondered how much the Imps were offering for him. He doubled back to Paradise Road and searched through garbage bins in the tiny, crisscrossing alleyways. There wasn't much that could be considered useful, but eventually he found a partially used can of colorspray for his hair, some skinpaint, and a shard from a broken mirror. Carrying his discoveries, he settled on the ground between two bins, propped up the mirror fragment, and went to work.

Twenty minutes later, he had bright blue hair and dark red face and hands. He wasn't exactly sure what branch of the human species had that coloration, but there was bound to be one somewhere. He wouldn't be conspicuous among the motley visitors to Mos Eisley.

Better yet, he could hide out with the streetkids. He'd seen a pink-haired girl earlier. He'd just have to track down their lair. In the meanwhile, he had a call to make. At a public callbox, he dropped in credits and entered Fixer's code, all the while watching for stormtroopers.

"Yeah?" The voice was slurred.

"It's me."

"Nah, I’m me.”

"Knock it off," he snapped. "I'm in trouble. I need you to come and get me. In Eisley."

"What're you -- "

"Don't ask questions. Just meet me as soon as you can at... that place we got thrown out of last time, remember?"

There was a yawn at the other end of the connection. "Luke, I can't do it tonight, I got stuff I gotta -- "

"Then tomorrow! Just -- look, bring whatever money you can scrape together. And some food."

"You really are in trouble." Fixer sobered abruptly. "Okay, tomorrow. As early as I can get there."

"Thanks." From somewhere he could hear the distinct sound of marching boots, so he hung up abruptly and ran back into the alley.

He'd be fine today, as long as he could keep away from the Imps. But the desert grew cold at night, and he would need to find shelter. With a sigh, Luke trudged off, wondering how his life could have changed so fast and so dramatically without him even lifting a finger.

It wasn’t hard to find the streetkids. After a few inquiries, he was pointed in the direction of their leader, a girl his age with purple hair and a stern expression.

“You have to pay,” she said flatly, in response to his request for food and shelter.

Fumbling in his pack, he found two glitt sticks and held them out. She didn't respond. With a dramatic sigh, he grudgingly offered a third, and this time she accepted. He slipped the food into his pack, knowing it would have to last him until Fixer arrived.

In the subterranean depths, it was impossible to differentiate between night and day. Every few hours, Luke made forays to the mouth of the passage, checking the location of the suns. When darkness fell, he relaxed. Fixer wouldn't come until mid-morning at the earliest. In the meanwhile, he was safer here in this cavern with other refugee kids than he would be with any of his so-called friends in the world above. With a yawn born of alcohol, stress and hot temperatures, he secured his pack under his head and used it as a pillow. Closing his eyes, he was asleep in minutes.

The next day dragged endlessly. Fixer didn't come. Luke kept racing anxiously between the hideout and the little cantina on Paradise Road that they'd been banned from for their behavior, rowdy even by Eisley standards. He didn't want to chance another call to his friend; it was risky enough dodging troopers and people who might recognize him. Surely the Imps would give up soon, believing that he'd gone off-planet or headed home.

He used the last of his pilfered glitt sticks to buy more food, then surrendered half his credits to the streetkids for watersticks after he drank the ones he'd taken from Ka. He didn't have enough money left to buy passage to anywhere, so hopefully Fixer had managed to liberate some from his parents' stash.

His stomach was twisted with anxiety by the time night came and Fixer still hadn't shown. Staying with the kids for many more days would be dangerous. Besides, the code of the street said that when he couldn't pay, he'd have to leave. At the rate he was spending his assets, he'd be tossed out by morning.

That night he lay awake watching the shadows that flickering torches splashed across the rough ceiling. He stared at them, mesmerized, as he listened to the sounds of sniffling and snoring and nightmares, to the sounds of the little ones who buried their faces in makeshift pillows and cried themselves to sleep. Enough credits flowed through Mos Eisley's gambling dens every hour to support a home for these lost children; hell, Jabba could house and feed them indefinitely without missing the money. One day, when he was rich and a famous Jedi, Luke Skywalker would come back here and build a home for all the homeless kids.

But he couldn't do anything now. He didn't know how to do any Jedi magic that would conjure food or a nice place to live. He could barely keep himself out of an Imperial prison cell. Eventually, exhausted, he fell into a fitful sleep.

***

It was late on the second morning when Fixer finally showed up. Luke had abandoned his sanctuary with the homeless kids and was trying to appear inconspicuous on the streets. But the red color was wearing off his hands and the interior of his hood was turning blue from the hair dye.

"You look like banthakrit," Fixer declared in a hushed tone, glancing around nervously. "What did you do?"

"Come on." Luke led his friend to a deserted underground doorway. It wasn't deep enough to feel comfortably safe, but it was the only shelter available. "Did you bring water?"

Wordlessly, Fixer handed him a waterstick and Luke gulped it down too fast. "Thanks," he gasped, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What about money?"

Still silent, the other youth turned over a stack of credits that Luke quickly counted. "Five hundred?" he asked incredulously. "How'd you get so much? Won’t your folks miss it?"

"My folks sent it." Fixer shook his head. "Luke -- "

"Troopers are after me. I didn't do anything! Did you bring something to eat?"

"Luke -- " A small bag of cereal was offered. "Luke, there's something -- "

"Maybe I should just go home," he said despairingly. "Owen'll kill me, but it's not my fault. It's not fair!"

"Luke -- "

"What?" he snapped, ripping open the bag and crunching the crispy bits. When his buddy didn't speak, he swallowed and looked closely at him. Fixer's face was abnormally pale. "What's wrong?"

His friend took a deep breath before speaking in a low voice. "Stormtroopers came. They asked me where you were. I said I didn't know. It took a while before... before they believed me. That's why I couldn't come yesterday, my folks wouldn't let me out of the house. They were -- we were scared."

"They tracked you down?" Luke moaned. "That means they've gone to my place. Owen really will kill me!"

"No, he..." Fixer sighed. "We saw smoke and... Luke...the troopers went to your place. They killed Owen and Beru."

The words were incomprehensible for a moment, then the shock of them knocked him against the rough wall. He slid to the ground and landed hard on his rump, struggling to piece together the astounding words. "What?"

Fixer squatted beside him and placed one hand on his arm. It tightened painfully. "They're dead. The Imps trashed and burned the place. We went over there last night. Owen and Beru were... well, not much was left. You can't go back, Luke. There's nothing there anymore and the Imps are probably watching it."

None of it made sense. "Nothing left?" he repeated uncomprehendingly. "How can they be dead? I just -- They were just -- Uncle Owen's too mean to be -- Why would troopers kill them?"

"They were looking for you," Fixer said in an odd tone. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," he answered numbly. "I just wanted to know who my -- "

"Who your what?"

He couldn't answer. His father was a Jedi. That heritage had been a death sentence for his guardians. He didn't want it to kill his best friend, too.

"You're not going to tell me, are you? Okay." Fixer squeezed his arm once more before releasing it. "Whatever it is, you have to get off Tatooine. Look, take my identification papers. Be me. If they find out, I can say you stole them."

"I can't -- "

"You have to," Fixer said firmly. "You can't be Luke Lars anymore."

Luke Lars, Luke Vader, Luke Skywalker... First he had three names and then, abruptly, he had no name at all. And no home...

Luke swallowed the dread that rose in his throat and accepted Fixer's ID. "Thanks," he murmured, conscious of the inadequacy of the response. "Don't get in trouble because of me."

"No problem. They didn't ask for my ID when I came into town, so there's no record that I was here today. Look, I brought you something else." Fixer reached in his full pack, dumped out more food and watersticks, a bag of loose glitt, then handed Luke a ship model. "Take this."

It was the titanium skyhopper that Fixer had struggled to build and was so proud of. Luke picked it up and cradled it against his chest. "Why?" It seemed fragile, though it was not. Maybe it felt that way because it was the only familiar thing he had left.

"In case..." Fixer cleared his throat. "We might not see each other for a long time. I just... I wanted you to have something to remember me by."

"I'll never forget you, Fix." Like he was a baby, Luke started to sniffle. He was embarrassed and struggled to choke back the sobs, but when Fixer put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him, Luke surrendered to the devastating fear and confusion he felt.

Fixer let him cry and probably shed a few tears himself, but Luke didn't look at him to find out. Eventually they separated and Fixer said gruffly, "So, you're Laze Loneozner now."

He groaned in mock displeasure. "You have the worst name ever."

"Not any more. Now you've got it." They both stood and Fixer continued, "I have to get back. I promised my folks I wouldn't stay too long. They're worried."

Luke nodded and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Thank them for me. And thanks for...everything, Fix. We will see each other again, I promise. I'll come back some day and chase the Imps out of here."

"And the Hutts."

"Yeah, them too." They shared shaky grins.

"Be seein' you, Laze."

"You, too, Fix."

With a final awkward handclasp, they parted, Fixer heading down the street. Luke followed at a safe distance, ensuring that his best friend got safely back to his speeder.

Then he was alone.

***

Spacers Row was the best place in town to become invisible, what with all the tiny alleys that branched off its wide street. The bazaar and casino attracted beings of all species who were passing through and anxious to spend, or hopefully supplement, the credits they'd picked up in their travels. Despite the presence of the military garrison, there were no restrictions on what was bought and sold in Mos Eisley: spice, hard drugs, alcohol, counterfeit credits, pornography, people. Luke had heard rumors of unwary visiting youths being kidnapped and sold as slaves, but he knew he looked like a savvy native, one not worth the trouble his abduction might bring. Or maybe it was the blaster hanging from his belt that prevented slavers from risking an attack.

Or just maybe it was the blue and blond striped hair, which made him look certifiably insane. He caught a glimpse of himself in a tiny mirror in the bazaar and frowned, tugging the hood a little farther over his forehead. It wouldn't do to scare off a prospective ride, and it was bad enough that he was filthy and probably smelled worse than he ever had in his life. He considered stopping at a rooming house and buying a bath, but if the hair dye washed out completely, it would be easier for the Imps to identify him.

Several cautious circles of the Row later, he decided to follow the human male who had exited one of the docking bays and headed for a cantina. His arrogant attitude and swaggering stride identified him as a captain of his own vessel, and the worn clothes hinted that he could use cash.

Luke entered the crowded bar, looking around warily before approaching the table and touching the back of a chair. "Mind if I sit down?"

The spacer extended long legs and crossed his feet onto the chair with twin thuds. "Whatever you’re sellin’, I’m not buyin’. Get lost, kid."

Pulling a chair from an empty table and dragging it over, Luke sat a safe distance away from those boots. "I'm looking for passage."

"To where?" The man took a pull from his bottled ale.

"Wherever your next stop is." The other gave him a disinterested look, so Luke added quickly. "I can pay."

"Yeah?" There was a glimmer of interest. "How much?"

"Depends on where we're going," he replied coolly. This guy was obviously easier to barter with than your average sandperson.

"Depends on how many credits you're talking."

Stalemate. "Look, I haven't got a fortune, but I need to get out of here."

The man looked beyond him. "Lemme ask my copilot. Hey, Chewie, want to take on a passenger?"

There was a rumbling roar, and Luke leaped to his feet. A huge furry monster was towering over him, and he flinched involuntarily. A wookiee! He'd never seen one, only read about their ferociousness. They were a lot bigger in person than they looked in holos.

The spacer shrugged in response to the roar. "Just the kid -- I guess. Right, kid, just you?"

Luke nodded nervously, wrapping the cloak tightly and throwing one end over his shoulder. "Yeah, just..." He faltered. Three stormtroopers entered the cantina, laser rifles held across their chests. "Never mind. I have to -- have to go." Casting frantic looks around, he couldn't see another escape.

"Never go in any place without knowing another way out," the spacer drawled. "Hallway behind me, second door on the right. We're leaving bay 94 in an hour, with or without you."

"Thanks," he breathed, then spared not another moment. The exit was where the stranger said, and in a few moments Luke found himself on Curved Street.

Running wasn't wise, but the troopers were too close and he couldn't take the chance that they would see him. Luke trotted along the street, weaving around sellers' booths and dodging speeders. Ahead of him, he could see two more armored troopers, so he ducked into a narrow alley. Racing around the corner, he collided with something solid.

A man grabbed his shoulders, either steadying him or preventing a harder impact. Luke looked up, meeting a pair of green eyes. His breath caught in his throat and he choked on it.

Jovay, the Imperial recruiter!

Quickly, Luke stared at the ground, muttered something unintelligible, and tried to move on. The grip on his shoulders didn't release. He continued focusing on the dust beneath his feet, determined to become invisible.

"Well, well, it's my young recruit. Do you know how many people are looking for you, Jedi?"

"I'm not a Jedi," he hissed. "Maybe my father was, but I never knew him. Let me go!"

"Let you go? Hmm... There's a thought. But why would I do that?"

Confused, Luke stared at the young man. "Do you want a bribe?"

"Ah, we can add attempted bribery of an Imperial officer to your list of crimes," Jovay chuckled. "Perhaps I only want the glory of capturing the dangerous Jedi."

"I'm not a -- " he began furiously, then reconsidered. "If I'm really a Jedi, I could hurt you."

"Go ahead. I don't think you can do anything, but there are troopers watching us. They won't let you get away, no matter what you do to me."

Luke froze, paralyzed with a sudden rush of fear. "I don't want to die," he whispered. "Not yet. You don't understand -- I can't help who my father is -- was. Don't let them kill me -- please!"

"I understand better than you know, Luke Lars Skywalker Vader," Jovay said, his voice unexpectedly soft.

Stormtrooper boots made noise even on sand. "Lieutenant?" a voice questioned excitedly. "You got him?"

Jovay looked past Luke. "It's not him, just some street punk." He released Luke's shoulders. "Get off the street, kid, and stay there. You fit the description of a dangerous fugitive we're tracking. Corporal, let the troopers know not to bother this one. He's heading home."

His eyes widened with disbelief. He didn't know Jovay, and the man was letting him go? It was too good to be true. But Jovay's eyes were kind and sympathetic, though his face was hardened in a strict military mien.

"Thanks, I won't forget this," Luke whispered, then he bowed his head and left, walking quickly around the troopers, his stride firm and steady though his heart was pounding at a wild pace.

Never trust anyone, Owen said. But today his best friend and two strangers had put themselves in danger to help him. The galaxy was a strange place indeed.

He stopped abruptly, Jovay's words suddenly registering.

Luke Lars Skywalker...Vader?

Oh, krit.

It took only a cursory check to see that troopers were guarding all the docking bays. There was no way he could get back to Spacers Row and past them to his ride. Escape would have to wait until the search cooled down. In the meanwhile, he knew of only one place to hide and that was back with the street kids. But if he gave them his credits in exchange for shelter, he wouldn’t be able to buy passage later. He had to find another way.

Luke trudged back to the passage to the kids' hideout and lounged across the street, checking for troopers or spies before making his way into the gloomy entrance. Ten meters in, he found a large boulder that had been nudged aside to reveal a narrow aisle that hadn't been visible before. He could hear the echo of far-away voices and, curious, he squeezed around the rock, slipping through the passage. The dug-out hall was rough against his hands as he felt his way through the darkness toward a faint light in the distance. The voices grew louder though he could not discern the words. Then a short, high-pitched scream pierced the air, and Luke broke into a run.

The aisle opened into a large space, and he caught himself before plunging into it. Crouching behind an outcropping in the wall, he peeked around it, assessing the situation.

Children and teens, some he recognized from earlier, huddled together with their leader standing protectively in front of them. She held a short knife like she knew how to use it and faced a man dressed in the dark garb of a Rillavin hunter, creatures feared throughout the galaxy, rumored to enjoy the taste of human flesh above all others. A tiny girl lay on the sand between him and the teen leader.

"Just one," the hunter wheedled, his voice garbled by the translator he wore, "and I'll leave the rest of you."

"Tessi, get behind me," the leader ordered, but the girl appeared too terrified to move.

The hunter reached for her, and she screamed again as his claws pierced her arms.

Don't get involved in other people's problems, Owen warned, except your neighbor's. You need your neighbors to survive.

The last thing he wanted was to get in a fight that might draw the attention of the Imps, Luke thought glumly as he drew out his blaster. But these were his neighbors, and the son of a Jedi -- or even a Sith -- couldn't let this scum go free. He had less humanity than a Tusken, and Luke had killed a few of those. A Rillavin deserved no mercy.

Stepping out of the shadows, he centered his aim on the bastard's center. You may not be certain where a Tusken's heart is hidden under his cloak, Owen advised as they crouched behind the rocks, watching the Raiders, so always go for a gut shot. "Hey there," he called softly.

The Rillavin turned, then started, dropping the child when he saw the blaster. "No! I -- "

Luke pulled the trigger. The monster made a startled sound that choked off as he died, the blaster burns smoking his ragged clothes. It was not so different from killing a Tusken, Luke noted remotely, though this thing was more human than a Tusken. Would it be any more difficult to kill a human? He supposed that one day he would find out.

Pushing away an unexpected sensation of queasiness, he strode over to the corpse and kicked at its feet. "I want the boots," he announced flatly, knowing he had to generate respect along with a little fear, "you can have the rest."

The youngsters were staring at him and the leader's eyes were narrowed, assessing his intentions.

"I'm staying here. I'm hiding from the Imps." He paused. "If you betray me, I'll kill you. If not, I'll protect you from dangers like this." Giving the body another kick, he smiled tightly. "Are we agreed?"

The girl nodded, resignation clear on her delicate features. "I'm Tia. I'm in charge."

For now, Luke thought, then wondered if this coldness in him came from his father. If so, it was not Jedi. It was Sith... and maybe he was, too.

"What's your name?"

Luke Lars Skywalker Vader Laze Loneozner. Stifling a sigh, he struggled to find an acceptable name out of that excess. Laze...Loner...Ozner... "Oz."

"Oz," she repeated with a clipped nod and a smile that didn't touch her eyes. "You may stay here, but you must follow our rules. We will accept your protection, but none of us will sleep in your bed."

"Like I'd want you to," he retorted sarcastically, flushing. "I'm only staying until I can find a way off this -- Hey, I said I want the boots!"

A young boy jumped back from the Rillavin with a guilty grin. "Sorry, Oz!"

"They wouldn't fit you anyway," Luke added in a mollifying tone. He bent down and picked up the little girl with bleeding arms. She hid her face against his chest. "You have first aid supplies?"

"Yes. Come," Tia directed, and Luke followed her deeper into the cavern, the other youngsters running ahead.

"Quite a set-up you have here," he commented. "More than you let me see earlier."

"We're not stupid enough to trust strangers!" she snapped.

"I didn't say you were."

They emerged into a single cavernous room that held a dozen more young people, and Tia lifted Tessi from his arms. "We'll tend her. You get different clothes," she directed. “Gereeza, get Oz into something more... appropriate. Do something with his hair -- and for Sith's sake, show him where the bath is!"

This was one occasion when he was happy to obey orders.

***

There had been moments during the last couple months when Luke thought he wouldn't live to be any older. But here he was, safely sixteen, still not officially an adult, yet he was positive that he bore more responsibility than most grownups did over their entire lifetimes.

The kids, even Tia, depended on him to care for them. He'd hijacked food supplies destined for the Imperial garrison, rolled drunken gamblers as they stumbled out of casinos carrying more money than was healthy, taught the little ones to beg and the older ones to pick pockets. There had been a few losses on the way -- some arrests that made them hold their breaths, but no captured child had ever betrayed their sanctuary. They had stayed safely out of the grips of troopers who would want to ship them somewhere, probably into slavery. All in all, he considered himself a hero. No one could have done better than Oz... except Luke Skywalker, Jedi-Sith Knight.

Luke crouched on the rooftop’s narrow ledge that rose over Curved Street. Below him, the night was alive with the usual scum that inhabited Mos Eisley, but above him the stars shone clean and white against the moonless blue-black backdrop of the sky. He leaned back against the curved roof and took a long draw on the glitt stick. It added to the pleasant buzz that he'd gotten earlier from the spiced wine he'd liberated when its drinker had put it aside casually, paying no attention to the outlandishly dressed youth. Homeless kids were a part of life in this city and the more extravagantly they were clad, the more people ignored them. Tonight Luke was decked in a multiple layers of colorful garments that the kids had picked up here and there. He still wore the Rillavin's black boots and had added blue velvet pants, gold satin shirt, patterned green brocade vest, and long purple coat, topped with a fringed red scarf wound several times around his neck and a blue feathered hat with a wide brim -- in other words, he was wearing his entire wardrobe. Hiding in plain sight. The more outrageous he looked, the more people avoided looking at him. The face paint helped, too, and he'd become adept at altering his features through the use of color and swirling lines. He’d also noticed that people steered clear of him even more determinedly when he held out his hand for money.

Tilting his head, he studied the shop across the street, halfway down the block. A few days ago, a new treasure had been added to the window, one he desperately wanted. A lightsaber. The weapon of both Jedi and Sith. Whichever was his heritage, by rights the lightsaber belonged to him. In the absence of a teacher, he was training himself as best he could, finding skills through experimentation. A lightsaber would make him complete -- it would make him official. It was so tempting, so visible in that window, so easy to steal.

So obviously a plant. It was confirmation that the Imps hadn't given up looking for him on Tatooine. The idea of sending one of the little kids in to snatch it kept fluttering at the edges of his mind, but it was simply too dangerous. He had to be patient; an opportunity would arise one day. Whatever it took, he would find a way to make the lightsaber his.

His gaze lingered on the streets, studying the crowds that had thinned out. By this time of evening most people were in clubs or casinos or bedded down with purchased companions. When he saw no one he cared about, Luke leaned back again, puffing on the stick. One afternoon months ago he'd seen Fixer with Deak and Windy. They were trying to be casual, but even from the rooftop, Luke could see them casting surreptitious glances around. He longed to hail them and spend time with his friends, but then they had all started laughing and shouting and punching each other. They were having a good time, just like he used to have with them. It was a painful realization: their life went on without him; they didn’t miss him at all.

Like his father didn’t miss him. Yeah, his friends weren’t the only familiar people he’d seen recently. Darth Vader had been visible – just on the holonews, true, but it had given him a jolt of fright that was coupled with a strange thrill. For months Vader had been on the far side of the galaxy in pursuit of rebel criminals, but lately the Rebellion seemed to be edging toward the Outer Rim, closer to Tatooine. And Vader was in pursuit. That didn’t mean he’d come to Tatooine, of course, but if he did... Luke hoped he might be able to get a closer look at the Sith-maybe-father. Just stand in a crowd and watch him, maybe hear that resonating voice in person and see how tall Darth Vader really was. See if maybe Darth Vader would recognize his lost son.

Stupid idea.

The end of the stick singed his fingers and Luke threw it down, grinding the butt under his heel. Moving to the opposite side of the roof, he climbed partway down by clinging to window cut-outs and then, from two stories up, he jumped, landing neatly and almost silently. Next time he would try it from the third floor. It was a Force trick, though he wasn’t sure how he was doing it.

"Imagine what I could do if I had a teacher," he mused aloud. Maybe the possibilities were infinite. If only he could access more information on Jedi and Sith, but he feared any such inquiry into the Galactic Database would be a red flag. He needed to travel, to access the Database from different planets so the Imps wouldn't know it was Luke Lars Skywalker Maybevader Laze Loneozner Oz doing the searching.

But he couldn’t leave. The children who sheltered him also worshiped him, and now the responsibility for their welfare had become a burden. He didn't want to stay on Tatooine, but neither could he simply abandon them.

"Hey, Oz," a stall-keeper called, waving him over.

"Teren," he acknowledged.

The Sullustan offered him a brew. "Sorry it's not cold, but we blew the recirc fan on the cooler generator, they say it can't be fixed. New ones are expensive at Gat's Repair."

Luke nodded. "Might be able to help you with that." Gat's was an easy mark at certain times, namely when his lazy, porn-reading nephew was minding the shop. "You say the fan is expensive."

Teren shrugged. "Probably about the same as a two-week supply of watersticks and synth-meat for ten hearty eaters."

"Three weeks for twenty."

"Two weeks for fifteen."

"Two weeks for twenty, no less," he stated firmly.

"Ach, you're a robber, Oz," Teren said good-naturedly. It was not a serious complaint, since feeding twenty would cost considerably less than a new recirculating fan.

Luke chugged the rest of the warm brew and expressed his appreciation in the Sullustan way: burping. "See you in a day or two."

With a wave, he moved on, stopping at a few more vendor stalls, picking up business and collecting promises. He headed back to his grotto in a roundabout way, using his senses to be aware of Imps and bounty hunters. That was another thing he'd become adept at, 'feeling' when someone watched or pursued him. Once again his untapped talents frustrated him. There were moment when he felt limitless power, but those moments were fleeting and stumbled upon accidentally. Still, they teased him with the realization that he could learn to harness and use that power -- if only he knew how!

Frowning, he studied the two stormtroopers positioned at the end of the block. They were probably only on routine patrol, but he still couldn't risk returning to the little ones. With a shrug, he turned to avoid them and entered an underground club a few blocks away. Imps generally avoided these dens, knowing it was likely they would not exit in one piece. The clientele was rough, but Luke kept his blaster in plain view and the face coloring helped obscure his youth. He ordered a drink and a glitt stick, then bent his head over the bar, engaging in no conversations and looking at no one -- directly. The unbreakable reflective plexi behind the bartender acted as a mirror and would warn him if anyone tried to approach.

And an hour later, it did. He gave a rueful sigh when he saw an angry young woman storming through a thick fog that was created partly by smoke and partly by the pleasant haziness in his mind. He gulped down his fourth drink and waved the glass at the bartender who quickly refilled it, slopping liquor over the rim and onto the counter. He handed the man a few extra credits. "Stick for the road," he mumbled, holding out his palm until the glitt was slapped into it.

"What are you doing?" Tia hissed in his ear. "Do you know what time it is? The kids won't settle down until they know you're back. And here you are, drunk and high and who knows what else!"

The Rodian to his left snorted and the bartender chuckled. "If I had a credit for every old lady who came lookin' and scoldin' her old man..."

Luke sighed again. "She's not my -- "

"He's not my old man!" Tia knocked the glass out of his hand, shaking her head, dark hair flying around her face. "Come on, we're leaving now."

"They can make your life hell, can't they?" the bartender continued. "Not worth arguing. You either go along with 'em or dump 'em. I dumped mine. She wasn't as hot as this one, though. If you get tired of her -- "

Before Luke could reply, Tia was halfway over the bar, the tip of her knife at the bartender's crotch. Luke sighed again and tugged her arm. "Fine, I'm coming, let the man go."

"I should slice off his -- "

"And bring troopers down on us?" he reminded her. Tossing a large tip onto the wet counter, he dragged her off, casting a glance back to be sure the bartender wasn't going to contact the authorities. The man gave him an amused nod, apparently not at all distressed by his encounter with Tia's blade.

"You're a pain in the ass, Oz," she complained bitterly as they walked through the cold night air, Luke staggering slightly.

"Go to hell," he replied with a bored yawn.

"I had everything under control here until you -- "

"You had nothing under control, you didn't even have enough food."

"That was a temporary situation!"

They argued during the short journey back to the tunnel, then parted in cold silence. Luke returned to the small 'room' that served as his sanctuary and collapsed on the bed, not bothering to remove his boots.

"Oz back..." a sleepy voice whispered.

He turned his head. Four-year-old Tessi was curled up in the corner on a rumpled bundle of old blankets. "Why aren't you in your own bed?"

"Scared." Her lashes drifted up, then closed again, obviously too heavy to remain open. "You smell funny."

"I know." Resignedly, he rose and changed into his old white clothes, using the oversized coat as a modesty shield, though he suspected she was too sleepy to peek. He pulled his boots back on, a habit he'd developed while living 'on the run'. Always be ready, Owen said. Funny, he'd hated his guardian, but now he was realizing just how much Owen Lars had taught him.

Bending over, he straightened the blankets to cover Tessi better and considered carrying her to her own cot in the makeshift dormitory with the other young ones. But if she woke during the night she'd be back, and it wouldn't the first time. Once he'd almost stepped on her before noticing her asleep on the floor in his room. So he moved her into his bed against the wall, then lay beside her, one arm curving protectively over her tiny body.

"Oz save me," she whispered before falling asleep again.

Yeah, good old Oz, the drunk, glitt-using Jedi-Sith, hiding from Imps, hiding from his maybe-father who wanted to kill him, wondering where the famous Anakin Skywalker was, and stuck on this rock with a barrelful of kiddies under his wing.

It was tempting to mope further, but the combination of intoxicants he'd consumed chased him into a deep sleep instead.

The world was shaking. Quake? Shouts pierced through the fog, and Luke struggled to stay asleep. Kids were playing, calling... screaming? His body was being jerked to and fro.

"OzOzOzOzOz!"

He opened his eyes. Tessi was kneeling beside him, shaking his arm. Ready to scold her, he saw that her eyes were wide with terror. Then the sounds registered. Adult voices giving orders, mingled with the protests and sobs of children.

"Krit!" Luke leaped up, grabbing his pack and stuffing it with clothes, extra watersticks and Fixer's 'hopper model before anchoring it across his chest. He threw on the long, nondescript cloak that he wore when he wanted to fade into the scenery. Never go in any place without knowing another way out. The narrow tunnel was the reason he'd chosen this room as his own. It opened into the basement level of Jabba's townhouse, and from there he could get outside without being seen.

Stormtrooper boots echoed on the hard dirt, coming closer. He raced to the hidden exit and pushed aside the curtain that disguised it.

"Oz...?"

Luke closed his eyes, cursing silently, then snatched up Tessi, hiding her in the folds of the cloak. "Don't make any noise," he warned as they slipped behind the dusty fabric.

She whimpered, but pressed her face into his shirt as he ducked and ran through the dug-out passage, not hesitating when he reached the end of it. If troopers were there, they were trapped; they couldn't go back so there was no point in delaying. But still he heaved a shaky gasp of relief when he saw the room was empty save for a few corpses that Jabba stored for a purpose Luke didn't want to consider. He held the back of Tessi's head so she wouldn't see them as they hurried past. She had already had enough nightmares in her short life.

Tumbling onto the street, he turned and walked quickly in the opposite direction, keeping his face well covered. From an alley, he climbed up to one of his favored rooftops and put Tessi down. “You stay here, don't move and don't make a sound."

Dropping to his stomach, he used his elbows to propel him toward the edge where he could spy on the happenings a few blocks away. It was Imps, all right, and they had rounded up the kids. Stealthily, Luke drew out his blaster, considering which trooper to shoot first. Could he take down all of them? Probably not, but killing one would throw them into confusion and give the kids a chance to get away.

He took aim, then saw Simri run up to the trooper and punch the stock of his blaster rifle. Luke caught his breath, but the Imp only shouldered his weapon and bent to say something. Then he picked up the little boy, tucking him under one arm. The gesture was so experienced that Luke realized the trooper had to be a parent, and he lowered his blaster.

They weren't going to arrest the kids. It was Oz they wanted, Oz the trouble-making thief. When a speedervan labeled Family Services pulled up, he knew the kids were going into official custody, maybe even to foster homes. Wherever they went, it would probably be a lot better than living in a cave and scrounging for food.

"Oz come back," Tessi called, crawling toward him.

"No!" he whispered sharply. "Stay there, Tessi. Don't talk. We don't want the troopers to find us."

She sat down again and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

When he turned back to the group, a scuffle was underway. A teenaged girl broke away and ran, and Luke fingered his blaster again as a trooper took aim on Tia. But an officer stopped him with an upraised hand, and Luke watched as she ran behind some buildings and disappeared.

He wriggled away from the edge of the roof and made his way back to Tessi. "We'll stay here for awhile."

"I'm hun'ry. An' t'irsty," she whined.

"Me too." He gave her a single sip from a waterstick and a cookie. "Why don't you take a nap."

"Oz stay?"

"Oz stay," he affirmed, then moved them both into the shade of an overhang, contemplating his next move while his little charge slept.



Interlude

A Disruptive Child

By Spirit

“My Lord,” a stormtrooper spoke through his tinny-sounding vocoder. “He’s up there.”

Vader turned to look, concentrating on making his helmet’s lenses zoom in on the building that the stormtrooper indicated. It was two-stories high and domed. Crouched at the top, illuminated slightly by the city lights, was the thin, cloaked figure that he’d come to Tatooine to watch.

His hood was down, exposing the boy’s hair, which was, Vader noted with consternation, a bright shade of blue. Vader turned his body slightly, focusing more on the figure, noting the good balance on the domed roof. Noting, also, the faint speck of light near the figure’s mouth.

When a hand reached from the folds of the cloak and up to the mouth, Vader realized what the light was. It moved with the hand and, faintly, Vader could see a thin stream of smoke expel from the boy’s mouth. Vader seethed.

Spice, he thought angrily. My son is using spice.

“My lord,” the trooper spoke again, catching Vader’s attention. Angrily, Vader turned his head, preparing to light into the trooper. “We think he uses Jedi powers,” the trooper continued, and Vader stilled.

“Already?” he demanded, turning again to stare at the figure on the roof.

“Yes, my lord,” the trooper repeated. “He does things that no ordinary child can do.”

“Like what?” Vader rumbled, his mind racing.

“He’s made things...float,” the trooper said, almost reluctantly. “Made things fly.”

“Indeed,” Vader said slowly, focusing on the child - his child - on the roof. “Indeed.” Wanting to take a closer look, Vader used the Force to enhance his own vision, and saw for the first time his son’s features. Thin, but with a remaining roundness that suggested that, when fully developed and with an adequate diet, his jaw would be strong and his cheeks boyish. As it was, he looked unhealthy and pale - like a spice addict. Vader felt another surge of anger. Of all the vices...

“Here is the information we’ve been able to collect,” the trooper said, offering a datapad to Vader, who accepted and began to study it. It started out with Luke's name, followed by his guardians' names. They were dead, Vader remembered. He’d ordered his troopers to kill them. Luke Skywalker, Owen and Beru Lars. Age: (sixteen?). It continued with his height, his approximate weight, hair color, and eye color. Below that was a list detailing his education. Vader scanned rapidly. The results weren’t good. Luke Lars, as he was called, was described as a disruptive child from the very beginning. On his first day of school, he’d screamed at the teacher and hit another child and, when punished, he had promptly burst into tears and run away. Teachers expressed concern that Luke’s upbringing wasn’t up to par. An small investigation was begun, yielding no results except a very furious guardian.

As the years progressed and Luke’s behavior deteriorated, his school teachers tried any and all methods of helping him, punishing him, and trying to get him to open up. Instead of confessing what bothered him, Luke would scream and yell and cry. He didn’t make a solid friend until he was almost eleven years old, when he befriended Laze Loneozner. The pair of them started drinking alcohol by the time they were twelve and skipping school in earnest just a few weeks later. His already dismal marks declined even further. The pair of them were later joined by two more children, whose names were not listed. At the age of fourteen, a teacher caught Luke and Loneozner smoking spice. The punishment was swift and fierce, but instead of causing Luke to abandon the drug, he merely shrank even further away from authority. By the time he was fifteen, he spent most of his time either drunk or high, and by the time his guardians were killed, the school hadn’t seen or heard from Luke in almost two weeks.

Despite that, as Vader scanned the listed marks he realized that on every test of mathematics and engineering, Luke had scored at least a ninety. On tests of history and politics, his failures were spectacular. Obviously, Vader mused, his son was not as unintelligent as he liked people to think. The subjects he didn’t need to study, he aced easily. His dismal grades stemmed mostly from not attending school at all.

Teacher notes spoke of an unhappy, frightened child, and an angry, disruptive teen. Had the Lars couple been harmful? Considering, Vader glanced up at the figure on the roof, watching as the boy let the spice stick fall. His stomped on it, grinding his boot heel into the butt of the stick, then stood there, seeming to stare out over the Wastes, arms folded as if deliberating. No, Vader thought. Something else happened when he was a child. He wasn’t harmed physically. Emotionally, perhaps. Maybe even psychologically.

Something bad happened, though, he mused. Something bad enough to make a five-year-old child lash out defensively at everything around him. Something horrible enough to have repercussions reaching years into the future.

“We’ve discovered what he’s been doing lately, my Lord,” the same trooper said tentatively. “He’s joined a band of street kids. We’ve discovered their hideout, and are ready to move when you give the order.”

“What does he go by?” Vader demanded.

“Pardon, my Lord?” the trooper asked, startled.

“His name,” Vader said. “What do the other children call him?” There was a barely imperceptible pause in the trooper’s words, and a faint sense of surprise trickled through the Force from the trooper’s direction.

“Oz,” the trooper said. “The children call him Oz.”

Oz.

“We questioned his neighbors and close friends,” the trooper went on. “Specifically, one Laze Loneozner. Nothing resulted from the interrogation, but we later discovered that Skywalker uses an ID with Loneozner’s name. We are unsure at this time if it was given willingly, or if he stole it.”

“It does not matter,” Vader said. “Leave this Loneozner alone. He has had no contact with the boy for months.”

“Yes, my Lord,” the trooper said smartly, then took a step back. His breath hissing through his respirator, Vader looked up at the youngster once more, just in time to see him turn and stride off the roof nonchalantly. He simply walked off, as if treading down a step. A trickle through the Force alerted Vader to its use, and he smiled behind his mask.

“Surround the children's hideout,” he ordered, turning abruptly. “But do not harm them. Alert Family Services. I want the boy unharmed.”

“Yes, Lord Vader,” the squad chorused, and immediately moved away to converse. Vader turned to glance once more at the now empty roof.

Soon, he thought to himself. Soon, I will have you, Oz. Or should I say, my son... Luke Skywalker.



It was mid-morning by the time they found Tia hiding behind a large garbage bin. Luke knelt beside her, releasing Tessi's hand.

"It's our fault," Tia said through angry tears. "They followed us last night when I was too mad and you were too drunk to be careful."

Luke was silent. That realization had already crossed his mind, but he didn't like thinking about it. There’ll be hell to pay, Owen used to admonish him, and he supposed this was it. Only he wasn’t the one paying. "The kids will go to homes. They'll be better off. Why did you run? You should've gone with them."

"You're so naive." Wearily, she leaned her head against the wall. "No one will adopt me, I'm too old. The only reason anyone would want me would be for a slave or sex partner."

He glanced at Tessi but she was busy drawing circles in the dirty sand. "I don't think you'd make an obedient slave," he joked. "And I'm not sure about the other stuff."

She sent him a disgusted look. "Asshole."

"Same to you," he countered, biting his lip to stop from uttering something nastier.

"What am I going to do?" she asked rhetorically. "No one will hire me for a decent job. It's not like there are families here. I could take care of kids, you know... if there were any around. I need to go somewhere else."

"Well, you're not coming with me!"

"I wouldn't go anywhere with you in a million years!"

They glared at each other before mutually deciding it wasn't worth the energy. For a few minutes they watched Tessi play, then Luke dug in his pack. "Need a waterstick?"

She nodded and he handed her a couple, then reached into his pack again.

"Take this, too."

Tia looked at the fistful of credits. "What's for? It's not enough to get me off planet."

"I know. I don't even have enough to get me off planet," he said glumly. "Hire a speeder or hitch a ride to Anchorhead. You know where that is?"

She nodded, her gaze suspicious.

"There's a place called Tosche Station. My friend Fixer practically runs it. Tell him Luke sent you. His folks will help you out, maybe even let you stay there." A profound sadness washed over him. If only his own way out was so simple.

"Why would they do that? They don't even know me." Her distrust was gradually turning to hope.

"They're good people." He had a feeling that Fixer would find Tia much more to his liking than Camie. Someday maybe he would return to Anchorhead and find Fixer and Tia married with lots of children gathered around them. They’d probably even name one Luke. "Take Tessi with you."

She shook her head. "I can't take Tessi to live somewhere that isolated, Oz. She's too fragile, she'd never survive – she’s barely making it now. You know that."

As if sensing they were talking about her, the little blond girl came and crawled onto Luke's lap. "Tessi," he asked, "do you want to go with Tia?"

"Stay wi' Oz."

"You can't -- " Krit, there was no point in frightening her further. Or worse, making her cry. "I'll figure something out. You'd better get going, Tia. If you get a ride soon, you can make it before nightfall."

She kissed Tessi's forehead, hesitated, then gave him a quick brush on the cheek. "Thanks, Oz. Or should I say 'Luke'? You're not always an ass, you know."

"Yes, I am,” he replied quickly, blushing. “Tessi, say 'bye' to Tia."

"Bye, Tia."

"Take care, both of you." Tia paused. "I don't know what you did, but I hope the Imps never catch up with you, Oz."

"Me too." They shared grins for a final time before she left. He watched until she was out of sight before turning to his tiny companion. "Okay, babe, let's get this show on the road."

"Hun’ry!" Tessi declared in a loud voice. "Eat now!"

"Then you and me, sister, are going into one of these wretched hives for a bite to eat.”

Keeping a watchful eye for stormtroopers, Luke led Tessi away. Where in hell could they go? It was difficult enough for him to find hiding places, but now that he had a little one in his care, Mos Eisley had suddenly become a lot smaller.

"I hafta go."

"Great," he muttered under his breath. Picking her up, he trudged into an alley and deposited her in a broken-down doorway. "There."

She stared up at him wide-eyed and didn't move.

"You can go here," he clarified.

A look of horror crossed her face. "No!"

"Tessi... I'll find a sani for you later, but for now, just...go. I'll watch to be sure no one comes near."

"Can't." She started to cry.

"Oh, for -- " This was definitely not going to work out. He lifted her again. "Then you'll have to hold it until I find another place."

"Gotta go. An' hun’ry." Her tone was plaintive.

"Krit! Just give me a few minutes to find a place, okay?"

A hurt sniffle was the only reply he received, and he hoped she understood what 'hold it' meant.

Ten minutes later, he'd found a woman to take Tessi to a public sani -- just in the nick of time, judging by the pained look on her face. That task completed, they headed to a cafe. Luke wondered if hiding in plain sight would work when he was being this blatant, wearing street kid paint with traditional Tatooine whites. Sitting at the table in the dimly-lit establishment, he pulled face paint out of his pack and touched up the colors that were fading. Two humans at the next table laughed, but he ignored them.

"Me too!" Tessi demanded.

He drew green triangles on her cheeks.

"See!"

He held the small mirror so she could study her reflection.

"More!"

"Oh, look, here comes your lunch." Thank the Force for the distraction. While they ate, he pondered this tiny problem he'd taken upon himself. He couldn't leave her alone, so he wouldn't be able to get supplies or food, or even find a chance to get off planet. He should've let the troopers find her. Or made Tia take her. Why couldn't he learn to think before he acted? And on top of all this, he was getting a headache.

"Oz, fix!"

"Don't call me that, honey," he said absently, suspecting his admonition was of little use. If anyone overheard the name 'Oz', they might turn him in to the Imps. After cutting her banthaburger into small pieces, he continued thinking.

He had no friends in Eisley -- no one he could entrust with a little girl, anyway. She would have to go to Family Services, but he could hardly abandon her on the street. Maybe he could make an anonymous call. Or --

"Oz happy."

"Yeah." He grinned at her. "I have a brilliant idea. Finish your lunch so we can get out of here."

***

Hidden in the dark depth of the night, Luke folded his cloak and tucked it against the wall. Tessi fell asleep within minutes, and he moved several meters away. Now he would wait. It was a simple plan, but its success didn't depend on him.

When he heard the door open, he drew his blaster and edged to the corner. Light flooded from the doorway, illuminating the sandy walkway. A sweetly feminine voice bid farewell and was answered by an indiscernible baritone. Luke lowered the blaster to his side, holding his breath as footsteps drew nearer.

As he reached the end of the building, the man was already turning, somehow perceiving the threat, but Luke was faster. He wrapped one arm around the man's neck, pulling him backward in a chokehold, holding the blaster barrel to his temple.

"Don't make a sound and you won't get hurt." He forced his captive around the corner and part way down the alley. "I'm going to let go. If you run, I'll shoot."

"So much for not getting hurt," Lieutenant Jovay said dryly. When he was released, he turned to his captor. "Ah, once again it’s our favorite fugitive, Luke Lars Skywalker Vader. If you're planning on using me as a hostage to escape the planet, I doubt that will work."

Luke shook his head. "I'm not. I need your help."

Jovay folded his arms. "Why would I help you?"

"I've got the blaster." He waved it threateningly.

The officer smiled smugly. "You wouldn't shoot me."

He sighed but stated flatly, "I don't want to. But if I had to, I would."

Jovay's dark eyes studied him for a few seconds, then his smile died slowly. "I see. Well, I suppose you had better tell me what you want."

"Safe passage. Not for me." Luke stepped back and gestured to the small bundle on the ground beyond them, holstering his blaster. " For her. And I want to know that the other kids are okay."

With a wary glance at him, Jovay walked over to Tessi. "She's practically a baby," he said softly, then looked at Luke. "You're Oz, aren't you? I suspected as much. And this is one of the children who got away today."

He shrugged. "Can you take her? To Family Services... or maybe you can do a blood test and find her parents."

Silence stretched for many seconds before Jovay spoke hesitantly. "She's so young to end up in Family Services. I doubt that her parents are... anywhere. But my brother and his wife would be happy to have her. They haven't been able..."

Luke swallowed. "Where do they live?"

"My brother?" Jovay paused, a slight flush darkening his skin. "Naboo. What's her name?"

"Tessi," he replied automatically. "Naboo? My mother was from Naboo. Maybe you know something about her? Her name -- "

"I haven't been there in years," the lieutenant interrupted. "She's waking up. Hi there."

Luke bent and picked her up. "Tessi, this is..."

"Karas," the officer supplied. "Karas Jovay. Hello, Tessi, it's nice to meet you."

She put her thumb in her mouth.

"Tessi, Karas is going to take care of you now." He handed her to Jovay, adding bluntly, "I have to leave."

"Oz stay!" She burst into tears. "Oz s-s-save me!"

Jovay held her close to his chest while Luke stroked her hair. "I can't stay, sweetie. But Karas will have a nice home for you. With food and a sani and a real bed. Right?" He glared at the officer.

"That's right. I think my lady friend will find a nice bed for you tonight. Are you sleepy, Tessi?"

"No!"

Luke smiled. "No? Who was that little girl asleep on my cloak?"

"Tessi!" she exclaimed, pleased with herself for some incomprehensible reason.

"Tessi is a smart girl," Jovay praised, and she beamed at him before yawning widely and closing her eyes, her head flopping on his shoulder.

Picking up his cloak, Luke shook out the sand and threw it around his shoulders. The Imperial looked at him. “The other children are with Family Services and will be sent to good homes or facilities on other planets if we can’t find their parents. But you have to get off Tatooine."

"I’ll just wave my magic wand."

"It's not a joking matter," Jovay scolded. "The noose is tightening around you. If you don't get out within the next day or two, you won't get out."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked suspiciously. "Why should you care if I'm captured and executed?"

"Executed?" Remarkably, the lieutenant laughed. "Considering who's looking for you, that's hardly an option."

"What does that mean?" Riddles, all he ever got were riddles instead of answers! "Are you talking about Vader? He killed the Jedi, he'll kill me, too."

Luke Lars Skywalker... Vader.

"Unlikely." Jovay looked away. "I'd better get going. I have to do some serious sweet-talking before I can drop Tessi off. Then I have to get back to the barracks."

"Wait!" Luke grabbed his arm and lowered his voice. "Please... why aren't you turning me in? Who's looking for me? Do you know anything about my parents? I don't understand any of this."

"Don't you really?" Jovay pulled himself straighter, looking every centimeter the smug Imperial officer despite the sleeping child in his arms. "I didn't say that I wasn't turning you in. It's my duty to report this encounter. An edited version anyway," he added, gazing down at Tessi. "Get off planet. If I see you again, I'll identify you and have you arrested. Are we clear?"

"Clear," Luke snapped, scowling as Jovay walked unhurriedly away. Frustration clawed at his throat and he wanted to demand answers.

But this Imp wasn't talking. Evidently he would have to find his answers somewhere else.

***

There was nowhere left to hide, so the next day Luke decided to simply ignore the possibility that he might be arrested. Wandering into Outlander's Cantina, he took a seat at the bar and nodded to Granv.

"Usual?" the Alderaani asked.

What the hell, might as well burn the money he had. "Nope, spiced wine," he ordered. "And don't be stingy with the spice."

Granv raised an eyebrow. "Coming up in the world. Let's see the credits."

Luke slapped them on the bar. "Good boy," Granv praised, and Luke scowled.

The vidscreen in the corner was switched on and Luke watched it while he waited. The Imperial News Network was reporting on the status of the Fleet’s pursuit of those pesky terrorists, which was now focused in space near -- Tatooine.

“Krit!” he mumbled under his breath. “I hope Vader isn’t with them.”

The barkeep slid a tall glass across the counter, then leaned over and lowered his voice. "Got a live one for you. Some reptile needs work done on his ship. Over there against the wall."

"Reptile?" Luke followed the direction of Granv's nod and saw a green-skinned humanoid sitting alone, his arms folded, staring down his long nose at the cantina's occupants. "Oh. Does he look like he can pay?"

"And then some."

"Okay. Thanks, I owe you one." Sipping the wine, Luke slid off the stool and followed a roundabout route to the reptile's table. He had no idea what species the guy was and wished fleetingly that he hadn't skipped school so often. He stared at the back of the thing's head. It was scaly, but hair grew in one place on the top of his skull like it was coming out of a hole. Luke wondered if the hair was retractable.

"Do you wish to speak with me?" the reptile inquired in a cultured voice, "or are you content simply to silently admire a member of the superior race?"

He didn’t see any eyes in the back of the creature's head, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Luke moved around the table, pulling out a chair and sitting without invitation. "What kind of work does your ship need?"

"My sublight drive is behaving sluggishly. It requires..." One long-fingered hand waved vaguely, and golden brocade slid back to reveal a green arm. "...some sort of adjustment."

That should be simple enough. "I can do that, but it'll cost you. The sublight drive is a delicate piece of machinery."

"Really." The humanoid glanced at the spiced wine, then back at him. "I have found that humans often exaggerate their skills to obtain rewards not commensurate with their knowledge and expenditure of energy."

Luke blinked. "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

The being smiled slightly. "Why should I believe you are capable to remedying my vehicle's malfunction?"

He shrugged, though his heart began to beat faster. "If you don't trust me, don't hire me. But I'm good with machinery. I can fix anything. And I'm not going to con you, unlike some of these losers around here."

The expression remained neutral. "What is your price?"

Luke tried to keep his voice steady. "There's a laser sword in the window of a shop on Curved Street. I want that, plus passage off Tatooine."

"Hah!" The being was amused. "A steep price. But yes to the laser sword, if the price is reasonable. No to passage."

"Then no deal. And you won't find anyone else as skilled as me."

The narrow, elongated eyes perused him thoughtfully. "I have never taken a passenger. I may be willing to drop you off at my next port... if I am satisfied that you are as capable as you claim and if you can complete additional adjustments to my ship's systems."

Lowering his gaze, Luke stared into the wine, pretending to contemplate the offer, but really attempting to hide his elation. "All right," he said finally, as if it had been a difficult decision. "Get the laser sword and meet me back here."

"Very well." The creature rose. He was very tall. "You must be sober when I return or the deal is off and the saber is mine."

Luke rolled his eyes in disgust. "I'll be fine," he said tightly. "Hey," he added when the reptile began to leave, "what the hell are you? And what's your name?"

The being sneered at him. "Only an ignorant human would not recognize one of the galaxy's finest inhabitants. I am Falleen," he declared, his voice resonant with pride. "And my name, dull-witted one, is Jaslin Xenar, of the noble house of Xenar."

"Whatever. I'm...Oz."

"Oz." Jaslin's nose wrinkled as if he smelled something foul. "A small name such that could be mistaken for a sneeze."

If that was some sort of Falleen insult, Luke didn't get it. He shrugged and returned to the wine, but watched closely as the lean, muscular reptile strode regally through the cantina. He could believe the 'noble' part. Xenar walked and dressed like someone with credits to spare. "Must be nice," Luke muttered.

He rose and returned to the bar where he drained the wine. "Hit me," he commanded Granv.

"You should take it easy."

"You're not my father," he snarled, "so back off."

Granv raised his hands in capitulation and poured him another drink.

A stinging chill whispered through his body, and he shivered suddenly. Maybe he should have ordered a hot drink, but those were a rarity in the desert. Was he getting sick? He never got sick! "You’d better have spice in that," Luke warned crossly.

There was no answer as he raised the glass. But before it could touch his mouth, it went flying out of his grip and shattered on the floor. Nonplused, Luke sat for a moment, his frozen fingers still wrapped around the non-existent flagon. Peripherally, he noted that the cantina had gone silent, and it was so cold, as if the air had turned to ice. Kritpeth! He hadn't meant to use the Force! Maybe it had just turned on by itself. Maybe...

Blackness filled the mirror behind the bar, dark and mystifying as night. There was a strange sound, too, like a motor that was running intermittently, hissing and... exhaling and... inhaling. Like a... respirator.

Luke swallowed.

Very slowly, he turned on the stool. It was black, all right. Big and black and...

... oh-oh.



Part 2



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