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The Truth - Part 3

"I thought that went well," Luke said cheerfully. "Except for... you know, that one thing. And except for my stomach rumbling." His father was silent. "It wasn't my fault! I didn't have breakfast."

"Whose fault was that if not yours?"

They stepped into the lift, presumably headed back to their quarters. "Uh... no one brought it to me."

"There is an auto-nutrition system in your quarters. Learn how to use it and cease blaming others for your indolence."

"Yes, sir." Was it possible to please Darth Vader? If so, he wasn't doing it and that failure was making him nervous. He cleared his throat. "And the... other thing was an accident, you know."

"I would have put that on your grave marker: 'Luke Skywalker, dead at sixteen, victim of his own accident'."

"That's not funny!" he snapped heatedly. "You told me not to ask questions! How was I supposed to know that one tiny button would flood the entire bridge with decontam foam? It wasn't marked 'danger' or anything!"

"Would a skull-and-crossbones insignia have stopped you from pushing it?"

"I don't know why you think this is a joke." Luke scowled, leaning against the lift's wall.

"I am not remotely amused." It was Lord Vader who looked at him, not his father. Helmet-Face was completely unreadable and intimidating. "The crew knew to put on emergency masks; you were unprotected. You could have been killed if not for the fast action of Captain Piett."

Yeah, that was another thing. His dad should have been the one to rescue him, not Cap! Luke sent his father a sulky glare. "You wouldn't have cared," he accused.

The lift slid to a smooth stop. Vader stalked into the gray corridor with Luke close at his heels. "Wait up! What's your rush? The ship isn't going anywhere!"

"I do not know how to respond to such a ridiculous statement. Of course the ship is going somewhere." The Sith came to an abrupt stop and looked at Luke. "What are you doing?"

He stepped back. "Nothing!" he denied automatically, feeling guilty even thought he was nearly positive that he was innocent of any wrongdoing at the moment.

"You are wrinkling my cloak again."

Sure enough, when he looked down he saw that his fingers had wound into the edge of the silky black fabric and were crumpling it, just like they'd done on the bridge when he was struggling to remain 'close, but at a respectful distance' while Vader kept walking away. "If you knew what I was doing, what did you ask?"

Not surprisingly, his pointed question was ignored. Also not surprisingly, Vader brought their stroll to a halt directly in front of Luke's quarters.

"Do I have to study?" Despite his effort to sound neutral, his tone held a decided whine.

"No. I am withholding the audiopad so you cannot study." The Dark Lord pressed the door panel, but did not step inside. "I want you to spend the next several days meditating, without distraction of any sort. Except," Vader held up his hand to halt Luke's immediate protest, "food."

"Meditating about what?"

The inky helmet tilted. "About your past and your future," his father said quietly. "I want you to review and analyze your actions to this point in your life. Consider where you should have acted differently and learn from those insights. Decide on the route your future will take and the behavior necessary to arrive at your desired destination. When you are done, we will talk."

"How will – "

The door slid closed. Luke punched the panel, but it was locked from the outside. Just think? For days? He'd die of boredom before then. Vader was the most unreasonable father in the galaxy and he doubted that he would ever find anyone who would disagree about that.

Luke pulled off his boots and padded over to his desk to figure out which one was the auto-nutrition panel and how it worked. If he was going to meditate, he'd need a lot of sustenance to keep up his strength. A bowl of chips sounded good right about now, but he was annoyed to find that his "menu" consisted of nothing but so-called 'healthy' choices. "Thanks a lot, Pop!" he muttered sarcastically, confident that Vader was telling the truth when he said Luke wasn't being monitored.

After sating himself on cereal, fruit and milk – his only beverage choice, totally unfair – Luke flopped on the bed and interlaced his fingers behind his head. "How am I supposed to meditate? It would be easier to talk, wouldn't it?" he asked the absent Vader.

He was struck by a brilliant idea. Vader's words were so predictable, Luke could be both of them and have a dialogue. "What an excellent idea, Luke," he said in a deep voice. "You are a brilliant son."

"Thanks, Dad. So... what d'you want to talk about?"

"About my favorite subject – you, of course!"

"I love talking about me." What had Vader instructed him to meditate about? "Uh... my past, right? What I might have done differently." He stared at the gray ceiling, considering. "Well, I don't know what that would have been. I mean... like I said, everybody expected me to turn out bad."

"And just who," he asked in a snide Vader-voice, "is 'evvvverybody'?"

Luke heaved a sigh. "Do I have to keep telling you over and over? Owen and Beru and Ben!"

"Hardly 'everybody'."

All right, fine. So his teachers didn't know he was Vader's son... and his friends didn't. And the entire populations of Anchorhead and Mos Eisley didn't.

"Who else knew beside those three? Surely, my precious son, you didn't base the course of your life on the opinions of three people?"

Luke sat up. It was disconcerting to realize how much he could sound like his father. "I don't even need you here to talk to you!"

"Quit stalling. Someone else knew. Who?"

There was only one other, of course. "Me," he admitted quietly. "I knew. I'm the one who didn't expect anything from me. I'm the one who was sure I'd turn out badly. That's what you're saying, right?" For a moment, he forgot he was alone and waited for a reply.

But all the answers were tucked away in his own head. "Yeah, okay, that's what I'm saying. Owen and Beru and Ben may have labeled me, but I created the 'Son of Vader'... and so what? Big deal. Am I supposed to feel guilty? Or is this supposed to be like some big... revelation, when I suddenly 'see the light' and decide to change my life? Pah!"

With a snort, he closed his eyes. His father had given him vague instructions about meditating, but they were confusing and unclear. What he'd already learned about himself was disconcerting, so when in doubt...

Forget about it and take a nap.

- - - - -

Sleeping was supposed to be a refuge, but it definitely wasn't this time. He twisted and turned, sweating, heart racing, running in darkness, away from fire that licked at his legs, screaming as invisible hands cut off his oxygen supply and he was lost in the darkest place he had ever been, he couldn't see or hear or breath and the planet was shaking, shaking –

"Wake up!" a deep bass voice said sharply, and he was yanked upright.

Confused, he rubbed his eyes and blinked, his gasps echoing the pounding in his chest. "What?"

"You are having a nightmare." Darth Vader was sitting on the edge of his bed. "You were told to use sleep patches, why didn't you?"

"It's not night! I'm not sleeping, just taking a nap." He studied the black-clad form, trying to assess his father's level of anger. "Besides, patches are for an addict and I'm not an addict."

"You are not," Vader said, shocking him – but in a good way this time. "However, it is only thanks to the power of the Force that you are not. A normal human would be."

This was news. So if he couldn't become addicted, then there were probably all sorts of things that he could –

"No," the Sith said sharply. "The Force only works to prevent physical addiction. Psychological dependency is still possible... and such dependency would temper your access to the Force."

Yeah, well... he didn't really want to use spice anyway. His life was much more interesting now and he didn't need drugs to 'spice' it up. "How did you know I was having a nightmare?"

"I feel your strong feelings." Vader stood and walked to the desk, inspecting the empty containers from his lunch.

A light went on in his brain, flashing to get his attention. "Hey! There was something you said earlier about that... umm... I wasn't really paying attention."

"Not an unusual occurrence."

His cheeks heated. "You talk a lot, I can't listen to everything!"

"You are blaming me for your inability to pay attention?"

Luke sighed heavily. "Will you let me get to the point? You said that maybe I wasn't feeling my feelings, that maybe I was reflecting your feelings." The helmet inclined slightly, encouraging him to continue. "Then how will I know whose feelings I'm feeling?"

"With more experience, you will know. And if you are more honest with yourself, you will easily see the difference."

He considered. "Okay, but before, when you said that... I was feeling glad that I wasn't alone anymore because you're here. So if I was reflecting your feelings that means you were feeling the same thing. And that means you were lonely without me and you like me and you're glad I'm here!"

"Is that what it means?" Vader asked coolly, but there was a hint of discomfort in his voice.

"Yep," he said smugly. "Are you going to say I'm wrong... Father?"

It was Vader's turn to sigh. "How did you get to be so precocious?"

"That's better than obnoxious... isn't it?" he answered, a little uncertain if he was being insulted yet again.

"I suggest that your first educational tape be language skills." His father paused. "Precocious means that in some ways you are developed beyond your years. You can be very perceptive at times."

"Oh." He smiled a little, pleased. "I thought..."

"Speak." Was that a command or an encouragement?

"I thought you thought I was... stupid." Flushing, he realized how silly that sounded. "I mean..."

There was a longer than usual pause. Luke counted six wheezing breaths before his father spoke. "I regret if I have given you that impression. You are far from 'stupid'. You are, however, uneducated... a regrettable circumstance that we will rectify."

"Yes, Master."

Pause two wheezes. "As for my own education, I believe you will be an excellent challenge to my patience."

"Oh, yeah?" He smiled wickedly. "Wanna race? Which of us do you think will win?"

"I was not aware we were entering into a competition."

His grin widened. What the hell. He had a trick that always drove Uncle Owen crazy, and it was pretty much guaranteed to push his pop over the edge, too, and put a fast end to this race. "I was not aware we were entering into a competition."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I bet your pardon?" Luke echoed.

Vader sighed. Luke sighed.

Then Vader said nothing. Ten wheezes. Twenty wheezes. Thirty wheezes. Forty.

"Aren't you going to say anything else?" Luke blurted, unable to stand the silence any longer.

"Aren't you going to say anything else?" Darth Vader repeated in ominous, measured tones.

Luke gasped. "Oh, no! Don't you dare!"

"Oh, no. Don't you dare."

He stood and placed his fists on his waist. "Don't do that!"

"Don't do that."

"Stooooop!"

"Stop."

Stymied, Luke pressed his mouth shut tight and glared.

Vader unfolded his arms. If that mask could smirk, it was definitely smirking now. A black-gauntleted hand reached out and a tape flew into it. The other hand reached into the ebony cloak and brought out a small audiopad. They were both held out to Luke, who grudgingly accepted them.

His father left—he didn't just walk, he strutted, like he was proud of himself! Somehow Vader had gotten what he wanted, which apparently was for Luke to shut up and study, and Luke wasn't quite sure how it had happened.

Was there a tape here titled, Dad Vader 101?

- - - - -

A life spending studying was a life depreciated. "I'm filled with ennui," Luke said aloud, just in case Vader had lied about not auscultating to him. Now that he had consummated the language tape, he needed something else to transact. And his brain needed an intermission from all these new words.

Stretching, he walked across the room, shoved his hands in his pockets and stood in front of the wall, leaning forward until his head rested against the smooth surface that separated his quarters from his father's. "Luke to Dad," he muttered, concentrating on sending brain waves through the wall. "Disengage my door and emancipate me."

He turned his head sideways and looked at the door. A dozen times today he'd tried it, but he was locked in. It might be possible to take the panel apart and rewire it so he could escape, but after the ceiling duct incident he'd be pushing his luck with his dad and Captain Piett. Without much hope, he walked over to the door and pressed the release.

It opened.

"Great!" He raced into the corridor, then stopped and dashed back to his desk, snatching up the audiopad before heading out again.

Chances were he wouldn't be allowed to explore – and anyway, he didn't want to explore, he wanted to be with his dad. So he approached Vader's door, hesitating before raising his hand to knock. As he semi-expected, the door slid open before his fist could make contact with it.

"Hi!" he said brightly. "How was your day? I studied through the plentitude of the day! I got through the aggregate language tape!"

Lord Vader was sitting at his large desk, datapads strewn in front of him. The helmet turned to face him. "The what?"

"Uh... the language tape. I've effectuated language already."

His father sighed. "There is more than one tape."

"Oh." His good spirits faltered, then rebounded. "Well, I'll actualize the remainder in a timely manner. I was just wondering if you'd like to perambulate with me. Or if you'd prefer to have some stimulating intercourse."

Vader's wheeze was violent, like he was coughing. "What?"

Oh-oh. Pops wasn't in a good mood. "Uh... you know... a little walkin', a little talkin'. I'm bored." In case that didn't tweak the right buttons, he added glibly: "And lonely."

After an unnerving pause, his father replied, "I am busy and unable to comply with either of your wishes. I suggest that you review the tape you have completed. Be aware of multiple definitions. Also, you do not need to use all the words you learn; use a select few in moderation. And properly."

"I can't win!" Luke threw his hands in the air, then dropped onto the sofa without invitation. "You want me close but not too close. You want me to learn new words but not use them. You sure send a lot of mixed metaphors!"

"Messages!" Vader snapped. "Mixed messages!"

"I'm glad you agree." Luke nodded seriously before breaking into a wide smile. "I know, I was just yanking your chain."

"Yanking my chain," the Dark Lord repeated incredulously, his voice low. "So," he added after a moment, "you have reconsidered your need not to be choked."

"What! No!" Luke bolted upright and shook his head vigorously. "Nope! Not at all!"

"You made a promise in exchange for that favor. Do you remember what it was?"

Well... not exactly. "Uh... not to antagonize you? I'm not antagonizing, just... teasing." And since when was not being choked considered a 'favor'?

"Never tease a Sith," Vader said shortly. "If you promise to keep quiet, you may continue your study here."

"Okay, I promise!" Pleased, Luke stuck the audiobuds in his ears and pressed 'play'. The sofa was oversized, though he had a hard time imagining Vader lounging on it. Anyway, it was uncomfortable, so he rearranged himself to sit cross-legged. After a couple minutes, his legs became restless, so he slid down and hooked his right foot over the back of the sofa. He tried that position for thirty seconds, but the back was too high to be relaxing. So he stretched out, yawned loudly, crossed his ankles and closed his eyes, idly wondering if he could stay awake through the drone of the digitized voice. Maybe if he hummed a snappy tune...

"Sit at the desk."

Luke started. "Huh?" He lifted his head to see his father gesturing to the opposite end of his wide desk. "Cool! Thanks."

That end was too far away from his dad, so he grabbed the heavy chair. It screeched as he dragged it across the floor and deposited it across from the Sith. "What're you working on?"

"You promised to be silent," Vader answered without lifting his head.

"Quiet," Luke corrected. "Not silent." The reflective eye pieces looked at him. He could sort of see himself in their surfaces. "Sorry. I'll be silent."

He pretended to be listening to the tape, but he was secretly watching his dad punch the multiple datapads, moving from one to the other without hesitating. It was pretty impressive. He was probably doing something important, maybe moving troops around like on a galactic gameboard.

He wished really hard that his dad would show him what he was doing. Maybe you could teach me. Maybe I could help!

"Think silently."

Do what? "I don't know how."

Vader ignored him. Luke struggled to be quiet, but it was impossible. "Can I get something to eat? I'd be a lot silenter if I wasn't hungry."

"You may do whatever you want – in your room."

"Oh." He'd rather be hungry with his dad than eat alone again. "That's okay, I'll stay here and not eat."

"No. Your room. Go. Now."

"But – "

Vader raised his hand, palm outward, forestalling his protests. "You made a promise. I gave you multiple chances, but you did not keep it. You have forfeited your opportunity to stay here. Go."

"No!" He really, really didn't want to go. "I promise I won't – "

"I do not believe you. Go. If I have to tell you again, the consequences will be dire."

"That's so not fair! You just enjoy being mean!" he accused.

"Finally," Vader snarled, shaking his finger, "you begin to understand me!"

Luke rolled his eyes and stood. "Fine! I've been thwarted enough by you, I'm going!" He stalked to the door. "Next time you want some stimulating intercourse – good luck finding anybody who'll talk to you! I can tell you one thing for sure -- it won't be me!"

The only thing wrong with his exit was that the door wouldn't slam.

- - - - -

Hours later, he was still in a bad mood. The loud muttering about his father's unfairness was finished, but he still harbored dark thoughts and didn't bother to "think silently", whatever that meant.

So it wasn't really a surprise when the door slid open and the hulking black figure of Darth Vader filled the doorway, undoubtedly in lecture mode and ready to criticize.

"Have you completed your sulking?"

Luke made a face. "No." He folded his arms, fully prepared to remain in a stubborn state of righteous hurt until Vader apologized.

Fat chance. Vader didn't say another word, just folded his own arms. They stared at each other. Luke tried not to blink, but Helmet-Face had the advantage in a staring contest. "What!" Luke demanded.

No response.

"Oh, please! You're not expecting me to apologize, are you?"

The helmet tilted slightly. "For what would you apologize?"

"Exactly!" In the silence that followed, he noticed his fingers were tapping on his sleeves, so he uncrossed his arms and plunged his fists in his pockets. "I wasn't exactly being noisy!" he added defensively. "Okay, maybe I wasn't super-quiet, but it's not a crime! Sorry! You make such a big deal out of everything."

Nothing, not a response, nothing!

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Luke finally demanded, frustrated by the silence. "I said I was sorry!"

"For what are you sorry?"

"I'm sorry I didn't escape!" he snapped. "Krit! I'd rather be stuck on Tatooine than be here with you!"

"That can be arranged!" the Dark Lord rumbled, leaving Luke with a queasy feeling in his stomach. It sounded like his dad was actually getting mad.

"I'm kidding," he mumbled grudgingly. "I'm sorry I wasn't quiet. I'll be quiet now."

The Sith shook his head. "You do not understand." The anger vanished from his tone as quickly as it had arisen, but now he sounded disappointed, which was a thousand times worse.

Luke blinked, thinking quickly. "I broke a promise. I do understand. I'm sorry. I just... I didn't think that saying I'd be quiet was really a promise... it was more like a... hope."

A strange rasping sound startled him. Was that a laugh? He offered his father a tentative smile.

Vader walked toward his desk, almost like he was stalling. Luke watched carefully, practicing being quiet as he waited for his father to speak. Eventually he did.

"To give your word is a matter of honor. In the end, all a man has is his honor." His dad paused. "Every person makes mistakes. One cannot always keep one's word, but it is important to keep your honor. If your word must be broken, it should only be in the most extreme circumstance, for a critical reason."

Luke's feet shifted as he moved uneasily. "You mean I lost my honor because I didn't keep quiet enough?"

One black-gloved hand gestured sharply. "A promise is too important to be given lightly. Before you make a vow, consider if you truly intend and will have the ability to keep it."

He had a feeling that there was more to this lesson than Vader was saying. His pop was probably leaving the rest of it for him to figure out himself. Luke nodded. "Okay," and since that seemed inadequate, he added, "I'll think more about it."

"Good. And now have you completed your sulking?"

Luke grinned. "Mmm... I'm not sure."

"That's a pity. I had thought you might enjoy an excursion with me, but perhaps another time." The Sith turned to leave.

"Wait!" he said quickly. "What excursion?"

"A short trip in my personal shuttle. Deep space sprites have been spotted. I thought you might find the experience of viewing them to be interesting and informative. However..."

"Wow, space sprites!" Luke had no idea what those were, but didn't want to reveal his ignorance. "I'll go!" He hastened to his father and looked up at him. "I don't have to be quiet on this excursion, do I?"

"You do not," Vader affirmed.

"Okay." Luke followed him into the corridor. "And even though you didn't ask, you're forgiven."

"I see. For...?"

"For being cranky," he answered cheerfully. Then, because his father seemed to be in a good mood -- and because he wasn't quite forgiven -- Luke decided to point out something that he'd realized. "You know, you made a couple mistakes earlier today."

"Indeed. I am certain that you will edify me as to the nature of these mistakes."

"Indeed I will. One," he held up a finger as they waited for a lift, "you called me Lu— by my full name in the lift and two," second finger raised, "you gave me the audiopad after you told me you wanted me to meditate instead."

"You are correct," Vader agreed, and Luke smiled smugly. His cheeky grin died, though, when his father continued, "After our excursion, you may spend the rest of the evening in meditation."

"Krit," he grumbled under his breath, though his heart was light. "Thwarted again!"

- - - - -

"I am sorely tempted," Darth Vader said, "to strap down your hands."

Luke sent his father a disgusted look. "I won't touch anything - I promise." All right, the shuttle's controls were right in front of him, practically begging for him to use them, and maybe his dad was reading his mind - but he'd made a promise and after that sobering lecture on the same subject, he wasn't going to break it. But if Vader didn't trust him...

"Very well."

Surprised, he blinked and smiled, then stared out at space like he hadn't noticed his father trusting him. His fingers began to tap restlessly on the arm-grips of the copilot's seat, so he forced them to curl around the edges. Keep still, damnit! "What're those?" he asked, trying to distract his fingers.

"What?"

"The sparkly things. It looks like blowing sand. But there's no wind in space, right?"

"Those are deep space sprites."

"Those things?" he exclaimed, disappointed. "But... they're nothing. Just dots."

"What were you expecting?"

"Well... you know..." Luke shifted uncomfortably. He hated looking like an idiot. "You said sprites, so I thought sprites... you know... naked little girls with wings."

Vader uttered a very large noise that made Luke jump. Then he realized it must have been a bark of laughter. For a second he was embarrassed, but he decided that anything he could do to mellow his old man was a good thing. "I have a naked little sprite tattooed on my... um..."

"You do not. You have one tattoo, which will be removed."

The amusement in Vader's voice so distracted him that he almost missed the threat. "Oh, yeah?" He recovered quickly. "I'm keeping my tattoo! It's an expression of my personal freedom. In fact, I'm going to get another one, an x-wing fighter."

"An unfortunate choice. I would prefer you kept the TIE."

"There's nothing wrong with an x-wing," he mumbled, disconcerted by his father's sudden agreeableness. "It's not my fault -- I mean," he corrected hastily, remembering another lecture, "I agree that it's unfortunate that the x-wing has become the primary combat vehicle used by the rebels, but that doesn't detract from its overall... uh... fly-worthiness."

"Point taken," Vader said, his surprise not hidden from Luke's senses. "However, I feel that one tattoo is adequate as any young man's expression of freedom."

"Okay," he agreed quickly before his dad changed his mind again. "If you won't let me have another tattoo, I'll get pierced. Maybe my tongue."

"As long as the piercing comes with a closure mechanism."

Luke rolled his eyes and looked to the side, struggling to hide his grin from his dad. The holonews had never shown this side of Darth Vader, his wit and humor. What else didn't he know about his sire?

His attempt at solemnity was hopeless. He burst into laughter, both at his dad's joke and his own overwhelming happiness.

"You find my statement amusing?"

"I'm not laughing at you," he said hastily, knowing how fast his father could change moods, "I'm laughing with you."

"I am not laughing."

"Oh." Vader didn't sound even a little convincing, Luke decided. "That's an unfortunate choice."

The Sith sighed. "Do you wish to learn about sprites or not?"

"Sure," he answered cheerfully. "I'll learn whatever you want to teach me, Dad."

"It is bad enough that you think that ridiculous word," his father said snappishly. "Do not say it."

"All right, all right!" He out-sighed his father loudly and dramatically. "Go ahead, tell me about sprites. Hey, maybe I have them confused with angels! Are angels naked girls with wings? Have you ever seen one?"

He was noticing that when it took his father a long time to respond to a simple question, that meant the question wasn't as simple as Luke had intended. Or the answer wasn't. He wanted to tell his dad to never mind, it wasn't important, just tell him about sprites, when Vader began to speak.

"Once. Or at least I thought I had. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But she was no angel; she was only human, with all the flaws and frailties of our species. She wished for the impossible... and would settle for nothing less."

Luke let the silence stretch for awhile, hoping to hear more, but it finally became obvious that his father was lost in his memories. "What happened to her?" he prompted.

Vader roused himself physically, shifting in the pilot's seat. "I risked everything to save her, but she betrayed me and I killed her. Or... I thought I had killed her. Now I don't even know if she truly betrayed me. I suppose I will never know," he added in a near-whisper.

"Oh." Luke stared out at the rapidly disappearing sprites. The heaviness of his father's mood was smothering. It filled the cabin, oppressive and stifling. No wonder, with all those dark thoughts. How could his dad kill someone he wanted to save? "Can I fly?" he asked, anxious to lighten the atmosphere.

"What?"

"Can I fly the shuttle? You said you'd teach me. Now would be a good time, don't you think?" He forced a smile as the blank mask turned toward him. "Please?"

Vader looked away. "Rest your hands on the controls."

"You're gonna let me fly?" Really, he had no idea that a simple 'please' could work so well!

"I will take the craft through some common maneuvers. Rest your hands around the copilot's throttle and panel. They will reflect my control. Feel the way the ship responds to different pressures and movements."

It wasn't real flying, but it was the closest he'd come since his old 'hopper. Time seemed to speed past as his father ran through simple moves first, then took them into trickier ones -- a spin that left Luke's stomach somewhere in the rear compartment, sideways swoops that made him laugh and Vader chuckle, and some heart-thumping action that involved racing backward, then shooting straight up.

"Wow!" he breathed when the shuttle slowed again. "That was something else!"

"Adequate," his father said smugly, "for a shuttle. Fighters are much more responsive and agile."

"Really? I thought this was pretty amazing!" Luke stretched his arms up, punching his fists in the air in pure glee.

"Leave your hands on the controls," Vader said mildly. "A pilot never relinquishes command of his vessel."

"I'm not piloting," he protested, though he curled one hand around the throttle and ran the other over the panel of buttons, enjoying the power he felt thrumming beneath them.

"You are," his father said so quietly that it took a second to sink in.

"I am!" He snatched his hands away, then hastily put them back. "I'm not! You're messin' with me!"

Two black-gauntleted hands rested on the arms of the pilot's seat.

Luke gulped. Tentatively, he pushed the throttle to the right, sending the ship into a sharp dive. "Whoa!"

"This shuttle does not respond to verbal commands."

"Very funny!"

"Remember what you learned, how the controls felt when I was piloting." Vader's voice lowered, becoming soft and hypnotic. "Do not think about what you need to do. Close your eyes... close them, Luke... and now simply become part of the ship. It will respond to your slightest wish... gently... yes, like that, good. Become the ship... see what it sees... feel for asteroids, space debris, anything that might be in your way... avoid it or move it aside. Do not be frightened, I am with you... you can feel my presence... you can feel the shuttle... and still you feel yourself, separate yet one with everything that surrounds you. Good boy."

He wanted to open his eyes but he could almost see with them closed. He felt things around him, unfamiliar things, living things, yet he wasn't afraid of them. And it wasn't just because his dad was with him. All the strangeness wasn't scary... it wasn't even all that strange. It was stuff that was inside him, had always been inside him, hiding, waiting for this moment. Waiting for him to wake up.

"Good. Now open your eyes."

It was difficult to adjust to a reality that seemed suddenly one-dimensional. Luke blinked a few times, struggling to rouse himself. There was a big ship in the distance. "Where are we?"

"You have flown for nearly one hour and brought us back to the Devastator. I will take over the final approach. Rest."

"I'm tired," he complained sleepily. "What was that?"

"In time, these experiences will not tire you and you will have more awareness and control. 'That' was the Force. You connected with it like..." Vader sighed.

"Yeah?" Luke mumbled.

"Like a natural. Like I did." That was definitely pride in his father's tone. "You have done very well, my son. Now rest. I will take care of the rest."

"Okay," he yawned. "Tha's a really, really big ship. An' you're the boss of it."

"Yes. Go to sleep."

He didn't have the energy to answer.

- - - - -

The only good thing about living on the ship was being near his dad. Otherwise it was pretty boring. He was stuck inside all the time with nothing interesting or fun to do. He missed fresh air, walking on the ground, climbing hills, sunlight, nighttime, new people, old friends, and young people in general. Studying, even the Force training his dad was doing with him, was no substitute for friends. As the months had passed, Vader had allowed him a little more freedom. The latest 'privilege' was that he could use the officer's lounge. "Big deal," Luke muttered, standing in the doorway of the spacious room, studying the possibilities.

Days ago he had reached an inescapable conclusion: officers were boring. Or maybe they were like him, bored because they were stuck on the ship. They read a lot or talked privately, shutting up and smiling politely (though warily) when he approached. There were always games of one sort or another going on, but they involved gambling and his dad didn't give him an allowance.

Today was no different than any other day. There was nothing for him to do here, and his dad was acting incommunicado, locked in his quarters, probably meditating or doing something equally dull. With a discouraged sigh, Luke left the rec area and walked slowly back toward his room. Waiting for the lift, he noticed that the call plate was loose and began to pry it from the wall. Maybe he could fix –

"Move along. Move along."

He glared up at the recorded voice. Every time he touched something, that damned voice echoed out of a speaker! He just knew that somewhere in the ship an ensign was watching his every move and taking delight in pushing a button to initiate the scolding voice. "Someday I'll find you!" he threatened loudly to the ceiling.

Two passing officers stared at him, then averted their gazes.

Scowling, he stomped into the lift. Today of all days, he deserved a little fun. It was his birthday! He was finally seventeen and here he was, little more than a prisoner on an Imperial warship. If it wasn't for his dad –

His dad couldn't have forgotten his birthday, could he? Wait -- did he even know it was Luke's birthday? "I'll bet he doesn't!" That explained the silence. Well, maybe with a little poke-in-the-ribs reminder his dad would arrange for a cake and come up with a great gift... maybe his own shuttle – or better, lightsaber lessons! It was about time his dad let him practice with a real lightsaber instead of a stick.

Out of the lift, he turned right and headed for Dad Vader's quarters. The door didn't slide open for him like it usually did. Son to Dad, he sent. I need to tell you something really important.

Nothing. Luke leaned his forehead against the door and thumped it a few times, not too hard. Are you meditating? Let me in and I'll wait quietly until you're done. He could do that now, be quiet. It had taken a lot of practice – and some reminding from his dad – but Luke considered it quite an achievement. Please?

Success! Cautiously he stepped inside and peered around. It was darker than usual; in fact, nearly all the lights were out. The viewscreen at the far end was open and Luke went to stand in front of it, staring out at the starfield. They were probably tracking down Rebels again, which meant another battle that he could only watch, his dad decreed, from the safety of this very spot. It wasn't that he was anxious to fight the Rebels; he still hadn't figured out if he was for them or against them. But when his dad went out in a TIE, Luke desperately wanted to be with him just in case the worst happened. If his dad was going to die, Luke wanted to be with him. Well... preferably he would save them both with some heroic act, but if not, then he'd rather die with his dad than go back to his old life. Or worse, become King Ugly's slave.

He leaned backward and peeked around the corner. The meditation pod was closed. Someday he wanted to get in there and shut it, just to see what it was like, but his dad had made him promise not to, which made the attempt more difficult. Promises, honor, studying endlessly, Force training, keeping quiet... his dad demanded a lot from him, but so far nothing that Luke hadn't been able to accomplish.

He decided to use this quiet time to identify the few planets that were visible and remind himself of what he'd learned about them. Civilizations, industry, agriculture, sports teams... That occupied him for a several minutes until he heard the whoosh of the pod opening. He practiced patience and remained still, hands clasped loosely behind his back, not turning until he heard his father's breathing.

Smiling cautiously because he sensed some tension in the older man, he said, "Hi. Is this a bad time?"

"A bad time?" Vader echoed, and Luke flinched at the sharpness.

"Uh...yeah. I can come back later. Later today, I mean, because—"

"Today?" the Sith interrupted. "This day that I have despised beyond all others, every year for the last seventeen years? Why would you think this is a bad time?"

Dumbfounded, Luke stared at his father. His mouth was hanging open and he knew he must look stupid, but he couldn't think of one single thing to say. "Uh..."

"Every year, this hated day reminds me of the worst moments of my life – as if I require reminding!" Vader began to pace, most of his words turning into mumbles that Luke couldn't hear. But others were way too clear. "... Padme... nightmare..."

Oh. It was becoming clear. "I didn't mean to kill her," Luke whispered miserably. "I couldn't help being born."

A few more mumbles, then Vader whirled and stalked over to him. "What are you blathering about?" he demanded.

"My mother!" he snapped back, his own anger rising. "She died giving birth to me, right? Is that why you're mad at me?"

"You are making no sense."

More than anything, he hated when his father said that to him, especially in such a scornful tone. "It's my BIRTHDAY!" he shouted. "It's my birthday and I killed my mother and that's why you hate this day!"

Vader jerked back. "Your birthday?" He shook his head and then said, "I see. Yes, of course. Padme had to live long enough to bear you." The helmet tilted to one side. "But you did not kill her, young one. I did."

Luke took a few deep breaths. "What do you mean?"

The Dark Lord crossed to the viewport. The light from a thousand stars reflected off the helmet. "Obi-Wan must have kept her alive long enough to give birth. Then he stole you. That explains much." A long, ragged sigh came from his father. "My master did not lie to me as I feared; I did kill my beloved."

"What?" He sank into a hard chair, staring at the cloaked figure. "Why?"

"She was my angel," Vader whispered as if to himself. "I loved her above all others."

...she was no angel; she was only human... I risked everything to save her, but she betrayed me and I killed her...

It felt like there wasn't any air for him to breathe. Luke struggled to inhale before he could force out the words. "Then I guess it's good that you don't love me. Maybe I'll live for awhile longer."

Silence lasted so long that he thought maybe Vader hadn't heard him. Which would be for the best; that had probably been a stupid thing to say. But eventually his father turned.

"I have been too protective of you; I see that now. You do not know me as a Sith Lord. You do not understand and appreciate the acts of which I am capable. You do not respect my Dark powers. You do not respect me."

"Sure I do," he said hastily. "I'm sorry, I just meant — "

One gauntleted hand raised for silence. "Let us become better acquainted. I will tell you some of what I have done in my life, so that you will not be surprised in the future," Vader said quietly.

"I really don't want — "

"You 'wants' do not concern me. Sit," he commanded in a strong voice when Luke began to rise. "You will listen. You will learn of my path to the Dark Side. When I have finished, you will know me better than anyone, save my master. Then you will understand your own path and your future in the Empire."

His stomach twisted. He had a bad feeling that what he was about to hear would be awful, like the massacre on Falleen. "Father, you don't — "

"Silence. I will not tell you again." Darth Vader pulled out a chair and sat opposite him, their knees almost touching, so that Luke was forced to stare at the emotionless mask. "My path to true power began on Tatooine when I was about your age..."

- - - - -

He felt ill... no, old. Luke stared out at the starfield. He often saw Vader standing here, and he supposed that he'd begun subconsciously imitating his father.

The thought disturbed him, and he turned his back on the stars, slouching against the viewport. How far could imitation go before his wrong choices began to mirror his father's? Force knew, he'd already made a lot of wrong choices in his seventeen years... but none had had the repercussions of the choices Anakin Skywalker had made at the same age.

Or had they? He had ended up here, in Vader's custody, destined to follow in his footsteps. Why should he hope to turn out differently?

Free will, his conscience whispered. "Choices," he agreed aloud. "The choices I make will determine my future... not some weird prophecy or a 'destiny' that I have no direction over."

He sent a troubled look at the closed meditation pod. Vader had finished his long recitation of evil acts – almost like he was purging himself and shifting the burdens to his son – then retreated to the pod without further comment, leaving Luke to brood alone.

If his father's synopsis of his life could be summed up in a couple words, Luke decided the words would be 'obsession' and 'love'. Both the lack of love and the overpowering force of it. His dad had very little compassion for masses of beings, but possessive and self-absorbed love for a few. That combination made life dangerous for him and everyone who came in contact with him.

Love and obsession were not traits that Luke felt he shared with his father, and maybe his lack of intensity would save him. Oh, he could love, but his love was quieter, steadier. Despite the atrocities he had heard described today, he still loved his father. Darth Vader. He loved Darth Vader, the man the galaxy feared. Strangely, he felt no fear. Today he had heard of murders his father had committed -- horrifically violent acts committed even against children, ugly acts that had brought involuntary tears to his eyes -- but instead of making him feel afraid or hate his dad, he felt sad for him. His dad needed someone to take care of him and teach him the difference between right and wrong. There wasn't anyone who could do that except Luke Skywalker, so...

"Krit. I have to reform."

Well, okay. He could be a hero, all good and pure and just. He fervently hoped he wouldn't end up being boring, too. Luke crossed to his father's meditation pod and sat on the floor outside it, determined to out-wait Vader's sulking. What he really wanted to do was run away. Escape to a planet, find some air to breathe, be free again, do whatever he wanted even if it was something stupid like rolling down a dune –

"So. You wish to flee from me."

Luke started. "How did you get out without me hearing?" He turned and studied the Dark Lord. Anger still roiled just below the surface – ah, that was why he hadn't heard the pod opening, his mind was overwhelmed by his father's emotions. Anger and... fear. Yeah, Darth Vader was afraid. Afraid of losing again. "Not really," he replied, carefully gauging his dad's mercurial mood. "I'd like to be out of this ship for awhile. On a planet. With air and ground. Sort of like a vacation."

Vader sat back in the chair. Bright lights reflected on his helmet and armor. Maybe that's what he did in the pod, get shined and polished. "You are afraid of me now."

Luke tilted his head. Vader couldn't read him as well as he could read his dad. "No." His voice was soft. "I suppose I should be, but I'm not." The air between them was tense, as if his dad was waiting for... what? The rejection that he saw as inevitable? "You're my father."

Black-gloved fingers clenched around the arms of the chair. Luke felt his heart like it was thumping against his ribs. He swallowed. "The things you've done... that you've told me about... they sicken me. I don't understand how you can kill so easily, especially little kids. But..." To his horror, he felt tears welling in his eyes. He swiped his shirt sleeve across them. "But you're still my dad," he said, choking on the simple words, "and I love you."

In the quiet that followed, Vader made a small beckoning gesture. Luke scooted over on the floor, leaning back against his dad's leg. A gloved hand rested heavily on his head, and they relaxed in a companionable silence.

"What am I going to do with you?" his father mused eventually.

"What are your choices?" Luke grinned, happy to stay just as they were at this moment.

"Hide you, kill you, let Palpatine have you."

Ouch. "If those are the only choices, I'd prefer the first one."

Vader didn't respond to that suggestion. "There are only ever two Sith at a time. A master and an apprentice."

"So I can be your apprentice! No, wait!" He changed his mind. "I don't want to be a Sith... do I?"

"I am the apprentice," Vader said heavily. "Palpatine is my master, Darth Sidious."

Luke sighed. "Why do you guys always have so many names? Anakin Skywalker was a perfectly good name, you didn't have to change it."

"You are avoiding the issue at hand."

"What issue?" He pulled his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "You mean that there's no room for me to be a Sith? Fine, I don't want to be one anyway. I could be your... assistant or something. I'll study hard." Vader's cruel words from weeks ago came back to him. "If I get smart enough, will I be of use to you?"

"You are my son. You are priceless to me."

"Oh." He hid a pleased smile in his sleeve. "So I can be your helper. Or...did you really mean it when you said you might give me to King Ugly? I don't want to be a slave."

"Is that how you see me, as his slave?" The tone was dangerously low.

"Do you always do what he tells you to?" he retorted.

"Usually, because he's right."

"But not always?" He turned his head to look at his father's mask. "Does he know about me?"

"I am certain he does, though I have said nothing to him."

He leaned back again, unwilling to lose this rare moment of physical and emotional closeness. "Someday he'll call you back to Coruscant, won't he? Then what will you do with me?"

"That, my child, is the problem."

It was finally becoming clear. "You don't want to take me to him." His dad didn't reply. "Why not? I mean, that's great, I don't want to go, but... why not?"

Vader sighed raggedly, hesitating before admitting, "You are all I have. I will not lose you."

"Figures," Luke replied sarcastically, though he was actually deeply touched, "for a second, I thought it would be about me, but noooooo, it's always about you."

The Sith Lord stood abruptly. "Out!" he thundered, pointing toward the door. "Go study! Make yourself useful! Find something to do! Go!"

"Fine." Luke got to his feet, grumbling under his breath. "Tell a guy the truth and look what happens. Always so grouchy. Why can't – Hey!" He raised his voice. "It's my birthday, remember? You owe me a present." He ignored the fact that Darth Vader now had his hands planted on his waist in that intimidating stance he liked to affect. "How about a real lightsaber lesson? Or a flying lesson? Or a cake? A cake would be good..." His voice trailed off, but he refused to surrender. He copied Vader's stance. "I'm your son, you love me even if you don't wanna say it – so how about at least a 'Happy Birthday, Son'?"

The big arms lowered and Vader shook his head, but it wasn't a negative. "Very well. A flying lesson, 1900 hours."

"Great!" He backed slowly toward the door. "A cake would not be amiss."

"'Amiss'?" his father quoted.

"I'm sticking with small new words for awhile."

"A wise decision."

"Yeah. See ya." Once at the door, he slipped through quickly.

Humor was the easiest way to deal with his dad, but it didn't change the harsh facts. Somehow he had to get his head around the realities of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker and how a hero could transform into something quite different.

It happened to his dad; Luke didn't want it to happen to him, too.

- - - - -

A squad of TIES's was lined up in the hanger bay, surrounded by mechanics who crawled under and climbed over them. Darth Vader stood in the center of the flurry of activity, arms folded, probably giving everyone heart palpations by his silent presence.

Luke kicked a lost bolt in front of him like a ball as he criss-crossed the wide expanse and finally stopped next to his dad, capturing the bolt under his foot. "Expecting trouble?" he asked. "Or just hoping for it?"

"I always expect trouble." His pop looked down on him. "It is imperative to keep fighting vessels in peak condition, ready for immediate launch."

He knew a lecture when he heard one. "Yessir! I'll remember that when I'm put in command."

"Good," Vader said dryly. "Let us reinforce the importance of this lesson. Take that TIE," he pointed, "and follow me out."

"Who, me?" he said stupidly, feeling his eyes go wide. "My own ship? You mean - " But his dad was striding off toward another TIE. Luke followed hurriedly, climbing into the vessel that Vader had selected for him. His dad had pointed out the basics of the controls, but he'd never flown in one. Vader must be feeling really guilty about forgetting his birthday to let him do this.

His pulse was fluttering erratically as he maneuvered the TIE out of the dock. Oddly, the space seemed a lot smaller than when he and his dad had taken out bigger ships. It was enough to rattle a guy's nerves, but he managed not to hit the sides of the docking bay (okay, his TIE was actually dwarfed by the bay doors, but it still felt tight) and get safely into open space where he could follow his dad's TIE. His maneuvering was a little irregular at first, but within a couple minutes he had the feel of the ship and was experimenting, looping and curving as he followed his dad's straight path away from the Devastator.

"Where are we going?" he asked over the voice-activated inter-ship com.

"We are not 'going' anywhere. We are moving clear of the ship so that you may practice."

"As if I would hit the Devastator," he teased. "You have no faith in me."

"I have faith in the Force, young one, including the Force in you."

"Oh." He supposed that was Deeply Meaningful, since his father talked about the Force like it was a religion, but it was hard to feel pious about virtuous words coming from a man who'd done the things his father had done. Still, despite what he'd done, Vader was second in command of the universe, so Luke felt he had a lot of wiggle room when it came to any mistakes he might make. Not that he would ever do anything of the magnitude his dad had done, like killing little -

His ship jolted and rocked. "Hey! What?"

"Pay attention. You are under attack." With that, his dad fired off another practice burst.

Luke reacted immediately, but not quickly enough to totally avoid being 'hit'. "You should've warned me!"

"Enemies will give no warning – neither will friends. You must always be prepared to defend yourself. You are armed. Fire at me."

"Armed? Not with real—" He jerked the stick back and sped away from another flash from his dad's weapons. So you wanna play rough? Okay, watch this!

It turned out to be a real struggle to get the other TIE in his sights. His dad was a helluva pilot, no argument there. Vader took the little fighter through maneuvers Luke had never seen, not even in a holo-game. Luke would get the TIE in his crosshairs, but it would vanish before he could fire. After several minutes of getting more and more frustrated, he shouted, "Hold still!" and, surprisingly, his dad did. The TIE lined up beautifully in his scope. He held his breath, pulled the trigger, and – the fake laser exploded harmlessly in the empty place where the TIE had been.

Luke dredged up every curse he could remember.

"Language," his father chastised over the com.

"Language?" Wow, his dad sure had his priorities screwed up. "You sure have your priorities screwed up," he called, putting in motion a brilliant idea that had just occurred to him. "You wipe out the Jedi, you massacre children, you kill – "

"How dare you!" Darth Vader shouted, and Luke took the opportunity to fire his weapons.

"Gotcha," he declared smugly, watching the other TIE wobble.

"Congratulations. Winning by cheating is still a victory. Of course, you have lost your honor again."

"What?" He flushed angrily and fired again, but this time his dad was faster. Vader's ship flipped over, raced above Luke and dropped down on his tail, firing harmless blasts that Luke was hard pressed to avoid. His father's condemnation was a distraction. It wasn't fair! How could his dad criticize him after the things he'd done? "I didn't cheat," he mumbled, with so little conviction that he didn't even persuade himself.

"You – " His dad was interrupted when, without warning, two teardrop-shaped ships dropped from nowhere some distance in front of them. Were they Rebels or pirates? As Luke stared, mesmerized, blazing missiles shot from their deployed foils, streaking by him close enough to make his TIE vibrate.

"Get back to the ship!" Vader barked harshly.

"I'm not leaving you here alone!" He craned his neck, looking around for the fast-moving vessels. "Those were just warning shots! Who are they?"

"Back to the ship!" His dad's TIE dove in front of him. "That's an order!"

"I'm not - "

"You have no weapons!" Vader roared, and he fired at the intruders, proving that his ship carried more armament than just practice lasers.

Luke couldn't bring himself to obey. Besides, a rush of TIE's exploded from the Devastator, jetting around him as they headed out toward the attackers. Not that they were needed. Two bright flashes appeared in quick succession, and both ships were obliterated by his dad's skill.

The TIE's swarmed like insects, some of them returning to the landing bay while the rest began to patrol in orderly formation as if they expected further attacks. Luke flew behind his father back to the ship, dismayed to note that he was shaking – but with excitement, not fear. He made an Academy-perfect landing, jumped down from the TIE, paused to be sure his knees would hold him upright, then hurried to his dad.

He waited until Vader finished speaking with the squad commander and dismissed him. Luke grinned. "Next time, I get real guns! I want to fight, too! That was terrific - you were amazing!"

The Sith Lord stared at him, and Luke could have sworn that the mask was scowling. "Today you have seen once again how easy – and how satisfying – it is to kill," the voice hissed. "We are not unalike, boy."

Shocked, Luke watched his father stalk away in a dramatic swirl of midnight. A shiver ran through him. He hated when Vader held up a mirror and he saw himself reflected. He'd been born Son of Vader, and over the last year he supposed he'd earned that label. But it no longer seemed like such an evil person to be. He and his dad shared a lot of feelings and abilities, both good and bad. It was just a question of how and what they chose to use. There was no reason his dad couldn't change his mind and decide to be good. It was never too late to change. Biggs had told him that a couple times, and Luke hadn't really appreciated its significance until now.

It was a great lesson and he was determined to teach it to his father. The question was: how? His dad carried a lot of guilt, but it was protected and held in place by a wall of defiance and anger that wasn't too hard to penetrate with little jabs and humor. But how to tear it down completely and reach deep inside his father to help him change? Was that even possible?

And how was he going to change his dad, when he still did things like cheating?

"Did you enjoy your first close look at battle, Luke?"

He turned away from watching his dad scold the admiral. "Hey, Cap," he said with a touch of unease. "Yeah, I guess... I didn't get to fight."

"Perhaps the next time Lord Vader takes you for practice, you will be armed." Piett looked slightly perplexed, as if he couldn't decide whether Luke should have weapons or not.

"Probably." He had visions of accidentally blasting his dad to smithereens. "Maybe. Who were they, do you know?"

"Lord Vader suspects they were hijackers." Piett frowned. "Whoever or whatever they expected to hijack, I'm sure they were as startled to drop out of hyperspace and see the Devastator as we were to see them."

They walked through the hangar bay, Luke only partially paying attention as the captain made visual inspections of the fighters. He wondered if Piett knew that Vader was his father. It would be great to have someone to talk to... ah, but there was no way an officer would speak honestly about his dad. Everyone was too afraid. Everyone except him.

"Would you let me work down here?" he asked impulsively. "I'm really good at fixing things, and I swear I wouldn't hurt the ships."

Piett just stared at a point over his head.

Luke shifted his feet. "I want to – to contribute. I've been here for months with nothing to do."

"Nothing to do?" a deep voice repeated.

Wincing, he turned around to face Lord Vader. "You," the Dark Lord pointed at Luke, "come with me. I will give you something to do."

Luke sighed as he watched his father's retreating back. Piett gave him a small, possibly sympathetic, smile, the kind of good-bye smile you gave to someone on their way to execution. "Perhaps we can find a way for you to contribute – if Lord Vader permits."

"That'll be the day." Luke followed his pop into the corridor and tagged behind him on a wordless journey that ended in his dad's practice room. "What're we doing here?" he asked, though it was obvious – his dad was going to let him have the lightsaber lesson he'd asked for. He must feel guiltier than Luke realized.

Vader didn't answer – always an unnerving sign – but instead waved his hand at a cabinet across the room that obediently opened to reveal a lightsaber.

"Take it. Not that way," Vader scolded when Luke began to walk over. "Use the Force."

He closed his eyes, focusing the way he'd been taught. As if he were dreaming, his hand extended, fingers opening. The saber rattled, but didn't moved. He tried again, concentrating harder. To his relief, it raised into the air and floated over.

Half a meter from his outstretched hand, it clattered to the floor.

"Sorry," he apologized nervously, bending to retrieve it. "I wish I could do that as well as you." Maybe some flattery would mellow out the big guy. "My teleporting is sort of hit-and-miss. Hey, this is my lightsaber from Tatooine!" He flicked it on. The blade made a loud humming noise and sent a vibration running along his arm. "Krit, it's heavier than it looks." He hefted it in both hands and swung it in figure eights. "Cool! Where's the practice droid?"

"Right here." Darth Vader snapped on his own fire-red saber.

Luke swallowed. "You, uh... want me to practice with you?" Dueling Vader on one of his happy days would be intimidating, but on a cranky day... "Maybe that's not the greatest idea for my first time. I might accidentally – "

"Block."

The red saber swung and Luke instinctively crossed it with his own blade, staggering back under the power behind the strike. It wasn't followed by a second blow, so he lowered the saber to his side. "Really, I think I should practice with a droid, don't you think? I wouldn't want to – "

"Block."

Three powerful blows, one after the other in quick succession. He managed to parry one and dance out of the way of the other two. "Dad, what're you - ?"

"You require discipline. Stop talking and block properly."

Oh, Sithspit! The blows kept coming, pushing him backward in circles around the room. Never vicious blows, but Vader was aggressive, pushing him, challenging him, and worse – Vader was getting angry, Luke could feel it in the depths of his soul.

What idiot was just gloating that he wasn't afraid of Darth Vader! What moron had thought that he knew how to 'handle' Vader? Krit!

That would be the same idiotic moron who was now out of breath and half-stumbling. "Stop! Okay, I surrender! Whatever! I'm done! Stop!"

"You have more to learn. Why should I obey you when you do not obey me?" The next blow was the hardest yet, and he reeled back, barely able to hang onto his saber.

So that was what this was about! Just because he didn't want to leave his dad behind to die in battle, he was being punished! "Bastard!" he shouted, his own anger flaring to life and driving away the fear. A surge of adrenaline gave him strength and he slashed wildly at his father. The blow glanced off his dad's arm and he hesitated, horrified, holding his breath as his dad grunted in pain. Then Vader's blade swung so quickly that it was barely a brilliant flash in the air, but it sent his lightsaber flying. It turned itself off as it skittered across the floor. But what was that wrapped around its hilt?

Luke stared at his hand. The lightsaber wasn't there and... his hand wasn't there. There was his cuff and a little blood and –

He howled in shock and pain, clutching the wrist to his chest. Wide-eyed, he stared blankly at the motionless cloaked figure. He felt... strange. Light-headed. Woozy. Breathless. "D...Dad?"

The red light vanished and the dark figure let loose a string of curses, some of which Luke had never heard but hoped he would remember. "Language," he mumbled automatically.

"Hush." A strong arm locked around his shoulder and hustled him out of the room.

The... stump... began to throb. "Where's my hand?" Luke shivered. Leaning against the wall of the lift, he closed his eyes but the motion made him nauseous so he opened them again, willing himself not to throw up. What had just happened? He tried to look at Vader, but the elevator stopped and he was hurried along before he could focus.

They landed in sickbay. "Well, well," Doc said too cheerfully, "what have we here? An amputation? Did you bring the detached member, m'lord?"

Wordlessly, Vader handed the physician a hand. My hand. Luke stared at it. It didn't look alive. It wasn't moving. The fingers were curled as though they still held the lightsaber. "That's my hand," he said aloud, looking down at his cuff, expecting to see it there, too.

Doc turned the hand over, examining it with interest while Vader pushed Luke to sit on a gurney. Vader's hand pressed down on his shoulder, as if he thought Luke was going to float away. "I can't fly," he muttered.

"I know," Vader said quietly. "Well, Doctor?" and his voice changed suddenly, becoming loud and impatient.

"Impressive. Of course, as you are well aware, m'lord, lightsaber amputations can't be repaired." Doc kept talking, but Luke didn't hear the next bit. He would be one-handed for the rest of his life. Maybe he should be glad his dad hadn't aimed lower and cut off his legs. Like Kenobi had done to his dad. "...will take awhile to make one in the proper size. Luke, why don't you just relax..."

Without a clue how he got there, he found himself lying down. He yawned. There didn't seem much point in staying awake, so he...

... wasn't sleepy after all. Luke yawned again and stretched his arms over his hands, interlinking his fingers and –

Hands! He opened his eyes and stared at his outstretched limbs. Yeah, he had two hands! What a nightmare that had been! He could've sworn it was real, but –

"How are you feeling?"

His arms dropped to rest across his chest and he turned his head on the pillow. Doc was sitting by his bed. "What're you doing here?"

"Where else would I be?"

"Uh..." This wasn't his quarters. "Where am... Oh." Sickbay. So it hadn't been a nightmare. "He chopped off my hand."

"Lightsabers don't chop, they slice."

"Too much information." Grimacing, he pushed himself into a sitting position. He felt dizzy for a second, then he was fine. "You put my hand back on." He flexed the fingers a few times. They felt odd. Alien. "What's wrong with it?"

"It's a prosthetic." Doc held out his own (real?) hand and took hold of Luke's fingers. He pulled out a needle and poked three times before Luke snatched his hand away. "Did you feel that?"

"Yes! Stop stabbing me." His dad had all prosthetic limbs. Luke hadn't realized that fake ones appeared so real. Maybe his dad didn't look so bad under that armor. He turned the hand over. It even had lines in its palm... but not his lines. "Do you think it will tan?"

"No."

Luke rubbed his hands together. They both got warmer. "It seems to work okay."

"Of course it does. I am an excellent surgeon." The medic studied his face. "If you grow further, it will need to be replaced."

"Oh." He had a vision of himself as big as his dad, with one tiny hand.

Machinery around sickbay hummed quietly, reminding him of the lightsaber. There wasn't much more to say about his hand, at least not to Doc. "Thanks for fixing it."

"You're welcome. Now it's time for you to surrender this bed for someone who needs it. You've been lounging here long enough." Doc opened a small cabinet behind him.

"I have?" He slid off the bed, finally noticing that he was wearing a plain green shirt and matching loose trousers. "How long have I been here?"

The physician tossed his clothes at him. "Nine days," he said shortly.

Luke picked up his tunic and looked first at the bloody cuff of his tunic, then at Doc. "Why? Did something go wrong?"

"Don't ask me, I'm only the doctor. I have no say about what goes on in sickbay – everything is done as Lord Vader commands."

One day that sarcasm would get Doc in trouble. Although so far it had worked pretty well for Luke. "Okay, thanks anyway!" he called after the departing physician.

Hurriedly he pulled on his clothes. Nine days! Time to track down his father and find out what was going on. He paused and looked in the mirror, running his new hand through his hair. What a confusing mess... and what a memorable, horrible, awful, miserable, depressing, secret-revealing birthday it had been. The only part that remotely seemed fair was that every year from now on when his dad brooded about the worst day of his life, he would also have to remember that he had chopped off his son's hand on his birthday.

"Next year," he scolded his reflection, "just settle for a cake."

- - - - -

His study tapes were crushed and strewn across the floor of his quarters, along with the remnants of his computer, desk, and chair. The hulking figure of Darth Vader waited for him amidst the wreckage, arms folded. There was no anger radiating from the Dark Lord, so Luke surmised that the destruction had taken place sometime in the intervening nine days. You could have cleaned up, he thought, hoping that the message wasn't transmitted to his father.

Vader simply stared at him.

"I know why you were so mad," Luke said finally, after discarding several conversation openers that all involved accusations like 'why did you chop off my hand?'.

"Are you inferring that I mutilated you deliberately? I did not."

"I know." He rubbed the alien wrist. "But if something happens because you're angry, is it really an accident?"

His dad chose to ignore that question. "If I was angry, it was because I was worried. You disobeyed me. You could have been killed."

By the hijackers or by you? He shrugged. "That too, I suppose." He let the silence drag on until Vader was forced to ask:

"What else?"

His new palm was fascinating. Luke pretended to be engrossed in examining it. "Because of the things you told me that you didn't want to tell me."

"You are not making sense."

"Stop telling me that!" he snapped, exasperated. "You know exactly what I mean! Now I know the worst about you, so what? Did you think I wouldn't love you anymore?"

He expected some sort of gruff denial about love not being involved, but instead Vader sighed and uncrossed his arms. "Perhaps. But we have a more immediate problem than discussions of affection."

Well, (a) affection wasn't a problem and (b)... "What problem?"

"The Emperor has sent for you."

The words were stark, the tone bleak. Luke felt something draining from him, as though his spirit was seeping out... or going into hiding. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he could speak. "Sent for me?"

Vader nodded. "You alone. Not me. I would not be there to protect you."

He swallowed and licked lips that were suddenly dry. "Is he going to... kill me?"

His father slowly crossed to the bed – the only unbroken piece of furniture – and sat heavily. "Possibly. It is more likely that he wishes totrain you to kill me and take my place."

His head jerked back. "I'm not going to do that! He can't make me!"

"He could make you want to." The helmet turned toward him. "I stalled, keeping you unconscious and telling him you needed time to recuperate from your traumatic injury. However, I will not lose you, so there is only one alternative."

"We could hide together," Luke suggested, putting off the moment when he had to hear the inevitable words of separation. "Just the two of us. We could go live on the edge of the Outer Rim, where he wouldn't think to look for us."

"And one day I would regret all I had given up, lose my temper, and kill you as I killed your mother."

As scared as he felt, he understood that his father was more frightened of the impending separation. But Vader's fear was darker, deeper; it was part of his essence. And he would never be free if he never gathered the courage to face it. "Then what?" Luke asked softly, anticipating the reply. "You're going to hide me?"

"You cannot be hidden, my son. He can sense you. Your Light burns too brightly." Vader stood, suddenly galvanized into action. "I have packed your belongings." Luke's old backpack flew through the air, nearly knocking him over as he caught it.

"If you can't hide me, then where am I going?"

"The orders I have and will execute fully state that you are going to Coruscant. However, your vessel will be hijacked, and Laze Loneozner and his pilot will become the newest members of the Rebel Alliance."

"What? Are you kidding?"

"I do not kid."

"Save that for your officers! I know you kid. Why would you want me to – "

"Difficult as this may be for you to believe," Vader said mildly, gesturing for Luke to exit his quarters and into the wide corridor, "I have a plan."

"And are you going to share that plan with me?"

Vader's head inclined slightly in warning. "You are going to Coruscant, young man, and I will brook no more discussion."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Yes, master." We should've talked more before going into monitored areas, he pointed out. Yoo-hoo! Can you hear me?

I hear you. We will be able to communicate this way in the future... if you are able to focus.

I can focus, all right! he declared grimly, struck by the unhappy thought that momentarily he would be separated from his father. "Did you pack my 'hopper model?"

"No. You have no need for toys where you are going."

"It's not a toy." So, you want to keep it for sentimental reasons!

"Indeed." Vader hustled him toward a small bay off the main hangar where a sleek, long-range ship waited.

"Wow, what is that? It's gorgeous."

"It is a modified Naboo starfighter."

"Oh." That reminded him of his mother, but he kept the thought to himself. His father was quiet, too.

They stopped at the base of the ramp. "This is happening awfully fast," Luke said, his voice unexpectedly choking on the words. "Thank you for... everything. Except for chopping off my hand. If the Emperor decides to train me, maybe I'll see you again."

"Yes," said The Man of Few Words.

Luke nodded. "Okay... well... I guess I should get going." What's going to happen? Who's going to hijack me? Is that your whole plan? What will I do when I get to the Alliance? Can we hug?

"One of our best security officers is piloting you," Vader said threateningly, "so do not try anything foolish."

Does that mean –

The Dark Lord looked beyond him and raised his voice. "He is ready." His gaze returned to Luke. "You have been a good student. Go now."

"Just like that?" he demanded wildly, welling grief pushing aside caution.

"It is an honor to obey the Emperor. Go."

Before he could reply, he felt a soft cloud surround him. It was warm and glowing, filled with sun and... with love.

He smiled faintly and returned the emotion as best he could, hoping his father felt it. "Okay," he said quietly. Turning, he hurried up the ramp, casting a wary glance at the pilot.

"Welcome aboard," Lieutenant Karas Jovay said without a trace of recognition on his face.

Luke came to a dead stop. "What're you doing here?" he demanded of Lieutenant Jovay, catching himself before he could continue aloud.

Okay, he was being left out in the cold and he didn't like it. His dad had a Plan, and for some reason the Mos Eisley Imperial Recruiting Officer was part of it. And they were in a public area where their conversation could be overheard, so he couldn't even ask! Luke made an about-face and stomped back down the ramp to face his father. "I changed my mind, I don't want to go."

"The Emperor is bestowing an honor upon you by requesting your presence," Vader intoned.

Yeah, yeah. Luke sighed. This mental-talk was hard. He was getting a headache. "I'd rather stay here and learn stuff. You wouldn't want me to neglect my education, would you?"

"The educational datatapes are in your pack."

"Oh." That explained the extra weight. Krit. He let the pack slip off his shoulder and drop to the deck. "I don't want to go," he repeated, trying not to whine. Why was he even bothering? His dad wouldn't be sympathetic and would only scold him.

Nor do I want you to leave, Vader's fierce thought echoed in Luke's head. But you must, for both our sakes. "You are going and you will be appropriately grateful for the honor."

"Yes, sir." You'll miss me! The need to be hugged by his dad was becoming an almost physical ache. "Will I be coming back... here?" Back to you?

Both black gauntlets raised toward his face and Luke flinched. Don't choke--

The hands rested on his cheeks, cupping his head like it was as fragile as an egg. Which, of course, it would be if those hands decided to squeeze. "Make me proud," the Dark Lord commanded.

With the enemy? Luke pressed his face against the caress, trying to express his confusion and fears. Do you want me to fight with them? Or spy on them? I don't understand.

"Keep up with your studies," Vader said smoothly. "Keep your mind open; be willing to accept new ideas, but with wisdom and caution. The Emperor can teach you much."

He nodded, waiting for a Thought from his father, but nothing came.

The hands dropped. "Remember, your lightsaber is your life. Keep it close always."

"But I don't know how to use it very well."

"When the need arises, when you are desperate, you will know how." Listen to what I am saying, child.

"Okay." Bewildered, he gave the mask one last, searching look. "Be careful. I won't be here to look out for you."

"Thank you." A spark of amusement colored the deep voice, along with something gentler. "I will endeavor to remain safe without your protection."

"Okay, then." He backed toward the ramp. We'll still be able to talk exactly like this, right?

The helmet tilted. As physical distance grows between us, it will become more difficult and will require more focus. Words may not be as clear as they are now, but I will feel your emotions. If you need me, you will be able to reach me.

"Okay," Luke repeated uncertainly, disliking the impending separation more with each step he took. Well, krit! He whirled and marched up the ramp like a soldier, passing into the ship and throwing back a single question.

Can you hear me now?

A mental sigh shuddered through their link, and Luke smiled, satisfied.

- - - - -

Dad? Can you hear me now?

Do not call me that. I can hear you. Stop asking.

Luke craned his neck to look back at the shrinking Devastator. "I changed my mind."

Jovay didn't spare a glance for him. "Hmm?" he murmured absently, intent on whatever manipulations his fingers were doing with the ship's controls.

"I don't want to go," Luke stated. "Take me back to the ship."

Jovay didn't answer.

Luke sighed and leaned back in the copilot's seat. Dad? Can you hear me now? Da-aaaad!

What!

I changed my mind. I want to stay with you.

That is not possible.

But--

I am busy. Cease interrupting with your pointless request.

He rolled his eyes. Fine! "My father says you should turn the ship around and take me back."

"Funny, I didn't hear him say that."

"Of course you didn't! But I did. In my head."

Jovay grinned. "Good try, kid. I see that getting away from the dustball hasn't changed you much."

"Little do you know," Luke said grimly. Nothing about this was fair. He and his dad were still getting to know each other. They shouldn't be separated yet! It occurred to him that when they met, his dad already knew the worst about Luke and went ahead and taught him to be better. Now he knew the worst about Vader (at least, he hoped it was the worst) and he wasn't allowed to stick around to help his dad. "I really, really need to go back."

"Luke." The young lieutenant swiveled in his chair. "Your father is sending you away to keep you safe. You know that."

Yeah, well... "Just who are you, anyway?" he challenged. "You're not really an Imp recruiter in Mos Eisley, are you?"

"Not anymore. I got a promotion," Jovay's smile turned smug, "to captain in Intelligence."

"What for? You let me get away!"

"Did I? Yet here you are." The officer's grin widened. "Maybe I got the promotion because I'm brilliant, clever and handsome."

"Oh, brother! I am so confused," Luke muttered. "Are we really going to the Rebel Alliance?"

"Yep."

"So... my dad is sending me to the enemy?" He struggled with the idea. "Why?"

Jovay shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe they're not the enemy."

"Don't do that, I'm confused enough!" Not for the first time, he wished he could read his father's mind and learn what was really going on. "What am I going to do there?"

"I have no idea. I'm not going with you. Somehow I don't think the Alliance would treat me gently if they discovered my secret identity as an Imperial Intel agent."

"What?" Oh, great! "But—I don't—Krit! My dad said you were staying!" Da—aaaad! Can you hear me now?

Stop calling.

"Luke—Oz. If you can survive the streets of Mos Eisley, you can survive anything. You'll be fine."

The words were meant to be reassuring, but he wasn't feeling at all reassured. "Do you think I'm supposed to be a spy?"

"I don't know," Jovay repeated patiently. "Didn't your father tell you anything?"

"He said he has a Plan-with-a-capital-P," Luke said glumly, "but he didn't clue me in about it. He just told me we'd be 'hijacked' and end up at the Alliance."

"That was his intention."

"Was?" Slowly Luke turned his head and studied the other man. "Aren't you following his plan?" he asked suspiciously. Oh-oh. Dad, can you hear me now?

Stop that.

But—

Cease!

"About now," Jovay said by way of an answer, "our hijackers are scheduled to appear." They were both quiet for a few moments before warning beeps began to sound. "Right on time."

Depressed, Luke stared at the two ships that were heading toward them from both sides.

"And about now-- here we go." Jovay depressed a button and space turned into a blur. Luke was jerked back in his seat as they accelerated into hyperspace. The officer checked his instruments, then relaxed and looked over. "A slight alteration of Lord Vader's plan."

"Are you kidnapping me?" Luke demanded, shocked by the audacity of the other.

"I wouldn't dare. I'm taking a different route, but the end result will be the same, you'll be with the insurgents." Jovay frowned, obviously disapproving, then continued after a resigned sigh, "I figured that what Vader didn't know, the Emperor couldn't know."

"Are you insinuating that my father would betray me?" He started to rise, ready to protect his dad's honor.

"No, I'm not. Settle down." The captain swiveled around and leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "What I think is that Palpatine has spies and listening devices everywhere. I have no intention of being the one who loses the Dark Lord's son. So I devised a variation on the original plan. I'm not Intel for nothing, kid. Brains as well as beauty, that's me."

"You know, you could be really irritating," Luke observed, then immediately wondered if this was how he irritated his father. "Huh. So, Intel, are you dangerous too?"

"Absolutely." Jovay grinned. "Not to you, of course."

"How fortunate for you."

"No," the newly-minted captain continued, oblivious of Luke's sarcasm, "for you I would lay down my life."

He was taken aback. "Really? Are you serious? You're kidding, right?"

The smile turned small and reflective, and maybe a little sad. "I'm not kidding."

"Oh." Luke folded his arms and glowered. "I don't like any of this," he declared. "We should have followed my dad's plan."

Luke? Luke, where are you? What has gone wrong?

Oh, sure, now you want to talk! Well, never mind, I don't want to talk to you anymore!

"Your dad!" Jovay chuckled. "That's still hard for me to imagine. However... say, are you hungry?"

"Hah, the old distract-him-with-food routine!" Grudgingly, Luke unfolded his arms. "Maybe. What do you have? And where are we going?"

Jovay gave him a tentative smile. "To rendezvous with alternate transportation."

"Then where?" he demanded.

"Too much information is not necessarily a good thing."

"And you call yourself Intel," he scoffed. "Be sure to tell my dad that when he asks what you're doing."

Luke--

Stop interrupting!

Luke?

Go away. Then, worried that he sounded too harsh, Luke added, I'll talk to you later, after I figure out what's going on.

"How's Tessa?" he asked as he caught the box Jovay tossed at him. Peeling off the lid, he stared in dismay at the extensively processed and unidentifiable 'food'. "Ugh. I'm not hungry after all."

"Save it for later then. Now that you've opened it, it will be your next meal. Never waste nutrients when you don't know where your next meal is coming from."

Luke rolled his eyes. Jovay sounded like his father. Lecturing was another of those annoying adult habits. "Did you hear me? I asked how Tessa is."

"She's fine. Some nightmares when she first arrived on Naboo." Jovay glanced at him. "Something about a monster that tried to eat her."

Luke nodded. "A Rillavin hunter."

Jovan swiveled his chair around. "She said you killed the monster and saved her."

He shrugged modestly. "Does she miss me?"

"Not any longer." The captain smiled at his dismayed expression. "A child's sense of time is different from an adult's. She's forgetting a lot of what happened on Tatooine. She's happy with my brother and his wife, and she has many friends in the neighborhood."

"That's good." It was petty and small of him, but he felt a little jealous of Tessa. Quickly he pushed the unwanted emotion aside. "I'm glad for her," he said, and truly was.

There seemed to be nothing more to say. Luke searched carefully, pulled the selected datatape out of his pack, and plugged the audiobuds into his ears. Might as well spend this travel time learning something. He didn't want to let his dad down.

He settled back in the chair and closed his eyes as the tape whispered, Imperial Government Structure Part II: Security and Intelligence.

Perfect.


Luke flipped off the datatape and pulled the buds from his ears. "Where are we?"

Jovay pretended to be startled. "You've been so quiet, I forgot you were here. What went wrong? Music ended?"

"I was listening to an educational tape," he replied icily. "Not all teenagers are music freaks."

"Really? I was. I must have memorized the lyrics to a thousand songs, went to a dozen concerts. I even got to meet The GreedleMoth when they were-- "

Luke tuned out the unnervingly cheerful agent. For Intel, Jovay sure was chatty. In fact... "Hey," he interrupted, "you're avoiding my question. Where are we?"

The officer chuckled. "In hyperspace, kiddo."

"I know that! Where in hyperspace?"

Jovay tilted his head until one green eye could focus on Luke. "In hyper, you're nowhere until you get somewhere."

"Stop that!" Krit, this was exactly the sort of stuff he would say to his dad when he wanted to drive Vader crazy. "Where are we going?"

The other man began to laugh, enjoying his frustration. "Let it be a surprise."

"Naboo?" Luke guessed. "We're going to Naboo!"

"No." Jovay sobered abruptly. "Think, Luke. You're wanted by the Emperor. Would I take you to my home planet and put it at risk?"

"Of course not." He folded his arms, uncertain if he was more disgusted by the chastisement or by his naivete. "Let's go put someone else's planet at risk." He could almost feel the sharp glance as it raked him.

"We won't be there long enough to endanger anyone. Why don't you take a nap?"

Like a pesky child. "I've been studying Imperial Security protocol," he said to regain control of the conversation, "and there's something I don't understand. Maybe you could answer a question for me?"

The officer swiveled his chair around, stretching out his legs and clasping his hands behind his head. "Shoot. Not literally."

Luke rolled his eyes but didn't let the flippancy distract him. "Can you tell me why," he asked sweetly, "an Intelligence agent would be loyal to Darth Vader and choose to defy the Emperor? Sounds like a risky move... maybe even a treasonous one."

The relaxed posture became rigid, though Jovay did not change his position. "I'm sure the agent would have good reason."

He leaned forward. "What reason do you think? Hypothetically, of course."

"Of course." Jovay gave him an annoyed look. "Hypothetically, the agent might feel some sort of personal loyalty to Vader motivated by... oh, like being Vader's son who's enlisted in the Rebellion."

"I'm not an agent! And we're talking about you, not me!" His father wasn't sending him to be a spy, was he? Yet what else could he be, Son of Vader nested like a viper in the heart of the Rebel Alliance?

"We're talking about a hypothetical agent," Jovay reminded him. He studied Luke in silence for several moments, then his face softened and he relaxed. "When I was a child, your father saved my life."

Whatever he had expected, this wasn't even close. Luke slid to the edge of his seat, his eyes focused on the Intelligence officer. "What happened? Tell me everything about it."

"I was six, and a climbing fiend," Jovay reminisced with a chuckle. "I climbed a tree -- Naboo has the best climbing pines anywhere... well, I've heard Kashyyk has great trees but-- "

"Will you get back to the story about my dad!"

"Actually, it's a story about me."

If he ever saw his dad again, Luke vowed never to tease or taunt him. "Just tell it. Please?"

"Sure. Long story short, I was hanging near the top, lost my grip and fell. Your dad made a fantastic jump -- I was sure it was a hundred meters! -- and caught me before I was halfway to the ground. He landed still holding me, put me down safe and sound, and I was his for life. Or so my parents promised. And I followed through."

"You mean you're like his slave?" Luke gasped, horrified.

"Where do you get such wild ideas? Stars, no. After he left Naboo, I didn't see him again until I enlisted and then... then he was a lot different." Jovay's head turned and he stared into the darkness they sped through. "I'm not sure how I recognized him. It was a feeling, and I called... no, I didn't call, I just thought 'Anakin Skywalker'. I think he was more surprised than I was." With a sharp sigh, the officer refocused his attention on Luke. "I promised him my fealty and he in turn gave my career a few nudges. You see, nothing startling or sinister. A pretty simple story, really."

A little too simple, Luke mused. Questions whirled in his head and he attempted to sort through them. "So... you mean you knew him when he was Anakin? Before Vader?"

Jovay nodded.

Luke hesitated before asking in a near-whisper: "What was he like?"

"He was... colorful. Very alive, always moving-- even when he was still, if you know what I mean." He smiled faintly. "Blue eyes like yours. Tall, wiry... mercurial. His mood could change in a second. He laughed a lot... and he was completely fearless."

He isn't any more, Luke thought sadly. "I wish I'd known him."

"You know him now," Jovay said in an odd tone.

"Yeah. But he's different now." His words sounded like a betrayal. Luke swallowed. "I still love him, though."

"Good. We're about ready to come out of hyperspace. Watch and learn."

"Okay." He hesitated. "So... your loyalty to my dad is just personal? There are no politics involved?"

Jovay's surprise was evident in the agitated way his fingers punched at the controls. "I think we've talked enough about this."

"Are you a double agent?" Luke asked suddenly. An Imp Intel officer, pretending to spy on the Alliance but really spying on the Empire and reporting to... Darth Vader? No, that didn't make sense.

"You've been watching too many holomovies. Pay attention to what I'm doing."

Typical adult put-down. Sure, he'd watched his fair share of holomovies, but that didn't mean he was obsessed with them. Anyway, he enjoyed space adventures more than espionage holos. Not that it mattered to Jovay; the accusation was just a way to shut him up. "Okay," he muttered, deciding that if the officer didn't want to talk, Luke might as well 'watch and learn'. "Are you going to tell me where we are?"

Jovay nodded at the viewscreen. Abruptly the blurred starfield ended and they emerged within sight of a large planet that Luke didn't recognize. "I haven't studied this one," he mumbled.

"Corellia."

"Cool!" Of all the planets he could have picked, this would have been his first choice to visit. Well, maybe not his first first choice, but his first choice after Naboo, Coruscant, and Alderaan. "What're we going to do there? I want to see the old Pirates Bazaar and the-- "

"We're not staying long enough for you to get in trouble," Jovay warned. "It's just a quick stop. I'm not letting you out of my sight."

Luke sighed loudly. "I never get to have any fun," he complained.

"Let's keep it that way," the agent said sternly, then laughed. "You want to handle the landing approach?"

"Yeah!"

"I'll be right here if you get into trouble," Jovay said, and 'right here' really meant right here because he didn't vacant the pilot's seat and his hands hovered nervously over the controls.

"I can do it, I can do it!" Luke grumbled crossly.

"Then do it."

"I will!"

And he did.

- - - - -

The Coronet Cantinonet, besides having a stupid name, was nothing like the dives in Mos Eisley, but not by any stretch of anyone's imagination could it be called 'elegant'. There was a band playing the creepiest, eeriest music Luke had ever heard. The huge expanse was dark except for multicolored flashing lights that pulsated all over the ceiling, floor, and walls. Luke found himself turning in a circle, getting dizzy from the relentless onslaught of bright/dark that came every few milliseconds. Jovay grabbed his arm and pulled him along until he found a table against the wall.

Luke tossed his pack into the booth and slid in beside it. He stared at the table. It was flashing lights, too, and it was making him feel nauseous.

"Pick a color."

"What?" he moaned.

"Pick a color and just stare at that color. It will steady you."

That was the dumbest thing he'd heard in ages, but he had nothing to lose... except that awful meal he'd had onboard. "Blue." He stared at a blue spot on the table. It blinked in a steady pattern of alternating spots and hollow circles. After a few seconds, Luke felt his stomach begin to unclench. A few more seconds and he felt brave enough to look around. The lights didn't bother him as much. In fact, they looked terrific. "Great place!"

"Thrilled you like it, kid," a strange voice said, and the voice's owner sat down next to him.

The stranger turned out to be a man who looked vaguely familiar-- and when his giant Wookiee companion took a place across the table, Luke realized instantly who they were. "Hey, you're-- "

The Wookiee interrupted with a string of growls. "Yeah, Chewie, you're right," the man said. "It's the kid from Eisley. Oz, right?"

"How did you know my name?"

"Ah, tavern owners still tell tales about you and the band of kids who ragged on the Imps." The man gave him an assessing look. "The stories are bigger than you are."

Luke glared and opened his mouth to retort, but Jovay interjected smoothly, "Han Solo and Chewbacca, meet Laze Loneozner, aka Oz."

Solo gave him a nod, then focused on the other human. "So, Karas, what's the job?"

"Transport."

"Cargo?"

"Just the boy... and no questions asked."

"Yeah?" Solo sipped his ale and leaned forward. "What is it, some kind of local trouble?"

"Let's just say," Jovay lowered his voice, "he needs to avoid any Imperial entanglement."

"Well, that's the trick, isn't it? It'll cost you extra."

Karas Jovay nodded. "Fifteen thousand. Five now and ten when you get to Dantooine."

"Dantooine?" Luke exclaimed. "What's-- "

"Shhh!" the two men admonished, and the Wookiee added a low growl to the mix.

"Sorry," Luke muttered. "But why there? I studied it! There's nothing on the planet except a few tribes of nomads!"

"He has people there who will take care of him, Han," Jovay told Solo.

"I do?" Luke asked. "Nomads?"

"As long as I get paid, it's doesn't matter to me where I dump him," Solo said.

"It matters to me!" Luke said loudly, irked that the three were ignoring him.

"Five thousand." Jovay slid his arm across the table, credits peeking out from under his sleeve.

Chewbacca leaned his arms on the table and the credits disappeared into his long fur.

"I feel like I'm being sold," Luke complained.

"The rest of the money?"

"Deliver him safely to a man named Willard. He'll pay you."

"Hello? I'm still here," Luke reminded them. He reached for the nearest beverage, but Solo swatted his hand away.

The Wookiee slid out of the booth, with Jovay following him. "Take care of yourself, Oz," the agent said quietly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. "Try to stay out of trouble."

"You're not coming?" he asked, aghast.

Jovay shook his head, smiling slightly. He gave a Solo a half-salute. "He's all yours for now, Han. Good luck." He turned, weaving through the crowded cantina without looking back.

"C'mon, we haven't got all night," Solo said roughly. He stood, downed the rest of his drink and set the empty tankard hard on the table. "Chewie, start warm-up as soon as we get there. An easy fifteen thou, a few repairs, then we can take on Jabba's next job. Let's go," he added impatiently.

"I'm just waiting for you!" Luke exclaimed defensively. "You are so rude!"

"Get used to it." Solo took two steps, then stopped. "Stick close to me, kid."

"I'm fine." As if he couldn't take care of himself!

Solo gave him an incredulous look. "I'm worried about the ten thousand, not about you."

"Fine!" he shouted to be heard over the music that was growing ever louder. "Fine, just fine!" and he was talking to the empty place where Solo had stood.

With a sigh, Luke shouldered his pack and followed the dark head that was following the giant Wookiee. What next?

Hey, Dad? Can you hear me now?

Nothing.

Guess not. Talk to you later... sometime... I hope.

Dantooine. He couldn't begin to imagine what was waiting for him on that desolate planet. Tatooine... Dantooine... he had a bad feeling about this.


"How long is it going to take to get there, Mr. Solo?"

"Too long, and it's Captain Solo."

"Really?" He leaned forward, trying to peer between Solo and the Wookiee, but there wasn't much to see. Just space and stars. "Captain of what? Are you an Imp?"

"No!" Solo looked back at him, his mouth curled and his face flushing. "Look, kid, I'm captain of this ship 'cause it's my ship and if I say I'm captain, then I'm captain."

"Sorry, just asking!" Affronted, Luke folded his arms and slid back in his seat. The Wookiee growled something that ended in a snort. "I couldn't agree more."

They both turned and stared at him. "What?" Luke demanded.

Solo shook his head. "Never mind. Chewie, any ideas on that little problem?"

Luke waited until after the growled response ended, then asked, "What problem? And why is it taking a long time to get to Dantooine? It shouldn't take long. I know where Dantooine is, I've studied all about it."

"Child genius," Solo commented under his breath before raising his voice. "Hyperdrive's been acting up. That's the problem and the reason, kid."

"My name is Lu-- Oz, stop calling me 'kid'!" He'd thought the ship looked like a piece of junk, and obviously his first assessment was correct. The Millennium Falcon was well named... the question was, what millennium was it from?

"Looooo-Oz? Cute. I thought it was pronounced 'Laze' like a laser."

"It is." He gnawed on his lower lip, struggling to remain civil. "Just call me 'Oz'. Please." If this guy got any ruder, he was going to forget his promise to Dad Vader about behaving properly.

"Right, kid."

The Wookiee growled at Solo, something about being nice to the little one. "Thanks," Luke said to him. "Can I call you 'Chewie'?"

There was a moment of silence before the other two turned around. "Did you understand what he said?" Solo asked.

"Uh... not all of it."

Chewie woofed and barked in a friendly way, indicating that Luke was welcome to call him by name. "Cool. Chewie." Luke grinned, and Chewie ruffled his hair with a huge paw.

"Where did you learn that?" Solo asked suspiciously. "Have you been to Kashyyk?"

"No, but I hear they have great trees!" Luke replied enthusiastically. "I've never actually seen a tree, except when we were coming into Coronet, but Jo-- Karas said they're great for climbing."

Chewie launched into a rambling story that Luke didn't catch entirely, but it had to do with climbing and living in trees that went into the clouds. Solo grumbled to himself for a few seconds, then interrupted.

"Okay, enough with the chitchat, we've got work to do here."

"Can I help?"

"No. Go take a nap."

Luke felt more disgusted than angry. "Typical adult put-down! You just want to get rid of me!"

"You got that right. Once I get the ten thou, you're outta here, junior."

"That's-- "

"And whaddaya mean, 'adult put-down'?" Solo snarled. "You're an adult, too."

"I am not!" Incensed, Luke jumped to his feet. His head connected with the top of the cockpit and he dropped back into the seat. "Ow!"

"You okay?" the Corellian asked gruffly while Chewie wuffed with concern.

He rubbed his sore head, then brought his fingers down and looked at them. "Well, I'm not bleeding, so I guess I'll live."

"Good. I don't want to lose that ten thousand. Now go take that nap."

"I'm not sleepy," Luke lied.

Chewie huffed a few times and stood. "Okay," Luke said resignedly, following the Wookiee out of the cockpit. "You're really tall. This ship should be bigger so you don't have to bend down so much. Are Wookiee ships bigger? Well, that's dumb, of course they are. Have you known Captain Solo for a long time?"

Without answering, the other gestured him into a small room. A couple bunks were built into the bulkhead. "Thank you, Chewie," Luke said politely as the Wookiee patted his shoulder and left. Chewie was a lot nicer than that Solo person. He wished Jovay hadn't left. Why couldn't Jovay have taken him to Dantooine?

He pulled off his boots and stretched out. If Jovay met his dad on Naboo, maybe he'd known his mom, too. Why hadn't he thought to ask that? Exasperated with himself, Luke rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. His life was moving too fast; sometimes his thoughts couldn't keep up with all the changes. And-- he jerked his head up and glared at the closed door-- Solo was wrong when he said Luke was an adult. Luke Skywalker felt the same today as he always had, so that was impossible. An adult would act more mature and think better and smarter... right? Unless this was as good as it got and the way he was now was the way he would always be.

With a groan, he pulled the pillow over his head and almost immediately began to feel drowsy. In a pleasant haze, he imagined himself in a tree, all the way at the top, clinging to rubbery branches, but the branches began swaying to and fro, faster and faster. A sharp leaf cut his finger and he let go, sliding, sliding, then sailing into the blue sky, falling...

He landed in his father's arms. "Dad! You caught me!"

"Always." Darth Vader put him on the grass. It was soft and grainy like sand. Vader wasn't wearing his helmet, but Luke still couldn't see his face. "Luke, where are you?"

He looked around. "I think it's Naboo."

Vader sighed. "No. Where are you now?"

Oh. He stared up and up at his father. The sun blazed behind the figure, obscuring his features. "I guess I'm dreaming. I'm on a ship."

"Where are you going?"

"Uh... Dantooine somewhere. I don't know what's there."

Vader nodded. "Good."

"What's so good about that?" he asked as he rolled over. He opened his eyes and stared at the gray durasteel of the deck. With a sigh, he punched the flat pillow. He had too many questions, his brain wouldn't slow down, he would never fall asleep. In a few minutes, he'd get up, go back to the cockpit, and offer his help again. But right now the blanket was heavy on his limbs and he felt warm and comfortable. So he'd wait just a few more minutes...

Luke fell asleep.


"Wow," Luke breathed softly, leaning between pilot and copilot to take in the view. "Is that grass?"

Solo chuckled. "Sure is. Never seen grass, desert boy?"

He shook his head, stunned into silence. It was blue! The wind created waves in the grass, making it look like living velvet. The lack of contrast between the clear sky and the purple-blue grass was amazing. He could hardly wait to get out of the ship and touch the ground to see what it felt like.

They were flying low. "How do you know where we're going? It's a whole planet-- how are you going to find this Willard guy? How do you know where to-- "

"Trust me, Oz, I know what I'm doing. Karas gave me the coordinates."

"Oh. How do you know Jo... Karas?"

"So 'Joe' is his first name, huh?" Solo gave a short laugh. "He saved our bacon once and turned out to be a good contact. Go us some lucrative jobs."

"Oh." Evidently Solo didn't know Jovay's true identity. "Um... what did you say he saved?"

"Ah, kept us out of a mess. Right, Chewie?"

The Wookiee agreed.

"No," Luke persisted, "you said something else."

"I said he saved our bacon, kid. You got beans in your ears?"

"Beans!" Not only was Solo obnoxious, he was weird! "Why would I-- Oh, never mind. What's bacon?"

Chewie provided a colorful description of a delicious meat made from Corellian kaarthogs. Luke nodded. "Okay... so Karas saved your shipment of this meat?"

"It's an expression. I don't have time to give you a school lesson, kid."

"Krit!" Luke sat back, frowning. "Are we there yet?"

"Yup. Right... there." Solo gave a nod toward a distant spot. "Chewie, punch in the confirmation code."

"Confir-- " Luke abruptly shut his mouth as a complex of buildings came into view. The structures looked as though they hadn't been there for long. This wasn't a city, though it was large. No, this was-- "The Rebel Alliance! Right? Is that who it is?"

Solo looked over his shoulder, seeming to study Luke up and down, then trying to peer around him.

"What?" Luke demanded.

"I'm looking for your 'off' switch."

With a sound of disgust, he slouched back in his seat and folded his arms. "Fine. I'll be quiet."

"Starting when?"

The Wookiee laughed at what must have been, for Solo anyway, a witticism. Luke rolled his eyes. Dad, what have you gotten me into?

He managed to keep quiet while they landed their embarrassingly ugly ship on a hard surface some distance from the smaller buildings, but within several meters of ship hangers. It was dark inside the buildings, but he could see the outlines of small fighters-- x-wings! Maybe somebody here could give him the x-wing tattoo he wanted.

"I have a tattoo of a TIE fighter."

"Fab-u-lous," Solo drawled.

"I just meant-- Oh, forget it!" He squeezed his lips together tightly, vowing not to speak again unless someone asked him a question.

In silence, he helped Solo and Chewie unload a few crates from the ship. After they finished, an old man approached Solo. Luke started to edge away, but Chewie grabbed his arm.

"I just want to feel the grass," he wheedled, "just for a few minutes, pleeeease? I won't go anywhere, just... right there."

The Wookiee nodded and released him, and Luke hurried away before Solo saw him. He stopped at the edge of the duracrete strip. With a grin of excitement, he touched the grass with the toe of his boot, then leaped forward, landing on his hands and knees. He ran his fingers through the living carpet, surprised by its smooth texture. Lying on his back, he stared up at a blue sky that was a clear and vivid as the one above Tatooine.

With a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet. Grass wasn't as exciting as he thought it would be. There was a great-looking tree at the top of the hill behind him, though, so he started walking. He could climb the tree, but more importantly he wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill. Something was telling him that he needed to take a look at whatever--

"Oz! Get back here!"

"Krit!" he muttered under his breath, giving the hill a longing look before stomping back to address Solo. "You're not my father, you can't tell me what to do!"

"Uh-huh." Solo turned to the older man and said, "He's all yours. Hand over the cash."

"He's so rude," Luke complained to the stranger who was counting out a handful of credits. "Are you Willard?"

"Commander Willard," the man corrected quietly.

"Okay. Why are you paying so much money for me?"

"He'd be a bargain at a tenth of the price," Solo offered, drawing a laugh from Chewbacca.

"The money is from Karas," Willard said. "Solo, hope you make another run back this way soon. You didn't bring much this time."

"You didn't pay for much," the Corellian drawled. "Chewie, we're outta here. Oz... good luck."

"Uh... thanks," he replied uncertainly. People sure came in and out of his life fast. It would be nice if someone stayed for awhile. Like maybe his dad. And speaking of his dad, that ten thousand obviously came from Vader! No way would Jovay have that kind of money. And what was with Jovay anyway? Did everyone know him? Intel people were supposed to be inconspicuous, but Karas Jovay seemed extraordinarily well-known to diverse groups-- Imperials, Rebels, and smugglers.

On the other hand, Oz was now known to the same groups. Pleased with what would probably turn out to be his new-found celebrity, Luke waved to his two escorts. Only the Wookiee waved back.

"Let's see your identichip."

"Oh." Luke rummaged through his pack and produced Fixer's I.D. "Here."

"Laze Loneozner," Willard read as he ran the chip through his handheld scanner. "Well, I can see why you prefer to be called 'Oz'."

"Yeah," he said ruefully. Luke Skywalker was a so much better name. If he had a choice, that was who he would be. But he had to be Oz for awhile, at least until his dad came and got him. Assuming his dad wanted him back.

"You know anything about ship maintenance?"

Maintenance? Luke sighed. "Yes, I'm good at fixing things. I can pilot, too."

"Hmm. We'll put you in Maintenance for now."

"Great," he replied without enthusiasm. Daa-ad! Can you hear me?

Story of his life: no reply. Disappointed, Luke followed Commander Willard toward the compound, casting a quick look back at the hill with its single tree silhouetted against the bright sky.


Commander Willard's deeply lined face was serious. "Are you planning on enlisting?"

"Enlisting?" Luke responded blankly.

"If you want to be a pilot someday, you have to be a member of the Alliance."

He stared at the ground as they walked. "I hadn't given it any thought," he replied honestly.

"Start thinking," Willard said sharply. "You're only here because Karas asked for a favor and-- "

"And paid a lot of money."

The older man stopped. "The Alliance runs on money. You can't fight a revolution without supplies and weapons. You'll bunk here. Green barracks."

"What?" But Willard left him without another word, and Luke looked at the building in front of him. It was a large portable unit that didn't look like it would stand up to a strong wind, and it was painted gray. He saw no green anywhere until he noticed a small strip at the top of the door.

Pausing outside for a moment, he considered how to enter. There was probably a central recreational area that was surrounded by small rooms designed to house a single person. If he went in as Oz, he would have to be confident, arrogant and flippant... but he was getting tired of Oz. It was a strain to be Oz, and he wished again he could just be Luke Skywalker. Or even Luke Lars. For a second, he toyed with the idea of bouncing in with Hi, I'm Luke Vader! and the probable reactions from the others made him smile.

Krit. Maybe he had to be called Oz, but he didn't have to behave like Oz. He wasn't that person any more. Whether anyone knew it or not, he was the son of Lord Vader, he was a Force-user (junior grade), and his future was full of possibilities. Even if he had to be a mechanic for awhile, sooner or later he would be a hero. Might as well start practicing being brave. Straightening his shoulders, he hefted his backpack higher and strode determinedly through the door.

The first thing that struck him was the darkness. The second thing was the dirt, as dust motes spiraled through the air like sprites when the sunlight hit them. The third thing he noticed was the... smell. The strong odors of sweat and very old socks mixed with grease and oil and smoke. There was a recreation area all right; it was a small table near the door where five men were smoking deathsticks and gambling with hexagonal chips. The rest of the cavernous room contained rows of beds that were little more than cots. Some were empty, some occupied by men wearing underwear that obviously hadn't been cleaned in-- no, he couldn't look at any more!

"Shut the damn door!" someone called irritably and, muttering an unintelligible apology, Luke backed out into the sun, gulping for fresh air.

"Oh, no, no, no, no," he muttered to himself. "What a mess! I've never lived like that and I'm not starting now." Finally he could appreciate what a nice home Aunt Beru had kept. Nice and clean.

He looked around. There were other buildings that looked the same as the one he had just left. They were probably the same inside, too. There had to be somewhere else he could stay, there just had to be. Oh, for his quarters on the Devastator! Captivity by the Imperial Navy had never looked so good. And this group of unwashed ruffians thought they could defeat the Empire? Luke sniffed. Not a chance!

"Can I help you?"

Luke turned and studied the thirty-something man who regarded him with a serious but friendly face.

"I'm looking for a place to stay. Commander Willard told me here, but..."

"You're not a pilot then," the man said, sounding disappointed.

"I am! Just not... yet." It would have been simple to say yes and be assigned the pilots' quarters, which were bound to be a lot better than these barracks. At least he would get one night's sleep before they kicked him out. But his dad had told him that lying was a bad idea, and Luke didn't want to start off on the wrong foot. "I can't stay there. It's... awful."

The other laughed. "You must be from Naboo."

He felt his eyes widen. "Well, n-no, I'm not," he stammered. "Why did you think so?"

"They're the princesses of the universe. They even elect a queen." The blond officer chuckled at Luke's blank expression. "They like their comforts," he explained. "So where are you from?"

"Tatooine." What would this guy say if he knew Luke's mother had been one of those Naboo queens?

"Really?" The man looked surprised. "I thought you backplanet boys could stand just about anything."

"Tatooine is very clean," Luke said edgily, bristling a little at the insult. "The sand scours everything. And these... these people are filthy. They don't bathe!"

The man choked a little, trying unsuccessfully to hide a laugh. "Well, my young prince, let's see if we can find you somewhere cleaner to stay. I know a few hidden nooks. What's your name?"

He stifled a sigh. "Oz. It's actually Laze Loneozner, but call me Oz."

"Pleased to meet you, Oz. I'm Garven Dreis, known to some people as 'Boss'." He thrust out his hand and Luke shook it firmly.

"Boss? Are you in charge of this place?"

"No, just one fighter group. I'm the leader of Red Squad."

"A fighter pilot!" Luke exclaimed.

They started to walk. "Is that what you want to be?" Dreis asked.

He opened his mouth to call out an excited affirmative, but bit it back just in time. His dad wouldn't appreciate his son fighting against Imperial ships, would he? Luke sighed. "I guess not. Maybe just fly something else... transports or... something... I guess."

"I see. Well, I understand. Being a fighter pilot is a very dangerous occupation. Sooner or later, your number comes up."

"I'm not afraid!" he said hastily.

"You should be." Boss stopped and looked him in the eyes. "And if you're smart, you will be. You picked a dangerous side to fight on. We're outnumbered and outgunned. Our greatest strengths are our beliefs and our determination."

"So you think the Imps aren't determined and don't believe in what they're doing?"

Dreis studied his face. "If you're not here because you want to overthrow the Empire, why are you here?"

"I didn't say I didn't want to overthrow—Well, I'm here, okay? I'm just here." I'm here because my dad sent me and I don't know why. "I'm not sure why, I just know that I have to be here."

The older man kept staring at him. "How old are you? Fifteen, sixteen?"

He glanced down at his feet and shuffled them a little. "Mmm... I just turned seventeen," he mumbled.

"What? I can't hear you."

"Seventeen!" he snapped. "I just turned seventeen!"

"I see. You seem much younger."

"I'm from a backplanet," Luke said sarcastically. "We mature more slowly."

Dreis tilted his head. "Huh. So what are your political convictions?"

"What is this, an interrogation?" He started walking again and Boss joined him, steering them to the right. They followed a narrow dirt road that turned uphill. "Tatooine is a long way from the Empire. They mostly left us alone. We have Hutt gangsters running the planet, and the Imps let them do it. The Imps never bothered me. Except," he added, "for killing my aunt and uncle who raised me, and chasing me around until I got off planet."

"Really. Why were they chasing you?"

One of these days he would learn to think through his statements before he made them. He scrambled quickly for an explanation that would contain more truth than lies. "I dunno. Maybe because I knew they killed my aunt and uncle and it would have been bad publicity if I told anybody."

Dreis sent him a skeptical glance. Luke stifled a sigh when he realized he was describing his life, not Fixer's. Now he could only hope they didn't run a background check on 'Laze Loneozner'. "Well... they were also after me because I led a gang of street kids and used to raid the Imp barrack's food supplies."

He'd just done it again! Luke, think before you speak. Would he ever remember that instruction?

"Fascinating," Dreis drawled. "And how did you get off Tatooine?"

Might as well finish with the rest of the truth. Sort of. "I got a job fixing a ship and traded my repairing skills for the trip off-planet."

"I see. Whose ship did you repair?"

"You sure ask a lot of questions." He sent the man a chastising look the way Oz would have. "It was a Falleen, a young guy. He was on some kind of trip to explore other planets and see how inferior humans were to the Falleen."

Finally Dreis seemed satisfied. He chuckled. "I've met a Falleen with that exact attitude."

Luke nodded enthusiastically, relieved to have something in common with this suspicious man. "Yeah, this guy was really arrogant. But kind of nice, too. In an aggravating sort of way, know what I mean?"

"Definitely," Boss said dryly, which made Luke give him a suspicious glance. He was being well-behaved; surely Boss wasn't referring to him!

Before he could ask, they reached the rise of the hill and Luke came to a sudden stop. Below him, a small gray city sprawled. It was full of activity; people, machines, droids— "It's huge!" he exclaimed. "This must be the whole Rebel army!"

"Mmm. We're going in here." Boss steered him through an open doorway into a small hut. Four tables were crammed into it but only one person sat inside— Commander Willard.

The older officer looked up and sighed wearily. "You just got here. How can you be in trouble already?"

"I'm not— "

Boss interrupted with, "I found him loitering in the compound."

"I wasn't— "

"I assigned you to Green," Willard pointed out.

"It was— "

"He didn't like it." Boss shrugged and sent a quick glance skyward. "It's too dirty for him."

"Naboo?" Willard asked.

"No! You people are sure— "

"He's from Tatooine."

Willard raised his eyebrows. "I thought— "

"No, we're not dirty on Tatooine!" Luke exclaimed. "You people have a lot of prejudices. Krit!"

Willard sighed. "Sit."

Luke swung the backpack off his shoulder. Boss grabbed it and said, "Let's see what he's got."

"Hey— "

"A friend sent him," Willard interrupted. "He's okay."

"Let's look anyway, just to be sure." Boss smiled slightly. "Although I think an Imperial mole would make himself less conspicuous."

"Mole?" Luke repeated uncertainly. "Who, me?" But... what if that's exactly what he was?

"Educational tapes. Good for you," Boss commented as he pawed through the contents. "Colorful clothes. I didn't realize Tatooine was so... dramatic. Hello, what's this?"

"Whatever it is, it's mine," Luke said coldly. "This stuff is all that I own. I don't appreciate you— " Oh, krit! Boss had his lightsaber.

"Isn't this one of those laser swords that Jedi used?" he asked, hefting the hilt in one hand.

"A lightsaber," Willard confirmed. "Oz? Where did you get this?"

"A junk shop in Mos Eisley." He eyed Boss's wide sweeping motions uneasily. "Careful with that."

"I've seen them before, I know which end is hot." The blond officer pointed the saber outward and pressed the control.

Nothing happened.

He tried again. "It doesn't work. The crystal must be missing. Not surprising after all these years." Boss returned the saber to his backpack. "Nice souvenir, though."

Luke kept silent, though he was worried. His lightsaber was broken! His dad told him to keep it safe and keep it with him. His dad said that his lightsaber was his life! What had happened to it? No one had touched it since...

...since Darth Vader had put it in his pack.

Keep it close always... But I don't know how to use it... When the need arises, when you are desperate, you will know how.

Okay. "Yeah, that's what I thought, it's a great souvenir even though it's broken."

"As long as the Imps don't catch you with it and get the wrong idea," Willard said quietly.

"No kidding." He met the other's eyes, keeping his own gaze blank and unconcerned.

"So what are we going to do with you?" Willard asked.

"I'm a great mechanic, I can fix anything," he replied. "I'm not boasting; that's the truth. And I can fly."

"But not fighters," Boss pointed out.

Luke shook his head. Let them think he was a coward. Better that than risk meeting his dad in combat.

There was a brief pause. "I'll take him," Boss finally said. "We could use a mechanic who's exclusive to Red Squad."

Willard nodded. "If he works out, share him with the other squads."

"Ah, Commander—"

Willard quelled Boss's protest with a Look that reminded Luke of Dad Vader.

Boss sighed resignedly. "Okay. C'mon, kid."

"Oz."

"Oz." Boss grinned at him. "Let's get you settled in a nice, clean barracks."

"Barracks?" Luke had a vision of the building he'd fled from. "I want my own room!"

Behind him, Willard chuckled as they went through the door.

"You'll have a private cubicle all to yourself," Boss assured him, "just like the pilots have. You'll only have to share a 'fresher."

Luke closed his eyes briefly. Well, this was war. Sacrifices had to be made. And if he had to share a 'fresher...

He was Luke Vader-Skywalker (in disguise). He could do anything!

"Do I have to?" he inquired plaintively, just to be certain.

"It's war. Sacrifices have to be made-- even if it means sharing a 'fresher," Boss said, leaving Luke at a standstill, staring after him.

I gotta be more careful with this Force stuff!


Luke sat on his bunk, pretending to search through his backpack. He was actually listening to the pilots' chatter, trying to get a feel for them before he joined them. The brief introduction that Boss had given ("This is Oz, new mechanic") had barely generated any responses. He wondered if pilots considered themselves superior beings or if they'd accept him as one of them.

Well, there was only one way to find out. Tucking the pack securely under his bed, he walked into the rec area. This was more like it! It was a large, comfortable room with tables for eating or gaming, and soft chairs for relaxing. There was even a small holoscreen that was currently turned off.

He decided not to interrupt the game of sabaac, even though he probably could give them a few pointers, and headed for the two men lounging in one corner. "Hi," he said when their conversation paused.

A brown haired youth looked up at him. "You're the mechanic...?"

"Oz," he supplied.

"Short name. I'm Wedge Antilles." The pilot didn't stand or offer a hand. "This is Jed Porkins—"

A stout young man gave him a half smile.

"Laze Loneozner," Luke said awkwardly. "But call me Oz."

Antilles waved at a chair and Luke took it as an invitation to sit. "So. Mechanic."

Luke nodded. "I can fly, too, but I've never been in an X-wing."

"You can fly?" Porkins straightened. "Great, we need more pilots!"

"We need a mechanic," Antilles reminded him. "You ever work on an X-wing?"

"No, only—" He had just about said, only TIE fighters, "smaller ships. But I'm good, I can fix anything."

"And we can teach you to fly X-wings," Porkins interjected. "You enlisted, right? Or are you a civie?"

"Uh... I'm a civilian. That reminds me," Luke remembered, "do you know how much I'll get paid?"

Wedge laughed a little. "Same as the rest of us. You get room and board. If you're not enlisting, you don't even get a uniform, so keep your clothes clean."

"We can pop for a jumpsuit for him," the other man protested. "Sithspit, Antilles, you Corellians are cheap!"

"That's why we're rich," Wedge said in a regretful tone that meant he had no money at all. "Where're you from, Oz?"

"Tatooine."

"Huh. We don't get many from the Outer Rim Territories."

The conversation faded off, and Luke wondered if it was always this boring here. Maybe he could perk things up. "So why are you fighting the Empire if you're not getting paid?"

The door behind him banged open and Boss entered. Luke expected people to stand, but no one did, so he stayed in his seat.

"The Empire is evil. That's why we're fighting," Porkins said.

Same old story. "How can a whole Empire be evil?" Luke asked. "That's billions of beings... including us." He felt a presence behind him and knew that Boss was hovering.

"The government of the Empire," Wedge clarified. "Don't they teach you anything on Tatooine?"

He was getting tired of people thinking Outer Rim inhabitants were stupid! "Of course they do!" he snapped. "But we hardly see anything of the Empire, so I'm asking! Is that a crime?"

Boss chuckled. "He's a feisty one, boys, best watch out." The red-haired man walked around him and sat across from Porkins. "The Emperor staged a coup and dissolved the Republic nearly twenty years ago in order to establish a form of government that relies on terror and torture to enforce its hold on the galaxy. The Moffs and Vader, with millions of stormtroopers at their disposal, enforce the Emperor's hold."

"Well then," Luke asked carefully, "wouldn't it be easier to just get rid of the Emperor instead of fighting millions of troopers? Maybe the stormtroopers don't like the Empire. I mean... the Moffs probably like it because it's why they have power, but I'll bet Vader doesn't like it either."

There was a moment of silence, then Porkins said, "I can see this kid is going to be great for morale."

"I'm just asking!" He folded his arms. "I want to know how other people think!"

"It's all right," Wedge said understandingly. "We're not making fun of you. It's just hard to relate to someone who hasn't experienced the Empire firsthand."

"That's not quite true," Boss said thoughtfully. "Oz, you told me your guardians were killed by stormtroopers and that you were driven from Tatooine by them."

He shrugged. "That was like a police action. It wasn't politics."

"Of course it was politics," Wedge countered. "That scene is playing out over and over, everywhere in the galaxy. Farms and businesses being stolen, homes destroyed, families separated and killed."

He hoped his dad wasn't doing anything like that. "It doesn't make sense. If Palpatine destroys so much, there won't be an Empire left for him to rule." The other three smiled slightly, as if they were humoring a child, but Luke thought his point was valid. "I still say, get rid of the Emperor. He's the one controlling everything."

"Sure, we'll just fly right up to the palace and shoot him," Porkins mumbled.

"Palpatine and Vader both," Boss mused. "Cut off the head and the rest of the snake dies."

"Speaking of which..." Wedge stood and grabbed a box, dealing out electronic darts between the four of them. "Let's have a go, shall we?" He pushed open a door, revealing crudely painted images of the Emperor and Darth Vader on the back of it. Aiming carefully, he threw a dart. It lit bright orange and made a buzzing sound when it struck Luke's dad in his chestplate.

Luke flinched and quietly put his darts aside. "When do we eat?" he asked, hoping to distract them.

It didn't work. They were caught up in their game and soon added rounds of derogatory shouts along with each throw. With a sigh, Luke slipped away and went outside. Dad? he asked without much hope, and there was no answer.

He looked around. No one was paying attention to him, so he wound his way through the buildings and headed for the hill that looked so enticing. Time to see what was on the other side.


There was nothing. Luke made a sound of disgust and dropped to the grass, disappointed. He didn't know why he had felt compelled to climb the hill nor why he had stopped where he did, in a wide valley ringed by steep slopes. Still... there was something familiar about the place, almost as if he'd been here before. It felt... good.

He lay back in the grass. It was soft, warmed by the single sun that shone down with a temperate heat. It was nothing like Tatooine. Strange, how rarely he thought of Tatooine. He never wished he was back home...

Luke blinked, then threw his arm across his forehead to shield his eyes. At the moment he'd thought 'home', the image that flashed into his mind was not the Lars homestead, but rather his room on the Devastator... and Darth Vader, standing there looking at him, hands on his hips, smiling behind his mask.

He sniffled and blinked a few more times, then sat up. Determinedly, he concentrated on his surroundings, pushing his father to the back of his mind. It was pretty here, but there was something else, something more than just the attractiveness of the landscape... there was a feeling of... Well, he didn't know what it was.

Rising, Luke walked farther, entering an odd cluster of forest. Now he felt wary, as if someone lurked behind the trees, waiting to—

"AAGH!" he shouted when a spectral figure suddenly appeared in front of him.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" the figure demanded angrily, and he saw it was just a girl in a white dress.

"You scared the krit out of me!" he accused.

"How dare you talk to me that way," she huffed, folding her arms and glaring at him.

He squinted to take an inventory of her. She was about his age, shorter than he was, with a stupid hairdo. "What are you doing here?"

"What are you doing here?" she countered.

"I have every right to be here." He folded his own arms and returned her glare. "I'm with the army!"

"So am I!"

"Oh, please!" he scoffed. "You're a girl! What kind of girl— Oh." Well, why not? Those kind of girls did a big business in Mos Eisley. "You're that kind."

She gasped, then her glare became more intense. "I have no idea what you mean," she said icily, "but I am a senator and I won't be treated this way by some—some-- peasant!"

"Who're you calling a peasant, sister?" he demanded. "You don't even know me! You don't know anything about me! And you, a senator— c'mon! You're about twelve years old!"

"Oh! Oh!" She was so angry, she couldn't form a coherent word, and Luke couldn't help but grin at her.

"So what's your name?" he asked. "I'm Oz. I just got here today."

"Hrmph." She still scowled, but obviously good manners were warring with her irritation. "Leia Organa," she said finally.

"That's a pretty name," he replied as a peace offering. "Where're you from?"

Leia shuffled around a little, as if she didn't want to let go of her anger. She reminded Luke of his dad. "Alderaan."

"Cool. I'm from Tatooine."

She rolled her eyes. "No wonder you have no manners."

"You know," Luke snapped, "I've never met as many rude people in my life as I've met here. You're all prejudiced and act superior! Some Alliance! I'm not impressed."

Those accusations must have had some impact, because she looked embarrassed. "You're right," she acknowledged with a tiny sigh. "I'm sorry, Oz. So tell me, what are you doing here? Most people don't come here. I think of it as my private retreat."

"Oh. Sorry for trespassing." He looked around. "I'm not sure. I just... like the way it feels. I know that sounds silly."

"No, I understand, that's how I feel, too." She looked at him with faint surprise on her face. "I just haven't met anyone who felt the same way."

"Oh." It occurred to him that he was actually talking to a nice girl, and he wasn't nervous. He also wasn't attracted to her, which made him annoyed with himself.

They stood motionless for a moment. The hair along the back of Luke's neck prickled and he shivered, not from the breeze that was warm and moist. He looked over his shoulder. Nothing was there.

Leia folded her arms again, but this time she appeared cold rather than angry. Their eyes met. "I think we should go," Luke said awkwardly.

She nodded. They began to walk, then increased their pace to a trot after only a few steps. Luke grabbed her arm and broke into a run. When they were in the sunny, open meadow again, they both stopped and looked back.

"That was creepy," Luke muttered, unable to pinpoint what had so unnerved him.

"Cold," Leia said softly. "Like... something was wrong. Bad."

He nodded in agreement. "Have you ever felt that before?"

She shook her head. "No. I've been a little uncomfortable in the forest, but nothing like this time."

Great. Maybe it was a Bad Sith thing that he attracted. Probably evil spirits were swirling around and were going to follow them back to the base.

"Thanks for getting us out of there so fast," she said, and he knew it was a small gesture of friendship.

"I really saved our bacons," he boasted playfully.

She giggled a little, then agreed with a nod and a smile. "I need to get back," Leia said when they reached the outskirts of the encampment.

"Me too. It was nice meeting you," he said, to show her that Tatooinies could be as polite as anyone else in the galaxy.

"You too, Oz," she answered with a smile, and he felt a pang of regret that he had to lie to her about his name. "Good-bye."

He watched until she disappeared out of sight and sighed. This feeling wasn't nearly as bad as when he'd had to leave his dad, but still... he felt oddly bereft.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself, he scolded, and added aloud: "I'll go look for the mess hall. A hearty dinner, and I'll feel great!"

Room and board. He was pretty sure that meant they would feed him.


Well, yes, they fed him, but he wasn't impressed with the food, which was even worse than Imp-ship food... except for the lush fruits that were freshly picked and full of juice. Luke wondered if he could live on fruit alone and skip the dry rations.

After dinner, there didn't seem to be much to do so he returned to his tiny room and shut the door. Maybe if he took a nap, he could talk to his dad again. It worked last time. "Luke to Dad," he muttered, closing his eyes and pretending to sleep. "H'lo, Dad, come in! Yoo-hoo!"

After a few minutes of waiting, he gave up. He wasn't tired and it was hard to fake sleep. He wandered out into the encampment, enjoying the fresh, clean air and cooling temperature. Dusk was just beginning to settle, and on the horizon he saw two moons beginning their climb into the darkening azure sky. They looked lonely sitting out there by themselves, waiting for full night to reveal their starry companions.

"Pretty, aren't they?"

He turned his head. Leia Organa. "I guess. Tatooine has two suns. The moons remind me of there... well, except that these are moons instead of suns, it's cold instead of hot, grass and trees instead of desert, full of people instead of—"

"I get the idea," Leia interrupted good-naturedly. "Um... Oz, I'm not usually as rude as I was this afternoon. Something about that area set my nerves on edge. I'm sure that was why you were rude, too."

"Nope," he disagreed cheerfully. "With me, what you see is what you get." Except for all the lies about his identity.

She made a funny cluck-clucking noise. "I was trying to give you an excuse for your behavior."

"Who asked you to?" Luke grinned at her. "I can think up my own excuses, thanks anyway."

Leia raised her eyes toward the sky. "Fine. I only came over to say that it was nice meeting you. I'm leaving for awhile."

A rush of anger jolted through. People appeared in his life and disappeared almost immediately. There was hardly any point in getting to know someone. He forced himself to speak calmly. "Where are you going?"

"Back to the Senate," she stated evenly, but her cheeks flushed and he knew she wasn't telling the entire truth.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said shortly, turning away from her, angry that she was leaving and insulted that she wasn't being honest with him.

Oh, look who's talking about honesty!

"Princess!" a voice called. Luke turned to see a strange officer coming toward them.

"Princess?" he repeated. Great. She was the Alderaani princess he'd heard about. It figured that he'd insult someone important. Oh, well, it was practice for meeting Palpy.

She left him without further words, and he watched her walk downhill to greet the officer. Her behind swished nicely from side to side and why that didn't move him, he didn't understand. Maybe he was what Aunt Beru used to refer to as a 'late bloomer'. "Wish I'd bloom soon," he muttered.

What to do, what to do. Apparently he wasn't required to report to work tonight, so he headed out of the camp and ran up 'his' hill. When he reached the top, he took advantage of the privacy to exercise his Force skills—leaping up to grab hold of high tree branches, climbing higher and jumping down, executing cartwheels over and over—in short, he did everything he could think of to wear himself out. Then he sat down and stared at the lights of the base. From here, it looked quiet and pretty.

"Hah! People probably think that about Leia, too!" He laughed at his cleverness. Lying back in the grass, he relaxed in the cozy feeling of being surrounded by a mysterious warmth despite the cooling air and... eww, the grass was wet. Nevertheless, he closed his eyes and drifted into a pleasant haze.

"Nice to see you again," Darth Vader said dryly.

Luke turned his head lazily. "Hi, Dad. Where've you been? I tried to call a couple times but I didn't get an answer."

"At this distance, in order to attain mental contact you need to be in a meditative state... or the state that, for you, passes as meditation: asleep."

"You told me sarcasm isn't polite," he reminded his father. "Hey!" He sat up suddenly. "Is Jovay your son?"

"What?" Darth Vader's mask disappeared and his father's indistinct features swam in front of him. "Just how old do you think I am?"

"I dunno."

"Well, I'd have to be a lot older in order to be Jovay's father."

"Don't get your pants in a twist," he replied mildly. "He just said something that made me wonder. So... you're not, right?"

Vader was back, breathing heavily. "I am not."

"Okay. Just checking." Pleased with the answer, Luke relaxed and yawned widely.

"If you fall into a deep sleep, we will not be able to talk."

"Oh." He blinked several times, trying to stay partly awake.

"We'll go for a walk." Vader rose.

Luke stood, then looked down at himself still lying on the grass, eyes closed. "Uh..."

Vader waved his hand. "Leave your body there. We'll come back for it."

"That's good." He followed his father. "As long as it won't get eaten by wild animals. What if somebody finds it... me? Will they think I'm dead?"

"No, Luke, they'll think you're sleeping. Where do you get such wild ideas?"

"Out of my head." They were moving into the small clearing. Vader's black garb kept appearing and fading, and sometimes he looked like a different man altogether. "So are we like... spirits now? Or ghosts?"

"Neither. We're meditating."

"Wow, walking and meditating at the same time. Cool." Luke quieted, content to simply enjoy his dad's company. But the need to talk was too great and he managed only a few seconds of silence. "I met a girl."

"You did?" Vader halted, sounding pleased, and his mask shimmered and disappeared. "What sort of girl?"

"The usual kind. Two arms, two legs, two—you know."

A younger man laughed at him. "I know. Do you like her? What's her name?"

"Her name is Leia Organa and I guess she's a prin—"

"Hah!" Darth Vader shouted triumphantly. "I knew it! The Princess is more than just a supporter of The Rebellion Against the Empire, she's a participant! Now I can gather the evidence I need to arrest her."

"You can not!" Luke protested. "I'm not a spy! You can't take advantage of me being here—that's cheating! It's not fair!"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Hey!" Luke grabbed Vader's arm and yanked on it. "If you arrest her because of this, I'll never speak to you again. I mean it."

"Of course you will speak to me, you cannot stop yourself from talking," his father said smugly.

Luke pressed his lips together and decided to try another tact. "You need to show some respect for me. What kind of father would betray my confidences?"

Darth Vader looked down at him, folding his arms. Luke folded his own arms and glared back. They were both still for several very long seconds. "All right," Vader finally agreed grudgingly.

"Okay then." Luke nodded and they began walking again, ending up in the small meadow he'd discovered earlier. "What is this place?" he asked, knowing his father would understand.

"Thousands of years ago it was the site of a Jedi teaching enclave. Many great Jedi were taught here, including the Sith Lord, Exar Kun."

"Oh." For whatever reason, he was vaguely disappointed. "You know, there's a Dark place in the trees that Leia felt, too. It was... scary. Maybe that Kun-guy was coming after me."

Either his father didn't think he needed reassuring or he was simply ignoring those last words. "Leia Organa felt Force emanations?" he asked in an odd tone.

Luke shrugged. "How would I know? It was just a creepy place that neither of us liked. Let's go the other way."

"Let's go back to your body."

"Already? But we haven't talked in ages."

"Days and days. Nevertheless," his father steered him around, "other people are approaching and it's best that you be awake when they arrive."

"Why? What would happen if I wasn't? Hey!" he exclaimed, remembering. "My lightsaber is broken! How do I fix it?"

His dad ignored that. Luke was beginning to figure out that when his father ignored something, either it was important or he didn't want to answer for some other reason. Maybe he was embarrassed to have given Luke a defective lightsaber. Or maybe he wanted Luke to repair it himself. "I have more things I want to talk to you about. I miss you. And..." He didn't know how to tell his dad that he was angry at him, because he wasn't, not really. It was just hard to understand why he was here instead of with his father.

"Luke." His dad stopped them in front of Luke's relaxed body. "You must practice meditation-- without falling asleep. When you have reached a higher level of skill, we will be able to contact each other more often, and more frequent communication will become necessary as events progress. Be mindful of the people around you and of your own safety. I do not like that you are here with the Rebels."

"You sent me here," he reminded his father crossly.

"Dangerous as it is, right now the Alliance is a safer place for you than the Empire." Vader glanced at the pilots heading toward them. "Get back in your body now."

"How do I—?" Luke opened his eyes and sat up. His father was nowhere to be seen, but Wedge and Porkins were approaching. "Hi. Just copping a snooze," he explained nervously.

"Boss sent us to get you," Wedge said. "There are wild animals roaming around at night. It could be dangerous."

"I knew it," Luke muttered, hoping his dad could feel his silent recrimination. They could have eaten my body while we were wandering around!

"Boss sent Wedge," Porkins clarified, "and Wedge was afraid to come up here alone."

"I wasn't afraid," Wedge denied sharply. "I just figured you could use the exercise."

"Oh, yeah, just what I've always wanted, exercise. Thanks, buddy."

As they continued bickering, Luke joined them and headed back toward the base, casting a longing look over his shoulder.

No dad. He sighed heavily, both sorry and relieved. The other two looked at him and he had to think quickly.

"I have a tattoo," he said brightly. "Wanna see?"

"No," Wedge said.

"Sure," Porkins said.

"No," Wedge repeated, more emphatically.

"It's a TIE fighter," Luke offered.

"A TIE fighter?" Porkins repeated doubtfully. "Maybe you shouldn't show that to anyone."

"I wanted to get an x-wing on the other arm, but I ran out of credits."

"Too bad you didn't get that first," Wedge muttered. "Don't show Boss. He'll want to scrape it off." He paused, looking at Luke as they walked. "You really should be in bed, you know. We get up early."

"Oh, please!" Luke rolled his eyes at the absurd suggestion. Bed at this hour, like he was a child! "I couldn't possibly fall asleep this early. Besides, I'm not a morning person, I'll work a later shift."

Porkins chuckled. "Good luck with that," he said cheerfully, and even the serious Wedge smiled.

Luke didn't speak again as they reached the barracks and separated, each going to his own cubicle. Wedge seemed to be about his own age, but was so grim and... adult. If that's what it was like to grow up, Luke vowed never to let it happen to him. Turning out to be boring was one of his great worries. Not that Wedge was boring... well, who could tell, he was so serious.

He sat on the edge of his bunk and fished the lightsaber out of his pack. He pressed the control again, but sure enough, it was still broken. He hoped he could fix it, but maybe he shouldn't do it yet. What if someone stole it? He didn't know these people; they could be thieves. It's not like they were his friends... What was the point in being friends with them? They'd be gone soon. They'd die in combat or he'd leave because his dad decided that he should go live with the Wookiees or some other dumb idea. Luke frowned and mentally scowled at his dad, then immediately stopped, just in case he was broadcasting through the Force. I'm really not mad at you, he sent, though he sort of was.

The lights went out. Luke sat there for a moment, snarling silently at the stupidity of an army that decided its troops should be in bed by 2200, as if they weren't adults and couldn't decide for themselves.

"Oh, wait," he muttered, "I'm not an adult and never will be. Gotta remember that."

He remained sitting upright on his bunk, vowing not to cave in to The Man and go to sleep. But in a few minutes, he tilted sideways and relaxed against the surprisingly soft pillow. He wouldn't sleep, but he could rest for awhile before going to bed.

The next thing he knew, lights were blinding him and a loud buzzing was sounding in the barracks. Luke pried open one eye when there was a tap on his door before it was flung open.

"Rise and shine, tattoo-boy," Porkins called happily. "It's time for the early shift! Don't say you weren't warned!"

"Terrific," Luke grumbled, pushing himself into a sitting position. He wasn't even getting paid for being abused like this! Something was definitely wrong in the galaxy, and it looked like the Rebels were part of the problem.


Feet hooked on the edge of the low table, Luke slouched in the chair and closed his eyes, listening to "The Fall of the Senate". It seemed an appropriate topic to study, given that he had been ensconced for weeks with a group that wanted to restore the Republic and the Senate. Granted, the audio didn't have anything nice to say about the Republic, but he suspected all educational datatapes were Palpy-Approved and not to be totally believed. There was probably some truth to them, but he tried to balance that with what he heard from his new compatriots.

He opened his eyes and studied the people who relaxed in the rec area. Red Squad was larger than he'd thought at first. Pilots came and went on various assignments – guarding troop carriers, sniping at the Imps, even ferrying supply ships. One young pilot whom Luke had met briefly and liked had not returned from his last mission, and Luke had been surprised at the lack of regret from the other pilots. There had been no talk, no reminiscing, no sorry-he's-gone, just a quiet that had lasted a few hours and more drinking than usual that night.

He wouldn't like to die unmourned. At least his dad would miss him. Maybe.

"Hey! What the--!"

Luke looked over to see Porkins standing at the open storage room door, one fist planted on his waist, the other clutching electronic darts, glaring at the room in general.

"What?" Wedge asked, glancing up from his zukodu puzzle.

"Look!" Porkins grabbed the edge of the door and swung it to and fro. "Vader is missing! Who took my Vader poster?"

"I put it under my pillow so I can dream about him at night," Luke said mildly—and truthfully— earning a round of chuckles from the other two, plus a couple snorts from invisible pilots somewhere in the barracks.

"Dear Lord Vader," Wedge recited in a high-pitched adolescent voice, "My name is Oz and I'm your biggest fan. Can I have your autograph? Or maybe a share of your estate? I will tell all the other boys what a wonderful person you really are, somewhere deep, deep, really deep inside."

Luke blushed as everyone roared, then grinned. "You won't be laughing when he writes back and gives me part of his estate! After all, how many fans can he have?"

"A few, I should imagine, in the Imperial camp," a voice behind him said. Garven Dreis joined the group and pulled a chair alongside Luke. "What're you studying, Oz?"

He unplugged the audio and held it up. "It's about the fall of the Senate," he said helpfully, just in case Boss couldn't read, and recited: "Corrupt senators dedicated only to winning benefits for their own planets, susceptible to bribery and blackmail, versus power-mad Jedi determined to take over the galaxy, blee blee blee."

Boss shook his head. "The crap they give you kids to read! I don't know how you learn anything."

"So there were no corrupt senators?" Luke asked innocently.

"Of course there were, a few, as there would be in any body the size of the Senate. But they were far outnumbered by sincere beings dedicated to the welfare of the galaxy and all its sentient life. Unlike the Imperials, whose hostility toward-- "

"You had to get him started," Porkins grumbled. "Tell him about the Jedi, Boss."

Quickly stifled laughter told Luke that this was a favorite topic of Garven's. "What was so great about Jedi?" he asked, feigning disinterest. "Were they really trying to take over the Senate and control the galaxy like it says here?"

"No!" Boss exploded, much to the delight of a few pilots who staggered away, struggling to cover their laughter. "The Jedi were amazing fighters, risking their lives every day. Seeing them use lightsabers was awe-inspiring! They were brilliant flyers, too. No one could pilot like a Jedi, and they could fly anything. I knew one—well, knew of him— He was the greatest pilot who ever lived, at least in my lifetime. I saw him make a landing on Coruscant with a ship that was being torn apart by explosions, losing huge sections piece by piece. Yet somehow he brought it in, saving the life of Chancellor Palpatine, who was onboard. As it turned out, that was a life not worth saving. Still... They called him the Hero Without Fear." Garven's enthusiasm faded. "I'm sure he died that way, too... without fear. What a waste."

"Anakin Skywalker," Luke said softly.

"Yes." Boss looked up, surprise flashing across his face. "That's on your tape?"

"No. I just... heard stories."

"Huh." Garven stood and looked down on him. "Tomorrow you'll start working on x-wings."

"What?" He sat up straight, blinking.

"It's about time!" Porkins crowed.

"Congratulations!" Wedge called.

"Uh, thanks," Luke mumbled, staring at Garven. Sure, x-wings were more exciting than transports and ground vehicles, but he'd be working on something that might try to shoot down his dad. Or Captain Piett.

"And if you'd like—I'm not pressuring you," Boss said in a tone that meant he was, "I think you're ready to try the fighter simulator."

"We'll make a flyboy out of you yet," Wedge said unhelpfully.

"Tattoo-boy from Tattoo-ine becomes Fly-Boy," Porkins intoned. "This calls for a celebration. Break out the drinks—juice, of course," he added with a grin for Garven.

"I'm not your mother," Boss answered, shaking his head in disapproval. "If you can drink and be sharp in the morning, go ahead. Not you, Oz, you're too young. You neither, Wedge."

"You said you weren't our mother," Luke protested, though he didn't truly care. Drinking reminded him of Tatooine, and he could do without memories of that life.

"If I were your mother, you'd all be drinking milk," the older pilot retorted.

My dad makes me drink milk, Luke thought wistfully. He was getting better at the mind-talk business, but it wasn't enough. He wanted to spend real time with his dad, live and in person! Which he kept saying and Darth Vader kept ignoring. "I like milk."

"Baby Oz wants his milky!" Jek Porkins singsonged.

"You can be quite juvenile and annoying," Luke said loftily. "I suggest you act your age. Which I assume to be around... fifty?"

"Hah-hah, very funny," Porkins responded good-naturedly. "It's almost bedtime, Baby Oz. You should turn in so you can dream about your hero and be well rested for your important new job tomorrow."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Who's his hero?" Boss asked.

"He sleeps with my poster of Vader under his pillow."

"Sure he does." Garven sighed. "And I thought you were going to be the obnoxious one," he said to Luke.

"Nah, Oz is a good boy," Jek called across the room.

Oh, terrific. Luke Lars Skywalker Vader, An Example For Others. "I'm going to bed," he said shortly. "G'night."

"Night."

"Yo."

"Night, Baby Oz. Sweet dreams about your hero!"

"Not dreams." He turned and gave Porkins the most evil look he could manage. "I'm going to meditate," he said in a spooky tone, "and see if I can contact him through the Force."

In the moment of silence that followed, he went into his cubicle and closed the door firmly behind him.

- - - - -

"What'd you hafta to do to get a promotion?" Jord Slari sneered. "Or should I say 'who'?"

Luke wanted to ignore his fellow mechanic, but it was impossible. Jord was older, tougher, and with a rotten attitude. Bitter, too, because he was a good mechanic who had been stuck working on ground vehicles for over a year with little chance of promotion because of his personality.

"I work hard and keep my mouth shut," he muttered, climbing off the ladder to hang over the fighter's engine compartment. If he could have fit completely inside, he would have jumped in where Jord couldn't see him.

"You're such a goody-goody. Boss's little prince, Mr. Perfect."

"That's me, perfection personified." The spanner was just out of reach, but with a little Force nudging, it slid across the top of the battery compartment and into his hand. The best thing about working on fighters was that he was high enough for his actions to remain out of sight from those on the ground.

"Let's take a break," Jord suggested, staring up at him.

Luke sighed. Jord wasn't his idea of pleasant companionship, but he'd been working all morning in cramped conditions and it would feel good to get out. "Okay." If Jord hadn't been standing right there, Luke could have jumped and used the Force to soften his landing. Instead, he had to climb down the ladder. Jord was already heading behind a row of groundrovers parked along the back wall of the hangar, so Luke followed.

Jord sprawled on the cold floor and leaned against a 'rover. "Wanna smoke?"

"No." Luke twisted and stretched a few times, shaking out his arms before squatting opposite him, watching uneasily as the other mechanic lit a deathstick. "You can't smoke spice here."

"Who's gonna stop me—you?" Jord tossed his long hair away from the burning stick. "You need to loosen up, have some fun. Have you always been this prissy?"

He sank back and sat, uncertain how to respond. Sure, he was the son of a queen and a lord (Lord of the Sith, true, but hey, Vader was still a lord) but he'd never been called prissy or a prince until he got here. It seemed like years ago that his life had revolved around spice and stealing and creating as much havoc as he could manage. Now... well, he was busy, he didn't have time for screwing around.

Which, in a way, seemed like quite a pity.

"C'mon, take a hit." Jord held out the spice stick.

"No," Luke said, but took it and stood. "They'll throw you out if they catch you." His head spun a little as the familiar, compelling odor wrapped itself around him. For a moment, he hesitated—

No, his dad would kill him! Anyway, spice just wasn't him anymore. No one would ever accuse him of being an addict again! Luke dropped the stick to the floor and raised his foot to stomp on it.

Someone pushed him aside. "Too little, too late," Commander Narra snapped. "Both of you, come with me."

Oh, krit. Luke sent a foul look at Jord, who promptly declared, "Hey, it's not mine! I'm just sittin' here mindin' my own business. It belongs to Oz!"

"It does not!" He was nearly speechless with anger. "It's not mine, Commander!"

"It just appeared by magic, eh?" Narra stubbed the stick against the wall, but kept the butt in his hand. "Follow me."

Great, just great. If they kicked him out, where would he go? It was pretty obvious that his dad didn't want him back on the Devastator. Maybe it was time for Oz to strike out on his own again and to hell with everybody else—his dad, this stupid Alliance, all of them.

But for the moment, he followed Narra back to headquarters, subdued and more than a little worried.

- - - - -

It seemed like forever that he and Jord sat in silence in the corner of commander's office. Narra ignored them, seemingly busy with the com and computer panels. The smashed stub of the deathstick perched on the edge of his desk. Luke saw Jord eye it a few times and wondered if they were having the same thought: grab it, eat it, and get rid of the evidence.

Luke sighed and slouched. "How long are we gonna sit here?" He heard the insolence in his voice and it sounded very familiar. "If you're gonna kick us out, just do it." Then he could go back to his dad and to hell with worrying about Palpy.

"Quiet, or you'll wait in the brig."

"Been there, done that," Luke quipped, unable to stop himself.

Narra gave him the Look that Luke associated with his father, even though he had never actually seen it on Vader's face. He glanced away and stared at the window, counting the dead gnats that lay on the sill.

The door opened and in marched Boss and Wedge, looking grim and—oh, krit, disappointed!

Commander Narra rose and joined the other two, creating a solid wall of three between the door and the mechanics. "Our Alliance depends on volunteers," he began. "They are the heart and soul of our cause, the glue that holds our coalition together. Without volunteers, those who enlist and those who serve in a less formal capacity, we would not be able to continue. It is an ongoing struggle to feed, clothe and house everyone, so we can only retain those volunteers who are sincere in their commitment to our cause. We cannot tolerate drug use or excessive alcohol consumption for many reasons—most of which should be obvious to you."

"Yada, yada, yada," Jord drawled, and yawned.

Luke winced. If that was the way he appeared to his dad, no wonder Vader didn't want him around! The Perfect Son idea hadn't worked, but maybe A Slightly Better Son was called for. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Suck-up," Jord muttered.

"Oz," Boss said, taking a few steps in his direction, "is the deathstick yours?"

"No, sir."

"Have you used spice since you've been here?"

"No, sir." He couldn't help but sigh. He sounded exactly like Jord had described: prissy. It was pretty obvious that he was losing his personality. Or worse, growing up.

"All right." Garven nodded at Narra, who walked around and opened the door. Luke saw two security officers posted outside.

"Jord, this isn't your first offense," Narra began. "We've given you every chance, but apparently you haven't learned your lesson. Since you know our location, we can't allow you to leave. You'll be locked in the brig for as long as we remain on Dantooine. At such time we depart, you will be transported to the nearest habited planet."

"You can't do that," Jord protested.

"It's done." The guards responded to Narra's gesture and cuffed Jord, hauling him away still arguing and cursing.

The door banged shut, leaving the room in sudden quiet. Luke grinned nervously at the other men. Wedge and Boss sat down, which meant this wasn't over. What else could they possibly want from him? Oh, please, not an awful lecture like Jord got! "Uh... thanks for believing me."

"Next time, choose better friends," Wedge said quietly, and Luke bit back the obvious retort that he hadn't chosen this one.

Commander Narra returned to desk and settled behind it. "Trust is important to the Alliance." He picked up a datapad and studied it. "Laze Loneozner... 'Oz' is your nickname?"

Luke nodded, feeling uneasy for no reason he could pinpoint.

"Indeed," Narra continued. "Just when did you stop calling yourself 'Fixer'?"

The question took a moment to register. Luke's mouth dropped open and he tried to think, but all that filled his brain was:

Oh-oh.

Pressing his lips shut, Luke smiled and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Oh... it's been awhile."

Narra returned his smile pleasantly, but his eyes were cold. "How long precisely?"

This was not good. "Uh... I started using 'Oz' after my guardians were killed and, uh..." The truth and nothing but! "...I was hiding from the Imps."

"So before that you were called 'Fixer'?" Boss asked from behind him.

Luke turned and looked at him. Just the fact that they were asking that question meant they already knew the answer. "Well... not exactly. I just sorta... borrowed it."

"That would explain the discrepancies in your background check," Narra said mildly, from over his other shoulder.

He turned again, edging to the side of the room so he could see them all and not feel ambushed. "I guess," he answered cautiously, not really wanting to hear the discrepancies itemized.

"But you are Laze Loneozner?" the Commander added.

Luke gaze him a sickly grin. He hated such direct questions. They made it harder to lie. "Uh... that's what my ID says, right?"

Wedge choked and looked down. Luke hoped—without much hope—that he was laughing, which would mean Luke wasn't in a great deal of trouble.

"That's what it says," Narra agreed skeptically. "Fortunately for my peace of mind, there is someone here who knows Laze Loneozner and can help us clear up the discrepancies."

"Fabulous!" Luke said with a cheeky grin that hid the sudden flaring of his nerves. "Discrepancies can be such a drag."

Narra sighed. "Wedge, would you...?"

Luke watched until the pilot left, then asked: "So who is this guy?" A thought occurred to him: maybe it was Fixer! Maybe Fixer had run away to join the Alliance! That would be great, they'd be together again!

"A pilot who recently joined us."

"Oh." Fixer could fly, but not well enough to be accepted as a real pilot. He frowned.

"I hope you're not going to disappoint me... Oz," Boss said quietly. "You have a future with us. I'd hate to see it ruined for any reason."

"Such as espionage," Narra added.

He felt his eyes widen. "You mean spying?" he asked incredulously. "I'm not a spy!" I don't think.

"At last," Narra said to Boss, "a definitive statement. Let's hope it's an honest one."

"I'm too young and immature to be a spy," Luke observed helpfully. "And I don't lie well."

Narra's head bent low over his datapad and he didn't answer. Luke looked at Garven, but he was studying his hands intently. Neither of them spoke, and Luke decided maybe he should quit talking, too, and stared at his toes.

They waited in silence for a few more minutes before the door banged open.

"We're back," Wedge announced unnecessarily. "This is—"

"Luke!" an incredulous voice exclaimed.

Luke tilted his head sideways to take a cautious peek at the new arrival, then straightened. "Biggs!" Biggs Darklighter, the last person he'd expect to defect from the Imps! "I thought you were at the Academy!"

"I was, but—"

"You know this boy?" Narra interrupted. "Is he or is he not Laze Loneozner?"

"Who're you calling 'boy'?" Luke demanded indignantly.

Biggs looked first at Narra, then Luke, then back to the commander. "This is Luke Lars. He's Fixer's—Laze Loneozner's best friend. Luke, what's going on? Why are you calling yourself Fixer?"

"Oz," he corrected.

"What?"

"LoneOZner, get it?" Luke grinned. "Well, I couldn't call myself Laze Loneozner, could I? I mean, really!"

"He's carrying Loneozner's identity chip," Boss stated.

"Luke!" Biggs scolded. "You stole Fixer's ID?"

Denial was on the tip of his tongue, which he almost bit off in his effort to keep quiet. "Yes," he said reluctantly, because he didn't want to get Fixer in trouble.

"Huh. More likely he gave it to you."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Why bother to ask me if you're going to answer?"

"Much as I dislike interrupting this reunion," Commander Narra began, interrupting anyway, "Darklighter, are you vouching for this Luke...?"

"Lars," Biggs confirmed. "Yes, sir. He was my neighbor on Tatooine. He's just a kid."

"Insult me a little more," Luke offered. "Please, give them all the dirt."

"Lars," Narra interrupted yet again, "your body scan is showing a metal hand. Is it a prosthetic?"

"No, I was born that way," Luke quipped brightly, earning a scowl from Narra but a hastily smothered giggle from Wedge. "Yeah, it's a prosthetic. I lost my hand in a farming accident."

"What farming accident?" Biggs asked with surprise. "Since when? I never heard about that."

"It was after you left," he muttered, glaring at his unhelpful friend.

"How did it happen?"

"It just did, okay!" Luke shouted. "Krit, why the third degree?"

"Because," Boss said before Biggs could respond with something stupid, "if it's a false prosthetic, it could container a tracker or detonator."

"Fine. Fine!" Furious, Luke punch open the maintenance panel on the top of his right hand. "There! Satisfied! Kritpeth! Can't a guy have any privacy!"

"Sorry," Biggs said sheepishly. "Did Owen—" He shut up when Luke rounded on him, ready to fight. "Okay, okay, sorry!"

No, it wasn't Owen! he wanted to scream. It was my dad! My dad chopped off my hand! Happy now?

He stuck his hand under Boss's nose and glowered, daring him to say one more thing. "That's fine, Oz—Luke. You can get your hand out of my face now. You understand that we had to be certain."

"If you don't trust me, just say so!" he declared defensively.

For a second, he thought Boss or Narra might say exactly that, but after a hesitation the moment passed safely.

"You're both dismissed. No—you're all dismissed. I have work to do." Narra waved them off, then called: "Lars! I don't want to hear another lie out of your mouth."

Luke Lars Skywalker Vader sighed. "How about if I just don't talk to you?"

Boss grabbed his arm and dragged him outside. "You never know when to stop, do you?"

"You'd be surprised," Luke replied darkly.

"Let's go somewhere and talk," Biggs said. "I have to tell you what happened to me. And I want to hear about you. I can't believe you're a pilot! I can't even believe you're here! I heard the Larses were killed and that you got away! What the hell happened?"

He tuned out Biggs's questions since they seemed never-ending. Maybe he could just go to sleep and wake up with everything resolved. He could be Luke Lars again, forget the entire Skywalker-Vader fiasco. Life would be so much easier.

- - - - -

Life was easier as it turned out—until that evening, after work was done and his reunion with Biggs was interrupted by Commander Narra. Luke was getting tired of seeing him. "Now what?" he grumbled.

"Sir!" Biggs said, leaping to his feet and throwing a snappy salute. Luke sighed and shared an amused glance with Wedge.

"At ease, pilot. You're not with the Imperials any longer," Narra said mildly.

"Yessir, sorry, sir!" Biggs stood at parade rest, hands clasped behind his back.

"Sit down," Narra snapped before turning to Luke. "You have a visitor."

"A visitor?" he asked blankly. He couldn't imagine why anyone would come looking for him—except his dad, and there was no chance of that—and why the commander would be acting like a houseboy. "That's, uh... nice." Maybe Princess Leia was back.

"I believe 'interesting' would be a better word." Narra pushed open the exterior door. "Or 'highly suspicious'. Bring him in."

A handful of security officers entered, pushing before them a cuffed, bruised, and very familiar man.

Luke gasped. "Jovay!"

The Imperial lieutenant gave him an exasperated look. Luke clamped his mouth shut, too late.

"So," another voice said, "you know Karas's true identity." The security men parted to admit Commander Willard. "Lieutenant Karas Jovay of the Imperial Navy." The gray-haired man studied him. "You're Luke Lars? Very young to cause so much chaos."

"Thanks, it's my specialty." Luke gave him a disarming grin, but Willard didn't appear disarmed.

"Search his room."

Three of the security officers headed for his tiny room. "You won't find anything interesting," Luke called, projecting all the Force persuasion he could into his voice. He felt a gaze focused on him, and turned to meet Garven's eyes. Boss looked... well, he looked like he recognized the Force when he heard it. That wasn't possible! Luke glanced away.

"We didn't find anything interesting," the officers chorused, thankfully not in unison, when they returned.

No lightsaber, no poster of Darth Vader—and his identi-chip that was still tucked safely in a sewn pocket in his boot. There wasn't anything more to find except a very colorful wardrobe and a bag full of educational datatapes.

Luke sighed. He was under suspicion, Jovay was arrested as an Imperial spy—which maybe he was! With any luck, this was as bad as it would get. What more could possibly go wrong?

"Luke Lars, you're under arrest for suspicion of espionage," Commander Willard said.


"Keep them separated," Narra ordered as they reached the temporary hut that served as a brig.

"I'm not a spy," Luke whined for the sixth time to the few pilots who tagged along on his walk to prison. "Honest!"

"Commander—" Biggs and Wedge both began, but were cut off.

"I'll be the one to determine that," Narra said grimly, gesturing to the guards to march Luke and Jovay inside. The door clanked shut, cutting off the last light of evening, leaving them with three guards and the sound of everyone else arguing as they walked away.

"The prisoners should be together in one room," Luke declared confidently, projecting his best Force persuasion talent.

"Not a chance," one guard said, pushing him into a tiny cell while Jovay was shoved into similar accommodations across the narrow hall.

"Krit." Resigned, he bent over and took a close look at the bunk. He poked it. It was just a hard plank, with a none-too-clean rolled blanket and an unnaturally gray pillow. "It's dirty in here!" he called. "This is not acceptable!"

He heard the exterior door close.

"Jovay?"

"Yeah."

"What's the point of separating us if we can still talk?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"It was a rhetorical question, you don't have to get cranky. I suppose we're being monitored." He paused. "Do you think they'll feed us?"

"Frankly, kid, that's about the last thing I'm concerned about."

Well, food was important to Luke, but he supposed he saw Jovay's point. "So why are you here anyway?"

"I came to get you, Big Mouth!" Jovay snapped. "And now I may be executed!"

"Big Mouth?" he exclaimed, outraged. "Don't blame me, you were already caught before I called you 'Jovay'!" There was no defense to that obvious observation. "Why were you coming to get me?"

"Why do you think?"

Luke paced to the tiny slit of a window. The sill was filthy. He folded his arms. "You're trying my patience."

Unexpectedly, a bark of laughter came from the other cell. "Big improvement in vocabulary, smaller improvements in attitude. Still, I'd give you a seven-point-five."

He sighed and rested his forehead against the bars on the door, then drew back quickly, brushing off his hair. "Would you just answer? Please!"

Jovay's voice lowered so Luke had to strain to hear him. "Your...guardian is worried about you. He wanted to see you."

Worried? Darth Vader, worried? "Huh." That was pretty impressive. And his dad was so worried that he couldn't talk to Luke in their heads but wanted to see him in person?

On second thought, that was frightening rather than impressive. Just the idea of Vader being worried... "How did they find out you're an Imp?"

"I don't know." Jovay sounded vexed, as if the answer to that question was more important than being accused of espionage.

Luke stood in the middle of the cell, unwilling to lean against a wall or sit on that awful bunk. "Are you a spy?" he asked in a whisper.

Either Jovay heard him or anticipated the question. "No more than you are."

"But I'm not!" Luke hugged himself. There was no heat and only one dinky light in the hall. "Whose side are you on?" Again he didn't receive a reply. "Why don't people give me straight answers? I'm getting tired of all the deceit."

A snort sounded from Jovay's cell. "You're a fine one to talk about straight answers. When was the last time you gave one to anybody?"

Miserable and cold, Luke paced around the cell that was barely wide enough for him to take three steps in any direction.

"You might as well settle down. We're here for the night... at the very least."

If he were ten years younger, he could cry. "I'm cold."

"Don't you have a blanket?" Remarkably, Jovay sounded slightly concerned.

"I'm not touching that filthy thing!" Luke exclaimed. "It probably has... lice! Or worse!"

"What happened to the little Mos Eisley street urchin?"

"I was never an urchin! And I was as clean as possible, considering." He edged closer to the door. "Did you see you-know-who?"

"No. He just sent a message."

"In your head?" Could his dad communicate with Jovay that way? Luke didn't like that idea at all. He frowned.

"What? Of course not. By com." Jovay muttered a few curses. "I can't believe this," he grumbled. "Damn, damn, damn."

"I'm sorry you're...arrested." He heard a rustling noise. "I think there's... vermin... in here."

Jovay sighed loudly. "That's me, lying down, covering myself up, and going to sleep. I suggest you overcome your aversion to filth and do the same, or it will be a very long night."

"Then it's going to be a very long night," Luke grumbled.

He stood in silence for what seemed like hours, wondering if he could fall asleep standing up. Then Jovay began to snore, and he knew there was no chance of sleeping. Dad? he called in his mind. We need to talk.

- - - - -

Space spread out all around him, black and infinite, sprinkled with dots that winked at him. Luke swung his legs casually, slouching over to study the twinkling rings they were sitting on. He glanced back at the giant planet. "This is pretty cool. Thanks for meeting me here."

"It's your creation, not mine," his father said easily, swinging his own legs that for once were not, Luke noted with interest, clad in armored black leather. His dad was wearing a casual outfit consisting of a plain shirt, pants, and very good boots.

Luke looked up curiously. "Your face is like a fuzzball," he complained.

Vader chuckled. "Your mother called those dustbaas. After some remarkably stupid creatures that reside on Naboo," he added, responding to Luke's quizzical expression.

"Oh." That made no sense, but Luke didn't much care. He picked up a handful of the material that composed the huge ring and let it trickle off his palm. "If we were really here, could we sit on this?" he asked hesitantly, wondering if it was a stupid question.

His dad picked at the stuff. "It does not appear to be solid. What do you think it is?"

"Rocks. Ice. Maybe pieces of space debris, broken-up planets, stuff like that?"

Vader nodded. "Correct. It does not appear to be capable of holding our weight, does it."

Luke felt better about having asking the question. "No," he agreed. They were quiet for a few moments, until he could no longer ignore the reason he'd called this 'meeting'. "I'm in trouble."

"Yes, you are," his father agreed, then spoiled everything by continuing, "although at this point, I'm more concerned about Jovay than you."

That hurt. Luke looked away, not trusting his voice to remain steady. He blinked several times.

"You'll be fine."

"If—" He drew a long breath to steady himself. "If I'm not executed as a spy."

There was a pause, then: "Do you really believe I would allow such a thing to happen?" his dad asked with unfamiliar gentleness.

Luke shrugged, but felt placated. "I guess not."

"Jovay is in the greatest danger. Alliance spies have been unusually successful of late, and I fear they will learn that he is a captain in the Intelligence Division."

"Oh. I forgot about that," Luke admitted. "So... would you let him be executed?"

His father sighed. "Are you determined to be contentious?"

"I'm not being contentious!" He made a mental note to check the language tapes for that word, but he figured it was close to 'obnoxious'. "I'm just wondering what he— how important he is to you."

"Why does that bother you?"

"It doesn't bother me!" Although, of course, it did, but it wasn't something he was prepared to admit. "What is he to you?"

"He has already told you," his dad stated calmly, unruffled in comparison to his agitation. "Shall we talk about what really concerns you?"

"I'm all ears," Luke muttered resentfully.

Vader sighed again. "The Rebels know you are not a spy."

"Then why did they arrest me!"

His father held up one ungloved hand. "You said you would be all ears, not all mouth."

Luke rolled his eyes and folded his arms. "Fine. Go ahead."

"I am confident that they will see you are too open and impetuous to be devious, and—"

"Is that an insult?"

"Ears!" his dad shouted, sounding like Darth Vader even without the mask.

"Okay, okay. Don't pop a gasket."

His father cleared his throat. "They are already inclined to believe in your innocence. When you speak to them, use the Force to project sincerity. It will—"

"The last time I tried to use Force persuasion, it didn't work." When his dad froze and glared at him, Luke added, "Oh, c'mon! That's important! You're telling me to do something that doesn't work."

His dad gazed upward, obviously searching for patience... as if it could be found in the depths of space. For the first time, Luke could see that his eyes were shining blue out of that gauzy, fuzzy face. "You will not be persuading someone to do something against his or her will. You will be speaking the truth. With the Force behind that, your words will become even more powerful."

"Okay." He looked warily at his dad, wondering if he could ask another question without his old man blowing up. Vader looked back at him. "Um... so should I try to use the Force to say Jovay isn't a spy either?"

"Do you believe he is not a spy?"

Luke didn't need to consider it. "He told me he isn't. I believe him."

"You're very trusting."

"Shouldn't I be?" he snapped, irritated that instead of being reassuring, his dad was being... contentious.

His father laid a hand on his shoulder. "I will not let anything happen to you, son. Trust me. And if I can save Jovay, I will. But if circumstances force me to choose between the two of you, I will choose you. Always."

"Okay." He felt his eyes getting a little misty, so he opened them wide and blinked a few times.

"However," Vader continued, and Luke hoped he wasn't going to mess up his comforting words, "I believe you will be able to get out of this predicament without my help. You are both clever and innocent."

"True." He grinned, relieved that his dad believed in him. "I won't let you down."

"I know." Vader paused. "I also know that if I had said that I knew you wouldn't let me down, you would have been annoyed."

Luke made a face. At times, his dad understood him a little too well.

"You need to go back now."

He didn't ask why. Instead he flashed another smile at his father. "Let's get together again sometime." He leaned over and looked down. "Can I jump?"

"Go right ahead," Vader answered, amused. "Spread your wings and fly, my son."

The words sent a strange, pleasant shiver through him. His smile softened as he stared his father. He could almost see his face... almost. Maybe one day his dad would let him see who he really was.

"Bye," he said quietly and pushed himself off the ring.


When the first hint of dawn began to filter through the bars on the door, Luke rose from the squatting position he'd held for the last few hours, eyes closed, trying to pretend he wasn't locked in a tiny, dark box from which he might never escape. He groaned, bending over to stretch his back, and rubbing his knees while he was down there. "I'm getting too old for this."

There was a large covered pot in the corner of the cell, and he forced himself to use it—eyes closed again, so he wouldn't have to see how dirty it was. Unfortunately, he couldn't close his nose to the smell, so he held his breath and finished quickly, then rubbed his sleeve against the bars on the door. He'd rather see the light than have clean clothes. Spending the night in this awful confinement had been an experience he never wanted to repeat.

"Jovay? Are you awake?"

He didn't hear anything. Maybe Jovay was dead. "Jovay!" he called anxiously, louder. "Are you okay? Are you there?"

A muffled groan answered him.

"Are you hurt?"

For only the second time since he'd known him, a string of inventive curses came from the other man. Jovay's vocabulary was larger than Luke had credited. When the epithets ended, the Imp muttered, "I was asleep! What the hell do you want?"

"I just wanted to be sure you were okay," he replied sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm not scared or anything."

Jovay sighed. "Sorry I snapped at you. Did you get any sleep?"

"No." Meditation was just as good as sleep—or so his dad had told him. Luke didn't quite believe it.

"You should have slept," Jovay scolded. "You'll need your wits about you."

"My wits are always about me." He stretched from side to side. "Do you think they're going to feed us soon?"

"You think about food a lot, don't you?" There was another big sigh. "I suppose it's better than the alternative."

"What's the alternative, starvation?"

"No, Luke. Our predicament."

"Oh, that." He pushed his nose through the bars and flattened his face against them until he could almost see Jovay in his cell. "I hope they believe us that we're not spies."

"I hope," Jovay echoed, not sounding optimistic.

It was gradually growing lighter. Luke slid his arms through the bars. They didn't go very far, but he knew if he just pushed a little harder, he could—

A vision of the ductwork in a certain ship rose in his memory, and he pulled his arms back through the bars. He settled for curling his fingers around the chilly durasteel and leaning his forehead on his hands. He'd felt pretty good after talking to his dad, but in the cold reality of prison, his confidence evaporated.

He'd meant to ask his dad if they could just stay there-- not sitting on the rings of an imaginary planet, but stay in their heads. Being there with his dad was much better than reality. "Reality sucks!"

Jovay groaned. "I hate that group. Their music is the worst."

"What? What group? 'Reality Sucks' is a group? A music group?"

"Never mind," Jovay said in a patronizing adult tone.

Luke opened his mouth to argue, but rattling at the door stopped him. "Someone's coming!"

"Maybe it's breakfast," Jovay teased, and Luke had to smile.

Until he saw that it wasn't breakfast. It was a strange man in an Alliance uniform. He looked at Luke with an expression that was unreadable except for banked hostility in the gray eyes.

Luke held the cool gaze. "Who are you?" he asked bravely.

The man folded his arms and planted his legs wide apart. "I am Lieutenant Nikran," he announced, making the words sound more important than they actually were. "I'm in charge of Security on the base."

His pulse fluttered nervously, but he didn't want to appear intimidated. "Well, you're doing a terrible job," Luke retorted, "because I'm not feeling very secure!"

"Luke!" Jovay groaned.

The man's jaw hardened. He opened Luke's cell. "Come with me," he said harshly, fastening binders around Luke's wrists.

"I hope you're taking me to breakfast."

"Luke, shut up!" Jovay called, exasperated. "You—Lieutenant—where are you taking him?"

"None of your business, spy!"

Luke cast a worried look backward as Nikran led him away. Maybe he was going to be blindfolded and executed. Maybe shot. Maybe decapitated. Maybe—

Wait a minute! He could use the Force! They couldn't do anything to him. Besides, his dad wouldn't allow it.

Feeling better—even a little cocky since he was out of that prison—Luke marched alongside the head of security. He was taken to another building, another office, a bigger one this time. It was full of people. There was—

He did a double-take. For a second, he thought the old man with the white beard was Ben Kenobi back from the dead. But no, that was impossible. Anyway, this man looked harder, tougher... weary.

Luke tensed, studying the rest of the room. There were Garvin, Biggs—was he in trouble for vouching for Luke?-- Narra, Willard, and a few people he didn't know. "The gang's all here," he said in an attempt at bravado.

"Shut up, smart mouth!" Nikran snarled, raising one hand as if to strike him.

"Lieutenant," Narra intervened, "thank you for your assistance. You may have a seat." The commander studied Luke. "Are you all right?"

What kind of question was that? "Well, other than being arrested for spying, stuck in a filthy cell all night, not able to lie down, and starved half to death —yeah, I'm just super."

"Luke," several people muttered.

"Young man," the Kenobi look-alike said, "this is a very serious matter. I suggest you conduct yourself appropriately."

"Who—"

"I am General Dodonna," he said smoothly, anticipating Luke's question. "I'm primarily here to observe. This is not a formal trial, but rather an interview to determine if there is a need to prosecute you further."

"I'm not a spy," Luke offered. "Really. And neither is Lieutenant Jovay."

"Captain Jovay," Willard said, making Luke wince, "is already scheduled to be tried for espionage."

"He's not a spy!"

"Luke," Narra said quietly, "we know he holds the rank of captain in Imperial Intelligence. He is out of uniform and on an Alliance base."

This was beginning to be seriously worrisome. "He just came to see me. He... watches out for me. He wasn't spying."

"Why would you need to be 'watched out for'?" Narra frowned when someone snickered. "Gentlemen, this is a serious proceeding."

"He watched out for me on Tatooine." Luke searched for something more redeeming to say. "He—he even helped me avoid being captured by the Imps. Really, he's a nice guy!"

"Luke," Garven said from the audience, "I don't know why you're trying to protect him or what relationship the two of you have, but I suggest you sever ties now. You're in enough trouble; you don't need to link his fate to yours."

What a brilliant idea! Luke straightened and faced Narra. He concentrated on the Force, trying to lace it through his voice the way his dad had taught him. "That's exactly what I want to do. We're both innocent. Talk to us together. Bring him here for an inquiry before you go through with a trial."

There was a pause while the three command officers looked at each other. "I don't have a problem with that," Narra said after a moment. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

"Yes," Luke said firmly. "Bring Jovay here." He paused. "Maybe we could have breakfast before the hearing? I'm really hungry!"

Despite his lack of confidence at the end, the hearing was indeed adjourned for breakfast, though he and Jovay remained in the office under guard.

"I can't believe you did this."

"Got us breakfast?" Luke asked as he finished the last of his juice, holding the cup awkwardly between his bound hands.

"Damnit, Luke!" Exasperated, Jovay leaned across the desk. "I understood the risk I was taking, and this wasn't part of it! You're more important than I am, don't you get that? I'll risk my life for you—but it doesn't work the other way around! Why were you so foolish?" He subsided when the others began to file into the room and take their seats.

"We're ready to begin," Narra said.

"If I may," Nikran interrupted. "The spy has just indicated that this one—" he gestured toward Luke "—is of more importance than he is. I'd like to know why. Particularly considering—"

"Lieutenant," General Dodonna interrupted with ill-concealed impatience, "Commander Narra is in charge. Stand down."

"Yes, sir," Nikran replied unhappily. He retaliated by dragging Luke's chair and separating him from Jovay by the width of the table. "Turn around and face the commander," he ordered.

When Luke and Jovay were resettled, Narra stared down at a datapad. "I'm very sorry to say that we've received additional information that truly disappoints me. You are still being untruthful, Luke."

The room stilled. Krit, Luke thought, scowling, bracing himself for an announcement about 'Son-of-a-Sith'.

Narra kept staring at the datapad. Luke wondered if he was just trying to string out the tension or if he was really upset. Maybe it was a combination of the two. "The Galactic Database," Narra continued, "has no record of anyone named Luke Lars on Tatooine... or anywhere else."

Murmurs were audible behind him. "What?" Biggs exclaimed loudly, and was shushed by someone.

"It doesn't?" Luke asked weakly, still wondering how far they'd traced his identity.

"What is your real name?"

"I was raised as Luke Lars," he tried. "That was always my name."

Luke, a voice warned in his head, and he nearly jumped.

Dad?

Narra gestured to the door. A security guard opened it to admit a man dressed in the scrubs of a medic. "I had wanted to avoid running a blood test through the Imperial Database, but—"

"No!" Luke leaped to his feet. "No, you can't! They'll find me-- he'll find me! No!" A sweep of fire flared through his fear, like it was trying to burn him up from the inside.

Luke. Control your anger. Do not repeat my mistake.

He tried to slow his heart rate and calm his breathing. Everything around him was relaxing—even, it seemed, the very air-- and he realized that he barely understood the potential of the power that slumbered within him.

What happened to my father will not happen to me. Belatedly, he added: Thanks, Dad.

He opened his eyes, unaware at what point he had closed them. Of everyone in the room, only Jovay appeared to understand what had nearly happened to him, and his concern gradually and visibly faded. Luke nodded to him, then addressed Narra. "I refuse a blood test. I had one on Tatooine; that's how this whole mess started. Before that, I was Luke Lars. Afterwards, I was... in trouble."

Narra's white-knuckled hands freed the datapad. "Who are you?" he asked cautiously.

There had to be a way to avoid telling them he was Vader's kid. But how to—

Dad? What should I do?

You must do what you think is right, Son.

Right. Okay, the truth then. He drew a breath to steady his voice. "The blood test showed that my father was a Jedi. That's why the Imps were after me."

"Impossible," Dodonna declared sharply, but his eyes betrayed his uncertainty. "The Jedi were celibate."

"At least one of them wasn't," Luke said dryly. He added quickly, just so they didn't get the wrong idea, "My parents were married secretly."

There was a stunned silence as if no one could figure out what to say. "So that's why the Imps killed Owen and Beru?" Biggs finally murmured. "Because they were looking for you?"

Luke nodded.

Narra glanced at Dodonna, then back at Luke. "Who was your alleged Jedi parent?"

"Anakin Skywalker," he replied simply, because it was the truth.

Boss leaped to his feet, unable to control his excitement. "That's how you knew his name! The Hero Without Fear!"

"Everyone is feeding him answers!" Lieutenant Nikran shouted, irritated. "This is ridiculous! This boy is no more a Jedi's child than I am!"

"I have the results of my blood test," Luke said to the commanders. He slid down the fastener on his boot and used his nail to slit open the pocket. "Here."

Nikran took the datachip and handed it to Commander Narra. It was scanned into the datapad and the result passed to the three leaders. "Anakin Skywalker and Padme Naberrie. Skywalker..." General Dodonna repeated in a perplexed tone. There was something in his voice that made Luke wonder if he knew. But no... no, he couldn't possibly. "Still, we should do a blood test to confirm—"

"You can't!" Luke exclaimed again. "If you run it through the database, Palpatine will know where I am. He'll know where you are. He'll send troops here!"

Willard shook his head wonderingly. "Are you a Jedi, too?" he asked, and Luke couldn't tell if that was hope or dismay in his voice.

"Not really. I can do some things." He raised his hands and let the binders fall to the floor—a simple trick that shouldn't alarm anyone too much. "I had no Jedi teacher."

At the table, the three leaders leaned back in their chairs and whispered between themselves. Luke stared down at his feet. Dad? You still here?

Yes. You are doing well... as I expected.

Thanks. But a few hints wouldn't hurt!

You don't need them.

"Assuming this is true," Narra said, interrupting Luke's silent communication with his father, "how do you come to know a captain of Imperial Intelligence?"

"He let me go when the Imps almost caught me on Tatooine." He hoped he wasn't carrying things too far. "And he's sorta watched out for me since then."

"Indeed." Dodonna frowned. "I cannot imagine a scenario that would make an Imperial officer take such a chance for a strange boy-- especially a Jedi's child."

"I'm not that strange," Luke muttered.

"He's not precisely a stranger to me," Jovay intervened smoothly. "When I was a youngster, his father saved my life. I was never able to repay that debt to Anakin Skywalker—"

Hey, Dad, this truth stuff is working out great!

"—so when I heard the Imperials were after him, I intervened."

"You didn't intervene enough to prevent Vader from capturing him!" Narra said sharply.

Krit, did they know everything? "I got away!" Luke protested. "I was rescued by some Falleen!"

"You have uncommonly good luck," Willard snapped.

"Thank you." Luke smiled blithely.

"So, Captain Jovay," Narra continued, "you are saying that you risked your career, and possibly your life to repay a debt? I am having difficulty accepting that as a feasible action for an Imperial officer. Exactly where do your loyalties lie?"

Jovay smiled slightly, but without humor. "Are you truly so naive," he drawled, making Luke wince at his arrogance, "that you believe there can be only two sides? Only black or white, no shades of gray?"

General Dodonna pounded his fist on the table and rose. "You talk in riddles, sir! Speak plainly, or we will judge you now."

"Oh, c'mon!" Luke snapped irritably. "Give him a chance! He's a good guy!"

"You," Narra pointed at him, "sit down. Nikran, get those binders back on him."

"What's the point?" Luke backed away from the security chief. "Krit, what'd I ever do to any of you? What did Jovay do? Nothing! You liked both of us just fine, now all of a sudden you don't! What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Perhaps now would be a good time to sit down.

Well, okay, if his dad suggested it. Luke sat. Nikran approached, picked up the binders, then looked at the command table.

"Never mind," Narra said wearily. "Captain Jovay... continue."

The green eyes flickered. "I can't say a great deal. But surely you know that among billions of Imperial citizens, there are a great many who do not agree with the Emperor's policies. Their number is far larger than the members of your Alliance or the Imperial armed forces—for, indeed, they are parts of both and neither. The galaxy is not divided in two; rather there are two declared sides with the vast majority of beings caught between them." He paused. "Neither Rebel sympathizers nor Imperial supporters... Should they not have a voice, too?"

The command staff members were quiet for a few moments. Luke shifted in his chair. General Dodonna looked at Jovay. "What exactly are you saying, Captain?"

"He's saying there's a third side," Luke interpreted freely. "What part of that didn't you get?"

In his mind, his father laughed before he scolded: Luke!

"Thank you for that explanation, young Jedi," Narra murmured.

"Jedi Wannabe," Luke corrected with a cheeky grin. "Can we go now?"

"Go now!" all three officers exclaimed in unison. "Are you insane?" Willard added incredulously.

"Look," Luke spread his hands to show how reasonable he was being. "Jovay hasn't done anything to hurt you. You said he was a good friend to the Alliance, and he has been. If he wasn't, the Imps would have attacked a long time ago. He's just watching out for me—okay, and maybe doing a little side plotting of his own, but nothing that hurts the Alliance."

Jovay sighed. Luke ignored that and continued, "As I recall, he came here to take me somewhere—well, we might as well tell them—he came to take me to see a relative who's worried about me. Is that so awful?" Oh, krit! He was forgetting to use the Force! He concentrated, lowering his voice in case that made the Force work better.

"Jovay has not and will not betray the Alliance. Neither will I. Letting us go will only help your cause, because we have a mutual enemy—the Emperor. Let us go."

Good job, Son!

We'll see.

Apparently his Force was in working order, because the commanders looked mesmerized. Even Jovay appeared a bit dazed. "Jovay and I will leave now," Luke added in a softer voice. "You will let us go. We will return when our work is done."

A few seconds of silence. He was feeling confident, but Dodonna blinked and shook his head vigorously. "For a moment—" the general began, then stopped.

"It seems reasonable," Willard said, puzzled. "But..."

"I'm not... No, I don't think so," Narra added uncertainly. "You need to... stay here. But... confined to barracks. For Luke. Jovay, back to the brig."

"Oh, it's so dirty there!" Luke murmured-- Forcefully. "There is somewhere cleaner he could stay."

"I suppose we could put him in an empty officer's quarters," Willard offered. "Under guard, of course."

"Of course," Narra echoed. He blinked a few times. "This hearing is over." He stood, shaking his head. He looked at Luke curiously, then shook his head again. "Dismissed."

Not bad for your first time, his dad commented.

Thanks. I was hoping for better.

You did well. We will talk shortly.

Roger. Over and out! He smiled at Nikran's befuddlement and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head.

This was going to be interesting.


"Where are we?"

"Where do you think we are?"

Luke sighed heavily and shot a martyred look at his father. "Can't you just tell me?"

His dad shook his head.

"Fine." He looked around. They were standing on vividly green grass. The sky was nearly as blue as Tatooine's, with puffy white clouds, and across the field a waterfall thundered, sending a faint mist to gray the air. "It's like a fairy tale— I mean, it's idyllic. Is this a real place?" Before his dad could answer—or not answer, which was far more likely—Luke blurted, "Is this Naboo?"

"Yep!" said a very un-Vader-like voice.

Luke turned his head quickly and was rewarded with a glimpse of the young man his father had been. He had time to see golden brown curls and a tall, slim build before the vision became hazy and again he was standing next to someone he couldn't quite see.

"Were you ever here?" he asked curiously. "Or am I making this up?"

"This is a real place." His father pointed across the waterfall. "In the distance is the country home that belonged to your mother's parents."

"Are they still there?" he asked wistfully, though he noticed the past tense.

"No. They chose to live in the city after-- Later."

"Can we see them?"

"Luke." His father shook his head. "That is not possible. We are not traveling in an astral sense, able to observe people and events. All this is in our minds—in this case, it is a manifestation from my mind."

"I know, but..." He bent over and ran his fingers through the grass. It sure felt real, sun-warmed and a little damp. Inhaling deeply, he decided he couldn't smell anything, which was weird. "Maybe we can come here someday. When the war is over."

"Maybe," his dad replied, but Luke knew that 'maybe' meant 'no'. His father's voice softened a bit when he added, "Your mother and I were wed in that house." Abruptly he changed the subject. "It is most unfortunate that we were not able to meet in person. I trust we will not be interrupted?"

"I'm confined to my cube, who's going to interrupt? What's the big topic of conversation? How to get me out of there in one piece? That would be a good start!"

"That, and more," his dad said grimly. "It is time to discuss your destiny."

Here it was again, Destiny-with-a-capital-D. "What do you mean, my destiny? Do you really believe that sort of thing?"

"A good question," Vader said dryly as they walked farther from the distracting sound created by torrents of cascading water. "My destiny did not turn out as it was foretold by the Jedi. Destiny, it seems, is subject to interpretation."

"Really? Who foretold it? What was it? What happened instead?"

"Will you stop asking questions until I tell you to ask questions?" his dad snapped in exasperation. "Listen to me!"

"I'm all ears," Luke said with an innocent smile.

His father heaved one of those familiar sighs. "Your destiny," he began, pausing as if waiting for Luke to interrupt.

Luke continued to smile sweetly. But instead of the expected irritated and long-suffering look he usually got, his dad's figure blurred even further until the black-garbed image of Vader assembled out of nothing, as if the clear sky had been full of cinders that decided to cling together. "We will destroy the Death Star."

"Ah-hah. Sure. Okay." Luke blinked a couple times. "What's a 'Death Star'?"

"The most significant achievement in modern warfare." Vader's breathing grew raspier. "It is a moon-sized battle station that can destroy an entire planet with a single blast from its laser weaponry."

Luke winced. "That doesn't sound good. Why anybody would want to do that? So... where is it and why haven't I heard of it before? That's a big thing to hide."

"From a distance, it appears to be another dead moon. The construction installation is in a desolate, heavily guarded region of space, so it remained undiscovered for many years. Those who accidentally strayed into that space did not live to repeat their stories." Vader paused. "Now, however, its construction is complete. It must be destroyed."

"This does not compute, Dad. Why do you want to destroy an Imperial weapon?"

The satisfied smile was nearly visible through the mask. "Palpatine will be aboard," he hissed. "Finally... he will be gone!" Suddenly Vader appeared to grow, getting taller, wider, bigger-- so big that Luke had to lean back to see his helmet. A huge fist shook at the darkening sky. "Together we are strong enough to defeat him. Then we will rule the Empire as father and son!" Thunder rolled across a sky that had turned from serene clarity to towering storm clouds in the space of seconds. A cold wind whipped around them, snapping Vader's cloak against Luke's face. He barely felt it.

"We will put an end to this destructive conflict and bring peace to the galaxy! Finally-- everything will be as I envisioned!"

Luke stared, mesmerized. This was the Darth Vader he'd seen in holos, giving speeches, rousing the troops. This being was impressive, intimidating-- terrifying. This was a superhuman figure, a total stranger, and--

His father.

Darth Vader is my father.

Pieces of a puzzle fell from the clouds instead of the hailstones that threatened to form inside the icy rain. For the first time, Luke understood what he'd always known. He shook his head, trying to shift the puzzle pieces into another pattern, one that was benign, even a little happy, but he couldn't make them move. Yes, Vader was his father, he'd known that since he was a child. But today, right now-- it was more than a bare fact. This was real. This man was Vader the representative of Evil, Vader the military leader, the politician, the ruthless enforcer... Vader the lover, husband, father. Luke had always understood... but until now, he had never completely accepted the truth.

His father was... Vader. His father was...

Wait! His father had been locked in a prison for nearly eighteen years. Luke had been in a prison for one night and had felt claustrophobic, nervous, worried-- okay, even scared. His father's prison didn't allow him to touch his face, or see his own eyes when he looked in a mirror. His father wore his prison. No wonder he was the way he was! Luke dared to think something he had repressed once before. Had Vader's prison driven him into madness? Or...

He closed his eyes, searching inward, stripping away his dreams and wishes. Was he looking for ways to excuse his dad's actions? Insanity was a hell of an excuse, and maybe it was a possibility. But he also remembered their long talks, his father's flashes of humor, the many ways he understood and supported his son, and he understood that it was not insanity that ate at Darth Vader. It was something quite different.

Luke opened his eyes.

"Palpatine is deluded-- so proud and confident that his monstrous machine will end the Rebellion. One great victory will feed his arrogance, and he will need to be present for the final blow." The smile behind the mask turned wolfish. "Then I will have him. He will die, and there will be no one to stop us!"

"So... we're going to destroy the Death Star so you can take over the Empire?" Luke asked, raising his voice to be heard over the constant rumble of thunder that pounded against his ears.

"We," Vader corrected. "It will require our combined power to destroy the Emperor. I cannot do it alone. I need you."

"I see," he replied numbly. He pushed back the strands of hair that fell across his cheek, blown there by a wind that didn't exist, no matter how real it seemed. He felt like he was far, far away, watching this scene unfold in a holomovie, understanding all his cues: when to laugh, when to cry, when to applaud. Watching actors play the roles of Vader and Luke. Actors knew what to do and say; actors had a script of someone else's words. But Luke only had himself, and the right words had never come easily to him. Darth Vader was a tyrant who wanted to take what Palpatine had built, who wanted the galaxy to bend to his will... and who expected Luke to bend, too. For another man, the choice might be simple: join the tyrant or defy him. But this tyrant was his father, and that made his choice unbearably difficult. Maybe even impossible.

Luke frowned in confusion. "What would you expect me to do?"

The storm over their heads dissipated gradually, though his father remained in his Vader guise. "I am sending someone more competent to 'rescue' you from Dantooine."

"And Jovay," he added nervously. "I'm sure you mean to rescue him, too."

Vader paused. "Of course," he replied flatly. "The rest of the details can wait until we are together."

Luke folded his arms and walked away a short distance, conscious that his father was following him. He sensed that his dad was telling the truth about the Death Star, that it was a planet-killer. And wouldn't Vader be a better ruler than Palpy? Especially with Luke there to monitor him. Assuming they could pull off such a surprise attack. "How could we destroy the Death Star? It's huge! I wouldn't even know where to aim-- or what to use. Krit, how can I even fly? I've flown a TIE once, and only an x-wing simulator, not even the real thing! I can't-- "

"You will know," Vader said confidently. "And I will be with you."

"I just wish we had more time together," he whispered, though the words didn't adequately express his real need or the deep anguish he felt. "I'm not trained, I can't do enough Force stuff. What if I screw up?"

There was a chuckle, and he turned to see the younger man again, the one whose blue eyes pierced through the mist that blurred his face. The one who used to be a great Jedi. "You won't." Anakin Skywalker sobered. "Still, I wish that, too. I wish Palpatine hadn't learned about you. I wish I could train you. But..." He looked at Luke, and the veil lifted further until Luke could almost see his features. "There is another."

"Another what?"

"Another who could train you, if he will agree." His father's mouth tightened into a scowl. "A Jedi master."

"How do you know a Jedi master!" Luke half-shouted. "You're a Sith! You killed the Jedi! What's going on!"

"You never know when you might have use for a Jedi master," his dad said smugly. Then his posture tightened, his fists clenching. "I knew he lived. And every day that he lived, he mourned for the lost ones. That was my revenge for the years he scorned me."

Luke shivered, hugging himself harder. "You're creepin' me out!" he protested jokingly, though in truth his father was frightening him. Sure, all his life he'd heard about Vader's anger when he was crossed, but to see it in person, to be part of it--

But this was his father and Luke loved him. Nothing Darth Vader said or did would change that fact.

Although it didn't mean Luke had to agree with him.

Vader's head swiveled away as if he was listening to something Luke couldn't hear. "I have duties. Go now."

"But-- "

Before he could finish his protest, he was sitting on his bunk, his back pressed into the joining of the walls, knees drawn to his chest, arms wrapped tightly around them. His face was wet. "Krit." He hated this... waking up to find that he'd been crying in his sleep. This hadn't happened since he was a kid, and he was damned if he would let it start again now. Fiercely, he rubbed his face on his sleeve. He was an adult, he could figure out everything, he just needed time to think and it would all become clear... wouldn't it?

There was a rap on his door. The guard opened it without waiting for his response. "Visitor," he announced gruffly.

Luke sniffled, rubbed his nose on his sleeve, and looked up, struggling to grin. Failing. "Hey, Boss," he mumbled to Garven Dreis.

"Hey." Garven gave Luke a searching look but didn't comment on whatever he saw. Instead, he bent over and put the tray he was carrying on the bed. "Brought you something to eat. I know you're always hungry."

"Thanks." He wasn't hungry now, but maybe later the sandwich would look good. After all, he had to keep his wits about him, right? Or maybe that just meant he should take a nap. Were his wits linked to sleep or food? Luke uncapped the beverage container, unnerved to see his hands shake, and tried to hide that weakness by taking a sip. "Milk?"

"You're a growing boy," Boss said sternly.

"I doubt it." He sighed. "I think I'm getting a taste for this stuff."

"Good." There was an awkward silence. "Not hungry?"

"Not right now. Later." He attempted another tremulous smile. Part of him wanted to make Boss leave so he could think about his father, but another part wanted Boss to stay forever so he never had to think about Vader. Maybe he should tell Boss that he was a spy so they would execute him and he didn't have to face reality.

"Your father was a true hero," Garven said quietly. "I saw him use his lightsaber-- in a vid, of course-- and it was amazing. Too bad yours is broken." Boss paused. "Was that... his... lightsaber?"

It took a great effort not to roll his eyes. He couldn't shatter Garven's hero worship, but oh, how he wanted to tell the truth! "Yeah," he replied shortly.

Boss nodded and waited, as if he expected Luke to produce it. Luke folded his arms.

"I saw him once, making an emergency landing-- but I told you that already. I was so impressed that I studied his career, followed the news stories about him. He was a great Jedi, a true protector of innocents."

...slaughtering a tribe of Tuskens, even the children...

"He and Kenobi were always rushing off to settle planetary disputes, stopping wars before they started, saving entire populations."

...annihilating an entire metropolis on Falleen...

"When Palpatine lied about the Jedi attempting a coup, Anakin knew it wasn't true. He rushed to the temple..."

...bringing thousands of clone troopers...

"...to defend the Jedi inside..."

...to murder the Jedi...

"...and there he died heroically, protecting the younglings."

Luke squeezed his eyes closed, trying to erase the scene his father had so vividly, viciously, described: tiny younglings cut down just as they began to understand that their trusted savior was their executioner.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you." Dreis touched his arm briefly. "I just wanted you to know how much I admired him, and that... some things worth dying for. Protecting others, protecting your beliefs... even when it seems futile at the time, the repercussions last through the ages. Anakin is gone, but he left behind a son to follow his path and finish the mission he started-- to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy."

He opened his eyes and studied the earnest, painfully sincere face of Garven Dreis. Luke nodded. "Thanks."

"Sure." Boss stood. "I have to go now," he said, but made no move toward the door. He looked around pointlessly, then shoved his hand in his pocket, bringing out a chunky wad of folded paper. "Some say..." He cleared his throat. "There were rumors that Anakin didn't die in the temple, because there was no trace of him. No body was ever found, either in the temple or anywhere else." Boss shrugged and handed Luke the paper. "I found this when we were searching your room. Thought you might want it." He gave Luke an intense look, then nodded curtly and whirled, walking out the door before Luke could say anything.

As soon as he began to unfold the paper, he knew what it was. He'd thought it still hidden safely between his bunk and the wall.

He flattened the paper. The poster of Darth Vader looked back at him.

Luke stared at the closed door. Boss knew? And he still considered Anakin Skywalker a great hero? If Boss knew, did the rest of the command staff know? If they did... what would they do with him?

There was a lot to figure out-- and probably a lot more that he would never figure out. He only hoped he had the time to grasp the basic truths.


Yeah, right. As usual, the luxury of time was denied him. It ended abruptly with the arrival of the smuggler Han Solo later that day, as Luke and Jovay discovered when they were hauled into HQ to confront Solo, his Wookiee copilot, and-- big surprise!-- Princess Leia.

"Hi!" Luke exclaimed, unreasonably happy to see her again. "Where have you-- Oof!" Chewbacca squeezed him in a tight hug, growling that he was glad to see the cub. "Okay, okay! I'm glad to see you, too. Now lemme go!"

Leia's fists balled on her waist and her eyes widened in an incredulous response. "First you're a spy, then you're a Jedi-- and now Vader has traded me for you!" She whirled on Narra. "We can't give this boy to Vader! Commander, what's going on?"

"Who're you calling a 'boy'?" Luke grumbled, accepting his backpack from a guard and shouldering it. Trading him? His dad had captured Leia and was letting her go? Luke was willing to bet that Dad Vader was not happy about that!

"I really don't know," Narra replied grimly, presumably to Leia, "but we have something more serious than Luke to worry about." He nodded to the security guards. "Take them to Solo's ship. With any luck, if we keep our word, Vader will keep his." He paused as if he would add more, but shook his head. "Solo, you need to get out of here-- now. Get Luke to Vader before he attacks."

"Wait!" Leia protested. "Commander--"

"No problem," Solo interrupted. "I got paid up front. Let's go, my Imp friends."

"I'm not an Imp," Luke mumbled under his breath as he and Jovay were escorted outside by guards and the two smugglers. He wished there'd been a moment to talk to Leia alone. Not that he had any idea what he would have said to her. He looked back over his shoulder, but since he hadn't perfected the skill of seeing through walls, he couldn't catch a final glimpse of her.

"Doesn't matter to me one way or the other," Solo gave him a careless shove. "Get moving, kid! We haven't got all day."

"What's the big hurry?" he complained as Solo hustled them up the ramp and into his old ship.

"Ah, Vader's got some big Imp weapon headed this way-- and we're gettin' out of the way before the shooting starts!"

"Big weapon?" Luke came to such a sudden stop in the hatchway that Jovay ran into him. He looked at the Imperial. "The Death Star?" he asked flatly.

Jovay's face was unreadable. "Get inside, Luke."

He shook his head, responding both to Jovay and to what his own mind was asking: Did my dad lie to me?

No, that wasn't possible. His dad hadn't said anything about the Death Star coming here, where all these people were, where his friends-- and Leia-- were. His dad hadn't said--

...One great victory will feed his arrogance...

"Oh, krit!" A victory over the Alliance's ground troops! His dad meant for the Death Star to destroy Dantooine, then move on to finish off the rest of the Rebel fleet where they hid. That was when Palpatine would come, hovering and spying like a carrion bird to watch the death of the Alliance. And if Luke and his dad couldn't destroy the Death Star, if the rebellion was defeated, there would be no one was left to oppose Palpy, not even Darth Vader. The galaxy would live in fear of the Emperor's displeasure. After Palpatine died, there would be another tyrant to take his place... maybe Vader, maybe someone else.

Some things are worth dying for.

"You said it, kid," Solo muttered nervously, glancing upward as though he might be able to see the Death Star in space. "It's one hell of a monster. Let's get a move on."

"No!" He pushed past Jovay and broke free when the officer grabbed his arm. Racing down the ramp, he set out toward the base's HQ at a dead run.

"Luke, wait!" he heard Jovay call, then add quietly, "Take off and you're a dead man, Solo. I'll bring him back!"

"No, you won't!" he shouted into the rushing wind, barreling downhill to his Rebel friends.

Friends?

Yeah, they were his friends, and he'd be damned if he'd zip safely into space while they were being slaughtered. Anyway, after Dantooine, no planet would be safe! His dad said he could destroy the Death Star-- all right, then he'd do it! He didn't know how, but his dad said there was--

He faltered and his frantic race stopped. His dad had said there was a way and that Luke would know. But he didn't have a clue. Oh, krit, why hadn't he paid more attention!

Well, fine, he'd protect the Rebels in whatever way he could, even if his efforts were futile, like Garven said. Luke tore off his backpack just as Jovay reached him.

"Come on, that's an order."

"You're not the boss of me!" Flinging open the pack, he began searching through it, pulling out the clothes and throwing them aside until he found what he wanted. "I'm going to stop the Death Star."

"Oh, yeah? With what?"

"With the only thing I have-- this." He stood and waved the lightsaber in Jovay's face.

The officer gave a disgusted grunt. "Don't be childish. We don't have time for games. That thing doesn't even work. We've got to leave."

"I'm not going!" His dad wouldn't let this place be blown up if he stayed here. No way! That was the answer! All Luke had to do was contact his father and-- No, then the Death Star would still be a threat. In that case-- "Hey, hold on a minute!" he exclaimed suspiciously. "How do you know my lightsaber doesn't work?"

"You told me," Jovay said easily-- too easily.

"I did not." His eyes narrowed. "Are you in on my father's plotting, too? What else do you know?"

"Luke-- "

He stared at Jovay, then at the non-functioning lightsaber. His dad had said there was a way and Luke would know. And, quite suddenly, he did know.

"Holy Sith!" He looked into green eyes that reflected his own agitation. "We're going to stop the Death Star here, today. Or are you really prepared to stand by and let the Rebellion die? That would put an end to your 'third side', too, wouldn't it?" Luke stopped and caught his breath. "Or is that part of your plan? Do you think the destruction of a planet will rouse the 'third side' into action?" He shook his head. "There'll be no stopping Palpatine after he uses the Death Star, no matter what my father thinks. He knows he can't do it alone. He needs me. And I'm not leaving Dantooine."

Jovay's cool exterior was cracking. He put his hands on his hips, shook his head and looked around. The indecisiveness on his face changed abruptly, first to frustration, then decision. "Damn it, Luke!" His arms shot out, fists clenched. "All right! But if we live through this--"

"I won't let you be in hot water with my dad." He grinned. "Let's go!"

- - - - -

Jovay was damn good. It was momentarily disconcerting to see the swiftness with which he disposed of the security guards. Luke blinked, then pushed inside the hangar, running toward the group in the center-- as fast as he could, though it appeared no one even noticed, let alone cared to stop him.

"--whether it was an accident or sabotage, I thought we'd seen the last of the Death Star a decade ago," Willard was saying bitterly, "but he's built another one. How did he find us? It's over. Everything is over."

Sabotage? For a second, the room became distant, and he could see his father clearly. Had there been another Death Star? And his father had--? The vision faded before he could interpret what he had seen.

"Luke!" Leia exclaimed.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Willard snapped.

"This!" Carefully, Luke laid his lightsaber on the table. While the others watched in a silence born of desperation, he removed the protective caps and unscrewed the pins, carefully disassembling it until he reached the activator. There, blocking the connection, was what he suspected he would find: a tiny silver cube. He pried it out and held it up.

"If I'm not mistaken, this contains the technical readouts for the Death Star."

- - - - - Epilogue - - - - -

They were all dead behind him-- Boss, Porkins... even Biggs. Only Wedge escaped, his fighter crippled and useless. Now all that could stop Luke from firing the torpedo that would destroy this vile battlestation was one very persistent TIE fighter piloted by the most persistent man in Luke's personal universe.

Darth Vader. Dad.

No, Luke! It's too soon! Palpatine is safe on Coruscant. If you destroy the Star, he will build another. And another and another! Pull up, you must pull up!

He tried to focus on his unfamiliar targeting computer, struggling to ignore the voice in his head that alternately raged, reasoned and pleaded.

Luke! You're making everything worse! Pull up now! It's not too late!

It is too late! he lashed back. I won't let everyone on this base be killed!

Everyone on the base! Vader shouted in his head. If you're so worried about killing, what about everyone on the Death Star?

You're willing to sacrifice them anyway! he shot back. The only way to stop me is to shoot me down-- are you willing to sacrifice me?

There was a terrible silence. It lasted only seconds, but to Luke it felt like hours. Then: So... You will betray me, too?

The tone was heavy, lethal. He felt the blood rush out of his head, leaving him nauseous and dizzy. She betrayed me and I killed her. No, no, no --

Dad-- no! I'm not betraying you! I love you! We can still destroy Palpatine, but I can't let all these people die. This isn't right-- I can feel it's not right!

Young one, you are a fool! Vader answered bitterly. A blind fool! If you think I'm going to allow you to ruin everything I have --

From nowhere, two TIE fighters swooped toward him, lasers slicing brilliant lines across his vision, aiming for Luke with frightening accuracy. Even before he could take evasive action, his father blew them into sparkling bits that vanished from his vision as he continued speeding toward his goal.

Luke smiled tightly. He had his father's answer. Thanks, Dad. Look... let's get together later and re-think this plot of yours, okay? Maybe you could help me target this thing, back me up? I can't get a lock on the exhaust port and it's coming up --

It's coming up now, young one! Damnit! We won't get another chance now that they know we can penetrate its defenses! Luke, your targeting computer is unnecessary, it only hinders you-- use the Force! Remember what I taught you. Clear your mind. Focus!

He closed his eyes, seeing the port through his mind. It was simple, then, to find the target, to aim his torpedo, to wait for the right millisecond to fire the --

His head echoed with a mental shout of rage that jolted his concentration. Over his headset, he heard another voice. "Okay, kid, you're clear! Now let's blow this thing and get out of here!"

It wasn't until the torpedo was speeding on its way and he had pulled out of the trench that he realized what had happened. Solo, of all people, had come back to help him and had attacked his father--

Dad! Luke called frantically, wincing as the repercussions from the horrific explosion hit his x-wing. He held tightly to the controls, riding out the waves of turbulence as he tried to out-race the hurtling debris. Dad, are you okay? Where are you?

He didn't relax until he heard the slightly dazed reply. Damned pirate. I appear to be intact, as does my fighter.

Relief flooded him. Father...

Son. Come with me. I will hide you, teach you, and when you are ready...

His relief faltered. This wasn't a decision he could put off or avoid entirely. In an instant he had to weigh his alternatives: his lifelong desire to be with his father against his awareness that his father's path might not be his path. Darth Vader was walking somewhere that Luke didn't want to go... somewhere Luke didn't belong.

I can't, he sent, hoping his dad could hear his regret. You're going somewhere I can't follow. I'm not Luke Vader. I'm Luke Skywalker. I want to learn about the Force and become a Jedi... like my father.

To his great sadness, there was no reply, not as he followed the Millennium Falcon back to the base on Dantooine, not as he landed the x-wing on a bare strip of ground that led to a hanger. People rushed out to meet him, shouting, grinning, yelling his name. He popped open the canopy, tossed aside his helmet, and jumped down without the aid of a ladder. He was hugged and patted and both his hands were shaken by Rebels he'd never met. Apparently he'd achieved the goal that he'd once selected so frivolously: he was a hero.

It didn't feel as good as he'd thought it would.

"Luke!" a familiar voice called, and he looked up to see Karas Jovay climbing down from the Millennium Falcon along with Solo and Chewbacca. He smiled faintly as the Imperial officer pushed through the crowd.

Jovay reached him, clapped his shoulder and grinned, then sobered as he studied Luke's expression. "You're a lot like your father, you know," he offered quietly, and Luke's heart sank.

"You think so?" he asked dully.

"Yes. Stubborn." The corner of Jovay's mouth quirked. "Determined to do what you think is right. That's all he ever did, you know."

The din of congratulatory shouts was ringing in his mind as well as in his ears. "That's supposed to make me feel better?" he asked angrily, hissing under the cover of the noisy celebration. "I'm exactly like him, is that what you're saying? That I'll become what he is-- do what he did?"

Jovay tilted his head and shrugged. "I guess that depends on what you believe is right," he answered softly.

He stared, feeling a warm wash of understanding fill him. That was it, the difference between him and his father. The truth was, what he and Vader believed was completely different. His father needed power and possessions-- people, planets, even an entire galaxy; he thought ownership would make him feel safe, but Luke doubted that anything could ever do that for Darth Vader. Luke didn't need safety; he believed there were causes more important than his personal needs, even more important than his life. That was why he could walk away from his father, abandon the one person in the galaxy who understood. He finally accepted that part of himself, and that self-knowledge hurt.

His dad would never understand. They would be enemies now, not by their choice. Sorrow erupted in his heart, and he bowed his head. He couldn't expect Vader to accept his decision. He knew he could never see his father again, and a great hole grew inside him, bigger and bigger until--

Until, in the midst of the non-stop yelling and talking, a voice rang clear and crisp in his head.

Very well. Since you insist on being foolish and disobedient, you must be properly trained. You will go to Dagobah. There you will find Yoda, the Jedi master who refused to train me. He will not repeat that mistake, for he knows you are the last hope for the galaxy. When you are trained, remember my words: return to me, my son, and we will conquer the Emperor together.

"Sounds like a plan," he answered, both aloud and in his head, but didn't share his misgivings with his dad. That wouldn't be fair, because mixed with the misgivings was a growing hope that the Jedi Vader had once been was still alive inside him, waiting for someone to set him free. Someone like his son.

"Talkin' to yourself, kid?" Solo asked, coming up behind him and slapping his back so hard that he staggered.

Luke recovered and shook his head. "No. To my father." He met Jovay's understanding gaze and smiled. "I think he's proud of me today."

- - - End - - -


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