by MJ Mink
Luke leaned forward in the plush seat and crossed his arms on the railing of the observation balcony. He rested his chin on his hands as he studied the scene unfolding below. A strange sensation distracted him, and he lifted his head.
It was The Hand. He knew he should think of it as part of himself - that's what the medtech had told him - but how could he when it felt different? The temperature was fractionally incorrect - close enough to please the medtechs, but to him it was either too warm or too cold. Just now it was cool enough to chill his chin and pierce through his distraction. He laid his real hand on top of the prosth, hoping to warm it. Then maybe he could forget that its very existence made him feel lost and vulnerable. But he was a Jedi and not supposed to be at the mercy of emotions. Emotions were detrimental to control...he would be passive as Yoda had taught him.
He slid a sideways glance at Wedge and the rest of the squadron to see if they'd noticed, but they were staring with hypnotized boredom at the raised platform on the main floor. The Alliance and Imperial representatives were just beginning to file in, and no one important had yet arrived.
Luke sat back against the thick cushion. During normal days, the auditorium was a great theater, as renowned across the galaxy as it was here on Ukio. This week, however, it was the site of a historic peace conference - but a peace proposed only for the inhabitants of the Abrion Sector. For, while the War was causing much prosperity among those peoples and planets that produced the myriad of goods required by each side - arms, ships, clothing, portable habitation - the thousands and thousands of products that armies required to move and live and fight, Ukio, beyond any other planet, produced more of the single component that both armies could neither avoid nor substitute: food. Ukio's rich farmlands and fat livestock gave them a power far greater than either warring faction. Now, in a desperate bid to save their neutrality - and their livelihood - they had demanded that their system be declared a neutral zone. Privately, Luke thought the government's act dangerous; still, both Empire and Rebellion tacitly acknowledged that to declare sole possession of Ukio would be to invite a conflict that could destroy the very food source each sought to possess.
Across the galaxy, other systems were voicing protests about this summit - though the reasons were carefully cloaked. No one planet wanted to admit that its economic future depended on the war machine, yet all planets seemed to suddenly desire neutrality - and safety.
His abstraction was interrupted when a tiny figure dressed in a white gown appeared. Luke watched Leia move gracefully across the platform. Once he'd eyed her with more interest; now, because he was a Jedi and restricted from passion, he curbed his inappropriate attention. Not that he could have ever won her; she was too quick for him. Han was more her type, fast with repartee, willing to scold rather than idolize, bold, handsome, clever - all the things Luke Skywalker was not.
Mothma followed the smaller figure, then Rieekan. Madine entered, striding boldly and scowling like the intractable, bantha-headed officer that he was. Luke shifted in the chair, instinctively reaching to rearrange his lightsaber - but it wasn't there. Could he call it from a great distance? He'd only ever called it when it was within his range of sight. Would it come to him from Bespin, fly the distance, pierce through the walls that separated them? How could it? He should have asked Yoda. There were so many things he would never know. Ben was gone, and he'd failed Yoda. The only Jedi who ever answered his mental pleas was entering from the darkened side of the stage. The great Dark Lord.
Vader looked less like a man than an apparition, a demon come to haunt the dreams of lesser beings. No sign of his humanity was revealed by the black garb, no hint of flesh was exposed.
No weaknesses at all.
He gnawed on his lower lip, watching closely. The strides were long and firm, the entire posture filled with authority. Luke knew that he did not appear so; he was not even a pale reflection of his father. He was soft-spoken; Vader's voice was rich with command. He blended into the auditorium crowd unnoticed; Vader captured the audience's attention and held them, enraptured with awe or loathing. His appearance was unprepossessing; Vader was a legend come to life, a vengeful god.
Luke Skywalker was too gentle and had to be instructed in the art of indifference to passion; Vader -
Did Vader have a heart?
Father. It was you in the Death Star trench, wasn't it? Would you have regetted it, if you'd killed me then? Would you have known?
He'd only thought the words, but Vader looked up and directly at him. Luke slid down a little farther in his seat. The terrors of Bespin were too close to the surface: the humiliation of the duel - now he could see how Vader had fenced with him - the shock of being so easily bested, the pain and disbelief when his hand had been severed at the wrist. And, beyond imagining, the revelation of his father's identity.
He'd been through every emotion over the last couple months, denial overriding them all. Even when he finally believed that Vader had spoken the truth, still he denied its implications. Only now, seeing him again, could he begin to accept. For, at his most basic, what was Vader but a man? A man could sire a child. Someone had sired him - why not that man? That man hadn't raised him or given him knowledge. Indeed, what did he have of Vader's? Not the height, obviously, nor the strong build. There were no other visible characteristics to compare. No, all he had from Vader was the power of the Force.
The Force. He controlled the Force - or would someday, even if he wasn't certain he understood It. He would be a Jedi - as his father had been...still was? Could one stop being a Jedi? His father manipulated the Force, and he appeared to have incredible powers - Leia had told him about the way Vader had deflected Han's blaster fire with his hand, then snatched the weapon away. Luke understood about taking the weapon - it was nearly what he could do with his lightsaber. But to stop an attack - He looked at his hands. Perhaps someone could try it, shoot at him and see if The Hand could stop blaster fire. Did his father have a Hand like his?
He stared down at the stage. The diplomats, militarists and politicians were seated. Rieekan was downing a tumbler of water, and Luke licked his lips, suddenly thirsty. He leaned forward again, settling in to watch the proceedings. Beside him, Wedge sighed. Other pilots shifted restlessly. Luke turned his head.
"You guys don't have to stay after the opening ceremony."
"We'll stay," Wedge said stubbornly, without consulting the others.
Luke smiled faintly. Because he wanted to be here, the rest of them had volunteered to be part of the small audience of officer-invitees. They'd closed up ranks after Luke's return minus his hand as though they thought their support would help him. But what would happen to their support if they knew the truth? That he was the spawn of their enemy - his enemy?
His enemy had fought him, but his father had conquered him. His father had taken his hand. Taken it without a flicker of remorse, without a word of regret or apology. Listened to his scream...then continued talking as if his son's pain was an insignificant matter.
If the rumors he'd heard about Vader's disfigurement were true, then the loss of a hand was a small matter.
And if all the rumors he'd heard about Vader's powers were true, why did the Dark Lord need his son? Was he a pawn for Vader's machinations, a convenience? Luke closed his eyes and imagined the Dark Lord twenty years earlier, deliberately conceiving a son to be kept hidden and retrieved only when the child was grown and able to assist in overthrowing the Emperor. Could anyone plan that far ahead?
Could anyone be so heartless?
Why hadn't Ben told him? Why hadn't Yoda prepared him? Why had they cast him blind before his father-enemy? Why wouldn't they answer his cries now? He'd trusted them, and they'd abandoned him - just as his father had abandoned him twenty years earlier.
A sudden wave of heat flowed into his face. His eyes widened as the black helmet tilted infinitesimally in his direction. Luke straightened as a warmth filled him. What was it? It was from his father, but what was it? What did it mean, what message did he try to convey?
"Are you all right?"
He turned his head quickly, before he had time to hide the dismay on his face. Wedge stared at him. "Luke? Do you want to leave?"
He blinked, trying to refocus his thoughts. "I...no. No, I'm fine."
Wedge glanced at the stage, his features hardening. "You hate him as much as I do. He's killed both our families and now - " He hesitated and glanced at The Hand. "Look what he's done to you. I'd like to kill him with my - " Wedge bit his lip. "Sorry."
Luke turned away. Pity gave him strange feelings. Leia pitied him, and so she stayed with him, to tease and console, while her sad eyes longed for Han. And his pilots, they were here out of pity, weren't they? He drew a harsh breath. "I don't hate Vader," he said, and was surprised by the bleakness in his voice.
At once, a half-dozen pairs of eyes focused on him. Wedge's jaw tightened. "Then you're crazy," he declared. "You have every reason to - how can you not hate him?"
"I can't afford to," he whispered obscurely, knowing no one else could understand the multiple replies carried in those few words. A Jedi was at peace, passive; but for him it was impossible to be passive and peaceful with these wild emotions churning in his chest. A Jedi had no right to feelings, because all passions, whether they grew from hate or love, were dangerous. He couldn't fall for the lure of anger or the aching yearning for a father's words. Suddenly the universe was composed of feelings that he dared not feel. A Jedi feels no passion, no anger, no emotions; a Jedi is at peace and passive, in control the way Ben was. Easy enough to live by those commandments. All he had to do was stop feeling - or bury his feelings so deeply that no one would ever find them.
A Jedi showed no feelings, a Jedi had no feelings; he repeated it silently, a mantra to be clutched to his heart. Not like Vader who broadcast anger and power, triumph and hatred. Vader felt so much - too much. Was it those feelings that had brought about his fall? Too much passion, too much caring, reacting too fast with too much? Luke had almost fallen himself. He'd become angry over Bespin - and when he'd become angry, he'd lashed out at Vader and, in return, had his hand severed. A lesson learned very quickly: Anger brings destruction. Emotions cause devastation. He looked down at The Hand and flexed its fingers.
"Can't afford to?"
He turned back to Wedge. The dark eyes were fierce, and rage, not understanding, was reflected in their depths. He didn't want Wedge to look at him that way. "If I hate him," he said slowly, barely raising his voice above a whisper, "it will consume me. Anger will...a Jedi can't be angry." What was the key? Were a Jedi's feelings so intense that they could devour his goodness as quickly as a hungry fire swallowed dry wood? Were a Jedi's feelings so wrapped in the Force that they couldn't be allowed them expression? Or even existence?
"Jedi." The ebony hair shook. "Drop it, Luke. Drop this Jedi business before it kills you. Do you know how much you've changed in the last couple months? Why do you want to be something that will only bring you misery? Look at Vader - people say he was a Jedi!"
He smiled faintly. "Exactly."
Wedge stared at him, the thoughts racing through his mind clearly reflected on his face. "Are you saying that you think you could turn into someone like Vader? That's crazy, Luke!"
"Maybe. But I can't take the chance." His gaze flickered to the other pilots, then he bent his head toward Wedge, willing to confide only in this one. "If it happened, if I became like him, there'd be no way back. I'd be as trapped as he is."
Wedge drew back. "Luke...have you talked about this with the medtech? Maybe you should. Maybe it's just a reaction from...." He nodded at The Hand, his gaze not lingering.
As if he could tell anyone the real reason behind his concerns: the fear, fully substantiated, that he would imitate his father. Much anger in him, Yoda had said, just like his father.
...just like your father.
Luke shook his head, saved from further reply by the chimes that signalled the opening of the summit. He would have his entire life, however short or long it might be, to consider this threat. For now, he could watch his father in secret. And wonder.
Because there was one other thought that haunted him, though he hardly dared to think it.
Was there a way back?
Luke dropped into his usual seat in the first row of the balcony and smiled at Wedge. The Corellian was the only one who stayed with him on this absurd father-watch of his, though if Wedge knew the truth -
"Why do you come to every session?" he asked curiously. He should have asked the first day, instead of assuming that Wedge was here only as his friend.
The dark gaze didn't waver from the stage. "It's history. I want to see it, be a part of it." Wedge glanced at him warily. "And I want to watch him."
"Oh." Luke faced forward. They were here to see the same man, but for very different reasons. And yet...Vader had stolen both their fathers. "Did I miss anything?"
"More Vader threats and rhetoric." Wedge folded his arms and frowned. "Mothma agreed with him - tactfully. The Ukians haven't changed their position. I think this is going to be a short session."
Luke shifted restlessly, disappointed that he'd missed his father's speech. He'd been clinging to every word Vader had uttered in these assemblies, searching for a clue to the man behind the mask.
He stared at Leia. How could she bear to waste time negotiating the same points over and over when he knew she was thinking of rescuing Han? They had talked about possible plans at length, and many evenings he'd left her quarters feeling angry, upset, and sad.
But a Jedi could not have such emotions. He shouldn't dwell so on Han's loss. His emotions threatened his control over himself and the Force.
To learn about the Force required control. He was an adult, he could control his feelings, not set them free to blunder through his life, destroying everything they touched. A Jedi was in total control. Total. Look at his father. Vader was in control. Even his body movements were controlled. Vader never made a graceless move or a useless gesture. He never wasted a word on a futile argument, never pacified, never softened, never said anything he didn't mean to say. Such total control was admirable.
So why was Vader the Dark? If he had such control, what had happened? Was Dark not the evil lure that he'd been warned against? Was it passion instead that had been Vader's downfall?
A few seconds later, the thought sunk into his brain, and he fell back in the seat as though he'd been slapped. How could he think that? Where had such a thought come from? Was it his own, was he already contaminated by his heritage? Or had Vader sent it into his head without his knowledge?
Fingers dug into his arm. "What's wrong? Luke, what is it?"
"I'm just tired."
"Right," Wedge said curtly, and released him.
He knew the other pilot resented his...standoffishness, they called it. He'd overheard them in the barracks talking about him. Standoffish, detached, distant, aloof, remote--they'd use all the clichés. Big-headed was another one. Thinks he's some great hero. If Han was here, he would tell them.... The loss of Han had made another great hole in his chest that couldn't be filled. Han had taken care of him, guided him through the maze of people, taught him how to talk to them and get along, listened to his complaints and uncertainties, reassured him. Now he didn't need to be taken care of, but he still needed someone to talk to, especially about his father. And no one would do but Han.
He was totally alone. Or was loneliness a passion? Should he not feel alone either? Was there anything he could feel, anything that wasn't proscribed by the Jedi code? Was his father able to feel any emotions beside anger? He knew he shouldn't call, but the tiny voice inside him refused to be stilled. Father, it wondered hesitantly. Father?
Far below, Vader gave no physical indication that he'd heard. Luke leaned forward and rested his arms on the rail, unconscionably disappointed. Would there never be anyone who -
The warmth of the first day returned, flooding the inside of his body. His fingers curled around the metal, but he remained still. Was that his father? But what he felt was good - better than good. It wasn't dark or evil or vile or disgusting. It was a caress, the gentle touch of another's mind. Someone whispered without words that his raging thoughts were giving nightmares to every Force-sensitive within three light-years.
He smiled involuntarily. Vader understood!
Or was it his own mind giving him the response he needed?
Skepticism has its time and place, boy. But this is neither.
A surprised laugh was nearly torn from his throat; he choked it back. He smiled brilliantly and hid his face on his arms so no one would see. He wasn't alone. His father was here. His father - the navigator, the Jedi, the Dark Lord - whichever one it was, he was here!
The invitation surprised him. It had been verbally delivered to the barracks by Major Dorland, and the other pilots had reacted oddly. A couple had teased him, but the rest had been strangely disinterested and gone back to polishing boots or recording messages to send home. Only Wedge had lingered.
"The closing banquet, huh? And you weren't even a delegate. What did you do to rate that?"
Luke held up The Hand. "Traded this for an invitation from the upper echelon."
Wedge gasped, then laughed awkwardly. "Yeah, well.... Be sure to eat your money's worth." Color rushed into his face, and he hurried away, bumping his shin on a cot and not pausing to utter more than a single curse.
Dinner with the conference participants. He wondered if Vader had the temerity to ask that he be invited. Oh, by the way, can my son come to dinner? Luke pulled the footlocker from under his bed. He'd never worn the Jedi uniform he'd had made based on Yoda's description. Tonight was the time to display his new status.
Unlike the loose robes of a teacher, the Jedi Warrior wore a sleek uniform of pants and military tunic. As black as Vader's armor, the clothes fit him like his skin. He stripped down and showered, then slid the pants over his legs. The fabric was strong yet stretchy, moving with him, not hindering. The tunic bib buttoned to his neck, the cuffs were snug against his wrists. He wished his lightsaber hung at his hip. It was the symbol of what he hoped to be. What the Alliance needed him to be. He felt lost without it. But even without the saber, the uniform declared him Jedi. His father would see that. Maybe his father would respect the uniform, if not the son.
A social hour preceded the dinner. Imperial and Alliance representatives, dignitaries from their host city, a few military people - and himself, feeling more than a little out of place. He wanted to stand close to Leia, but that might be perceived as a weakness. They thought he was a Jedi; he had to act like one. He accepted a drink that was an odd shade of reddish-purple. He sipped at it and immediately felt the sting of alcohol on his tongue. It burned his throat, gave him something to focus on. Alcohol loosened inhibitions, so he would have to be cautious - no, he would have to be controlled. He strolled among the strangers, occasionally nodding when he met a curious gaze, more often pretending that he was stalking a friend who waited on the opposite side of the large reception hall. He circled Leia, hoping to catch her attention - if she called to him, it would be acceptable to speak with her. But when she noticed him, she only nodded, smiled slightly, and returned to her conversation with a white-haired man.
Lord Vader was conspicuous by his absence.
Luke considered slipping out the double doors until dinner. No one would miss him. Perhaps a moment to clear his head in the fresh country air, a space of peace in the garden he'd admired from a distance -
In the doorway, he came to a sudden halt and stared into the mask of Darth Vader. The breath rushed from him in a gasp.
The room hushed, and the silence was not of his imagining. Was this why he'd been invited? There was an aching feeling in his chest. Leia's idea - Mothma's - Madine's? Did they want another confrontation, a second chance for their new champion?
Be at peace, young one. These mortals cannot touch you.
He stared, searching for some sign of expression on the shiny mask. He hadn't had the opportunity to examine it so closely in Cloud City. It had a cold, stark beauty. The helmet was highly polished, no scratches or dents marred its pristine surface. And the mask had a caricature of a nose, a funny polished button that he was tempted to push. The eye shields were reflective; he could see his face in them, double moons pale and small. A triangular vent formed the mouth - was it a miniaturized air exchanger? Below it was a vocoder - he'd seen those often enough on life-support shields. Couldn't his father breathe any kind of atmosphere at all? Was he condemned to live forever under durasteel protection? Or was it all a macabre disguise designed to frighten common people?
If so, then he was common, because it scared the hell out of him.
But no one would see fear on his face.
"Jedi Skywalker." A deep voice issued from the vocoder, and he found himself staring at the small fixture, shaken by the title given him.
He forced his eyes upward. "Lord Vader," he acknowledged. The room was closing in on them - or rather, the people were. Luke bit his lip and gathered his reserves. Surely he had reserves of strength left, didn't he? Or had he used them all immediately after Bespin, trying to hold together the shattered pieces of his Self?
"Ah. I see your hand has been replaced."
He watched with disbelief as The Hand was grabbed by its wrist and raised in the air. Vader studied it. He turned it over, pushed back the tight sleeve, and popped open the access panel.
"What are you doing?" Luke demanded, torn between loathing and longing for the touch of his father.
The new fingers were bent forward and back. He flinched at the clicking sounds - surely everyone in the room could hear! - and at the sight of the hardware controlling his motions.
"Not equivalent to the Imperial standard of prosthetics," Vader commented harshly. "Come with me, and I'll see that you receive the best possible replacement. You will be unable to discern the difference between this replica and your real hand."
He jerked the wrist free and closed the compartment's door. He smoothed the sleeve back in place, tugging at the cuff. His face burned with the humiliation of his frailty exposed to the curious eyes of strangers.
"A poor imitation of clone technology. Even the temperature sensors are inadequate. Surely you must receive substandard feedback."
He didn't know what Vader meant, but he knew something was wrong with The Hand and nodded in sullen agreement.
"Would you not prefer a state-of-the-art device?"
It was a challenge. Luke suspected that Vader and everyone expected him to say no and declare his preference for inferior Rebel technology. Well, he'd confound all of them and tell the truth. "Yes, I would," he declared clearly.
"Then come with me," Vader responded immediately.
"Lord Vader, I bid you good evening."
Luke relaxed. Mon Mothma, sweeping in like the dowager Empress, full of graciousness and deceptive good will, rescuing him from the danger of whatever his fraying composure might reveal.
"Mothma." Vader bowed over her hand, an elegant gesture that testified he was no stranger to court protocol. "It was my pleasure to arrive at this summit and find that you are as charming as ever."
"Thank you." She withdrew her hand, unsmiling, and turned toward Luke. "Good evening, Commander Skywalker."
"Ma'am." He inclined his head, feeling his greeting was every bit as elegant as his father's, if considerably more conservative. "Thank you for extending an invitation to me."
"It was Lord Vader's suggestion. He expressed a desire to meet you in a...noncombative setting."
Guess that meant his left hand was safe. Involuntarily, his eyes slid to Vader's hip. Yes, he thought he saw the outline of a lightsaber beneath that heavy cloak. He refocused his attention on the Dark Lord's words.
"- and I hoped," Vader was saying, "to convince Jedi Skywalker of the advisability of allowing me to continue his Jedi training. Regrettably, he saw fit to decline my offer at our last meeting."
Mothma's unnerving gaze fastened on Luke.
"I shall make time to reread your report, Commander, regarding your confrontation with Lord Vader in Cloud City. I do not recall that such an offer was described."
"I am sure that such a minor item was overlooked during Jedi Skywalker's pain and confusion," Vader said smoothly. "That is why I am reiterating my offer. And may I also say, Mothma, that your treatment of Jedi Skywalker distresses me. So much so that it was one my prime reasons for attending this summit."
It sounded as if everyone in the room had inhaled the same deep breath. Luke was surprised that there was still oxygen left. Vader's tone had been velvet-coated durasteel, calculated and cold. But there was something underneath the challenge -
Mothma's expression became fixed, a sure sign that she was agitated. "What treatment would that be, Lord Vader? And why would it cause you concern?"
"Observe." Vader took a few paces and gestured at the rapt audience. "Do you see another Jedi? Regrettably," - here his voice turned honeyed - "Skywalker is the only one left, save myself. Yet you risk his life on insignificant missions. You treat him as you would a common soldier. You appear to believe that he is nothing more than a pilot, that his arrival at the time of your Rebellion is mere serendipity. You, madam, may mouth your allegiance to the Force, but you are not a Believer. If you were, you would understand who Jedi Skywalker is, and you would treat him accordingly. You would not risk the Balance by sending him to face potential death on a consistent basis. In reaction to your carelessness, I find myself taking a personal interest in his welfare."
Luke listened with astonishment. Was Vader saying - ? His father. His father was expressing anxiety for his well-being. His father didn't want him to die, no matter that they were on opposing sides. His father hadn't known the identity of the pilot he'd tried to kill in the Death Star trench. His father had disabled rather than kill him on Bespin. And now - this was more than wanting him to join in ruling the galaxy, this was love.
But how could that be? Vader was Darkness, a renegade Jedi who'd broken all the rules. Vader felt passion. Passion was wrong. If Vader felt love for his son, then it was passion and it was wrong. Love was wrong.
But how could that be? This was a circle he was running in, and there was no escape. There was love where there should be none. There was passion that wasn't dangerous. There was caring born of one who had forsaken his family, his friends, and his vows.
There was a way back.
There was a way back! He repeated the revelation to himself several times. His father, his real father, was still there under that mask Palpatine had given him. A real heart still beat, a real soul still cried out to protect his child.
He could not believe anything less.
"I'm touched by your concern," Luke said gently, with total sincerity.
Mothma and Vader both turned, startled, as though they'd forgotten his presence.
"It is not concern, it is practicality," Vader stated, inexplicably denying his words of a moment earlier. "Join me. I will complete your training."
Practicality? Does the Emperor support this idea of yours to woo me - or does he suspect your traitorous plans?
Vader chuckled. Amplified by the vocoder, it was a frightening sound. "Of course," he said to Mothma, "Jedi Skywalker is an insolent young one. I can, perhaps, understand your desire to be rid of him."
"I feel no such desire." Mothma's eyes flashed in a rare show of annoyance. "Commander Skywalker is as valued as every member of the Alliance. We do not cherish any single person over the others. We are an army of partners, not a monarchy that sacrifices members of its populace in flagrant displays of terror."
"Your rhetoric is wasted on me, Mothma," Vader said dismissively, "and I suspect Jedi Skywalker also sees too clearly to believe your pious indignation and your declaration of equality for all. The incestuous group you've brought to this gathering proves that your Rebellion is as elitist as the Imperial Court. Your discomfort at including Jedi Skywalker reinforces your attitude."
"You have no qualifications to discuss equality, Lord Vader," Mothma said shortly, "either within or without the Alliance Council."
"You see?" Vader said to Luke with amusement in his voice. "The defense of democracy and equality has been reduced from the entire Rebel forces to the Alliance Council. In her own words, the lady reestablishes her discriminatory beliefs."
Luke stifled a sigh. It was childish, but he had enjoyed the discussion more when they were talking about him. And just when had Vader moved to stand beside him? Or - there was a sinking feeling in his stomach - had he moved to stand beside Vader? Mothma was opposite them now. He knew very little about body movements and the unconscious messages they sent, but he knew enough to see he was visibly aligning himself with his father. He took a tiny step sideways to ease into a more nonpartisan position.
Vader's hand shot out. Leather-clad fingers grasped his chin and forced his head to lift. Luke stared defiantly at the mask.
"You have your father's eyes, boy."
Oh, but that was unkind to both of them. Did Vader have eyes left? Had anyone seen them in decades? He tried to squint through the tinted shields.
"I am pleased to know that, though I hope I have more of my father than merely the color of his eyes."
The fingers tightened. "Indeed? And what else would you wish to have, young Skywalker?"
"I hope I have inherited the essential goodness of his heart," he said softly. Though he couldn't smile at Vader, not in front of this roomful of warriors, he allowed compassion to glow in his steady gaze.
The fingers released his face. "Bah. More wasteful Jedi foolishness. When you are ready to take your Force heritage seriously, call to me. I will hear you."
With a curt nod to Mothma, Vader left them to join the Imperial representatives. Mothma gave Luke a shrewd glance.
"An interesting exchange, Commander."
"Ma'am," he replied neutrally.
Crix Madine joined them as the tension in the room relaxed and conversations resumed. "More than interesting," he said in a low voice. "What was that all about, Skywalker?"
Something in Madine's demeanor always made him bristle. Or was that too strong a reaction? "As you heard, General." He was becoming accomplished at this bland, sparring sort of conversation. It gave him a heady feeling, all of it. Tonight, just this moment, he felt complete, felt that he'd found his place.
At my side.
He gave no indication that he'd heard Vader's comment. Concentrating fiercely, he raised his mental shields; then, after reflection, lowered them again. He was thinking nothing that his father could use against him, and a display of trust could only encourage the lingering goodness. But what was Vader thinking? Why couldn't Luke sense his father's thoughts? Did he just need more training - or was prying into other minds a Dark Side talent?
He despaired of ever finding answers.
Luke blinked. Madine was frowning. "Sir?"
"I asked what Vader meant when he advised you to 'call to him'."
He stared at Madine blankly. Vader had neatly snared him with that one. He had been just about to reflect on the fact that his father hadn't betrayed him, when he found this trap. One thing Jedi could do was lie, and he could probably think of an appropriate lie to respond to Madine. But to what purpose? "We are both Jedi. We can sometimes communicate on a mental basis."
"Sorcery. It was sorcery then and it's sorcery now," Madine muttered obscurely. "I distrust Jedi, Commander. You would do well to remember that I'm watching you."
"I've given you no reason to distrust me, sir."
"If you believe that, you have a short memory." The grey eyes fixed on him. "You were absent without leave for months after the Hoth retreat. Then you unashamedly declared yourself a student of sorcery. Those two facts alone are near-treason. One day I will persuade Mothma and the Council to act on my recommendations." The general nodded to Mothma and stalked away.
Mothma didn't respond to Madine's remarks, but merely honored Luke with the hint of a tight-lipped smile. "Commander. We will talk later."
He watched her bypass the short line of waiting guests at the double doors leading to the vast, brightly-lit hall. Luke joined the queue where people were giving their names. Peering around them, he could see table after table, all decked with silver cloths and set with sparkling clear dinnerware. He hoped he would be seated next to someone who would show him how to use all those utensils. Or wasn't a farmboy Jedi expected to be socially competent?
"Skywalker," he said when it was his turn in front of the protocol droid.
"Table four," it said promptly, "first row on the left, second from the far end."
He had a fleeting, absurd desire that it should sound like Threepio, fussy and full of concern for him. His moment of self-conscious loneliness vanished when, with a swirl of black, Lord Vader was upon him like a sudden thunderstorm. "You will join me," the Dark Lord commanded, and Luke's pulse fluttered in a queer combination of desire and trepidation.
At peace, passive, maintain control. He repeated the words over to himself as he followed the Dark Lord to the long table at the head of the room.
The guests were resettling themselves and shooting covert, annoyed looks at him - which meant Vader had made them all move to make a place for him. A place, he saw, that was right next to the Dark Lord.
The dinner started awkwardly. A small string ensemble at the far side of the room began playing a familiar theme, one that he hadn't respected until recently. It was, he'd learned, more than merely the traditional music of social and business gatherings; it was the ancient Hymn of the Force. Yoda had told him how to show respect, and this was his first opportunity. He pushed his chair back to stand.
So did Vader.
They both hesitated and looked at each other. Vader recovered first; Luke followed, color rushing into his face as he realized that once again he and Vader were the focus of the guests' attention. It made him feel a fraud; people would expect a true Jedi Knight, when he was but a student without a teacher.
When the music ended and they were reseated, the general conversation resumed. Luke said a silent blessing that there were no speeches scheduled before the meal, because after weeks of barely touching food he was famished. But when a tiny bowl was put in front of him, he hesitated. Whatever the food was, it was dead but not cooked. He slid a glance at Vader to observe how he ate the thing - but of course there was no food given to him. Immediately Luke felt foolish. He folded his hands in his lap.
"It is Rangonian wortroot," came Vader's quiet words. "Considered a delicacy in most parts of the galaxy."
"Use the utensil on your far left," Vader said after a pause. "Separate the handles, then pierce the filament end of the root with the pincer."
He tried to conceal his relief as he manipulated the strange utensil as though he used one every day. The Hand had difficulty exerting the correct pressure, but he persevered and eventually succeeded, though not with the smoothness he'd hoped. He swallowed the wortroot without chewing it. It left a faintly sour aftertaste in his mouth. "It's some kind of root?" he asked the Dark Lord.
"Wortroot is the name of the species. It's a type of grub."
Involuntarily he pulled his mouth into a grimace. He put the utensil aside and turned back to Vader. "Don't you eat?"
The helmet inclined toward him. "Do you think to plug me in to a power supply like your mechdroid?"
"No!" He blushed and lowered his voice. "I just wondered why you come to banquets like this if you can't eat."
"I can eat. I choose not to."
Luke considered the statement. In order to eat, Vader would have to remove the helmet and mask. "Is your face scarred?" he asked in a whisper.
After a heartbeat's hesitation, Vader replied, "You are an impertinent child."
He had a brief respite as a human butler removed his dish of grubs. "I know very little about you," he said in cautious apology.
"Come with me, and I will tell you all you wish to know."
The offer wasn't as frightening here in this elegant, chandelier-draped hall as it had been on the gantry above Bespin. Vader wasn't as ominous and menacing. There was no physical danger. The only danger was to his soul.
"I can't. We're different. I can't be like you."
"We are not so different, young one. I can feel the anger in you, the desire for power. If you don't surrender to it, you will fight it all your life. And, in the end, you will lose and you will be left with nothing. Come with me now and take the galaxy in your hand." Vader's voice was barely a hiss and meant for his ears alone. "I've heard you cry, I've sensed your unhappiness, your feeling that you are out of place and unwanted. You will always feel that way if you continue to deny your destiny."
"You think my place is with you?" The words hurt; even as he spoke them, he sensed that they held some truth.
"A son's place is with his father."
A bright flare of anger twisted inside him. "You should have thought of that twenty years ago." He leaned back as another dish was placed in front of him. At least this one looked more familiar: bread - he hoped.
"Fingers," Vader instructed in an oddly gentle tone.
He bit back a response and tore off a piece of the warm swirl. Some kind of sweet pastry, very chewy, that reminded him of the bread Aunt Beru used to make. Unexpectedly, he remembered her fingers, golden with flour, moving quickly and efficiently, pounding, kneading, molding -
The bread was tasteless. He put it aside, his appetite gone. When the plate was removed, a steaming platter was placed in front of him. The main course, vaguely recognizable as some sort of small mammal. Luke stared at it for a few seconds, then reached for the crystal glass and downed a mouthful of the fruity, slightly acidic wine. It was immediately replenished by a server droid that was posted at their table for that very purpose. Curiously, he sipped again to see if the droid would return. After refilling another's glass at the opposite side, it trundled back to him and topped off the wine.
Someone who wasn't a Jedi would get drunk and ignore the consequences. Had it really been so boring, being ordinary? It had been safe and quiet, and it hadn't hurt nearly this much.
"You grieve," Vader said heavily.
Luke studied the mask that disguised the blue eyes he'd inherited. Had this man ever lived on Tatooine and been ordinary? Had Beru baked bread for Anakin Skywalker? "I've always grieved. It's my nature," he replied flippantly, though truth seeped in and betrayed his inept defense.
"Mine also. I grieved for your mother. For you. For myself."
Was that regret he heard, or merely another element of seduction? If one means of persuasion didn't work on the errant son, try another.
"Have you always been so mistrustful?"
Had he? "I suppose so." He'd never believed Beru and Owen had truly cared for him or that Biggs had liked him, even when the evidence said they did. He hadn't believed Leia loved him - and she hadn't. Why should he believe anything said by this stranger who'd abandoned his baby?
"Abandoning you was not my intention. But this is not the place for such a discussion. Walk with me after dinner."
He didn't answer, though he knew his silence was meaningless. He couldn't refuse to learn his own history, no matter how heinous the source.
Heinous? A severe judgment based on so little evidence, my son. Give me the opportunity to convince you otherwise.
A dangerous proposition. Dangerous because he was vulnerable to this man, this Vader who was wooing, not fighting him. He looked across the table toward Mothma. Between bites and polite conversations with her neighbors, she watched him and Vader, quiet speculation in her eyes. Judging his loyalty. Judging him.
He didn't think that he
liked being judged.
"At my side, you would be a prince."
Luke didn't doubt that he would enjoy being a prince. However, Vader's idea of their kingdom was the stuff of nightmares. "I don't want to be your prince."
"Don't waste my time with absurdities." In the dark of the quiet garden, Vader appeared as a barely-visible shadow.
"I didn't ask you to come here," he replied mildly. "You waste your own time."
Vader whirled. "You are a fool," he hissed.
"So you tell me." Passive. He would be passive.
One massive fist clenched in the air, then slowly lowered. The Dark Lord was silent for a long moment before he spoke. "Your time spent with me has not been wasted. Already I sense the difference in you. I have given you confidence and a sense of pride."
"Given it back, you mean, since it was you who took it."
"I took only your hand. Had you confidence in yourself, I would not have succeeded in crushing your self-esteem also."
His tongue was not quick enough and his heart not hard enough to spar with this one who called him son. Luke crossed to a stone bench and sat. A flowering rateira shrub was nearby, and the night air was heavy with the fragrance of its blossoms. He inhaled deeply. "Can you smell that?"
Unexpectedly, Vader joined him on the bench. "Yes. My sensors can detect odors more minute than you could hope to sense with your imperfect olfactory organ."
"But does it smell nice?" he asked sadly.
"Nice?" The small word was uttered with distaste - or was it simply unfamiliar? "It is not a displeasing odor."
He stared down at his hands and twined the fingers together. Absently he wondered when he had begun thinking of them as a pair again and not segregating The Hand. "Come with me," he whispered. "Please. I can't come with you."
"I cannot. Luke, you don't know the power of the Emperor."
He'd heard that before. "If he's so powerful, why can't our Rebellion be defeated?"
"Palpatine could crush it easily."
"Then why - ?"
"Personal power - and economics," the Dark Lord declared disdainfully.
Luke shared his disdain. A poor reason for the slaughter of millions...as if any reason could ever be adequate. "Then why do you want us to combine our powers? If economics is the main consideration for continuing the war, we could not stop the carnage just to create chaos on another level."
"Order, Luke, we could bring order." Vader turned slightly to face him, his voice alight with eagerness. "The galaxy cries for strong leadership, the leadership the Force can provide. Palpatine cares nothing for its peoples, only for the control he can wield over them. We could put the galaxy on the correct path, create harmony where there is discordance. The way of the Force is the correct way. With you and I to guide it, the galaxy could flourish under the spell of the Force."
There was such sincerity in the voice that Luke was nearly ashamed of his lack of support. "The 'spell' of the Force?" he echoed. "Lord Vader, what you are proposing is merely another form of tyranny. The planets of the galaxy require a loose union, not ruthless oppressors clad in the guise of Jedi benevolence."
"You do not understand."
"I do understand. But you're wrong."
"Foolish youngling." The chastising sounded almost fond. "In this life for only a few short years, yet already you think you are wiser than the one who gave you that life. All you do is echo the views of those who are your friends."
It was a valid point; still, Luke believed he was correct. "It's not a matter of wisdom, but of philosophy. I believe in freedom and -"
"Freedom from what - control? Do you believe in anarchy? For that would be the result of no government."
"Of course there has to be a formal structure, but a loose organization of planetary governments would be sufficient to - "
"Like the Old Republic," Vader said dryly. "Was your education inadequate? Did you not study history? Are you unaware of how the Republic became corrupted and fell?"
"I'm aware," he replied sharply. "It took a very long time for the Republic to be corrupted - whereas the Empire was born out of corruption."
"Quite the young politician." Vader broke a twig off the rateira and twirled it in front of him. "We could argue these matters indefinitely and never reach agreement."
"I suppose." There was, then, no use reiterating the plea for his father to join him.
"Will you not put politics aside, Luke, and join your father for the sake of your familial bond? There is much I could teach you. And I would like to know you."
How clearly Vader saw him at that moment. It was what he wanted - for his father to know him, to know his father. To put an end to the unanswered questions, the sense of aloneness that had always plagued him. To share his hopes and dreams with a beloved parent, to learn the secrets of the Jedi. He stared at the ebon helmet. Even in the darkness, it shone like a bright promise.
But a promise of what?
"I would, if you would leave the Empire," he said eventually. "If we could leave this all behind and - "
"Run away?" Vader finished.
He remained silent. Expressed so bluntly, his suggestion was preposterous.
"Do you wish to leave your friends and your precious Rebellion unprotected? Do you wish Palpatine to reign unrestrained?"
"No," he said with a sigh.
"At any rate, I cannot leave the Emperor. It would not be permitted."
He refused to contemplate the kind of power that could bind the Lord of the Sith against his will. "Then we're at an impasse."
"For now. We will talk about this again. If there is time."
He knew his father was not referring to the pending end of the summit, but rather to the feeling that Time itself had begun to move faster, spiralling into happenings neither of them could control. Everything was beginning to come together--and then everything would spin apart. It was suddenly his deepest fear that only one of them would live through the coming cataclysm.
"All right," he mumbled, uncomfortably aware of how inadequate was his reply.
Vader rose. "You call me 'father' in your mind. Will you not say it aloud?"
He looked up. He desperately, shamefully, wanted to say the word and hear it echo in his own ears. But there was no proof, not really, that Vader was his sire. His heart agreed to the claim - but his heart had been tricked before. "I cannot," he replied finally. "I'm not certain that you are...him. But whether you are or not, I'm glad we had this time to talk."
"Know your enemy?" The tone was biting, but poignancy lurked beneath it.
"Just to know you," he said firmly. He rose and held out his hand.
Vader hesitated, then took it, engulfing it in his large grip. "Come with me," he repeated.
Luke lowered his lashes and withdrew his hand. "I cannot. Your Darkness is not inside me. And you are wrong," he said softly, his voice thick with pity, "about the anger. I am at peace. I am not angry, not at you or anyone."
"You will be," Vader hissed.
He felt himself shrink under the reverberating malice in the voice. "No." But when Yoda had said the same words, told him he would be afraid - he had been. Still was. Fear lay coiled within him, unceasingly restless, a serpent waking to the morning heat and readying itself to strike.
"Many possible futures I see for you," Vader continued softly. "If you join me, we will destroy the Emperor together. If you do not...."
He turned his head to the side, longing to flee back into the brightly-lit reception hall, to leave his fears in this garden where they would be absorbed by its beauty. "What?" he whispered, unable to resist the lure of his future.
"The Emperor will have you in one way or another. Either you will belong to him in life or your soul will be his after death. Or - "
"Or what?" he demanded, the anger he'd blithely denied rising in his throat to choke his words.
"There is a worse fate." A dark-gloved hand reached out to him, but dropped centimeters before brushing his cheek. "You may destroy him but be corrupted in the process. Your life will be spent fighting the doubt within you, that with which he taints you, that which is your inheritance from me. You will hide from all manners of emotions, unable to love or hate, to laugh or cry. You will become a caricature of a human, a ghost of what you once were. Neither dead nor alive. You will exist in a hell of your own making."
Luke walked a few paces, facing the impressive mansion, hearing the distant murmur of voices, the thin strains of an unfamiliar melody, a sweet song meant to calm the sharp edge of discord between the adversarial guests. "You're wrong," he murmured, the weak denial failing to convince even himself.
"It is one possibility, and already you tread that path. You deny your feelings. None but I can sense the conflicts within your heart. Come with me, son. Learn to control the Force before it controls you."
"I can't come," he answered hoarsely, but with less certainty than he'd felt earlier.
This time the hand touched him, and he didn't flinch as it slid along his neck and clasped his left shoulder. "Think about it. I pray you understand the truth before it is too late. When you decide, call me. I will always hear you. I will save you, but only at your request."
He fixed his eyes on the blinking lights of the respiration monitor, so incongruously bright and cheery in the darkness. He shook his head.
Did the choice of his destiny truly abide with him? Or was the matter out of his hands, removed from the contest by his heart? Uncle Owen had often chided him for not using his brain; Beru had been gentler, saying that he thought with his heart.
Well, he was still doing it. He was wavering with pity - a dangerously alluring emotion - because all he could see was that his father was trapped in a pattern of wrongness from which he was unable to escape.
Or unwilling. Maybe Vader saw nothing but the power, maybe he didn't understand the immorality of his deeds. But could anyone be so blind as to not understand the murders committed and their far- reaching consequences?
An unnamed caution whispered in his mind, and he struggled to identify it. A warning of a chance tossed aside, a plea gone unanswered? If this was his only chance to save his father -
He pressed his fists against his chest, trying to calm the wild fluttering.
"What is it, young one?"
Luke shook his head. "I don't know. Something's wrong. We're not supposed to part this way. I don't - I'm supposed to...I want -"
"What do you want?" the Dark Lord asked curiously.
"I want to save you," Luke blurted earnestly.
An involuntary gesture of surprise was checked. "Save me?" Vader echoed after a pause. "What an extraordinary idea. Save me from what, child?"
"From the Darkness." Daringly, he touched Vader's arm with two fingers. The leather fabric was cushioned and reinforced by a fine weave of metal. "I want you back. I can show you the way. If you'll let me, I can save you."
He hoped, then, that he'd reached the father who hid within that intimidating shell, because Vader did not immediately rebuff him. A charrabird flew across the garden and landed somewhere beyond them, chittering softly for a mate who wasn't there. Luke's fingers rubbed the leather sleeve, leaving indentations that lingered.
"Luke," his father said finally and with as much gentleness as he could have wished, "am I such a monster?"
He was maddened with outrage and, to his dismay, heartache. "You're evil. You tortured my friends, killed my family - Han is lost because of you, Alderaan is gone. And you think I want to be like you? I don't!" He snatched his fingers away, and his heart with them. Took two deep breaths to restore his crumbling control.
"So innocent and righteous," Vader mocked. "Skywalker, First Enemy of the Empire."
He licked his lips. "What do you mean?"
"Within the Empire, it is you who is regarded as the monster." Vader leaned toward him. "The son follows in the father's footsteps. It was you, and you alone, who destroyed the Death Star. Do you know how many men were aboard?"
Luke shook his head.
"Let us estimate one million. After all, of what concern is another hundred thousand or so Imperials to you Rebels?"
"I don't - "
"One million men. How many dreams do you suppose each of them had?"
"Dreams?" Luke repeated in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"Then let us say, for the sake of brevity, each person had ten dreams. So far your personal total of destruction in that one engagement is one million lives and ten million dreams. Now, what would be your guess as to the number of those one million people who had family, friends, and loved ones not aboard the Death Star?"
"I don't - "
"You're quite right, it would be impossible to calculate. Assume that several million more people were sympathetically wounded by the destruction of the Death Star. What about children, Luke?"
"Children?" His heart was racing so fast he could scarcely breathe. When he bumped into a tree, he realized he'd been backing away from the Dark Lord's challenge.
"How many children will grow up fatherless? Those children will have no legend to shelter them, as you did. Those - three million? - children will know their fathers died aboard the Death Star, murdered by the Jedi Skywalker."
His vision blurred, and he shook his head, vainly trying to clear it.
"And how many children will never be conceived? How much of the galaxy's future did you personally destroy, Luke? The geniuses, the artists, the healers, the common workers. Their children. Their children's children for infinite generations to come." Vader grabbed his upper arms. "You, Luke Skywalker, dared to summon the power of the Force before you understood its consequences - and with a single shot, you committed one of the most heinous acts the galaxy has ever seen. And now you dare to call yourself Light and label me Darkness? If history will name anyone the Lord of Darkness, it will be you."
The ground spun away from beneath his feet, and he would have fallen but for a strong hand under his elbow.
Did he obey, did he sit? All he perceived was pain, horror, the echoes of screams and bereavement from millions of people. Death-cries, mourning lost loves, children sobbing, the children whose fathers he'd killed -
Luke lamented silently, refusing to surrender to tears. His grief for the men he'd murdered remained silent, but his mind gave them names and faces. He accepted the burden of their families, of Alderaan, Biggs, Owen, Beru. Han. The father he'd lost and found. The dream he'd found and lost.
Lord of Darkness....
A Jedi was at peace, passive, serene. No sorrow, no regrets, no guilt -
Then he was not Jedi.
He'd condemned Vader for not seeing the consequences of his actions; Luke Skywalker was no less guilty. It was as the Dark Lord said: the son follows in the father's footsteps.
But what of his father? Was this how his father had fallen? Had Anakin Skywalker unwittingly been drawn by evil disguised as righteousness?
Yoda and Ben had both warned him about the Dark Side, but they hadn't said it would be so easy to fall. Ben had helped him destroy the Death Star, so Ben had known what it would mean.
Could the same act be guiltless when committed under the guise of Light, but evil under the name of the Dark? If that was what the Jedi taught, then what he had learned was a lie. Destruction was destruction, no matter the name it was given.
An idea nibbled at the edges of his thoughts. It was not a new idea, but he'd never allowed the thought to form fully. It seemed blasphemous, and yet....
"Is the Force just the Force?" he whispered. "Is there no difference between Darkness and Light? Are they simply one's perception?"
"The Jedi defined Darkness and Light."
"But the Death Star...Jedi have always been warriors, so if killing is wrong...." His voice trailed off. Should he throw out all his old assumptions as invalid? Was killing not wrong? Was killing right, no matter the reason?
Or was there no right and wrong?
"Did the Jedi do more than define - did they create Dark and Light? Are right and wrong merely rules to control people and prevent chaos? Is that what the idea of Darkness and Light did for Jedi, controlled them? Or bound them in self-control?" Tentatively, he took another step into the mystery. "If Jedi are more powerful than ordinary men, they can cause more destruction and create more good. Their laws should be stronger."
He stared down at the rough cobbles of the path. "So there's no good, no evil, no Darkness, no Light. There are only actions, perceptions, and intent. The Force is just the Force, totally neutral, not caring about the purposes for which it is used."
"This is not a new philosophy," Vader said dryly. "It is as old as the galaxy itself."
But it was totally new to him. "If the Force is neutral - " He hesitated, then continued eagerly, " - then Jedi are neutral. We create ourselves...and control our own creation. We use the Force as an instrument. We don't control it, we don't own it - and it doesn't own us." If that were true, he had less to fear. If that were true, it meant that Vader had chosen his own path; he hadn't crumbled under the overwhelming weight of the Force.
"I do not understand your reluctance to come with me. You appear to have removed the philosophical barriers between us; why do you now hesitate?"
"Your way is not in my heart. I don't want to rule, I don't want power. I want peace." He leaned back on the bench and questioned the strength of his beliefs. Peace, passivity - what did they really mean? What if they meant acceptance of Self, not loss of passion?
"Power brings peace."
Luke inclined his head. "Your price is too high. You demand too much."
"You are my price."
He stared at the Dark Lord, the message in the simple words eluding him. What did that mean? If Vader cared about him, it made his final decision at once both inevitable and impossible.
He would not leave his friends and the Alliance.
He could not spurn his father.
Were there some traps that had no escape, not even for the Lord of Darkness, be he father or son?
Or were the traps of their own making?
There was no time to decide which way to go, though all the time in the universe wouldn't have been enough to sort through the conflicting ideas. He cut out his treacherous heart and listened to his head. It told him to remain where he was, salvage what he could of his present and begin forming his future. Hope flickered into a tiny flame, that his father - no more blinding himself to his heritage - could reform his own future, that his passions weren't self-destructive.
"You know that what you do is wrong," Luke said carefully. "You were a Jedi once; what you are today isn't what you hoped to become. I pray that you can begin to accept this Lord of Darkness you've created. Don't let him rule you." He clenched his fists, longing to reach out and force his father's understanding. "I won't come with you on your terms. My life isn't yours. I don't want to destroy any more; I want to build."
"That is what I want also," Vader said, his voice tired and slow. "You will find, Luke, that growth is not possible without destruction."
"I don't believe that." He stood and clasped the Dark Lord's hand between both of his. "Please believe me when I say that I regret our separation. But I can make no other decision - and you realize it, too."
"Foolish child." Vader squeezed his fingers, then freed himself. "When you change your mind, I will be waiting. In the meanwhile, get that temperature sensor on your hand seen to."
He'd forgotten. "It seems to be all right now. Maybe it just needed to adapt itself."
"Or you did. Would that you adapted yourself so easily to that which is truly important. Good evening, Commander."
With characteristic abruptness, Vader departed, fading into the night before he'd taken ten paces. Luke watched for a few minutes. He'd hoped for more understanding, but his father's last words demonstrated a vast unbreached gulf between their beliefs.
He turned towards the shadowed building. Leia would be relieved to put Han's rescue into action, and Luke could get on with his life as a Jedi, following his own path. There was much he could do, and reaching his father was his deepest desire.
Crix Madine looked down on him from the balcony above. Luke caught his breath.
"You're out of uniform, commander," the general observed mildly before disappearing through the open doors and vanishing into the press of people.
Luke stared after him, a prickling sensation running along his spine. There was a sudden urgency in the knowledge that he had to resign his commission and distance himself from the military before it wrapped him in its treacherously comfortable embrace. It would be too easy to lose himself within its temptations, to allow his powers to grow under the twin ministrations of might and power.
They had been the undoing of his father; he would not allow them to take him also.
He climbed the wide steps, pausing to rest against the balustrade. Ben and Yoda might think it strange that the Dark Lord of the Sith had been the one to teach him so many lessons. But did not all children learn from their fathers?
And, on rare and precious occasions, could a child teach a father?
Or was his newfound confidence misplaced? Had Vader subtly encouraged him with untruths, had he distorted the simple meaning of the Force, teaching perversions to a believing innocent? Would a father tell a cruel lie to recover a lost child?
He inhaled sharply. As near as he knew, Vader had not lied to him before this night. Vader told him the truth as he felt it.
Slowing his breathing, Luke focused his thoughts and stared into his future. It loomed before him like a newly-carved monolith, blank and unfathomable.
Awaiting his creation.