Title: Duplicity - Part 2
Disclaimer Not my characters, well most of them, and not my universe. I'd love to think I was doing this for money, but it's purely for fun. But maybe one day, Lucas?
Summary: Anakin led a double life as Vader in the Empire and the Jedi 'Wraith' in the Alliance, using them against Palpatine. But then Luke joined the Rebels at Yavin. And Anakin is torn. Can he stay, or does he have to return to being Vader?
Author's Note: You will need to have read Duplicity to understand this. Don't worry –it's very short. Duplicity can be found via my profile. I didn't intend to continue this story, but the ideas for where to go with it were persistent. The follow-ups are going to be posted as a series of self-contained stories, and there will probably be some time between me posting them. So treat each one as a stand-alone story.
Anakin raked a hand through his hair as he stalked from the meeting, intent on leaving the other Alliance Council members behind before he gave in to the burning temptation to vent his frustration on them.
He sensed the councillors choose a downward path and in response his own feet led him away from the meeting room and up a crumbling stone staircase. His stride ate up the distance quickly, frustration transformed into physical energy as it boiled within him.
Soon - almost too soon - he reached the summit of the staircase, the steps opening out onto a viewing point that circled the Massai Temple's exterior. Anakin paced out onto it and stopped, his feet on the very edge of the ancient stonework. An irritating, ever present not-quite-rain was falling over the Yavin 4 jungle, quickly wetting him through to the skin. It lacked the primal ferocity of a lashing rainstorm - a cloudburst would at least have matched his lethal mood.
Idiots! Anakin thought savagely, curling his prosthetic hands into tight fists. Idealistic fools!
It was a miracle the Rebellion had lasted as long as it had, even with the duplicitous assistance Anakin gave them both in his guise as their Jedi 'Wraith' and as Palpatine's Darth Vader. And even after fifteen years of this - fifteen years of trying to prevent the Emperor's rule going unchallenged, of guiding the Alliance to a point where they were ready to take power and would be capable of keeping it - their lack of caution still amazed him.
This was why the Rebellion could never hope to take power alone. This was why democracy had failed the Republic so utterly. Because even fools had votes in a democracy. And the decision to stage a stepped evacuation from Yavin Four was sheer folly.
Anakin could feel, simmering on the edge of his Force awareness, Palpatine's lethal fury at the loss of the Death Star and the disappearance of his apprentice. It was only a matter of time before that fury descended upon them. And still the Rebels dallied here on Yavin Four, debating where they should be running to.
True, the Imperial fleet had not yet turned towards the Yavin system - but what sort of fools would believe themselves safe on this planet after the battle that had been waged here? Palpatine was surely drawing a plan against them. That it was not a visible plan only indicated to Anakin that it was to be all the more deadly. Yet the Alliance leadership could not see that - they were ready to debate situation!
What they really needed was someone on that Council who was ready to question their decisions, someone with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue. Some youth, even, to refresh an aging group of politicians. But there was only Anakin who provided a dissenting voice, and he was not present often enough to having a lasting influence on their decisions.
Just a month ago he would have left them here to face the consequences of this folly. Just a month ago he would have considered it natural selection, given that the Alliance was in dire need of a more focused command structure anyway. But not now. Now their stupidity placed his son at risk.
Anakin's gaze fell down to the forest undergrowth that skirted the temple. As if the thought of him had conjured the boy, Luke walked into view, talking animatedly to the smuggler, Solo, who had yet to crawl back beneath whatever rock he'd been under before the smell of money had drawn him out.
Their conversation didn't reach Anakin, but he knew the tone the boy would be using, his words laced with that mixture of passion and idealism that had so enamoured Luke to the Council. What they saw in him was a ready-made hero for their campaign. And just in the nick of time, too: they could barely believe their luck.
Anakin frowned darkly at that. They could barely believe their luck, and yet they were willing to risk the boy's life without even a flicker of apprehension. Their decision to allow the boy to join one of the X-wing squadrons despite his limited combat experience spoke of the sort of brash, blinkered faith in happy endings that so characterised the Rebellion.
And if Luke were to die for their cause, would they even mourn him? Or would they move on to their next idealistic plan and forget about the boy they'd accelerated into martyrdom?
A high laugh reached Anakin, and he refocused his gaze on his son, forcing a deep breath into his lungs as Bail Organa appeared from the temple entrance and approached Luke. What the man was saying, Anakin couldn't hear, but his temper scaled upwards a notch as the ex-senator put his hand on Luke's shoulder in a paternal gesture he had no right to make.
I created you, Anakin thought fiercely, watching as Luke turned around and gave Organa a welcoming smile. You are my son. You are mine.
And no foolish diplomat, nor any money-hungry smuggler, was going to take the boy away from him, either through recknlessness or corruption.
This was why Anakin lingered on Yavin Four with the Rebels. Not by force of will or force of pragmatics could he leave the boy behind now.
Anakin should have returned to Imperial Centre, for the punishment he knew would be forthcoming for the loss of the Death Star. He knew his master grew angrier by the day with his disappearance. He knew that if he returned to the fleet he would have access to information that could forewarn the Alliance of any impending retaliation.
Yet he could not bring himself to leave.
Anakin closed his eyes, savouring the feeling of the rainforest's warm mist against his scarred skin.
The boy made him feel human again.
And that, at least in part, was the problem.
Luke was eager for stories of his father, eager to finish what Obi-Wan had started with his rudimentary lessons. He was passionate, determined. A quick learner, full of raw potential.
And more than that - he filled a place within Anakin that had been empty too long.
For that, Palpatine could wait.
For that, the galaxy could wait.
Duplicity 2: A Ready-Made Hero
His opponent's blade changed pitch to a deep thrumming sound as it suddenly switched direction and slashed down towards him. Luke moved to meet the attack, bringing his own blade up and tightening his hands around the hilt to absorb the impact.
The collision made his arm muscles tremble, and the blades made a high-pitched screeching sound as they clashed. Luke felt a sharp pain in his jaw and realised he was clenching his teeth hard enough to grind them as he focused on his unwillingness to give in to his opponent's greater height and strength. His gaze met that of his adversary and he could almost see the fire burning in the other man's glittering glue eyes - the relish in the challenge. The corner of his opponent's eyes crinkled slightly. He wondered what the man saw in Luke's expression that made him want to smile.
Well, Luke would soon wipe that grin off the guy's face.
Luke allowed his lightsaber to slip slightly, removing the counter-force to the other man's blade. His opponent began to move forward at the sudden loss of contact, albeit only fractionally. But Luke took advantage of that, slipping under his guard and trying to get behind him.
He didn't make it.
He'd barely started moving, aiming to get in close and make the kill... but his opponent was suddenly not where he'd been a fraction of a second earlier.
Luke hadn't even seen him move.
He started to twist around, knowing from the sinking feeling in his stomach that it was too late: that the man was behind him and Luke's blade was in absolutely the wrong place to intercept.
He still tried though, ducking as he swung around to try and stop any blow aimed at decapitating him from effectively ending the fight.
But once again he'd been anticipated. His opponent had crouched low and the blade swept in towards Luke's torso: a killing blow. It stopped a fraction of a centimetre from Luke's tunic.
"I win, I think," the man said. Then the ruby blade was extinguished.
Luke scowled at his opponent's victorious tone, the easy self-assurance. "Damn," he said, deflated. He let out an annoyed breath as he sank down to the floor and switched off his own lightsaber. "I don't think I'm ever going to beat you."
General Wraith chuckled lightly as he sat down on the floor beside Luke. He placed a hand on Luke's shoulder as he replied. "Don't be so sure. You've come a long way in such a short time."
Luke turned his lightsaber hilt over in his hands. "Maybe, but Han's right - it's not enough. Put me up against someone who's really trying to kill me and I'd be dead."
The hand on his shoulder tightened fractionally at that. "I think your smuggler friend could do with a lesson in the power of the Force," he said, with dark amusement.
Luke sighed at that. "Well, he's not going to get one from me," he said. "Not yet, anyway. But one day...."
The General didn't reply to that. Luke glanced over at the Jedi, who was watching him with an intensity that was more than a little intimidating. "I was once as hungry for this as you are now," the older man eventually said, conspiratorially. "I remember that longing very well."
Luke clenched his fingers tighter around the lightsaber hilt. "I bet my father never had this trouble."
At that, the General smiled briefly. "Oh, I'm sure he did."
There was something knowing about the way the General said that. Luke looked him up and down surreptitiously, wondering again at the air of mystery that surrounded the man. Since he'd first met him, over a month ago, he'd been fascinated by the Jedi. And not just because he'd claimed to know Luke's father - although that helped.
He was nothing like the kindly, saintly Ben Kenobi. There was something about the man that both resonated with Luke and, if he was honest, intimidated him. He felt like he could burn up under that intense regard. But like an insect to the flame, that only drew him more.
The first night the General had returned to the base - the first night Luke had met him - they had spent hours talking.
About... everything and nothing.
It hadn't seemed to matter what the topic was. Tatooine. The war. The Jedi. His father. There'd been a connection there, something that was indescribably natural. Probably it had something to do with the Force, although Luke hadn't mentioned it to Wraith, fearful that the Jedi didn't feel the connection as Luke did.
And yet, despite all that talking and despite the General picking up where Ben had left off in Luke's training, Luke felt like he barely even knew the Jedi. Stars - he didn't even know his real name!
That mysticism seemed impenetrable, like it was a part of the Jedi, as instinctive and natural to him as breathing. Luke wondered if all Jedi had that air of being untouchable, and tried to imagine himself like that. Somehow, he doubted it would come easily to him.
"I wish you'd tell me more about him," Luke ventured.
"My father," Luke answered. There was a flicker of... something... in the Jedi's eyes. Pain, maybe? Luke wasn't sure.
And yes, Wraith did sometimes talk about Luke's father. Sat here in the welcome warmth of the room adjacent to the base's main generator, with the machine thrumming away in the background, the sound vibrating through the flagstones, Wraith would occasionally talk about Anakin Skywalker. The room was a dry and temperate haven Luke had found in the middle of one freezing, damp night on Yavin Four when he couldn't sleep for the cold ache in his Tatooine-bred bones. It was a hideaway where they could discuss Anakin without being overheard or interrupted, as if even mentioning his name was illicit.
And maybe it was, in a way – after all, Wraith had insisted that the destruction of the Death Star was attributed to a dead pilot, so that Luke's name was not so renowned that an Imperial spy might connect him to Anakin Skywalker and take the information back to the Emperor. Luke still wasn't sure whether he was unhappy with that situation or not – a reckless part of him would relish Darth Vader knowing the son of Skywalker was gunning for him.
Wraith's stories of Anakin were never long enough or detailed enough to satisfy Luke’s curiosity. Still, they contained small reassurances and revelations that sometimes made a lump form in Luke's throat - 'You are his likeness, in many respects. Looking at you, sometimes I imagine he didn't die.' .
And Luke had so many questions - so many - that they could never be answered even if he asked them continuously for the next year. Maybe not even then. And he didn't want to try Wraith's patience, as unreadable as the man could be at times. Besides, only Luke's father could really answer some of his questions... such as how come Wraith had survived when Anakin Skywalker hadn't? That was one question Luke knew he should never voice.
"I wish I'd known him," he whispered.
"Hmm." The Jedi shifted his position on the floor, folding his long legs into a more comfortable position. He said nothing for a moment, and Luke wondered if he'd asked too much. "I can tell you that he would have done anything to avoid you growing up without him."
Luke couldn't reply to that. That lump had formed in his throat again, and he kept his mouth shut.
"He-" the General started to say, but then stopped as an alarm pierced the air with a howling shriek. Luke jumped, the sound ripping through his melancholy.
"What's that?" he asked, looking to the general.
"That," the Jedi replied tersely, "is an attack alarm." He was already up on his feet and moving for the door. "The Empire has arrived."
As Anakin ran across the hanger bay, dodging other pilots heading for their ships, he was calculating their odds. With only two pilots surviving the Death Star, another Rebel cell had sent over a squadron of Y-wings to support the evacuation of the Yavin base. And that, plus himself, Luke and Antilles, was the extent of their starfighter defences. Not that Luke was going to be up there fighting.
"Luke!" he called, skidding to a stop. A tech ran up to him and handed him a flight-suit and helmet. Distracted, he took the helmet and waved off the flight-suit. "Luke!"
Luke heard him, pausing halfway up the ladder to his own X-wing and turning to face Anakin. Anakin acknowledged the satisfaction he felt at the boy's determination, and stowed it whilst he braced himself to go head to head with the boy's pride.
"Luke - go with the smuggler," he said. He slipped the helmet onto his head, fastening it under his chin.
"What?" Luke shouted, not bothering to try and hide his shock. "You're kidding me!"
Anakin shook his head. The claxon continued to wail through the air. Rebels ran across the hanger bay, making for their transports. "We don't have time to argue. Get to Solo and go with him. Meet the fleet at the rendezvous point."
Luke's sense in the Force flared with anger, briefly. "No! I can help here."
"That's an order, Skywalker," he said. He had put on the voice of command for that. Irritatingly, it didn't seem to faze Luke in the slightest.
"Why?" the boy yelled back.
Anakin paused, but he supposed one truth couldn't hurt. "You're too valuable," he said. "This is a suicide defence. And you have to survive."
Luke snorted at that. "Valuable? What use is a pilot who doesn't fly?!"
Anakin sighed. "You're not just a-"
"General?" someone interrupted him. Anakin whirled on the man. Bail Organa was breathless from his run.
"What is it?" Anakin snapped.
Organa flashed him a grim smile. "You're in charge of the defence, General." He paused. "May the Force be with you."
Anakin stared at him. That was it? He'd interrupted Anakin for that? He'd interrupted him-
The whine of an X-wing's sublight engine kicked through the air, followed by the back draft of air as it rocketed overhead and out into the jungle sky. Anakin just stared at it. He felt the anger flash through him, and then the stronger sense of fear crushed his chest, eclipsing even his frustration with Organa.
He bypassed the ladder and leapt a Force-assisted leap up to the cockpit of his ship.
Organa stepped back, startled.
"Get to your transport, Senator," Anakin said, not looking up as his hands flew over the control board and he forced the ship into a cold-start. "I'll join you when I can."
The cockpit sealed shut.
He threw every last ounce of power to the drives.
Luke buried the deep temptation to let out a whoop of joy at the thrill of the X-wing's acceleration. His heart racing, he told himself to calm down, thinking about the meditative relaxation exercises General Wraith had been drumming into him.
General Wraith. Luke glanced to his scopes, not surprised to see another X-wing clawing for space behind him. Luke let out a long breath and finally answered the comm hail that was screaming at him.
"Red Five," he acknowledged.
Wraith didn't waste words. "Five, you are ordered to follow the perimeter of the planet away from the battle with the transports and make an emergency jump to hyperspace."
Luke glared at the comm. What was the guy's problem? Luke was a pilot, a fighter - he wasn't heading anywhere but into battle. He gripped the yoke harder in his hands, not wavering from his course. The other starfighters - the wing of Y-wings and Wedge in the third X-wing - were already far ahead of him, heading on a collision course for the TIEs bearing down on them, released from the Star Destroyer that had come screaming out of hyperspace minutes earlier. The Rebel fighters' mission was simple - keep as many TIEs as possible too busy to chase the Alliance's transports.
"Red Five, respond," Wraith snapped. There was a sharp edge in his voice, an emotion Luke couldn't name, and one he hadn't heard before from the Jedi.
And how did you tell a commanding officer to go jump off the nearest canyon top? Luke shrugged. They could court-martial him when they got out of here.
Then the TIEs and the front-running Rebel starfighters met in flash of exchanged fire and looping, manic manoeuvres.
"I can't leave, General," Luke finally answered. "I'm here to fight."
"Red Five, you-"
Luke shook his head. "My father wouldn't have run," he said, and heard the loneliness that crept into his voice at the end. He tempered it with steely resolve. "I'm not running either."
Wraith didn't respond for a minute. Luke glanced at the scopes, saw the General was still climbing towards the battle. But silently.
And then Luke was in amongst the fight, a TIE fighter bearing down on him.
"Five, this is Three! You need a partner there?"
Luke grinned. "Wouldn't say no, Wedge!"
And all thought of irate Jedi-generals was lost as Luke threw himself into the fight.
That Star Destroyer was the Devastator.
The Devastator - the ship Anakin had recently taken as his flagship. His ship.
Anakin allowed the confusion to wash through him. Because it was only the Devastator and her small support fleet that had slid out of hyperspace. This wasn't the overwhelming attack designed to slaughter the Rebellion he had expected Palpatine to send. This wasn't anything like it, not even a fraction of the fleet. It gave the Rebels a chance - just a chance - of escaping mostly intact.
Palpatine would never have sanctioned that. He would want them all dead, would have sent a taskforce that meant there would be no chance of survival.
Which meant this wasn't Palpatine's work, Anakin realised.
Wermis, he thought, with disdain. This had to be the work of the Devastator's captain, Mulchive Wermis.
Perhaps it was a matter of pride. Perhaps with Darth Vader assumed dead, killed aboard the Death Star, Captain Wermis had come to Yavin Four seeking retribution for the loss of his opportunity to be accelerated up through the fleet ranks by serving as Darth Vader's Second. If so, Anakin was going to have words with the captain when he returned to the fleet.
But then, perhaps he would find a way to avoid killing the man. The Captain's stupidity and pride had successfully forced the Alliance Council into retreat where Anakin's persuasion and insistence had failed. Wermis might very well have just saved the Rebellion. Stupid men could be useful, at times.
Then there wasn't time to consider the matter any further - a TIE screamed in towards him and Anakin was amongst the fight.
"Wedge, keep up!"
A shot streaked towards him. Luke dropped the X-wing's nose, diving beneath the incoming fire and juking the ship starboard into a tight spiral, the TIE matching his path.
"Try throttling back occasionally, Skywalker!" Wedge called back to him, as the TIE fighter's hull was outlined in red fire briefly before the ship was engulfed in flame.
Luke grinned. "If we're supposed to be keeping these guys busy whilst the transports get away, we need to keep them real busy," he said. "Plus - I don't do slow."
Fighting through the melee, Anakin's eyes hunted out his son's X-wing on the scopes. The TIE pilots were good - as they should be: he demanded no less from them, after all - but not so good that Anakin didn't have attention left to spare on worrying about the boy. He almost wished they were, just to be rid of the gnawing worry in his gut.
He watched Luke's X-wing twist and juke through the snarl of attacking ships, the boy's wing-mate not quite keeping up. Fear flared in Anakin again. He knew - he knew - the boy was good. He knew Luke hadn't destroyed the Death Star with nothing more skilled than luck. He knew it - but watching the son he had so recently found diving amongst a tangle of turbolaser fire and proton torpedoes did something painful to Anakin's insides.
At least in the Death Star battle he hadn't realised the boy was amongst the dog-fighters until the battle was seconds from being won, just before the boy had blasted the Death Starapart. Anakin had been fully prepared to fire the torpedoes himself, from his interceptor, if the Rebel pilots had failed. But Luke hadn't failed.
He itched to drag the boy back from this particular fight, however, and Anakin wondered where that instinct would lead him, if he allowed it purchase. Possibly to secluding the boy somewhere no one could get to him or know of him, where he couldn't die for some foolish Alliance mission or in some blaze of short-lived glory.
And with a flash of painful insight, Anakin realised he was doing it again. Had he learnt nothing in eighteen years? Was he no more able to move past the fear of loss today than he had been when he'd driven Padme away with his obsessive need to protect her from his nightmares?
Angered, he kicked the X-wing into a tight, spiralling loop, shattering three unsuspecting TIEs with shots that overwhelmed their hulls before they could react to the wolf bearing down on them. His own wing-mate, a Y-wing who'd lost his previous partner minutes earlier, couldn't hope to keep up. Anakin stepped down hard on the port stabliser and sluiced the ship around, heading back to the other ship. Getting his wing-mate killed because of his own self-directed irritation wasn't going to help.
"General Wraith, the transports are away, sir," someone said over the comm.
Anakin's gaze moved to the scopes - and, yes, most of the transports had jumped, with three blasted wrecks registering as falling back towards Yavin Four. He wondered if Organa had been on one of those. If he had, Anakin wasn't sure whether to feel dismayed or not. The memory of the man's hand on Luke's shoulder flashed through his mind, unbidden.
"Received," he replied. He changed frequencies. "This is Lead. Our transports are away. That means we're going into full retreat. Pull back in wing-pairs and jump when you get the chance. Acknowledge."
A flurry of clicks over the comm acknowledged him, and Anakin started to look for an exit from the dog fighting, thinking that it had been an easy battle, in some ways. That even if stupid men could be useful, then for the sake of appearances Captain Wermis was still going to have to answer to Darth Vader for causing the Rebels to flee when they had been a sitting target before this foolish attack. He was thinking on that, until he considered that Captain Wemis wasn't the utter fool he might appear to be from this action. Prideful, yes, and weak-stomached. But Wermis never did anything without thinking through how it would aid his rise through the ranks. He-
A ship reverted from hyperspace just a few clicks away. A small ship, but Anakin hissed when he saw it.
"Interdictor!" someone called.
"I see it," he replied. "Anyone who can jump before it gets its gravity wells online, go. Everyone else, scatter in fours - it can't trap everyone at once. Silver Three, Four and Eight, stay with me."
But it was a futile hope for most. Already the artificial gravity well was stretching out across the battlefield. Anakin cursed inwardly. So - it had been a trap. Wermis might have spooked the Alliance Council into running, but he would be able to slaughter the Yavin Four starfighter defence. And that meant he would be able to say he killed the pilot who destroyed the Death Star.
A man liked Wermis could benefit greatly from such a boast. Or so he probably thought - in truth he was going to die the moment Darth Vader stepped aboard his flagship again.
"Heads up," someone said over the comm. "The TIEs that went after our transports are heading back this way!"
A Y-wing - Silver Three - exploded close by. Anakin flipped his X-wing starboard suddenly, diving on instinct, and the space where he'd been a fraction of second earlier was razed with green light. His wing-mate didn't move fast enough - the ship was shrapnel in seconds. Two ships down in the space of five seconds.
Luke! Anakin thought.
And Anakin couldn't spot Red Five amongst the Rebel fighters. The boy was still alive, he knew that: knew it in some primitive way, beyond even the Force, but he wasn't within range of Anakin's visual field. And then the flurry of TIEs who had been giving chase to the transports were back, squeezing the Rebel fighters between themselves and those already attacking.
They were trapped.
He had to take out the interdictor, Anakin realised. If he did that, they'd be able to jump as soon as they had a clear shot forward. But interdictors were notoriously well-shielded, and most of the power of its shield-generator was currently covering the half of the interdictor that faced the dog-fighting.
Anakin had three proton torpedoes left. If he focused his attack, came in obliquely at the interdictor and got around it before it could realign the shields to fully cover its aft, he could-
The plan died stillborn.
The solution to their problem hadn't only occurred to him, it seemed. There was an X-wing already diving in towards the interdictor, drawing fire from the ship's turbolasers and lacing around the Imperial vessel as if trying to corkscrew the bigger ship's girth. An X-wing. And Anakin didn't need to check the scopes' transponder signals to know who it was.
The boy couldn't possibly fly fast enough - he was loosing speed by dodging the incoming turbolaser fire, wouldn't be able to get into their lesser-shielded zone before the crew realised his plan. Luke needed someone else to take advantage of the interdictor's distraction and target the under-shielded areas, and he needed it now. Where the hell was his wing-mate, anyway?
Anakin pushed his fighter faster towards the pair of ships, but a TIE dived in front of him, and then another, and he had to juke and fire to get around the first one and then fly through the exploding shrapnel of the other. And when he blasted out of the wreckage, a blossoming explosion lit the space in front of him.
"Get those crates in gear, guys," someone said. Solo. "You just had your backsides saved, courtesy of Solo and Skywalker."
Disbelieving, Anakin kept flying forward full-throttle. And yes, there was the Millennium Falcon looping around before diving back through the gap she'd blasted where the interdictor had just been, having come in from the other side of the battle on the under-protected side of the Imperial ship, whilst the interdictor was busy trying to blast Red Five.
Luke, Anakin thought again, horrified by the risk the boy had taken without even informing him - as squadron leader - of his intention. He moved to trigger the comm, to hail him, not knowing what he was going to say but knowing it wasn't going to be pretty - and then both the Falcon and the X-wing were gone, streaking into hyperspace.
Anakin stalked across the dusty ground, gravel crunching under his boots. His hands clenched and unclenched. Rebel troops in hot-weather fatigues saluted him as he passed. He nodded an acknowledgement to them, but didn't pause or slow his pace.
This is like the first time, he thought, remembering when he had landed on Yavin Four and sought out his son for the first time. Only it wasn't like that time, not at all. This time he wasn't going to just talk to the boy. This time he was going to either throttle him or court marshal him - he'd find out which when he finally located him. Both ideas held appeal right now.
It was almost intolerably hot here. A bead of sweat had formed between his shoulder blades and was worming its way painfully down the hypersensitive skin on his back. He ignored it, utterly automatic in his suppression of discomfort now after eighteen years of living with unrelenting neuropathic pain.
It had taken him three days to make it here.
He'd been the last man out of Yavin Four, and his hyperdrive had been damaged before he'd made the jump to hyperspace.
He'd barely got point one past lightspeed from the X-wing. He'd limped it to the nearest Rebel-friendly planet, repaired the drive, and made his way here. The stop-over had given him chance to send a communiqué to the Emperor, suitably routed to be untraceable, to try and appease Palpatine and foreshadow Vader's return.
His excuse for his silence was a poor one, he knew. If Palpatine even believed him, he'd be lucky. But Anakin had to trust that Palpatine would buy the ruse. Because one thing Anakin had concluded in the interminable crawl through hyperspace was that he couldn't afford to stay away from Imperial Centre any longer: he endangered everyone by lingering with the Rebellion, Luke included. It would only take one Imperial captain with more spirit than Wermis to get lucky and the Rebellion would be in dire trouble. No - he needed to get back to the Navy, and misdirect them again.
But he had to allow himself these few hours here, now. This conversation. Or he might not have the heart to make the journey back to being Darth Vader.
He headed for the Millennium Falcon, instinct driving him on, but when he saw the ramp was up he sent out a questing spike of Force energy - and no, no one was aboard. He whirled, eyes finding the deck officer instead and stalking towards him.
"General Wraith," the man said, coming to attention and looking distinctly unnerved by Anakin's prowling approach.
"Where are they?" Anakin asked.
"Skywalker and the smuggler - where are they?" Anakin qualified, holding his anger on a tight leash.
The man's throat bobbed as he swallowed. Do I truly look so furious that he's too scared to answer? Anakin wondered. He forced himself to stand down, to let the desire to act as Vader would and simply raze his way through the base to find his son slip away.
"In the Cowl and Cane, sir," the man said.
"The bar, sir - they're in the bar." He paused. "You know - we always name a new bar after the Emperor...."
Anakin blinked; they did? "Where is it?"
The man inclined his head to the left and Anakin turned, leaving. "Thank you," he remembered to say, shaking his head. They were in the bar - his son was in a bar. In the middle of the day.
Frustrated, Luke hit the unresponsive control unit with his hydrospanner and cursed long and loud in huttesse.
"Watch it, kid. That language'll get your banned in a lot of joints."
Luke glanced up at Han, shot him a frustrated look. "If you've got any ideas here, I'm listening."
Han moved to the bar, sliding his drink out of the way for the moment so he could lean over the countertop. He grimaced as he took in the state of the vaporator control unit, its panel removed and the innards spilt across the rubberised floor.
"When you set out to fix something, you really like to reinvent the wheel, huh?" he said. He reached for his whiskey again and took a long draw on the liquid.
"I've seen the Falcon's wiring, Han - you can't talk."
"Watch it, junior," Han shot back him. "That's dangerous ground, that."
"Do I look scared?" Luke replied easily. And Han grinned at him - not a mocking grin, but an enjoyment of the banter. Or maybe the pirate was slowly getting drunk whilst he watched Luke try to get the base's vaporator back on-line. Luke shook his head, turning back to the control panel. As pretty much the only person on the base to have worked with vaporators before, he was their sole source of knowledge on the subject, but - "Damnit, who thought getting a central control unit was a good idea? At least when individual units go down, you don't die of thirst."
"Kid, we ain't gonna die of thirst," Han put in, and Luke looked up to see him gesturing at the bar's liquor-lined walls.
He rolled his eyes, tempted to tell Han not to underplay the need for water. But he caught himself, unwilling to get into an argument over it. It wasn't like Han could understand what water meant to a desert kid.
"No, just of alcohol poisoning," he said instead.
Han snorted. "Worse ways to go, kid. Believe me."
Luke shook his head and turned back to the broken unit. The problem was that the control unit had been salvaged from something a lot less high-tech than the vaporators it was supposed to be running, and the sheer amount of data the individual units were feeding back to it kept frying the thing's memory. But if Luke could just cut a few of those sensor-pathways for the data it didn't need, then maybe it would cope. But that was the trick, wasn't it? Identifying those pathways amongst the snarling mass of wires and connectors wasn't easy.
"Han, turn the lights up, will you?"
Luke sighed and looked upwards, but Han wasn't leaning over the bar's countertop anymore.
"Han?" His friend didn't respond. "Han, come on, quit raiding the store and give me a hand here. I...."
He'd trailed off, because he'd finally stood, raked his hands through his sweaty hair, and turned to look for Han. And found him - staring at the bar's doorway, where General Wraith stood silhouetted by the harsh midday light, his arms crossed over his chest.
He couldn't help it – though he couldn't see the man's expression he could feel the irritation rolling off the Jedi, yet somehow he still wanted to grin.
No one had known why the General had failed to meet them at the rendezvous point. No one seriously thought he hadn't made it out, but no one could explain the delay. And Luke hadn't realised until now how concerned he'd been - until the man had appeared again.
Wraith stared at him for a moment, and Luke felt like the Jedi was looking straight through him, though his face was in shadow and Luke couldn't see his eyes. Then Wraith's head turned so that he glanced at Han and the burning contact was broken.
"Leave us," the Jedi said.
Luke frowned. Han shot Luke a wary glance.
"Well it's good to see you too, General," Han said, before Luke could speak.
Wraith stepped into the room, uncrossing his arms as he came. He was still dressed in the clothing Luke had seen him wearing on Yavin Four, three days ago, his expression an unreadable mask.
"Leave," he reiterated. Something about the tone of voice sent a shiver down Luke's spine. "I need to have a talk with Lieutenant Skywalker."
Han was frowning. "I haven't finished my drink yet," he said. And Luke rolled his eyes at his friend's audacity.
"Han-" he started to say, but Wraith interrupted him.
"You have now," he said mildly. And the glass of whiskey slid along the bar with a sudden, sharp acceleration before shattering against the back wall. "This will be a military conversation. And correct me if I am mistaken, Solo, but you haven't signed on."
"Han, it's okay," Luke interjected, coming around the bar and putting a restraining hand on his arm. "I disobeyed a direct order and he's got to dress me down. I get it - it's okay."
Han glanced down at him, a flash of warning in his gaze. And yeah, Wraith could be intimidating and unpredictable, but he was a Jedi and he was a Council member - there wasn't any reason for Han to get his back up. "I'll be outside," Han finally said. "Right outside."
Luke nodded, removing his hand from Han's arm. The smuggler shot Wraith a glance Luke couldn't see as Han walked out of the bar and pointedly leant against the outside wall, underneath the hanging 'Cape and Cowl' sign with the obscene likeness of the Emperor painted on it. Wraith glanced briefly at the bar's door and it was slammed shut by an unseen hand, the force of the invisible blow sending a fine hail of grit into the air.
Then he looked back at Luke.
And Luke looked right back at him, waiting, resisting the urge to squirm under the intense scrutiny. His mind went back to the many, many times his uncle had chastised him for breaking rules. He wondered if being in an army meant there was going to be a higher price to pay for his disobedience than his uncle used to extract.
It occurred to Luke then that he didn't really know the regulations he was supposed to be following in this army. It wasn't like the Alliance had given him a rulebook to read before signing up. He was just making it up as he went along - and figured they were, too.
Still Wraith said nothing. He just looked at Luke. Just... looked at him.
Eventually the man let out a long sigh, unfolded his crossed arms and dropped them back to the sides. He stepped forward, into the faint light from one of the dim glow panels set in the bar's ceiling, and finally his expression was illuminated enough for Luke to read something of the emotions there, to know he wasn't about to get the backhanding his uncle used to deliver was such predictability.
Luke felt confusion at the gentleness with which a hand was placed on his shoulder. And then the other hand, on Luke's other shoulder. He felt like he was being pressed into the ground by the weight of the other man's presence.
"Luke..." the Jedi said. Wraith closed his eyes, opened them again. "Luke, I did not order you to leave the fight because I thought you were incapable of being there."
Luke blinked, not responding for a moment. This wasn't what he'd expected. He'd expected something more along the lines of 'when you're ordered to do something you do it without question,' or maybe 'I don't know why I thought you had promise when you can't even follow orders'. What he hadn't expected was for the man to explain himself to Luke. It was unnerving, and Luke felt wrong-footed. A stern rebuke he knew how to deal with - had dealt with, on so many occasions, when'd he'd crossed the line with Owen and sent him into a rage. But he'd just suffered those and moved on - this situation was something different.
Hesitantly Luke asked, "Then why?" He paused, but when no reprimand for the question was given, he added, "You tell me I'm not just a pilot and that I'm going to be a Jedi, a leader, but how can I lead from onboard a transport running away from battle?"
"How can you learn to lead if you get yourself killed first?" Wraith paused. "Luke... why did you join the Rebellion?"
Luke frowned. They'd been over this before. But somehow the question seemed harder to answer when the Jedi was bearing down on him like this. "You know why," he said. "I want to be a Jedi, like my father. I want to avenge his death."
A long, whistling sigh from the man. "Yes," he said. Luke had seen this reaction before, too - an undefined unease from Wraith. "And if, in spite of your rash inclination towards throwing yourself into danger, you manage to become a Jedi - what then?"
"Vader." Luke answered without needing to pause to think about the question. He could feel the glittering anticipation fizzing in his veins, knew it would be reflected in his eyes. And he knew he didn't have to explain any further.
Wraith took his hands from Luke's shoulders and strode away, to the countertop, and remained facing away from him as he spoke. "You are correct to some degree," he said. "Hiding away with Council members and technicians won't make you a Jedi. But you threw yourself into that battle without any sense of caution, without consulting your commander on your role in the fight. You left your wing-mate behind several times and you went after the interdictor without informing your commander of your plan." He turned back to Luke again. "Luke, you're a skilled pilot, but not an experienced one. Your actions were not those of leadership and you didn't fight as part of a team - and you are going to get yourself killed if you fight too many battles like that."
Luke pressed his lips together and looked aside. He remembered the heady feeling of the battle coursing through him, knowing what he had to do to blast as many TIES as possible and knowing what he had to do when the interdictor had arrived. He hadn't thought - he'd acted. And maybe the Jedi had a point. It wasn't like piloting on Tatooine had been a team sport - flying his T-16 in races against Biggs and Tank and the guys hadn't involved much teamwork. But he knew - he knew - that snubfighters had to work together. His father would have followed that rule: you didn't get to be the 'greatest starpilot in the galaxy' without following it.
"Do I remind you of my father at all?" he asked. Uncle Owen's scolding voice resounded in his mind. Luke sighed. "Or should I just go back to moisture farming?" he asked ruefully.
"No," Wraith answered. "You remind me of me. And there is a reason I carry these scars, Luke." His gaze seemed to raze over Luke. "Don't be so quick to assume you're immune from death simply because you have a greater goal," he warned. "You're not." He paused. "And you are the last hope of the Jedi. Without you there is...." He didn't finish the sentence.
There was too much passion in Wraith's words. Luke frowned, unable to understand where that emotion came from. Some dressing-down this was turning out to be. And there was really only one reason for Wraith to be so uncharacteristically disturbed by the second Battle of Yavin....
"You didn't just know my father, did you? He was your friend," Luke finally said. Wraith didn't respond to that. "General... I swear to you, the Empire isn't going to kill me like it killed my father," Luke said.
"You can't promise me that, Luke."
Luke just shrugged at that. For a long time Wraith said nothing.
"Well," Wraith said, when he finally replied, "I suppose you will have time whilst I am away to at least practice working as part of a squadron. It is unlikely the Empire will track down this base for some time yet. Use the time wisely, Luke - you are brilliant, but you need experience."
Luke blinked at that. "I'm... brilliant? But I thought - wait a minute... you're leaving?"
Wraith nodded. "I am. Tonight. I have to return to my... mission."
Luke narrowed his eyes. "Your mission?" He paused. "What mission?"
"I can't tell you that."
Wraith levelled a steady gaze on him. "It would put me in danger," he said, simply. Luke scowled, unwilling to place the man in danger because of his curiosity - and knowing that Wraith knew that, too, which was probably what that slight smile at the corner of his mouth was about.
"I'll come with you," Luke said. "I can help."
The smile flickered out. "No," Wraith said. "You can't go where I'm going."
"I can't tell you. It would-"
"- put you in danger. I get it." Luke let out a long breath, stalked from one side of the bar to the other before rounding on Wraith. "All right," he finally said. "But you're coming back?"
Wraith laughed, briefly. "I will always come back, Luke,"
You can't promise me that, Luke wanted to throw back at the Jedi, but a sense of not wanting to pre-empt something unthinkable held his tongue. Instead he just nodded sharply.
"I do have instructions for you, however, in my absence," Wraith said.
Luke nodded again, curious.
Wraith stepped forward, until he was out of the dim light again and his face was masked in diffuse shadows. "If you cross paths with Vader, run," he said, seriously. "Don't hesitate, don't linger, don't wait for orders - just run." A heavy hand was placed on Luke's shoulder again. "One day you will have to face Vader. But not yet - not yet."
Luke felt his heart beat a little faster at that prospect. He opened his mouth to instinctively respond that he wasn't afraid of Vader, but the words were stayed by the chirruping of his comlink.
Wordlessly, Wraith stepped back from him and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Skywalker," Luke answered, bringing the comlink to his mouth.
"Skywalker, this is Garson. You were due on the sims fifteen minutes ago. Where the hell are you?"
Kreth! How had it got to that time already? "Sorry, sir - I was trying to fix the base vaporators and I lost track of time." He closed his eyes, wondering why he didn't mention Wraith, and having no answer to that question. "I'm on my way now, sir," he said.
"You'd better be," was the gruff reply.
Luke shook his head as he replaced the comm on his belt. He glanced ruefully over at Wraith. "Must be my day for reprimands," he said.
A flicker of amusement reached him through the Force.
"Indeed," the man said. And then, "Good luck." And Luke thought he meant good luck with more than just his CO's bad temper.
"How much? To leave - how much do you want?" Anakin asked. He paced the small bar area, arms folded over his chest. His son had left, and by unspoken agreement he and Solo had waited until the boy was out of sight before re-entering the bar for a... private conversation.
Now Solo glared at him from one of the bar's moulded plastisteel seats, affecting an easy, relaxed pose although Anakin sensed a keen readiness to move in the man's mind.
"Either I'm drunk or you ain't making sense, General," Solo said. "'Cause I'd have sworn you just offered me money to leave."
Anakin cocked an eyebrow. "I doubt it would be the first time someone parted with credits to be rid of you."
The smuggler grinned glibly at that. "I've had my moments, I'll admit."
"Then name your price and leave."
Solo frowned. "Not that I mind someone trying to stuff my pockets, but you think you can tell me what this is about? 'Cause I sure don't remember treading on your cape, pal."
Anakin stilled. He turned to Solo and moved forward suddenly, hands coming down on the mesh and plastisteel table with a loud thump. "You're a liability," he said. "I want you gone."
The other man didn't flinch. He leant across the table towards Anakin. "Why?"
Anakin narrowed his eyes, assessing the man in front of him. "That boy is the future," he said. "He is too important to lose."
"You think I'm going to persuade him to come with me, huh?" Solo said. He snorted. "Well, I got news for you - I already tried and he turned me down flat. So you don't need to worry: he's not leaving your precious Alliance for anything."
Anakin tilted his head to one side, surprised by Solo's assumption. It hadn't actually occurred to Anakin that Luke might even consider leaving the Rebellion.
"Then why are you still here?" Anakin demanded. Conflict: he saw it flash through Solo’s gaze; he didn't really know what was keeping him here, Anakin realised. Maybe he'd just got comfortable. "You've got your reward, had your fun - now leave."
Solo's lips flattened into a line, his gaze going cold. "Maybe I'm worried about the kid, too. With people like you around. You're the liability here, pal, filling his head with that Force rubbish. He-"
The smuggler stopped talking, mostly because an invisible force had closed around his throat and lifted him upwards, suspended him above the floor. "Watch your tongue, Solo," Anakin warned. "Or one day someone might just cut it out for you."
Anakin allowed Solo to drop back to the deck, lowered his hand slowly, looking at the prosthesis, unnerved by his action. This was the first time he'd used that trick as Wraith. It was normally Vader who strangled his enemies. And Solo wasn't even an enemy, not really.
But Anakin was angry, and when it had come to directing that anger at Luke, for his recklessness and his disobedience, he simply hadn't been able to hold onto that flame in the face of the boy's honest naivety. But Solo somehow drew that heat back into Anakin's veins, unpredictable and indifferent to Anakin's position and powers as he was. Solo was a liability, that much was true, if only because of that volatility.
"I saved his neck out there while you were a hundred klicks away, and you're telling me I'm the one getting him in trouble." Solo said, rubbing absently at his neck.
Which cut a little too close to the mark. Anakin's gaze snapped back onto Solo. "You aren’t going to take the money, are you, smuggler?"
Solo grinned. "I never shake on a deal first time it's offered."
Anakin turned aside, pacing the room again. It was true that the smuggler had proved useful so far, but Anakin was unconvinced that his use had any longevity, that it couldn't easily evaporate if the smell of money wafted in from another direction. He pinned Solo with a look. "If any harm comes to the boy because of you, if you lead him into trouble or turn his hand to smuggling and piracy, then you will regret it," he warned.
"Meaning what?" Solo challenged. "Come on, I don't like vague threats. Let's get specific."
"Meaning I will kill you," Anakin said flatly. "Slowly."
It fazed Solo, just briefly. Uncertainty flashed across his features.
Anakin smiled wolfishly.
Cautiously, Solo laughed in response. You think I'm joking, Anakin thought. He held Solo's gaze, silently. I'm not joking, he said with his eyes. I'm not.
Luke tossed the flight helmet back onto the rack as he left the simulator room.
"A good sim-run doesn't make up for being late, Skywalker," Lieutenant Commander Garson yelled after him as Luke made for the exit.
Luke sighed inwardly, twisting to answer the man but not slowing. "Sorry, sir - gotta run. I'll be fifteen minutes early next time, you watch."
The man's unimpressed reply was lost as Luke turned and ran full-pelt away from the squat building that housed the simulators.
The sun had already sunk below the horizon, the air rapidly losing the blazing heat of this planet's short but ferocious days.
"Hey-" someone yelled as he ran past, but Luke didn't slow.
He was heading for the docking area, hoping he wasn't too late, but suspecting he probably was.
He nearly barrelled into the deck officer as he entered the enclosure. "Whoa!" the man said.
"Sorry," Luke apologised. His eyes scanned the area for three X-wings - he saw only two. "General Wraith, is he-"
"Left half an hour ago," the man replied, looking at Luke quizzically.
Luke looked upwards into the indigo-tinged dusk and to space beyond, where a few faint stars moved through the sky - Rebel ships, on patrol. Was one of those ships Wraith's X-wing, streaking out for space? Luke could feel his heart beating rapidly, climbing down from the exertion of his sprint.
He'd wanted to... what? Say goodbye? But they'd done that already, hadn't they? Luke pressed his lips together, wondering why he felt suddenly more alone in this war than ever.
"Hey, kid." Luke turned. Han Solo jogged to a stop beside him, and Luke realised belatedly that it was Han who'd called his name, Han he'd ignored in his dash to get here. "Going somewhere?"
Luke turned to Han, letting go of the brief, inexplicable feeling of abandonment that had surged through his veins when he'd realised how long he'd been in the sims and realised in the same instant that he couldn't feel the Jedi General's presence nearby.
"No," he said. "I guess not."
Han smiled one of his sardonic well-that's-all-right-then smiles. "Bar?" he asked, and Luke groaned, thinking off the half-dismantled vaporator control unit he'd left behind for flight practice. Han saw his expression and snorted. "Relax, kid," he said, "word is your Jedi got the vaporators on-line before he vanished again."
Luke blinked at that information, frowning. "He did?"
"Mysterious guy, your Jedi," Han agreed. Then more darkly, "Just full of surprises." He paused. "So - drink?"
Luke grinned. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"
(... for now....)