Title: The Smell of Burning
Summary: Luke saved his father's life, but at what cost?
Despite the searing brightness of the day, the room was in darkness when he walked in. They’d warned him it had been a bad month.
He stopped just inside the doorway, blinking as he pulled off the cloak he wore over his tunic and trousers. It was a loose thing, deliberately rough, designed to keep off the suns and deflect close scrutiny.
There was dust on his boots from the street outside. He stamped it away absently, stepping further into the room. His eyes had adjusted somewhat to the darkness, enough to make out the edge of shapes in the middle of the room. Over by the window was where the darkness was deepest.
“Is the gloom necessary?” he asked of the shadow.
There wasn’t a reply, but he hadn’t expected one. He crossed, picking his way easily around the shapes in the darkness. Medical instruments, furniture.
The shape by the window didn’t move as he drew closer. He hesitated, then seated himself a little way back, on the room’s bed.
“Brooding ill befits you,” he said.
“Secrets ill befit you,” a voice replied from the centre of the shadow. It was a weak voice, scratchy with pain and disuse, but the tone was far from frail. There was a slight motion, and the shield on the window shifted, enough to let in a beam of light which fell squarely across Luke’s face.
He flinched at the unexpected brightness, blinking to force his eyes to readjust.
“What lie did you tell your friends this time?” The voice issued from the shadow again, untouched by the light that dazzled him. “They must suspect you of keeping a mistress somewhere, by this point.” An exhalation almost like a laugh, only bitter. “Maybe that’s what they think. Luke Skywalker’s off to visit his doxy again.”
“Would that you were,” said the voice, almost softly. From the sound of it, the speaker had turned away. “It would be healthier for you than this.”
Luke stood, but didn’t know what to do once he’d done that. He opened his hands, turned and paced around the bed deliberately. He looked at the bare surface of the small table set for belongings by the bedside. There was a new chrono there, and a small monitor. He picked up the datacard that lay beside them, scrolled through the contents without really reading them – some kind of list, names and notations – and set it back down. He turned back.
“How is it unhealthy for a son to make sure his father is cared for?”
Something like a sigh from the shadow, a faint whistle through unobtrusive breathing equipment.
“Luke,” his father said wearily. “You should have let me die.”
“No.” Luke set his jaw.
“You did neither one of us a kindness by bringing me back.”
“I saved your life.”
“Selfish, boy. You didn’t do it for me.”
Luke turned away, then after a moment, turned back.
“You won’t drive me away,” he said, voice low, but pitched to absolute calm. “Whatever you say.” He rearranged the few items on the bedside table. “This room is so bare,” he said, making his voice normal. “I don’t know why you won’t allow it to be decorated.”
There was a silence. He could feel his father’s eyes on him as he moved – somewhat aimlessly – around the room, tidying the already lifelessly clean area. For all the medical equipment, the room didn’t smell starched or sterile. He was pleased about that. The loss of his hand had burned the smell of medbays into his subconscious into a way he didn’t think he’d ever shed. Sometimes he still had nightmares of that sharp scent in his nostrils as he lay drugged, a thousand hurts prickling under the dull throb of the severed wrist.
“You’re like your mother,” his father said presently. “She hated secrets. Lies cost her something. Ate at her. I never understood that, because my life was a string of lies.” As abruptly as he’d spoken, he fell silent.
“Some things are worth it,” Luke said, and heard the strange fierceness in his own voice.
“She thought that too,” his father said lowly. “At least at first.”
Luke jerkily folded a piece of medical sheeting, casting it down by the foot of the bed. An air cooler rattled somewhere in the gloom.
“Why must you insist on being here?” he said. “Of all places. I could take you somewhere beautiful, you know. Somewhere restful and cool and lush. Anywhere you want. Anywhere in the galaxy.”
He could feel his father watching him.
“Was your childhood here that terrible?” A rare curiosity, a flicker of hesitancy.
Luke felt his shoulders slump a little.
“I swore I’d never come back here,” he said.
“And yet you’re here.”
“Yes. Because you wanted to spend your days in this place.”
“Does it hurt you to be here?” Still curiosity, more than anything resembling concern.
“Would it matter if it did?”
“You choose to visit,” his father said, but Luke interrupted, denying his father the chance to finish the familiar rebuke.
“My childhood wasn’t unhappy,” he said bluntly. “I had no reason for complaint. And you have no right to ask, anyway.” He found his voice rising, and strove to control it. “Owen and Beru raised me, fed me and clothed me and sacrificed their own security for me. Them, not you. Even if I barely acknowledged it while they lived.”
There was something almost taken aback in the silence that followed. Luke picked up the cloth he’d folded before, checking the hem for threads or holes. He paid well to keep his father cared for, so he wouldn’t like to think the bandages were dirty or worn. He drew a breath, silently, and set the cloth down.
“Sitting in darkness all day isn’t healthy,” he said, business-like. “If your eyes are sensitive, tell the staff.”
“My thoughts aren’t suited to the light,” his father said.
Luke turned to face him, eyes narrowed.
“How is your sister?” his father said, ignoring the look Luke was giving him.
“She’s well,” Luke said warily.
“She works hard. Takes on many duties in the Alliance.”
She and Han were both busy with those duties. They seemed to be closer all the time, while Luke was increasingly distant. It hurt sometimes to see them together, casually intimate in the glances they shared and the way they inhabited one another’s space so comfortably. Once he’d been close to Leia, but it seemed to have slipped away, and he was left feeling almost taken for granted. It was petty and shaming, but that knowledge didn’t diminish the worm of resentment he felt around them.
“Leia has an instinct to lead,” his father said from the shadow, voice approving.
“She refuses to discuss the Force with me,” he said. “And she won’t even acknowledge the fact you’re our father, or listen to me when I try to explain how you were redeemed.”
“She understands that redemption is more than a single good decision after years of very bad ones,” his father said.
Luke straightened angrily.
“It was more than a single decision,” he said. “You saved me from Palpatine. You destroyed him and brought light back to the galaxy. You forsook the darkness. For me.”
“None of that erases the other things I’ve done,” his father said heavily. “Nor should it. Not all are as desperate to forgive as you are.”
Luke stared at the shadow. His fingers cramped; he realised he was squeezing the fingers of his artificial hand tightly. He blinked a few times, standing in the darkness.
Then he said, “I think I’ll go.”
His picked up his cloak; moving stiffly, carefully, he pulled it on.
“Luke,” his father said.
Despite his infirmity, his voice still held the power of a man accustomed to authority. It sounded rootless now, framed in uncertainty as it was.
Luke halted, and stood, arms limp, still and waiting.
“I do – ” his father began, but stopped. “Come here,” he said after a moment, bleakly.
Luke crossed and knelt by the chair. Up close the sound of his father’s breathing apparatus was unmistakable, whistling and rattling. His body smelled like mustiness and pain. Luke felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. The hand was gloved, though less thickly than when his father had been Vader.
“Oh, Luke,” his father said. “My dear boy.”
Luke leaned against him, squeezing his eyes shut. His father drew a ragged breath.
“It’s doing damage to you,” he said. His voice fell. “It shouldn’t have been this way.”
“Death is no victory,” Luke said softly.
There was a faint noise from his father, a lurch of the body he leaned against, a movement beneath the soft worn fibres over hard mechanical parts. A laugh, or a choke.
“Luke,” his father said. “I am so very far beyond caring about victory or defeat. Don’t you understand that?”
Luke closed his eyes, bowed his head.
“Sometimes I don’t understand you at all,” his father said distantly. “Other times I understand you too well, and it frightens me.”
Luke wasn’t sure he wanted to consider that statement in too much depth. His father moved blunt fingers, clumsily patting his shoulder.
“Leia, now,” his father said, “Leia sounds much like your mother.” Perhaps he didn’t notice Luke’s slight bracing. “Look after her.”
Luke drew back, rubbed his head.
“She looks after herself well enough.”
“So did your mother, but she still died, Luke. I loved her. I killed her.”
The rhythm of rise and fall in his father’s body hitched slightly, though device controlling his breathing didn’t allow unevenness in his exhalation.
“That was long ago,” Luke said softly.
“It doesn’t feel that way to me.”
“She would kill you, you know,” he said bluntly. “If Leia had even the suggestion of your existence here, she would send troops to burn you out. She would not hesitate. Not for your sake. Not for mine. She hates you.”
Luke turned to glare through window. The slit in the darkened screen his father had opened earlier showed the sandy street outside. Farmers in dusty desertwear stood outside the domed residences opposite, a pack-loaded Bantha chewing lazily beside them. A young woman about his age sat on the step of the next residence, staring at nothing, one leg hitched, bare tanned skin showing beneath the skirt she wore. Luke felt a distant pang, linked to no one and nothing in particular.
“How goes your quest with the Jedi?” his father asked delicately, when he had stood silent too long.
“Very well,” Luke lied.
He’d not told his father how the act of bringing him back from the brink of death had affected his use of the Force. Drawing so deeply on the power of the Force, doing so after coming so close to surrendering to the darkness that clamoured on the edge of his awareness as he’d battered Vader down – it had been too much, and he feared it had burned him somehow, for when he reached for the Force now it seemed tainted in oily shadow, always whispering of power he suspected he should never have drawn on. He was both hungry for it, and terrified of using it. He thought that his feelings influenced his touch on the Force, for there were times it came strongly and easily to his touch, and other moments were he strove to grasp it but couldn’t.
“You’ve found other Force sensitives, then?” There was an element of distant surprise to his father’s voice. “I thought I had hunted down the last of them.”
“A few,” Luke said. “A slave boy from the mines of Kessel, a girl, an old Jedi or two who went into hiding.”
Half-mad, now, those he’d found. All the deaths, perhaps. He wondered how Obi-Wan and Yoda had coped. And none of them wanting to re-join the Jedi or learn the Force, even if he were capable of teaching it.
He suspected at times that the dismal state of his quest was the only reason Leia permitted him to continue it, given her fears about the power of the Jedi.
“I’m pleased to hear that,” his father said. “Pleased to hear your task is going well. I know it means much to you.”
Luke turned back, set a smile on his face.
His father breathed, softly whistling in and out.
“You must leave now, Luke.”
Luke’s smile fell. He stepped back to his father’s chair in the shadow, went down on one knee before him.
“I want to – ”
“No. Leave now.”
Luke’s hands opened, pleading. “A little longer.”
“Please, Father. Let me stay.”
His hand fell on his father’s sleeve, fixing desperately to that touch. He tried to meet his eyes, but his face was a pale blur in the deep shadow.
His father pushed him away gently.
“You have to leave now, Luke.”
Luke stayed a moment on his knees, then turned his face away, exhaled and stood.
Luke stood for a long moment, waiting for more, waiting for a relenting. His father said nothing. Luke turned and left.
He fixed up the accounts with the staff, paying without comment from his private funds.
When he exited into the stifling Tatooine heat, he saw that the young woman was still lounging opposite, watching the street disinterestedly. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was pretty. She wore her hair loose and long. She would have work-callused hands, he thought, and strong lean fingers.
As she looked up at him in interest, he thought that his father could probably see him, watching alone from that dark window over the hot empty street.
He nodded to the woman coolly, and turned on his heel for his distant ship.