Left Guardian Welcome to Bast Castle
Right Guardian

Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links

Title: Equally Cursed and Blessed
Author: Mina
Rating: PG-13
Category: Adventure, Drama, Alternate Universe.
Characters: Vader, Luke, Leia, Lando, OCs.
Disclaimer: Not my characters, well most of them, and not my universe. I'd love to say I was doing this for money, but it's purely for fun.

Summary: Luke Skywalker, battered and bruised after his collision with destiny on Bespin, is called upon by the Rebel Alliance for a desperate rescue mission that will plunge the would-be Jedi into a world of revenge, pain and desperation until there's only one person who can save him... his father.

Acknowledgements: Many, many thanks to my brilliant beta, Thalia. I don't think I'd ever have reached the end of this without your help.

Luke blinked the stinging tears from his eyes, the light blinding and burning him with a white-hot heat. It brushed against his skin, blistering it. When he tried to scream, no sound emerged from his parched throat. He had no voice.

Flames traced lines of fire over his body and he writhed and kicked to try and knock the fiery talons away from him. But they wrapped themselves around him, snaking up his legs, burning deep black furrows into pale skin. The flesh puckered and burst and Luke desperately needed to cry out, if only he could make a sound. Smoke danced in front of his eyes.

And he couldn't even scream.

With a sudden rush of air the flames embraced his head. His hair crackled like baking hay and his tears sizzled angrily in the heat. He tried to reach out and bat the flames away, but the stump that was all that remained of his left arm came away blackened. He reeled away from the sight, screaming silently. And the flames coursed down his throat-


The sound burst from Luke's throat as he lurched up from the bed, trying to escape the flames from his dreams. The bed sheets were wrapped around his lower legs, tangling him in them, and he fell back to the mattress as his chest heaved for breath, clawing to get air into his lungs.

He grabbed a handful of the bed's coverlet in his real, left fist and screwed it into a tight ball. He was shaking badly, breath rattling in his chest as he tried to regain control of his breathing. In the grey light that filtered through the bunkroom's viewport, the sweat that covered his body had a pale sheen, hair plastered to his head as if the imagined heat had really burnt it to an ashen streak. He reached a shaky hand out and pulled the sheets closer, shivering suddenly. A quite beeping noise broke him out of his fearful shaking.


His voice wasn't so good, it rasped a mimicry of Darth Vader's voice. Luke winced as the analogy entered his mind.

He pushed himself up to sitting on the narrow mattress. He closed his eyes. There was no flame, no fire, no searing heat eating him from inside and out. So why did he imagine he could still see flames dancing in front of him?

Artoo beeped again. Luke shook the images from his mind's eye and turned to the droid. Artoo's dome-shaped head poked around the corner of the room's computer terminal. His metallic sigh sounded almost sympathetic. Luke swallowed hard, trying to rid himself of the fear that was still accelerating through him.

"I'm okay, Artoo," he reassured the droid. He brought the sheets closer around him, realising just how cold it was now the imagined heat was receding. "Just a bad dream."

Artoo replied with a doubtful sound and rolled towards him, beeping softly. Luke didn't know what he was saying, but he was fairly sure the droid was probably trying to reassure him. He came to the bedside and Luke reached out a hand to pat his metal dome, trying to stop the muscles in his arm from shaking.

"It's okay," he said again, more to himself than to the droid.

He took a shaky deep breath and coughed. That had been a particularly vivid one. He rubbed a hand along the stubble on his chin, untangled his legs from the coverlet and sat on the edge of the bed. Despite his certainty that it really had been nothing more than a dream, he was still relieved that his skin showed no dark, tangled burn marks. He shivered again.


The droid leant towards him. It was a strangely human gesture - you can confide in me - and somehow touching. Luke smiled.

"Artoo, if you figure out how the hell I sort my head out, can you let me know?"

The droid let out a series of beeps and whistles, an electronic lecture. Luke figured Artoo was probably telling him that first he needed to let Artoo in on what was keeping Luke awake before he started asking for solutions. But Luke wasn't ready to tell anyone what was keeping him up at night, not even Artoo.

He stood and walked to the vanity unit that had been squeezed into one corner of the cramped room. He took a glass from the shelf and filled it with cool water before taking a long draw of the liquid. The glass was cold against his clammy skin. He leant back against the wall, staring at nothing.

Now he had some measure of control back, he realised that this dream hadn't followed the pattern of his usual nightmares. In those he was as dark as Vader, killing everything that stood in his way, bursting with power. But not in this dream. This dream had just been about flames.

So what was the significance of burning?

Was it a future?

Or a past?

He downed the last of the water and looked down at Artoo.

"Artoo?" The swivelled his head towards Luke. "I'm scared, Artoo."

The droid whistled and Luke guessed he was objecting to that.

Luke shook his head. "It's pretty simple, really. I'm absolutely terrified." The droid motored closer. Luke had a pretty good idea what Artoo's long, ominous warble was saying. "No, I'm not scared of Vader. Not really. I should be, but...." He considered that as he placed the glass aside. He rubbed a hand across his face. "I'm more scared of myself than I am of him."

He had expected a whistle of surprise, but instead Artoo was quiet.

"What happens if..."

... if Vader corrupts me?

The droid whistled his confusion and Luke sighed. "What if I-"

He didn't finish the sentence. From where he'd dumped his clothes and utility belt the day before, his comlink had started trilling. Luke stared at it in trepidation. It was the middle of the ship's night-cycle: there were no innocuous reasons for someone to be calling him now. Suddenly, his heart was heavy with foreboding.

He reached for the comlink reluctantly.

Luke paused to study his reflection in a smoked transparisteel panel outside the briefing room. The young man that looked back at him seemed worlds away from the one he had known only months before whilst digging the Rebels into Hoth.

You've seen a lot since then. Too much.

The reflection just stared back sadly.

He straightened the Rebel-issue grey uniform and tried not to notice the lingering effects of his nightmare in the dark circles under his eyes. Keying open the briefing room's door, he entered.

When he stepped inside, the noise of the conversation that had been in progress fell away as the Alliance's leaders turned to look at him as one. Their eyes scrutinised him silently. Luke's own gaze immediately found Leia's and he noted uneasily how agitated she looked, sitting with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. He frowned fractionally at her but she just shot him a brief look of frustration.

"Welcome, Commander Skywalker," the Mon Calamari admiral, Ackbar, finally greeted him.

"Admiral." Luke bowed and took a seat at the large, polished oval table that dominated the room, around which the Alliance Council sat. Despite his still only rudimentary grasp of the Force, the tension in the room was screaming at him.

"Thank you for coming so swiftly," Ackbar continued. "The situation is rather pressing, so I'll get straight to the point. I'm afraid we have received some disturbing news. It seems that Mon Mothma's convoy came under attack from an Imperial patrol early yesterday morning. Mothma's shuttle was disabled and the passengers taken prisoner. We believe she is being kept on an Imperial stronghold close to Coruscant."

Luke felt his heart begin to race at the news. He glanced at Leia again, unnerved by her troubled expression. Ackbar brought up a holoprojection of the Core Regions of the galaxy from the projector embedded in the centre of the table, pointing at a small system with one spindly finger. "We believe that she hasn't yet been questioned. Neither the Emperor nor Darth Vader seem to have visited the world, yet our spies suggest Mon Mothma has not been moved from it."

"Why wouldn't they question her?" Luke asked, before he could think better of speaking without being invited.

But no one bristled at his presumption. It was Leia who answered him. "We have a few ideas why, but we can't know for sure and we don't really care for the minute - we need to try and get her back before they do."

Luke nodded, a cold feeling spreading through him. "And that's where I come in?" he asked.

Ackbar nodded.

He took a suddenly shaky breath. "You want to do a straight swap? Me for her?"

Everyone in the room seemed to suck in the same breath. Leia blinked in surprise. Ackbar flexed his long, frail fingers. "No, Commander Skywalker... why would you think that?"

Luke faltered only momentarily. "Because the information suggests that whoever has her, he hasn't told his superiors," he said. He frowned."Doesn't that suggest he's hoping to collect on the bounty on her head?"

Leia arched her eyebrows and smiled at his insight, but Luke stayed frowning. He wasn't sure where this was going and he didn't much like not knowing.

Ackbar nodded. "This is true, but what makes you think they would consider a swap?"

Luke swallowed and banished the suddenly intrusive memories of Vader reaching out for him. His voice momentarily left him as he paled.

"Because Luke has a huge bounty on his head. A larger bounty." Leia had sounded tired as she said it.

General Rieekan, seated next to Ackbar, sat up straighter. "Surely not larger than Mon Mothma's?"

Luke could only wince as Leia enlightened them. "At the last report we had, it was one and a half billion credits."

There was a prolonged, stunned silence.

Luke didn't know where to look. In the end he focused on his hands where they rested on the tabletop. He shifted uncomfortably as the silence continued to grow.

It was Rieekan he broke the silence. "But Mon Mothma's bounty isn't even a billion credits!"

The rest of the room - generals, commanders, captains – seemed to be struck mute by Leia's revelation.

Ackbar shook his head. "Regardless of the size of your bounty, however inexplicable, an exchange was not our plan."

A flotilla commander spoke up. "But it is a good one...."

The room was silent in consideration of that. Luke wondered if he'd just managed to dig his own grave. He felt like he might start retching at any moment and wondered how the esteemed Council Members would react to that.

Leia slammed a hand down on the table. "It's a foolish idea," she growled.

The commander paused before replying. "But if Commander Skywalker is willing.... he knows far less the Mon Mothma...."

Leia shook her head furiously. Luke remained silent. Finally, it was Ackbar who ended the discussions. "There will be no swapping of captives," he declared. He fixed Luke with an unreadable gaze, but Luke remained silent. "But the offer is well said. Commander, we called you here because we need you to take command of a group to infiltrate and free Mon Mothma from her captivity."

Luke looked up in shock. A rescue mission? That was a job for a commando team, not a navy commander. "I...I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job, Admiral," he replied.

The admiral nodded but it was General Madine who explained the reasoning. "Unfortunately, we have precious little information on the military complex of the primary planet, and we are reluctant to send a team in blind for such a vital mission. However, we understand that the Jedi of old were adept at this kind of mission. We believe their... intuitions... often made up for a lack of military intelligence, did they not?"

"I'm not a Jedi..." Luke muttered. The words stung him to say. No, you're not a Jedi, his inner critic whispered. You're the miserable brat of a dark Jedi, and soon to join him too, if Vader has his way.

"But you have gained some of their skills...unless you would like to revise your explanation for your absence from the rendezvous point after Hoth...?"

Luke winced at the implication. He knew he was lucky not to have been court-marshalled, or at least demoted, for leaving the Rebellion like that, barely remembering to send a message to the Council before jumping for Dagobah. Both the reason – 'Jedi training' - and his status as a 'hero' had saved him from that.

It remained a nice hook to hang him from, though, if it looked like he wouldn't accept this mission.

He sighed inwardly. So much for having time to recuperate after Bespin.

"I'm not sure-"

Ackbar clapped his spindly hands together. "You are our best hope to recover Mon Mothma." He leaned forward earnestly. "In truth, Commander, we would like more intelligence for this, and we would like to send in a more specialised team... but there simply isn't the time. We must retrieve her before she can be interrogated. Your experience in Rogue Squadron combined with your particular... skills... makes you our best choice."

Neatly done, Luke thought. They'd simultaneously praised him and backed him into a corner. He brushed a hand through his hair - things had never seemed this complicated back before Hoth and Bespin. He tried to read Leia's expression, but all he saw was exhaustion and fear.

"Well, Commander?"

What choice do I have? he thought.

"Sure, I'll do it," he said, and hoped he hadn't just signed his own death warrant.

Luke gritted his teeth and hung onto the seat restraints as the drop ship hit the upper atmosphere and was buffeted by the pressure changes. The pilot was trying to be stealthy and fast - comfort wasn't a priority. Luke winced as a particularly violent shove threw him hard against the wall behind his back. He fervently wished that it was him in the pilot's seat.

But it wasn't. Along with twenty special ops. troopers he was strapped into a set of sturdy battle-restraints that lined the two walls of the back compartment. As the ship bucked and jostled them around they held on and said nothing, stony-faced like true commandos. Luke hoped the gloomy lighting hid his own expression, which he was sure was less impassive.

Why the hell did I agree to this?

He knew it was pointless being angry with himself, knew that he could never have turned the assignment down. It didn't stop him feeling used, though - and completely out of his depth.

The small cloth patch on the shoulder of his jet-black shock-suit proclaimed him as leader of this little band of trouble. All the troopers were kitted out with the same black shock-suit Luke wore, along with heavily armed utility belts slung around their waists and extra shock-proofing over their chests. Despite the heavy artillery, Luke still felt his belt was light of one particularly important element - a lightsaber.

They need me to act like a Jedi, but I don't even carry the symbol of one anymore....

The hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach warned Luke that this wouldn't be the last time he would miss that particular weapon.

He would have cursed at the irony of this situation if the rattling of the ship had allowed him to form words. Here he was, desperately in need of time to reassess his life and, more importantly, get to grips with his Force training. And there was no time - only a jarring landing in the dark of an Imperial world for an infiltration and rescue that would require all his supposed Force skills.

The ship lurched suddenly and dropped to starboard. Luke's heart was in his throat as the ship shuddered and bucked. He gripped the restraints harder and resisted the urge to close his eyes. That wouldn't be a good move for a commander.

Dogfighting was nothing like this. In the cockpit of his X-Wing he was a part of the ship. He was in control of events, could use the Force and his love of flying to extremes to claw himself out of the most impossible situations. But as a passenger strapped into restraints meant to protect him against the violent descent of the ship, he as utterly powerless.

Through the Force he could feel the wind patterns outside the ship - could feel the gusts' ebb and flow in the planet's atmosphere. He knew when the pilot needed to increase power, when he needed to throttle back. But Luke could do nothing about it. He felt like a bystander in his own life - which, ironically, was exactly how he felt about Vader's revelations. Suddenly, he controlled nothing in his life. Destiny had taken over, and it was hard not feel just a little bitter about that.

Despite the muted lighting in the compartment, the soldier next to him must have noticed Luke brooding because he smiled wryly down at him.

Luke had to look up to nod an acknowledgement back at the soldier. In fact, all the commandos were taller than him. For a pilot, it could be an advantage to be small. For a commando, it was a definite disadvantage.

"We'll be setting down soon, sir."

Or at least, that was what it sounded like to Luke. The sound of the shuttle's engines made the man's words hard to understand.

Luke didn't attempt a reply of his own, but nodded again instead.

Fortunately for him, these men had not objected to having a rookie - a rookie commando at least - in charge of them. In fact, some of them had been positively delighted to have the famous Commander Skywalker along. Luke just hoped he could live up to the reputation that went before him.

A loud whine in the compartment told him the landing repulsors were finally firing and the ship began to slow from its reckless plummet to the planet's surface. Luke struggled not to make his relief too evident. He had to delay disproving their expectations of him for as long as possible.

A slow final descent, a brief rocking of the ship, and they had set down. The metal harnesses that strapped the soldiers securely to the ship's sides lifted with the hiss of hydraulic pressure and they scrambled down from their positions, not bothering to rub away the aches produced by the short journey down.

Luke snatched his blaster from his belt as his feet thudded to the deck plates. As they'd rehearsed, he signalled for one of the group to scout the outside first. The hatch at the aft of the ship opened slowly and the man he had assigned the task to pulled the dark hood of his suit down to cover everything but his eyes.

Aboard the Alliance cruiser that had brought them here, the ship's captain had tried to persuade Luke to get his men to wear full-face helmets. But Luke had had enough experience in a stormtrooper helmet to know just how constricting they were. He'd determined instead to simply cover their faces well enough that they wouldn't show in the black background. To his relief, the soldiers had agreed it was a sound decision. As it was, they would have to use night vision goggles for most of the outside work.

The man strapped his goggles over his eyes and leaned slowly out the drop ship's hatchway before he slipped outside. Five seconds later his voice buzzed in Luke's ear.

"All clear, sir."

Luke pressed the mike from the earpiece closer to his mouth. "Good, we're coming out," he warned the man and motioned the others to follow him out the ship.

He passed a dark transparisteel panel, giving the effect a mirror, and almost started as he saw the reflection.

It was going to take some getting used to, this new look.

Since the Alliance top brass had learned of his ridiculously high bounty, they had decided to minimise the chance of any unnecessary complications coming from somebody recognising him by getting Luke to disguise his face.

The most striking change to Luke's appearance was his hair. It was now cut shorter than he was used to and dyed jet-black. It wasn't permanent; the crawlers they used were easily washed out with the right chemical.

Leia had told him she liked it, but somehow he'd thought she was just being diplomatic.

Then there was the prosthetics that changed his face, ever so slightly, from any images the Imperials had off him. Only minor changes, but hopefully enough to fool them if they got a glance at him. For closer inspection... well, the Rebels had some very neat tricks for fooling DNA tracers, and if they did manage to capture Luke, a blood trace would come up with a fake DNA profile.

He only hoped it would be enough.

The drop ship had touched down in an alleyway that was bordered on three sides by the tall, smooth walls of Imperial architecture. The ground was littered with the rubbish and flak thrown up by the ship's swift landing. Several large storage cartons also stood in the narrow space.

The commandos snagged a camouflage net over the drop ship. The thin material would shield the ship from distant inspection, but it would do nothing to hide it from a close-up visual inspection. There was nothing they could do about that.

Luke jogged to the alley's entrance, keeping close to a wall. If the Imperials had seen the ship coming....

But they hadn't. The street beyond was deserted. This must be a city under curfew.

Luke felt a thrill go through him as realised that his plan was about to be put into place. Sure, he was used to having some measure of responsibility after leading Rogue Squadron for almost three years, but this was something altogether different. This involved approval from High Command. That they'd given it so easily showed the measure of trust they had in him.

If they only knew you were Vader's son....

No. None of those thoughts now. With determination, he blocked them from his mind as he nodded for the group to move on to their respective assignments.

Before he could get very far, someone grasped his shoulder.

Luke turned swiftly, his hand up to knock the owner of it backwards. When he recognised the man in a similar uniform to himself - Pearson, he tentatively identified him - he stopped the action.

The man simply nodded. "Good luck, sir." Luke nodded in turn and the group was split, each going to their own destination. Luke's heart began thumping against his ribs.

Moffs, dignitaries, bureaucrats, secretaries... they all buzzed around Darth Vader as he stepped down from the shuttle and onto the permacrete floor of the Imperial Palace docking bay. Like a cloud of annoying insects hungry for his attention, they were relentless.

There was no ignoring them or their deluge of requests and suggestions, of the information he 'needed' to know and couldn't possibly function without.

Just a couple of years ago he might have felt a need to stop and listen, or at least to bellow at them to disappear and return when his temper wasn't quite so... frayed.

Today he couldn't muster up the effort to do even that - after all, none of them had the answer to the only question he was really interested in these days. None of them could tell him where his son was.

And so, none of them mattered.

The door to his private sanctum shut them out with a soft hiss. He stopped for a moment and paused to collect himself. The sound of his respirator echoed in the sparse room, the pained rasp bounding back off the walls at him.

Suddenly, he felt weary - weary as he hadn't felt in years. He wasn't an old man by any account, but he felt as if he had aged a few decades on Bespin.

Regret hammered against his chest, sharp and painful. He could still see his son's lightsaber arcing down towards him, feel the bite of the blade against his shoulder, feel the anger rise up through his veins. Anger... and pride at his son's spirit... and the desire to reassert his mastery, his dominance, his... ownership.

He clearly remember the moment he had realised what he had done - that, in his ire and desire to own the boy, he had gone beyond cajoling him and had been trying to best him.

And best him he had. The memory of the boy holding his arm under his armpit and choking, gasping in pain... that was a cruel memory indeed.

To rob the boy of his pride and self-respect had never been his plan. He had wanted to show Luke the power he could have, the team they could make - had wanted, selfishly, to show him his father was someone worth following.

And it had backfired spectacularly.

He'd seen his failure in his son's eyes the moment he told Luke the truth. Seen the horror. The pain. The disgust -

I'll never join you!

Seen him choose death over a life with his father. Thrown Vader's dreams back in his face.

Vader clenched his hands into fists and grimaced, his determination masking the pain it caused. No, Bespin had not happened as he had planned it, but it had not been an outright disaster. Luke had proved himself his father's son - so volatile, so impulsive, so determined. So devoted to his friends and loved ones.

Such weaknesses had ever been the downfall of Skywalkers....

The plan was simple. Complexity only made it that much easier for something to go wrong, in Luke's experience. And on a mission like this where there were so many unknowns, Luke couldn't afford that. Simplicity allowed for flexibility.

His first group would take out the off-planet communications. Luke's biggest concern was that the governor of the planet would call in outside help if things started going wrong. So close to Coruscant, Luke didn't like to consider the possibilities of Vader turning up to quash the rescue.

Once they had done that, and they would only manage it through a central control centre, they would locate the Mon Mothma and call Luke to give him the specifics. Although they had some idea where she would be, they needed to get it exactly right. They'd only get one shot at this.

Their best bet was the planet's main detention complex, conveniently near to the seat of government. They only had a rough idea what the complex was like. Checking it out would be Luke's job before he got the exact position of Mon Mothma.

Then, with Luke on his way, the other group would create a diversion - hopefully a long way from Luke's target, and hopefully enough to pull at least a few of the guards from wherever Mon Mothma was. Then it was find her, get out as fast as he could and get her to the ship. As soon as they were on their way back he would call the rest of the group to fall back and the drop ship would blast out of there, even if that meant leaving injured or dead soldiers behind.

Luke grimaced at that thought. Their orders were to abandon them if there was no hope of rescuing them without putting the rescue in jeopardy. Mon Mothma's freedom was paramount.

Luke, being Luke, had reserved the most challenging part of the whole thing for himself.

It was also the most dangerous. What had he said about him not being right for the job? He shrugged off any doubts and began to move for his own entrance into the detention block.

As he was thinking, the comlink strapped to his ear beeped. He pressed it to send a beep to the other end - a signal they could talk.

"Commander Skywalker?" A voice said in his ear.

"Go ahead," he said, still getting used to speaking into thin air instead of into a hand held comlink.

"Communications are down, sir," the other reported.

Luke smiled. "Any trouble?" he asked, gripping the blaster tighter reflexively.

"Not too much, a few stubborn Imps."

"Good. Have you accessed the main computer yet?" Luke asked.

"Yes sir, we're looking for the information now."

Luke nodded, then realised the other wouldn't see him. "Good, when you find it -"

He was cut off by the triumphant cry from one of his men. There was a pause and then an excited voice told him, "We've found it. She's in the detention level, cell block twenty-seven, cell five-D."

Luke mentally stored the information, while at the same time groaning inwardly at the revelation that somehow he was going to have to get through a battalion of stormtroopers. "Right, got it. Signal Blue Team to start wreaking havoc and I'll make my way in."

"Do you need any help, sir?"

Luke shook his head. "No, lock down the communications and see what mess you can make of the computer system." A sudden idea occurred to him, "See if you can mess with the rosters a bit, keep the guards away from Mon Mothma's cell... I'm going to try the direct route."

"Yes sir. Good luck." The comm clicked off.

"Yeah," Luke muttered to himself, "I think I might need it."

Adrenaline buzzing in his veins, Luke rode the turbolift down to the detention level.

Simply put, that would have been a pretty stupid thing to do. But Luke wasn’t inside the turbolift; he was on top of it.

He’d opened the top access panel, climbed onto the roof of the car and tethered himself to the steel supports. As the car plummeted downwards and the backdraft made his eyes water, he couldn’t help but send a silent prayer to the Force that the grapples would hold.

He’d had to wait for a guard to enter the lift. He’d hoped that would have taken longer, but he had barely got the cables attached when someone entered. The chances of the next person wanting to go down to the high security detention level had been pretty low, especially considering it was probably out-of-bounds to most people. But with a nudge of the Force....

The guard thought he’d pushed the right button, he really did. So he got quite a surprise when the door opened onto the detention block entrance. Luke wasn’t sticking around to see the results of his handiwork. He triggered the release on the cables and felt clumsily along the inside of the lift shaft... somewhere along here there had to be a crawl space for engineers.

He heard a muffled apology below him, felt his heart start to beat erratically as the Imperial re-entered the lift and the door shut.

His fingers scrabbled along the wall - and hit thin air.

That had to be it - had to be the crawl space.

The lift cables gave an ominous creak as the car prepared to travel again. A vaguely hysterical voice in his head was laughing that, whatever he’d thought Destiny had planned for him, he hadn’t imagined it was to end up as an ugly smear on the wall of a lift shaft on a planet whose name he didn’t even know.

Heart in his throat, Luke attempted to squeeze his body into the small gap.

He got his legs tucked away just as the lift rocketed up past him.

That had been a little too close for comfort. Breathing a much-needed sigh of relief, Luke made a conscious effort to relax too-tense muscles. Behind his head, a cool draft stirred the hairs on the back of his neck. In the darkness of the shaft, he smiled to himself - at least the ventilation system was going to be easier to find than the crawl space had been.

And once he was in there he could crawl through the system of ducts until he found the right cell, cut open the vent, get Mon Mothma, break out of the cell courtesy of the Alliance’s gadget-makers, take the guards by surprise by coming up behind them and then get them off this planet.

Piece of cake.

No problem.


Too bad simple doesn’t mean easy.

The heat, the sand, the parched air - it was all horribly familiar.

Darth Vader had no desire to return to Tatooine, but his dreams apparently cared little about that wish. Trapped in the insensible state somewhere between sleeping and waking, Vader could only clench his fists in annoyance as he recognized the sandy wilderness of his home planet.

He looked down at the dune at his feet: a light breeze stirred the top sand into rolling waves as they skittered across the desert. There was nothing in sight except endless dunes lumbering across the horizon.

He closed his eyes, but the reflection of the twin suns was burnt into his memory. If he looked up he’d see a brilliant blue sky devoid of clouds, sweeping down to a horizon wider than his boyhood dreams had ever imagined.

With his eyes closed he became aware of a noise in the distance, a humming noise and the sound of scuffling feet. With inevitability souring his mood even further, he opened his eyes and followed the sound.

His feet sank into the deep sand as he crested a dune and a small, wistful part of him that he would never admit to remembered what that sand felt like trickling through his fingers.

The humming sound grew louder and Vader stood atop of the dune and looked down.

Shock registered at about the same time as mockery for creating such a self-indulgent dream. Because at the base of the dune was a young boy darting around in the sand, making play-humming noises and pretending to wield a lightsaber. A blond-haired and blue-eyed young boy, and at first Vader thought it was a younger version of himself. Then he saw the differences: this boy was smaller and wirier than he had been, his hair shorter.

Luke, he thought, and wondered why he was surprised that he should be here - after all, every last scrap of Vader’s attention of late had been focused on the boy, why would it not bleed into his dreams?

The boy whirled around in a fair impression of a pivot, waving his imaginary lightsaber, humming fiercely. In turning, he came around to face Vader and looked up at him with a start, his eyes widening. Despite himself, Vader felt humour press at his chest at the child's shocked expression.

He fully expected Luke to shriek in terror and run away. What he hadn't expected was for the boy to study him warily before smiling brilliantly.

“Hey,” Luke said. “Whatcha’ doing?”

So ridiculously innocent. Vader wasn’t sure whether to be amused or dismayed by his imagination's portrayal of the boy.

“Whatcha’ doin’?” Luke asked again, this time a little more insistent.

“What are you doing, young one?” Vader asked. He tried to sound unintimidating, but the words were made sharp and threatening by the vocoder.

Luke’s forehead wrinkled, as if he was thinking that through carefully. “I’m fighting for what I believe in,” he said at length, and with an oddly adult conviction. The child punctuated the sentence with a firm nod of his head. His blond hair fell in his eyes.

Vader just stared down at him, not certain how he could respond to that. The young version of Luke started right back at him, and this time the intense gaze seemed to strip Vader to the bone. There was something sad in the boy’s gaze. Vader’s vision seemed to tremble.

“What are you doing?” Luke asked again, his voice now sounding older, like the adult-Luke’s had at Bespin when he screamed out at the father who was trying to destroy him. “What are you doing, Father? How can you do it?”

Anger flared in Vader. How dare the boy judge him, how dare he disapprove - didn’t he know Vader had only done what he did because he wanted them to be together? All of it, all the chasing, all the bounties, all of it was so he could finally have an ordered galaxy, one where Luke and he didn’t have to fight each other anymore.

“How can you?” Luke cried out, and Vader felt his anger snap. The backlash in the Force washed power through him - blind power, furious rage that the boy would defy him, even now that he knew, knew they were father and son, knew that -


The choked cry snapped Vader’s gaze back to his son and he saw Luke gasping for breath. In horror, Vader looked down at his clenched fist, recognized the indignant energy that was punishing his son, knew it came from him, saw Luke’s face overlaid with Padme’s, her eyes disbelieving, lips moving but no sounding coming out, consciousness bleeding away...

... and Vader started awoke with a silent scream echoing in his mind.

Almost there. Almost free, almost at the drop ship, almost clear of this Force-forsaken place, almost-

The high whine of blaster-fire chased those thoughts away. Luke wanted to curse in the foulest huttese he knew - but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate with the Leader of the Alliance running alongside him.

Not that everything had been going to plan. They had been chased and fired at by Imperials the whole way, but they were coming up on the alleyway where the drop ship was hidden, and it appeared that they were running from one fight right into another.

He’d ordered a retreat as soon as he and Mon Mothma were away from the detention complex and it looked as if it had been a running retreat. Luke slowed before turning the corner; made a hand movement for Mothma to keep behind him.

He edged around it carefully, peered into the gloom. A group of stormtroopers stood abreast in the alleyway, firing at the half-obscured figures that were Luke’s soldiers hiding behind the minimal cover of the storage cartons that were stacked up against the alleyway’s sides.

The stormtroopers were laying down a screen of blaster fire, systematically blowing away the dark-clad Rebels’ cover. Sparks flew as the metal of the cartons melted under the fire, steam from evaporating rainwater forming a strange mist that separated the stormtroopers and Luke’s men.

Pulling back around the corner, Luke looked up into the rainy sky and wondered what in Sith-hell he was going to do. The Rebel troopers couldn’t even make a dash for the drop ship - it would leave them in firing range for far too long. And there was only Luke and Mothma out of the fire-zone... with another group of Imperials closing in rapidly.

If Luke didn’t do something, and fast, they were going to get massacred.

Luke bit his lip, thinking furiously. Just when he needed a brilliant plan, his mind was as barren as the Dune Sea. He couldn’t take on all those stormtroopers, couldn’t take them all out at once. Didn’t have the weapons, for a start....


He peered back around the corner. The drop ship’s systems were on - the running lights winking in a string of red and blue around its middle. Obviously someone had made it inside, and returned to help their comrades when the stormtroopers turned up.

That could have been a fatal mistake for his men.

Except... Luke could visualize the controls in the cockpit, which was facing towards the fight. He’d only been in that cockpit once, but he knew the basic layout of it: the flight controls, the navigation panel... the weapons array. And he knew the heavy-duty ship-to-ship blasters were mounted on the nose of the cockpit, which was now pointed squarely at the stormtroopers.

Could he do it? He wasn’t sure, but as he dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands and concentrated, one of the Rebels gave a cry of pain as their cover exploded in their face. The death reverberated in the Force, lashing out at Luke, urging him on with guilt and fear.

He visualized harder and felt a sweat break out on his forehead. He could do this... he had to do this... his legs trembled unsteadily and to prevent himself from collapsing against the wall he crouched down, barely noticing Mon Mothma’s hand on his shoulder or her voice whispering urgently, asking what was wrong. He waved her away, and visualised the firing control panel flicking on... lights going from red to green, one at a time, winking ‘ON’.

And with a blinding flash, the guns fired.

If he hadn’t been ready for it he might have jumped out of his skin at the thunderous boom of the guns firing in such close proximity. The stormtroopers caught the full force of the blast. Those closest were blown backwards with their chests ablaze; those furthest away spun to the ground, armour on fire. The acrid smell of melting plastic and metal filled the air.

Nausea swept over Luke as the deaths of the stormtroopers washed through him, through the Force. He was so deeply focused on it that he imagined he felt the Force shiver at the sudden deaths, the cries of agony that were suddenly, brutally broken off.

You did this, the Force seemed to whisper, and he couldn’t tell whether it was approving or despairing.

The atmosphere had gone eerily quiet. Pushing back the raw feeling in his gut, Luke opened his eyes to see Mon Mothma looking down at him, a strange, almost frightened expression on her face. The heavy rain was stinging his eyes and he had to look away.

“Well done, Commander,” she said eventually, nodding solemnly at him. She held out a hand and he accepted the offer, levered himself to his feet.

Luke edged around the corner, unnerved by the silence. For a terrible moment he imagined his own men lying dead along with the troopers, having been struck down by the blast Luke had meant for the stormtroopers alone. But that hadn’t happened - the Rebel troops slowly were emerging from their cover. They were silent, staring down at the dead stormtroopers, stuck dumb by the scene.

One of them looked in Luke’s direction, made an abortive move to aim his weapon. “Sir?” he asked as he recognized Luke. “What happened?”

Luke opened his mouth to answer, and realized he didn’t know what he should say - ‘I triggered the forward guns with my mind’ seemed too ludicrous to voice. Suddenly, he felt like to say it would be to admit to being different, to place himself outside the circle of his comrades - to put himself on a pedestal he didn’t want to stand on.

Wasn’t ready to stand on.

“Sir... Commander? Did you...?”

And all he could do was smile weakly.

The Emperor kept him waiting, kneeling. Outside the throne-room’s imposing window there was a storm blowing. From where he knelt at the foot of Palpatine’s dais, Vader could see the rain’s reflection obscuring the weak shaft of light that the window threw down on the floor.

This high up in the Imperial skyline the wind had a brutal strength. The sound of the rain striking the window echoed dully in the room. That, and the sound of his own breathing, were the only sounds. He could not hear Palpatine, but he knew instinctively where his master was - Palpatine’s presence crackled fiercely in the Force as he sat silently on his throne, contemplating his erratic second-in-command.

Vader had no doubt that he was being chastised for his reckless actions of late. Other than to order that Vader take command of the project to build a second Death Star, Palpatine had spoken little to Vader since his return to Coruscant - and not at all of the events on Bespin.

Despite his silence, Palpatine’s displeasure had been palpable, the Force fairly seething with his annoyance.

At one time Vader might have felt his pride snarl a little from such belittling treatment by his master; he might have determined to show Palpatine he was a worthy Second.

But not today.

During his time spent kneeling at the foot of the Emperor’s dais, Vader did not reflect on his failure to obey his master, did not contemplate ways to prove his worth - he thought instead of how little the Emperor must understand him if he believed Vader could simply walk away from the pursuit of his son, and examined his failure to feel surprise at his own disobedience... his failure to repent his actions.

Palpatine laughed suddenly: a thin, mean sound that echoed shrilly in the room. Vader did not look up - he had not been given permission. Even as he stayed kneeling, his head bowed, he wondered why he bothered - his actions of late demonstrated little respect for his master, and this pretence was nothing more than ceremony. Palpatine surely knew that.

“Ah, my friend - you really do think too much,” Palpatine said, voice mocking. And yet Vader thought he heard an undercurrent of worry there - just a hint of annoyance that, although Palpatine knew Vader was occupied by his thoughts, he could no more read those thoughts than Vader could read his.

“Yes, my Master.”

The stock answer to every question. Palpatine snorted in displeasure.

“I should keep you there all day,” he said.

“As you wish.”

The sound of Palpatine’s cane tapping its way down the steps of dais warned Vader of his approach. He did not stiffen in readiness - although he sensed frustration and annoyance from the old man, he sensed no real anger or blood lust.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Vader did not flinch.

“Look at me, old friend,” Palpatine said, his voice almost gentle.

Vader raised his head. The last few months had not been kind to Palpatine - every week he seemed to grow more hunched and frail. But Vader was not fooled by his appearance. Power crackled behind the amber of Palpatine’s eyes, violent and barely held in check.

Palpatine smiled weakly, a pale imitation of compassion. “There was a time when we used to be able to talk, was there not? Ah, but those times are gone, and it wounds me to say that.” He leaned in closer. “I feel your need, my Lord. Your desperation.”

Vader bristled at that.

“You commanded me to find Skywalker,” he reminded Palpatine.

The Emperor smiled, showing a mouth full of rotten teeth. There was no humour there.

“I did not command you to neglect your other duties,” he said icily, but still smiling.

“No, my Master.”

“There have been a number of Rebel infiltrations recently, a little too close to the location of our... project. You were aware of that, I assume?”

“Yes, my Master.”

“And what have you done about it?”

Vader paused, but there was no way he could answer with anything but the truth.

“I have sent agents to-”

“Agents!” Palpatine spat. “Such an important errand cannot be trusted to agents, Lord Vader. Are they as skilled as you? As experienced? Can I trust them to destroy the infiltrators and protect my project?”

Vader took a steadying breath before speaking. “My Master, they are experienced operatives - I trained them myself. They are more than capable of capturing the infiltrators. They-”

“More capable than you?” Palpatine hissed. Now there was real anger there, real ire. Despite that, Vader felt the need to justify his reasons.

“No, they are not,” he paused. Palpatine’s eyes fixed him with a challenging glare. “However, with the need to capture Skywalker-”

“Skywalker!” Palpatine spat. The name sounded like a curse when he spoke it. “That boy commands far too much of your attention, Vader - I gave you no orders to abandon your duties to chase the brat down.”

Vader said nothing. His mind searched for a justification, but every possible explanation he came upon did nothing but incriminate him further. As if sensing the train of his thoughts Palpatine’s hand tightened briefly, before he gave a snort of disgust, turned away and walked slowly up the dais.

His next words were quieter, almost lacklustre. “I grow tired of watching you suffer in pursuit of this boy,” he said. He seated himself slowly on the throne. The mask of kindly concern was back, but that didn’t relieve Vader’s anxieties - the Force was shifting beneath his feet, and he felt foreboding clutching at his chest. “You said earlier that I had commanded you to pursue Skywalker, and you were right. It was remiss of me to do so - I should have known that his pursuit would take you away from more valuable work.” That kindly smile again, and it shook Vader through to his core. “Ah, but I can rectify that. Concentrate on the construction of the Death Star, my friend - I will see to Skywalker.”

A pain flared in Vader’s chest like a blaster had gone off behind his ribs. “My Master-” he started to say, but Palpatine silenced him with a sharp glare.

“That is my wish, Lord Vader. And... perhaps once the brat is dead, we can talk again, hmmm?”

Palpatine looked for all the world like a concerned old man - but Vader didn’t see that. He was blinded with dread, his breath coming in harsh gasps. His mind raced for a way to reverse the order, but it did not do so with stealth - Palpatine smiled at him, and Vader saw nothing but hatred in the old man’s eyes.

“What happened? How did the fight start?”

The Rebel soldier looked up from checking the corpse of a stormtrooper. Luke tried to ignore the wary expression on the man's face.

“The diversion went a little too well, sir. We had to make a messy retreat.”

Luke nodded, and opened his mouth to warn of the approaching Imperials that had been following Mothma and him, but the Alliance leader beat him to it.

“Let’s get out of here shall we, gentleman? I’ve seen enough of this planet to know I don’t like it - and I don’t want to meet those stormtroopers that followed us from the detention block.”

The man nodded, “Couldn’t agree more, Madam Mothma. Sir?”

“Right, let’s get aboard,” Luke said, brushing aside the feeling of unease that still rested heavily on his shoulders. He turned to the rest of the troops. “We’ve got an incoming group of stormtroopers. They should have been here by now - they’re not, so I’m assuming they’re waiting for reinforcements before attacking. Let’s leave before they arrive.”

He turned to the ship, ducked through the hatch. The soldiers began filing in around him. Luke turned to the soldier he’d been addressing. “Any casualties?” he asked, brushing wet hair from his eyes.

The man paused and Luke turned to him questioningly as Mon Mothma brushed past them and made her way to the cockpit. “Yes, sir," he said. "Three of the men have bad burns, they caught us pretty good.”

The lights flickered on inside the ship, illuminating the restraint racks.


“We lost Pearson back at the communications centre.” He betrayed no emotion in his voice.

Luke stopped walking and turned to him. ”Lost?”

“We don’t know what happened, sir. He got trapped on the other side of the troopers and we couldn’t go back.”

Luke cursed inwardly, feeling torn. His orders were to leave dead or missing crew members behind - to not put the mission in jeopardy by going after them. But...his conscience screamed that he couldn’t just leave the man if he was still alive. Imperial torture methods were infamous and they’d want to know exactly what had happened here today. He gritted his teeth. Madine would have his head for this.

“I’m going back,” he said, strapping the utility belt tighter around his waist. He really wished for his lightsaber right now.

The older man shook his head. “Sir, with all due respect, our orders are to get Mon Mothma out of here.”

Luke nodded. “I know, but we can’t leave him to the Imperials. They'll be furious they've lost Mon Mothma.” The man began to object but Luke cut him off. “Strap down and defend the ship. Whatever happens, don’t let Mothma off it.” He checked his blaster and headed for the entry ramp.

“Commander Skywalker.” Luke turned at the sound of Mon Mothma’s steely voice. “You are not seriously contemplating returning for a crew member?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, bolstering his resolve against the dark look she was levelling in his direction. “I’m not leaving him here. But I’m not putting this mission in jeopardy either.” He turned back to the soldier. “If I’m not back in fifteen minutes, take off.” Mon Mothma was about to protest, but he put a hand up to stop her. “If you get company before then, take off regardless.”

“Commander, don’t be reckless,” she chastised him, and it brought back images of Yoda and Ben scolding him for it. It didn’t make him feel like turning back - if anything, it only made him feel rebellious. And it was too late to change now: recklessness was in his character, despite how many people tried to beat it out of him.

“I’ll be back in ten,” he promised, and dropped out of the hatchway before anyone could try anything else to stop him.

Outside in the icy rain, chagrin began to overtake the determination that had propelled him from the ship. He knew even as he sprinted for the communications centre that this was the height of foolishness - and yet here he was, doing it anyway.

Was it the Force leading him on? Or just hopeless idealism? He had no way of telling, but it didn’t really matter anyway: he was committed. He barely even knew this man, and yet here he was running to his rescue. Even though he was probably already dead.

He set his jaw.

That was what set him apart from men like Darth Vader. He was doing this because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the easiest. Or the most sensible, for that matter.

He didn’t have long to consider his actions. The communications centre loomed dark and oppressive in front of him, a secure bunker that was typical Imperial in design: blocky, squat, thick-skinned. Fortunately, the Rebels had bloom a convenient hole in its side. It probably wasn’t the safest way in, but with ten minutes left before the drop ship blasted off planet, he didn’t have time for finesse.

He sprinted lightly to the gap in the wall and flattened himself against its outer edge, blaster in hand, trying to meld into the background.

Around him, stormtroopers rallied for action, gathering in number for a push against the Rebel soldiers.

The way looked and felt clear, and Luke realised with a start that he had unconsciously submerged himself in the Force. He attempted to draw it around himself, to cloak himself in it, although even as he tried it he had to admit that he'd no way of knowing if it was working.

He eased one leg and then the other over the rubble pile and stepped into a debris-strewn corridor, quickly pushing his back against the wall.

He waited.

No one shot at him.

Easing down the corridor slowly, he scanned ahead for any sign of his downed soldier. There was none. Unnerved, he moved deeper into the complex. There was no one to be seen, only the flickering lights and sparking wires hanging down from the ceiling from where the fight had shattered the panelling.

At an intersection, his comlink buzzed in his ear.

“Commander, we’ve got incoming.”

Stang it!

“How long?” he whispered.

“Five minutes, maybe less.”

Luke felt an icy grip on his heart. It had taken him nearly that to get here, and at full sprint.

“When they get to you, take off,” Luke said, cutting the connection to avoid any arguments. Getting Mon Mothma out mattered more now than anything.

He glanced down either corridor of the intersection. The left looked clear: on the right, though, the light of a doorway could also be seen. He edged down towards it, all his senses alert to movement.

He reached the doorway without any trouble, aware that he had to move quickly but needing to also be silent.

Wiping sweaty palms on his jump suit, he got a better grip on his blaster before stepping into the room.

It was a control room all right: banks of consoles marched across the room, most of them with blaster burns scoured into them. Behind one, black clad legs stuck out. Luke stared at them, noting with quiet dread the red staining on the floor. It looked like the body had been dragged there.

Why would anyone do that? Unless of course, they meant to trap Luke here. But still he didn’t feel any danger. He walked cautiously towards the figure, rounded the console.

Luke was used to war and the bloodshed that came with it, but he still had to fight down the nausea that swarmed up his throat when he saw the corpse.

Pearson had his hands stretched out in front of him, as if pleading. The gaping, burnt hole covered most of his shocked expression, lips parted in a brutally silenced scream. Luke didn’t need to check a pulse to know he was long dead.

He took a shaking step backward. Movement to his right made him jerk his blaster up, but there was no one there - only a bank of viewscreens. Then he looked closer, and his heart lurched painfully. On several of the screen he could see himself, backing away from a console.

A tingling wave of alarm clawed up his body and Luke pivoted on his foot, searching for targets.

He didn’t have to look far.

A stormtrooper charged into the control room, blaster spitting at him. Luke fired off a shot in response and dived behind the console, trying to avoid getting tangled in Pearson’s body.

It had been a trap. A trap to capture anyone who came back for Pearson. And, true to his nature, he’d triggered it.

More troopers boiled into the room and started laying down a blanket of fire that ricocheted off steel and duracrete, filling the room with acrid smoke. The sheer number of troopers prevented Luke from popping his head above the console and shooting back. And they kept on coming, barrelling into the room. Soon it would be full of troopers, and he’d end up like Pearson - or worse.

He touched the earpiece to activate it, got a burst of static in his ear. Had the drop ship already left? No - the Imperials must be jamming any signal out of here. He couldn’t even call for help.

A blaster bolt sizzled by too close for comfort, sending molten pieces of console into the air and Luke ducked out of the way of getting burnt. If only he had his lightsaber! Then he might have been able to fend off the attack, like he’d practiced with the remote back on the Falcon so many years ago, and all the other times since that he had tried it since.

He grimaced. Like Han had said, that had been just practice. This was for real. And he didn’t have a lightsaber anyway.

No, but that might work....

A few metres away lay a durasteel bar that had fallen from the ceiling after a stray blaster shot. It was just the right length and shape....

Slowly, avoiding the blaster fire and the shouts for him to surrender, he edged towards it.

It was too far away, in the line of fire.

He lurched backwards as the shots arrowed in on his position. The console was warm against his back. It wouldn’t take much more blaster fire to turn it to slag. Luke pushed that thought ruthlessly to one side and tried to find his focus in the Force. The energy skittered away from him as his panic ate away at his control.

I can do better than this, he thought, desperately, and then spared a moment to wonder which side of the Force desperation was on. I’ve done this so many times!

His anger seemed to swell around him, making the sound of the blaster fire strangely distant. He felt power rushing through him, felt his anger feeding it. He’d felt that before, when he’d been angry with himself on Bespin. He hadn’t used it then - refused to use it now.

But even as he thought that, the bar trembled, rattled and flew towards him. He caught it, and stared at it in shock - had he just used his anger to call it to him? The line between dark and light was so fine he couldn’t tell for sure.

The spit of molten metal against his cheek reminded him that now was definitely not the time to worry about it. He hefted the bar in his right hand, testing its weight. Good: it wasn’t too heavy to hold. Not exactly a lightsaber, but under handheld blaster fire, it should hold up.

He holstered his blaster, took a deep breath, and charged out from behind the console.

The stormtroopers looked momentarily stunned when that their prey appeared, and it made them hesitate for a half second. A half second that was long enough for Luke to leap over the console and plant his feet firmly on the ground.

Regaining their senses, the first trooper took aim and fired. It was a good shot, aimed straight at Luke’s stomach.

Luke tried to let the Force flow, tried to feel calm and controlled. He let it move his arms as he swept the bar up and into the path of the blast. The bar shuddered with the impact, and made a good attempt at jerking out of his hands, but it held, only a few pieces of molten metal spraying from it. There wasn’t time for any relief - another shot was fired, another block by Luke.

The bar was clumsier and more awkward than a lightsaber and Luke’s arms ached. He had to move quickly, impossibly quickly, to block the blasts, coming from several of the troopers now. His muscles ached in protest and he knew he had to press the advantage.

He took a step forward towards the stormtroopers. One of them stepped forward to get a better aim on him. It was a fatal mistake: Luke lunged at the man and brought the heavy bar across his helmet, shattering it and knocking the man to the deck. He swung the bar up across again to block another blaster shot.

It was only then he realised his mistake.

Moving forward had allowed him to brain the trooper, but it had moved him further from the others in the room. Unfortunately, that allowed them to circle behind him, giving him an impossible situation - troopers in front and behind. There was no way he could block all those shots.

Luke pivoted to block one shot, twisted back to block another -

A burning sensation ripped through his thigh and the leg collapsed under him. He cried out at the pain and swung the bar blindly, smashing it into another trooper as they attempted to grab at him.

He twisted again, heard another thump as he hit another trooper. He felt blood trickling down his leg and sat heavily on the floor, pain flooding his mind. He took his left hand off the bar and grabbed for his blaster, allowing the Force to guide his aim as he fired and kept firing, until the muscles in his arm spasmed painfully and he dropped the blaster.

He felt nauseous - the world spun precariously for a moment, and Luke closed his eyes against the dizzying scene. Then his mind caught up to him and he opened them again, wondering why in Sith-hell he wasn’t dead.

The answer was immediately obvious. All the troopers lay dead or stunned on the floor.


Had he done that? He had to have, but there were at least a dozen of them scattered around in a bloody mess. The sight did nothing to alleviate his nausea. He stared at them, not comprehending what had happened. Had he managed to both block the blasts and aim accurately enough to stun or kill them all? He shook his head. Despite his sudden exhaustion, he had the feeling they’d been fighting for only a few minutes.

The drop ship....

He reached a hand up to his mike and saw the blood on his palm. He looked from his palm to his leg, and felt his balance tip precariously at the sight of the blaster wound, the fast-flowing blood a brilliant crimson.

He pressed the mike, heard only static returning to him.

Closing his eyes, he was seriously tempted to just pass out. His breath burned in his lungs, shock beginning to make him tremble. And no help was coming.

Get up, get out! his mind screamed at him, but as he tried to stand, his leg couldn’t support his weight and he sat back down heavily.

How long did he have? Not long enough - he could barely stand, let alone run to the ship -

A sudden noise made him look up. Straight into the sights of a blast rifle.

Luke could only blink owlishly at the man holding the blaster - a man in Imperial uniform, his face grim and angry, his uniform adorned with insignia Luke didn’t recognise.

“Rebel scum,” the man spat, and his accent was pure Core.

Luke blinked sweat away from his eyes and tried to pull back from the gun’s barrel, the movement jarring his thigh injury. He winced as the man smiled cruelly at him - and pulled the trigger.

With a flash of light and the image of Darth Vader’s outstretched hand reaching for him winking in his mind, Luke's consciousness was thrown into darkness.

Leia turned restlessly in her sleep and fisted her hands in the bedding. Huffing in frustration, she threw the sheets off her, a sweat lying damp on her forehead. In the sudden chill of the night air she was aware of several things: she was hot, her head hurt and she was shaking. She held her hands up, confused, willing the trembling to stop.

Unsteadily, she got up, walked to the ‘fresher and splashed cold water in her face. Resting her hands on the sides of the basin she forced herself to breathe. She didn’t remember having a nightmare, but then why was she trembling? Straightening her neck, she looked into the mirror above the basin.

Shocked, she reeled backwards to collide with the back wall. The reflection that stared back at her was not her own tired, sleep-dishevelled one, but that of a young man with jet-black hair - screaming.

Somewhere between waking and insensibility, Luke became aware of his surroundings.

At first it was only a fleeting sense of reality that dipped in and out of his consciousness, and he was too tired to even take note of it. Gradually, though, it became more distinct, and he became aware of his body again through the pains that crept back into his consciousness.

There was the ache in his muscles, so tired that he felt pinned to the ground by his own inability to move. There was the tingling on his skin, the characteristic pins-and-needles sensation of a stun-bolt wearing off. He knew from experience that that pain would become more intense, as if electricity was crawling over his skin, and his mind shied from returning to full consciousness.

Above all of that, though, was the blaster wound to his leg - at first it felt strangely hot, a sensation that built into a fierce pain, as if he could feel the lick of flame on his skin. Too eager to deny the aches and pains of his body, his mind began the long slide back into unconsciousness, and Luke would have gratefully given into that cool darkness if not for the voices that filtered through the fog that smothered his mind. They sounded muffled and angry; frustrated and a little scared.

"What, the whole squad? Dead? All of them!" That was a human voice, gruff and authoritative.

"Yes, sir, all of them. But – " That was a voice filtered through a stormtrooper's vocoder.

"And the prisoner? Do we have anything on him?"

"No, sir. He appears to have a Blocker in his blood. We can't identify him until it decays...."

A heavy pause. The sound of pacing footsteps. "And Mothma?"

And at that name, Luke knew he had to stay awake, despite the temptation to just slip quietly back into unconsciousness. At that name, and at the uneasy pause that followed it: the quiet. Luke held his breath against his desperate plea that the Force give him this one small mercy.

"The Rebel ship entered hyperspace, sir."

Even as the other man let out a gruff snarl of annoyance, Luke felt his mouth curve into a smile. Not a complete failure then, he thought, and the notion kept him smiling despite his circumstances - right up until the point that someone dug a toe into his side and pain exploded from his ribs.

He gasped and instinctively struggled to back away. His eyes flew open, and he recognised the face glowering down at him - the Imperial that had shot him. Luke struggled to double over in pain at the blow, but his muscles protested and he found his hands had been bound behind his back, hindering his movement. The Imperial planted a foot dispassionately on Luke's side and rolled him onto his back.

"And you're finding this funny, are you, Commander?"

The Imperial's face eclipsed what little light there was in the room and Luke couldn't see the expression on the man's face. He didn't need to see him to recognise malevolence, though. Luke clenched his fists in frustration and in reaction to the burning feeling in the back of his mind that told him he was in real trouble, this time.

Luke didn't respond, and the Imperial snorted in disgust. "You put up quite a fight, boy." He leaned closer. "Not quite good enough though."

Luke still didn't answer him. That wasn't just his defiance; he didn't think he could form words from his parched lips and throat even if he'd had to. "You've caused me a lot of trouble, boy. Mothma would have fetched a tidy packet. And now I've lost that. I needed that."

Luke blinked up at him, surprised by the genuine agitation he was hearing in the man's voice. As far as he knew, Imperial Center had yet to hear of Mothma's capture. Which backed up the theory that Mothma was to have been traded in for the bounty.

Luke swallowed thickly, thinking of the bounty on his own head - Vader's bounty. How easy would it be to tell this Imperial his name, to have Vader swoop down and capture him...? Because whatever the Dark Lord had planned for him, Luke was fairly certain it didn't involve interrogation. He couldn't say the same for this Imperial, though. The prospect made his heart race erratically. What was worse - to lose his life to interrogation, or to lose his soul to the dark side?

The Imperial was pacing. The stormtrooper he had been talking to stood off to one side, looking like he'd very much like to escape his angered superior.

"I needed that money," the Imperial repeated. "And now I have... nothing! Nothing but a child!" Luke bristled a little at that, but he held his tongue. The Imperial turned suddenly, anger flaring in his expression, in the tight set of his grimace. He went to strike Luke, and Luke braced himself, furious at his inability to defend himself.

The Imperial raised his hand, drew it back - and paused mid-way through the strike.

Luke watched him warily, thinking uneasily that the guy might just be a bit unbalanced.

The Imperial was looking at him intently. For a minute that froze Luke's breath in his lungs, he thought the man had recognised him. But -

"You were the mission commander, dispatched from High Command, I'd guess," the Imperial said slowly. Luke schooled his expression to look impassive, but a smile was creeping over the other man's face, and Luke's gut started doing somersaults. "You must have known the rendezvous point."

Luke said nothing. The Imperial looked him up and down dispassionately, and sniffed with disdain. Luke felt absurdly like he'd been examined and found wanting.

"A Rebel commander... you're not worth much as you are, boy, but the information you have... yes...." The man clenched his fist, and a strange light filled his eyes. Luke's focus in the Force had been shattered, but still he thought he could hear it on the edge of his perception, whispering that he was really screwed this time.

The man whirled, signalled the trooper over. Luke caught the words 'interrogation' and 'droid' and fear started clawing up his throat, choking his breath, making him dizzy.

The trooper left. The Imperial turned to Luke. He smiled, meanly.

Leia paced the cruiser's bridge, her nerves still strung tight from the previous night. The nightmarish image was still there, replaying in the back of her mind. Luke Skywalker, the best friend she could ever wish for, screaming in unbearable torment.

Leia took a shaky breath. It took immense will power to resist the urge to ask the communications officer - again - if there had been any news. The more she pestered the young officer, the more annoyed he became. The last time Leia had asked him he'd assured her that she would be the first to know if they heard anything, and he'd said it in a tone that told her his patience was stretched to breaking point.

Leia knew how he felt.

Forcing her tense muscles to relax, she sat down in one of the command chairs. Although technically Leia didn't have a position of command in the Alliance military, her political command gave her a certain amount of leeway - enough to hover on the bridge with the military commanders, awaiting the arrival of the drop ship.

An irritatingly short message had come through during the ship's night, stating an ETA and nothing more. They had passed that ETA 2 hours ago. Leia gripped the arms of her seat. Patience was not one of her skills. She shifted uncomfortably in the seat.

The comm officer twitched in his seat and Leia was up and by his side a fraction of a second later.

The officer was talking into the mike, his face stony. Leia gestured for the mike, and the man resisted giving her it long enough to jot down details to take to Rieekan. Leia slipped into the empty seat as the officer strode towards his commanders, put the headset on and pressed the mike to her mouth.

"This is Princess Organa," she said. "What's your status?"

She had expected - hoped for - the welcome voice of her friend. Instead, an unfamiliar man answered her. "Ma'am," he said, exhaustion and irritation in his tone, probably because he was repeating exactly what he'd just said to the comm officer, "we have Mon Mothma. She's resting at the moment, but is unhurt."

Leia frowned, trying to ignore the sick feeling of anxiety that had settled in her stomach. "Where is Commander Skywalker?"

There was a pause and Leia clutched the earpiece closer. "Commander Skywalker didn't meet the ship for take-off."


Somehow, the words refused to register. That sick feeling in her stomach was getting worse.

"We lost contact with him shortly before take-off. He went back for someone. His comlink went dead."

Leia's emotions hovered somewhere between despair and anger. "He went back for someone. Why?" she demanded.

"Leia, he insisted he couldn't leave him there." That was Mon Mothma's voice - she must have overheard the conversation.

Leia forced herself to calm down. "Do you know where he is?" she asked, leaning her elbows against the console, feeling like if she didn't steady herself she might just fall over.

"I'm sorry, Leia, I don't think he made it out. He would have got back to us, if he could, and they weren't taking captives." Her superior made the words as gentle as she could, but it didn't help: Leia slammed a hand down onto the console making the neighbouring comm operator jump in alarm.

The image was back again - Luke screaming. She closed her eyes but it only made it so much clearer. She was thankful she didn't have Luke's Force sensitivity, otherwise she might have worried about what it meant.

"What about the rest of you?"

The man's voice returned. "Nothing critical, ma'am," he said.

Rieekan appeared beside her and gave her a sympathetic look. She relinquished the headset to him and went to sit down heavily in the command chair.

She refused to believe Luke was gone - her mind skittered away from the idea, too ridiculous to contemplate. First Han, now Luke....

A terrible sadness threatened to collapse in on her. A terrible loneliness. But no - she wouldn't cry. She knew from bitter experience just how useless tears were. So... no, she wouldn't cry.

Not yet.

"Sir, he's unconscious."

The Governor clasped his hands tightly at his back. "Shoot him with adrenaline and go again."

"Aye, sir."

With countless aches and pains of a numb mind and a sore body ruling out any possibility of slipping quietly into the comfort of unconsciousness, Luke wondered sourly where all his good memories had gone.

He had thought, perhaps naively, that it would be easier to retreat into his memories than face his reality, but his dreams provided him with nothing but the cold comfort of revisiting only the most bitter times in his life. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the exhaustion, but his mind played as many tricks on him as the Imperials did.

To sink into the memories of racing at Beggars Canyon, of jostling with friends, of downtime after the Rebels had snatched another hard-won victory from the Imperials... he could have coped. But his mind wandered aimlessly away from those happier times, and seemed to find voice for his pain and anguish in sadder memories, angrier times.

Inevitably, the first to stagger through his mind were the too-fresh, too-sharp memories of Bespin. Those memories were fierce with denial and anger, and they replayed through his mind with unreal speed. After Bespin they accelerated backwards in time, touching on moments of pain, moments of sorrow, and - uncomfortable as it was - a small, rational part of Luke recognised threads and patterns in the memories - the themes of loneliness and insecurity occurring and reoccurring.

Older memories were revisited, older wounds reopened. Tatooine flashed in his mind's eye, all white-hot sunshine and blistering heat. His mind lingered there, and at times it felt as if he lay on the burning sand under the dazzle of both suns, naked under the glare, and he chafed at the vulnerability.

Then... another memory crept into his mind. The sand under his back cooled, the sky darkened, and the stars came out. Luke recoiled from the memory he knew would follow. It was unavoidable: in a way all his memories spiralled back to this moment, so many years ago now, when he had first felt the pain of loneliness tightening a fist around his heart. He thought he heard footsteps behind him, and knew whose they were - his aunt's. She was coming to talk to him.

His breath hitched in his chest, and he must have moved in his fitful sleep because a sharp pain shivered down his back from the injuries he had sustained in reality. But he was a long way from reality, trapped in dreams.

Between one step and the next, Vader's breath went out of him. Pain, sharp and sudden, sliced through his chest. Every muscle tensed, every nerve shrieked. For a moment Vader wondered if the hull had been breached and this was how it felt to implode.

Then, just as suddenly, the pain was gone.

The loss of it was almost as bad as the pain itself had been. If not for the adrenaline rush that had been spiked by the pain, he might not have caught his balance. In the background an aide was speaking, his monotonous voice outlining the departure plan for Executor. Vader silenced him with a gesture, turned his focus within himself, concentrated... and found nothing.

Puzzled, he straightened his spine, turned his focus outwards and found -


He clenched his fists.

"...My Lord?"

He waved the man aside, turned on his heel, and headed back into his quarters. Behind him he heard a faint 'Ahh... my Lord...?' follow him down the corridor. He paid it no heed.

Nothing - he had found nothing in the Force, and that was profoundly wrong. After the instigation of the Empire, the destruction of the Jedi, Vader had felt nothing but a quiet echo rippling back to him when he reached out to the Force. Then, three years ago, that calm, clean emptiness had been abruptly shattered - presumably at the same time his son had first reached out to the Force and lit it up like a supernova.

Since the discovery of his son Vader had been able to reach beyond himself and get a fleeting glance at that bright presence. It was almost like touching a naked flame, and it had burned him the first time he'd glimpsed it. After a while, though, he found he could turn his focus to that presence without being blinded by the Light of it, and that ability had served him well in tracking the boy down.

And now it was gone.

The doors to his quarters slid shut silently behind him and Vader allowed himself a moment of wild panic. Only a moment, and then he reined it in - it was not possible for Palpatine to have moved this quickly. They had spoken but a day previously; Vader had only just arrived on the Executor. Even if Palpatine knew where Luke was hiding, he could not have got to him this quickly. Which meant... what?

Vader didn't know, and the impotence of that admission angered him. Power, violent and hungry, washed through him, and there was the sound of glass shattering as Vader dared contemplate the meaning of this loss.

Vader looked up at the sound. Cracks splintered the glass doors to his inner sanctum, spidering out across the frosted Imperial signature, as if it had been punched violently.

He flexed his hand, formed a fist... rage giving a savage power to his emotions....

But - no.

For once, his anger would not aid him.

A brilliant flash of light illuminated the anteroom, and Vader looked to the viewport in time to see the stars stretch into the swirl of hyperspace. The familiar sight quieted his mind and Vader, almost tentatively, stretched out again to the Force again.

Still nothing.

Or perhaps... not quite nothing.

Frowning, his heart beating just a little faster, he stretched out further. And thought he saw something. Just a flicker, perhaps: a light quickly snuffed out. But something all the same.

Palm resting against the viewport, he schooled his senses outwards. And saw it again. This time, he caught other sensations too - heard the shrill cry of a Tusken Raider echoing across endless miles of dunes, smelt the bitter tang of hydroponic fluid, felt the dry desert air parching the back of throat. Like a hunter with the scent of his prey, Vader latched onto it, snatched it, felt triumph spur him on -

- and tumbled into chaos.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder and squeezed it supportively. Luke didn't look up at his aunt: he fisted his hands in the cooling sand and he bit his bottom lip. He would not cry.

"Luke?" his aunt asked quietly, and getting no response but a sniffle from her young charge squatted down next to him in the sand and put an arm around his shoulders. "Sometimes it helps to talk about it...."

Luke felt the muscles in his jaw bunch as he struggled against the urge to cry. He was five years old, for stars sake! You didn't cry when you were five years old! He balled his fists.

Beru sighed. "Oh, Luke... I'm sorry you had to find out this way."

Senses that had been flailing wildly suddenly snapped back into place with an abruptness that jarred him. Sight, smell, touch and sound reasserted themselves all at once, and for a moment Vader contemplated madness. Then a woman's voice reached him through the melee.

"- sorry you had to find out this way," she said.

Vader felt his sense of reality tilt abruptly at the voice. It took a moment, but eventually he recognised those soft tones. Then sight finally granted recognition, and Vader sucked in an impossible breath of cold night air. The Lars' homestead was a hazy shadow in the insubstantial moonlight, but clearly visible, bare metres away, were two figures: the Lars woman, and a very young Luke, his hair pale as bones in the starlight.

It's a dream, Vader realised. Or a memory, perhaps - and not one of mine.

In a burst of anger, Luke took to his feet and stomped away from his carer. He didn't go far, though, before he stopped to one side of Vader, apparently oblivious to his presence. Vader noted the shake of the small shoulders that told him the boy was crying.

Almost without realising what he was doing, Vader took a step forward. To do what, he wasn't sure - to announce his presence? To demand what was happening? To offer comfort?

Surely not.

He arrested his step as the Lars woman moved forward to offer solace.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Luke asked, his voice cracking. His fists clenched and unclenched sporadically. The woman sighed. She didn't seem able to offer a reason, and Vader caught a fleeting expression of guilt on her face. "You should've told me - should've told me my father's dead!"

"- father's dead!" Luke cried.

Even as he said it, he felt like he'd finally made it real, betrayed his dreams.

Earlier, when his classmates had oooh-ed and ahhh-ed at his stories of his daring father, and his teacher, concerned that he was wallowing in fantasies, had taken him aside to ask him not to tell tales... he hadn't understood at first, had thought his teacher was going balmy, like adults tended to do in Tatooine's intense midday heat.

But she'd persisted, concerned that Luke was lying, not realising he didn't know he was telling tales - that his aunt and uncle had forbid any mention of his parents, that Luke had made up dreams about them, mostly about his dad... dreams where he came back for Luke, where he was working in the Core right now and would be coming home for him... any time now, any day now... coming home to claim him.

And his teacher had patiently explained that dead people don't come back to claim their children.

And Luke had felt... broken. Shattered. Undone.

Because daddy had always been a mystery, a cherished dream. Maybe dad came from the Tatooine merchants; big men with dazzling eyes and broad smiles and compassion that stretched from here to Coruscant. Or maybe dad was a pauper made good: strode out of the slums and into spaceflight with a blaster strapped to his hip and a bag full of skills and tricks. It didn't matter which story he chose, Luke knew one thing for sure – his father was coming back for him.

Any day now.

"But he's not coming. He won't be coming," Luke whispered, almost to himself. And loneliness swamped him.

Perhaps his aunt sensed it, because she drew him back against her, and Luke didn't have the heart to resist. He fisted his hand in her skirts and wondered how he would get through the nights now - now that he didn't have a father to dream about.

"Luke, look up there," his aunt said after a while, and drew his gaze up to the stars. Luke stared at them blankly. "I know it hurts, but ... your father's dead... but you know what happens when you die? You go up there - up to the stars, Luke. And-"

"- and your father's up there, Luke. Watching you. He'll always be there watching you."

Anger, swift and incredulous, swept through Vader, even as Luke's eyes seemed to brighten at the idea. Here was a lie to tie the child to - a pretty way to sugar the falsehood. And to think - he really had been up there, all along. But never gazing down: he'd never known to look.

"He's a star?" Luke asked uncertainly, and something uncomfortably human ached in Vader at the hope in the boy's voice. Suddenly, with a painful clarity, Vader could comprehend the extent to which the boy's dreams of his father had been manipulated, twisted - could comprehend the disorder his revelation on Bespin had thrown his son into.

"A star, in the sky," the Lars woman agreed, and Vader wanted to rail against her, wanted to yell at her for playing with the boy's destiny. Luke smiled uncertainly and she looked contented by this. But no Force sense was required to see the deep hurt radiating off the boy. He stared fixedly at the sky, as if trying to read a pattern in the stars - trying to make sense of it all. And failing.

Vader again took a step forward, and this time he reached out to touch the young version of Luke. His finger's reached for the white hair and -

- and suddenly Luke went cold. His gaze snapped upwards - up and up, his heart lodging in his throat because there, large as life, substantial as the dunes, and his aunt, and the stars - was Vader. Reaching for him.

He sucked in a startled breath, stumbled backwards against Beru.

"Luke-" Vader said.

"Luke, you must-"

- and then he touched the boy's head, and the vision shattered.

The desert was gone, as abruptly as it appeared and -

- and Luke started awake with a strangled cry. He sat bolt upright, despite the pain it caused, and clawed for breath. The walls of the small cell seemed to rush inwards at him. The interrogation droid squawked at his sudden movement. An alarm went off, the booming sound pounding in Luke's head like a hammer.

I'm awake, he thought, and was almost grateful. Then the door opened, and the Imperial that ran the place stepped in, raking him up and down disparagingly.

"Good, you're back with us." He sniffed disdainfully. Turning to the droid, he said, "I'm growing weary of this delay. Recommence the interrogation immediately. I want answers - and soon." And the droid rotated slowly to face Luke.

Somehow, impossibly, beyond the dull throb of the hovering droid, Luke thought he heard another sound - the rasp of Vader's breathing, and his voice saying, "Luke, where-"

And then, with the first prick of the droid's needle, the voice was gone, and Luke surrendered himself to the fight.

When Vader finally emerged from his inner sanctum, his aides, who had clustered outside the doors in confused apprehension at their superior’s erratic behaviour, took a collective step backwards. Vader captured one with his gaze, bracing himself against the anger that raged in him, only barely checked.

The aide’s eyes widened in a mixture of horror and astonishment as he faced Vader. That might have been because of the fury that radiated off Vader like heat from a small sun - or it might have been because the aide got a glance at the interior of Vader’s quarters: at the shattered furniture and buckled walls that had taken the brunt of his fury. To Vader, it mattered little which. It only mattered that the man hear him and obey.

“You,” he said. The man swallowed thickly and came to attention. “Get me the names and locations of all the prisoners we are currently torturing.”

The man hesitated, just for a moment. He shifted his stance uneasily. “Ah... ‘torturing’, my Lord?”

Vader clenched his fists reflexively.

“Interrogating,” he amended, and the words tasted like ash in his mouth.

“My Lord... there will be thousands....” the aide started to say and then quieted as Vader turned and made his hand into a fist, tightening the Force around the man’s throat. The aide flinched.

But... no. Vader let his grip loosen. The man was right, after all: there would be thousands. And something deep within Vader screamed that he didn’t have the time to search through them all.

He took a steadying breath. The aide swallowed again, and he looked to his fellow officers in askance, though most of them had scattered from Vader’s presence like birds from an oncoming storm.

“Very well,” Vader said. “I only want to see those within a hundred light-years of Imperial Centre.” After all, for Vader to have achieved such a strong connection with Luke the boy had to be close... or, at least, Vader assumed so. The truth was he just didn’t know - and that ignorance only served to further enrage him. One thing Vader knew for certain, though: the insignia on the Imperial in his vision had designated him a sub-regional governor. "And only those in auxiliary government districts,” he added.

“Yes, sir.”

Vader nodded and turned to re-enter his quarters. He paused as the damage he had wreaked on its interior came into view. Such destruction - and still Vader felt wild indignation clawing at his mind, and the threat of losing control was just a breath away. To lose the boy when he had been so close....

The aide was hesitating. Vader turned his glare upon him and the man hurried from his presence. With him gone, the corridor seemed suddenly quiet. Vader stared at the white walls, feeling strangely numb. The images entered his mind again: the interrogation droid; the harsh lighting glinting off its polished surface; the needles twinkling wickedly.

So close, yet so intolerably far away....

"A name, give me a name, just a name. Just the system, the planet, the co-ordinates... give me a name and I’ll stop it, I’ll turn it off. Just one name...."

An incessant buzzing pierced the heavy fog of Leia’s dream. She rolled over in bed, trying to ignore the noise, but it was persistent.

“Go away,” she muttered, and reached out a half-asleep hand to try and knock her comlink off. “Go ‘way.”

“Well, that’s not quite the greeting I was hoping for.”

Leia cracked an eye open. Sure enough, in trying to turn it off, she had knocked the receive button. She groaned inwardly - it wasn’t like she was sleeping well as it was, and to be interrupted in the middle of the night....

And then, finally, recognition of that voice broke through the sleep-induced fog of her mind and she was sitting upright and grabbing for the comm.

“Lando? Is that you?”

Lando’s reply of, "At your service," was drowned out by the sound of a wookiee braying out a guttural greeting. Despite herself, Leia smiled.

“Chewie,” she said, allowing herself to fall back to the bedclothes with a flicker of hope making her stomach churn. Maybe, just maybe, she would get some good news for a change. “Have you got news on Han?”

There was an ominous pause from the other end. “Of a sort,” Lando said at last. “We know for certain Boba Fett has him but... we lost track of him in the Ineyya system.” Leia closed her eyes and schooled herself against shattered hopes. “We’re going to have to wait for him to resurface, Princess.”

“Where are you now?”

“About to jump to Tatooine - seems the most logical place to wait.” He sounded apologetic.

Leia bit her lip, feeling torn. Did she let them go to Tatooine, when her instincts told her Fett wasn’t going to resurface for a while yet? Or did she ask them to come back to the fleet - did she call them back because she seemed to be running short on friends these days, and couldn’t just sit here waiting for something to happen like the rest of Command were doing.

And did she demand they try the impossible and go after Luke?

She snorted: there wasn’t really a decision to make, was there?

“I’ve got a better idea...” she started, and as she said it, something resembling determination began to fill the gaping hole that had taken up residence in her heart.

None of the systems matched. None of the prisoners matched. As far as the records were concerned, Luke wasn’t out there.

Vader turned from the screen in disgust, as much with his own folly as with the machine’s inability to find his son. He should not have trusted computers to track Luke down: he should have trusted in the Force. But the Force was strangely silent. For all Vader’s anger, his rage, he could no more reach out and pluck Luke’s location from the air than he could command time and send it spinning backwards so that he might have done things differently.

At that last thought, Vader stilled in his seat. Such contemplation would never have occurred to Vader three years ago, but now the urge to explore the notion of what-if was almost commonplace. A foolish pursuit, he would have once called it - and perhaps it still was, though Vader found himself pursuing it nevertheless.

Rising from his seat, Vader crossed to the main viewing window in his quarters. He’d had Executor drop out of hyperspace and hold steady - much to Piett’s confusion. Through the transparisteel space looked cold and silent, the stars winking thoughtfully against the backdrop.

There were many dangers out there - both to Luke and to himself. Many people who would see them kept separate. Palpatine he had known about, although he had not anticipated the old man would become so frightened by a reunion between father and son that he would so quickly turn his mind to destroying Luke. The Rebellion, and this war, was another danger to them both. But other threats Vader had not anticipated - that a nameless governor would take it upon himself to interrogate the boy... such an idea had not occurred to Vader.

Palpatine he could, and would, deal with. Palpatine he understood. And war - he understood that, too. But this new threat he knew little about, and it conjured within him memories of old terrors, old nightmares. To be gifted the information that you were about to lose someone, and to have all your powers to defy their death removed from you with the very same stroke - that was a cruelty. As it was with Luke, it had been with Padme. Even as his mind shied from the memory of those days, Vader felt that same wild panic hovering on the edge of his emotions that he had felt then.

He would not lose the boy - he would not allow it. And yet... hadn’t he sworn the same thing on fearing Padme’s death? And hadn’t she died anyway, regardless? All his strength in the dark side of the Force had not saved his wife. Why should it now be enough to save his son?

Pain registered in the palms of his prosthetic hands, and Vader looked down at them in surprise. His fists were clenched tight, and with deliberate slowness he straightened each mechanical finger and then clenched them again.

Perhaps meditation was in order. It did him little good to stand here allowing his thoughts to chase possibilities through his mind. And if he could regain his focus, perhaps he could reach his son again... find out more about where he was, what was happening to him - something, anything, to pinpoint him.

Foregoing his meditation pod, he clasped his hands behind his back and turned his focus outwards, in full view of the tight glare of the stars.

Where are you...? he wondered, suppressing the urgency that coiled in his muscles, Where...? and he sent his mind winging along with the thought, on into the Force.

The governor might have been slightly unhinged, but he wasn’t stupid. Despite his frustration at their prisoner’s lack of co-operation for nearly a standard week, he knew that punishing him beyond the limits of human endurance would be a foolish pursuit, even if it would give him a minor taste of vengeance.

The boy had fallen unconscious during the previous night’s interrogations and had only been roused through a cocktail of stimulants. When the Rebel finally wormed his way back to reality, the governor ordered they remove the bonds that kept his feet hobbled and his wrists behind his back, allowing the blood to circulate. Naturally, the first thing the boy had attempted to do was stand and - naturally - his legs couldn’t take his weight and he ended up in a heap on the floor.

That didn’t bother the governor. He almost enjoyed watching the Rebel try - and fail - to struggle to his feet. The other thing they did was to give him water - that wasn’t a mercy, not really: with all that screaming he’d done - and the fact he’d been fed through IVAs and his throat was parched dry - it was probably exceptionally painful to swallow water. Still, it would keep him alive.

Then, they left him alone. For an hour.

The governor wasn’t surprised when they came back to the cell to find the boy huddled asleep on the floor.

He dismissed his guards, and moved to the inert Rebel’s side. A swift prod of his foot in the boy’s ribs and he woke with a moan. As the governor had done so many days before, he planted a foot on the boy’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back. The Rebel stared up at him with confused and dazed eyes. The governor waited impatiently for the boy to regain full consciousness before speaking.

“I trust you enjoyed your respite,” he said at last.

The Rebel swallowed thickly, and grimaced at the sensation. Yes - his throat definitely pained him. “Why?” he whispered.

“Oh, strange as it may seem, I don’t actually want you dead just yet.” He knelt down beside the young man and gave him a compassionate look. Or at least, he tried to make it look compassionate, though he certainly didn’t feel it, and he was no actor. “If - and I mean if - you provide a little information, we might be at liberty to be more... agreeable... again.” He wagged his finger at the boy, smirking as he patronised him. “If, however, you persist with this foolish martyrdom....” He shrugged, as if it bothered him personally not one bit. “I need the money the location of your fleet would provide... and I am not a merciful man.”

He rose to his feet when the boy looked to the floor, concentrating furiously. Probably considering his options. The governor smiled at that. As if he had any.

He turned his back on the Rebel, and paced to the door, opening his mouth to begin a tirade of threats.

And then the boy struck.

The governor never knew what hit him – he'd been certain the Rebel didn’t have any weapons, but with a lurch he was flying forwards and colliding with the cell wall with a hard thump.

Even as he was shaking the stars from his eyes, he saw the boy, crippled a moment ago, lurch to his feet as if possessed, his eyes squeezed shut, the pain obvious on his face. He had stumbled for the door and struggled up the steps by the time the governor had regained his feet. He dug his hand into an inner pocket and brought out a pocket blaster, seething as the Rebel made it to the doorway.

“Guards!” he screamed, furious at the boy’s gall. He leapt up the steps after him and saw him just a few steps away from him, clutching at the half-healed blaster wound on his thigh.

The governor snarled; his blaster came up and he fired. The Rebel threw himself to one side, grunting in pain as he collided with the wall - but he managed to avoid the blast. Taking advantage of the boy’s momentary incapacity, the governor lunged for the escaping boy. Apparently whatever energy the boy was using was wearing off fast: the governor threw him to the deck easily, pinning him down against it, his anger only mildly abated by the grimace of pain that brought to the boy’s face.

“Rebel scum!” he spat. “I give you concessions, and you throw them back at me!” He hauled the boy to his feet only to shove him disdainfully against the corridor wall. The guards were arriving now, blasters out. Too damn late, he thought darkly. “I give you water and rest and you make a foolish attempt at escape!” He looked down at the Rebel almost sadly. “Didn’t I tell you it was useless? Didn’t you believe me?”

The boy glared at him, but made no further move to escape. With an angry sigh the governor straightened his back. The sound of running footsteps echoed down the corridor.

“Governor Darasbt! You have an incoming message - a priority message, sir.”

“What?” he asked distractedly, not taking his eyes off the Rebel. “I’m busy, can’t it-”

“Yes, sir, but... this is from His Highness, sir. He told me to tell you it is regarding a... an unpaid debt, sir.”

Darasbt started, fear curling in his stomach. For a moment there he had almost forgotten why he needed this boy to talk... and if the Prince was calling him personally now, that need had just increased tenfold.

His throat closed with fear.

“Get the boy back in there and start again,” he ordered, turning on his heel and heading for the exit at an almost-respectable half-jog. “And make sure he talks!”

And he didn’t look back as he left the scene, so he didn’t see the boy wrinkling his forehead and mouthing silently, "Darasbt..."

For a long time Vader stood silently in meditation, allowing the Force to flow dispassionately over him. He cooled his mind, captured the emotions that ravaged his concentration and loosed them to the unresponsive tide of the Force.

Where are you...?

For a long time, he heard nothing in response. And then, almost impossibly quiet -


In a burst of starlight and exhaust backwash, the Executor leapt from hyperspace with the unshakable intent of an angered angel.

Admiral Piett swallowed thickly.

"Geo-orbit in five minutes, Admiral," somebody informed him, but he barely heard the words.

He nodded, distracted by the brooding presence of Lord Vader, who stood nearby, staring silently out the forward viewport.

Since giving the order to jump, Vader had stood there, still and unmoving as if he were carved of stone. He remained motionless as Executor shed her speed on the approach to the planet: utterly still, as if his mind strayed far away from the bridge, and he called his being, and his troops, and his artillery, to follow the shadow of his imagination's reach.

Piett shook his head, amused at his own ridiculous fancies. The Sith had an unnerving effect on him, as if he were drowning in the man's presence. Fortunately, he didn't often have to deal with him in person. Vader's appearance on the bridge during a jump was most unusual - the Dark Lord usually stayed in his quarters until his admiral informed him of their arrival. That the Sith Lord had been there since the very order to proceed... Piett swallowed again, feeling an unpleasant dryness in his throat. It was most unusual - ominous, even.

"Orbit achieved," someone told him, and like a switch had been flipped, Vader stiffened his shoulders and swirled on Piett.

"Inform the shuttle team I will meet them shortly for immediate departure, Admiral. And make sure you stress the immediacy of that order," he rumbled, even as he stalked from the bridge, never waiting for an acknowledgement.

"Yes, My Lord," Piett whispered, even as the blast door snapped closed behind the Dark Lord, and he wondered why he felt so suddenly apprehensive.

A merciless rain obscured his view of the planet as the shuttle dropped into the lower atmosphere. It was deftly handled by the pilot, and settled to the ground with nothing more violent than a soft hiss.

Vader rose from his seat with deliberate intent as the troopers around him silently went about readying themselves to disembark. Vader stalked to the front of the group, his mind elsewhere even as he ordered that the ramp be lowered. The rain and wind gusted in through the hatchway as it opened, the watery light of the sub-regional governor's complex spilling across the flooded permacrete landing strip.

As one, the troopers began the descent to the sodden ground, and Vader followed in their midst, a medic scurrying along in his wake. He propelled his mind in front of him, racing forwards faster than he could travel himself, on through the duracrete corridors, down into the depths of the complex, seeking out the bright spot that burned the back of his mind - seeking out the dwindling presence of his son.

There was a flicker of confused apprehension in response, but nothing more. But Vader needed no response to locate Luke now: this was the nexus of his son's pain.

Not long now, and the boy would be back in Vader's grasp, and his tormentors would pay dearly. Not only had the governor broken Imperial law by not informing Coruscant of his captive, but worse: he had trodden where only the Dark Lord was allowed to tread. The only person who was allowed to cause any pain to his son was Vader, and then only when Destiny demanded it.

A doorway opened in the nearside building, a huddle of figures backlit by the wedge of golden light. The governor would be amongst those men - the fear that man felt rippled across the landing strip as Vader and his troops approached, lapping at his mind like waves beating at a rocky beach. Vader allowed himself a moment of indulgence in the man's fear - and then pushed it aside. Vengeance could wait: Luke could not.

They reached the open doorway and Darabst was instantly recognisable, both from Vader's memory of the vision, and from the way he wrung his hands together in agitation. And well he might feel anxious, Vader thought darkly. He looked winded, and his clothes were slightly dishevelled. As if he had just changed uniforms. Probably the rigours of interrogation had rendered his previous uniform too grubby for greeting the second in command of the Empire.

This revelation refuelled Vader's anger and he grabbed the man by the scruff of his collar, hauling him off his feet.

Darabst squawked in protest. "My Lord!"

Just for a moment Vader was tempted to punish this wretch, and right this instant, but the wavering presence in the back of his mind was brighter than that temptation and instead Vader growled dangerously, "You are interrogating a prisoner here. Where is he?"

Darabst shook his head pitifully and Vader had to resist the urge to rip it from his shoulders. "My Lord, we have many prisoners here. I don't know-"

"You know exactly who I mean, Governor." He spat the last word, making the man tremble violently before he regained some modicum of composure.

"You are, ah, referring to the Rebel infiltrator we caught, my Lord?" he asked, swallowing thickly. When Vader simply inclined his head, Darabst smiled uncertainly. "Yes - yes, we captured a Rebel some days ago now. He's been under interrogation and I-" Vader's fist tightened and the man's words tailed off in a choked gasp.

"Take me there. Now," Vader commanded, and unceremoniously dropped the governor back to his feet.

Darabst steadied himself against the doorjamb and looked up at Vader uncertainly. He opened his mouth to speak, and then apparently thought better of it. Finally, he nodded his head in defeat. "Of course, My Lord. If you'll follow me...."

The journey took intolerably long, marching them through Imperial standard corridors, down dimly lit walkways lined with cells. They were stark, brutality evident in their design, and claustrophobic. Vader walked so that his feet nearly clipped Darabst's heels, speeding him along.

Darabst tried to lighten the oppressive air of the journey with some idle prattle about how they had captured Luke - a ridiculous story that was quite blatantly a hastily constructed falsehood. It was sheer stupidity to try to lie to Vader, as the man would later learn.

Vader, however, was too intent on his son's presence to pay any attention to the lies the man was spewing. It was completely and unmistakably Luke - his presence possibly even stronger than it had been on Bespin, barely a month ago. That the boy had matured in the Force so much in that time spoke volumes for his abilities. That he had done it during a time of recuperation and then capture, with no possibility of further training, showed he was true to the Skywalker heritage. Vader might have been proud of his son, had his mind not been consumed with the need to find the boy.

After an interminable time, the governor came to a halt and fidgeted nervously outside the last in a long line of cells, his emotions flitting between desperation and terror.

"Open this door," Vader ordered. He could already feel his throat closing in apprehension. He had to resist the urge to reach out and rip the lock open: he had to maintain some measure of control here

Darabst hesitated and Vader felt his hand itch towards his lightsaber. Either the man saw it or else he decided it was useless to resist, because he clumsily keyed open the lock and the door sprang upwards into the ceiling.

Vader, for all his experience of service to the Empire, of war and of death and of horror - with all his experience of the tortures he had both witnessed and initiated - had thought he was ready for the sight that greeted him through that cell door.

He was not.

It chilled him and enraged him both, enflaming something too ethereal to name in his heart. Within that moment, a part of Darth Vader died. Or, perhaps, a part of Anakin Skywalker was reborn: reformed in the flame of emotion that struck Vader full in the chest like there was a blaster going off behind his ribs.

But it was quickly stifled in a wave of pain and rage - the sight of his son, bloodied and bruised, face a mask of pain, huddled in a heap like a broken doll on the cell's single bench, brought a new kind of anger into his heart. An anger that was spurned by rage and protective anguish, and anger would always be of the dark side. It swelled up around Vader, momentarily paralysing him as his son shivered. Vader felt as if he'd taken a blow to the head, and all the world had turned to blood and blackness.

Luke opened his eyes then. His gaze turned - with an unnerving accuracy given his semi-lucid state - to Vader. He tried to move. His movement stopped abruptly in a moan of pain.

Vader had long since lost the ability to speak, otherwise his cry of indignation might have been so unbefitting of the Dark Lord that word of it would find its way back to Emperor. Struck by the need to move to save his ears from another cry of pain, Vader's hand flew outwards and a ripple in the Force followed it.

The interrogation droid, a shiny black orb glistening with needles and instruments, suddenly found itself accelerating towards the far wall. Circuitry sparked, died, and it fell to the ground with a resounding thud.

Two black clad interrogation officers whirled around in surprise and Luke's eyes struggled to focus. Vader thought he saw them widen in horror.

Unfortunately for the interrogators, Vader's fury was not spent on the droid. Before either could speak, they were lifted off their feet by another wave of irate Force, and collided with the wall before falling stunned to the ground.

Vader was distantly aware of the babbling Governor behind him, pleading with Vader to stop.

But Vader hadn't even started.

His lightsaber leapt from his belt to his hand, igniting in a swift, practiced move and the governor quickly closed his mouth. But instead of lunging upon either the wretched man or the two interrogators, Vader moved towards his son.

Luke, for his part, must have been at least partly aware of what was happening around him, because as soon as the ruby blade was lit he attempted to back away. He only succeeded in causing his back to collide with the wall and a guttural cry of pain left his lips.

"Do not try to move," Vader warned him. Whether the boy thought it a threat or took it as it was meant - in concern - didn't matter: that he stopped trying to move did.

Behind him, Vader heard Darasbt murmur, "Luke?" quietly, and then Vader got a better look at the boy in front of him.

Thus far he had been so deeply immersed in the Force that, beyond recognition of his injuries, Vader had barely taken in the boy's appearance. But now that he looked, he saw the differences.

Most striking was the hair. It was shorter than he remembered and dyed black, sweat making it cling to his scalp. It made his skin appear deathly pale, although in truth that was not solely due to a change in hair colour. His facial features were also slightly altered, by prosthetics. And obviously they had worked: Darabst didn't even realise who he'd caught.

Those thoughts passed swiftly through Vader's mind in the fraction of a second it took to reach Luke, and then he brought the saber blade down across the bonds that held Luke's hands tightly behind his back. Luke jerked away from Vader suddenly, again hitting his back against the wall, and Vader had to swiftly extinguish the blade to avoid burning him.

Luke hissed in pain and Vader reached out to steady him, crouching swiftly and wrapping a black-gloved hand around Luke's bicep so that he fell against his thigh. He caught a spike of indignation mixed with fear at the position that movement left them in, with Luke leaning on Vader. Luke again tried to pull away and Vader lowered himself to the boy's level, keeping a firm grip on him.

"Careful," he whispered, for once regretting that his voice was unable to carry more compassion in its rasping tones.

Luke found his voice, but it was faint and throaty. "I..." he started to say, and then swallowed hard, trying to form further words. He gave up when his throat refused to obey him.

The Dark Lord was barely aware of what they must have looked like, with him crouched down by the bench and a Rebel commander virtually laid in his lap. It was a good thing that Darabst was going to die very soon or else unwanted stories might be told.

Whatever strength Luke was using to stay awake seemed to be ebbing from him fast and his eyes began to blink shut. Vader touched a black-gloved hand to his son's temple, eliciting another spark of pain before he was able to send a shower of cool, healing energy into the battered body. Luke's presence burned a little brighter, even if he shuddered with fear at the reality of the Dark Lord holding him such.

Vader's fingers traced where he knew the prosthetics to be, and with a manipulation of the Force pulled them away to reveal clear unbroken skin beneath.

He heard a gasp behind him.

Vader turned around and pierced the governor with a stare. The man was shaking uncontrollably. "But...but..." he stuttered. "He... who... what...."

"His name is Luke Skywalker," Vader growled.

Even this man, self-obsessed and ignorant, knew how much the Empire wanted Luke. Darabst took an involuntary step backwards in realisation, mouth opening and closing uselessly like a beached fish. Vader snorted in disgust, and gestured to the medic that had accompanied him to the surface. That man also seemed to be in a daze.

"Did you bring water?"

The medic blinked owlishly before abruptly moving into action. He pulled a bulb of water from his bag and handed it to Vader, even as he took out a medical scanner and busied himself with it. The man's hands were shaking.

"Well?" Vader demanded.

The medic looked uneasy under the demanding gaze Vader laid upon him. "My Lord... his injuries are by no means life-threatening. He... ah...." Vader must have been intimidating him, because the man started stuttering. He consulted his scanner, fingers moving shakily over the screen. Without looking up he said, "Bruising, lacerations, high quantities of foreign compounds in his blood... we do need to get him to Executor's medical bay for treatment to avoid the development of... complications." He glanced up and quickly added, "Sir."

Vader nodded, feeling a whisper of relief easing the tension in his coiled muscles. Nothing urgent: nothing life threatening. Perhaps Destiny would deign to favour him, just this time.

He set the water bulb to Luke's lips, letting water trickle down his son's throat. Luke gagged at the first few drops, but swallowed thirstily after that first sip. Before long Vader set it aside, knowing all too well what too much fluid did to a barren stomach, but Luke's eyes followed it to ground, the boy's thirst resounding in Vader's head. Luke struggled to move - even managed to bring his hands up to push against the one Vader used to keep him motionless.

"Stay still," Vader warned as the shooting pains that shot up Luke's legs echoed in his own mind. "Do not fight me - your injuries require tending."

Luke worked moisture into his lips, and Vader could feel his desperation to get up, to fight, echoing in the Force. "I don't want..." he started to say, and then turned his head away from Vader's intense gaze and winced.

Vader placed a gloved hand over his son's forehead. "You are not in any shape to fight, Luke. Call truce, just for now. Let me in: I can alleviate the pain."

Luke stared up at him with bright eyes. Under that intense gaze Vader felt as if his soul was being unveiled, layer-by-layer, but he let it happen. The boy nodded, tiredly.

With cool mental fingers, Vader reached through the tattered layers of his son's mind. Hushed blue filled his own mind as he settled the boy into the unfeeling bliss of unconscious. The healing trance was only light, just enough to begin easing the pain in his tired and battered muscles. Vader withdrew almost reluctantly, entranced by the complexity of his son's mind. Finally, pressed by the medic's discreet cough, Vader stood and lifted Luke into his arms.

He nodded to a nearby trooper, who stood mesmerised at the entrance to the cell. "Inform the shuttle to prepare for our arrival. We depart immediately."

The trooper visibly shook himself to attention. "Aye, sir."

Vader grimaced behind his mask - what a spectacle they must be making, and what efforts he would have to go to later to ensure word of this never leaked beyond the confines of this cell. And yet... he could barely bring himself to worry about that right now. He felt instead - and just for a moment - absurdly at peace. And the weight of the unconscious boy he carried from the cell was no burden at all.

Apparently unaware of what he was doing, Luke murmured quietly and leaned his cheek against the cool armour of Vader's chest plate. Vader stilled, and looked down at his son. His heart jumped into his throat, closing it, as he saw Luke mouth a word.

A single word.


Vader carried his son from his cell. And smiled.

Leia drummed her fingers impatiently against the chair arm. The waiting was unbearable, nauseating expectation fraying her nerves. Through the Falcon's forward viewport hyperspace swirled dizzily. Lando's hands hovered above the controls, his eyes fixed on the countdown to realspace. A week's worth of worry and sadness weighed heavy on Leia's mind and she, too, was glued to the clock.

It was absurd to think so, but she could almost feel that something was about to go horribly wrong. The anticipation was tangible. She wiped sweaty palms against her plain ship suit and resisted the urge to ask - again - whether Chewie and Lando needed her help.

"Five seconds to realspace, Princess." Lando told her unnecessarily, and his hands curled around the levers that would haul the ship out of hyperspace.

"Good," Leia muttered quietly. She gripped the edge of her seat.

The ship gave a lurch as the mottle of hyperspace skewed and stretched into star lines that rapidly shrank to pinpricks. The Falcon's engines whined as she slowed to sub-light. A blue and green planet, its surface obscured by racing grey and white clouds, dominated the view from the cockpit. And above those clouds...

Lando sucked in a sharp breath. "It's the Executor. It has to be."

The Star Destroyer hung over the planet, slowly following its spin in a geo-stationary orbit, looming over it like a predator resting after gorging. Dark, sleek, and ominous. Much like its commander, Leia thought darkly.

Even as she watched with a sinking heart, a cluster of shuttles tore through the storm clouds obscuring the planet's main continent, trailing tattered clouds as they headed into the high atmosphere, on a direct line for the star destroyer. Lando turned the Falcon to watch them as they angled towards the belly of the ship. Leia was on the verge of screaming.

Vader had beaten them to it.

"Damn it," Lando muttered. "Chewie, lay in a course out of here. We-"

The cockpit blast-door opened and Threepio waddled in. He stopped suddenly as he caught sight of the Star Destroyer, and threw his arms up in the air in his catch-all expression of distress. "Oh my! Baron Calrissian, there appears to be a Super Star Destroyer above that planet!"

At any other time, Leia might have smiled at his disarming innocence. Not this time, though.

"We'd noticed," Lando replied dryly. "Princess?" He turned to her, his face full of compassion.

She bit her lip. "What can we do?" she asked, and almost hoped he might have a miracle solution for her. He didn't. He just looked apologetic, said nothing.

The Falcon's momentum brought her around to face the juggernaut, and Leia felt bile rising in her throat as she stared at it. That was Vader's ship. They couldn't take that on. In fact, they should be running like hell before they were spotted and the Imperial's ran their ID.

But Luke was probably onboard one of those shuttles, and they hadn't come this far just to leave him there.

"Lando, how long can we stay here without being spotted?" she asked, moving to stand between the pilot and co-pilot chairs.

She was grateful the man considered his answer before replying - he could so easily have said 'we can't' and hit the throttle. "Not long," he admitted. "They might have already spotted us. There's plenty of traffic up here with us - freighters mostly, by the look of them. But all they have to do is run the ship for ID and...." His smooth voice sounded troubled. He turned to her, looking her in the eye. "We should get out of here."

Chewie barked at him and Leia felt herself scowling.

"And leave Luke?" she snapped.

"Princess, that it the Executor. Much as I love the Falcon and admire her capabilities, we don't want to tangle with that." His sarcasm was completely lost on her. She felt a sigh of frustration leave her lips.

"I know you're right, it's just...." She had the urge to rub her eyes, tiredly. "So what can we do?"

Lando shrugged. "We can't go anywhere near it. No chance we can get onboard."

"Can we track their vector when they jump?"

His brow furrowed. "We could drop a sensor buoy out there and let it track them, as passively as possible. They might still spot it."

"And where will we be?" She forced herself to sit back down in her chair. Through the viewport, she watched the first shuttle duck into the docking bay of the huge ship and disappear from sight.

"A long way from here," Lando replied, hands already flying across the controls. "Chewie, you got a short-range jump programmed?" The Wookiee whuffled an acknowledgement. "Okay then... here goes...."

The merciless rain had drenched everything and everyone in tepid water, Vader and Luke included. As the shuttle hatch hissed shut and the engines lit, Vader made his way to the back compartment, the sodden hem of his cloak leaving a weaving trail of water on the polished floor.

"My Lord!" Darasbt squeaked, just as Vader was about to enter the rear compartment.

Vader turned, fixing the man with a stare. The ex-governor was looking up at Vader in dread, and his eyes darted nervously towards Luke, still carried with firm intent in Vader's arms. The man's throat bobbed as he swallowed nervously. Behind him his two interrogation officers cowered, eyes wide and fearful.

Vader turned to the troop commander. "Commander, Governor Darasbt is under arrest. See to it that he and his men are secured during the trip." The words were barely out of his mouth when Darasbt reared back from a trooper that moved to secure his hands in binders. The trooper lifted his hand to cuff the man for his disobedience, but he halted midway through the blow, looking to Vader uncertainly. "Go ahead," Vader rumbled darkly. "I gave you no orders to be gentle with them."

"My Lord, I have not-" Darasbt started to protest, but was stopped by a sharp blow from the trooper. He stuttered on. "Lord Vader - I...I beg your indulgence. I -"

Vader turned, summarily ignoring the man, and the blast door slid shut behind him. As he did so, the silence seemed to close in on him, punctuated only by his own breathing and the shallow breaths his son took.

The rear of the shuttle had been designed for a commander to wait in comfort during shuttle trips. It was outfitted sparsely with a chair and console, a 'fresher in the corner. Vader looked down at Luke, at the rainwater that ran in rivulets down from his hair and curved under his jaw and at the sodden clothes he wore. For himself, the wet was a minor consideration, an irritation, but Vader had to get the boy into something warm or risk adding hypothermia to the list of his injuries.

With a gentleness he would never admit to, he set the boy down in the chair, balancing him so that his head lay against the cushioning of the high-backed seat.

He stepped back.

Luke looked almost peaceful in the clasp of the healing trance. His face was relaxed, eyelids flickering just occasionally in the grip of a dream. To an outside observer, Luke would have looked at peace, but Vader was not fooled - he could feel his son's stubborn presence fighting against the healing trance that kept him swaddled in unconsciousness.

Just for a moment, Vader was tempted to pull him out from the trance - and then the urge passed and he wondered where such a ludicrous notion had come from. It would be sheer folly to bring the boy to consciousness now - not least because the trance kept the worst of his injuries at bay. That alone was reason enough to keep him unconscious, but a nagging sensation at the back of Vader's mind told him there was more to it than that - that perhaps if Luke were to wake, Vader wouldn't know what to say to him. But such an idea was absurd.

Luke shifted in his sleep, slipping further into the folds of the seat. Vader put out a hand to steady him, but it was unnecessary - the boy did not fall.

Vader's hand did not drop.

His eyes were drawn to the bruises on Luke's face, accented as they were by the rainwater. He reached out as if to touch the marks, but pulled his hand back abruptly. Luke shivered.

From an equipment store at the back of the room, Vader retrieved a thermal blanket and set it over his son. Luke muttered again, and turned over, the blanket slivering to the floor. With a sigh of frustration Vader replaced the blanket, and stood back against the nearside wall.

In many ways - too many ways - Luke was Anakin's double. There were also traces of Padme. His small frame, intense gaze and stubborn streak were all hers... although perhaps the stubborn streak was a trait they all shared.

Luke turned his head, a frown creasing his forehead as wet hair fell in his eyes. Almost tentatively, Vader again reached out a hand, this time to brush the hair from Luke's eyes. At the same moment, Luke's own hand reached up to grab Vader's wrist.

Vader stilled abruptly at the sudden movement, locking his gaze on their hands.

He waited a breath - and another.

Nothing happened.

Luke still grasped his wrist, but made no further movement. The physical contact seemed to make the boy's presence swell in Vader's senses, a tumble of thoughts and feelings crashing over Vader too fast to dissect and understand. Vader tried to pull his hand back and Luke let go - almost reluctantly, Vader fancied, and then chided himself for such nonsense. The boy had merely reached out in his sleep. Nothing more.

Even as he thought it, Luke's attempts to wake seemed to redouble and Vader brushed against his mind, sending him deeper into the trance. Luke struggled weakly and his eyes flickered, but in a battle of wills the injured boy couldn't begin to challenge Vader. Vader had to admire his gutsy attempt, though.

Vader stood and walked around the chair in which Luke sat, measuring his son's mind and will. The Dark Lord's rage upon stepping into his son's cell was cooling and settling around him into the semblance of a plan. He had the boy and Luke was subdued. Both of those were good - there would be little fight left in him. He might even be more pliable than Vader had hoped.

Or he might not.

Vader frowned as acknowledgement of the boy's deep-rooted defiant streak wormed its way into his thoughts. Darasbt had gained no information from the boy in over a week of interrogation, which by itself was astounding. And Luke must have been perfectly capable of stopping his interrogation through the Force, so why hadn't he?

There were a number of possible reasons, and as Vader rounded the other side of Luke's seat and scrutinized his face, the most likely came to mind: Luke didn't want to reveal his true identity, or to even risk revealing it in a failed escape attempt. A revelation such as that would have meant being handed over to Vader, since the bounty he had out on the boy was infamous. Obviously, Luke had found that idea so distasteful he had chosen the rigours of interrogation instead.

Vader frowned. "You would have been better telling them and avoiding such pain, my son."

It had been barely a whisper but Luke's right hand flexed and relaxed as if grasping at something that wasn't there.

The sudden noise of the blast door opening broke Vader from his reverie. He turned as a stormtrooper entered, snapping to a crisp salute.

"Lord Vader, we have docked with Executor."

Strange - he hadn't felt the ship land. His son was proving to be a distraction, indeed.

"Inform MedBay to have a high security ward ready for our arrival."

"Aye, sir."

"And have a crew sent down to the detention centre - I want all the security recordings from the past week, and all communiques."

"Yes, sir."

"And have them confine all detention centre personnel to the building - no exceptions."

"Aye, sir."

Ensuring the thermal coverlet remained firmly wrapped around him, Vader lifted Luke again. The trooper stared at the inert boy in his arms. Vader bristled. "You have something else to add, trooper?"

The man visibly shook himself. "Uh... no... no, sir."

Vader nodded, and stepped out of the compartment, making for the shuttle entry.

Piett watched over the shoulder of a comm officer as the helmet-monitors from the planet-side troopers relayed their progress on the ground. Men and women in drab Imperial uniforms shuffled in the middle of a quartet of troopers, looking frightened and confused. The rain poured down on them relentlessly. Someone turned around angrily as a trooper pushed them to move faster, and was summarily backhanded. The man's colleague held his friend upright as the troopers hustled them inside the detention block building.

Piett snorted in contempt, and turned from the feed. Those men and women would be dead soon, on Lord Vader's orders. He straightened his back until he heard the joints pop and walked to the forward viewport, where he could see another trio of shuttles dropping down to the planet.

He supposed he should feel pity for the souls caught up in the Dark Lord's ire - but, in truth, he was too used to such scenes now. How many atrocities did one have to witness before becoming immune? Whatever the number was, he had passed it long ago. Had he let it affect him, he would not be in the position he was now. Moreover, he was more concerned about the cause of his superior's erratic behaviour of late than he was with the hapless innocents who were on the receiving end of Imperial Rage.

He narrowed his eyes. It was most unnerving to be given orders that seemed incomprehensible. Why were they to destroy the detention block, and all personnel along with it? What had Vader found there, and who was the prisoner he had returned with? A master of his ship should know all that went on within her confines - but Piett was no nearer an answer than he had been when Vader had first ordered the jump.

He thought that perhaps -

"Admiral!" someone shouted behind him, and Piett whirled to reprimand them for such unbecoming behaviour. But he saw the blood draining from the ensign's face and stalked over instead, his own heart accelerating just a little.

"What is it?" he demanded.

The ensign was almost shaking. "We have, ah, an incoming communication - from the Emperor, Admiral."

Piett had bent over the console to talk to the ensign, and he straightened suddenly. Communications from the Emperor to his right-hand man were not unusual, but they always set Piett's nerves jangling. "Have you informed his aide that Lord Vader is... unavailable?"

The ensign swallowed thickly. "No sir, I-"

"And why not?" he snapped.

"Sir... it's not one of the Emperor's aides - it's the Emperor."

"What?" Piett asked numbly, hoping he had misunderstood. He rubbed his palms together nervously.

"Sir, it's the Emperor - himself," the ensign said, and brushed a hand through his hair anxiously.

Piett opened and closed his mouth dumbly for a minute, at a loss. Never - never - had the Emperor contacted Executor directly. Such an action was... unthinkable. There were aides for such duties - officials who called, haughtily demanding Vader respond to the summons. The Emperor was far too busy to be concerned with calling Vader himself.

"Sir...." The ensign twitched nervously. "What do I do?"

Piett shook himself free of the shock. "Relay it to the ready room," he told him, and stalked towards the room as fast as dignity allowed.

The Emperor - calling in person. Piett took a moment to breathe deeply as the door slid shut behind him and he crossed to the comm unit. He swallowed, adjusted his cap... hit the receive button. "Your Majesty, it is an honour-"

He stopped as the visage of the Emperor appeared, the yellow eyes narrowing. "Who... are you?" the man - if he could be called a man - asked disdainfully.

Piett bowed his head. "Admiral Piett, Your Highness - Commander of the Executor."

The Emperor's eyes raked him up and down, and Palpatine grimaced. Piett had the uneasy sensation of having just been judged and found wanting. He adjusted his stance.

"Where is Lord Vader?"

Piett swallowed thickly. "He is... currently indisposed, Your Highness."

" 'Indisposed'?"

"Yes, Your Highness - he is seeing to a prisoner we have taken custody of and is overseeing the elimination of the traitors we have detained on Tallir." Piett made a conscious effort to speak slowly, aware that in his nervous anticipation he was running one word into the next.

There was a long pause, which quickly grew uncomfortable. "Tallir?" Palpatine's expression didn't change, but the room seemed to grow colder.

"Yes, Your Highness."

One pale-as-bone eyebrow arched. "I was under the impression Executor had been detached to deal with the Rebel insurgents near Endor, Admiral. Am I to understand this is not the case?"

Oh, yes - the room had definitely cooled a few degrees. "Ah... Lord Vader commanded the ship to Tallir, Highness, for an urgent task."

"An 'urgent task', Admiral? Do elaborate."

The hairs were standing up on the back of his neck. His tongue felt too thick in his mouth. "I'm afraid only Lord Vader knows the detail of that task, Your Highness."

Again, there followed one of those uncomfortable pauses. Palpatine's expression never changed. "I see," he said suddenly, briskly. "Well, I'm sure it was of great importance to divert the flagship of the fleet from its primary duty. I shall speak with Lord Vader later, at his leisure. If you would inform him...?" There was something caustic in the Emperor's voice, and for a moment Piett almost pitied Vader. The moment passed swiftly.

"Of course, Your Majesty," he swallowed. "If that is all...?"

His fingers were already itching for the button that would end the call.

"One more thing, Admiral, if you please," Palpatine asked slowly, and was it Piett's imagination or did the yellow eyes flash hungrily? "This prisoner - what information do you have on him?"

Piett shifted his weight uneasily. "Ah, none, I'm afraid, Your Highness. Lord Vader has escorted him to the medical wing, where he is, I understand, undergoing treatment."

"I see..." Palpatine said at length. "Admiral, I'm sure Lord Vader is... very busy with this current... 'task' - so I would appreciate it if you would keep me informed of any developments." His expression darkened. "And there's no need to inform Lord Vader of our communication - I'm sure he is quite busy with his current duties."

Piett faltered, but only for a moment. "Of course, Your Majesty."

Palpatine smiled, and something about it set Piett's skin crawling. "Very good. Carry on Admiral - do accept my apologies for the interruption."

"It was an honour-" Piett started to say, but the screen had already gone dark. He stood, staring at it, wondering how in Sith Hell he was going to manage to keep Palpatine informed of Vader's movements without Vader finding out that he was doing it - because if the Dark Lord discovered he was in communique with the Emperor, and secretly, his best hope would be to pray for a quick death....

It was most unusual for Darth Vader to show so much interest in a prisoner - except in their interrogation, of course. It was almost unheard of for him to follow the progress of an injured captive through medical treatment. And it was definitely a first when the Dark Lord stayed in the patient's room, waiting for them to wake up. It made the medics exceptionally nervous.

It was possible that the man was trying to assist in healing the battered boy he had brought with him. It was also possible that the boy was considered so dangerous that the Dark Lord trusted no one else to guard him. This was what Vader told himself, at least - that Luke could be unpredictable enough to get through his guards, and Vader's presence was therefore required.

And it was partly true. By some miracle, Luke might just have made it past his guards. But... could he really make it past his guards and a city-sized ship of their companions? And he could only attempt that unlikely escape once he had freed himself from the medical bay - which was improbable in itself, with his body pumped full of sedative and floating inside a bacta tank.

Somehow, it seemed unlikely.

But Vader didn't dwell on it, he simply felt the urge to stay. And so he did.

He wasn't needed on the bridge. The planet-side clean up had been completed and Vader had commanded the ship to Aljir - the planet where Rebel infiltrators had been spotted a little too close to Endor for comfort. The operation on Tallir had been dealt with swiftly, and Palpatine need never know that Executor had made an impromptu stopover to collect Vader's son.

His son.

That designation was still an alien one - still held a small amount of wonder for Vader.

He looked up to where the boy floated in the bacta tank. Luke looked... vulnerable, which was not something Vader had expected to see in the boy, and it brought a surge of something protective to life in Vader.

He had come closer than he wished to forever losing the boy these last few days - and the human emotions that followed on the heel of that realisation were at once unwelcome and undeniable. And unhelpful, Vader thought darkly, for although the boy was with him now, it was only in body and not in spirit.

Luke had not taken to the bacta tank easily, clawing at the mask and the plastisteel sides when they lowered him in. Snippets of memories or dreams had pelted Vader's own mind as he attempted to help the medics in persuading their recalcitrant patient to accept treatment - memories of snow, and blood, and blackness.

But that had passed, and now Luke's mind was quiet as his body accepted the treatment. In the sickly orange light of the tank, Luke's injuries of the past week could be seen as deep white pinpricks and startlingly black bruises. His son would probably need at least another day in the tank.

And that would be another day lost, Vader acknowledged. Another day lost - and when they were so short of time.

How long before Palpatine's people reported back to him that the Rebel he hunted was missing?

How long before Palpatine grew suspicious of Vader's feelings on the matter of his son, and decided his one-time apprentice was becoming too independent for his own good?

Not long, Vader thought, because if the Emperor was anything, he was astute.

So little time... and I cannot defeat him alone. Vader took a moment to watch the impassive face of his son. But together... together we could....

It was clear, if only from Luke's determination to accept interrogation over collaboration with Vader, that the boy would not work with him willingly. And Vader faced a dilemma: he had no time to slowly persuade the boy that their ways were not so different, and yet no inclination to use brute force to bring the boy to his side. A solution to this quandary eluded him, and that in itself was reason enough to feel frustrated.

Until a solution presented itself, Vader intended to busy himself with the security recordings he had taken from the detention block. It was at least in part an impulse based upon a wild chance that something in them would offer him a solution to his problem. But he was also following his desire to know how his son had gotten himself into such a predicament.

He turned the holoscreen on and scrolled to the footage they had retrieved.

For a while, nothing happened. Then a groups of men dressed in black shock-suits spilled into the room and busied themselves with the control panels, with blockading themselves in.

An explosion rocked the camera into static and when the feed came back, there was a battle going on.

Vader watched impassively as the Rebels backed away from the consoles retreating to the door. One of the dark-clad men was trapped on the wrong side of the line. He was shot, a glancing blow. His companions were pushed back and out of the room. The battle obviously continued in the corridors whilst the smoke began to clear in the control room.

Vader watched Darasbt step through the door a few minutes later. The stormtroopers dragged the shot Rebel towards him, giving Vader a clear look at the man's face.

It wasn't Luke.

The governor grabbed the man by the jaw and tilted his face upwards. He shook his head, asking him questions. Evidently the man wasn't talking enough because Darasbt took a rifle from the nearest trooper and shot the man cleanly through the head. The Rebel slumped to the ground, dead.

With no sound accompanying the footage, Vader couldn't tell what the conversation that followed entailed, but the man was dragged behind a far console, leaving a bloody stain on the grey floor. One of the troopers fiddled with the controls and at the edge of the pickup, the viewscreen showed a small view identical to the one seen through this camera, tunnelling into the distance as the image was repeated again and again in each screen.

Vader frowned, but the purpose of the move was soon revealed when a trooper transferred the feed to a handheld sensor, allowing them to monitor the inside of the room remotely. Clearly it was a crude trap designed to capture any Rebels that came back for their friend.

Vader shifted his attention briefly back to the bacta tank, to Luke's sleeping presence. The Dark Lord thought he knew exactly who had fallen into that trap and wasn't disappointed when turned back to the screen in time to see Luke appear in the video footage, creeping into the room with a blaster held ready. And wasn't it just like the boy to be unable to leave others in danger despite the risk to himself? Hadn't Vader capitalised on that loyalty himself, on Bespin?

Luke held the blaster in both hands and out to one side, moving slowly across the room as if he knew something was wrong.

The boy paused when he saw the bloody stain on the floor, and when he rounded the console he paused again when he saw the corpse.

Vader grimaced as Luke looked up and froze when he saw his own image on the bank of viewscreens.

To his credit, the boy pivoted and fired at the troopers that boiled through the doorway, before realising there was far too many and ducking behind the console.

Vader couldn't see what Luke was doing there - the camera was at the wrong angle - so it was something of a surprise when Luke reappeared, jumping deftly over the console, a durasteel bar in hand. Vader frowned, quickly realising what his son had had in mind, and feeling a mixture of exasperation and pride at the attempt. Blocking blaster bolts was a crechling Jedi trick - but this was all the more ambitious: the bar looked heavy and unwieldy, not naturally graceful. Not an easy lightsaber substitute.

Luke managed to slug a few troopers before a shot finally breached his defence and ripped into his thigh. Vader again turned to his son, mentally comparing the healing wound with the one the boy clutched on the videofeed. His own thigh seemed to ache in sympathy at the look of overwhelming agony on the boy's face. Still, the boy kept fighting - he unholstered his blaster and was firing back, dropping some of the troopers.

The camera now had a clear view of Luke's face. Vader watched, his fists closing and unclosing spasmodically, attempting to cool the anger seeing even this post-script recording elicited in him. Luke's eyes were closed, and his face was contorted in fierce concentration. And then - he dropped the bar, his hand came upwards as if to ward off another shot - and the troopers were all blown off their feet by an invisible push.

Vader stiffened in his seat, not quite believing what he had just seen. He rewound the footage, played it again. And again, Luke's hand came up and... and the troopers fell to the ground, stunned.

From the pained expression on Luke's face, the boy didn't even realise anything had happened. The Force blow had been completely unconscious. Luke was still bent over in pain. Such power... Vader's fingers tingled in pleasure: the boy was strong.

Darasbt stepped into the room, and stilled in alarm when he saw Luke surrounded by the downed troopers. He fumbled for his blaster - aimed it in the boy's face. The Governor's hand shook, and Vader couldn't blame him. But still, the man waited until Luke looked up into the blaster's sights before firing a stun blast.

Vader reached out a hand to pause the image as a new group of troopers appeared and began dragging the boy away, Darasbt watching quietly from the sidelines.

There was a familiarity to what Vader had just seen, that resonated with memories of himself at Luke's age. He too had experienced sudden surges of power in the Force, and particularly when in desperate circumstances, when his emotions screamed for action. Darth Vader had learned to harness that power into the dark side, but it had taken years of careful urging by Palpatine to persuade Anakin to transform into Vader. Vader did not have the luxury of time with his son. He may well have to be more... direct with Luke. And yet he feared that if he pushed too hard, was too brutal, Luke would come to detest him, even as Vader had come to resent Palpatine. And he did not want that.

Distracted in the depths of his deliberations, Vader's gaze wandered
to the small, blurred image of Darasbt watching Luke being dragged away. Anger, indignant and possessive, rose in Vader at the sight of the man, who was long overdue Vader's retribution.

And even as he thought that, Vader felt a slow smile creep upon him: perhaps, just perhaps, there was another way for Luke to learn the power of the dark side - and one in which Vader need not be the aggressor.

Vader swept into the small cell that held Darasbt, well aware that his ire shone through the emotionless mask he wore. The detention-level troopers hurried to scatter out of his way. Aboard the Executor, you learned fast when not to trouble the Dark Lord, or you never got the chance to learn from your mistakes at all. Nobody followed Vader into the cell. The door shut with a sigh.

Vader stood in dark lighting, contemplating the sleeping figure on the room's single bulk. He flexed his fingers. Governor Darasbt awoke as if stung. Vader felt the bulky, repulsive man's attempts to resist the urge to recoil in horror at the dark presence that had swept into his cell. He studied him clinically.

"My Lord!"

To his credit, the man quickly found his voice, although it squeaked with fear and apprehension. Vader smiled coldly behind his mask. The governor saw nothing but a dark expression.

"I believe you have a few questions to answer, Governor." Vader said coolly. He didn't have to emphasise his words for the rasping breathing to sound threatening.

"My Lord, I fear there has been a terrible error. I-" The man was trying to speak eloquently but failed, voice breaking under the stress.

Vader regarded him coldly. "Indeed there has," he rumbled. "More than one." Vader never moved, never changed his stance, but the governor still cowered. "Would you care to tell me what they were?" he asked.

"I..." the man stuttered. Vader could see him thinking. The Dark Lord hadn't brutalised him, hadn't interrogated him, and still addressed him with his Imperial title. To the smaller man, that might seem like hope that his crimes would go unpunished. Under those circumstances, the truth would be the best course of action.

A shame, then, that he didn't realise that Vader was simply toying with him.

The governor bowed his head in a poor imitation of shame. "I did not inform Imperial Centre of my capture of Mon Mothma."

Vader waited. "And?"

The man shifted uncomfortably. "And I did not defend her quarters well enough against a Rebel attack."


"And... I..." the man stuttered. He didn't know what else to say.

Vader stepped towards him, grabbed the man by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. His hand balled into a fist around the man's shirt, choking him. Darasbt was shaking.

"Governor, tell me, do you realise who you captured after you lost Mon Mothma?"

Darasbt fumbled for words. "A...a Rebel, My Lord. Skywalker - a rebel pilot. He was disguised. He-"

Vader was shaking his head in disgust. He dropped the man back to the deck. "Let me tell you something, Governor - let me know when you understand." Darasbt nodded weakly, rubbing at his throat. "That boy - Skywalker - is more than just a pilot - he is Force sensitive."

"I..." Darasbt started to speak.

"You understand?" Vader snapped.

"I... no, my Lord."

"He is a Force sensitive - the son of a Jedi."

Darasbt shook his head. "Yes my Lord, but... but the Jedi are extinct. They-"

Remarkable that the man still was able to speak. Vader stalked towards him.

"I know. I extinguished them," he said. "All but this boy."

The governor was shaking his head. "But-"

"Why would I do that, Darasbt?"

"I don't-"

"Think about it."


"Why are they all dead - and he is not?"

"I... don't know." Nothing but fear in the man's eyes. Vader drank it in.

"I will tell you something, Governor, but you must not repeat it to anyone. Am I understood?" Vader asked, quietly, almost conspiratorially. The man nodded eagerly, half scared, half wondering. "I used to be a Jedi."

Vader waited. It seemed to take an intolerably long time, but ultimately Darasbt seemed to put he is the son of a Jedi and I used to be a Jedi together. His eyes widened in disbelief.

"Do you understand yet, Governor?" Vader almost spat the last word. The man could keep the title - for the next few moments, at least.

Darasbt was wide-eyed, shaking. "Please no."

Vader tiled his head to one side. "No what?"

"Please don't-"

"Do you understand, yet?"

"I... I... I didn't know..." Vader moved closer to him and Darasbt backed away hurriedly, the back of his legs hitting the narrow bench and he sat down with a thud. He held both hands up, as if to ward Vader off. "No - don't."

"You interrogated my son." Vader hauled him back to his feet - the man couldn't even stand on his own he was so racked with fear.

"He was just a Rebel. I didn't know."

"Then you pay for your stupidity as well."

Darasbt shook his head fervently. "If I'd known..."

Vader threw the man to a painful landing on the deck. "Had you known, you would have sold him to the bounty hunters you had set up for Mon Mothma. Don't look so surprised, Governor. You were stupid and a poor leader. Your men didn't even need the use of your revered interrogation droids to speak."

The man shook his head dumbly. "My Lord, if there is anything I can do to make amends for this terrible error, then I-" Vader paused in his stride, as if thinking. Darasbt seemed to take it as a cue to beg further, because he carried prattling on. "Whatever way I can serve you, my Lord - to atone for this, you have my allegiance."

Vader would dearly have liked to relieve the man of his falsely pious head. But such was not his plan. There was someone who had more right than Vader to kill Darasbt. Vader stalked the length of the cell, as if contemplating the man, although in truth his plans had been laid long before he had set foot in the cell.

"Very well, Governor - there is one task you could fulfil for me."

The man looked up at him with eager, almost relieved eyes. Ah, but the death of this worthless scum was going to be sweet... and that it would facilitate Luke's first step along the path to the dark side -

- that was sweeter still.

The strange thing about waking this time was that it was actually pleasant. As his consciousness pushed its way back into hazy awareness, Luke found himself contented to just lay still and let it happen.

His sense of touch was the first thing to return, fuzzy and blurred, informing him that he lay on a criminally comfortable mattress. Which, given the circumstances of the past week, was an alien sensation and, puzzled, Luke rolled over, only to find himself enveloped by deep, plush blankets and cushions. He groped out with one tired hand, expecting to find the edge of the bed, but all he found was more firm bedding and soft covers - the bed was ridiculously large. He was seriously temped to just curl up under the covers and lie there all day, blissfully dreaming it away.

His sense of hearing returned next, and an occasional dull pounding sound echoed in time to his heartbeat. He frowned, unable to identify the noise, and opened his eyes. His vision wavered for a moment before steadying, and he took in the sight of a vast room, dominated by the absurdly large bed he was laying on, along with furniture and furnishings that he didn't recognise. The room had a dark, deep-pile carpet, the walls were half-clad in dark wood panelling and behind him - behind him there were spectacular views of space: huge windows stretched to the ceiling, with deep alcoves in the bulkhead where you could sit and stare at the impressive view.

So - he was aboard a ship, but definitely not an Alliance one.

The room was near-dark, but even as Luke took in his sumptuous surroundings, the air was lit with the brilliant red-orange glow of an explosion, followed by another wave of that rolling, booming noise that had woken him. It flashed through the room with a dazzling intensity, throwing light into all corners of the room, and was gone just as quickly. Luke attempted to lift his head to turn to the source of it, but his neck felt as limp as a cooked noodle and he squirmed over in bed instead, to stare in awe at the view - and the battle raging beyond it.

This isn't right, he thought, just a little hysterical, staring at the blossoming explosions. Where am I? The last thing he remembered was the small, cold, dirty cell he'd been in, and the droids, and the Imperials and -

- and Vader.

And that memory got lodged in his mind - Vader sweeping into his cell, descending into it like some angered god, the Force washing in front of him in lashing waves.

Luke closed his eyes, curled his fists into the soft fabric beneath him and bit his tongue to stop the choked gasp of denial that was clawing up his throat.

Vader had found him - claimed him. This was his ship.

Luke turned over and buried his face in the soft fabric, his heart thumping erratically against his chest. He remembered now - remembered fighting the man's presence, half out of instinct, half out of desperation. He wasn't ready for this - couldn't do this - didn't know how he was going to get through this....

Orange flashed through the lids of his eyes, and Luke opened them reluctantly, turned to face the battle. He was attempting to persuade his sluggish muscles to clamber out of bed when he stilled abruptly, pushed the covers down and looked down at his thigh - his thigh that should be screaming in agony at the movement he had just made, but instead only tingled in mild irritation. It was... healed? In confusion, he pulled at the pants he wore - and didn't remember putting on - to find reddened skin underneath, a faint scar and nothing more. He touched the scar gingerly - it didn't hurt.

Bacta, he thought, recognising the faint discolouring of the skin. He healed me.

He wasn't sure what he felt about that - whether it was wrong to feel strangely comforted by it, or whether he should be worrying about it.

Another flash, and he looked up again. He could see the battle clearly from here, and with an effort he forced his muscles to pull himself upright. The room began a slow spin. He tried shaking his head to clear it and immediately regretted the action. It sent stars spinning through his head and he dropped back onto the bed as his leg muscles collapsed.

All right, so his blaster wound was fixed, but he still felt like hell. He lay still for a while, taking several deep breaths to try and clear his head. Exhaustion threatened to drag him back to sleep - but he couldn't afford sleep right now, and with a determined push he rolled to the edge of the bed and over.

He couldn't catch himself before he hit the floor. His voice muscles weren't recovered enough to make any sound of pain other than a strangled gasp. He wondered absently if his voice was permanently damaged after all the screaming he'd been doing.

Memories of his own scratchy cries came back to his ears and he flinched. They were only memories, he reminded himself, bowing his head to his hands on the bedside where he knelt. Memories that seemed terribly real, that threatened to suck him down into anger and pain. He clenched his fists around the bedclothes, and beat them back with sheer desperation.

It's over, he thought. Over. And Vader has me now - but isn't that worse?

A quiet but incessant beeping noise wormed its way into his awareness and, almost thankful for the distraction, he forced his neck muscles to turn his head, searching for the source of it.

He focused on a corner of the vast room, where a large desk and chair nestled against the wall, a lamp giving off a diffuse glow. Luke's eyes focused on a datapad that sat on the desk top, a small red light blinking persistently, indicating a pre-recorded message had been received. Luke forced himself upright, and half-walked, half-crawled over to the desk, sinking heavily into the chair, his legs shaking with fatigue. He reached a hand out and took the datapad from the desk, switching it on.

He wasn't surprised to see Darth Vader's imposing figure appear in the display.

Great. He'd left him a message. Cute.

"Luke," the man said in that deep, rasping voice of his that made Luke's heart kick into high gear. "The medics inform me that you are not to leave your bed for another twelve hours - so return there, immediately."

Luke was inclined to feel annoyed with the order, but he was more worried by the compassion he thought he was hearing in the voice. Was he imagining it? Compassion from the Dark Lord was decidedly creepy.

"I have been compelled to quash rebellious activities on the planet you will see outside your window. As such, I am not presently aboard the ship."

Luke turned around to look out the viewport, at the battle and the planet behind it. It wasn't the planet he'd rescued Mon Mothma from - it was smaller and lusher. Even as he realised that, Luke frowned - Vader wasn't onboard? That gave him a few more opportunities to find a way to escape than he wouldn't have had otherwise-

"You should not interpret my absence as an opportunity to attempt an escape," Vader cautioned, leaning forwards in the picture. The Dark Lord's image seemed to darken, even in the hologram. "You would not succeed."

Was that a warning? Fat chance of Luke paying it any heed.

"The guards outside your door have blasters that only have stun settings. The lock on your door has a stun field on it. Even should you manage to open it, you cannot get through the field. There are no weapons in your room, nor any devices which could be used as weapons - do not waste your energy by looking."

Luke felt his heart sinking. But...Vader couldn't have thought of everything... could he?

"I will return to Executor within a few hours. I suggest you use the time to rest. You will need it for your training."

Training? Luke frowned - he didn't like the sound of that. Vader's image winked out and Luke threw the datapad against the bulkhead in disgust. There was something deeply disconcerting about the Dark Lord's concerns for Luke's safety after having fought him, beaten him and cut his hand off.

Luke sighed in frustration. He stood, slowly this time, and walked carefully towards the viewport. The battle had drifted closer to Executor, and Luke's breath caught in his throat when he saw an X-Wing swing past - and explode in an incandescent fireball.

Those were Alliance ships dying out there.

He walked up to the plastisteel viewport - and the battle was abruptly forgotten at the view it presented him with. This room must be somewhere close to the command tower because the view it presented was stunning.

The mammoth ship stretched beyond the horizon, a mass of turbolaser stations, torpedo launchers and gunmetal-grey superstructure that was at one intricately delicate and undeniably strong. Luke had only ever seen the huge ship in holos. On Hoth, he'd never got close enough for a visual inspection. Now, at close quarters with it - moreover, as its prisoner - the ship's majesty was stunning. Luke stood frozen in dismay as he realised the impossibility of escape from this huge metal prison.

The explosion of another X-Wing drew his gaze back out to space, and Luke saw TIEs and Rebel ships tangle in a mass of destruction. The echo of death rang through space, reaching for him. Just hours before Luke had been awaiting death for himself - satisfied that it was preferable to risking his fragile soul to the dark side. A strange sense of martyrdom had made it bearable -

- and it was all for nothing.

Vader had him. His soul was in jeopardy - his control on Destiny utterly shattered. And all the pain, all the heartache, all the screaming had been for nothing.

For just a moment, he envied the Alliance pilots as they soared through space to their destruction, flashing out of existence in a fierce explosion and a quick death. They didn't have to worry about giving in to their anger, or their fear - they used it; grasped at it for support when death came tearing down on their tails. But Luke couldn't do that - couldn't grasp at the emotions turning his stomach, or use them to give him even a moment's strength.

He had to be serene, dignified, unperturbed by having his errant father as his jailor - a man who wanted nothing more than for his only son to join him in Darkness.

A slightly hysterical laugh escaped his throat.

Who was he kidding!? Serene? Unperturbed? Perhaps Yoda could have pulled that off, but could Luke? Tired and worn by interrogation, only half-trained, still reeling from Vader's revelation, and - worse - feeling a terrifying urge to know the man who called himself 'father', even if it was Vader?

Slowly, he lowered himself to sit in the curve of the viewport, resting his head against the cold plexiglass. He watched the battle unfold with a growing feeling of desperation. Was desperation of the dark side? Perhaps. How should he know - his training had hardly been extensive!

Perhaps everything he felt right now - the anxiety, the hopelessness, and -yes - even the frightened anticipation - perhaps it was all a part of the dark side that Vader believed was Luke's ultimate destiny.

And perhaps he's right....

Determination rose with the bitter taste of bile in his throat. No - Luke was no Vader. He refused to be, because if there was no hope for him, what hope was there for any of them? He hugged his knees to his chest, curled up in the grey alcove. It afforded him a full view of space and he watched with a sick feeling deep in his chest as the Rebel ships were slowly but surely disintegrated.

The operation had taken interminably long - the Rebels had fought hard, and although none had been a match for the might of Executor's men, Vader had been planet-side - and away from the ship - for an intolerable amount of time.

His mind stretched out ahead of him, locking easily onto Luke's sleeping presence. Good - the boy was resting. Which was what Vader should be doing right now, although he had no intention to. Contrary to slanderous Rebel propaganda, Vader needed sleep as much as any man did, and the past few days were catching up on him.

He could not recall the last time he had slept - not since discovering the location of his son, at the least. And he was weary; despite the Force, despite his determination, he was weary. But there was no time for sleep - he felt destiny hot on his heels, urging him to move swiftly with his son, before Palpatine could grow suspicious of Vader's silence. He dearly hoped the boy would acquiesce easily - but he doubted it... the last time Vader had tempted the boy with his Destiny, Luke had flung himself from the gantry and -

- Vader stopped abruptly, a wash of emotion taking him by surprise. Guilt - he felt guilt, and he was unaccustomed to such wrenching emotions. He really was tired if such foolish, unhelpful emotions were influencing him.

Shaking his head in self-recrimination, Vader resumed his walk to the quarters he had assigned his son. The guards saluted smartly as he passed them, disengaging the locking mechanism. The door lifted, and Vader braced himself for Luke to wake at the sudden noise, to jump up, to try something foolish -

- but nothing happened. Vader stepped into the darkened room, the door sliding silently shut behind him.

Luke was a shadow in the viewport alcove, curled up against the reflection of the planet. Vader walked forward slowly, looking down at the boy, who looked troubled in his sleep. Striding swiftly to a cupboard, Vader retrieved clothes for his son - intent on waking him, ordering he dress and follow Vader... intent on hurrying along the process of demonstrating the sense of choosing the dark side over the Jedi's weaker ideals.

But... he paused, dropping the clothing to the bed, feeling just a momentary stab of regret. Another foolish emotion - but an undeniable one. And he wasn't even certain what he felt regret over - over his actions on Bespin, or the possible repercussions of his actions from now onwards. Because the boy would resent Vader's attempts to prove the dark side 's strength. Vader would not hurt him, would not harm him, would merely show him the folly of the light side - still... he didn't doubt that Luke would resent him, nonetheless.

But it was necessary - for Vader's ambitions, for the order of the galaxy, for the chance of having his son by his side instead of on the opposing side in a bloody, meaningless war. It was worth it. It had to be.

Luke moaned in his sleep, curling tighter upon himself. Stepping closer to the boy, Vader reached out with mental fingers - and was again taken by the complexity of his son's mind, even in sleep. The boy was dreaming strange, muddled dreams - images of the past, and the future. Tempted beyond his limit, Vader placed a hand on the boy's forehead, testing the feel of those dreams. And he saw -

- Luke, staring in horrified disbelief at his hands, Rebel soldiers laying dead at his feet -

- Vader, looming over Luke, lowering a black cowl around the boy's stony features -

- Luke, bent over in pain at Vader's feet, his left hand missing, waiting for the death blow...-

Vader frowned. Did the boy truly believe Vader would be so cruel to his own offspring? That he wanted a future of pain and misery for them both? Foolish child - Vader had acted rashly on Bespin, and clearly the boy thought he would continue to do so. The Dark Lord reached out with the Force and brushed against his son's mind, projecting the future he wanted.

- Luke and he, shrouded in intense power and brilliance, the Rebellion and the war a distant memory. -

Sweat beaded the young Jedi's forehead and Vader felt the boy's compulsion to deny the images. Vader persisted. He showed Luke images of the rule they would have - ordered, solid, undeniable - with nothing to threaten them or their majesty.

Luke was trying to bat the images aside, but he was failing. Finally, Vader relented, and Luke awoke with a strangled intake of breath. His eyes snapped open, his gaze lancing through Vader as he focused on him. Framed by starlight, power emanated from Luke. But it was not the power of the dark side. It was not even the power of the light side. It was an internal power. A strength of character. Frustration ran though Vader's veins - along with pride.

"I don't want that," Luke said, and Vader frowned to hear the scratchy after-effects of interrogation. "That much darkness... it's not right."

"Do not dismiss it so easily," Vader warned. "It is the only way to bring this futile war to an end." He lowered himself to the edge of the bed. Luke watched him warily.

"Maybe," Luke finally acknowledged, "but that doesn't make it right."

"You're faith in 'right' and 'wrong' is poorly placed. Sometimes the decisions we make are not so simple."

Luke's eyes narrowed. "Terrorising people is never -

"Terrorising? I have just spent several hours clearing out a Rebel cell, who in their determination to avoid detention detonated their safe-house - taking out a minimum of a thousand square kilometres of civilian housing. My troops are down there even now - giving aide to those who are left behind." Luke was frowning: Vader pushed onwards. "Tell me, my son - who is terrorising whom?"

The boy leant forwards, towards Vader. Vader wondered if the boy was even aware that he was broadcasting his determination to stick to his ideals, the emotion so strident it reverberated around the room, heating the atmosphere. "It's nothing worse than you've done," he said.

Vader contemplated him for a moment - contemplated the anxious energy in the boy. "If it is nothing worse than what I have done, is it so terrible to contemplate joining me?"

The boy pulled back from him abruptly. "I could never-"

"But by your own admission you condone it."

Luke looked uncomfortable. "You're twisting my words. Murdering innocents is never right."

"Indeed not. However, you need to re-evaluate your idea of 'innocent'. If not for your Rebellion, the galaxy would now be at peace - ordered."

Luke snorted. "I doubt that."

Vader arched an eyebrow, though Luke couldn't see it. "You should realise, Luke, that the majority of beings in this galaxy are fools, unable to see to their own needs let alone those of their neighbours."

The boy frowned. "How can you say that - they haven't even had the chance!"

Vader leant forwards. "I witnessed the Old Republic - they had their chance, and squandered it, descending into mindless greed, slaughter and corruption."

Luke's eyes flashed in defiance. It was a familiar expression, though one Vader hadn't seen for years - it was a mirror of his own stubbornness, from years ago. "No. It lasted for millennia. It was you and Palpatine that tore it down!"

Vader shook his head. "I had not realised education on Tatooine was so lax - I did not 'tear it down' - it destroyed itself, with the aide of the Separatists - who, incidentally, formed your vaunted Rebellion." Luke said nothing, just looked away. "Your faith in the Rebellion is misplaced - this war will last for decades if we allow it."

Suddenly, the boy looked up, with an expression so earnest it stole Vader's next words - words about order and stability -

"The war... is that all you want? To end the war?"

The gaze was intense. Ah, how keenly you see me, child.

"No," Vader replied honestly, because there was little point in fallacy.

Luke scrutinised him, and Vader let him. The question was there, on the boy's lips: What else, then, do you care about? but Luke clearly couldn't bring himself to ask - perhaps he was even afraid of what he might hear.

Vader saved him the trouble of asking. "I would have you by my side, aiding my rule."

Whoever had taught Luke the 'impassive-Jedi' expression had taught him poorly: emotions raced across the boy's face before he could stop them. "I don't want to rule," he said. "At least, not the way you want to rule." Vader said nothing, and Luke wet his lips. "The Empire... is evil."

Vader snorted. "Evil," he repeated, tasting the word. "Tell me - what do you base that conclusion upon?"

Luke frowned - clearly he thought it was plainly obvious. "You're a dictatorship: you kill and torture indiscriminately - the Alliance - they would-"

"And how would the Alliance rule the galaxy, Luke? " Vader asked, as he shifted his weight on the bed, somewhat amused with the simple view his son presented him with. Unfortunately, he was more annoyed than he was amused - annoyed that foolish Rebel propaganda stood between him and Destiny. "How would they deal with smugglers and criminals? How would they keep the galaxy from tearing itself apart with petty disputes when they, in their wisdom, would not interfere for fear of infringing upon 'freedom'? It would be anarchy."

A crease appeared on Luke's forehead as he frowned. "Better that than a dictatorship. Better that than evil-"

"Do not present me with childish ideals. You cannot brand a regime with such naïve simplicity."

Luke looked about to argue, but he sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair instead. This was pointless, Vader realised, much as he had thought it would be. The boy would not be turned to his side with political arguments - he was too much his father's son. He needed to be shown reasons for shifting his alliance: needed the power of the dark side presented to him in actions, not words. It seemed his gamble with Darasbt would have to go ahead and for what it was worth, Vader regretted it. Not enough to alter his plan, but enough to feel annoyed that the boy was so stubborn - and their time so short - that Vader's hand was being forced.

"Do your injuries still pain you?" Vader asked.

Luke looked up in surprise. "What do you care?" he snapped.

Vader tilted his head to one side, unsurprised by the vehemence. "I would not have healed them had I not cared."

Luke had the grace to look abashed. "I... yes they do - a little. I'm just... tired."

Vader nodded. "Very well, if that is all then we can continue this elsewhere. Get dressed and come with me," he said as he stood. He held out his hand to Luke, but the boy just frowned at it. Waves of fearful anticipation washed against Vader's mind: Vader felt the boy mentally kicking himself for not claiming illness and further delaying the inevitable. "I wish to show you something," Vader said quietly.

There was a dimple in the boy's cheek where he was biting the inside. "I...." He shook his head.

"Come," Vader repeated, more insistently.

Luke fixed him with a determined stare. "Whatever you do - I will not turn."

A flash of annoyance raced through Vader. "Then prove it so, and come with me."

The boy's eyes flashed at the challenge and he stood - without Vader's aide. Vader sighed with mild irritation as the boy picked up the clothes Vader had brought him.

That stubbornness - it would be the death of him yet.

The detention bay was down in the belly of the ship, and the journey there was long and tiring. Luke kept his mouth firmly shut throughout the walk, worried that if he opened it he might say something he'd regret.

Vader strode determinately behind him, so close it made the hairs on the back of Luke's neck stand on end. He didn't hurry Luke, but his looming presence spoke of intent - unwavering intent. The pressure on Luke's mind made him feel like he was being pressed into the ground, bending beneath his father's iron will.

I will not turn, he thought fiercely - and loud enough that Vader must have heard. The man made no reply. Not even if it is the only way for me to know you... he added - but he kept that thought to himself.

Or hoped he did. Vader's step faltered minutely and his oppressive presence wavered just a little. Unnerved, Luke prodded at his rudimentary mental shielding, but it seemed intact to him. He frowned to himself, heart racing - if Vader had heard that, despite Luke's shielding, what else could he pick up on?

Mind preoccupied with worry, Luke barely noticed they were approaching a locked door. Vader's hand rested heavily on his shoulder, slowing him and finally stopping him.

For a moment Vader's breather was the only sound in the corridor, the vibration echoing over Luke's head. He closed his eyes, as much to deny his father's intent than to steady himself for what was to come, and an image flirted with the edge of his imagination -

- his father, standing behind him, hands resting heavily on Luke's shoulders, gripping him tightly, as Palpatine lay at their feet, his body turned to dust, and power running through Luke's veins like acid -

Luke snapped back to reality as the door slid open. Vader pushed him forward, and Luke's feet reacted sluggishly. There was no sound in the room, at first. And nothing to be seen. Just darkness. Then -

- then somebody screamed, and Luke lurched back abruptly as the lights flashed on.

The room was small, dominated by a one-way viewing window on the furthest wall. And through the viewing window... Luke flinched instinctively when he recognised the governor, Darasbt, standing over three bound and bruised prisoners, locked into restraints in an interrogation bay.

Darasbt was screaming at them, but the words were muffled by the transparisteel window. But Luke could imagine what he was saying - his own mind had a plentiful supply of memories that could fill in the silence -

- ... tell me or I'll... -

- ... you scum! You-... -

- ... this will hurt... brace yourself, Rebel... -

Luke turned away, moving so quickly he almost lost his balance and Vader caught him with an iron grip on his shoulder. Luke reared back in anger, unable to face his father with those memories screaming through his mind - and turned back to the interrogation.

"How can you... how... stop him!" he choked, finally finding his voice. One of the prisoners screamed as an electric charge leapt across his skin.

Vader hands came to rest on Luke's shoulders, an unsettling mirror to Luke's quasi-vision a few moments earlier. Luke shrugged out of the touch angrily, walking forward to the plastisteel and curling his fingers into a tight grip.

Darasbt had a needle in his hand, and was holding it up to the light, scrutinising it. The prisoners watched fearfully and Luke wondered if his own expression had been similar to theirs - so desperate, so helpless - not so very long ago.

Darasbt calmly walked up to one of the men and injected him. There was a pause - Luke knew that pause: those drugs took a while to hit you, to get in your bloodstream and then -

- the man screamed, the sounding ripping through the air.

Luke turned away again, bile in his throat. He looked up - Vader was watching him, calmly.

"These men," Vader said, his voice somehow both cold and compassionate, "were the ringleaders of the cell we infiltrated today. One of them was in charge - it is uncertain which. But whoever it is has information we need."

Agitated energy whipped through Luke. He levelled his erstwhile father with a steely glare. "How can you watch this?" he demanded. "How can you make me watch-" he snapped his mouth shut on the end of that sentence, not certain he wanted to know how a father could make his son witness this - make the memories of the last week leap into life in front of him.

"Because you must learn the folly of your ideas about the Rebellion, and the weaknesses of the light side. I must teach you this."

Luke shook his head. "Like this?" he asked, and flinched as another scream cut the air, tearing at his control. Too close, too soon, too real -

Vader shifted his stance. "If I must."

"How does this teach me the 'folly' of the light side, Father?" he snapped, every muscle tense. "All I see is your cruelty!"

Vader leaned towards him. Luke refused to back away. "The leader of this group knows where another cell is located - one which is even now preparing to detonate its safehouse and cause another atrocity on the surface - perhaps an even larger one than this group initiated."

Luke frowned. "They wouldn't. The Alliance-"

"- has a standard procedure, I believe, which states that all evidence of the identities of personnel or relating to current missions must not come into Imperial hands - at any cost," Vader interrupted. He began to pace, and for the first time Luke saw agitation in his movements. He couldn't believe that was because of the interrogation behind them - Vader must have seen a hundred of them - so why was he agitated? Did it mean so much to him that Luke understood him, believed him?

Luke shook the idea away from him, and his eyes followed his father's pacing. "That's true," he finally relented. "But that doesn't mean they blow up civilian housing. I've never-"

Vader stopped. "Ah, my naïve son," he said, almost affectionately, Luke fancied - or perhaps he was just scraping for some humanity in the man. "There is more to the Alliance than its navy and its political leaders. Of course you have never seen the aftermath of a Rebel retreat - you have always been at the spearhead of the withdrawal. But I have seen the aftermath of the Alliance's attempts to cover its tracks and that is why I have sanctioned the use of interrogation on these men - better they suffer, than thousands of civilians."

Luke hadn't even realised he'd been backing away until his back hit the cold transparisteel of the viewing window. The screams were muffled now - but he didn't turn to see what was happening. He couldn't.

"I don't believe you," he said. He voice sounded scratchy to his own ears.

Vader stopped his pacing, and approached. "Why not? What purpose do I have in interrogating a few minor Rebels?"

"Because you want-"

"I have what I want," he said, pointedly inclining his head towards Luke. "Or would have, if you would just lay aside these foolish ideas about 'wrong' and 'right'." Luke stared into the depthless black of the mask, a lump in his throat. He didn't know how to reply. Instead, he had to turn aside to deny the heat in that regard.

"You can stop this," Vader said quietly.

Luke's gaze snapped up. "What?"

Vader inclined his head towards the viewing room, and the interrogation. Luke could hear Darasbt speaking - oh, how well he knew that voice! - but the words were too quiet to make out. Pain sparked out suddenly from one of the men, and seemed to sizzle across Luke's skin like electricity.

"You can stop this." Vader used a tone of intoxicating persuasion. Luke blanched.

He frowned. "Me? I..." he stopped, aware Vader wanted him to ask how, but stubbornly refusing to do as the man expected.

Something not dissimilar to amusement washed over Luke, tempered by the levity of the situation, and Luke realised it came from Vader. "You have but to ask," the man said.

"What's the point? You wouldn't let me stop the interrogation even if I knew how," Luke replied. Someone behind him was babbling no... no...no... but Luke shut it out of his consciousness. "You want that information."

"Very true," Vader replied - far too smoothly, Luke thought, and knew he was walking blindly into a trap. "But there are better ways than drugs and pain to gain that information."

"I don't-"

"Just reach out and take it from them. You have that power. You would be doing them a kindness, relinquishing them from their responsibility to remain silent."

"You mean... but that's wrong! You can't just - just rip information from people's minds. That's-"

"Of the dark side?" Vader asked, mildly.


"I see - so is it not of your feared dark side for me to allow the interrogation to continue?" he asked - again, mildly, but underneath his feelings Luke could sense a sincere desire for Luke to understand.

"I...it shouldn't have started in the first place."

"Ah, so I should just allow this second Rebel group to continue their retreat and kill thousands of innocents."

Luke frowned. "No, I-"

"There is no light side or dark side to this decision, Luke - to many of the decisions those in power must make. Such a distinction is a simplification, and a foolish one. No situation is ever that simple... not when you have the Force, and the responsibility that goes with it."

Luke narrowed his eyes. "You can't justify cruelty by saying it's for the greater good. That's-"

"So says the destroyer of the Death Star," Vader cut in, and Luke snapped his mouth shut. "I never took you for a hypocrite, my son."

Luke felt inordinately ashamed, suddenly. He pushed the feeling aside ruthlessly. "It still doesn't make it right."

"Then what should I do? Let them suffer? Let their comrades kill thousands?"

Luke didn't have an answer - maybe if he didn't have Vader leaning down on him, watching him keenly, and he didn't have the sound of the interrogation goring his senses, he might have been able to think clearly - to rationalise why this was wrong.

But he couldn't. All he could think was that he wanted the interrogation to stop.

A hand settled on his shoulder. "Then stop it, my son."

"How?" Luke croaked.

Vader felt anticipation running wildly through his thoughts. He tried to steady them - but he needed Luke to acknowledge this - to acknowledge that the light side was inadequate. To accept that the Jedi ideal of throwing your hands in the air and declaring you can do nothing for fear of risking your soul to a fairytale dark side was a coward's choice.

He whirled away from Luke suddenly, and paced to the other side of the small room. "Are you sure?"


"Are you sure? What would Jedi Kenobi think of you now?"

The boy flinched. The light from the interrogation suite backlit Luke against the transparisteel viewing window, throwing his body into shadow. "He wouldn't be interrogating them in the first place!"

Vader snorted. "Very true - according to the Jedi ideals of passivity, I should just allow the Rebels to blow up another city and then deal with the consequences." He was tempted, just for a moment, to rage about Jedi ideals, about how the Jedi had acted upon the collapse of peace in the Republic too slowly, fearful of infringing freedom.

"You're twisting things - Ben wouldn't -"

Vader shook his head. "It matters little what Obi-Wan would or wouldn't do - what will you do, Luke?"

The boy turned away from him, and his emotions bled across the Force, full of confusion and doubt. "I cannot...." he said.

"Then the interrogation will continue."

As if on cue, Darasbt started shouting at one of the Rebels, his faces inches from the other man's, who was shivering violently, head reeling from side to side. Luke's feelings reached a pitch of agitation.

Vader watched Luke as the boy faced the interrogation and put his palm to the cool transparisteel. Luke shoulders were stiff with distress and indecision. Not for the first time, Vader wished there was another way - another way to have the boy at his side. But there wasn't. Only through the strength gifted by the use of the dark side could he and his son be rid of Palpatine and rule the galaxy together: free it from this futile, bloody conflict. The light side would not aide Luke here, as it would not aide him in dealing with Palpatine. The boy would be torn to shreds by the Sith.

"Luke -" he said, and heard urgency in his tone.

"Okay!" Luke said. "Will you stop the interrogation if I get the information you want?"

Vader nodded. "I will."

Luke studied him sharply, turned back to the glass, and Vader felt his son's distinctive presence in the Force blossom to full power.

Caught by the brilliance of it, Vader mentally rushed towards it, fascinated, drawn in like a moth to a flame. But when he touched it, it felt as if that power plucked every nerve in his body, and with a suddenness that left him reeling, his consciousness went crashing out of reality - - -

Imperial Centre. Two years after Bespin.

The sky was brilliant with midday sunshine, the light pouring like wine through the windows of the Imperial Palace. The curved back of the throne was facing the view, so Vader approached slowly, almost cautiously. What a mockery this was - what a parody of his life for the past twenty years. He had always approached the figure occupying this throne with trepidation - but he had never conceived that it would be his own son he approached so warily.

"Father." Luke's voice was cold and brittle and even as Vader approached, the throne swung around, idly kicked into a turn by one slouched foot. The throne dwarfed the boy - and yet at the same time, he seemed to occupy the entire dais. Or rather, his presence did, creeping like cold water across the throne room. Luke regarded him disdainfully, with eyes that had gone grey and dead long ago. "I don't recall summoning you."

"Son," Vader greeted him. Luke frowned. There was just a faint spark of blue at his fingertips, and Vader hastily corrected himself. "Your Highness - there are rumours circulating that-"

"Rumours? Since when did you listen to rumours, my ascetic father?"

Vader didn't look up - he knew that if he did he'd see the mocking chill of his son's decayed smile. "They are from a knowledgeable source. They state that the Inyari Incident may have been started deliberately."

He waited a breath. Nothing happened. Finally - his lifted his gaze to the boy. A muscle under Luke's deathly-pale skin twitched. "I see," he said. "And?"

"And I thought perhaps-"

He stopped as cold fingers ripped through his mind - bored with waiting for his father to explain, Luke had simply brushed aside his shields and taken the information directly. A little trick Vader had taught him, that one, and he flinched mentally. How had he been so wrong - so wrong about it not mattering which side of the Force they used, so long as they used it for the right reasons - and so long as they did it together?

He'd been so wrong. So disastrously wrong. Instead of claiming his son, he'd created a monster.

Luke snorted in disdain. "Really, father - why should I bother about a disaster on a remote Mid-Rim planet?"

Vader curled his hands into fists, but could not raise anger against his son. He had been angry with the boy before - and Luke had demonstrated quite aptly what he thought of his father. Despite that risk of Imperial Rage, Vader persisted, "Millions died, more are homeless. The contagion -"

Luke shrugged, his eyes flashed wickedly. "Do you want to know a secret, my oh-so noble and caring father?" Vader stilled as the air cooled perceptually. Luke leaned towards him, and this close Vader could see his skin had a transparent quality - thin and worn, he could almost see the blue of Luke's veins. "I initiated that incident." He smiled, mocking Vader's sudden disgust. "I needed to know if it worked. Isn't it marvellous that it does?"

Nausea swamped him. Vader looked away, horrified. His own son had started that disease - and for what?!

Luke snickered. "It will be a brilliant tool against the Rebellion. They will have to surrender-"

Vader surged to his feet suddenly, horror cramping his sense of self-preservation. Luke's eyes widened at his father's sudden move - and then his expression turned menacing. He stood, deliberately slowly.

"You dare..." he whispered, and the tone touched Vader like ice.

"Luke -" he started, desperate to connect with the boy this thing had once been.

"Do not call me that!" Luke shrieked, and on the back of the words came a vicious backlash of Dark energy that ripped through Vader's shields, tore into his mind, shredded his senses, screamed through his consciousness - - -

- - - and Vader staggered, snapped back to reality as the vision splintered. Light flashed through his mind and he realised it was Luke's presence, at full volume, reaching out towards the men in the interrogation suite. It slid forwards, sharp as a knife - and familiar, a faint echo of the Dark power Vader had witnessed in his vision. the vision of his own future. A vision of his plans gone horribly wrong.

Through the viewing window, Vader saw one of the prisoners suddenly stiffen in his seat, and start mewling like a baby. Luke's mental touch reached towards him -

"No!" Vader shouted, and before he really knew what he was doing, he was bodily pulling Luke away from the transparisteel. Probably out of instinct, the boy resisted, and Vader put all his strength into the effort - and they both went crashing to the floor.

The man in the interrogation suite had started screaming.

Vader gripped the boy by his shoulders, shaking him. But Luke was too focused, too intent, too upset and agitated and frantic - too deep in the man's mind to pull out. Which was exactly what Vader had intended ten minutes earlier. But now -

"No! Luke - stop!" he sent through the Force, and then, almost to himself, although Luke probably heard him, "I was wrong! Don't –"

Luke's energy whipped backwards suddenly, and the boy's back arched, his eyes going wide. He was sweating with the exertion, skin gone pale.


"I... I can't," the boy mumbled, the words catching on his injured throat. "I can't do it - I can't. I won't - I can't...." And then his eyes rolled backwards and he slumped down, unconscious.

There was a weak moan from the interrogation room, and Vader looked up to see Darasbt standing over one of the prisoners, looking at him in shock, as the man lolled with his head at an odd angle, blood pouring from his nose.

And all Vader could think was -

- what have I done?

He flinched when the call came in. His comm officer looked up at him with an expression of desperation on his face, and Piett swallowed against the sudden bile in his throat. The Emperor was calling. And Vader was unavailable - again.

"I'll take it," he said, pleased that his voice remained calm, and strode towards his ready room.

When he steadied his hand and flicked on his comm, the Emperor pinned him with a look of irritated disdain. "Admiral Piett," he said, clearly agitated - and Piett had never seen Palpatine agitated before. "Perhaps you can tell me why Lord Vader is unable to answer my summons."

"Your Highness... Lord Vader instructed us not to interrupt him until further notice. His whereabouts on the ship are unknown - I have aides attempting to contact him even now. He may not -"

"Unknown, Admiral? I find it a little absurd to hear of a Fleet Admiral who does not know the whereabouts of his own superior."

The tone was like acid - it stripped the flesh from Piett's excuses. "Ah... yes, Your Highness. However, Lord Vader was quite firm. He said -"

"And what is so urgent that it cannot be interrupted, Admiral?"

Piett swallowed. Here was the rub - he didn't know, and yet Palpatine had instructed he keep him informed of Vader's actions. "I am not certain, Your Highness." And it wasn't that Piett hadn't tried to find out: Vader had simply made the task impossible without risking discovery.

The Emperor's eyes flared in anger. Behind Palpatine, a shadow moved briefly, and Piett thought he caught a glimpse of gold brocade flashing in the light of the holocomm, and of a statuesque figure ducking out of the pickup - humanoid, but with a long face and hair tied atop its head in a long ponytail. Piett narrowed his eyes, but then the figure was gone.

"I... see," Palpatine said, drawing his attention back. "And why not?"

"I believe his activities are related to the capture of the prisoner on Tallir earlier this week - however, Lord Vader has been adamant that no personnel should become involved in the interrogation of this prisoner, or interact with him. I have been unable to determine why this is, without risking suspicion."

A brittle smile from the Emperor. "Unable... or unwilling, Admiral?"

Piett felt the urge to tug at his collar: it was abominably hot in here. "Unable, Your Highness."

He had expected a reprimand, a brutal scolding, but the Emperor looked passive for a moment - and then he drew his lips back from his teeth and half-grimaced, half-snarled at Piett, violent anger flashing through his expression. Piett was stunned for a moment, unnerved by the animal rage that boiled beneath Palpatine's thin mask of civility.

"Get me Lord Vader, Piett - now." And that was definitely a snarl.

"Your Highness..." he stuttered.


Piett stood stiff, stunned by the anger. What had made Palpatine so angry, so suddenly? Why the urgency? Nothing had happened to cause such fury, as far as he knew. The raw violence in the Emperor's eyes lanced through Piett, and he found himself replying, "At once, Your Highness," before he really considered the implications of contacting Vader when the Dark Lord had commanded he not be interrupted, under any circumstances.

With a slashing movement of his hand, Palpatine cut the comm channel. And Piett closed his eyes, briefly.

Vader's long gait ate up the long walk back to his private wing and he was striding through the antechamber, Luke held in his arms, within minutes of leaving the Interrogation Bay. Luke had not regained consciousness yet.

An aide stood tensely in the central antechamber that branched off into Vader's chambers, nervously tapping his hand against his thigh. His gaze shot upwards as Vader stormed through, and his mouth dropped open in surprise when he saw the boy in Vader's arms.

"Lord Vader -"

Vader strode past him, brushing him aside. "Get a medic up here - now," he ordered, heading for the rooms he had assigned Luke.

"Yes, My Lord," the man responded automatically, but he followed Vader right to the guarded entrance of the guest-quarters Vader had commandeered some months ago, when he'd first learned of Luke's existence and started laying his plans. "My Lord - My Lord, a moment - please!"

Vader whirled on the man.

"What is it?" he snapped. The door slid open behind him.

"Lord Vader - the Emperor has contacted Admiral Piett. He requests you contact him immediately on an urgent matter," the aide said, speaking so quickly the words tumbled over one another, as if the man thought Vader would disappear inside the prohibited quarters midway through his sentence. Which Vader would have done, had the matter not been about Palpatine.

"An urgent matter?" he asked, and even as he did, he felt apprehension trickle through his nerves. Could Palpatine have felt what had just happened? Had it been that intense? His gaze shifted to his son's face, slack in unconsciousness. His chest tightened painfully... did Palpatine know?

He had to contact him - immediately. But he was loathe to leave Luke's side, even to go to his private comm centre, mere minutes from this suite. His hands tightened around his son.

"Very well - prepare the Communications Centre. I will be there shortly," he finally responded. "And ensure that medic arrives here before I am finished."

The aide looked a bit startled, as if he'd fully expected Vader to choke the life out of him. Which probably hadn't been an unrealistic expectation - and Vader would be having words with Piett about interrupting him against his direct order.

Vader turned, entered the quarters he had assigned his son, and moved to lay him upon the bed.

Luke looked... troubled. He muttered something incomprehensible, and shifted towards Vader's touch. Vader grimaced - he should not leave the boy. Not now, after such a violent use of the Force, and an equally violent retreat from it. There could be... consequences. Physically, and psychologically. Psychic-shock was a distinct possibility, although the boy showed no physical signs that he was in pain. He looked merely... troubled, clutching at the sheets beneath him.

But what if there were repercussions for what he'd just initiated? Luke had pulled out of the contact far quicker and more abruptly than was safe. Yes, psychic-shock was a risk - and so was the boy's resentment towards Vader; so was the possibility Luke would have touched the dark side and found it beguiling.

The image from Vader's vision re-entered his mind, unbidden. Luke, all light and life gone from his face, crackling with dark power and corruption.

That, of all things, I do not want, Vader thought, even as he acknowledged that it might be the only way for father and son to stay together.

Vader stilled Luke's movements with a hand on his forehead. "Luke, do you hear me?"

Luke responded by muttering something nonsensical. Vader cursed mentally. "Luke - I must leave for a few moments. If you wake, stay where you are - do not use the Force. Do not. You will risk going into psychic-shock." No response. Dissatisfaction clawed at Vader's mind. "Do you hear me?"


The door to the quarters opened and a stormtrooper hovered in the entranceway. "Lord Vader? The Communications Centre reports they are ready for your call."

And, though uneasy about it, Vader knew he had to leave.

This time, waking wasn't pleasant.

A dozen strained muscles protested at the slightest movement, and Luke fisted his hands in the coverlet he lay atop until the spasms stopped. Light shone in his eyes, and he closed them, turned away from it. Burnt orange still showed through his eyelids though, even when he buried his face into the pillow. He took a deep breath, and his lungs spasmed in pain.

Funny - he didn't remember falling asleep. He remembered feeling tired when he woke, exploring a bit, and then watching the battle raging outside and then -

- oh, that was right: he'd fallen asleep watching it.

Flexing his hand experimentally, Luke sat upright - and nearly vomited when the world began spinning alarmingly.

That'll be the effect of the psychic-shock he thought foggily, but the words didn't seem to make sense and he ignored them.

Slowly, steadily, he got his feet under him and stood. And then, just as tentatively, he reached out with his mind towards Vader, trying to ascertain the man's location and -

- he pulled back sharply, stung by that simple Force-touch, burnt as if he'd been branded. He sucked in a shocked gasp of air - and again his chest cramped in pain.

It's psychic-shock - don't use the Force. he thought distantly, and then. Huh? What the hell is psychic-shock? But the words didn't make any sense, and his head was so full of pain and a muggy, impenetrable fog that he didn't have the energy to find out.

He stood, despite the pain, and his balance teetered precariously.

I feel like I've gone ten rounds with Chewie, he thought, rubbing at his face. And I feel... dirty.

He frowned - that didn't make sense. He held his arms out in front of him, and they looked perfectly clean. But he felt like... felt like there was a film of dirt on them only he could see. He turned them over, but, no - nothing. So why did he feel so grimy?

Well, it was nothing a quick wash wouldn't fix. He was sure he'd spotted a 'fresher earlier, when he'd snooped around the room. Walking slowly - and didn't that make his legs cramp viciously? - he made it to the 'fresher door, and limped inside.

And grinned.

Stars - he'd never seen a 'fresher so big! This was bigger than his whole Homestead on Tatooine. You could fit a couple of X-wings in here! It was all white and silver, and panelled in a dark wood that looked incredibly rich, like chocolate. He ran his hand along the wood as he walked inside, marvelling when he saw the shower - a real water shower!

Fast as his stubbornly exhausted body would let him, he stripped off his thin shirt and dropped it to the floor. Bending over to undo his boots proved painful, and he had to stop a couple of times and take in deep gulps of air. Hells, what was wrong with his body? He'd felt rough when he first woke up on this ship, but not this bad.

The Interrogation Bay... the prisoner... he thought distantly, but ignored it.

Maybe falling asleep in that alcove hadn't been such a good idea when he was feeling so rough. But... hadn't he just woken up in a bed? He frowned - how had he got from the alcove to the bed? Hells, he felt light-headed, suddenly.

Shaking the confusion from his thoughts, he pulled his pants off and straightened unsteadily. Something... something was eating at his soul, but he couldn't put a name to it. It felt... wrong. But he couldn't say why.

He turned the shower on, and put his hand under the spray. It never failed to amaze him, this luxury - bathing in water. He turned his hand palm up-

- and frowned. There were marks on his palm, angry red crescent shapes where he'd dug his fingernails into his palm. When had he done that? They hadn't been there earlier.

Unnerved, Luke stepped into the shower. And as the water hit his body, so did the memories.

"Connection established, My Lord. We are awaiting the Emperor's response."

Vader nodded briefly. He remained kneeling as the static buzzed in his ears, his will bent upon cooling his thoughts. Should the Emperor see that he was distracted, Vader would have a lot of explaining to do.

But... he was distracted. And angry - with the Emperor for contacting him at such an inopportune moment, and with himself for submitting to the vision and for failing to shield Palpatine from what Luke and he were doing.

Luke's mind briefly brushed his, and Vader stiffened in alarm. He was midway to standing and leaving when Palpatine's dextrose voice cut through him, "Ah, Lord Vader. I have been expecting your call for some time, my friend." And with a hammering regret, Vader severed the contact with his son, and remained kneeling.

He lifted his head to the Emperor. The words had been mildly spoken, but the man's expression was one of angered indignation.

"My apologies for the delay, my Master, I-"

- his words choked off in a strangled gasp as the bond between Luke and himself flared into brilliant, violent life. Like acid poured into his mind, it burnt him, and he recoiled physically.

"Luke!?" he sent.

No answer, but his mind echoed with the sound of screaming.

"Luke! Answer me!"

No response.

"Vader!" the Emperor snapped, piercing him with a glare. The anger the Sith had been keeping in check had been unleashed, and fury roiled in Palpatine's eyes. "Explain yourself!"

"I..." Vader started. An echo of scorching pain sizzled down his nerves. Abruptly, Vader stood upright, and was already turning for the door as he said, "My apologies, Master."


And he fled the room.

There was a noise in his ears, pummelling his mind. It sounded like somebody sobbing, and for a moment Luke didn't realise it was him. He caught his breath, barely, struggling to breathe, and then the sobs turned into a keening wail as the memories rushed in at him in a wave, more emotion than fact -

- scorching anger, harried desperation, terrified elation at the power that had suddenly rushed to him, a moment's intoxication in the dark lust he felt for it - and then disgust with himself, and denial, and desperate retreat - and then his mind spasming at his sudden retreat - and then darkness.

It overtook him in a wave of anguish and horror that made every muscle cramp and his legs collapsed from under him. He fell to a heap on the floor of the shower, and the water hammered down on his head with a strength that felt suddenly bruising.

He covered his head with his hands and wailed at the emotions tearing up his insides. Is this psychic-shock? he thought distantly, and this time he knew what his mind had been trying to tell him all along. The backlash of his Force-touch with Vader tore through him, violent and unrelenting; until he thought it might just tear him apart. And then -

- then hands were grabbing him, pulling him out from under the pounding spray of the shower, and he fought them briefly before his muscles cramped and he bit down on his lip at the pain, splitting it. He was still wailing, he realised, but he it sounded muffled as he bit his lip. He didn't feel that particular pain though - he felt almost disconnected from his own body, drowning in mental agony.

"Luke! Pull back from the Force!" someone was saying - Vader? - and he was dragged from the shower cubicle and onto the floor of the fresher. He couldn't see much - his mind was blinding him - but his hands instinctively grabbed for support and found the leather and armour of his father. He clung to him.

"Luke? Listen to me - you're using the Force: you have to stop. Luke?!"

His mouth felt numb - his throat felt numb - he couldn't answer. His hands tightened painfully around Vader's arms, and he clawed to get closer to the one thing that felt like it was still grounding him in the real world - the presence of his father.

"You must pull back. Focus on me," Vader said, and Luke had to roll the words around in his mind a few times before he truly heard them. Nothing felt real - nothing felt stable: he felt like he was made of light and pain and nothing else. Like his soul was exploding.

Vader pulled him closer, until Luke rested against his chest, and his father's cloak somehow got wound around them both, tangling them together. Through physical senses that felt like they'd been swaddled in cotton wool, he felt a hand brushing his hair away from his face, again and again.

"Focus on me," Vader repeated, and this time the sound of command in his voice made Luke start.

Focus - right. He could do this. He reached towards Vader with his mind and -

"No! Not like that! Don't use the Force, Luke - you're going into shock. Focus on me."

And for a minute he didn't understand. Then he got it. He brushed his face against the cold plastisteel beneath his cheek, felt the buttons of his father's respirator controller digging into his bare skin. His hands tightened around his father's arms where he clung to him, and he felt an answering tightening of his father's grip. He forced his mind to perceive the oddly-familiar smell of leather, and his eyes to focus on the pattern of the leather covering Vader's arms.

Dark spots were appearing in his vision, and he still felt strangely light-headed. His lungs spasmed again.

"You have to breathe," Vader commanded, and Luke sucked in a breath of air, forcing it around the cramping of his muscles. The Force still screamed at him - but he shoved it away desperately, filled his mind with what his physical senses were telling him.

And they were telling him... This is home. Stay here, right here - forever. This is home.

The hand brushing his hair stilled, "Luke?"

His tongue felt too big and his mouth too dry. "Yeah," he said. Or tried to. It came out more like yugh...

Vader sighed noisily - and there was relief mixed with dire warning in the Dark Lord's voice when he said, "Good. Do not attempt to reach out to the Force again."

"... no kidding," Luke managed to say, and something like a startled laugh rumbled in Vader's chest. The vibration quivered through Luke, and he wondered at the warmth that was heating his cheeks. It grounded him, that warmth, and he focused on it. His body felt... shattered. Utterly spent. The muscles in his chest spasmed again, and he instinctively tightened his grip, hissing at the sensation. It wasn't nearly as sharp as it had been moments earlier - but somehow it felt more real, now: brought him back down to the physical world.

As did the sudden realisation that he was clinging to Vader - to his father - as if he was the only raft on a stormy sea. Hastily, he tried to pull back, but the Dark Lord refused to loosen his grip. "What are you doing?" Vader rumbled, sounding vaguely irritated, vaguely bemused.

"I... I..." Luke started to say, and then stuttered into silence when he realised he was not only lying in his father's lap - he was laying there naked and dripping wet from the shower. The next word from his mouth was a particularly crude Huttese curse Han had taught him. Vader tightened his grip momentarily.

Luke released one hand from the death-grip he had on Vader, and tried to at least pull his father's cloak further around him - but it was stuck between them, wound around his legs, and he dropped his arm with a groan, resting his head against the hard plastisteel of Vader's chestplate. "So much for Jedi dignity," he muttered, and knew he was blushing bright crimson.

Vader snorted, and gently began to unwind the cloak from his own body so Luke could get his legs out of it. Luke briefly wondered why Vader - such a practical, no-nonsense figure - bothered with something as frivolous and impractical as a cape. Maybe it was to trap wayward sons with.

"Or perhaps it has something to do with Sith dignity," Vader replied, mildly.

Luke squinted up at the impassive mask. Had he heard right - had that been said with relieved humour? Surely not. "Yeah, well, we're not exactly great adverts for either, right now," he said, and the words seemed to exhaust him. He felt his arms trembling with the force of the grip he had on Vader's arms, and he relaxed them, let himself sag just for a moment. "What just happened?" he muttered, almost to himself.

Vader answered him. "Your wild retreat from the Force in the Interrogation Bay caused a backlash in the Force. You made it worse by attempting to contact me."

He frowned. No, that didn't make much sense to him - he'd never heard of anything like that before. But - but now he remembered what had happened in that bay, and he stiffened at the memories. The governor, and the prisoners, and Vader urging him to do something about it - do something to stop it. And him - searching through the man's head, ripping his mind apart.

And Vader had made him do it.

But... no - Vader hadn't made him do anything. Luke had chosen to do it - though Vader had forced his hand.

Anger and confusion swelled in him, and Luke struggled to free himself from Vader's grip, attempting to get his weight under him. Vader grabbed his arm as he was halfway up, and prevented him from pulling himself fully upright. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

Luke swallowed a rushed breath of air. "I need... I have to..."


Luke tugged at his arm, but Vader refused to let go. "Let me up," he demanded, feet sliding on the wet floor.

Vader attempted to pull him back down. "Wait, Luke - give yourself a moment to recover."

Harried agitation was making him shake. I went into that man's mind, he thought, dismayed. I ripped my way in and I-

"Wait," Vader insisted. "Let me-"

"I can do it," Luke protested, trying to stand again. "I can-" and then he shut up abruptly when his leg collapsed under him and he landed back in Vader's lap, sprawled over him. Vader wrapped his arms around him firmly, preventing any further movements. Luke barely realised he was shaking. He curled his hands around his father's arms, and wondered what the hell he had done.

Abruptly, the Dark Lord stood, pulling Luke upright with him, but supporting his weight. "You... have your mother's temperament," he chided, and the words were aimed right at Luke's innate sense of curiosity. It distracted him enough that he didn't have time to react when Vader abruptly hefted him into his arms and started walking out of the fresher.

"What the - wait a minute! Put me down!"

"In a moment," Vader responded coolly. And, sure enough, a bare few strides and they were in the bedroom, and Luke was lowered with an oddly touching gentleness to the bed. "Stay," Vader ordered, punctuating it with a pointed finger.

Luke grimaced, but did as he was told as Vader disappeared briefly, only to reappear with a soft robe and a towel held in his hands. He moved back to Luke, and began attempting to help him into the robe. Luke grabbed it and blushed. "I can do it!"

"Permit me this indulgence, my son - I've had enough shock-echo in my head for one day and do not desire another dose purely because your stubborn pride will not allow you to accept help when you need it."

Luke blinked owlishly at that. "Huh?" And then Vader already had one of his arms in the robe, so Luke figured he might as well let him help with the other. When Vader stepped back, Luke reached for the towel and started rubbing his hair with it. "Shock-echo?" he repeated, the words muffled by the towel.

He could almost feel Vader's frown as he reached out a hand to still Luke's vigorous attempt at drying his hair. "Not so violently, unless you wish to give yourself a headache," Vader said, and slowly rubbed the towel over Luke's head.

The action was so absurdly gentle, Luke couldn't think what to say to that - what to say to the implicit concern. "I... uh...what's a shock-echo?" he asked again, instead.

Vader dropped the towel, turned away and paced to the window. Luke felt oddly hollow, suddenly. He craned his neck to watch the man standing in the starlight. He twisted onto his side for a better view - Luke wasn't touching the Force, but he could sense something... different about Vader suddenly. Something melancholy, and troubled. Or maybe he was imagining it.

Still facing the stars, Vader finally responded to his question. "I have seen it happen to others, but never felt it before. I had concerns that you might suffer the consequences of your sudden retreat from the Force... and from my own efforts to pull you back from the man's mind... but since you showed no immediate symptoms-"

"Other than dropping unconscious."

"... other than falling unconscious, I hoped it would not occur. And I was... called away. Urgently."


Regret, that was it - that was what Luke saw in Vader. But that was plainly ridiculous, wasn't it?

Despite himself, Luke felt a wild hope ignite within him. It battered at his senses, begging him to believe. Vader regretted... what? Leaving him alone afterwards? Or forcing him to do it in the first place? Or more than that - did he regret all of it?

Stop that, Skywalker, he chided himself. Uncle Owen always said you were full of stupid dreams that would get you killed.

Shoring up his courage, he asked, "You tried to stop me... why?"

Vader changed his stance, slightly tilting his head back towards Luke. Funny, after Luke'd just lain stark naked in the man's lap, Vader's regard didn't seem nearly as frightening as it had before.

"What?" Vader asked

"Why did you stop me? I thought you wanted me to get that information."

Silence. Luke could hear his own breathing, matching time with Vader's.

"So did I," Vader finally responded.

Luke screwed his nose up. "That's no answer."

Vader turned back to the viewport, though there was nothing to see out there. The battle was long since over. "No, it is not. Very well - I wanted you to discover the dark side so that we might determine to overthrow Palpatine together. However... I decided the costs were just ... too high."

A lump had formed in Luke's throat. He pulled the robe closer. Wet hair dripped in his eyes. "What - just like that?"

There was a long pause. "Yes. Just like that."

Luke snorted. "Yeah, right." There was no response to that, and Luke dropped his head to the mattress. "So - what now?"

Vader clasped his hands behind his back, "I do not know."

"Oh. But - the Emperor. What about-" Luke stopped as Vader stiffened suddenly, his fists clenching. He cursed, and turned abruptly. "What?" Luke asked, alarmed.

"The Emperor - I was speaking with him when I... when you called for my help." Vader said, already striding for the door. He was halfway there when he stopped, and turned back to Luke - and then turned back to the door, looking torn.

"I called to you?" Luke asked, wondering.

"Naturally," Vader said. "I am your father." Luke blinked at that, with no words to respond. Vader still looked uncertain. "I must speak with Palpatine - a medic will arrive soon - should have already arrived. Remain in bed until he is here, and do not make any attempt to use the Force. Is that understood?"

"... sure," was all Luke could say. And then, as Vader swept from the room in a rush of dark agitation, he whispered, "Wait a minute - you hung up on the Emperor - for me?" But the door shut, and Vader didn't answer.

"We've got to make a choice, Princess - stay here, wait and hope for an opportunity to get to Luke... or go after Han."

Her eyes were closed, a futile attempt to stem the development of the blistering headache that was blossoming behind her eyes. "You trust this source?"

Lando didn't pause. "With my credit chip," he said. "If he says Boba Fett has holed up on Algair, then Boba Fett has holed up on Algair." He dropped into the pilot seat with a sigh. "Can't tell you how long he'll be there, though," he said, pointedly, and Leia knew that if she opened her eyes she'd see him looking at her, intently.

She breathed, deeply, willed her body to relax from the state of unbearable tension it had been in for days. Like every other time she'd tried it, it didn't work. "You think we should go to Algair?"

This time, there was a pause, and one that grew uncomfortable. Leia knew what the answer was - she hadn't really had to ask, but she had done, anyway. Maybe she had a masochistic streak in her, somewhere.

"It's not my choice to make," Lando said evenly. "I just think... what are we waiting for, here, Princess? What kind of opportunity are we expecting? And when we know where Fett is - where Han is..." She heard him sigh noisily. "I don't know what to tell you, Leia. It's your call."

Her call - and one so incredibly painful she didn't even want to open her eyes and face it. There'd been difficult decisions in the past - political and military decisions, even ones that had cost her comrades and friends. But never like this. Never so heart wrenching; never so impossible.

"I..." she said, and opened her eyes, though staring at nothing.

"Princess... we're in danger here ourselves - if the Falcon is ID-ed..."

She swallowed convulsively. I can't make this decision, she thought. I can't....

But she knew she had to, and soon.

The door to the quarters he had assigned Luke slid shut behind his back and, despite his attempts at rigid aloofness, it felt as if a light in his mind dimmed slightly.

You hung up on the Emperor - for me?

Vader grimaced, self-deprecatingly. How was he supposed to answer that - 'Yes, my son, I did.' Or - 'Do not be foolish. I am many things, but suicidal is not one of them'? Neither answer seemed to encapsulate the instinct that had made him do it - the answer he wanted to give: 'Of course I did. How could I not?'

And none of those answers, none of them, even began to touch upon the confusion raging inside of him. None began to address the staggering reality of the situation - the fact that somewhere in the last few months he had switched from obeying Palpatine without thought to obeying his heart - without thought. It was a line he had never crossed before - not so blatantly, at least.

The communication suite was empty when he entered, stalking to the raised holoplatform and kneeling without ceremony, preparing himself mentally.

Up until just a few hours ago, the change happening inside of him had been progressing so slowly he'd barely noticed it. Up until a few hours ago, when it had accelerated beyond even his iron-willed control.

The thought made breathing difficult, it was so full of portent. Because the fact was - he'd crossed the line. Leapt over it, in fact. And now he had to face the consequences.

Composure - he had to regain his composure. And it would not be an easy thing to claw together, hurriedly, before facing Palpatine.

Palpatine had been kept waiting, which was a most unwise thing to have been responsible for. His ire would be swift and merciless, and Vader steeled himself against it. He had to attempt to keep up the pretence of at least reluctant obedience, or Palpatine would unleash his fury upon Vader, which might not kill him, but would certainly leave him in a state where he was in no position to protect Luke from the Emperor's desires. And with Vader gone, the Emperor would certainly discover Luke's presence on Executor.

The air in front of Vader shivered with blue static, and then began to clear, an image coalescing out of the buzzing holowaves. Palpatine, his hood pulled back off his head, eyes alight with barely- checked anger. He said - nothing. Just stared at Vader, mouth twisted into a feral grimace, an expression set for razing.

Composure, Vader reminded himself, reluctant obedience. Because he had to weather Palpatine's anger, convince the old man that he still had a spark of loyalty, of downtrodden submission, within him. Because if he didn't appear penitent now... both he and his son would be lost.

But even as he waited for Palpatine to speak, Vader couldn't help but wonder - Should I survive Sidious's wrath - what do we do then?

Three paces by three paces: not much of a living space for a former regional governor. Darasbt knew every inch of the cell - the dark corners; the hard, uncomfortable bed; the iron mesh on the glaring lights. The door had been shut for hours, with no sign of Vader or anyone else, after he'd been escorted from the interrogation bay. He kept staring at it, waiting for it to open, for Vader to enter, and punish him or free him - Darasbt didn't much care which one it was, anymore: either way he was dead. Without the money he would have got from Mothma's bounty, he was dead. Vader would just speed up the process.

With that morose thought rattling around his head, Darasbt fell into a troubled sleep, and so didn't notice, sometime later, the door to his cell opening - not until a shaft of ruddy light fell across his eyes.

"W-what?" he asked, sitting up stiffly and shading his eyes.

"Get up," someone said - someone indistinct, a silhouette in the lit doorway.

"Lord Vader?"

The person snorted in apparent contempt. "Hardly," he said. "I've got a message for you - from Imperial Centre."

"The Emperor!" he croaked, throat tightening.

"Wrong again," the man said, and he stepped down into the shadow, the door shutting. "From someone you owe money to - a lot of money."

And, finally, his sleep-addled brain caught up with the situation. He forced back the bile from his throat. "Make it quick," he said.


"Make it quick - I'm not good with pain."

The man laughed coldly at that. "I'm not here to kill you. Prince Xizor is willing to give you another chance. He has instructed me to tell you that if you get rid of Skywalker, he will write off your debt."

The feeling of hope was so compelling, it made his head hurt and his eyes momentarily saw nothing but white noise. "If I... kill him?"


He licked his lips. "And... and... but... how?"

"I thought you'd never think to ask," the man said, voice dripping with disdain. He dropped a pile of clothes to the floor, at Darasbt's feet. Darasbt looked down at them, at the clean white medical uniform; at the portable med-unit, that cracked open, hypos and bandages spilling across the floor. "Vader ordered a medic for Skywalker - the medic had a slight... accident. Now you're him. It'll get you into Skywalker's quarters; the rest is up to you." And he produced a small blaster, and tossed it onto the pile.

Feeling almost numb with hope, Darasbt stood, pulling the clothes into his shaking hands. Hope - it was an intoxicating emotion. "Who are you?" he asked.

The man laughed. "Not everyone on this ship is loyal only to Vader. Come on - get on with it. Vader ordered that medic a good half-standard ago. He'll probably return to the boy soon, although he's currently engaged in a lengthy conversation with the Emperor. You have perhaps a quarter-standard."

"A quarter-standard... I can't possibly-"

"You can, or you will die," the man interrupted, deadpan. He turned back to the door as Darasbt struggled into the outfit. Within a standard minute, they were moving.

"Lord Vader..." Palpatine finally said, with a voice that grated like broken glass scratching through Vader's mind. The mental probe behind the words, sent over light-years distance, lanced through Vader's outer shields before he could fully repel it, and the holoprojector reflected Palpatine's acrid gaze. "I have been... waiting."

Vader bowed his head in fake contrition. "My apologies, my Master. An urgent matter required my attention."

"An urgent matter," Palpatine repeated, slowly, mockingly, his teeth flashing in a deathly smile. "An urgent matter." His voice had a sing-song quality to it that Vader didn't trust. "Do you think me a fool, Vader?"

"My Master-"

"Do you think me a fool!?"

Vader clenched his hands, already raising his shields, his defences. Palpatine was enraged - the fury bounced against his shields like acid rain.

"No, my Master. I-"

An expression of hurt passed over the older Sith's face, mocking him with the fallacy of it. "Ah... my friend... when did it come to this?" The sadness had a hard edge, a cold edge, that made Vader recheck his shields. They were still intact.

"I acquired a prisoner on Tallir, my Master, who has required much of my attention. There was a problem that required urgent action," he said, steadily, using the ring of truth to cover what he had omitted.

The smile faded from Palpatine's gnarled face. "I taught you that trick, did I not? To tell half-truths when a lie will not be trusted."

Vader said nothing for a moment. Too late, he thought, he already knows. "I do not understand, my Master. I-"

Palpatine's lips curled back from his teeth, flashing a feral smile, "My lessons... you learnt them well - perhaps... at times... a little too well. Do you think I do not see the lies?"


"Answer me just this one thing, truthfully, Lord Vader. Is it your son that you have secreted away on your ship, so stealthily? Your... dear... son."

The clarity of the Emperor's indignation slashed away what was left of Vader's hope that he would be able to explain away his erratic behaviour. Was there any point in lying? Probably not, not anymore, but a wild desire to protect Luke made him say, "No, my Master," and he knew he had just squandered his last chance at pacifying Palpatine as soon as the words left his mouth. Had the respirator allowed it, he would have, ludicrously, been holding his breath.

There was a pause, as Palpatine glared at him in angered fury. Then, "Liar!" Palpatine shouted, voice shrill, eyes flashing murderously. "Liar - I helped you, I saved you, I taught you. And how do you repay me? With lies!"

"I did not-" Vader started to reply, but he felt the Force ripple apprehensively, felt it shrink around him, shudder in warning - and saw the scream of rage racing through the Force at the same time as Palpatine screamed traitor across the light-years.

And then it reached him, screaming through the Force, a bolt of psychic energy so brilliant and sharp Vader flinched before it even touched him. And when it reached him -

- energy sizzled through Luke's muscles, sharp and bright like a star had exploded in his chest and was expanding outwards, atom by atom, straight through him.

He was halfway to the door before he knew what possessed him, and then in his rush to move he tripped over the robe he wore and went sprawling to the floor, arms spread-eagled, reaching for the doorway.

Luke took a moment to breathe, to identify where the panic had come from, and then -

- cold, like he'd never felt before, seemed to surround him, choke him, until the breath in his lungs stopped breathing. His mind spiralled away from his body, and he felt only distantly the heavy pain of falling from the podium, crashing to the floor. His mind was concentrating on shoring up his defences, preventing the breach that would surely kill him. But even as he did it, he began to feel light-headed, insubstantial.

Words reverberated around his skull - My friend, my friend, my friend, my pupil, my creation... traitor! But they were dull, strangely muffled, disconnected.

And he felt like he was drifting away, away....


He started back towards awareness as he recognised the mental cry, and the anguish and concern that rippled through him.

And following right on the heels of the echo of Luke's concern for him, was his concern for Luke. The reckless boy was using the Force to call to him - had he not learnt his lesson about psychic shock? Imprudent child!

The frantic call in Vader's mind threw him for a moment, but it also leant him strength - strength that, though he knew, logically, he should use to further strengthen his shields, he used to send a message winging back-

"Luke - do not use the Force."

"Father! I'm coming - wait - hold on - I - "

And more than he was afraid for himself, right then, he was afraid of what his son would do to reach him. "That was not a request!"

More pain, leaking through his mind, lapping at the corners of his sanity, stole his ability to both call to Luke and protect his mind from Palpatine's attack.

He heard, muffled, as if from a great distance, Palpatine say, mockingly, as if he didn't already know, "Who are you hiding from me, my friend? Is it your son? If I send agents to your ship, who will I find?"

He tried to reply, but no words would come out of his paralysed throat. And when he didn't answer, Palpatine became more enraged, his anger swelling around Vader, until it became a palpable thing, a flood, enveloping him.

And then the rage was overwhelming him, drowning him. The echo of an anxious voice in his head, calling for him, and then -

- darkness.

"Hold on - I'm coming. I... Father? Father!"


Only a still silence, an emptiness, as if he had been suddenly struck deaf or blind, and was left groping madly in the dark. Luke curled his hands into fists, ignoring the searing pain in his head (psychic shock or an echo of Vader's pain? How could he know?) and reached - reached - reached -

Nothing. Just... nothing.

And Force crackled around him, burning brilliant red and orange through his eyes, searing him. Too hot, too hot - a memory of a nightmare, a lifetime ago, ripped through him - _It brushed against his skin, blistering it. He tried to scream, but had no voice to cry out with. Lines of fire were traced over his body and he writhed and kicked the fiery talons away from him. They wrapped around him, snaking up his legs, burning deep black furrows into the pale skin. The flesh puckered and burst, his hair crackled like baking hay, tears sizzled on his cheek. His body blazed with white-hot energy, eaten from the inside out - and he couldn't even scream -

Luke lurched backwards abruptly, pulling himself along the carpet, up onto his knees, as if he could outrun the pain in his mind. Psychic shock? he thought, and then the words, imprudent child! slid into his mind, like an echo, or a memory.

The pain was too much, and though he wanted to keep searching, though it felt like he was raking his fingers through a fire, hunting for that elusive presence, he couldn't. He wrenched his awareness back, away from the Force, and the fire in his nerves died slowly.

For a moment, he just knelt there, sucking in breath and clawing for calm. He wanted to hug himself, or to go stand under the icy blast of the shower, or go break something, violently. Do not use the Force! - how could his father tell him to not try, when he knew something was going horribly, irreparably wrong?

"Boy! Get to your feet!"

He was so shocked by the words that he jumped, heart making a valiant attempt at leaping out of his chest. His eyes widened when he looked up - up to the doorway, where three stormtroopers stood, weapons out and aimed at him. "Get up and stand under the light," one of them said, coldly, gesturing with his rifle.

Why were they here? When had they come in? He didn't remember - didn't remember much, other than fire, and pain, and -

"Get him up," the trooper commanded, and one of his comrades strode towards Luke. Hurriedly, legs feeling like dead weight, Luke attempted to stand, but the trooper still grabbed him by the bicep and yanked him upwards, fast enough that Luke's nerves all gave a stab of protest and for a minute there Luke thought he might just throw up over the trooper's white armour.

"What do you want?" he asked, feeling time running through his fingers, trickling away like sand. He had to get out, get to his father, help him -

"Bring him forward, under the lights," the same trooper ordered, and moved further into the room as Luke was pushed forward. He felt like meat at a market, being disapprovingly studied, as the trooper gazed at him, the helmeted head moving slowly down, then up. "Are you hurt?"

"Am I hurt?" Luke repeated, numbly.

"We heard screaming," the trooper said, in a clipped voice, irritation clear. "Are you hurt?"

"I... no," he said, and tried to pull his arm free of the trooper that held him. The man took it as disobedience, and yanked his arm behind his back, tightening his hold to something approaching painful.

"It's a trick," the trooper said. "To get us in here."

The first trooper seemed to consider this, then nodded. "Agreed - restrain him. I will inform Lord Vader," he said, and before the trooper had finished speaking, Luke's other arm was wrenched behind his back and the cold click of cuffs echoed in his ears. His first instinct was to protest - but he stamped that down brutally - if they were going to try and call Vader, then Luke might find out what the hell had just happened to him.

Still - it hurt, and he gritted his teeth against the treatment.

After a few minutes of tense silence, the trooper that had spoken first looked up, then, and said, sounding puzzled, "I am unable to contact Lord Vader. He-"

"What? Why not?" Luke asked, urgently, pulling against the restraints uselessly.

"Unknown," he replied, tersely, and then turned to his counterparts. "We will remain here with the prisoner under Level One observation until I am able to contact Lord Vader."

Luke chafed at that, but the stormtrooper behind him roughly pushed him onto the edge of the bed and set himself up in sentry mode, still and unmoving. Luke fumed silently - and worried inwardly. If only he could access the Force - hadn't Vader said something about sending a medic for him? Was there something he could be given that would let him access the Force again? Latching onto the faint hope, Luke turned to the third trooper, the one yet to speak.

"I was told a medic would be coming here," he said. The trooper didn't answer him. "Where is he?" No response. "Come on, where? Lord Vader ordered it."

The man shifted his weight from one foot to the other, apparently uneasy. "Unknown. He has not yet-"

"I'm right here," a voice interrupted, and the recognition of who had spoken turned Luke's heart to ice.

A sharp burst of adrenaline raced through Vader's numbed mind, brushing against the shields he was managing to keep intact - though only just. Adrenaline, and sudden nausea. It lifted him briefly from the darkness, but then he felt Palpatine latch onto that consciousness, suffocating him, and he was too busy fighting off the attack to wonder where that spike of adrenaline had come from.

Luke's pulse was pounding against his temples: he could barely hear Darasbt's words. He looked hastily from trooper to trooper, but none of them seemed the least bit surprised by the man's presence here.

"How did you-"

"Doesn't matter," Darasbt interrupted, waving his hand negligently. Or - it looked like a negligent gesture, but then Luke saw the hidden blaster slip from his sleeve into his palm, and Darasbt raised the weapon.

The troopers never had time to react. Before any of them could fire off a shot, all three of them stiffened in shock and pain as a lethal blaster bolt lashed through them, set so high the shots passed right through each of them before embedding themselves in the far wall. The stormtroopers fell to the floor with almost comical slowness, collapsing into broken heaps of charred white armour. All Luke could do was stare for a moment, and then his instincts took over and he charged at Darasbt, aiming to bowl him over before the man could re-aim his hidden blaster.

"Father!" Luke screamed in his head, though he knew Vader's dire warning against using the Force had not been given lightly. "Father?!" And there was -

- no response. Only the fire that flared to life in his mind as soon as he touched the Force.

He staggered, blind-sided by that instant agony, and Darasbt sidestepped his attack, before delivering a roundhouse blow to Luke's ear, which sent him crashing to the floor.

The trials of the last few days had caught up with Luke - his limbs felt sluggish, his head felt dizzy, his stomach was cramping with nausea. He was slow to roll and rise to his feet, to kick out at Darasbt as the man fell upon him, pinning him to the floor with nothing more than his overwhelming bulk.

Luke arched his back and tried to throw the man off him, his mind falling into a wild moment of panic. He wasn't supposed to use the Force - he couldn't contact his father - he couldn't fight back, with his arms and hands restrained behind his back - he was at the man's mercy - back at this man's mercy - and he knew exactly how unmerciful this man was -

"Stop struggling!" Darasbt hissed in his ear, his breath hot against Luke's face. "I don't want to kill you - but I will if I have to."

And all he could do was glare futilely at Darasbt, and force himself to relax. "You're not here to kill me?" he repeated, not believing a word of it.

Darasbt sneered at that. "Oh, I was going to, but I had a much better idea, because I don't suppose I'd get more than five steps out this room before Vader caught me, if I just killed you here." He tilted his head to one side, as if considering the merit of his own genius. "Much as I'd like to kill you, after all the trouble you've caused me, you're my insurance now. Though if you cause me any trouble, I'll blow your head off - and enjoy it."

Luke stared up at the man in horror. What had he thought when he'd first been captured by this man, all those days ago - that he might be slightly unbalanced?

Definitely more than slightly, he thought, a little hysterically, and Luke could hear his heart racing, hammering a rapid beat against his ribs.

Darasbt wiped at the sweat on his forehead. Then, he reached into his med-pack and pulled out a needle, eyeing it as he unsheathed it.

"If you don't want to kill me, what do you want?" Luke asked, dismayed that his voice sounded shrill with apprehension. Calm, peace, he thought, but not daring to call the Force to his aide, his mind was awash with a feeling of powerlessness. And fear - fear for himself and fear for his father, wondering what had happened to him; worrying for him. Such a strange feeling, but utterly consuming.

"I want to get out of here alive," Darasbt said. "And you're my ticket for a ride off this ship." He didn't smile as he stepped forward, the hypodermic in his hand. Luke rolled onto his front, tried to lever himself upwards and regain his feet - but Darasbt grabbed his forearm and yanked Luke back against his chest, sank the needle into his skin. Luke felt the icy-cold liquid seeping into his flesh, and his anxiety stepped up a notch.

"Don't you think it'll look a little conspicuous, a medic walking around the ship, alone, with a handcuffed prisoner?" he asked.

"Yes, it would," Darasbt agreed, readily.

He was stalling, and Darasbt knew it. Father, he thought, but he didn't Send it. It was still no use. Should he risk the Force?

Vader's words resounded in his mind - the shock could kill you.

"Then what do you-" he stopped as a wave of nausea crested over him, and his vision blurred at the edges. He closed his eyes and concentrated on not vomiting. "What have you given me?"

"I'm not really sure, to be honest," Darasbt said, mildly, and then pulled Luke to his feet with uncaring violence. "It just said it was a mild sedative. Should keep you compliant until we reach the docking bay, at least." Luke saw him shrug. "It probably won't kill you - not yet, anyway." And, then, he unclipped the restraints from Luke's arms, making him stagger as he pushed him towards the dead troopers. "Get that armour off them and put it on."


"Get their armour on. Wouldn't want you to be recognised, after all."

For a moment, Luke didn't know what to do, but the blaster pressed against the back of his head decided it for him.

"Come on - we've got a tight schedule to keep, Skywalker. Get it on."

And Luke couldn't do anything but comply, pulling the armour from one listless body, trying to ignore the smell of burnt flesh and the charred plastisteel. Forcing back a blush, he stripped and started to dress in the armour. He reached tentatively for the Force again, brushing against it, just briefly. He vision blurred briefly, and he had to suck in breath at the burning sensation in his chest.

No good, he thought, pulling back his Force-touch rapidly, and the dizziness receded, slowly. When Luke turned back around, the helmet in his hand, Darasbt was ripping a long piece of medical tape from a roll in his pack.

"What's that for?" Luke asked, warily, dismayed that the words sounded just slightly slurred.

And even as he said it, he knew. Darasbt eyed him with what might have been wicked amusement, and then grabbed Luke by his hair, taking the tape and winding it around the back of his head, through his hair, a couple of times - over his mouth. Luke shook his head violently, pulling free of Darasbt's grasp, and brought his hands up to tear the piece of tape off.

Darasbt gestured warningly with his blaster. "Leave it," he said. "Can't have you calling for help."

Luke breathed through his nose, fuming, as he dropped his gloved hands to his sides. The tape pressed his lips together firmly, preventing him from breathing properly, and already he was feeling light-headed from whatever Darasbt had injected him with; was struggling to keep his vision steady.

He glared, but Darasbt just snorted at his expression, before ripping the helmet from his grasp and dropping it over Luke's head unceremoniously. Luke staggered backwards, balance awry.

"Right," Darasbt said, and for the first time Luke heard just a hint of nerves in the other man's voice. Strangely, it didn't give him hope - just made him more apprehensive. "Show time."

And they left the quarters, Darasbt locking the door behind them, and then marching Luke down the corridor, fast as his uneven balance would let him. And nobody paid them any heed - a medic escorting an injured trooper - as they walked.

"Father!" Luke thought desperately, sending the call winging into the Force, despite the staggering pain it caused him. "Father! Where are you?"

But there was no response, only silence.

His shields were almost breached - undermined by the ferocity of Palpatine's attack. Vader struggled against the flow of hatred, feeling his control begin to tear itself apart.

One day I will be... I will be the most powerful Jedi ever....

The words were a memory, slicing though him, mocking him. He couldn't even keep Palpatine out of his thoughts; couldn't even protect his own flesh and blood from the Emperor.

And the hatred and fear he felt did not lend him strength - instead, they undermined him, and he realised, as if detached from the battle, as if watching from a distance, that he'd always been undermined by those emotions.

Fear of loss, hatred of those who would incite that loss - they didn't offer him strength, didn't offer him solutions or solace. The only thing shoring up his determination right now was his desire to protect, to know, to care for his son - if it would ever be possible for him to do so.

And that was looking increasingly unlikely, with every inroad Palpatine made to Vader's mind.

What does he hope to find? Vader wondered. Surely he realises, by now, that I have no loyalty?

And then the insight hit him so hard it felt like a physical blow, winding him, momentarily. He's not interested in me, anymore - he has already decided I am disposable. He's only interested in Luke, he thought, breathless with agitation. He wants to know what I have learnt of him - what he can use against the boy, once I am disposed of and he is free to corrupt him.

And as soon as he thought it, the image was back engulfing his mind's eye; the image from his vision, of Luke, squandered to the dark side. Bloodless, cold; unearthly in his malevolence. Not Luke, anymore. Not his son.

And Vader would not be there to prevent it from happening. Once Palpatine either breached his shields, scraped his mind clean of all he knew of Luke, or accepted defeat - he would kill Vader. And Luke would have no protection from him.

Something seemed to slip into place, then, in his mind. A jigsaw, finally resolved. A solution, breathlessly simple. And he smiled, allowing the outer shielding to crumble, to buckle inwards, and Palpatine's icy presence rushed in, screamed through Vader's thoughts, turning each morsel aside, hunting... hunting... for a way to turn Luke into his next apprentice.

And he found, of course, what Vader himself had learnt from Luke in the last few hours - that the only reason Luke would ever turn to the dark side was so that he might be with his father - his living, breathing, unmistakably alive father.

There was an echoing snarl of frustration, and then Palpatine lashed out, a wicked blow that kicked the breath out of Vader's prosthetic lungs, stilled his heart for a moment. Not a fatal blow - but Vader felt consciousness begin to dim, felt himself falling, though he knew, distantly, that he already lay on the floor. But it didn't matter - he hadn't won, but he hadn't lost, either.

Everything felt oddly disconnected as they marched through the ship, down corridor after corridor, Darasbt setting the pace at a fast clip that Luke struggled to match.

His legs felt insubstantial, all flesh and no muscle, and it took an intense amount of concentration just to put one foot in front of the other. The helmet blinkered his eyes, but he knew that the visor wasn't the reason his vision kept wavering precariously, twisting and lurching without warning, as nausea tightened his gut. And his head felt... light, like it was no longer tethered to his body, as if he was watching as an outside observer, distractedly.

Again and again, tentatively, though it hurt like being scolded, Luke dipped in and out of the Force, rapidly, searching for his father. And still, there was no sign of Vader - nothing. Not a hint of that overbearing touch on his mind, no trace of that potent presence lingering in the back of his head. Nothing - and that scared Luke beyond any fear he had for his own safety right now.

Where was he? His presence had just... gone. Winked out, like a light flicked off - there one minute, missing the next. No wrenching shock, no tearing sensation, as he'd felt when the tentative training bond with Ben had been broken. Just... mute static. Silence.

He's not dead, Luke thought, though he knew it was as much hope as it was certainty. He can't be dead. He was changing. I could see it - he can't be dead!

A few months ago, had someone told him Vader was dead, he would have been the first person to cheer. But now... now things had changed.

"Hurry up," Darasbt hissed, sharply, and then his hand closed around Luke's wrist and yanked him to a faster pace.

And it didn't feel like walking, with that sedative settling his muscles into complacency. It felt like he was standing still as the corridor, and the people, and the lights flew past him in a river of dizzying motion. The nausea rose again, and Luke pushed it back with panic, not wanting to think about what would happen if he vomited with the gag still in place.

They reached a large doorway, marked in paint a darker shade of grey than the rest of the docking bay, and Darasbt started fiddling with the controls.

Run! Luke thought, his mind willing, but his body weaving unsteadily on its feet. Run - get to Vader. He needs your help. But he just stood there, fuming at his own unresponsiveness, until the door opened and Darasbt propelled him inside with a rough shove.

Through the door, across the glassy surface of the docking bay, up to a heavily armed shuttle. Darasbt did something that opened it up, and then Luke was being pushed and pulled up the ramp-way, shoved against the wall and roughly restrained with a pair of cuffs fastened around the strut of a ladder leading to a maintenance hatch. The sudden flurry of movement left him dizzy, for a moment, and he felt like he was falling though he knew he was still standing, leaning against the bulkhead, hands cuffed to one side.

"Stay there," Darasbt hissed, unnecessarily, because Luke definitely wasn't going anywhere, even if he could get his hands free. As he watched the bulky ex-governor land himself in the pilot's seat and begin flicking on the controls uncertainly, Luke felt his heart kick with apprehension.

He hasn't got a clue what he's doing, he thought uneasily, indignantly. He'll kill us both before he flies this thing out of here.

He reached again, out of instinctive panic, for the Force, and a wash of violent pain sliced through his mind, making him sag against the bulkhead before he could pull back from the agitated energy.

Father, where are you? he thought, but he didn't Send it.

The ship jerked upwards off the deck as Darasbt got her airborne, clumsily, and there was the jarring sound of metal scrapping metal as it skidded too low and too fast towards the mag field and open space beyond it.

Luke tried to shout pull up! through the gag, but it came out more like a strangled grunt.

"Shut up!" Darasbt shouted back, and Luke's eyes widened when he saw how badly the man's hands were shaking.

The ship clipped a Lambda shuttle, lightly, and tilted abruptly starboard as it did so, careening towards the wall. Luke cursed, bracing himself for impact, but the ship shot out through the mag field like an unpleasant morsel spat from its maw, and hurtled erratically away from the Star Destroyer.

"... and they've heard nothing from him for over a half-standard, Admiral. Should I instruct my men to enter the room?"

Piett frowned, tempted to rub a hand across his tired face. Hell of a day this had been. "No - although a half-standard is somewhat longer than Lord Vader usually converses with His Highness, I don't think there's any need to enter the communication suite just yet," he said, slowly, wincing as he imagined the Dark Lord's wrath should he be interrupted during a call to Palpatine. "Leave it another quarter-standard and-"

"Admiral!" someone in the sensor pit shouted, snapping Piett's gaze down towards them. "We have an unauthorised launch from Docking Bay thirty-seven-B."

"What?" he demanded as he strode to the edge of the pit. "What ship?"

"A shuttle, sir. It isn't responding to hails."

Piett tightened his fists. "Do you have visual?"

"Not yet, sir. Sir - it's plotting a course away from Executor and the planet."

To jump to hyperspace, Piett summarised darkly. And this whilst Vader remained oddly silent, though he was supposedly in contact with Palpatine. And Piett knew intimately how angered Palpatine had been before that contact. "Scan for lifeforms," he snapped.

"Aye, sir." A pause. "Two humans aboard, sir."

Piett clucked his tongue against his teeth, thinking fast. Under normal circumstances, procedures dictated that he should just shoot it down. But this was too much of a coincidence. "Plot a pursuit course, and launch TIES. Order them to block its escape and shoot to disarm - not to kill." He paused, pursing his lips. "And run a full transponder sweep of the area - see if you can get an ID on the shuttle and pull up any information we have on its history - any weaknesses the maintenance crew have logged," he said, and then turned to the Lieutenant who had been talking to him, "Get your men into that communication suite and find out where Lord Vader is."

The man hesitated, just briefly. Piett couldn't really blame him for that hesitation - interrupting Vader was rarely an action that had benefits for one's health. Still, it was necessary, and Piett turned away from the Lieutenant even as the man swallowed thickly and nodded.

His eyes turned to the tactical viewscreen even as he felt the low rumble echo through the deckplates, a sensation he recognised from long experience as signifying that Executor's engines were kicking into action, launching her in pursuit.

As Piett watched the screen, a swarm of dots that represented two full squadrons of TIEs exploded from the belly of the ship and veered sharply towards the rapidly disappearing blip that represented the shuttle.

Unaware he was doing it, Piett held his breath.

Anakin? Anakin...? a soft voice said, flowing soothingly across the bruised surface of his mind. Anakin, you should wake up.


Anakin - wake up. He needs you.

Who needs me?

Luke needs you. Wake up - our son needs you.

The trooper was shaking so hard he thought that, at any minute, his armour might start rattling. He palmed the door to the communication suite, and then pulled his hand back as if it had burnt him. The door shot upwards into the ceiling.

There was a low gasp from one of his comrades, and then he gasped, too, out of shock and out of horror. He stood frozen, utterly unable to move, and his gun hand fell limply to his side.

Because he knew the second they had opened the door and witnessed Lord Vader collapsed on the floor, struggling to pull himself upright, that they were all as good as dead. Nobody witnessed a weakness in the Dark Lord and lived to tell their friends of it.

And then Vader finally managed to stand, one hand clutching at his chest, and the blank black mask of their commander turned towards them, urgently.

"Where is he?" Vader demanded, though his voice sounded rougher than normal - rougher, deadlier.

"... my Lord?" someone braver than the rest asked.

"Where is he?" Vader repeated, and his agitation seemed to swell around them, to suffocate them, as the Sith drew himself to his full height and snarled. "Where is my son?!"

The ship keened heavily to one side as another glancing shot ripped across her bow. Luke wrapped his hands around the strut he was tethered to and hung on against the shudder that rippled through the shuttle.

He didn't dare access the Force, didn't dare touch the emotions that poured off Darasbt, but he didn't need to - the man was sitting stiff and awkward in the seat, sweating heavily, his hands struggling with the controls. The guy was definitely not a natural, Luke thought, nervously. Luke ached to take the controls, but doubted he'd even be able to walk to the seat, let alone fly the ship, the way his head was spinning.

"Darasbt!" he shouted, or tried to, but with the gag and helmet in place, and his lips numbed by sedative, it came out sounding more like a sneeze. "Hey!" he tried instead, and that sounded marginally better.

No response. He pulled on the cuffs, annoyed. He really didn't want to die here, not after everything that he'd survived already - not when he finally had a chance to find a father he could believe in.

Another blast rocked the ship and Luke wrapped his hands around the strut to steady himself as the shuttle threatened to shake itself apart. He was slammed into the bulkhead repeatedly by the rattling, until he wrapped his foot around a support strut and flattened himself to the bulkhead. Sparks and the acrid smell of ozone filled the small ship. The lighting died, plunging them into a sudden, suffocating darkness - and then the emergency lighting kicked in, flooding the shuttle with sickly red light, even as warning sirens began screaming through the ship. That last hit had been a hell of shot.

Through his foggy, blinkered vision, Luke noticed a hailing light was blinking on the comm board, and he stared at it blankly, wondering who was calling them.

Not Vader, but maybe someone who knows what had happened to him? Luke thought, a sharp stab of pain twisting in his chest.

He needed to know - had to know - couldn't get blown out of space before knowing if his father still lived.

Would such small use of the Force be too painful for him to do, too dangerous - just a flick to turn on the comm channel? Just to see if it was Vader calling them?

It was a reckless action, but it was too late to change the habit of a lifetime. Screwing his eyes up against the pain that blossomed as soon as he brushed against the Force, he reached out - and pushed.

"Connection established!" someone shouted, practically yelping the last word, and Piett whirled towards them, even as he was peripherally aware that the bridge hatchway had slid open and Darth Vader was striding onto the bridge.

Piett descended the steps into the communication pit and reached for the receiver. "Undesignated shuttle - this is Admiral Piett of the Executor - stand down immediately or we will be forced to shoot you down."

There was a startled curse over the comm, and the sound made Piett frown and lean closer to the pick-up. "What the-!?" The thud of battle-fire echoed over the speakers.

"Stand down immediately," Piett repeated, and curled his hands around the edge of the communications console. "I will not warn you again. This is-"

"Move!" a voice ordered, loud and angry enough that Piett felt his skin leap in shock. He was obeying before he knew what he was doing - which was probably a good thing, given it was Darth Vader that had ordered him out of the way, and given that the man looked angered enough to have negligently sent Piett crashing against the far bulkhead if he hadn't moved, squashed like the insignificant bug Vader saw him to be. He back-pedalled with as much dignity as he could hang onto as the Dark Lord reached for the console.

A vague feeling of fear accompanied the wash of dismay that Luke felt when Piett spoke. Darasbt was staring at the open connection in shock, mouth forming a surprised 'o', and then he glanced up at Luke, murder in his eyes.

"You did this!"

Did he actually expect Luke to respond, with a gag over his mouth and the helmet in place?

"Stand down immediately," the Admiral said. "I will not warn you again."

As if to punctuate the admiral's words, the shuttle was rocked by another shot, and flames licked briefly at a control panel in the cockpit. Fire retardant mist sprayed down from the ceiling, covering the panel in fizzing white powder. Darasbt looked down at the destruction, expression twisting.

It was surreal to see the realisation rush over Darasbt's expression - the realisation that they weren't going to escape, that they wouldn't make it past the line of TIE fighters. It passed from horror, to dismay, to anger, and finally to something uncomfortably like hope. He leapt up from his seat, red-faced and sweating, and staggered towards Luke, even as a new voice came over the channel.

"Shuttle - this is Darth Vader. Respond at once, or I will not be merciful once you are detained."

And before the first word was even finished, Luke had recognised the voice, and felt wild relief race through his mind, like a douse of cool water on burnt skin, and he knew he was smiling, stupidly.

Darasbt ripped the helmet up and over Luke's head and then yanked the tape down from Luke's mouth, taking a couple of layers of skin with the sudden movement. The tape was still stuck to his hair, pulling at it, and Luke hissed in pain - and then sucked in a grateful breath of air. The instinctive shout was on his lips - Father! - before he checked it and changed it at the last minute to, "Vader!"

Luke's hands were uncuffed by Darasbt with equal ferocity and he was half-dragged to the cockpit, pushed in the co-pilot's chair, and one wrist was re-cuffed to the chair arm. No one was firing on them anymore, he realised distantly, but then was too focused on the comm to even spare it another thought.

"Luke - are you-"

"Vader - I've got the boy and I've got a blaster to his head," Darasbt interrupted, his words tumbling out in a panicked rush. Only then did he fumble at his belt and bring out the blaster, pressing the barrel under Luke's jaw.

There was a pause on the line, filled only with Vader's characteristic breathing. Luke closed his eyes, letting the sound roll over him and the word alive bounce around his mind. He's alive.

"Governor Darasbt," Vader said evenly, though Luke thought he could detect a hint of distaste in the intonation. When had he learnt to read Vader so keenly? He didn't know - but he knew, somehow, that he could. "I do not know nor do I care how you came to kidnap the boy, but if you do not turn the ship around and return to Executor, I guarantee you a merciless death."

There was a new emotion in Vader's voice, Luke thought, as he continued to suck in lungfuls of the air, though it smelt of ozone and burnt circuitory. He frowned, unable to place that new intonation.

Darasbt laughed, sounding just slightly hysterical. Luke clenched his hands together, body strung tight with tension. "I don't doubt it. But if you don't let us jump to hyperspace, I'll blow your boy's brains out."

Despite himself, an image entered Luke's mind - himself, sprawled across the floor of the shuttle, an ugly streak of blood where his head should have been. He swallowed thickly, even as he realised that in the image he was wearing Rebel fatigues, not a trooper's armour. This wasn't his foresight - it was his father's, laced with horror and... fear? That was what he'd heard in Vader's voice - fear.

Fear for him?

Luke shook his head, unable to associate that emotion to his father.

"If you kill him, you will beg for death before the end," Vader said, voice strained - and, yes, that was definitely fear, though Luke doubted anyone but him would even think to listen for it in the Dark Lord's voice.

Darabst trembled, just slightly, and Luke tried to pull away from the man's grip. But then Darasbt snarled. "I'm dead anyway," he said, oddly calm. But Luke could feel the tension in the man's restraining arm building, the blaster pressing harder into his jaw.

He's going to do it, Luke thought. I'm dead.

He sucked in a breath - a last breath, he fancied, and tried to think of something to say to Vader, something that summed up everything he felt about what had happened between them. But it was too big to try and cut down to a last few words: there was no combination of words he could say that would tell his father what he felt. And so he said - nothing.

Vader gripped the edge of the console with a crushing strength, staring at the comm unit. He could feel the confusion and agitation around him - from the crew, who sat staring at him numbly, not understanding what was so urgent. But he could also feel Luke's emotions, bleeding across the space between - a melancholy sense of lost chances, lost possibilities. A brief moment of wonder - what would they have done with their volatile relationship, had they had the chance? How long would it have been before Luke would have stayed, willingly? And how long before Vader realised how much of his life was a lie?

The emotions floored him, momentarily, with their intensity and honesty. Trickling across their bond, not meant to be transmitted, but so keenly felt that they echoed in Vader's mind. And then - he felt Luke tense, preparing himself for the blaster bolt that would blow his mind, and anger swamped Vader's thoughts.

So close! To have survived Palpatine's attack, only to find that he would lose it all anyway. Bitter indignation rose with the bile in his stomach and he lashed out with the Force, stretching his will towards the shuttle and wrapping it around the throat of the governor, squeezing... squeezing....

Muffled gasps came across the comm and Vader felt righteous fury whip through him, tightening his grip. Then -

"No! Fa---Vader, stop it!"

The crew in the pit gave a collective gasp that seemed to suck all the oxygen from the room.

"Stop!" Luke shouted. His voice sounded rough.

Darasbt's gurgled attempts at breathing were becoming more wheezing and scratching. Vader curled his fist into a tight ball.

"No!" he heard Luke shout, again, but this time he felt the boy reaching out towards him desperately, showing him a reflection of the horror Vader had felt when he had seen Luke reaching into the prisoner's mind in the interrogation bay. The horror, and dismay, and the thought - nothing is worth that. And he saw himself, in Luke's mind - what the boy thought would become of him if he gave into this roiling anger: he would be using everything he learnt from Palpatine, and losing everything he had gained from Luke.

Dismayed by the thought, he loosened his grip; let it slide from around the governor's throat. There was the sound of a muffled thump over the comm, and then a pause.

"He's out cold," Luke said, after a moment, tone somewhere between fear and awe. "But he's alive."

And, slowly, Vader released his crushing grip on the comm console. He took a deep breath, then another, and tried to calm the cold fury in his mind; to banish the exhaustion that tore at the edges of his control. "Are you harmed?" he asked.

Another pause over the comm, shredding Vader's nerves further. "I've been drugged with something. Other than that - no."

Said so lightly, Vader knew it was serious.

"Can you fly the ship?"

He was aware, as an aside, of the crew's eyes on him, wide with wonder. "I don't think this ship's going anywhere fast - the stabilisers are blown. Maybe worse," Luke said. "And... my hands are tied."

Vader closed his eyes. In a lot of ways, the safest thing for both of them right now would be for Luke to take the shuttle and get away. Because Palpatine knew. And Palpatine would have the boy dead, one way or another. Or worse - turned. And if Luke returned to Executor, to Vader, there was little he could do to prevent that from happening. He would merely be the bait Palpatine used to reel Luke in. And he couldn't be that - couldn't allow that, even if it meant surrendering his dreams, just for the moment.

But - he also couldn't simply sever his connection to the boy. It was too sudden, too brutal. He needed time: time to let Luke know he wasn't being abandoned, and time to plan what they did next. And could a few more hours really be so dangerous? Could Palpatine really act so swiftly?

Yes, he acknowledged, he can. But perhaps the risk is worth it, for a few more hours.

"Fa-- Vader?" Luke asked, breaking Vader from his reverie. "You still there?"

Decision made, for better or for worse, Vader shook the indecision from his mind. "Executor will tractor the shuttle aboard, Luke. I will meet you in the docking bay."

"Right... okay."

Vader wanted to say more, but knew he couldn't in front of the crew. Regretfully, he cut the line and turned to Piett, who was standing stiff and ill-composed near the far wall of the crew pit. "Prepare the tractor beam, Admiral, and have the shuttle docked in my private docking bay," he ordered.

Piett just nodded, numbly. He turned away, though Vader could almost taste the questions racing through his second in command's mind. Wisely, the man chose not to voice them.

"Sir!" one of the crew shouted from the sensor pit, and when Vader looked down he could see the man was staring at his screen intently, shock radiating from him.

"What is it?" Vader demanded, eager to get down to the docking bay before the shuttle docked.

The sensor officer looked up at him. "Sir - Admiral Piett ordered a full transponder sweep when the detained shuttle launched illegally from the main bay."

"And?" Irritation in his voice, snapping the word short.

The officer licked his lips, "We've just finished the sweep, and a Rebel ship has registered on the scopes."

"I see," Vader responded, dryly. This was, after all, a former Rebellion outpost. He started to turn away, dismissing the officer's irritating distraction. "Inform Piett when he returns."

"Sir - my Lord, the scopes are registering it as the Millennium Falcon."

And that made him stop. He came to a jarring halt, surprised and yet not surprised. Had he truly expected his son's friends to abandon Luke so easily? The boy inspired loyalty, that much was undeniable.

"How long have they been there?" he demanded.

The officer stiffened, looking suddenly fearful. "I... I don't know. They were using a fake identification. It was only when we did the full sweep that the scopes recognised the discrepancy."

A slow smile curved his lips, stretching the scar tissue on his face painfully. But he ignored the pain - it was nothing next to the surge of anticipation that ran through him at having the answer to his dilemma handed to him, wrapped and ready for the taking.

Luke was not fit to fly, and would find it difficult to make his comrades believe in the possibility of a 'miraculous' escape from a ship as formidable as Executor. But with the Millennium Falcon here... suddenly, it was possible, just possible, for Luke to escape without inciting suspicion from his comrades.

"Sir...? Sir... what should I do about it?"

"Monitor it, Lieutenant," he said, drawing himself up and turning for the bridge hatchway. "And keep me informed," he said.

And as he left the bridge, he could feel the crews' confusion and surprise bouncing against his shields. Allowing himself a rare moment of humour, he smiled.

"What the hell are you doing!?"

Leia smiled, thinly. "There's something going on out there," she said, gripping the piloting controls with urgent need, the stern look she shot Lando warning him not to try and move her. "A battle."

He swayed as the ship banked sharply, leaping towards a line of TIE fighters and the Executor beyond. "Wait - Leia, wait! We can't just charge in there, we don't know -"

"It's Luke," she said, biting back the sensible streak in her personality that told her she couldn't possibly know if it was Luke or not. "I can feel it."

Lando stared at her for a moment, then lurched forward, catching his balance on the pilot's seat. "You're not serious."

She smiled grimly. "Deadly serious." The Super Star Destroyer was a dark wedge against the sun. The TIEs and shuttle she'd seen leave the bigger ship weren't yet visible, but they showed up on the scopes, a swarm of red dots chasing down the single, bigger dot of the shuttle. She looked at Lando, raised an eyebrow, "You going to fly her, or shall I?"

He looked at her for a moment, expression full of disbelief. Then he groaned, shook his head, and said, "Go get Chewie - and make it quick. This could be a hell of a battle."

She glanced up at him, and smiled, lifting her hands from the controls as he settled into the seat. Finally - they had their chance; they had an opportunity; they had -

"Wait a minute," Lando said, interrupting her thoughts mid-flow.

"What?" she demanded, halfway out the cockpit door.

Lando was frowning. "I'm reading a couple of squadrons of TIEs out there - and a badly shot-up shuttle. But... it looks like the battle's over, Your Highness. The shuttle's being tractored in."

"What?! That can't be - it was almost free of them when I looked, I..." she trailed off as he leaned away from the console, allowing her to see the scopes. Silence choked off her words.

"I'm sorry, Leia. If that was Luke...."

He didn't need to finish his sentence. She dropped back into the seat, deflated, and closed her eyes.

There was nothing for him to do but just sit and wait.

The Super Star Destroyer swelled in the cockpit's viewing window, eclipsing the planet and throwing a shadow across the already dim interior of the shuttle. Luke watched the huge ship lower herself towards him, bearing down on the smaller ship with an almost casual dominance.

He frowned. The Executor was a lot like her commander - you could think of her as a brutal killing machine, if you wanted to: a monstrosity of overwhelming power and menacing supremacy. Or, you could realise that there was more to the ship than just her brute strength and enviable splendour, just as there was more to Vader than his lethal supremacy.

Luke leant back in his seat and propped his chin in the hand that wasn't tethered to the chair arm. Thing was, he thought there was more to Vader than the propaganda the Alliance put out - but was he kidding himself? Was it insight, or just irrational hope? Was it the effect of whatever sedative Darasbt had shot him with, muddying his mind? Or just too many unrealised dreams making him reckless - it wouldn't be the first time, would it?

Luke bit his lip as he tugged futilely at the cuff that kept him tied to the seat. He worried his lip between his teeth, revisiting the events of the last few days and trying to decide if he was being a fool. But - no. The Vader he'd found wasn't the Vader he'd expected to find. Nothing like it. And what had the man said earlier? Something about the costs of turning Luke to the dark side not being worth the benefits? And the way he'd been acting - it wasn't what Luke had expected. Where was the uncaring violence? The cruel hatred?

It was -

- not there.

Instead, there was a strange, possessive care to Vader's actions. And, yeah, maybe that care was overwhelming at times, and intense - but it wasn't cruel, and it wasn't hateful. And it was the things that weren't there - the cruelty, the hatred, the violence - that made those that were there - the concern, the possession - so much more astounding. So much more tempting. And willpower really wasn't one of Luke's strengths.

He sighed noisily. If he could just think clearly, and if his vision would just stop spinning, he might be able to think things through rationally. Not that that had ever been one of his strengths, either.

The shuttle shuddered briefly as Executor's tractor beam took hold of her, and with a low rumbling sound that made Luke's nausea kick up a gear, it began a slow slide towards the bigger ship, reeled back in.

It was a smooth landing - smoother than the take off had been, anyway. The ship had barely been settled to the deck before the ramp hissed and began lowering. Luke blinked at it, feeling vaguely disconnected from the world as Vader appeared in the hatchway, walked up the ramp and strode towards him. The man seemed to fill Luke's vision, and Luke couldn't think of what to say to him, for a moment.

Vader glanced down dismissively at Darasbt's body, and then focused on Luke, so intently that Luke felt like he was burning under the heat in that expressionless gaze. "Luke?"

"Yeah?" The word sounded numb in his ears. He squinted against the sharp red light that was reflecting off Vader's helmet. "Are you okay?"

Vader snorted, a sound that was almost comical when it was filtered through the vocoder. "Am I okay? Only a Skywalker could be so blind to his own ill health."


Vader shook his head, a gesture that looked like it was meant to convey bemusement, though it was difficult for Luke to imagine Vader ever being bemused. He lifted a hand towards Luke's forehead, a gesture that reminded Luke of the few times he'd been ill whilst growing up on Tatooine; of Aunt Beru tucking him in bed and testing his temperature with the palm of her hand. Vader didn't actually touch his head, though, and instead Luke could feel the tickle of the Force against his mind.

"Do you know what drug he gave you?" Vader asked finally, lowering himself into the pilot's chair with deceptive casualness.

"He didn't bother to tell me," Luke said, frowning. "Why?"

"You have a mild fever."

Something like a smirk was trying to curl up the corners of his mouth - but he didn't dare smirk at Vader, even if the man had just been taking his temperature, as Luke had been so sure he would never do. "Oh, good. We can add it to the list." He went to run a hand through his hair, but the cuff caught his wrist, and he ended up just shrugging helplessly.

Vader tilted his head to one side, apparently studying Luke. "Indeed." He reached out then, and wordlessly put his hand over the cuff that tethered Luke to his chair. Silently, the cuffs fell away. Luke frowned at them, then looked up again.

"What happened to you, Father? I couldn't reach you."

"You should not have been trying," Vader chastised him, though there was a brief pause before he said it, and Luke wondered what that meant. Maybe Vader was just unused to hearing the word 'father.' Funny how easy it came to Luke.

"What was I supposed to do? Ignore it?"

He heard the older man sigh, a sound that was almost irritated. "Yes."

"Not likely... what happened? I felt - cold... like death."

"You felt Palpatine's attempts to breach my inner shields, when he realised I was hiding you from him."

Luke flexed his hands, remembering the bitter chill that had washed over him. Was that the dark side? He'd never felt anything like that off Vader, though.


"He wanted to know if I am still loyal to him. And to discover what I knew about you."

Luke shuddered at the thought of having Palpatine scouring his mind.

"So he knows about me?"



Again, that pause that made his stomach throb with nausea.

"He wants to dispose of you, or to turn you to the dark side. Either way, your continued existence as a Rebel Jedi infuriates him"

Luke sucked in a dismayed breath.

"That's... not good," he said.

"Indeed," his father replied again, tartly this time. "I fear we have run out of time."

And that sounded ominous - so much so that Luke couldn't bring himself to ask what they should do no, mostly because he thought he already knew the answer. Instead, he glanced down at where Darasbt's unconscious body lay sprawled clumsily across the deck. The man was out cold, not even twitching, but something about looking at the man made Luke's skin crawl.

And maybe it was only because the sedative was making him feel slow and trapped inside his own body, but suddenly Luke couldn't just shrug off the memories of what the man had done to him. Memories of pain, and of screaming, and of being unable to scream anymore 'cause his voice had gone - they made him shudder inwardly. And at the same time, it felt like it had been a lifetime ago - that it couldn't have been just a few days ago that he'd been screaming until his lungs burned.

The barely-healed wound in his thigh throbbed sympathetically, and Luke closed his eyes. It didn't make any difference - tattooed on the inside of Luke's eyelids were the images of what Darasbt had put him through. There was a bitter taste of bile in his throat, because he knew now that it had all been for nothing.

He'd thought that, by keeping his identity secret, he was protecting himself from a fate worse than the death that his interrogation would inevitably end with. And how had he been supposed to know then, with only the memories of Bespin to guide him, that he would have been better calling for Vader?

A heavy hand on his shoulder made him blink his eyes open, vaguely ashamed that he'd been so lost in the memories. He looked away, down to the floor, but that just took his gaze back to Darasbt's limp body. And though he could have understood it if he'd felt hatred for the man, all he felt was... drained, and stretched too thin.

"It will take time," Vader said.

The hand he'd laid on Luke's shoulder squeezed briefly. Just briefly, barely perceptibly, but Luke knew that there had been reassurance in that touch. He knew it like he knew that Vader was concerned for him, like he knew that the man wasn't the monster Luke'd thought he was. And that knowledge had nothing to do with his Force senses, and everything to do with being a son.

"I know. I just..." he trailed off, not sure what he was trying to say. Something about thinking he should just bounce back, 'cause that was what a hero was expected to do when they got knocked down - just get up, dust the sand from your shirt, and get on with it.

Vader sighed, and Luke looked up at him from under lowered lashes.

"You truly are my son," the man said.


"Your expectations of yourself are inhumanly high, Luke." And, maybe to soften the blow, the hand on Luke's shoulder squeezed again, for longer this time.

"Yeah, well... I wish I'd..."

"Wish you had what?" Vader asked, as he leant forwards.

The emergency lighting made strange patterns of light on his helmet. Luke felt vaguely hypnotised by them, and by the intensity of the man sitting opposite him.

"Wish I'd told them who I was," he answered, honestly, because there didn't seem much point in pretending he wasn't thinking it. Not here - not with Vader. "So you could have got there sooner..."

And he really didn't know what he had expected Vader to reply to that. There was a long silence, one that seemed to stretch painfully thin between them, until Luke felt his cheeks warming. Hells, maybe he'd just revealed far too much. Maybe he should have just kept his mouth shut - whatever Darasbt had shot him with had really loosened his tongue.

He wanted to squirm under that unchanging gaze, wanted to look away, though he couldn't seem to tear his eyes off the mask - and he really, really wished Vader would just say something. The longer the silence lasted, the more Luke felt as if something was tearing inside of him.

Finally, Vader broke the silence. "That would have required you to put your trust in me - and I had done little to earn that trust," he said, the words sounding oddly strained, as if it had taken a hell of a lot of willpower to say them.

Bespin, Luke thought. He's talking about Bespin. And even the taste of the name in his mind made his skin crawl.

His tongue felt too thick for his mouth. There were words he wanted to say, words that meant, basically, 'it's okay' - but it wasn't okay. Not yet. Maybe it would never be okay. And he felt sad, suddenly. And uncomfortable - embarrassed that it wasn't that easy to forgive. His fake right hand felt cold.

"At least I know why you did it, now," he said.

"Do you?" Vader asked.

"I... think so." He wet his lips, not sure he could put it into words. "You knew it was the only way to stop the fight."

"That is not why I did it," Vader replied.

Luke swallowed, thickly.

"It's not?"

He felt vaguely foolish.

"No. I did it because I lost control. I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by my... my desire for you to join me." He looked aside, the cockpit lights flashing off the black helmet in red shards. "I saw only my own desires, and did not consider the consequences for others."

"Oh..." was all Luke could think to say. And then, because if he didn't ask it he might just burst - "Do you... would you do it again?"

Vader seemed almost reluctant to answer that. Luke curled the fingers of his hands into his palms, and resisted the urge to hold his breath. His heart felt like a lump of stone in his chest.

"What do you think?" Vader finally asked.

"I think..." he stopped, uncertain.

He wanted to say that Vader wouldn't do it, that he thought Vader regretted doing it, but something in Luke held him back.

Vader sighed, the sound rattling through the vocoder. "I cannot fault you for not trusting me."

"I didn't say that."

Vader tilted his head to one side, just a little. "You did not have to."

Luke frowned, feeling a bit irritated.

"You didn't let me finish," he said. "I think you'd do it again, if you thought it'd get you what you wanted. It's not that I don't trust you - but I know you'd do what you thought you had to do. If Bespin hadn't happened... well, none of this would have happened, either."

"I see. And you would regret that?"

Stubborn honesty made him say, "Yes. I would."

There was another silence, but this one wasn't as uncomfortable as the last one had been, and Vader leaned forwards.

"As would I," he said.

He smiled, feeling sheepish under that keen gaze.

There was another long silence, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Then, Vader reached out a hand to the tape that had been ripped away from Luke's mouth, and that was still stuck in his hair.

"Lean forward," Vader said, though it didn't sound much like an order. Luke did it anyway, and Vader began working his hair free of the tape, holding it near the root so it wasn't painful as he began to methodically unstick it from the tape.

With his head bowed down where he couldn't see his father, where all he could see was the dark deckplates and his own armoured legs, Luke swallowed thickly and shored up his courage.

"Father? What will you do with... with him?" he asked, nodding his head towards Darasbt's body, wondering why he couldn't bring himself to say the man's name.

Vader didn't reply for a moment, and Luke couldn't help but feel torn. He wanted Vader to say he wouldn't murder the man, because he needed to believe his father was beyond that - but he also felt a violent urge for revenge against Darasbt, screaming through his mind.

Finally, Vader pulled the last of the tape free of his hair, and he sat back. Despite himself, Luke kept his head bowed, waiting for his answer.

"I intend to find out who he was working for," Vader finally said.

Luke frowned. "What do you mean?"

Vader screwed up the strip of tape he had freed from Luke's hair, dropped it to the floor.

"He did not escape the detention bay, enter a high security area and abduct you from the ship without help," Vader said, mildly. Or - almost mildly, though Luke thought he could hear a note of anger in the man's voice. "Did he tell you who helped him?"

Luke shook his head. "No. He just said he was supposed to kill me - but he'd had a better idea."

"Hmmm," was all Vader said to that.

Luke wet his lips. "Will you... interrogate him?" He wanted to wince as he said it, but he refused to.

Vader regarded him calmly. "Probably."

"I don't want-"

"It is not your decision," Vader interrupted, sharply. "His actions cannot go unpunished."

Luke curled his fingers into fists.

"Is that it? Revenge for bruising your pride?"

Vader didn't even pause. "No - revenge for trying to steal my son from me. And do not tell me that it is not justified."

Luke sighed and looked aside.

"I don't know," he said, rubbing a hand over his face. Exhausted and half-dazed on some unknown sedative, he couldn't think straight - couldn't think whether it was justified or not. All he knew was that he wanted to go to sleep somewhere comfortable and where Darasbt couldn't find him.

"There are bigger issues to worry about than the fate of one traitorous sub-commander, Luke." A hand on his shoulder again, squeezing firmly. "Such as what we do now."

Luke looked up at that.

"What do you mean?" he asked, a lump in his throat.

That hand on his shoulder squeezed again - longer, and harder, almost apologetically. "You cannot stay here, Luke."

Luke blinked at him. "What? You mean you don't want-"

"It has gone beyond what I want and do not want. If you stay with me, Palpatine will either kill you, or kill me to get to you." Vader paused then, as if reluctant to say it, but then, "You must leave."

"Leave? But - I can't leave now! Not now that I-"

"There is no choice," Vader said, firmly, and Luke was pretty sure he was aa as much trying to convince himself as he was trying to convince Luke. "But this is not the end, Luke. I have no intention of giving up so easily."

Luke felt like his eyes were stinging - but that was just the sedative, surely. He smiled bitterly. Wasn't this what he'd wanted, all this time - to escape? And here he was, with Vader offering him his escape. And he didn't want it - didn't want it at all.

"What will you do then?" he asked, more to make conversation in the silence that felt like it was choking him.

Vader snorted. "I will convince Palpatine that I am repentant and loyal. You will continue to train - and we will plan and wait for an opportunity to depose him - on our terms, not his."

A heavy feeling of loss was making his limbs feel heavy; making him more tired than he already was. Because the thing was, it made sense. He wasn't ready to face Palpatine - they weren't ready to face Palpatine. But that didn't mean he wanted that to be true.

"Okay," he finally said. "So... how do I leave? I don't think I could walk across the cockpit, never mind fly a ship out of here."

Vader stood abruptly - to move to action, or because he didn't want to address the emotion that was thick in the air? Luke wasn't sure. "We have a few hours more, at least - time enough to counteract the effects of your injuries and allow you to become fit to fly. And... it appears that you will not have to fly far," he said, suddenly sounding vaguely amused. "It appears that your friends' loyalty to you is stronger than any sense of self-preservation they might have."

Luke blinked tiredly, frowning. "Huh?"

There was a sort of half-sigh, half-laugh from his father, then. "We have picked up your friends on Executor's scopes. They are here, even now, just beyond the curvature of the planet. They appear to be waiting for a chance to rescue you."

Luke sat upright at that feeling his muscles jerk in pain at the sudden movement. "My friends? Who-"

"The Millennium Falcon. And I can feel the Princess's presence aboard."

His heart was racing. "Leia - Leia's here?"

"Indeed. Quite fortuitous." He paused. "Can you walk to the med bay?"

Still trying to assimilate the information that Leia and Chewie and Lando were out there, trying to help him, he didn't think fast enough to stop his mouth from answering honestly, "I don't know, I think I - whoa! Hey - come on, put me down! You can't carry me all the way to the med bay!"

Vader radiated amusement at that. "It is not far."

"Far enough!" Luke shot back, squirming. Vader had him in an iron grip, though, holding him fast as he turned to the shuttle hatchway. That movement seemed to make Luke's head spin, and nausea slid through his body, head to toe, making his nerve-endings jar. He clamped his lips shut, and bit down on the urge to throw-up. Okay, so maybe he wouldn't have been able to walk, but he still had his pride.

Not that there was anyone to see them when Vader walked down the ramp - the docking bay was relatively small, and there were no guards, but it was the principle of the thing that irked - he wasn't a child! But then... why did he get a strange sense of childish satisfaction from the possessive care Vader directed towards him? He sighed inwardly - much as he'd like to, he didn't think he could blame that one of the psychic shock or sedative.



Cautiously, Luke curled one hand around his father's arm. "Just don't drop me, okay?"

He could feel the vibration of a laugh in Vader's chest, though the man didn't laugh out loud.

"I have no intention of doing so," Vader said instead, and Luke pressed his face against the armoured chestplate, and secretly smiled.

Another man, one who was less familiar with Admiral Piett or one who did not know to look for the signs, might have missed the nervous twitch in the Admiral's cheek. Vader, though, did not miss the nerves his Second was trying hard to hide, and he smiled tersely to himself. Clearly, Piett knew more about their current situation than he was willingly letting slip.

Vader watched as Piett approached him, stepping into the room with wary anticipation, as if he expected at any moment to be struck down by an invisible force. And perhaps that was not such an unreasonable expectation.

"Admiral," Vader said, ensuring his tone gave Piett no hint to his intentions, as Piett saluted him and stood at attention. Vader clasped his hands behind his back, standing stiff and straight. Piett mirrored him. "Your report?"

Piett inclined his head, briefly. "Yes, my Lord." He swallowed, wetting his lips. "Long range scopes indicate that the Millennium Falcon is maintaining a position just sun-ward of the terminator. We have completed another full sweep of the area, however no further Rebel ships have been identified. The Millennium Falcon would appear to be the only Rebel ship remaining within the system."

Good, Vader thought, but he said, "And our ship-board problems?"

Again, that nervous pause. "The stormtroopers concerned have been debriefed, my Lord, and reassigned. Their comrades have been advised as to the slanderous nature of their information. "

"I see," Vader said, nodding, pleased with the Admiral's quick response to the rumours that had started with the troopers who had found Vader collapsed in the communication's room and had begun spreading rapidly. The situation was far from resolved, but Piett had acted swiftly, and for that Vader was willing to grant him a brief reprieve for not informing Vader of his conversations with Palpatine.

Oh, yes - he knew Palpatine had been in contact with Piett. It was not only a logical conclusion, but a safe assumption given Piett's nervous twitching. And perhaps that meant his loyalty had been compromised, but Vader needed him if he was to get Luke away from Executor safely.

Piett shifted uneasily under Vader's scrutiny. "If there is anything else I can assist you with, my Lord, I would be-"

"Indeed," Vader interrupted. "There is." He paused, disliking the fact that he could be about to lose a good officer, but unable to merely assume the man's loyalty. "I will ask you this question just once, Piett, and I require an honest answer. Failure to provide me with one is... not advisable."

Piett's eyes widened, just fractionally. "Aye, sir."

"Very well. Then tell me, Admiral Piett - where do your loyalties lie?"

Vader had expected surprise, perhaps even frantic denial of any conflict of interests, but instead Piett merely met his gaze, swallowing thickly, with an echo of fulfilled nightmares reflected in his eyes.

"An honest answer, my Lord, may lead to my death."

Vader snorted, pleased with Piett's nerve. "It may. But a dishonest answer will unquestionably lead to it."

Piett's jaw hardened. "Then you will have to pardon me, Lord Vader, if I answer with brutal honesty. My first loyalty is to my ship and her crew - my second is to my commander... and my third is to my emperor."

The words tasted of the truth. Vader stayed silent a moment, considering. But he had little choice unless he wanted to replace Piett and, truly, he had little knowledge of the junior officers. He might well dispose of a man he doubted the loyalty of, and replace him with a man who would zealously follow Palpatine's lead.

"You know who it was that I brought aboard at Tallir." It was not a question.

Piett waited a tense breath before responding simply, "I do, my Lord."

"And you know that the rumours are true."

"Yes, my Lord. I know that Luke Skywalker is your son."

Vader hadn't expected it, but there was a savage pleasure in hearing the truth from another person's lips. It was one thing to know it secretly, but another thing altogether to hear it said aloud. Somehow, it made it more real. Momentarily intoxicating - Luke Skywalker is your son... how far had he come since his first discovery of the boy, over two years ago now? All the way from disbelief, to rage, to desperation, to.... pleasure? Was that what he was feeling now? Possessive pleasure, sliding through his veins? Perhaps. And it felt... human.

"Then you know that the boy cannot stay aboard Executor. His presence here draws Palpatine's rage - you, and your ship, and your men, are in mortal danger."

Piett nodded.

"Yes, my Lord. The Emperor has been quite... insistent."

"I can imagine." Vader snorted. That was as close to an admission of guilt as he was likely to get. Fortunately for Piett, Vader cared more about getting Luke away safely than he did about the dubious actions of a disposable Admiral. "Therefore, Luke's departure will need to appear... undeniably accidental."

A glint of humour flashed in the Admiral's eyes. "Yes, my Lord."

"I cannot be seen to be associated with it."

"No, my Lord. Of course not." Piett paused. "Perhaps the boy could... escape...?"

Vader shook his head, turning and walking to the observation window that dominated the far wall of the room. His hand passed briefly over the glass, and it warped, transforming from smoky opaque to transparent. Vader looked down onto the Med Bay, where Luke lay fidgeting with the scanners that the medics had placed on his forehead, his arms, his pulse-points.

"No. He is too ill - Palpatine would not believe it."

Piett coughed, uncomfortably. "Forgive me, my Lord, but will the Emperor believe any excuse for Skywalker's disappearance?"

"Probably not," Vader acknowledged. "But reasonable doubt will have to suffice, for the short-term."

He could feel the confusion colouring Piett's thoughts. He wonders what I mean, what I am planning, Vader thought, in dark amusement. He worries that I am about to get us both killed - and well he might worry: I worry about that myself.

There was a silence, during which Vader could almost hear the ideas running through Piett's mind, each one rejected in its turn, waiting for Piett to stumble upon the idea Vader had already decided upon.

Luke frowned up at him from the medical bunk, his eyes uncannily finding Vader's although the observation mirror remained opaque on his side.

"Then he will have to be abducted from the ship, my Lord - perhaps by a pair of traitorous crewmembers?"

Vader smirked. Sometimes, the best lies had their basis in a twisted truth.

"You know of two such men?"

"I think I can find them, my Lord, yes. How long do we have before Skywalker must leave?"

A memory ripped through his mind, come and gone so suddenly he didn't have the chance to linger on it.

--- Will I ever see you again? ---

--- What does your heart tell you? ---

Sadness pressed at his chest, cutting off his breath, just for a moment. Stop that, he chided himself. "An hour, no more."

"Then if you will excuse me, my Lord, I have some preparations to make...?"

Vader nodded, not taking his eyes from the Med Bay beneath the viewport. "Notify me when you have finished you 'preparations.' I will have the boy brought down to my docking bay."

"Yes, sir."

Piett paused, waiting for a dismissal, but Vader didn't offer one, and the Admiral finally left the room, the door sliding shut behind him.

Luke was still looking up at Vader, a thin furrow on his forehead as he frowned. What're you doing? Luke mouthed, before running a hand through his hair. Vader noticed, almost absently, that the roots of that hair were blonde now, the lighter colour just beginning to show against the darker dye Luke had used to (successfully) hide his identity.

And just what was he doing, standing here, Vader wondered? He had just minutes left with the boy, a full hour at best, so why was he standing here, alone?

Irritated and vaguely amused at his own reluctance to face reality, he forced his feet to turn, to stride from the room, and to make his way to a difficult goodbye.

But this goodbye is not forever, he swore, determinately. Not this time. Not again.

"What is that?" Luke asked, resisting the urge to tug his arm out of the medic's hands as the hypo was pressed to his skin.

"We haven't found the right titration to counteract the effects of the psychic-shock yet," the medic replied, in a purposefully disinterested tone. Luke tugged on his arm until the medic released it, eyeing him warily. "How do you feel?" the medic asked.

Luke shrugged. "Like I could sleep for a week."

The man snorted. "I don't doubt it. That's a very good idea, actually - I'm not that familiar with psychic-shock, but I know what the textbooks say and-"

"Wait a minute - you mean you don't know what you're doing!?"

The man stiffened, leaning fractionally away as Luke sat upright. "I know perfectly well what I'm doing... theoretically - I've just never done it before on a live patient -"

"A live patient! You're telling me-"

"That came out wrong," the medic hurried to interrupt, putting his hands up in defence. "I meant - I haven't had any experience-"

"That's worse!" Luke said, eyeing up the doorway and clambering off the bed. He still felt woozy, like the floor was impossibly slippery and he might just trip over his own feet. He tightened the muscles in his legs and hoped he wouldn't collapse in a heap. "Look, I've got to find Vader. There isn't much time now, and we've got to-"

"Sir, you can't go anywhere at the moment. You're not well-"

"I'll manage." He tried a hesitant step, pleased that his foot didn't shoot out from under him and send him down to the floor.

The medic looked momentarily panicked. "Please, sir, you must lay back down before Lord Vader returns and-"

The door opened, and Vader strode inside, coming to an abrupt halt in the entranceway. He said nothing for a moment, just crossing his arms over his chest and glaring silently. Luke opened his mouth to try and explain, but he just flushed and looked aside.

Vader sighed and inclined his head towards the medic.

"Leave us," he said, tiredly.

The medic looked immensely relieved as he slipped out of the room without a word. Then Vader turned his focus onto Luke, who felt uncomfortably conspicuous standing in the middle of the floor, trying to stay upright whilst trying not to look like he was having to work at staying upright.

"What are you doing?" Vader demanded.


Vader shook his head incredulously, advancing on Luke until Luke felt like he was going to fall over backwards if he had to crane his neck any further back to see his father's face.

"You do not appear to comprehend the severity of your injuries, Luke. Psychic-shock is no minor problem. The harder you make it for your body to recover, the more likely it is that you will suffer from it again."

Luke frowned. "Yeah, well... that medic doesn't know what he's doing."

"Perhaps not entirely, no," Vader acknowledged. "But it has been some years since the medical corps had to treat a Jedi. And I know what I am doing - I have seen the results of not treating psychic-shock."

That perked Luke's interest: he looked upwards - and then put his arms out to his side to try and recover his balance.

"You have?"

"I have. It is... unpleasant."

Luke frowned. "Unpleasant how?" he asked, and forced back the surge of unease that made his stomach knot.

Vader merely stared at him.

"You're just trying to scare me into giving in," Luke said, scowling but not really feeling any genuine anger behind the scowl.

Vader took a step towards him, and Luke instinctively shifted backwards to accommodate him. Too far - he stumbled backwards, his leg spasming painfully. Vader caught hold of him by his shoulder before Luke could fall.

"Perhaps I have good reason for doing so," the Dark Lord said, a hint of annoyed amusement in his voice.

Luke couldn't help it - he smiled. And it felt good smiling, after so many weeks of anguish. "You did that deliberately."

"Perhaps," Vader acknowledged. "Now - sit down."

Relenting with a quiet huff, Luke backed up slowly until the back of his thighs hit the side of the bed, and then he sat back down on it. Luke ran his fingers through his hair and fixed his father with a curious gaze. Vader seemed more relaxed than he had when he'd left Luke to the medic's ideas of medicine.

"So... you've got everything planned?"

Vader paused for a moment before nodding.

"I have. Under the guise of giving you more appropriate medical treatment, we will make it appear that you are being transferred to the planet-side facilities. A medic and a pilot will crew the ship, and make a dummy run for freedom."

"Why can't I just make the escape myself?"

Vader sat on the edge of the bed, next to Luke, and the mattress dipped. Luke went with the shifting weight of the bed, which forced him to lean on Vader to stay upright. Vader didn't mention the proximity.

"It would be too unbelievable."

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."

"That is not what I meant."

"Yeah - I know." Luke went silent, and chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. "I just... I don't like lying to Leia..." he said, a stab of guilt turning an invisible blade in his chest.

"The truth would probably hurt her more," Vader replied.

"That's not the point. I've never lied to her before."

Vader sighed. "There is no other way, Luke. The shuttle's crewmembers will insist they were defecting to the Alliance, 'rescuing' you. Even if your friends do not believe them, their principals will not allow them to execute the men without allowing your Council to assess them first."

Luke snorted. "That's ridiculous. The Council will never buy that story."

Through Luke's slowly returning Force connection, Vader felt like he was laughing, but he gave no outside sign of it.

"They will if you vouch for them," he said.

That took a second or two to sink in.

"What?! No - you want me to persuade the Alliance to take in a couple of Imperials? No way!"


"I can't betray them like that. Don't ask me to do that - there must be another way."

"Luke - stop talking for a moment and listen. You have to leave Executor because of the risk Palpatine poses to you - but returning to the Rebellion will not take you out of his reach for long. And do not forget that Darasbt appears to have been working for a third party interested in acquiring you. Until I have dealt with both of them you are in danger, and your Rebel friends cannot protect you."

Luke rolled the idea around his mind for a few seconds, trying to find an alternative.

"You mean 'we'," he said, frowning.


"You mean 'until we've dealt with them'."

Vader snorted. "Indeed. Until then, my two traitorous crewmembers will be able to protect you should Palpatine or anyone else find you."

Luke frowned, fidgeting with the seam of his medical tunic.

"How can a medic and a pilot protect me?" he asked, bemused.

Vader sighed, as if it should be obvious to Luke.

"They are not, in reality, a pilot and a medic - they are highly skilled members of the Intelligence Corps. The pilot and medic identities are to protect them from scrutiny."

Luke looked up at that, staring at Vader, feeling his cheeks flushing.

"You're sending me home with a couple of bodyguards?!"

"I will not negotiate on this, Luke."

"I don't need-"

"You do."

Luke snapped his mouth shut, fully aware that arguing this wasn't going to get him anywhere. Vader was just as stubborn as he was, and besides; Luke could always loose them when they got back to base. He kicked his foot irritatedly against the side of the bed, knowing he was being childish, but he didn't like feeling that his father didn't think he could take care of himself.

"You know that is not true," Vader said, quietly. "Do not ask me to resist doing everything in my power to protect that which I value most, because I cannot do it."

Had Vader read his mind? Luke wondered. Even as he thought it, Luke realised that if Vader had been inside his head, then he didn't really mind. The words had a strange warming effect on Luke: not embarrassment, but something more comfortable.

"Alright," Luke said. "But if they start snooping for intelligence to send back to you, I'll-"

"They will not. It would compromise their primary mission."

"Well... okay then..." he trailed off, and then looked down at the floor. "I guess this is goodbye, then."

He felt ridiculously embarrassed at the emotions he knew Vader would be picking up from him. Sadness, and a horrible tearing sensation. A dull but persistent dread, like he was about to lose his father forever. Was that just trepidation, or foresight? Maybe he didn't want to know.

"For now," Vader acknowledged.

Something in his tone made Luke look upwards again, and he realised with a flash of insight that Vader was feeling the same things - regret, fear of them never meeting again and fear of going back to being alone.

Luke wanted to say something to acknowledge the feelings, but the words got stuck in his throat and he couldn't say them.

Vader, maybe sensing the thick emotion pouring off Luke, turned the conversation to more practical matters.

"You should continue your training, once you have recuperated fully. When we are ready, when it is the right time, we will move against Palpatine. Until then...."

"How will we know when it's the right time?"

"I will know," Vader said, simply, and Luke grimaced at the annoying way that both Sith and Jedi seemed to love talking in riddles. "And you will know, too. Trust your instincts, Luke - they will serve you well, if you listen to them."

There was an uncomfortable pause. Another few seconds of it and Luke might have been tempted to say something more, something about feeling complete. But he wasn't sure he could put it into words that wouldn't make him sound like a naïve farmboy, and before he plucked up the courage to say it anyway, the door opened and a stormtrooper stepped inside, saluting smartly.

"Sir? Admiral Piett reports that the shuttle and crew are at your disposal, my Lord."

And then, they really were out of time.

"Leia! Princess, we've got movement. I'm picking up another shuttle - she's making a run away from the planet - no, wait, she's turning - what... what's she doing? Wait - I'm picking up a transmission... oh, Sithspit! Leia! Get down here!? You hear me? The shuttle's turning away from the solar well - she's running for hyperspace - Executor's turning - coming in slow, maybe too slow - Princess? Princess, you hearing this? Vader-"

"I'm here, I'm here," she said, slamming a hand onto the cockpit hatch and tumbling into the cramped space, still fumbling with the zips of her flight suit. Lando glanced up at her in what she might have sworn was anticipation, had she the breath in her lungs to help her think straight.

"You were sleeping?" Lando asked, almost incredulous.

Hell, was it that unusual for her to get any sleep these days? She frowned, wanting to deny how extraordinary it was, but unable to be so consciously ignorant.

"Yes, I was - but not well. What have we got, Lando - is it Luke?"

Even as she said the words, her hands began to tremble and she clamped them down onto the arms of the navigator's chair.

He shook his head. "I don't know," he said, but there was a glint in his eye. "But Vader doesn't break all-hell loose for just anyone."

"What?" Leia demanded, trying to pull the hair back from her face and plait it into something more acceptable that the straggly loose strands that were currently swamping her vision. "You mean-"

"Listen to this," he said, and hit a button on the dashboard triumphantly. A familiar voice boomed out, the tone cutting her right down to the bone.

"...return immediately or be destroyed. Return Skywalker to me, and I may allow you a merciful death. Fail to do this, and I will order the TIE fighters to disarm and detain you."

Instinctively Leia's hands tightened, until her fingernails were digging into the firm padding of her seat. "What happened?"

"Looks like someone has hijacked the shuttle, and Luke with it," Lando said, and the Falcon pressed Leia back into her seat with the acceleration. "I was monitoring it make planet-fall when it veered off-course. It was heading for the medical centre down there - then it just... changed course and starting racing for open space."

She pursed her lips. "Someone trying to jump ship?"

"With Luke aboard?"

"Maybe they think he's a good bargaining chip against the Alliance? Maybe they want to sell him back to Vader? Maybe they're just jumping ship the first chance they get?"

Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe. There were too many possibilities - and no way of knowing which one was right. But one thing was certain - that shuttle was out of Executor's tractor range, and Luke was onboard. The skin on her face felt strange, and Leia realised with a pinch of surprise that she was smiling.

"Where's Chewie?" she demanded, even as the door opened and seven feet of wookiee burst into the room. "Chewie - get in the gunwell. We're going to help that shuttle make the jump."

And Chewie, for his part, looked momentarily, comically, stunned - and then he roared in outright delight.

Piett held his breath as the shuttle lifted from the deck plates and began slowly rotating to face the magnetic field. A hand span in front of him, Lord Vader stood unmoving, gripping the safety rail with both hands, his gaze fixed upon the shuttle.

The Dark Lord's manner gave little hint to what he was thinking, so Piett was left to contemplate what thoughts occupied his commander's mind. He could almost feel them, the intensity of them, a few fleeting flashes of insight breaking through the black armour that had kept Vader wrapped up in inscrutability for as long as Piett had known him.

Vader had never been a clear-cut commander, so this impenetrability was not unexpected. But even if Piett had never really understood the Dark Lord, he had at least been able to predict his reactions to events he found unsatisfactory. Usually that reaction was a calculated, violent anger - which inevitably turned out to be lethal for someone.

Now, however... now Piett wasn't sure what to expect from his commander, or what emotion it was that he was picking up off him - because it definitely wasn't anger. Regret, perhaps? Or something bigger than that - an emotion so cruel the Dark Lord could only stand by and watch as the shuttle cleared the magnetic field and the engines lit. A flash of brilliant blue and then she was gone, with Skywalker aboard.

Skywalker. He would have liked to have had a chance to meet the boy, though he wasn't willing to have risked his life for it. In the long two years Piett had been aboard Executor, he had only once tried to research the boy they were hunting. And he had found... nothing. Not a shred of information. Rebel propaganda was sketchy at best, and all the Imperial records had been wiped. Whether by design or accident, the boy was as much an enigma as his father.

His father - now there was something the Alliance most certainly had not publicised. Or, more likely, didn't know. A more foolish man might have been tempted to use that information for his own gain, but Piett valued his life too much to consider that option for long.

Skywalker. Yes, the name had been vaguely familiar to him - he still recalled the stories he had heard in his youth, at the height of the Clone Wars, of another Skywalker, also a Jedi, who had become a symbol for the Republic. He couldn't recall what the reports had stated had happened to that boy, though, and now all the records were gone. So how could Piett have known that for the last two years, he had been serving under him?

Vader was Skywalker, and Piett was one of only a few men alive who was privy to that information. Irony tempted him to smile, but he feared Vader's reaction should he be caught doing so.

He frowned suddenly, realising that this was far from an amusing situation - this was a decidedly deadly situation. Many had died for obtaining far lesser knowledge.

Vader sighed, almost inaudibly, and turned to Piett as if to speak. Piett stiffened, readying himself for... what? For anger? Dismissal? Something else entirely? He wasn't sure what he should expect from Vader any more. The man was becoming more and more unpredictable - and whilst it unnerved Piett, it intrigued him as well.

Vader regarded him for a few moments, silently, and Piett tried to imagine the face behind that mask looking down on him, the eyes scrutinising him. What had Skywalker looked like, before he became Vader? Piett had a vague recollection of piercing blue eyes and a shattering intensity.... He swallowed thickly and looked away, clasping his hands nervously behind his back.

Vader shook his head fractionally, and without a word brushed past Piett, heading for the bridge. After a moment's wary anticipation, Piett followed him.

"Would it be easier if I sedated you?"

Luke started at the voice, twisting against the medical harness that kept him strapped into the bunk. "What?"

The thin-faced 'medic' narrowed his eyes. "Although I don't know if that's wise, given your condition... but if you don't stop fidgeting like that, your 'friends' will know something is not right."

Luke glared. "I've just got one sedative out of me - I don't want another one, thanks."

The man tilted his head to one side, as if considering him. Finally, he sighed. "Well, perhaps we shouldn't risk it. But you need to act more..."

"What?" Luke demanded. The shuttle shuddered briefly, rattled by distant turbolaser fire.

"... more concerned. More... imperilled," the 'medic' said, idly turning over a hypo in his hand, leaning against the bulkhead.

Luke just blinked at him. "Imperilled?" he repeated, numbly. "What, exactly, does imperilled look like?" he asked, though he was distracted. He could feel Leia's presence pressing up against his own, an echo of comfort and hope. She must be close... so close. He could taste her determination, bleeding into the Force between them. He'd heard her voice, briefly, over the comm. The Falcon had contacted the shuttle and made a deal to cover them for their jump out of the system, with the condition that they set a rendezvous point. And it was so good to hear her voice again. But so unkind that in order to hear it, he had to leave his father behind.

The 'medic' was shaking his head in mild irritation. "Just try and look ill, and like you don't have a clue what's going on."

Luke bit back the smile. "I think I can manage that. I don't want-"

The pilot interrupted him over the comm. "Brace yourselves. Transitioning to hyperspace in three... two...one... we're jumping."

Luke instinctively closed his eyes, trying for a last fleeting touch along the bond he shared with Vader, though he knew he still shouldn't be using the Force. He touched it, just briefly, a final goodbye, before the acceleration kicked in and he felt like his fingers were ripped free of that tentative touch. Hells, that hurt. He winced, waiting for the momentary discomfort to pass.

"You don't have to look that ill," the 'medic' said.

Luke opened his eyes and grimaced as the nausea began to pass. "How long before we revert?"

The 'medic' tugged at his uniform, straightening the lines. "Not long - your princess didn't want to let us out of her sights for any longer than she had to." He paused, scrutinising Luke. "You look pale - what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Luke insisted, though his stomach was turning, and he felt like his mind was flailing in the dark for a connection that was suddenly out of reach. "I'm fine."

"Yeah, of course you are. What's wrong?"


"I know it's not nothing. You-"

"I'm fine," Luke insisted, tugging in irritation at the harness that held him down to the bunk, the thick bands strapped across his arms and chest. "You're not even a real medic, so why do you care?"

The man snorted. "You might not have figured this out yet, Skywalker, but your father told me to watch after you, and my head is on the line if you so much as catch a cold. So - you want to tell me why you've just turned pale as trooper?"

Funny, Luke had always assumed that Intell Ops would be quiet, characterless types - but this one had a knack for being irritating without even trying, and he certainly wasn't the inconspicuous type. Luke opened his mouth to tell the man to mind his own business - that Luke didn't want or need a mini-Vader constantly watching over him, but the 'medic' interrupted him.

"For what it's worth - I do have medical training and you do look like hell. If you're going to throw up, let me know. If you feel worse, let me know - Vader made it fairly clear what my priorities are." He smiled down at Luke, crookedly, though there was no humour in his eyes. He balanced himself against the bulkhead as the ship jolted.

Luke scowled. "What does that mean?"

"As he put it... you have no consideration for your own health - that is now my responsibility - so Goddess help me if you screw your health up.'"

Luke let out a loud sigh of annoyance. "Typical."

"What is?"

"Blackmailing me to look after myself by threatening you."

The 'medic' snorted. "So - how bad are you feeling?"

"It's passing, really."

"Well, if it gets worse- "

"Brace yourselves," the 'pilot' interrupted, sounding quietly annoyed with the banter. "Reversion to realspace is in... three... two... one..."

Luke cursed to himself silently as the ship reverted - had Vader really had to tell them about their relationship? The novelty of having other people that knew about him and Vader had already worn off, and he'd only been 'guarded' by them for the last ten minutes.

The shuttle shuddered briefly, and Luke felt the pull of the deceleration through his bones. The 'medic' narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, shifting his expression from concern to one of nervous anticipation. Maybe he was thinking about how he was going to convince Leia he was a genuine deserter - or maybe he was just getting in character.

"Looks like we made it," Luke said.

"Get ready: your Rebel friends will be boarding soon."

A tingle of expectation ran through Luke, and he lay back on the bed with an impatient sigh. Stupid to be nervous, but he was. "Maybe that sedative wasn't such a bad idea," he said.

"Too late. And besides - if it interacted with whatever else you've got wrong with you, Vader would not be happy. So you'll just have to-"

"I know, I know - look ill and confused. I'll try."

Her hand was shaking, despite her efforts to steal her nerves against the raging anticipation that was tearing through her mind.

"You okay?" Lando asked, glancing at her in concern.

"I'm fine. Just get that hatch open."

He reached for the controls, but then paused. "Listen Leia, if Luke is in bad shape, then we-"

Nervous expectation ate away at her patience. "Just open the hatch, Lando. Don't worry about me - I can cope."

He thinned his lips into a line of disapproval, staring at her with intense scrutiny, though concern softened his eyes. But she didn't want his concern - she just wanted to get through that hatchway, so she kept her eyes facing forward and didn't met his gaze.

"Sure you can," he said eventually, and flicked the switch.

The airlock began a slow rotation, the creak of hydraulics rumbling through the durasteel. Her head felt light - she felt insubstantial, like she was made of hope and dreams and not a lot else. But those dreams - they weren't so insubstantial anymore, not if they could just get aboard this ship - and get aboard it now.

Finally, the hatch creaked to a stop, revealing the airlock. Forcing herself to breathe deeply, and slowly, Leia clutched the blaster tighter in the palm of her hand and pressed forward, squeezing through the hatchway.

It was suffocatingly quiet inside the airlock, and she quickly crossed to the outer hatch, hitting the controls to begin cycling it open. It began to move painfully slowly. Lando stepped up behind her, pressed close, trying to protect her should this be a trap, though she hadn't asked him to. She didn't have time to tell him to back off, or for the arguments it would spark, so she bit her tongue and waited, impatiently, for the hatch to finish cycling.

When it finally did, there was a man waiting for them on the other side, hopping nervously from foot to foot. Instinctively, Leia lifted the blaster.

"Don't move," she said, aiming right between the eyes. "Put your hands out in front of you."

The man complied, watching her with a wide-eyed expression.

"Wait, wait," he said. "I'm not armed."

Lando snorted. "Yeah, 'course you're not - just back up and let us through."

The man nodded nervously, backing up until he hit the far wall. He wore a medic's uniform, Leia noted silently, and his hands were trembling, just like hers.

"Where's the pilot we talked to?" she demanded.

Her arms were beginning to ache with the effort of keeping the blaster aloft - that, and the energy it took to stop them shaking.

"I'm here," a voice said, to her left, and she twisted to face him. A man stood silhouetted in the hatchway, taller than the other Imperial, holding onto the doorjamb like he hoped it would keep him upright.

"Is the ship on autopilot?" Lando demanded.

"Yes," he replied, quietly.

"Then come forward and stand next to your friend," Leia ordered, the voice of command - and he came. He was young, perhaps only around her own age, but he looked at her with narrow suspicion.

"Where's Luke?" she demanded, even as Lando shouldered past her and did a quick check for weapons on both men. Chewie also pushed through, though he was supposed to be watching the Falcon. Apparently, he too wanted to find Luke quickly.

The medic pointed to his left, around the curve of the narrow corridor. "He's down there, in the med bunk. He's-"

"Lando - watch these two," she said, dropping the blaster to her side and glancing down the corridor.

"Leia, wait, we need to make sure they - Leia!"

She was already moving down the corridor, alert for traps but feeling an almost childlike eagerness hurrying her heart. She felt giddy as more adrenaline surged through her, and she wondered if she should be holding her breath lest she start hyperventilating. She reached a closed hatch and paused, suddenly apprehensive.

What if he wasn't here? What if he wasn't really aboard, or he was badly injured - or worse, what if he was already dead?

She shook her head - this was foolish: she would never know until she opened that hatch and walked through. Standing here worrying, she was only torturing herself for no good reason, and besides... she had a good feeling about this. Shoring up her courage against the racing thoughts, she hit the release on the hatch.

It was brighter inside the compartment than in the corridor, and Leia had to blink her eyes a few times to adjust to the sudden light. Then she caught sight of him, and her breath caught in her throat. She couldn't say anything for a second, and then the name burst out of her, like a prayer, "Luke!"

He turned at her voice, or at least tried to, but he was firmly strapped into the far medical bunk and couldn't move far. He stared at her in momentary confusion, but then he gasped, mouth falling open in surprise.

"Leia?" he asked, sounding like he couldn't quite believe it.

She crossed the room in a few swift steps, though it seemed to take inordinately long to reach him. Something not unlike wonder had a firm grip on her heart - it was almost painful, that overwhelming, blinding relief. As she dropped to one knee by the bunk, she was grinning. "Luke - you're... are you... are you okay?"

She didn't wait for an answer - she didn't need to - she could see it in his eyes; could see that, even if he wasn't okay right now, then he would be - in time. She reached for him, for his hand, but changed direction mid-action and instead brushed the dark bangs from his eyes. Something snapped inside of her as she did so, and she dropped to both knees, suddenly, and found herself gripping him to her in a fierce hug, biting back the incoherent words she wanted to say. He felt warm, undeniably alive - and that in itself was enough to make her want to cry with relief and exhaustion.

She could hear someone whispering hoarsely, and realised, chagrined, that it was her, whispering those incoherent words despite her attempts to keep them locked inside. "Luke... oh... oh, Luke," over and over. Luke locked his arms around her as well as he could with the medical harness getting in the way. She hugged him tighter, burying her face in his shoulder.

"Leia? Leia...? Are you... you okay?"

Was she okay?! What a question! She didn't know what to reply to that, so she didn't say anything. It was only when she pulled back and saw the damp marks on Luke's tunic that she realised she was crying. There were no sobs, no dry heaving - just joy, relief, pouring out of her. She gripped him harder again, fisting her hands in the material of his tunic. Then something cracked in her throat, and a sob broke through.

"Leia... Leia, it's okay, it's okay," he said, one hand clumsily trying to rub her back, though the medical harness really wasn't designed to let him do that. There was an emotion in his voice that she didn't really understand - was it guilt? - but it didn't really matter - none of that really mattered. She couldn't seem to focus on the words - just hearing the familiar voice seemed to be enough, for now. "Force, it's so good to see you," he said. "I wish I... I... Sith, can you undo this harness? I can't even hug you properly!"

She half-laughed, half-sobbed, and pulled back, wiping gingerly at her cheeks, unsurprised to see a black smudge of makeup on the back of her hand. She scrutinised him closely, looking for injuries. He looked pale and tired, but there was nothing obviously wrong with him. But then, if he'd been with Vader for this long, the injuries didn't have to be immediately obvious to be brutal.

"Can I release it? Are you okay to move about?"

Luke opened his mouth to respond, but someone else beat him to it. "No - you should leave it on," a voice said, behind her, and she turned sharply. She'd been so absorbed in Luke she hadn't noticed Lando and the two Imperials entering the room.

Lando shrugged apologetically. "He insisted," he said, waving his blaster towards the medic. "He was worried you'd undo his work."

"Worried?" she snapped, rising to her feet suddenly, a thunderous anger in her veins. "Worried? Worried about what - worried that Vader's tender ministrations might be undone? I think you people have done enough damage, don't you?"

The man flinched, looking to the ground briefly before meeting her gaze again. "I didn't mean that, Your Highness - I'm just worried about his health, and his injuries mean he shouldn't be mobile at the moment."

Leia frowned, turning back to Luke to find him glaring at the medic. She sighed, turning back. "Why not?"

The medic shifted uneasily. "I can't tell you that, I -"

She glowered. "Don't you dare quote patient confidentiality at me."

He blinked owlishly. "No, I... I just don't know the details of it - didn't have time to read his notes. We were just transferring him when we...."

"When you what?"

He shrugged, going silent, but the pilot answered for him, "When we decided to take our chance and make a run for it."

Leia frowned. Something here didn't feel right, though she couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was that was bothering her. She narrowed her gaze, but both men just looked right back at her with open, honest expressions. And maybe that was what she didn't trust - it was too... neat. Sighing, she turned back to Luke, and couldn't help but smile as he yawned.

"Sorry," he said, blushing.

A bubble of laughter burst within her then, cracking the tension, and she laughed, smiling, before dropping back down and kissing him lightly on his forehead. "Force, Luke, I've missed you," she whispered, quietly, into his hair. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the sound of Luke's breathing.

"Missed you too, Leia," he whispered back, almost inaudibly.

Lando interrupted with a cough. "... ah, Princess? We need to get moving - Executor might have tracked the shuttle's jump vector."

"Yes, I know," she said, standing reluctantly, feeling tired suddenly as the adrenaline began to drain from her body. "Can you fly this ship?"

"Princess, I can fly anything."

"Good. Chewie can fly the Falcon and we'll make the trip with this ship." She glanced at the two Imperials, who looked like they were nervously contemplating their future. And well they might - she was far from convinced of their sincerity. But that didn't matter - they had Luke, and they had a ship to fly him back to the Alliance in, and that was more than enough to satisfy her for now.

"What about us?" the pilot finally asked.

She smiled, thinly. "You two can get familiar with the bunk rooms - it's a long trip back to the Alliance base."

The medic smiled gratefully. "Thank you," he said, letting out a sigh of released tension.

"Don't thank me yet," she warned. She was going to say something more about not trusting them, but right now it just didn't feel important enough. Instead, she turned back to Luke, resisting the urge to - again - grin inanely at him. "You ready to go home?" she asked.

His eyes sparkled. "More than ready," he said.

It wasn't the most comfortable position to sleep in, with her back propped up against the cold and unforgiving bulkhead, and her body wrapped in a thin, scratchy blanket she'd found in one of the overhead cupboards. But it was adequate - it allowed her to sleep with her head pillowed on the edge of Luke's mattress, one hand holding onto his, feeling his pulse batting against her fingers, keeping time with her own steady, satisfied beat.

Well - perhaps 'sleeping' wasn't the right description for what she was doing here - 'guarding him' was probably a closer description, though Luke had called it 'fussing' - just before he'd finally given in to the urge to sleep, and drifted off. His protest that he wasn't tired had been severely undermined when he'd started snoring moments after saying it.

Leia smiled at the memory, lifting her head so she could study Luke's face in the pale, flickering light of the medical scanners. To say that he'd spent an extended amount of time in Vader's hands, he looked surprisingly well - much better than she herself felt, and she hadn't been the one who'd been captured.

But then, she knew from experience that Luke could be inhumanly resilient at times. And the medical records they'd downloaded from the shuttle's computer showed that Luke hadn't actually spent any real time with Vader - he'd been days in a bacta tank, recovering from his interrogation and from the blaster wound to his thigh.

She frowned, tightening her fingers around Luke's, unable to say why that information unsettled her. It wasn't so much the fact he had been interrogated - though that fact alone left her feeling like she'd been kicked in the gut - but that Vader had been allowing him to heal before starting on him personally. Allowing him to heal, even to the point where he'd decided to send Luke planet-side to a private medical centre, for more detailed treatment for his 'psychic-shock' - whatever that was.

It all felt very un-Vader-like, though she supposed Luke was an unusual prisoner. Perhaps he merely wanted Luke at full strength so that when Vader started on him, Luke would be fully aware of what was happening to him. That possibility brought to mind the stories she'd heard about the Imperial Centre interrogation prisons - stories of prisoners tortured whilst in bacta tanks, so their body could never reprieve them with unconsciousness or death.

The thought of that send a shudder jack-knifing down her spine, and she mentally shoved the image aside, squeezing Luke's hand. He squeezed back, and tried to roll over, muttering something.

"Hey," she said, wondering if he was awake. She propped her chin on the edge of the mattress, watching him for a response.

He didn't open his eyes, though a flash of confusion ran over his face, and he tried to push up off the bed. Concerned, Leia put a hand on his arm and tried to settle him down again, wondering if she really should have locked that medic away in the far bunkroom. "Luke?"

"Where are you?" he muttered, flexing his hand around hers, and then letting go. His fingers groped across the sheets, as if searching for something. "Father?"

Leia stilled, a twist of sadness in her heart. No wonder Luke was dreaming of his father - he'd just escaped the presence of the man who had killed him. She put her hand on his arm.

"Luke? Luke - are you awake?"

"Father? Are you...?" he trailed off, sighing and dropping back down to the mattress. His breathing settled into a steady rhythm, and for a few minutes Leia thought he had fallen back asleep. But then he started mumbling softly. "I know... I just... well, I wanted... okay, okay...."

Leia frowned, rocking back on her heels and contemplating her friend, who appeared to be having a conversation with thin air. Should she wake him? She considered it for a few seconds, caught between wanting to let him rest and wanting to ward off any nightmares. In the end, Luke settled the dilemma himself; after a mumbled sigh that sounding more annoyed than distressed, he slipped back asleep, snoring quietly, peacefully, as if the nightmare had never happened.

Unsettled, though she couldn't say why, Leia glanced over her shoulder at the bunkroom hatchway. Perhaps she should let the medic out of there before they reached the Alliance base - just to be sure.

"So - can I get up?"

The 'medic' looked down at him critically from where he had perched on the opposite bunk. "How do you feel?"

"Fine," Luke answered, quickly. Too quickly, apparently - the 'medic' shook his head.

"We're going to wait for a stretcher," he said after a few moments critical examination of Luke.

Luke sighed in annoyance. The shuttle had set down on the new Rebel base without any mishaps, and as far as Luke was concerned there were no good reasons for delaying getting off this ship and going planet-side any longer. This medical compartment had become uncomfortably familiar over the last couple of days. The 'medic' apparently disagreed with that sentiment, though. Or maybe he was just leery about facing a base full of Rebels, who would undoubtedly question his loyalties.

"Oh, come on - I'm fine. I can walk - let me up," Luke insisted, standing up and demonstrating that he could walk in a straight line just fine, thanks all the same.

The man arched his eyebrow, and Luke suspected there was just a hint of amusement in that patronising look. "I don't think so."

"Look, you don't have to baby-sit me. Vader-" Luke started to say, angry, but then Leia stepped into the room and he shut his mouth abruptly. She'd heard the last word though, and a flash of concern and anger quivered through her slender frame. She turned on the 'medic'.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing," the 'medic' said, straightening stiffly as Leia walked towards him. "Other than the fact that my patient thinks he's ready to start running missions as soon as his feet hit the earth."

Leia turned to Luke in concern, and Luke glared at the 'medic', trying to convey with his eyes just how much he disliked that dirty trick. "Luke-" Leia started to say, but he interrupted her.

"All I want is to walk out of here, not get carried out. Come on, Leia - it's not that big a deal."

Leia looked momentarily uncertain, but then she glanced at the 'medic' and when he shook his head disapprovingly, Luke knew he wasn't going to win this one. "Okay, fine - but no crowds, okay?" he asked.

She was desperately trying to contain a smile, and that made Luke's stomach knot - "Oh no - they're already out there, aren't they? How many people?"

She smiled a little apologetically. "You know how fast news travels here, Luke. And it's not that many - the base isn't fully operational yet, so we're still on a skeleton crew."

"Leia - how many?"

She bit her lip before replying, apparently torn between humour and pity. "Most of the base who aren't on shift - and some who are. I think I spotted a few of the Rogues out there, too. Maybe fifty... well, perhaps more around sixty, if you count the droids."

Luke just stared at her, utterly taken aback.

Honestly, he wasn't sure whether to hug her or shout at her that there was no way that many people were going to see him get carted off this ship on a stretcher. Couldn't she have kept this quiet until he'd had at least a few days to... readjust? Readjust to being in the Rebellion. That would have seemed such an alien concept just weeks ago, but right now the truth was, he didn't feel at all comfortable here, not anymore.

In the end, he just sat down heavily, head in his hands. "I don't suppose you can tell them to just... go away?" he asked, looking up as she sat down next to him and drew him into a hug.

"Sorry - I don't think they'd go." She looked at him, studying him, and her eyes softened with what he almost believed was an apology. "I didn't tell anyone other than Mon Mothma that we were here - you'll have to blame her for the welcome party."

"Don't worry - I will," he muttered, although there wasn't really any anger in the words. Only bewilderment; why had all those people - and droids! - chosen to come greet the shuttle? It was... a little overwhelming, truth be told. Hells, most Rebels were so overworked they grabbed every free minute they had to sleep, eat, or get drunk.

Leia brushed a hand through his hair, and Luke looked up at her. "Maybe they won't even recognise you, with this hair," she said, smiling fondly, laughing just a little.

"You think?" he asked, momentarily basking in the soothing sensation of her fingers carding through his hair. Force, he'd missed Leia. Something about her just seemed to soothe the bruises in his mind. She had a healing effect on him, even by doing nothing more than just sitting next to him.

"No," she said.

"I didn't think so," he agreed, chagrined. At that, the hatchway opened and a medical droid rolled inside with a hover-stretcher in tow. Luke groaned, screwing his eyes up against the inevitable. "I don't need it, you know."

"Of course you don't," Leia replied, amicably, even as she pulled him to his feet and gave him a push towards the stretcher. "But you're going to use it anyway."

"I am?" he asked, challenging her, just to see what she'd do.

She caught the challenge and looked at him, her eyes locking onto his with a depthless intensity. "Please? For me?" she asked, and suddenly sounded terribly vulnerable. Before he'd really considered what he was doing, Luke sat down on the edge of the hover-stretcher with a sigh. Leia smiled gratefully, mouthing 'thank you' though she didn't say it aloud.

Maybe sensing the sudden heat in the room, or maybe just because he was obnoxious, the 'medic' stepped forward and rubbed his hands together. "Right, everyone ready?" he asked.

Leia gave him a withering glare. She brushed past him as she said, "Follow me out - and make sure you keep up. We're not stopping for autographs."

Standing stiffly in front of the viewport in the empty quarters, his hands clasped behind his back, Vader contemplated the slowly shifting starscape, searching for his centre within the Force.

He could almost feel the chill of the vacuum of space against his skin. The stars trailing off into the distance had rarely seemed so far away; had never seemed so unreachable. He felt... empty, and stretched too thin. He knew, logically, that is was merely the adverse reaction of his newly awakened parental bond to the sudden loss of contact with his son; a dull ache as that part of his mind tried to stretch across the increasingly vast distance between them.

He knew that, but at the same time it felt as if the distance between them was growing thicker, more impenetrable, and all Vader felt was a strange emptiness, a cold settling in his bones.

But... there was nothing to be done about that now. And there were other matters to attend to, matters which could not wait for him to finish ruminating on the after-effects of creating a bond with his son. And Vader could put it off no longer - he had to make contact with the Emperor, and convince the Sith Master that his wayward apprentice was repentant.

Black humour bubbled inside of Vader at the thought - he was far from repentant; he only wished he had the opportunity to dispose of the old man himself, for he would do it in a heartbeat.

But he had no such opportunity, not unless he was willing to risk his own destruction, and that was unacceptable - it would leave Luke open to capture. Were it just himself at risk, he would have already moved against Sidious - but he was unwilling to gamble with his son's life. So there was little choice - he must act... humble. He scowled as he tasted the word in his mind, accepting the role he had to play, but not liking it.

And perhaps the strangest thing of all was that, although it had only been a matter of days since finally meeting his son, Vader already found the notion of acting servile to Palpatine distasteful. The thought of another day in servitude to him turned Vader's stomach.

But if it was the only way, then he would do it - and all the motivation he needed was contained within the memory of his vision, which still persisted in his mind, of the results of Luke becoming corrupted by the dark side.

He turned from the starscape, feeling as if the stars were watching him, holding their breath, waiting to see him contact the Emperor, to see if he would succeed in placating the old man - or if he would fail.

"Out! Out! I can't do this with an audience," the chief medical officer said, with irritable good humour, shooing everyone from the room.

Along with all the other's present in the room - the curious onlookers, the techs and the ground crew, the Council delegates, the military debriefers, the intelligence men who wouldn't state their designation, and the handful of pilots who'd come running at the news Luke was back with them - Leia backed away.

Luke smiled at her haphazardly, then opened his mouth to speak. But the door slid shut across Leia's view of the room, and she never got to hear what he had been about to say. She found herself staring at the dull grey of the closed door for a few long, thoughtless seconds.

"Princess? Are you okay?"

She smiled at the voice, mentally shrugging aside the disquiet. "I'm fine, Wedge, just tired." She paused, turning to face the pilot. "You got here quick."

"Good news travels fast," he said, though he was frowning as he looked at the closed door. "It is good news, right?"

Of course it is, she wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come out. Of course it was good news: there was nothing life- threateningly wrong with Luke, and he seemed in good spirits, if exhausted... so why did she have a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that she was missing something here?

"Leia?" Wedge asked again, a note of concern in his voice now. He stepped closer to her, concern tightening his expression.

"Yes - yes, it is," she said, patting Wedge on the arm in reassurance. "He'll be fine." And then, because she didn't think she could stand any more questions, she turned on her heel and walked away, blowing out a breath of tension she hadn't realised she'd been holding.

She kept walking for a while, gradually increasing her pace until she could feel the life beginning to return to her limbs.

The recycled air felt dry and choking against her skin, and she found herself making for her quarters, pushing on through to the private 'fresher and flicking on the water taps over the sink.

She filled the basin with frigid water and plunged her hands into it, splashing the water up and onto her face a few times before finally resting her hands on the side of the sink and staring at her wet, tired, bedraggled expression. She didn't look much like a princess right now.

A flash of a memory ripped across her vision: looking in the mirror of a similar 'fresher, and seeing not her own reflection, but Luke's - screaming.

She jerked back from the memory; pulled away from the mirror with a violent rush of energy. When she looked up again, though, she didn't see Luke's reflection in the mirror - she saw only herself, tired and exhausted. She let out a sigh of relief, softly cursing her mind for playing tricks on her. Then a faint twinkle of light caught her eye, reflecting off the glass - and then another, and another.

Leia walked cautiously back towards the glass, and frowned, lifting a hand to the glass.

She touched one of the small specks of light, put her hand in front of it, but it still shone on the glass, as if shining straight through her hand, or shining from within the mirror. She looked over her shoulder, hoping to see a window behind her, one that would be reflecting a starscape onto the mirror - but there was nothing but a blank wall opposite the mirror.

She turned back to the mirror and the stars were gone. There was just her own reflection in the mirror; tired, bedraggled - and confused.

Finally, after all the tests and all the questions, they had left him alone. Luke sat down on the edge of the narrow bunk in the cramped but private room and sighed with exhaustion.

He rubbed his hand over his face tiredly and flopped backwards, dropping onto the bed and turning onto his side so he could stare out the far window. The night sky seemed to press in against the window, and Luke frowned, inexplicably reminded of the view from the quarters Vader had assigned him aboard Executor. Yanking one of the pillows out of from under his head, Luke put it over his face and let out a silent scream of frustration and guilt.

How many lies had he just told in the last two hours? Probably more than all the ones he'd ever told in the three years he'd been with the Alliance, put together. He felt.... dirty. Or more than that - out of place: an interloper. And that was something he'd never felt before, not even when he'd first joined the Rebellion.

The door to his room slid open and he groaned silently, tempted to keep the pillow over his face and fake sleep - or suffocation. But then a flurry of beeps whistled through the room, along with the sound of treaded wheels motoring across the floor. He pulled the pillow away from his face just as Artoo bumped into the bed in his eagerness to great him, whistling shrilly.

"Hey buddy," Luke said, pushing himself back upright as the droid scouted back and forth in excitement, before settling on pressing next to the bed and whistling a long, happy note. Luke was grinning despite his exhaustion. "Miss me?"

An undecipherable flurry of beeps followed that question, and Luke smiled to himself, not understanding a word of it. A lot of things had changed since he'd left the Alliance fleet a few weeks earlier - but some things would never change, and for that he was incredibly grateful.

Palpatine pressed his fingertips together and narrowed his gaze, listening with growing irritation to Vader's excuses.

Ah, but the Dark Lord would perhaps prefer the term 'rationalization' to excuses - but, nevertheless, he surely did not think Palpatine fool enough to believe him. No - he merely hoped to placate Palpatine long enough to attempt to regain his favour.

And well he might, because with Skywalker gone - whether by accident or design - Vader was as vulnerable as his errant son. He must know that it was only by Palpatine's whim that he still lived; his life expectancy now extended only as far as he was useful as bait to trap the Skywalker child - and twist him.

Palpatine cackled softly to himself in amusement at the thought of that particular forthcoming challenge.

Vader must have heard the laugh, for he stilled his explanations and lifted his gaze. "My Master?"

"Oh, do go on, Lord Vader. This is really quite amusing."

That rhythmic breathing answered him, and Palpatine smiled, thinking how much more practical it would be to have a servant who had a fully functional body. How much more practical, how much more agreeable.

"My Master, I-"

"Really, Vader, do continue."

And Vader took a deep breath and resumed his excuses. Palpatine listened only peripherally to the words - he was far more interested in contemplating the details of how, precisely, he was going to punish Vader once he no longer had any use for him. Perhaps it would be amusing to disable the respirator, let him struggle for a breath that would never be enough to keep him alive - it would be a slow death, though not a particularly violent one.

No, perhaps something more undignified was in order - those artificial limbs were certainly a distinct vulnerability. Or - oh, perhaps his replacement would have some novel ideas? Ah, it would be refreshing to have a new perspective on these things. Palpatine really was growing tired with Vader's choke-and-garrotte method of execution. It lacked originality.

As he was listening, a movement from the periphery of his vision caught Palpatine's eye, and he turned his head, fractionally. Prince Xizor stared back at him, a cruel smile on his face. Ah, good - the Falleen had managed to attend this little pantomime.

"Lord Vader," Palpatine interrupted Vader, turning his attention back to him, "I'm afraid you're going to have to remind me, because I seem to be experiencing some difficulty with this - but how did Skywalker affect his escape from your ship?"

Vader shifted his weight slightly. Palpatine felt a murderous impulse rush through him, but he pushed it aside for another day; for a time when it would be so much sweeter.

"He was abducted by two junior officers, my Master, who I believe had some Rebel sympathies."

"So Skywalker has returned to the Rebellion?" he asked, mildly.

"I believe so, my Master."

"Hmmm..." Palpatine mused. "To their main base, I suppose? The one you have yet to locate?"

Vader stiffened. Oh, that was a 'yes'. Skywalker was definitely there. Well, that was most useful information.

"I do not know, my Master," Vader said, and Palpatine felt violent rage at the lie. He kept it in check with a thin smile. He knew that he must be patient - Skywalker would be his, soon enough, should Black Sun be able to follow through on their promises.

It was unfortunate that there had been a minor misunderstanding on Black Sun's part about Palpatine's plans for the boy. Xizor had mistakenly believed Palpatine wanted the boy dead, and it was fortunate for all concerned that the Falleen's attempts to humiliate Vader by executing Skywalker had failed. Now that Palpatine had made it painfully clear to Xizor that he required the boy alive, things should progress much more smoothly.

"Ah, well - do not worry yourself with this matter," Palpatine said, waving a negligent hand through the air. "My agents will continue to search for young Skywalker, Lord Vader. I'm sure that he will be back with us soon."

Vader paused, and then answered, "As you say, My Master."

"Yes, well... do carry on with your report. The Rebels on Tallir...?"

And Vader prattled on, though they both knew it was only a thin pretence at obedience. Ah, but if only Palpatine had the younger Skywalker here, he could dispose of the father.

And on that sweet thought... Palpatine shifted his gaze aside and nodded fractionally towards Xizor. The Falleen bowed in acknowledgement of the unspoken order before slipping from the room, his thoughts echoing in the Force, full of calculated cruelty and ambition.

By the third day, Luke was beginning to wonder if anything else actually existed outside the small Medical Bay he was confined to, or if he'd merely imagined there was another part of the base out there, carrying on regardless of his inability to escape the severe attention of his jailers.

Well, maybe 'jailors' wasn't fair - the chief medical officer was just doing his job, and Vader's two lackeys were looking after their own backsides by making sure he didn't slip out of the 'Bay. And Leia... Leia was just worried about him.

She was already fussing over him to the point where even Chewie and Lando were getting concerned. Not that Luke minded her fussing, really. He smiled to himself secretly, thinking about how much he would have thanked the Force for putting him in this situation a couple of years earlier - into a position where she was doting on him, instead of the other way around.

And actually, it was great spending so much time with her, but he couldn't help but feel that something had changed between them. Or rather, that he had changed: the secret he was desperately guarding was like an invisible wall between them, blocking their connection. In a lot of ways - too many ways - Luke had never felt so distanced from Leia. Ironic how it had happened now, when he was spending much more time with her than he ever had before - just him and her, talking.

And he ached for that bond between them, which seemed so thin and flimsy now. Leia felt it, too - he could see it in her eyes. She was probably putting it down to his adjustment after the interrogation - and he knew, guiltily, that it was best to let her think that. Because it was kinder than the truth.

The truth - it had become a physical thing, like a weight around his neck, dragging him down. Luke sighed, feeling suffocated by both the cramped room and by his own guilty secrets. If he didn't get some fresh air soon he was going to go crazy, and he was pretty sure that none of them wanted that.

Trouble was, he was also pretty sure that the medics didn't know what the hell 'psychic-shock' was and were just playing it safe. They had some sketchy, second-hand information on it, but nothing he could use to persuade them to let him get out of here for a while. And he itched to get out of here - to do some exploring. A new base was always a novelty, 'though admittedly this one appeared to be just a rock in the middle of nowhere.

Despite that, the enforced rest must have been doing him some good - he could now reach out to the Force without bringing on a violent headache. And he could touch it, manipulate it, without suffering anything worse than a weird tingling sensation at the back of his neck. And that was progress, at least.

But not enough, and not nearly fast enough for Luke.

Lying on the bed, hands behind his back, Luke turned his concentration onto the stack of datapads at the foot of his bed. He reached out a hand, twitched a finger at them, and, one by one, five of them rose into the air. He had to narrow his eyes in concentration to keep them all aloft, but they stayed there, suspended above him. He wondered distantly what Yoda would think of the show. Probably not a lot - probably he'd think it was disgustingly easy, and nothing to feel smug about... and that smugness was another path to the dark side.

Shifting his focus just a little, Luke set the centre one spinning slowly, and grinned at it - not a few weeks ago this would have seemed impossible, but now it felt as natural as flying.

Luke frowned suddenly - why had this suddenly become easier? It wasn't like he'd been training during those weeks, but something felt like it had changed; the Force had never felt so easy to reach before.

Not that he was complaining....

Biting his lip in concentration, Luke shifted his focus to another datapad, and then another, until all five where slowly turning in the air, whirling silently. He watched them, almost hypnotised by the feeling of Force running through his veins, reaching out from within him, out to touch the datapads, starting them spinning.

"That's quite a party trick."

Luke twisted around at the voice, startled. Leia was standing in the doorway, watching him, smiling just a little.

Unfortunately, just at the moment he turned, he stretched his concentration too far and the datapads slipped from his mental touch, spinning out of his control. They hung for a moment, suspended briefly, and then dropped to the bed in a clatter. One of them slipped from the bed to the floor.

Luke sat up and looked down at them, chagrined. "I guess I need to keep working on my focus," he said.

Leia just shook her head. "What part of 'don't use the Force' is so difficult to understand, Luke?"

He shrugged sheepishly. "I know, I know... it just sort of... comes naturally. And anyway - it feels fine, now."

Instead of chastising him, Leia just looked at him curiously, and nodded as if agreeing with something that he hadn't even realised he'd said. But that didn't make sense.

"Hang on - aren't you supposed to be in the Council meeting this morning?"

She nodded, coming forwards and picking up the datapads, putting them back into a neat pile, before sitting on the bed next to him. "I was, but it's been delayed."

Luke looked at her in surprise. "What? Why?"

She frowned. "I'm not sure - Mothma was called away by Intelligence, but I don' t know why."

Luke felt ice frosting his heart suddenly, wondering if it could be related to his father's two Intell ops that they'd brought back. Did the Alliance know...? Surely not - how could they?

Leia was looking at him oddly again, and he realised he hadn't responded. "Oh, okay," he said, lamely. She spent a few seconds longer considering him, and Luke smiled faintly. Then she pushed off the bed and came to her feet, suddenly decisive.

"So - I thought you might like the grand tour."


"Of the base? I know it's frustrating being stuck in here, Luke. I'm just surprised you haven't tried to hack your way out of here yet."

Luke smiled. "They've installed Bariun-style encrypts on the locks... they were next on Han's list of crack-tricks to teach me."

It had been an innocent comment, an instinctive one, but a chill shadow seemed to race over Leia's face at the mention of Han's name. Guilt, like a douse of cold water, washed over him. There was so much pain in her eyes. "Leia... I..."

"It's okay," she said, waving it off. "It's not like we can't mention his name." She smiled, but it was dead and humourless.

"Is there any news?" Luke asked.

She looked terribly fragile as she stood and walked to the small room's sole window. "No, Fett's already left the last place we knew for sure he'd been to. He's out there, somewhere...." She trailed off. "Did you know the techs are taking bets?"

"What?" Luke asked, hearing the words but feeling the bitter sting of her pain much keener.

"They're betting on how long Fett'll take to get to Jabba. They think he's stringing the Hutt out, trying to get a higher price." She sighed. "Maybe they're right."

Luke stood, and approached, aiming to try and comfort her, though he wasn't sure that was at all possible right now, so he just hugged her silently.

He'd expected her response to the hug to be restrained, and at first it was. Luke reached out tentatively into the Force, quickly finding her distinctive presence, trying to get inspiration on how to help her. At that mind-touch though, a flood of emotion seemed to roll over him, blindsiding him with the unrestrained pain. It was an almost physical feeling, a sharp burning sensation deep down in his chest. Leia suddenly tightened the hug, pulling him to her like she wanted to crawl into him and hide.

Leia... he whispered silently, feeling his own frustration and pain mirroring her sorrow. We'll get him back, I promise you.

She sobbed, tightening her hold on him. "You can't promise me that."

It took all his willpower not to stiffen at the words - because she'd just responded to something he sure as hell hadn't said out-loud. He tried to breathe steadily, but his mind had been kicked into high gear, and his heart was accelerating alongside it.

That shouldn't have been possible! She shouldn't be able to hear him - never had been before, unless you counted Bespin, but Leia'd told him that had felt more like an urge to find him than hearing the words themselves.

Trying not to lose his concentration with the shock and confusion, Luke sent, "Then I promise you I'll try everything I can think of to get him back - no matter what it takes."

She pulled back a little, looking into his eyes. "Don't say that - I can't lose you both."

He swallowed, thickly. It wasn't a fluke - she really could hear him.

"You won't. I can feel it," he said, because now she was looking at him and would see that he hadn't spoken if he used the Force.

She sighed, looking down and wiping at the tear-tracks that were streaking her makeup. "I wish I had your faith," she said, smiling self-reproachfully.

Luke didn't know what to say to that, so he pulled her back into the embrace. He was silent, but his mind was whirling. How - how - was it possible for her to hear him? He could do it with his father, but that made sense. This didn't.

Something had changed - he'd acknowledged that only minutes ago when he'd realised that multiple levitations, what had once been a difficult Force-skill, was suddenly relatively simple. He felt closer to the Force than he ever had before - closer, and more a part of it, immersed in it. Was this the after-effects of the psychic-shock? Or something else entirely? Hells - he really needed to talk to Vader about this, but he'd no way of contacting him.

His thoughts trailed off as Leia stepped back slowly, looking sheepish. "Sorry," she said. "It's been a difficult week."

"It's okay - I know."

She smiled, and then seemed to draw herself together. With his newfound sensitivity, Luke could almost see her drawing strength back into herself, a slight wavering in the Force as she gathered her courage.

"Ready?" she asked.

"For anything," he said, grinning. But he didn't feel the smile, or the good humour. He felt confused and apprehensive. Because he shouldn't be able to read her so keenly - but he could.

Piett looked up from his desk as the ready room door chimed. He frowned - he'd specifically requested not to be interrupted, unless of course either Lord Vader or the Emperor required his assistance.

But he knew for a fact that Vader was down in the belly of the ship, interrogating the prisoner they'd taken from the shuttle Skywalker had been abducted on. And if it was a communiqué from the Emperor... well, then Piett really didn't want to answer that door.

It chimed again and he sighed - it was foolish to sit here hoping whoever was on the other side would simply go away. With a fateful sigh, he flicked a switch on his desk and triggered the door open.

An ensign entered, saluting smartly, if a little nervously. Piett frowned, and the boy swallowed apprehensively.

"Admiral Piett, sir, my apologies for interrupting you. We have been contacted by-"

"I seem to remember asking not to be disturbed, Ensign," Piett said firmly, but not aggressively. Irritated as he was, he was fairly certain that no one on the bridge would interrupt him without good reason.

"Yes, sir."

"Well? Would you care to tell me why you are flouting that order?"

He wasn't trying to be overly intimidating, but clearly that was not the impression he was giving; the ensign shifted uneasily.

"We received a comm from an Intelligence source, Admiral, who was quite insistent that you would want this information transferred to you immediately." The words came out in a rush, tumbling over one another, and the man stuck his hand out rigidly, a datapad in his fingers.

Piett raised an eyebrow. "An 'intelligence source'? Who?"

The ensign shook his head. "I don't have that information, sir. He didn't state his name, however he knew the highest level encrypts for access to our communications system."

Interesting. Very few agents had access to such immediate, guaranteed contact with Executor. Two such agents had been sent with Skywalker, but they had orders to report directly to Lord Vader. Curious, and with not a little trepidation, Piett reached out and took the datapad from the ensign.

A quick glance confirmed that the information was encrypted and would require his personal codes to gain access to it. As he plugged it into his desk console and set the decrypt working, he glanced up at the ensign, who still stood at attention in the doorway. "Who else knows about this, Ensign?"

The young man shook his head. "No one but myself and the comm officer, sir," he replied, carefully, perhaps aware that if it was such sensitive information, anyone who had seen it was an immediate liability.

"Good," Piett replied tonelessly, not reacting to the pleading look in the boy's eyes.

The datapad pinged softly - it was decrypted. Piett spent a few moments flicking through the introductory files - nothing identified the sender. Then, he reached the main body of the information - and inhaled sharply.

"Sir?" the ensign asked.

"You're dismissed, Ensign," Piett whispered sharply, not looking up. Distantly, he heard the ensign's 'Aye, Sir', and then the door shutting as the man left. But still Piett didn't look up - his eyes were fixed upon the screen, daring his mind to believe what he was seeing.

It wasn't possible - all the records relating to Jedi were purportedly destroyed, purged from all known libraries and media banks! And yet, here on this datapad, staring up at him with a half-remembered fierce intensity, was a holopicture with the tagline of 'Anakin Skywalker - the fearless Knight.' - and a hundred pages of media cuttings to go with it.

"Barutte? Never heard of it."

"Neither had I until Lando suggested it," Leia said, pausing at one the small viewing window outside the medical bay's entrance.

Luke turned to her in surprise. "Lando suggested this place to the Council??"

Leia shrugged, leaning against the duracrete wall. "Well, it's not a bad choice - the Empire only abandoned mining here a couple of years ago, so it didn't take too much updating. And they've no plans to come back, not now the ore has run dry, so they won't think to look here." She paused, winding a lock of hair around her finger, grinning mischievously. "Plus, they were desperate."

"They must have been," Luke agreed, peering out through the window. All he could see was a muddy red sky, fading to dark as the atmosphere thinned, and eventually the first sharp pricks of stars. "I thought Hoth was bad, but at least on Hoth if the structure failed then we could breathe the air that came through. Here... what kind of atmosphere is that, anyway?"

"I'm not sure." Leia's eyes darkened. "Not one that we've found any species can breathe in, anyway."

Luke glanced at her, feeling the pity welling from her. "Have there been casualties?"

She nodded. "But none in the past week. People finally started to listen to the warnings after they saw what that stuff does to your lungs."

Luke couldn't help but feel slightly queasy at the possibilities. He wanted to ask what happened, more out of morbid curiosity than anything else, but Leia looked distant suddenly, and he could feel, through the weird, inexplicable connection he seemed to have formed between them, that her mind was lightyears away.

He watched her for a few seconds, uncertain what to say, because he knew who she was thinking about, and he didn't have any answers for her. Then the silence seemed to become something almost palpable but fragile, as if by speaking he'd shatter something.

"What's this? Enjoying the view?" A voice said, suddenly, shatteringly loud in the silence. Leia jerked in shock, and Luke twisted around, pinning the man with a glare. Vader's 'medic' henchman stared back at them with an innocent impression.

"What do you want?" Luke asked, snapping the words. He could feel Leia staring at him in shock at the tone of his voice. But his two babysitters were increasingly irritating him.

The 'medic' just looked mock-hurt. "I've been looking for you," he said.

Luke sighed. "I don't need your permission to leave my bed, thanks," he said.

The 'medic' looked affronted, but Luke could read in his eyes the silent message - actually, yes you do. Instead of saying anything, he held out a datapad to Luke.

"What's that?" Leia asked, finally taking her focus from Luke's irritation.

"More messages from well-wishers. I was coming this way anyway, on my way to the Council meeting - they want to see me, ask me some questions - so I-"

Luke was thumbing the 'pad on as the 'medic' spoke. When he read the words 'My Son,' he snapped the 'pad off with an audible click. Leia and the 'medic' both stopped and turned to him. He swallowed convulsively, wondering if he was flushing with sudden expectation. 'My Son' - this could only have come from Vader.

"Great, thanks," Luke said, inanely, as they stared at him. And then, scraping around for a distraction, he asked, "Why does The Council want to see you? Haven't they already cleared you?"

The 'medic' shrugged. "We thought so."

Luke turned to Leia, but she was staring at the 'medic' thoughtfully. An itch in the back of Luke's mind told him more was going on here than he realised, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. Leia just shrugged, frowning.

Luke reached out to her, mentally, trying to get a feeling for her thoughts. All he sensed, though, was genuine perplexity, and a little sensible apprehension.

"Well, anyway..." the 'medic' interrupted, "Are you coming to the meeting, Princess?"

Leia shook her head as if to clear it, and smiled. "Yes," she replied, nodded. "I am. In fact, if we don't hurry we won't make it." She reached up to Luke, kissing him lightly on the cheek. "I'll be back later, as soon as it finishes," she whispered, giving his hand a brief squeeze.

"Take your time - I'm not going anywhere," he replied, smiling lopsidedly.

She grinned, and a wave of warm affection seemed to roll over him, soothingly. He watched her walk away, the 'medic' walking alongside, talking animatedly, until they disappeared around the corner, Leia throwing him a smile before they were gone.

For a few silent moments, he stood in the corridor, watching the empty space. Then he turned his head down to look at the datapad, and a ripple of expectation seemed to quiver through him. There was a message from his father on that datapad, and that knowledge made him feel equally nervous and excited. A childish part of him wanted to savour the feeling; to deliberately not open the message so that he could make the feeling last. But his impatient streak won out, and he flicked the 'pad back on.

The words seemed to leap out at him, drawing his eyes to the word 'son'. He'd never read that word and associated it with himself before. It felt... exhilarating.

My Son,

I trust this message finds you in good health, and adhering to the respective wishes of your medics and colleagues.

Luke snorted at that, shaking his head - to call his bodyguards 'colleagues' was stretching the relationship a little too far. Still, he supposed that Vader was attempting to conceal any evidence of their true nature, maybe in case this datapad got into anyone else's hands?

I have spoken to our mutual friend -

Luke frowned. 'Our mutual friend'? Who was that? Palpatine?

- however he has not yet physically recovered from your brief excursion, and has so far been unable to offer any information about his employer.

Oh, okay - he was talking about Darasbt. Luke felt a strange sense of dismay at the news; although he didn't really want the man interrogated, he couldn't deny that there was a primal urge in him that had been secretly pleased to hear he had been. Was that a part of the dark side? Luke hoped not.

I have made contact with Sidious and have secured a temporary reprieve from any further action. However, he remains unimpressed with your continued lack of service, and is attempting to make contact with you as I write.

Sidious? Was that another name for Palpatine? If so, Luke hadn't heard it before. Anyway, the news could have been worse - Palpatine could have tried to kill Vader outright.

It is not in your best interests to meet with him - be on your guard for his messengers.

Which was a crafty way of saying 'run like hell' if he comes calling. Luke wholeheartedly agreed with that particular instruction.

Until we are able to meet again, bear in mind the issues that we spoke about during our brief time together, particularly regarding your training. It will not be long now, I feel, before our situation comes to a head.

Luke frowned; that nervous tickle of unease had turned into a full-on itch. He could feel it, the expectation, the sense that time was running out. 'Particularly regarding your training'? Was Vader referring to what he had said about practicing his shielding? Well, okay - that was great in principal, but Yoda hadn't taught him a lot about that, and Ben hadn't even mentioned it. So how was he supposed to get better at it?

Luke sighed, his eyes going to the last words,

Until then, fare well,

Your father.

Luke's eyes went over the word 'father', again and again, absorbing the sight of it even as he wondered if it was even possible to reply to this message, and what he should do with it now. Instinct told him his father had meant him to destroy it, even though he had gone to a lot of trouble to make it as anonymous as possible.

But Luke's heart couldn't destroy the 'pad - it was the only written message he'd ever had from his father, and that made it a treasure in Luke's eyes. He flicked back to the beginning, reading it through - there was nothing there that could identify either him or Vader. It could be any father, writing to any son. The problem was, everyone knew Luke's father was 'dead', so if this message were found in Luke's possessions that would be suspicious enough.

He sighed, finally deciding to pocket the datapad and think on it. He turned to the door to the Med. Bay, but paused before entering. Right now, he really, really didn't feeling like being cooped up in his room all afternoon, waiting for Leia to get back from this semi-mysterious meeting she'd been called to. And he was perfectly fine - he wasn't even getting a headache anymore when he touched the Force. So there was really no reason to confine himself to quarters, was there? Besides - he was hungry, hadn't eaten for hours, and surely eating properly went a big way to making a full recovery - and Leia would see that, wouldn't she...?

He looked between the door and the corridor, torn. Vader's henchmen would have his neck for this, but... but maybe that was half the reason he was tempted to do it. With a guilty smile, Luke turned and walked away.

Vader paced the small interrogation bay, feeling irritation and frustration wearing away at his thin pretence at control.

Darasbt's eyes watched him from where he lay on the bunk, secured by binders and with an oxygen mask over the lower half of his face.

It was infuriating - Vader would have relished the opportunity to wreak his revenge on the petty little man who had attempted to take his son from him, but he could not - he had been robbed of that opportunity. Because Vader's attempt to throttle the man to death had apparently come within a whisper of being successful. Had he stopped the attack a moment later, the man might not have been so lucky. As it was, Vader had gone too far - it appeared that the deprivation of oxygen to Darasbt's brain had resulted in anoxia, and a memory loss of uncertain permanence.

The former governor remembered nothing of his attempts to kidnap Luke, and nothing of who had ordered him to kill the boy. Vader had confirmed the memory loss with a brief touch of the Force - the memories were indeed gone, destroyed when the brain cells that connected them together had withered and died.

And yet, perhaps even the most pathetic of creatures could play a role in shaping the future. Vader was reminded of a number of other pathetic creatures he'd had the misfortune of depending upon in the past, and who had proved useful in the end.

Staring down at the man, feeling instinctive, protective parental loathing curling in his hands, Vader wondered if perhaps this was also true for Darasbt, or if the man was beyond use, and should be disposed of - for Vader would happily have done so, even if the revenge would not have been as sweet as he had hoped for.

Darasbt stared up at him with semi-conscious fear, blinking slowly.

Vader snorted in disgust, and turned away. He would get no answers here, and no satisfaction in killing the creature that didn't even remember the wrongs he had committed. And, more importantly, he felt the Force urging him to walk away.

It was possible that Vader merely wished to avoid an adverse reaction from Luke if he discovered that he had executed Darasbt. It was also possible that Vader truly felt Darasbt would have a use before the end. Whatever the reason, he could not lend his hand to killing the half-destroyed creature lying on the cot.

Feeling distinctly thwarted, Vader turned on his heel with a snort of disgust, and swept from the room without a word. A lengthy meditation was most definitely in order.

Had the Alliance food always tasted this bad? Offhand, Luke couldn't recall.

Perhaps it was because he couldn't stop thinking about his father's message, or maybe it was the fact that Imperial food had actually been surprisingly good, but Luke's appetite had hit an all-time low. He stirred the spoon through the bowl of viscous muddy-green mush and sighed to himself.

The problem was, he could just get up and leave the canteen, dumping the food on his way, but he knew that it'd get back to Leia, one way or another, that he'd not only broken curfew to come to the canteen, but he'd left without even eating anything. If he did that he would risk spending even longer confined to the Med Bay. And that was the last thing he wanted - this was a tentative freedom as it was, and he didn't want to blow it.

Luke sighed, dropping the spoon into the food and sitting back in his chair, staring idly at the ceiling. Maybe it wasn't the message from his father that was bothering him, or the terrible quality of the food - maybe it was the fact that he felt like an outsider here, desperately trying to blend in.

Peering out from under the bangs of his hair, Luke could see at least a half-dozen people glancing furtively his way and then turning back to their companions, talking in whispers.

Hell, had it been so bad when he'd thought Vader was lying? At least then he could find solace in rallying with the Rebels against the Dark Lord. Now that he knew for sure that Vader was his father, though... the zeal had gone out of him. He felt strangely detached from people who used to be his friends - still were his friends, so long as they never learned that truth.

But maybe it wasn't just his imagination that he'd become an outsider - the Rebels appeared to have split into two groups: one that rallied behind him, constantly asking after him, and another that were deeply suspicious of anyone who could escape interrogation at Vader's hands, and now watched him with distrustful eyes.

So much for the innocent hero they'd all been following before Bespin - Luke had never felt so far removed from that idol than he did now.

Something flashed through his mind, then, unbidden - was this what it'd been like for Han, when Luke had dragged him into the Alliance after Yavin? Half the people routing for him, and the other half just routing for his downfall?

Frowning, Luke contemplated that idea. Shamefully, before today it'd been a long time since he'd last considered Han. He felt a sharp, physical pain then, accepting how divorced from his friends he'd become. He tried to imagine what Han would say to him right now, if he was sitting across from him at the table, knowing everything Luke knew, and eyeing him with a sly, 'Yeah right, Kid' kind of a smile.

Probably be something like-

"Don't get delusions of grandeur, Kid - just 'cause you're Vader's son doesn't mean you've got find yourself a cape and start choking everyone from the Council down."

Luke started, almost jumping out of his skin. He could've sworn he'd really heard Han's voice then, whispering sarcastically in his ear. He whirled around, but of course there was no one there - just thin air, and a group of techs watching him with wide eyes.

Luke swallowed and shrugged sheepishly, turning back to his seat and forcing his heart to stop hammering. It wasn't like he could've really heard Han, after all. It wasn't like-


Luke's head shot up as Leia appeared in the canteen doorway, zeroing in on him with uncanny ease. Chewie was close behind her, and then Lando. Luke realised, uneasily, that all three of them were out of breath.

"Leia, what-"

"What are you doing here? And why isn't your comlink on?" she demanded as she reached his table, and Luke instantly flushed - he hadn't wanted to be found and dragged back to his room, that was why. But he couldn't say that.


"Never mind," she said, shaking her head. Lando tried to push her down into a seat but she shrugged off the help. "Luke - Luke, listen - we've found Han."

For a few seconds he just stared at her, feeling like the world had abruptly tilted beneath his feet. Then he blurted out, "What?!" and the rest of the canteen went abruptly silent as all eyes turned to them. "But... how?!"

Leia was desperately trying to contain a smile, forcing it back, struggling against the emotions Luke could read swirling through her eyes. Hope, desperation - and fear that it would be another disappointment.

"I thought you said you lost Boba Fett at-"

She shook her head, taking a slow breath, as if to calm herself. "Fett doesn't have him anymore - he sold him to someone else."

"You mean Jabba," Luke said, slowly, trying to grasp what was going on without looking like he was struggling to understand. Wasn't Leia supposed to be in a Council meeting right now...? "But-"

"No - not Jabba. To Black Sun - and they've just contacted the Council."

"Black Sun?" he asked, frowning. The name felt familiar, somehow, though he was pretty sure he'd never heard it before.

She nodded, and finally - now that Lando had stopped pushing her to do it - she dropped into the chair next to him. Luke couldn't take his eyes off her hopeful expression - it was infectious; his own heart was beating faster in expectation.

"They're a shipping corporation - although they have a somewhat less legal side to their organisation, too."

Luke shook his head. "What does a shipping firm want with Han?" he asked, glancing at Chewie, who whuffled softly. For the first time, Luke noticed that the wookiee didn't look nearly as hopeful and excited as Leia - if anything, he looked... dismayed.

"They've contacted The Council - that's why Mon was called away earlier. They want to buy our favour, sweeten us up to keep us away from their shipping routes," Leia said, reaching out and taking Luke's hand in her own. "And Han's their peace offering."

Instead of feeling delight, or hope, or anything that Leia was clearly feeling, all Luke felt was... uncomfortably numb. Physically unsettled, although he couldn't say where that feeling came from.

"A 'peace offering'," he repeated slowly.

For the first time, her blinding hope seemed to crack, just a little. She squeezed his hand. "Well, it's better than being a decoration on a Hutt's backroom wall, don't you think?"

The humour fell flat. Luke spotted, from the corner of his eye, his father's henchmen, the 'medic' and the 'pilot', forging through the slowly gathering crowd. Luke swallowed thickly. He couldn't help it - despite the hope in Leia's eyes, despite the supposedly 'good' news - he had a really, really bad feeling about this.

"You don't have to come, Luke."

Luke glanced up as Leia entered the medical bay, turning his head towards her. "Yeah I do," he replied.

The chief medical officer tutted in annoyance as Luke moved, causing the med scanners to squeal as his movement distorted their scanning. With an insistent hand on Luke's shoulder, the medic manoeuvred him back into the sensor field. Luke glanced up at him apologetically as Leia came and perched on the opposite bed, looking brighter than she had for days.

"Besides," he said, looking back at the medical officer, "I'm fit to go, right?"

The man snorted. "If you stopped squirming around I might be able to get some readings on these scans and tell you. Blasted sensitive things."

Luke smiled at the man's irritated tone. They'd spent the last half- hour trying to get a reading out of them that the med officer was happy with, but each reading had been wildly different from the last, and for no reason the med officer could discern.

"I feel fine, and you said yourself I look fine -"

"That doesn't give me enough to clear you for duty," the medic pointed out, sourly, as if he was sick of repeating himself. Which he probably was, seeing as Luke hadn't stopped pestering him since the mission deadline had been set.

Luke couldn't be left behind, he just couldn't. Something told him it was vital he went along, regardless of his health, or his babysitters, or even what Leia wanted him to do. He had to go; the Force itself seemed to demand it. Even as he thought that, the scanners spat out another set of the results, and the chief med officer looked down at them in disgust.

"Useless machinery," he sighed, hitting the reset switch.

"It's not my fault the scanners have gone crazy. You -"

The medic held up a hand to stop him, and Luke frowned in irritation. A stray thought twisted through his mind - was this man weak-minded enough to be swayed by the Force. And if so... should Luke do it? "I can't clear you until I get solid results from these scans."

Luke's irritation deepened. He was tempted, sorely tempted, to try it. If he just reached out, brushed the man's mind, then he could-

Leia sighed, causing Luke's temptation to fade to a vague feeling of embarrassment at his own weak thoughts. "Sorry..." he said, eventually. "I just..."

"I know," she replied, brushing away a bang of hair from his eyes. "You just want to be there when we get to Han. Believe me, I know how you feel. But if you're not well enough then you can't come, Luke - you might risk your health for it, but I won't."

He had to resist the urge to blush, because that wasn't why he was so desperate to be cleared for the flight. He had a feeling he had to be there, and not just because of Han.

"I'm fine, Leia. Look at me - I feel fine, I'm itching to get out of here. Alright, so maybe I need to build up my stamina again, but I can fly a ship, no problem."

Her gaze flickered over his face, uncertain. She glanced at the medical officer, who shrugged. "I can't give you an answer without these scanners working. And they're just pouring out garbage at the moment. If you want him to go, it'll have to be on your order, not mine."

He could see the uncertainty in her eyes - and a twinge of pain twisted in his chest. Guilt, that was what he was feeling - for allowing her to believe this was going to be plain-sailing when something in the Force told him it wasn't. But he couldn't tell her that - she would ask him to stay behind, and he'd have to agree to it because he'd never been able to deny her anything. And if there was one thing he was certain of, it was that he had to go along on this mission. For better or worse, he had to be there.

"... Leia?"

She closed her eyes briefly, and Luke could almost feel her reaching a decision. The urge to hold his breath made his throat tight with apprehension.

"Leia? Please...."


Luke stopped, midway through packing. "What?"

"No," the 'medic' said again, and this time he took a step forward and ripped the flight bag from Luke's hands, churlishly upending it onto the floor.

Luke glared. "Where did my father find you anyway - the crèche?"

The other man just stared back. Then he shook his head. "Don't you get it? It's a trap. What part of that is so difficult to understand?"

Luke grabbed the empty bag from the other man's hands and bent down to begin picking up his scattered clothes. "A trap? Really? I'd never have guessed."

The 'medic' snorted, and turned to his quiet 'pilot' friend. "Vader wasn't kidding when he said he was a stubborn fool."

Luke glared, feeling oddly hurt by the words. Had his father really said that? "Look," he said, pushing back the boiling anger and irritation. "I have to go - this is my friend we're talking about."

"Oh, really? And what about the rest of your 'friends' here? Or us?" the 'medic' demanded, planting himself between Luke and the door. Now that Leia had given in and sanctioned Luke's going, Vader's over-bearing henchmen couldn't stop him from leaving. And they both knew it.

"What about you? You're not my friends - you're my jailors." He paused as he picked up his clothes off the floor. "What did the Council want with you earlier, anyway?"

The 'medic' arched an eyebrow at the abrupt change in topic of conversation. "They grilled us over Vader's connections to Black Sun, as if by being one of the thousands of crew members we would somehow be privy to that information."

"They think Vader was behind Black Sun's offer?" Luke asked, surprised, not quite believing it.

The 'medic' smiled roguishly, "Well, it would have been a good way to lure you back to him, after all. And they're not to know he isn't trying to track you down. But it isn't really his style, and he doesn't have any links to Black Sun, and there was nothing to guarantee you had to be there, so...."

Luke snorted at that. Lies within lies within lies - it was all getting so complicated Luke could barely keep track of it himself. "Well, maybe it is a genuine offer by Black Sun. We're just assuming it's a trap, it doesn't have to be."

The 'medic' snorted at that. "Yeah, right. Whatever it takes to convince you you're doing the right thing. I still can't believe you managed to convince Organa to let you go along. I thought she actually might have a streak of common sense, despite being a Rebel. But, no..."

Luke frowned, ramming his clothes into the carryall harder. "The Force is telling me I have to go. I -"

"If the Force told you to leap off a cliff, would you?"

The patronising tone threw fuel onto Luke's temper, flaring it briefly. "Maybe," he snapped. "If it was the right thing to do." The 'medic' looked at Luke then, his lips pressed into a thin line. Luke stopped his packing, just for a moment, suddenly unnerved by the look of trepidation in the other man's eyes. He radiated anxiety, and desperation. There was genuine fear there. Luke sighed. "Come on, what do you expect me to do - I can't let Leia and Chewie and Lando go out there alone, can I?"

"Why not?" the quiet 'pilot' suddenly asked, and his soft-spoken voice, ludicrously, made Luke jump - it had to be the first time the man had ever spoken to him.

"They need my help!" Luke answered, stuffing his shipsuit into the bag - they'd be boarding the X-Wings as soon as they finished fuelling them. Black Sun had given them an almost impossibly short window to go collect their 'peace offering', and they were pushing it as it was. This delay really wasn't helpful.

"Why?" the quieter man reasoned, voice subdued. "If it's just a mission to greet the representatives and collect your friend, why do you need to go? Any pilot can fly escort."

And damn him, but he had a point. Luke pulled the zip shut on the bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Because I have to - for Leia. And because I want to - Han is a good friend, I can't just abandon him!"

"Avoiding triggering a trap is not the same thing as 'abandoning' him," the man reasoned.

Luke sighed, trying to push past the 'medic' to the doorway, but the bigger man wouldn't budge. Luke could use the Force to get them out the way - or he could reason with them.

Something was urging him try and reason with them - maybe because he wasn't sure what reaction he'd get to using the Force. They might act like men struggling against a bad run of luck that had started the moment Vader had singled them out for this mission, but the fact was that they were Intell Ops, and they knew exactly what they were doing. If they wanted to, they could easily blackmail him into staying by threatening to let the Council in on his relationship with Vader. They'd be signing their own death warrants... but, somehow, Luke had the feeling that didn't rule out the option.

"You can't stop me," Luke bluffed.

The 'pilot' didn't call his bluff - he just nodded. "I know - if you're determined to go..."

"I am."

"Right... well..." The 'pilot' dug into the oversized front pocket of his coveralls, and pulled out a datachip. "Here - you go, but do me a favour and make sure this gets to my wife, will you?"

Luke accepted the chip with confusion. "What? Why?"

The 'pilot' smiled, thinly. "I can't very well give it to her myself - Vader will know immediately that something is wrong. This will give them a head start, at least."

Something cold and uncomfortable was settling in Luke's stomach. "What do you mean?" he asked, though he figured he already knew.

"He means," the 'medic' interrupted, acidly, "that the cost of you running off to save your friend is our lives - and our family's. But that's fine - you go on, don't worry about us: It's far more important that you look after your precious princess' mate."

The 'pilot' stepped forward then, putting a hand on the 'medic's arm. "Don't," he said, quietly. "The boy's already made up his mind. This won't help."

Luke hesitated, feeling like he was swallowing a lump of ice. He turned the chip over in his fingers. He couldn't be responsible for the death of these two, even if they were annoying and obtuse. And their families... memories of his uncle and aunt's death swam nauseatingly into his mind.

He knew, logically, that he was being manipulated, but he also sensed the truth behind the threat to their families. Wouldn't it be just like Vader to protect his own by threatening others? Luke sighed, wondering - not for the first time - if he had misjudged his father. But, no - Vader just had his priorities a bit mixed up.

"Look, I can't just sit here waiting for my father to figure out what to do next, but he doesn't need to know that. You can come along; jump ship when we get out of the system and go find your families. Vader won't know you've gone 'til you've found them and moved on."

The 'medic' shook his head, "We wouldn't be able to stay ahead of him for long - you weren't able to, and you've got the Alliance behind you."

"I think I can persuade him to leave you alone," Luke replied. The 'medic' just arched his eyebrow. Luke smiled thinly. "He's not the only one who can blackmail people, you know," Luke answered, wryly.

Something glinted playfully in the 'medic's eyes when he said, "Ah... like father, like son, eh?" He turned to his friend, and some silent communication seemed to pass between them. Luke shifted his weight uncomfortably, eager to give back the datachip, which felt like it was burning his fingers.

"Alright," the 'pilot' finally said. And Luke let out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding.

"Come on, then," he said. "Grab your things - the ship's waiting."

"Your Highness?"

"What is it?" he snapped, narrowing his gaze at the comm. A feeling of distaste curled through his body as the Falleen bowed in false-homage.

"My apologies for the interruption, my Emperor. I have news."

You had better, Palpatine thought, darkly. He'd been interrupted from a most productive meditation on the future. Productive in terms of showing him the near future, at least. But after that... after that the possibilities spiralled into the endless. Which merely meant it was up to Palpatine to shape them into the events he desired. "Well, go on," he finally said, after a few moments glaring.

The Falleen bowed again. "The plan we discussed is progressing well, my Emperor. However, it occurs to me that it might be more... profitable... if it was an Imperial fleet rather than a Black Sun fleet which intercepted the Rebel convoy."

"Profitable?" Palpatine repeated, the word dead and disdained.

The Falleen smiled cunningly. "Yes, my Emperor. If we are able to establish a link between the Rebels and my organisation... I would be well-positioned to aid you in future ventures."

Palpatine cackled at that. "Indeed." He tapped his fingernails against the arms of his throne, contemplating the proposition. "Lord Vader controls the Fleet, as I am sure you know."

The Falleen looked mildly shocked. "My apologies, Highness - I had assumed you had final control over such matters of the Empire."

"Of course I do," he snapped, irritated by the slight even as he knew that was exactly what Xizor had intended. "You may have your ships. But I want the boy delivered directly to me. The fleet will destroy the Rebels, all except Skywalker of course. Then it will leave - you must collect the boy yourself.

The Falleen smiled thinly. "It will be my pleasure."

Palpatine narrowed his gaze at that. "Do not touch him," he warned, ice in the words.

"Of course not," Xizor replied, calmly.

"Notify me when you have the boy - I will travel to you. It wouldn't do to bring him here and have Vader come running to his rescue," Palpatine said, the acid in the words burning his tongue.

"Yes, Your Highness."

"And what of Tallir's governor, is he still aboard Executor? Has he been disposed of yet?"

"I understand he is currently incapacitated, my Emperor. I have agents currently working on disposing of him, however Vader has been- "

Palpatine waved a dismissive hand. "I do not care for your excuses - just get rid of him." He smiled. "It is for your own safety - should Vader find links back to your organisation, you will regret it."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

Palpatine stared at him doubtfully for a few moments. "Do not underestimate Vader, Falleen. If he discovers you are behind the abduction of his precious son, he will hunt you down and gut you like a fish," Palpatine said, and then cackled at the image.

The Falleen bowed in acquiescence, but for just a moment a flash of unease flickered over his face - and Palpatine's smile widened, amusement lifting his mood. Ah, but this was going to be so gratifying.

Hours after the small fleet's departure, with Rogue Squadron transferred to the blockade runner and the X-wings safely docked; with Leia still firmly trapped in meeting after meeting worrying about the wisdom of accepting Black Sun's offer; and with Vader's two lackeys safely trapped outside the 'pilots-only' area, Luke dropped onto the bunk with a tired sigh.

Hells, he was exhausted. Dumping his bag onto the floor, Luke reached into his chest pocket and pulled out the datapad from his father. He stared at it for a few seconds, torn between the need to sleep and the need to re-read it.

Honestly, Luke didn't really know why he'd brought it with him - he'd already read it a dozen times. There was no point looking for guidance in those few, sparse words. He already knew his father wouldn't approve of his decision to join this mission. Not that he would change his mind even if Vader demanded it - and, besides, it was far too late now to turn back. It was probably more productive to try and get some sleep - it was a short jump to where they were going, but still...

Flipping onto his stomach, Luke thumbed on the datapad, yanked the coverlet over his head, and stared at the words, feeling hollow.

Some time later, he fell into a troubled sleep.

A familiar radiance was teasing the edges of his consciousness. Buried deep within his meditation, Vader felt the soft, questing presence reaching for him. He turned his focus towards it, and was momentarily blinded by a flash of light. Naked, blinding light, almost too bright to look at - but then it dimmed, and he could make out the faint, translucent form of a figure walking towards him - a familiar figure.


A rush of emotion seemed to hurry ahead of the boy, reaching Vader before he did, throwing surprise and need at him, with a stinging Force that made his eyes want to water.

"Father? What are you doing here?" the boy asked as he reached him. Backlit by the light of Vader's meditative trance, Luke's face was in shadow, and almost impossible to read. But the eyes sparkled.

"I might ask you the same question," Vader replied, perhaps sharper than he'd meant. But that sharp tone came from surprise, not anger, because - "I do not believe I have ever had my meditation interrupted in this way."

"Your meditation?" Luke asked, sounding surprised. He stepped closer, and the light threw out silver highlights from his hair. "This is my meditation! Well... more like my dream."

Vader felt a quirk of amusement at that - how curious; it seemed he would be discovering the many possibilities of this bond with his son for weeks to come. He looked forward to it. "I see," he replied. "Well, then I apologise for the interruption."

And that would have been an adequate moment to break the contact and return to their respective meditation and sleep. Vader knew he needed it - he had gone too long without a solid, sustained rejuvenation from the Force. And he was uncertain how to proceed from here; was still looking for an opportunity to begin moving against Palpatine. Meditation had, in the past, rarely provided him with the answers he sought - more commonly he had been forced to actively pursue his desires, through any means necessary. This time however, meditation felt appropriate, and that instinct urged him to return to it.

But somehow... somehow he couldn't break off and leave. And Luke just stared at him with a wide, trusting expression.

"Where are we?" the boy asked suddenly, breaking the eye contact and looking around him.

"We are wherever we want to be," Vader replied, watching the boy's reaction to that - which was a wrinkling of his nose in confusion. "The Force knows no limits, Luke - I choose to minimise distractions when I meditate, however I could just as easily chose to revisit Tatooine, or perhaps Imperial Centre."

The expression of disgust became more exaggerated. "No thanks," Luke said. Then, after a pause, "You can go anywhere?"

"More correctly, the Force can project anything or any place we wish to use to enhance our connection to it."

Something too nonchalant to label was sparking in the boy's eyes. "Anywhere at all?"

"Anywhere at all," Vader echoed, feeling a rare light humour pressing at his chest. Somehow, Luke's presence was more refreshing than meditation. It seemed to clear his mind of troubles, if only for a moment.

Even as he thought that, he became aware that their surroundings where changing. Out of the bright nothingness, the outline of mountains started to appear, faint and indistinct, like they were approaching through a thick fog, marching on the blinding white.

"Wow," Luke said, flashing Vader a smile that made him look incredibly young. But this was a projection of Luke's Force presence, not the boy himself, and Vader was suddenly struck by how deeply the naive innocence of youth pervaded his presence, even though the boy himself had been forced to mature so suddenly.

A strange sense of squandered time pressed in on Vader then, if only because the contact felt so natural, and he was painfully aware that, by his own decisions, he had denied himself the opportunity to witness his child's youth.

A gust of wind drew Vader's attention, halting any melancholy before it could begin. There was a heavy smell on the chill breeze, a musky fragrance from the evergreen forest that was just visible in the distance, and from the dewy grass that stretched towards it.

Luke took a step away from Vader, turning around as he did so, eyes scanning the scenery. A fine rain was falling. Vader couldn't feel it, but he could see it; a grey mist in the air, blown into flailing curtains of rainwater by the wind. Luke put both hands out and turned a full circle, laughing. "It's just like she said," he said, smiling.

"Like who said?" Vader asked, folding his arms over his chest and quietly enjoying the feeling of Luke's contentment brushing against his soul.

"Leia," Luke replied. And Vader suddenly realised where they were. He unfolded his arms and looked around in shock - but, yes, this was definitely Alderaan. The Palace stretched up behind him, impossibly delicate and white, like a fine sculpture of bone or ivory, reaching up through the inky storm clouds.

"This is not possible," he whispered, unnerved.

Occupied as he was by drinking in the sight of the lost planet, Vader felt rather than saw Luke's frown. "But you said-"

"I meant anywhere that still exists, which the Force touches. Alderaan is gone. Unless.... yes, this must be a memory."

"Oh," Luke replied, sounding deflated. "So this is how you remember Alderaan?"

Vader turned to him in surprise. "This is your memory, not mine."

Luke shook his head. Fine droplets of water had gathered in his hair, and were dripping slowly into his eyes. Without thinking, Vader reached out a hand and brushed the water away. "I've never been to Alderaan," Luke said. "But this is... well, this is a bit like something I saw once in a dream." He blushed and looked away, as if the idea was foolish.

"A dream...." Vader repeated thoughtfully, idly resting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Dreams are rarely so accurate. Are you certain you have never-" he broke off as a flicker of movement caught his eye, a flash of white amongst the dark weather, a small figure running across the grass.

Luke stepped forward as the figure approached, cutting a line across the lawns like a child bisecting a page, clumsy but direct.

"Who's that..." Luke started to say, but his voicce trailed off as the figure came closer and it became obvious who the figure was.

A voice called out through the rain, shrill and irritated, "Leia! Young lady, you come back here immediately!"

The girl slowed briefly, just long enough to turn her head and yell back, "I won't be a minute, Aunt Nell!" And she continued her run, her plaits coming loose and flapping madly in the wind.

She was six years old, at most, still with the chubbiness of youth. Clearly she was on a mission of some form - her expression was set with determination. A child she might be, in this dream or memory or whatever it was (Force vision?), but Vader recognised that expression of feisty determination. He watched in silent bemusement as the owner of that adult voice appeared, running after the errant princess and quickly catching up with her, scooping her into her arms.

"Aunt Nell!!" the princess cried, struggling.

"Now you stop that, young lady. This is no weather to be out chasing imaginary friends!" the woman said, looking dishevelled by the run, and obviously irritated with the adventurous girl.

"He's not imaginary!" the girl cried, haughtily. "I talked to him!" And then she kicked her legs wildly, trying to reach the ground.

"Leia!" the woman snapped with exasperation. "Stop that! I know it's difficult having your father away for so long, but that's no reason to go inventing ghosts and spooking the Palace."

Vader glanced at Luke, about to remark on the ludicrous nature of his dream - because it had to be a dream, didn't it? - but the boy had gone pale. A spike of concern went through Vader's chest, and he stepped up to the boy, wrapping his hand around his arm. "Luke, are you-"

He stopped as he realised Luke was mumbling something, distantly and to himself, staring at the child-princess. As for her, the princess was still trying to convince her aunt to let her go. "I talked to him, he said-"

"Leia, stop this and come inside," the woman interrupted her.

Even as she said it, Vader heard Luke mumble, "Who are you and what're you doing in the hydroponics beds?"

"What?" Vader asked, growing concerned, even as the child-princess huffed in annoyance as she struggled.

"He said something about being in a 'ponic-bed', and I said that was stupid, because we were by the gnark pond and if he didn't tell me who he was then I'd scream and get the guards and -"

The woman finally got a good grip on the squirming girl and starting striding for the Palace. "No one likes a tattle-teller, Leia. Particularly not the guards, who've been searching for this child all morning. I think you owe them an apology, young lady."

"But I'm not making it up!" Leia was saying, her voice fading into the distance as they disappeared.

Vader wasn't listening anyway - he was staring at Luke in concern, and something very close to amazement. Luke looked up at him. "I'd forgotten all about that dream. But we weren't here - we were by the hydro's, I was picking mushrooms, and she ran off to get an adult to tell me off." Despite the distant look in his eyes, he smiled in mild amusement. The he seemed to snap back to reality, and turned back to Vader, "That couldn't have been real, could it? She said she saw me here - I've never been here before in my life!"

Vader didn't reply - because, uncharacteristically, he didn't know what to say.

"That's.... weird," Luke said into the prolonged silence, looking uncomfortable.

More than 'weird', Vader thought, his gaze flicking between the disappearing Princess and his son. He had a feeling, itching in the back of his mind, that the Force had shown this to them deliberately. But why? There was an instinct here, one that he couldn't quite put into words, which told him he was staring at an answer he hadn't even thought of the question for yet.


He was tempted to question his son further about this 'dream', but somehow he thought it wouldn't matter; this information itself should be enough, he knew, if only he could work out what it meant. If it hadn't been before, now was most definitely the time for meditation.

"Father? Are you alright?"

Vader turned to Luke. "I am fine, but there are issues aboard Executor which I must attend to." He paused, unhappy with half-truth. "Are you well?" Luke looked a little sheepish at that, and Vader felt concern and frustration rising within him. "Luke? You-"

"I'm fine," Luke interjected, quickly. "Just a bit of cabin-fever."


"Fever. It means I'm getting tired of being stuck in the med. bay. But that's okay now - I'm back with the Rogues for a while."

Vader peered down at him, studying his expression intently. "I trust that even your imprudent Rebels have not declared you mission-ready."

Luke just smiled. There was something he wasn't saying, but Vader sensed no real duplicity there, and Luke was no fool - he wouldn't put himself up for duty yet. And besides, his two watchers would not allow it - not if they valued their skins.

Vader reached out a hand, again brushing the water from the boy's forehead. "Good. It will not be long now, Luke. I can feel it."

Although he had meant it to sound reassuring, Luke looked troubled by that. "I know. Please - be careful. I don't want..."

"Don't want what?" Vader asked, his hand lingering.

"I don't want to come this far and lose you," Luke said, looking down. Ah, who had taught this child that everything his said was so foolish? They deserved their skin flaying from their rotten bones.

"You will not."

"Are you sure?"

"Luke..." he said, pausing to consider his answer. "If everything in the future were certain, preordained by the Force, there would be no point in trying to make something of the chances we are given. Only the Emperor believes in a preordained future, and in the end that will be his undoing. Sometimes, it is better to simply trust our instincts."

The words seemed to leave his mouth unbidden - perhaps that was the inspiration he was looking for, that he had thought to meditate for. The crippled old man's self-confidence was his greatest weakness... but how to use that? The answer was not clear.

Luke's brow was furrowed. Again, he was looking to one side, as if embarrassed by his own thoughts. "Will you miss it?"

"Miss what?"

"... your place in the Empire. Everything will change if you get rid of Palpatine. Don't you want it to stay as it is?"

Vader snorted. "No. When I thought everything was lost... then, perhaps, it had been easier burying myself in my work. But now that the chance is there...."

Luke wet his lips. "So you're pleased that you found me? Even though Palpatine wants to get rid of you now? You wouldn't want to just... you know... not have found me? Carried on regardless?"

Vader felt himself smiling, stretching the scar tissue painfully. "Of course not. And even if I did, it would be too late for regrets now. I fear that you have already disturbed the sleep of feelings that I had thought dead," he said, but he couldn't raise even a flicker of reproach. Then, "Why the doubts, Luke?"

The boy shrugged. "I don't know... it just feels like this might be the last chance I get to ask."

Disquieted by the prophetic sound of that, Vader gripped Luke's shoulder and squeezed, trying to appear reassuring, though he was badly out of practice. "Don't dwell on it - I have no regrets, and nor should you. Recuperate fully, and practice your shielding. If you need me, I am here."

Something - the words, or the gesture, or the brush of warmth he sent along their bond - must have been reassuring, because the boy smiled. He blinked rainwater from his eyelashes, rubbing a hand through his hair.

But even as Vader became aware that the scenery was waning, Alderaan fading back into history, and Luke grew distant. Vader had to stop himself from reaching out and pulling him back... because something
felt wrong, somehow.

Fundamentally, devastatingly wrong.

The 'pilot' turned from his final preparations in the shuttle cockpit, his gaze following the slight form of Luke Skywalker as he ran across the docking bay to the line of X-wing fighters.

The boy, Vader's son, turned as he passed the shuttle, offering a brief salute their way. The 'pilot' didn't respond - Skywalker couldn't possibly see him through the viewscreen anyway. And besides, the 'pilot' felt none of the jaunty hope that Skywalker was clearly clinging to

"That boy is a liability," he said, to no one in particular.

"True. He'll probably get us killed."

The 'pilot' didn't turn as his counterpart lowered himself into the co-pilot seat. He frowned. "Are you sure it was wise to lie to him about what the Council wanted to speak to us about?"

The other man didn't reply at first, and the 'pilot' turned to him. "Yes," he finally replied. "I'm sure."

The engine deepened in pitch as the cockpit sensors indicated it was ready to fly. Ready to fly them out of there, as soon as the X-wings launched. To fly them back to their families, to escape Vader's gaze... or at least, that was what Skywalker believed they were doing - and what Skywalker believed was all that mattered, for now.

It didn't matter that the X-wing's sensors were telling him that there was nothing unexpected out there - Luke could feel it, creeping through his nerves; the wrongness of the situation. There was no evidence that anything was wrong - no reason to call the squad back as they split into escort pairs around the Rebel blockade-runner. But Luke knew something was wrong. Or rather - was about to go wrong. And hideously wrong, at that.

To Luke's eyes, the approaching Black Sun shuttle seemed to be flying ridiculously slowly. He tightened his hands around the flight stick, flexing his fingers in the gloves. Patience had never been his strong point, but this wasn't about patience - this was about that shuttle flying deliberately slowly.

Not that there wasn't a perfectly reasonable explanation for the delay: the Black Sun cruiser was using the time to sweet-talk Leia; to persuade her that the Alliance should strike a deal with them. Luke could hear the droning of the conversation in his left ear, the volume turned down; his right speaker was on full volume, tuned into the squad frequency.

Luke's finger itched over the comm switch. He was in command of the snubfighters - if he ordered a pullback, then they'd do it. But the Rebel blockade-runner was out of his jurisdiction, and he had the sneaking suspicion that Leia and Lando wouldn't let anything - not even one of Luke's hunches - give up this chance to get Han back. They'd stay put, totally unprotected from the something that Luke could feel bearing down on them. As would be the shuttle that was transporting Han across space, achingly slow, to dock with the Rebel ship.

Luke was torn - torn between trusting his instincts to turn back, and doing everything he could to get that shuttle across space; to getting Han back. He could feel an echo of his friend's distinctive presence, just a shadow of its former strength right now, but it made the whole thing more real, somehow - more desperate.

Luke blew out a breath, feeling increasingly jumpy.

"Relax, boss. They've passed the half-way mark."

Luke frowned at the voice, but then a glance at his comm panel showed that the communication had been kept private from the rest of the squad. He pursed his lips, considering his response. "I don't like it, Wedge. This doesn't feel right."

There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and Luke stared at the shuttle, still a thousand klicks away. Nothing looked wrong, but still...

"It's your call, Luke," Wedge replied eventually.

Luke sighed. He was tempted - every instinct was screaming that this was wrong - but he couldn't - just couldn't - abandon Han. He tried to imagine what Vader would do in this situation, but Luke was fairly sure his father would never have come out here in the first place, not so undermanned and unprepared. The mission had been so rushed that they hadn't even had a field-general available to lead it - Lando had been temporarily promoted to a command position just to get through the Alliance's red tape. And Lando, even though he was an experienced pilot, just had no experience of commanding a flotilla. Luke couldn't imagine Vader ever putting himself in such a desperate situation. He'd have found a way to force Black Sun to extend the window of opportunity and then have met them with a full wing of fighters.

Luke snorted - it was way too late for that idea. He stared out at the shuttle, muttering impatiently, "What's taking it so long?"

Wedge's mood sounded as dark as Luke's own. "Xizor's stringing it out." He paused. "I don't like it, either."


"You haven't heard of Xizor?"

"Well... no."

Wedge chuckled, a brief moment of levity in the tense atmosphere. "He's the head of Black Sun - call's himself Prince Xizor."

"Well why would he...." Luke trailed off, a fragment of a memory slashing through his mind, sharp and piercing like a blade-

- an aid whispering fretfully to Darasbt, "... but... this is from His Highness, sir. He told me to tell you it is regarding a... an unpaid debt, sir."

Luke drew in a terse breath, feeling a sudden panicked sensation twisting the air out of his lungs.

"Sithspit!" he swore, the pieces falling into place with an almost brutal simplicity. Adrenaline kicked through his body - he'd known this was a trap, maybe even a trap for him, and he'd known that Darasbt had been trying to kill him for someone else... hells!

"Boss?" someone - his wingman - called over the comm and Luke realised he'd pulled back on the flight stick and was making a run towards the shuttle, closing the distance between them. "Lead, you copy?"

Luke glanced at his scopes; his wingman had come up on his starboard side, following him. Luke slapped the comm panel, swapping over to the squad frequency, and ordered, "Form up, Rogues, we're speeding up this escort - Three to Eight, we're going for the shuttle. The rest of you, stay with the Battalion. And get ready for incoming-"

"Incoming?! What the hell? Lead, what are you-"

"Humour me!" Luke yelled over the comm, feeling time tearing away from him. "We've got to get that shuttle to the Battalion before-"

Midway through the words, even as four of the X-wings began peeling off, following him, the sky was lit by a storm of blue flashes, the precursor to multiple reversions from hyperspace. Luke braced himself, resisting the urge to try and escape the incoming tide - and then a full wing of ships came screaming in, tearing up the space between them. And though he'd been prepared for that - he hadn't been prepared for those ships to be Imperial.

"Incoming!" one of the Rogues shouted.

No kidding! Luke thought, but said, "Keep in your pairs! Don't let the TIEs split you up. Get behind that shuttle - don't let it get intercepted!"

"What about The Battalion?!"

"They're not after The Battalion!" Luke called back, as a TIE fighter screamed across space in front of him, a narrow miss.

A flicker of beeps came across the comm, acknowledging his orders. Luke glanced at his scopes - all the ships were TIEs, and an Imperial-class cruiser had just slid into real-space a hundred thousand klicks behind them. He'd expected Black Sun ships - what the hell was the Empire doing here? Was it his father?

Luke stepped down hard on the right stabilizer, going through a snap- roll to dodge an incoming ship. He could almost eyeball the other pilots, they were coming in so close and fast. He hit the accelerator, rolling the ship for a starboard turn, before arrowing straight for the shuttle. He was gifted a brief chance to breathe, and he stretched out to the Force - only to confirm what he'd suspected: his father was light-years away.

Luke flicked the comm onto open-burst. "Rogue Leader to Black Sun shuttle - you copy?"

But the words weren't out his mouth before the shuttle was already arching around, making a dash back the way she'd come.

"No!" Luke yelled, feeling desperation tear at him. Hells, hells - so close! He couldn't let them run now! "Shuttle, listen up - we'll escort you to The Battalion but if you run, then you're on your own!"

No response. The shuttle lurched forward, suddenly finding its engines. The TIEs screamed after it. The Black Sun cruiser was already breaking off, accelerating away from the battle. The shuttle had no hope of catching it, but it still ran.

Luke cursed. "Rogue Two, you still back there?"

"Aye, boss - trying like hell to keep up!"

Luke nodded, thinking fast. "We're going after the shuttle - keep your foot on the pedal!"

"Aye, sir!"

Vader's irritation threatened to burst through his control. But if he slipped now, he'd never get answers. His meditation refused to reveal anything to him - the Force almost seemed to shrug off his touch, the calm and clarity of a meditative state unreachable.

But he needed the answers meditation would guide him too; needed direction, needed to make sense of what to do with Palpatine, with Luke; with what that strange dream-vision of Luke's had meant. But as hard as he fought for those answers, the more the Force refused him. He stretched... stretched....

An incessant beeping noise finally broke his control, and he snapped back to reality with a snarl of irritation. An annoyed flick of his finger turned the comm on.

"What is it? I told you I did not wish to be disturbed!" He let his anger show, his voice growling with displeasure.

The officer on the comm screen paled. He took a nervous breath before he spoke, and then the words just seemed to tumble out, "Yes, my Lord - however I was instructed to inform you of any changes in the status of the prisoner you detained during the failed hijacking of the shuttle from this ship and I-"

"The governor? What change in status?" Vader interrupted, impatiently. He stood, flexing his fingers. Sudden, impatient energy made him restless. "Has he regained more of his faculties?"

The man shook his head, frantically, "No - no, my Lord. But there has been a security breach. A crewmember attempted to enter his medical bay and access his secure room without appropriate permission and-"

"And you have this man detained?" An untamed emotion, perhaps hope, had caused his heart to start racing.

The officer nodded. "Yes, my Lord. He is detained, and unharmed. He protested that he made a mistake in entering that area, however he had an unregistered blaster upon his person and I thought it best that I-"

"I will be there shortly," Vader interrupted, a slow smile spreading over his face. "See that he remains unharmed and detained... I want him in full health before I question him."

The officer was nodding, and he opened his mouth to reply, but Vader flicked off the comm, already turning on his heel and striding for the door of his quarters. Ah, but that was a fortuitous development - because whoever had been sent to get rid of Darasbt had most certainly been sent by those who had given Darasbt his orders in the first instance.... It seemed that Vader had been right to keep the man alive a little longer. And now, finally Vader would know who it was that wanted his son dead.

In previous dogfights, Luke had experienced an intoxicating thrill that seemed to race through his veins, divorcing him from the reality that this was a do-or-die situation. But now, right now, he could feel his own mortality bearing down on him.

They were outgunned, and taken by surprise. Every TIE pilot's death felt like a burn to his mind, even as Luke doggedly followed the shuttle, trying to pin it down. To a naive eye, it looked like those TIEs were throwing everything they had at the Battalion, and were only just being held in check by the X-wings and some clever manoeuvring on Lando's part. But, through instinct and experience, Luke knew that they had another target. Which meant there was another reason for this battle, and one that had Palpatine's fingerprints all over it. Were they after him?

One of the TIEs levelled off in front of him, bearing down with suicidal intent. Luke tightened his fingers, triggering off a sharp burst of fire. It arrowed in on the other ship, pinning it right through the starboard engine. The explosion started to die, fizzling in the vacuum, and then suddenly blossomed as the portside engine flared and consumed the ship in a flash-fire.

Luke held his own ship dead on course, ripping through the smouldering remains, resisting the urge to close his eyes against the chance that the corpse was a part of the wreckage that bounced off his canopy. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Rogue Two was still back there, forging through the mêlée.

Luke flicked open the comm channel again. "Shuttle, this is Rogue Leader. You've got a half-minute to turn back or I'm ordering my squad to open fire and disable you. Is that understood?"

No response - it just kept running. And he couldn't fire, could he? What if he missed his mark?

Force - the idea of missing his mark was at once alien and frightening to Luke. Not something he'd ever really worried about, before, but something had changed - suddenly the world seemed like a much more dangerous place than it had before Bespin, before Darasbt.

Luke stretched out to the Force, feeling for the emotions of the shuttle pilots. He picked up fear, though it was impossible to say where that came from - fear of not making it to the Black Sun ship, or fear of not trying to make it? They were scared, and scared people did stupid things.

The ship shot through a trio of TIEs, and Luke was forced to dive right after them. One of the eyeballs came up and around on his tail, and Luke rolled the X-wing through a helical-manoeuvre, one that lost him some speed but that kept him running after the shuttle without having to turn and face the pursuing ship. That was what wing-mates were for.

"Two, you there?"

"I'm onto him," the man clipped back.

Rolling out of the manoeuvre as Two and Luke's pursuer dived off starboard, Luke cut right in front of another ship aiming to intercept him. Hell, they really didn't want him to get to that shuttle. The first shot from the TIE splashed against his shields, causing Artoo to whistle a worried chirp. Luke rolled his eyes - one glancing shot and the droid got jumpy. He was as much out of practice as Luke was.

Artoo had a point, though - generally speaking, it was a seriously bad idea to let any enemy get directly behind you and lock you in their sights, but Luke had the Force to guide him - the X-wing rolled and dodged, zigging across space with dizzying speed, and all the shots went wide. Still, just in case...

"Artoo, strengthen the rear shields."

The droid chirruped in response, clearly unhappy with the order - and well he might be; it meant Luke had minimal shielding to the anterior of the ship, so he better be on the lookout for any chance- shooters whilst he was trying to shake off the guy gunning for his backside.

In fact, the power going to the forward shields was a waste now - any shot would blow the canopy, with or without what little shielding was still there. Luke channelled the front shielding power to the main drive, and the X-wing jumped forward. He glanced at his scopes - there was no sign of Two. Luke was the only X-wing in a sea of TIEs. Not a great place to be, really.

"Two, where are you?"

The response was delayed. "About three klicks to your starboard. My right stabiliser's hit, but I'm flying. Throttle back and I'll catch you."

Luke looked up at the escaping shuttle, mentally ticking down the seconds they had left to act before it was within range of the main Black Sun ship. Not long enough, he surmised darkly. "Negative, Two. Fall back to the main group - I'll persuade these guys myself."

There was a snort of dismay over the comm. "Lead, I can be there in five. Wait for me."

"No. That's an order, Two." He didn't wait for a response before flicking over to the shuttle's frequency. "Shuttle, this is Rogue Leader. I have a missile lock on your starboard engine. You've got thirty seconds to turn around, or I'll blow you out of the sky."

He'd fully expected the same silence he'd received to his earlier summons, but after a few moments wait, a voice returned to him. "You wouldn't. We've got your friend aboard."

Luke swallowed, stretching to the Force, reaching out with his mind as he flew after the shuttle. Space seemed to blur around him. He touched the pilot's mind.

"If you don't turn around, I'll blow you out of the sky," he said.

"If I don't turn around, you'll blow me out of the sky," the pilot echoed, dully. And then, "Alright, alright - but I want a guarantee I won't get shot when we dock!"

Luke snorted, half out of disbelief, half out of relief. "Just try and get back to the Battalion first, then we'll see," Luke said.

He watched as the shuttle began to swing to port, climbing up and over. Luke arrowed after it, hitting the squadron frequency as he assessed the impossibly wide distance between them and the Battalion; the hive of TIEs between them. "Rogues, report in," he called. Ten men answered him - Five had gone extra-vehicular. "We need a corridor for this shuttle. Form up."

"What about the Battalion?" someone asked, even as a flurry of clicks confirmed his order.

"They're not after the Battalion," Luke repeated. "They want this shuttle."

But even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. Had they really wanted to, they could have blown the shuttle out of the sky the minute they'd come screaming out of hyperspace. They weren't interested in that ship, or the Battalion - which left just one possibility, one that became gruesomely real as the shuttle shot towards the Battalion - and the TIEs abruptly closed ranks, cutting off Luke's route back.

"Oh, Sithspit," Luke swore quietly. "Artoo, even out those shields."

A trap, it'd been a trap for him after all - maybe the shuttle had been in on it, too. It certainly wasn't getting fired on much as it dived towards the Battalion. And that only made sense if Black Sun and the Empire were working together.

A light on his comm board was flashing furiously - Luke slapped it, even as he snap-rolled out of the path of a diving TIE. Artoo squealed as they scraped past another fighter and green fire spat overhead.

"Rogue Leader, this is Control - do you copy?"

"I'm here, Lando!" he called. "Just a bit busy!"

"We've seen it. I'm calling a retreat. The shuttle's commed and agreed to follow our jump. Get out of there, Luke."

Luke held on tight to the flight stick as it jumped in his hands during a tight roll away from another attack, a shot winging in so close he could imagine the heat of it. "I can't get back, they've closed ranks," he said. "Make the jump and I'll follow if I can."

There was a pause. Luke willed his friend to listen to him, even as he had to pull back on the throttle to roll through a complicated series of loops, gaining a new pursuer on every twist and turn. No hits yet - but this couldn't last.

Lando's voice, when he replied, sounded strained. "You can't hold them off Luke. We're coming in closer to try and cover you. Make for- "

"No! No - get out of here, Lando."

"You need our cover, Luke," Lando said, gravely. "You won't get through that nest without it."

Luke swallowed thickly, hearing the dead toll of truth in his words. "I can try."

"No, you-"

"I can't get through while the Rogues are covering Battalion, that's for sure! Jump, and we can take on these guys together!" Luke shouted, and winced at the duplicity: there was no way the rest of the squad could get to him, even if they didn't have Battalion to cover. But Lando had to get the ship out of there - someone had to get away from this mess. He held his breath as another TIE came screaming in, too close, and Luke just barely pulled away in time.

There was a pause. Luke thought he could hear Leia's voice in the background, sounding desperate, pained.

"Leia, can you hear me?" he sent, feeling time running through his fingers like sand.

The reply was hesitant, disbelieving, and heartbreakingly worried. "Luke? Luke!"

He felt his heart constricting, tight in his chest. "I'm sorry, Leia," he sent, watching the Battalion hang in space, indecision stalling her retreat.

Lando's finally replied. "Alright Luke, we're going to jump. But you better follow. Transmitting co-ordinates now."

"Acknowledged," Luke said, and with a guilty sense of relief he flicked onto the squad frequency. "Wedge?"

"I hear you, Luke. Heading towards you right now."

Luke glanced at his scopes - it was true; four X-wings had broken off cover for the shuttle and were heading his way. Luke took a deep breath, "Not sure that's going to be possible, Wedge. You take lead - keep covering that shuttle."

"Luke, how the hell are you going to get back if we don't - Luke! You've got a pair coming in obliquely on your blind spot!"

Luke had already felt them, through the Force. He dodged right, slicing through another group of TIEs that couldn't seem to decide who should shoot at him first. Or maybe that wasn't it - not all TIEs could be this bad could they? They couldn't all miss, not unless they wanted to - not unless they didn't want to kill him.

He gripped the flight stick and hung on as the TIEs streamed after him. Now that there were so many of them, it became impossible for more to shoot at him without hitting their comrades, and every couple of seconds one of them was hit by friendly fire.

"Wedge, get that shuttle and the Battalion away. I'll keep drawing these TIEs away."

He felt something run through him then - a shiver of prescience, of the breath being sucked from his lungs, his skin burning. It was gone as soon as it had arrived, but it left behind the sour taste of inevitability.

"Luke -"

"That's an order, Wedge," Luke said, hating having to do that, but aware his friend would never forgive himself if he thought he'd ever had a choice. "Look at them - they're not trying for any kill shots. I can keep them away long enough for Battalion to jump."

He didn't hear the reluctant acknowledgement; he was too busy dodging the incoming shots. Because if they were trying hard not to kill him, then they were trying just as hard to disable him. And that was the last thing he needed right now.

"Artoo, how long before that Star Destroyer's in firing distance?"

The droid whistled shrilly, not quite the reply Luke was expecting, and he looked up and right sharply. Green fire was striking towards him, a TIE dropping down on him. Luke channelled power to the left drive, rocketing the ship upwards, towards the TIE.

The ship seemed to hesitate in shock that its prey was heading right for it, and they came within spitting distance of one another as Luke raced past it. That left the confused TIE in the sights of his friends, who were still in hot pursuit of Luke, and the ship was caught in the crossfire, punctured by a dozen shots, and exploded.

Luke let out a strangled breath - that had been close.

Artoo whistled again, this time not quite so panicky. Luke glanced over his shoulder - just in time to see the shuttle disappearing into hyperspace.

"The shuttle's away," Lando's voice called over the comm.

"I see it. Get going."

"No!" That was Leia's voice, suddenly, and Luke pictured her pushing Lando away from the command. station. "Luke, please - you've got to make it back."

He shook his head, though she wouldn't see it. He said, trying to sound reassuring, "I'll try, Leia."

She didn't reply. He could feel, stretching across space, her pain - she knew he was sugaring the truth; a handful of X-wings had no chance against a wing of TIEs and the Star Destroyer that was almost within firing distance. It would take a miracle to get out of this one.

"No, no - we can cover you. We can-"

"Lando, get her out of here," Luke said, intercepting what he knew was going to be a decision that would kill them all.

"Luke..." Lando replied, his tone heavy with foreboding.

"I'll jump when you're clear," Luke interrupted him. "Go - before that Star Destroyer gets here. You're no match for that."

Lando didn't answer him - Leia did. "Luke, you better show up at the jump point or we're coming straight back."

He smiled, though he knew he was about to lie. It wasn't intentional - he'd make the jump if he could, but... something told him he wouldn't. "I'll see you later, Leia."

A bolt of green fire winged in them, clipping the shield. Artoo shrieked and Luke missed Leia's response as he jerked the X-wing hard to the left, tearing down and away from the fighter. He couldn't change direction too much, with a long tail of TIEs after him, if he jerked too far right or too far left he'd be in their sights again. He just had to keep running.

Leia called to him, whether by instinct or design, as he saw from the corner of his eye the Battalion accelerating away from the battle.


His heart constricted - he knew exactly what she was going through, right now. He knew he'd caused it. And he couldn't do anything about it. On a strange, whimsical impulse he sent, "I love you, little sister. See you soon."

And then, in a tearing flash of blue, the Battalion jumped, and was gone. He stared after it for a few seconds - a few seconds too long.

He couldn't say where the shot came from, but whoever it was who'd fired it had got lucky - it hit just as another TIE exploded right next to Luke, pierced by another shot meant for him. The flight stick momentarily jumped from Luke's hands with the force of the close explosion, and the X-wing jumped right into the path of the incoming fire.

It went through the X-wing's weakened shields, slicing deep into the ship. Luke had enough time to hear someone screaming in his ear, "Eject! Luke, eject!" before the flames started, and the heat. And he didn't need telling twice. His hand slammed onto the twin eject buttons - one for him, one for Artoo - and suddenly the world was turning red, fire licking at his flight-suit.

Instinct took over - Luke's mind leapt out to the Force, trying to do something - anything - to slow down his death. And maybe it worked - time seemed to slow - he was moving in slow-motion as he lifted his hand off the flight-stick and braced himself for a messy, fiery death.

It didn't happen - the ship was crumbling around him, the explosion blossoming but impossibly slowly, and then finally - finally! - the eject boosters lit, time resumed normal pace, and he was rocketing upwards, through the remains of the exploding ship.

He knew a moment's horror as he saw a piece of debris hurtling towards him - or, rather, he was hurtling towards it.

He couldn't miss it, and he was travelling too fast. His mind went out again, scrabbling in the Force, trying to slow his flight. But it was no use - and instead Luke found himself latching onto the familiar presence of his father, light-years away but at the same time so close, next to him in the Force.

He felt a response, a flicker of surprise, and then heard his own voice screaming, before everything went black -


The man held himself together surprisingly well, his jaw clenched shut with stubborn defiance, denying the screams.

Vader watched him dispassionately, standing silently in a corner of the small cell, with his arms crossed, his gaze focussed on the prisoner. But, although he tried to portray nothing more involved than detached observation, Vader felt closer to this interrogation, more uncomfortable than usual.

That might have been because these very same techniques had been used so recently on his son, and that unsettled him. Not only because he knew Luke would not approve of this method, but also because it gave Vader a curious empathy with the man being interrogated. Or perhaps it was because he had such a vested interest in getting answers out of this man - such an urgent interest. Whatever the reason, being present at this interrogation was distinctly uncomfortable for Vader, and he gripped his elbows in his hands as he stood waiting, impatiently, for the answers to come forth.

"So you acted under your own volition when you liberated Governor Darasbt from his detention cell?" one of the two interrogation officers said.

"I don't... don't know what you're talking about... ah!" The man contorted as pain flashed through his eyes, his body jerking. But, stubbornly, he bit down on his cries, until his lip split and blood pooled under his teeth.

Staring at the scene, Vader had a strange sense of warped reality; as if he were viewing the two interrogation officers he had killed on Tallir, in Luke's cell. He gripped his elbows harder, as if to steady himself.

For a moment, the prisoner's face seemed to change, and Vader saw Luke in his place, struggling against the screams. He stepped forward instinctively, the agitated energy that image generated abruptly snapping his own self-imposed silence. "I have no time for your foolish games. Tell me who-"

And then he broke off, the words dying, as a strange sense of foreboding ran through his veins. Apprehension shivered through him and an overwhelming feeling of dread drowned out his senses.

"Lord Vader?"

And then -


Vader staggered, catching himself on the cell wall. His vision had turned a chilling black suddenly, an intangible pain blossoming behind his eyes, blocking his sight. He knew his eyes were open, that the two officers were staring at him in alarm, but he couldn't seem to see them, couldn't seem to move, couldn't seem to speak. There was so much pain, too much pain... and all of it came from his paternal bond, flooding down the connection, drowning him.


He waited a moment, a few seconds, for an answer. Made himself wait, as his horror swelled. The boy had to answer, had to reply, had to... any second now....

But there was nothing. Only darkness. Darkness - and an utter silence, disturbingly like death.

Luke was gone... gone from his mind, and violently. If it wasn't death, it was an injury severe enough to cause unconsciousness. And someone would pay.

Suddenly Vader snapped out of his inaction, and he lurched towards the prisoner, grabbing him around the throat, lifting him to face him. Wild with fear, suddenly and absolutely out of time for the answers he needed, Vader squeezed his hand around the man's throat.

He just couldn't stop himself - didn't want to stop himself - couldn't help reaching out with his mind, finding the presence of the prisoner and forging on, ripping open the man's mind, bursting it like a ripe fruit and looking... looking... searching...

"Xizor," he snarled as the information slipped into his own mind, obvious and inconceivable at the same time. "Xizor," he repeated, dropping the prisoner again, who collapsed in insensibility. Vader stared at his empty hand, pain and disbelief threatening to swallow him.

Xizor. The foolish, prideful merchant wanted Luke dead - and perhaps he had succeeded.

I love you, little sister. See you soon.

Leia stared at the swirl of hyperspace, feeling numb inside and out. The words resounded in her head - had she heard them, or imagined them? Did it really matter?

Yes. It mattered. Somehow, she knew it mattered a great deal. It meant something. Something...

She narrowed her eyes, the swirl of hyperspace hypnotising, focusing. If she called out to Luke, would he hear her, the way she heard him? And if he did, what would it mean? She'd heard him before, on Bespin, but that had been more instinct than words. This time, she'd clearly heard him, as if he was standing just behind her, whispering in her ear.

She closed her eyes, concentrated. Everything around her felt oddly subdued. She knew Lando was giving orders, heard his deep voice checking the ship's status. Techs moved around her, buzzing frantically, initiating repairs. She ignored them, concentrated on visualising Luke. Be alright, she thought, a little frantically. Please.

Against the intuition of her more pragmatic side, she thought she felt something. A flicker, something familiar and homely. She stretched-

- and fear and pain lashed back through her, paralysing. Inside she was screaming, suddenly, though there was no noise coming from her throat, except maybe a choked gasp. Blackness swept down like a tide, crushing her beneath it. She felt her body begin to drop, her legs collapsing underneath her, sitting heavily on the floor even as her mind suddenly was cast adrift, and she heard a word, in Luke's voice, screaming-


Piett stirred as the shrill beeping of his comm unit chased away his sleep. He blinked blearily, annoyed and not a little surprised to find his head slumped on his desk, the edge of a datapad pressing into his cheek.

It was most unlike him to fall asleep at his desk - yet the information he had been sent by his unknown source was irresistible, and he'd read beyond the point of his exhaustion for two nights running.

The comm continued to trill. He lifted his head, slowly, wincing at the cracking sound of his stiff neck readjusting after too long in an awkward position. He straightened his uniform, and reached out to silence the annoying sound.

A fresh-faced commander appeared on his screen, the man's expression of alarm causing Piett to sit upright in his chair and focus. "Yes, Commander, what is it?"

The man saluted, distractedly. "Admiral, my apologies for the disruption but you are needed on the bridge."

Piett frowned, glancing at the time stamp on his console. It was still the middle of ship's night - perhaps there was a battle underway or about to commence, but none of the battle-ready sirens had been sounded. If anything, Executor felt as if she was accelerating towards a hyperspace jump. Piett's suspicion was confirmed even as he thought it: the ship lurched perceptibly, and the stars outside his viewports were replaced with the churning rush of hyperspace.

"For what reason, Commander?" he asked

The man swallowed, and glanced nervously over his shoulder. He paused, just for a moment, as if to ascertain that it was safe to speak. "It's Lord Vader, sir. He has ordered an alteration in course and is quite... agitated."

Piett frowned, the uneasy feeling in the back of his mind beginning to tingle warningly. "A course change? To where?"

Again, the officer looked over his shoulder. Piett narrowed his eyes, but he could see no sign of Vader on the small screen. "A planet in the Alaya System, sir - Barutte? I'm uncertain why, but we have been ordered there at full speed. Lieutenant-Commander Asrign questioned Lord Vader's reasons and is... is in the infirmary now, sir."

Piett started. Barutte? The Rebel base Vader had sent Skywalker to? But... why? It could only be connected to the boy. He pursed his lips into a thin line of unhappiness - had something happened to Vader's son? If so, all the officers on this ship would need the Force on their side.

"I will be there shortly," Piett told the nervous officer. "For now, see that all Lord Vader's requests are met immediately and without question - no matter how strange they might seem."

"Aye, sir... and, sir, if I may ask... do you know why we are going to the Alaya System? Lord Vader seems a little... erratic...."

Piett narrowed his gaze. "Asking questions like that will get you executed, Commander. You have your orders - I will be there shortly." To punctuate his displeasure with the question, Piett flicked the comm off without further comment.

For a moment, he sat in his chair staring blankly at the information and holopictures strewn across his desk. Something has happened to the boy, he thought, and imagined he could already feel the squeeze of imaginary fingers around his throat. Force help us all - something has happened to the boy.

The 'pilot' jerked the control stick to one side as a stray TIE shot past them, its engine spewing fuel that crystallised in the cold of space. Grimly, and silently, the 'pilot' watched the chase unfold, as beside him the 'medic' cursed fluently at every turn for the worse the battle outside took.

Their shuttle hung a safe distance from the fight, with nothing to do but watch. The 'pilot' glanced at his companion as the Battalion finally turned and began to flee. "Are you getting all this?" he asked.

The 'medic' nodded, his eyes flashing to the Battalion as she leapt into hyperspace. "All of it," he confirmed. "No sign of any interest in us yet."

The 'pilot' nodded, unsurprised. The transponder was transmitting an Imperial code, and those TIEs were too busy hounding Skywalker's X-wing to check them out. The same was probably not true for the Star Destroyer Protector, which was fast approaching.

The TIEs' pursuit of the X-wing was almost frantic, but clearly they'd been ordered not to kill the boy. The 'pilot' grimaced at that: they'd called it right, then - this was a trap for Skywalker. At least they'd be here to help the boy should he manage an escape from that nest of TIEs.

"Holy Sith!" the 'medic' swore suddenly, almost standing up from his seat as he shouted. The 'pilot' followed his line of sight, and felt his stomach drop with fear. The X-wing's wreckage was exploding outwards, bursting away from the point of detonation, flash-fire and shredded metal.

His hands flew for the console. "Get the scopes on it, he might have ejected," he said, even as he gripped the controls in fear, swinging the ship around. He flicked up the volume on the comm, bringing up the Imperial transmissions he'd cracked into earlier. Harried voices burst through the speakers.

"- fired a kill shot!" someone shouted, shrilly, horrified.

"Who did that!? What-"

"He jumped into my fire, sir!"

"Negative - negative," someone else put in. "Pilot and droid ejected. Repeat - pilot and droid have gone EV."

"Do you have visual confirmation of that, Commander?" another voice interrupted.

"No, sir... wait - yes, Control, I have visual. Approaching closer... looks unconscious but intact, sir."

There was a heavy sigh of relief from someone - probably the pilot that had fired the shot. Then someone said, "Acknowledged. Back off, Lieutenant - don't get too near. A recovery shuttle is on its way."

The 'pilot' grimaced - if only they'd come out in an EV-capable shuttle, they might have been able to go retrieve Skywalker themselves. But probably not before they got shot out the sky by those TIEs. He turned to his comrade. "Are you picking up lifesigns?"

The 'medic' shook his head in frustration. "Too much interference from battle debris - it's impossible to say." He glanced upwards, warily. "Vader's going to be livid."

The 'pilot' nodded. "Murderously livid, I'd think."

The 'medic' paused, chewing the corner of his lip. Then he said, quietly for him, "We could run."

For a brief moment, the 'pilot' considered it, as he watched the recovery shuttle approach the wreckage, and settle into a retrieval procedure. Vader was going to be livid. They would probably both die for this failure - but they still had a job to do. And where would they run, anyway? If Vader was angry enough, he'd find them, kill them. Unlike the story they'd told Skywalker, neither of them had family who would be at risk of Vader's wrath. But still... they had a duty.

"No, just keep recording what they do."

"If we can keep track of the boy and get that information back to Lord Vader, we might yet live," the 'medic' said, though he sounded like he'd said it as much to convince himself as to convince the 'pilot'. On impulse, the man flashed a smile at him. The 'pilot' shook his head in irritation.

Vader gripped the command deck railing with brutal strength, imagining his fingers closing around the circle of Xizor's throat.

"Luke... hear me..." he called out to the Force, as he had, repeatedly, for the past standard hour - but there was no response. There was never a response - not even the static flicker of sleep or pain. Just - nothing. And Vader felt bereft, as if his mind had suddenly been cast adrift into nothingness.

"My Lord?"

Reluctantly, he turned. "What is it, Admiral?"

Piett looked uncharacteristically unsettled. He saluted briefly before speaking. "There has been no word from your agents, my Lord. Navigation reports an ETA with the Alaya System of twenty-nine hours. As you requested, I have spoken with Air Traffic Control on Imperial Centre, and they confirm that Prince Xizor's personal yacht is not presently registered as planet-side." He paused. "They also report that the Emperor's private shuttle departed the planet a little under an hour ago."

Vader stiffened, slowly turning the implications of that over in his mind, growing colder and colder. It was all drawing together.... falling together... his mind sickened at the implications.

"Did they have a destination for Palpatine?"

If Piett was surprised at his disrespectful use of the Emperor's surname, he didn't show it. "No, sir. No destination was registered."

Turmoil was building inside of Vader. But it was a cold feeling - it had nothing of the energy of the dark side behind it. Only loss, and fear, chilling him. "Luke...." he thought. "Hear me...!"

There was no response. The boy was not dead - could not be dead. For what would be left to Vader if he was?


"Is there anything else I can do for you, my Lord?" Piett asked. There was a disturbing tone of compassion in his voice and Vader waved him off, turning his back on the man. He did not want compassion, nor empathy, nor understanding, nor reassurance - he wanted his son back! Was that so much to ask!?

Vader turned his focus to the swirl of hyperspace, tempted to lose himself in the tearing anger raging within him. But, oddly perhaps, that anger presented him with no solace. The temptation of the power it would provide him with, should he chose to allow it purchase on his soul, offered him nothing - no greater power in the Force would enable him to locate the boy; no extra power would give him the ability to save him, not when Vader was so very far away.

Ah, how he rued his decision to send the boy to the 'safety' of the Rebellion. He sneered at his own weakness: his reluctance to risk the boy in a confrontation with Palpatine. His own desperation to keep his son safe had crippled him, and Destiny, in its own unshakeable way, had tracked Luke down anyway.

Vader's anger felt cold and useless, now. Perhaps that was because so much of it was directed at himself: he had sent Luke away; he had decided they needed time to think on their next actions; he had chosen inaction for fear of losing his son. How was it possible that, even after twenty-one years, he was still making the same mistakes - still found his own fear of loss warping his judgement, still put those he loved in danger by his own desperate attempts to save them?


Yes, that was true. There was little point denying it - it was well past time he faced the truths that had been so hard to see before because they were so painfully personal. The boy, his son, meant more to him that any Dark Lord of the Sith had any right to feel. Which meant - what? That he could no longer claim the title of Dark Lord? But he most certainly was no longer the man Anakin Skywalker had been, either. He was something other than either of them had been - something more than them. A father, even.

He closed his eyes, unwilling to face the loss that yawned ahead of him. Everything he had done to try and save the boy - it had come undone. Been torn apart. And that was the hardest part - the futility of his desperation, the impotence of his feelings.

It many ways, perhaps too many ways, it had been easier before he had known of the boy's existence. That had been a simpler time, where his feelings had been dictated merely by the success of his actions, by the battles won and the battles lost. An easy yardstick to measure his satisfaction against - an easy pattern to fall into.

Had he really been so cut off from his own needs for so long - for over twenty years? Perhaps. It had been so much simpler, after Mustafar, to retreat into the thoughtlessness of the military: into the regimes; into creating a fearsome reputation.

Had he ever been unhappy? If he had, he didn't recall it - he had prevented all such weak feelings from ever reaching his awareness. Work had been his life. And now... now it seemed vaguely ludicrous to contemplate ever returning to that.

If Luke was dead... what would he do?

There was little need for contemplation of that question - the answer was simple. He would be lost. Where would he find what he needed to continue? Nowhere, perhaps. Love, hope, compassion... all his 'weak' emotions were rediscovered... he wasn't sure he could turn his back on them - not again.

He opened his eyes again, staring blindly out into the wild swirl of hyperspace, Executor flinging herself with all speed towards Barutte, towards the Rebel base.

"Luke... hear me..." he called, and the words felt like they were echoing in his mind, in the empty space his son had once inhabited.

But there was a flicker; not within the silent bond, but connected to it somehow. Surprised, Vader turned his focus onto it, and sensed, faintly, a presence that was somehow familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Vader surged towards it, wild hope flying through his mind untamed. This person was connected to Luke, somehow. If he could just connect with them, he might yet find out what had happened to his son.

The flicker came again, so dim he barely saw it the second time. And it... wasn't Luke. Definitely wasn't Luke - neither strong enough nor brilliant enough. Yet it was familiar in a strange, impenetrable way - but it wasn't Luke.

Puzzled, he reached for it.

"Who are you?" he called, and surprise and fear rippled through the presence. That fear... he had tasted that fear before... years before now... on the Death Star, he'd felt that presence bend beneath the pressure of his will, though it had never broken.

Unsettled, he pulled back. And asked himself - how had he never before noticed that Princess Leia was Force sensitive?

The insides of his eyelids burned orange, squeezed shut against a bright light. The light burned a path straight into his mind, cutting through his unconsciousness, lifting him towards painful waking.

His legs ached, his back hurt, the muscles in his shoulders were stretched tight, painfully tight - he became aware of each pain gradually, as if they only registered once he turned the focus of his mind away from each emerging hurt. The burning orange of a bright light in his face seemed to override it all, though. He wanted to turn his face away, but his head felt too heavy, lolling against a cold wall behind him.

Perhaps if he reached for the Force to boost him -

His eyes shot open as he stretched out for its familiar warmth, and came crashing up against the limits of his own self-awareness. The Force was... not there. Simply not there. And that, more than anything else, made panic claw up his throat, cutting off his breath.

The light flashed in his eyes, and he flinched, turning his head away. His cheek rested against the cold of the wall behind him, and he focused on that chill, trying to draw back some control. The Force had always been with him, even as a child when he hadn't known what to call that strange, comforting energy that had always seemed just out of reach. Now - it was gone. His connection had been severed - he felt like he was haemorrhaging control.

"Ah, you're awake," someone said, then. Luke cracked open an eye at the voice, and a face swam into his vision. It eclipsed the light briefly, and a hand with long, cold fingers reached out and took hold of his chin, drawing his face around. He couldn't make out the features of the man; couldn't pull away because his arms were fastened to the wall above his head. He drew in a breath, unsettled by the quiet scrutiny.

The last thing he remembered was the battle, and his ship disintegrating around him - flames and choking smoke and... and how had he got from there to here? "Who are you?" Luke asked, and grimaced at the sound of his voice, dry and rough from smoke inhalation.

The man drew back a little then, and Luke saw the outline of the humanoid - tall, muscular, pointed features. And he definitely wasn't human... humanoid, but not human.

The creature smiled. "My name is Prince Xizor - you may have heard of me. And you - you are Vader's son," he said, and then was silent a moment as he seemed to scrutinise Luke further, giving Luke's heart chance to kick up into something close to panic. Xizor! Oh Force, was he in trouble!

"What do you want?" Luke asked, feeling more keenly than he had before the pressure of durasteel around his wrists, strapping him to the wall.

Xizor again reached out and took hold of Luke's chin, turning his head left, then right, and blatantly ignoring Luke's question "You know... given your father and your reputation... somehow, I expected more," he said, and then smiled coldly.

Leia came awake with a gasp. She clawed for breath as she sat upright, throwing off the light coverlet that blanketed her, and sucked in air urgently.

"Princess!" someone shouted in surprise and alarm. Lando, she thought, distantly, but she was too confused and disorientated to reply - too busy trying to breathe.

Hands clamped around her shoulders, holding her upright when she felt like simply collapsing forwards. Lando appeared in front of her, shaking her gently. "Leia... Leia?! Come on lady, focus on me."

She shook her head, trying to pull free of his grip. "I... I'm fine. I'm fine," she said, shakily, dismayed at the tremor in her voice. "What happened?"

Lando looked at her disbelievingly. "You collapsed," he said, bluntly. "You don't remember?"

She frowned. She remembered something... a presence... someone familiar... she shook her head, confused by her own thoughts. "Not really. I thought Luke was-" she stopped abruptly, a jolt of horror waking her up fully. "Luke! Did he make it, Lando?"

She didn't need to see more than the grim expression on his face to know. Just that look - and already she could feel the sobs ratcheting up her spine, shaking her bodily. Desperately, she held them back.

"I'm sorry, Leia - Wedge says he was hit just after we left. He ejected, but there was nothing the Rogues could do; they had to make the jump." Leia closed her eyes, as if she could hold the tears inside her if she squeezed them shut hard enough. She pressed her lips together to try and stop the cry of pain and loss that wanted to tear out of her throat. When she breathed, it came in a hiccupping gasp.

"Leia - Leia - listen, he was alive when they left, Wedge is sure of it. But there's something else," Lando said.

Leia almost wanted to tell him to stop - just stop - that was enough, for now. More than enough heartache, for the day. But she couldn't. "What is it, Lando?" she asked. If it was to do with Han, she thought she might just start screaming, and never stop.

"Those two Imperials we brought back from Tallir... they jumped ship in a shuttle just before the battle got going."

That made her open her eyes. "What?" she demanded.

He nodded. "We've checked Wedge's sensor records, too - they hung around and watched. They were still there when the Rogues jumped."

Leia slammed her hand down on the bed, temper flaring. "The deceitful pair of... I bet they were working for the Empire all along. Probably for Vader or-" she stopped abruptly, as a cold instinct shivered down her spine.

"What? What is it?" Lando asked, again gripping her by her upper arms. She shrugged him off.


She remembered, now - the feeling of him standing right beside her, pressing towards her, demanding who she was. She'd found Luke's presence, staggered under the loss of her connection to him (when his ship was hit?) and be thrown away, flailing for support for an interminable amount of time, cast adrift, instinctively trying to find Luke again - and instead she had found Vader.

Something else she remembered, too - a word -


Abruptly, Leia got up and out of the bed, pacing to the wall and back.


Something here made a horrible amount of sense - something she didn't want to contend with. Luke had called for Vader... Vader had come calling... only Luke hadn't called him 'Vader' - he'd called him 'Father'.

Lando stepped into the path of her pacing and she walked right into him, bounced off him, irritated and confused and - worse - feeling suddenly and utterly out of her depth. "What is it?!" he demanded.

And she swallowed, thickly.

Force, she really felt like crying, now.

Leia sat beside the hover-palette, palm of one hand pressed against the carbonite-smothered face of the one person she really felt could comfort her right now. But the metal felt so cold - so deathly cold, like she pressed her hand to his grave, not his sleeping body.

I need you... she thought, despairingly, staring at the frozen visage.

They wouldn't let her take him out yet - they didn't have the facilities here to make sure he didn't suffer any ill effects from reversing the hibernation process. And that made sense, but it was killing her. It was only hours back to Barutte, but those hours were stretching, each minute passing so slowly she felt that if she screamed, it would come out in slow motion.

Sighing, she pulled her shipsuit jacket closer. It was cold down here in the cargo hold of the blockade runner, but at least it was quiet. Lando and Chewie meant well, but she needed more than just sympathy. She couldn't bring herself to talk to them about what she suspected - couldn't say the words out loud, or she might somehow make them real.

Could Vader really be Luke's father? That was ridiculous - wasn't it? But it made a lot of sense - too much sense... and it would explain so much about Luke's recent behaviour.

She wasn't sure what she felt more keenly - anger or pity. He could have told her! And yet, at the same time - how could he have told her? If it was true - if it was true - the secret must have been such a burden... even she didn't know how she would have reacted it Luke had turned to her for support. She shook her head, confused by her own dissonant thoughts - she pitied Luke, but she felt angry that he hadn't felt he could confide in her; she hated Vader, and yet she envied him that Luke had called for him and not her before he lost consciousness.

Leia grimaced self-reproachfully at that last thought - jealous of Vader? What a ludicrous idea! The man was a butcher, a sadist, a... a man who Luke turned to before he turned to his own friends. And yes, damn him, she was jealous. Stupidly, childishly jealous. Why hadn't Luke felt that he could trust her? Had he expected to be turned in? To be hauled in front of the Council. Or... or had he been working with Vader, secretly?

No... no... he couldn't have been. He was still loyal to the Rebellion - she knew that in her heart, with fierce certainty. But their 'rescue' of him at Tallir suddenly seemed far too fortuitous - had Vader set that up? But - why? And who had those two Imperials who'd jumped ship been?

Ah - too many questions! She curled her hands into fists and tried to stop the tide of frustration and anger that threatened to swamp her. If she started shouting and screaming now, she wasn't sure she could stop. With effort, she unfurled the fingers of her left hand and placed it against the cold of the carbonite.

Han... I need you... she thought, and bit back the tears.

"I know, Chewie, I know, but what can we do?" Lando said, pacing the ready room. As a General (even a temporary one) he got access to his own office, and he was frankly grateful for the room to pace irritatedly without having ensigns getting in the way, tripping under his anxious feet.

Chewie huffed, woofling long and loud.

"Look - you did the right thing. She's too upset right now - let her stay down there with Han until we make planet-fall. You gave her a blanket, right? Right - she'll be fine." Lando sighed, coming to a stop behind his desk and leaning on it.

Chewie woofled again, plainly confused and unnerved.

"What - you haven't figured it out. Come on, Chewie - it's obvious, isn't it?" The wookiee growled low in his throat at that. Lando shook his head. "Think about it, Chewie. Those two have always been close, but this is more than that," he said, and held up a hand. Counting the evidence on his fingers, he continued, "First off, they're both adopted, second they have birth dates within a couple of days of each other, and if you figure in Tatooine's slightly longer year, they come out on the same day. Third, they have this semi-mystical Force connection thing going on - Leia's close to Han, but I didn't see her collapsing into a heap with he was knocked out by the carbonite. And fourth - well, hell, it just makes sense, doesn't it?" Lando finished, throwing his arms up in the air.

Chewie didn't reply for a few seconds - Lando could read in his stance surprise and contemplation. He dropped into the desk chair and ran a hand through his hair.

The only thing Lando didn't get was why Leia was taking it so badly. She must've figured it out when whatever had happened on the bridge had, well, happened. But was it that bad being Luke's brother? Was it any reason to hole up in the cargo hold for over ten hours? Maybe it was the exhaustion of the past couple of days catching up with her, too? And grief - to find she had a brother just as he was blown out the sky? Yeah, that had to be it - hell of a time for her to figure it out.

Chewie whuffled quietly, drawing Lando out of his contemplation. "What was that? They 'smell' the same, too - well, whatever you say buddy. I just trust my instincts, and they're screaming at me that those two are related, somehow." He frowned. "Funny how that Jedi - Kenobi? - didn't let on to them. What would've been the harm in leaving them together, if their old man was dead?" He shook his head.

Chewie was silent for a long time, standing still, pensive. Lando eyed him warily, unnerved by the wookiee's silence. Chewie had a strange look in his eye, one that glinted uncomfortably. "What?" Lando asked.

Chewie growled sadly. Lando blinked, "You think 'there's more'? What does that mean?"

Luke frowned as he concentrated, stretching out desperately to the Force. The most frustrating thing was that he kept feeling as if he could almost touch it - but he never quite made it. He could still feel it within himself, but felt nothing beyond the limits of his own awareness. He'd come up against a solid wall that threw him violently back into his body with nothing to show for his efforts but a sharp pain somewhere between his eyes.

He sighed, trying to shift his body a little, to at least take a bit of his weight off his manacled hands. He was still in the same position, his hands pinned above and behind him - high enough that he couldn't quite sit with his backside comfortably on the floor; he wondered if that was deliberate, or if it was just that he was shorter than a lot of men.

He'd been here hours. Hours. It brought back memories of being similarly restrained on Tallir, but he supposed he should be grateful that at least he wasn't being interrogated this time. But the very fact that he wasn't being molested in any way felt ominous. He'd fully expected to be dead by now - hadn't that been what Darasbt had been ordered to do by Xizor? Yet now Xizor was simply leaving him alone - though he did come in occasionally and just sit in a chair, staring at Luke.

Luke shivered, as much from the memory of the odd look he kept giving Luke as from the cold of the metal floor and wall against his back. There was always a strange gleam in Xizor's lizard-eyes - indecision, maybe, or amusement. Luke couldn't say. And Xizor wouldn't answer his questions, so Luke had pretty much given up asking.

As if he'd conjured him up just by thinking about him, the door to Luke's cell opened and Xizor walked in, regal as ever, chest puffed out with self-importance. He gave Luke a sly smile and sat, gracefully, in the room's only chair, crossing his legs and steepling his fingers.

Luke refused to look away - he stared back, calmly, wondering from where the guy got his over-inflated sense of self-importance. Obviously, Xizor thought a lot of himself, but truthfully Luke had never heard of him before this. Maybe Vader would've known who he was, but all Luke saw was an inflated ego dressed up as royalty.


Luke closed his eyes, then, as he thought about his father. Would he think Luke was dead? The idea shuddered through Luke - he knew full well what Vader was capable of when he was angry, and if he thought Luke had been killed.... There was a fierce, unrepentant part of Luke that felt some strange pleasure at the thought of Vader reacting so fiercely to his disappearance. But another part - the reluctantly responsible part of him - worried what Vader would do. Would he blame the Alliance? Leia? And what would Leia do for that matter - she could be just as volatile as Vader at times.

"I have some news for you, Skywalker," Xizor said, and Luke glanced upwards, smothering his surprise - Xizor had never spoken to him before, and after hours sitting in silence Luke had almost forgotten what it felt like to hear another's voice.

"I'm not interested," he said back - automatically defiant, because of course he was interested, he just couldn't bring himself to let the guy know that.

"Really? It involves your father."

Luke started - Xizor knew? Well, of course he knew - but still, Luke felt uncomfortable with the lizard knowing that. Even Leia didn't know, but this guy did? But - how?

"I'm sorry to say he's reacted quiet badly to your disappearance. Perhaps he believes you're dead, hmm?"

Luke curled his fingers down until they just touched the cold manacles around his wrists. If only he could use the Force... "When he finds you, he'll kill you," Luke said. It probably wasn't a very Jedi kind of thing to say, but he felt oddly vulnerable in front of Xixor - defensive and open at the same time.

Xizor smiled, displaying a set of sharp, pointed teeth. "Oh, no - he's not after me," he replied, with false nonchalance. "He's ordered the fleet to Barutte." The he dug into a pocket of his robe then, pulling out a muja-fruit and taking a bite, arching one sharp eyebrow as he watched Luke's reaction.

Luke closed his eyes, briefly. Hell, he'd called it, alright. "He'll know it's not their fault when he gets there," he said.

"Perhaps," Xizor agreed. "If he gives them time to speak before he annihilates them." He took another bite of the fruit, casually licking a drop of juice off his finger.

Luke looked aside at that, staring at the cold metallic floor. His father wouldn't do that - he'd changed, hadn't he? He'd stop himself, before he did it. Wouldn't he? Luke bit his lip and looked back up at Xizor, who was finishing off the fruit.

Irritatingly, Luke's stomach chose that moment to rumble with hunger. How long had it been since he'd eaten anyway? How long had he been unconscious? They must have treated him for any injuries he had from the ejection - he couldn't feel anything worse than the aches and pains in his muscles. How long had that taken? How long had his father been out there, believing that Luke was dead?

"Are you hungry?" Xizor asked, suddenly, breaking Luke's thoughts. Which was a relief - they bordered on the morose.

Luke opened his mouth to deny that he was - there was no way Xizor would do anything other than taunt him with food - but his stomach got there first - it rumbled, louder than before. Luke fought back a blush. "I'm fine," he said, forcefully.

Xizor reached into his pocket again, produced another fruit. He tossed it between his hands, idly. "Are you sure? I have another."

Luke looked away. "No. Thanks." Sarcastically.

There was the sound of rustling cloth, and the chair scraping back over the metal floor, and then Xizor was crouched in front of him, uncomfortably close. Luke didn't turn his head - not until he heard the sound of vibroblade flicking on.

Xizor gave him a falsely innocent smile when Luke turned around and pressed his back further against the wall. Calmly, the man sliced off a piece of the fruit and held it between thumb and forefinger. "Come now, Skywalker - we can't have you fading away before we reach our destination, now can we?" And then he offered the fruit to Luke.

With his hands bound above his head, Luke would have had to eat it from Xizor's hand, and the idea was too repulsive to even contemplate. He turned his head aside again, fixed his eyes on the far wall.

Xizor waited a few seconds, the vibroblade humming in the silence. Luke clamped down on his fear - and on the rumbling of his stomach. He'd rather starve than take food from the man's hand.

"Take the food, Luke," Xizor said. He leaned closer - Luke didn't budge. "I'll have some water brought in, and a bed - if you're good, we can free your hands."

Luke felt a muscle spasm in his throat at the thought of water. He was hungry, yes, but Force he was thirsty too. But he was also feeling stubborn, and he turned his head back around slowly.

"Is that your idea of temptation?" he asked. "Food and water? I'm fine, thanks all the same." His voice was sarcastic, but he kept his expression passive.

Annoyance flickered over Xizor's face, briefly. He stood, then, and turned away. Walked to the chair, placed the muja on the seat before turning back around.

"That is not temptation, Skywalker - that is for my amusement. You should worry about temptation when the Emperor gets here." He paused, and Luke felt his stomach drop in fear - the Emperor? Coming for him? Force, of course! Why hadn't he figured that out earlier?!

"I..." he started to say, but then trailed off, a tight knot of fear dislodging the words.

Xizor smiled coldly, perhaps seeing Luke's fear. "I would have liked to kill you, boy, for what your father did to my family. But... no - I think that this, perhaps, will be a sweeter revenge."

"Ten seconds to reversion," the 'pilot' warned, needlessly - the 'medic' was already strapped in and ready with recalculating another diversionary jump.

The reversion jolted the ship briefly, and the 'pilot' held onto the console with one hand as his other was already reaching for the comm station - they had to contact Executor before this jump: send them the data they had recorded; get Vader the information he needed.

Before he'd finished punching in the encrypt codes, though, the panel started chiming that there was a message incoming. Frowning, the 'pilot' pulled it up and scanned it. His hand clenched around the console edge, dissipating the sudden surge of fear. He turned to his comrade. "We have a problem," he said. "We just got a coded message from Admiral Piett - Vader wants us to make contact."

The 'medic' shot him an impatient glance. "Which is unexpected why?" he said.

"It's not, but we can't contact them – they're in hyperspace, enroute to Barutte," he said, wetting his lips. His mouth felt dry, suddenly.

The 'medic' glanced at him in alarm. "He's going after the Rebels? Skywalker isn't there."

"Vader doesn't know that yet," the 'pilot' responded, mind churning with useless plans. Executor wasn't likely to stop before they reached Barutte. They could send what they had now, but there was no guarantee that Vader would see it before he started whatever it was he planned on starting once he got to Barutte. "Piett's given an ETA of... twelve hours now; how soon can we get there?"

The 'medic' stared at him, incredulously. "You're not suggesting we go back to the Rebels after just deserting them?"

"I am, if we can warn them Vader's coming and get them ready... enough to slow Vader down so we can contact him before he opens fire on them."

The 'medic' sent him another disbelieving glare. "Does it matter if he does? They're Rebels."

The 'pilot' frowned, considering that. It was true, but.... "It doesn't matter anyway if we can't get there before Executor. How soon can we be there?"

The 'medic' gave him a last incredulous glance before punching in the information on the nav computer. He clicked his teeth thoughtfully. "If we push the engines - maybe ten hours."

"That'll do - punch it in," the 'pilot' said, readying the hyperdrive for another jump.

The 'medic' hesitated. He sighed. "Alright, ready when you are."

The sky was brilliant with midday sunshine, the light pouring like wine through the windows of the Imperial Palace. The curved back of the throne was facing the view, so Vader approached slowly, almost cautiously, deja vu pressing heavily against his sternum.

"Father." Luke's voice was cold and brittle. Even as Vader approached, the throne swung around, idly kicked into a turn by one slouched foot. The boy was dwarfed by the throne - and yet at the same time, he seemed to occupy the entire dais. Or rather, his presence did, creeping like cold water across the throne room.

Forcing his numb legs into a kneel, Vader stared up at the boy in front of him. He recognised with a vicious, detached clarity, the vision of his future he had tried so hard to evade. Tried so hard - but here it was again, in front of him: Luke looking down on him with eyes that had gone grey and dead long ago.

"Luke..." Vader said, and the boy arched an eyebrow at him, a flicker of dangerous anger in his expression. But this was just a dream, Vader thought - just a vision, mocking him for his failure to protect his son.

"I don't recall summoning you," the boy said.

Vader swallowed around his grief, looking aside. Did the Force never tire of taunting him with visions? Was the future he dreaded destined to be, regardless of what he did?

"Father, look at me," Luke snapped, apparently irritated by Vader's lack of a response. Vader looked up again; Luke had stood and was walking slowly down the steps. He seemed almost transparent against the backlit sunshine - like he was made of a cold light, an insubstantial substance that might just flicker away into nothing.

"I am... sorry," Vader said, hoping to placate the fierce anger he could feel seething in his son.

"You're 'sorry'," Luke repeated, disdainfully, approaching with a liquid grace that was almost unearthly. "You're always 'sorry', Father. Sorry for abandoning me, sorry for not finding me sooner, sorry for letting Palpatine find me first - well it isn't enough, Father. It's too late."

Vader just stared up at his son, barely recognising him, beyond words at the violent betrayal he saw in the boy's eyes. Even if Vader had been able to think of a reply, he wasn't sure that he could have forced his lips to form the words. He felt frozen, immobile... locked in time, with this haunting vision.

Luke had stilled his approach and turned aside, agitated and trembling. Vader watched him, hunting hungrily and desperately for some sign of the boy he had known for such a cruelly short time. Luke turned back to him then, perhaps sensing his regard, and Vader clenched his hands at the fleeting look of pain on his son's face. He felt like his heart was tearing itself apart at the seams.

"I never wanted this," Luke said - and there was something there: something of the Luke Vader had known. Just a flash in his eyes, come and gone so quickly that Vader wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it. "I just wanted... I just wanted to save you...." Luke laughed then, a dry, brittle laugh, raking across the air between them - the yawning chasm between them. "He didn't tell me I'd have to pay for your life with my soul."

"To save me?" Vader asked, frowning in confusion.

Luke pinned him with a thin, icy stare. "Yes," he said, bitterly. "And I sold myself for you, just as he asked - don't act so disgusted, Father - I did it for you." The saccharine tone, and the fierce, bitter words... Vader wanted to turn aside, but he knew he couldn't. He had to face this, if this was the future - if the Force was trying to tell him something, forewarn him of something, then he had to listen. Even if his soul retched at what he learnt.

"What did you do?" Vader asked, almost desperately.

Luke threw him a look of disdain - and confusion. Well, this Luke would expect him to know exactly what had happened, wouldn't he? "Is it so easy to forget, Father? Or do you expect me to absolve you of blame?" The boy shook his head.

Vader swallowed, painfully. "No, I do not expect that. Whatever I have done... I accept responsibility for."

"Oh, how noble," Luke spat back. There was something more than the cold anger in his eyes then - hurt, betrayal, disillusionment. "If that is why you came here then you'd better leave. Don't make me angry, Father." As Luke said it, a flash of hollow, desperate fear crossed his face - fear of losing control, maybe? Vader couldn't be certain: it was quashed so quickly. "Return to your wallowing and scheming," Luke continued. "Oh, yes, I know all about your plans to depose me as you tried to depose Palpatine. Why can't you just leave me be?"

The boy turned and began walking up the steps again - slowly, dismissively, his shoulders stiff. In a surge of desperation, Vader reached out and grasped his son's arm. He wasn't sure what reaction he'd expected from Luke, but it wasn't the one he got. The boy turned with Force-assisted speed, yanking his arm away as his other hand came up. Blue electricity flew from his fingertips, hitting Vader squarely in the chest, slamming him backwards onto the floor, his respirator failing.

"Do not touch me!" Luke shrieked, though he sounded more scared than angry. "Never touch me again!"

Vader couldn't breathe. His hand went to his chest - the controls were barely damaged, certainly not enough to damage the system so completely. Vader's chest spasmed as he gasped for breath, but the respirator stayed stubbornly unresponsive. He looked up at Luke - the boy still had a hand outstretched, a fierce expression of glee on his face. Denied oxygen for precious seconds, light headed, Vader's vision wavered.

"Luke..." he tried to say, but it came out as more of a croak.

"I should have just let you die the first time," Luke snarled, and his outstretched hand closed tighter, forming a fist. "You are nothing to me - nothing. And you were never worth my life!"

Vader shuddered at the image, his lungs screaming for air. He's going to kill me... he thought, his mind stuttering over the realisation. My son... my son.....

But his vision continued to narrow, to blur, to tunnel until he saw nothing but his son, hand outstretched in murderous loss and rage. And Vader wondered, abstractly, why it even bothered him that he was dying, if this was his future life.

They had reached Barutte with less than a standard hour to spare before Executor was due to arrive, but rousing the Rebel Council was proving more difficult than they had expected.

"Damn you! If you don't put us through to Mothma and your council right now I'm turning this ship around and you can shoot us out of the sky!" the 'medic' hissed into the comm, slamming his fist down onto the console. The 'pilot' shot him a look of mild irritation.

"Hijacked shuttle," replied the Rebel fighter pilot, "I repeat - stand down your weapons and prepare to be escorted down to Barutte Station. Failure to do this will be interpreted as an act of hostility and I am authorised to take appropriate action." Each word sounded strained with impatience.

"Look - we're part of the Battalion battle group, and we're returning with information vital to saving your worthless necks, so if you'd just-"

The Rebel pilot snorted at that. "Battalion reported in hours ago - including reporting your defection. Stand down your weapons, or I will fire."

The 'medic' threw a disgusted look at his companion. "This was a fabulous idea of yours," he shot at him. "You try and tell them they've got an hour to evacuate and what do they do? Arrest you before you can even get the words out. No wonder Vader isn't bothered about exterminating them - they'll hang themselves with red tape if we give them long enough."

The 'pilot' sighed and leaned over to the pickup. "Gold Two, this is the shuttle pilot. Please report to Mothma and the Council that we wish to talk to continue our conversation from four days ago. You can tell them that they were right in their suspicions, and that we're ready to discuss it, now."

"Shuttle pilot, you're in no position to-"

"You might also want to mention to her that we've received notification that the Executor and her fleet are on their way here right now."

There was a stunned pause over the line. Then, "W-what? Executor?"

"Yes, you-" the 'pilot' started, but the 'medic' interjected.

"They're less than an hour away, and Vader is not happy, so you better get making that call, pilot," he snapped.

The line went abruptly silent and the 'medic' fell back into his seat with an irritated sigh. "Rebels," he hissed, shaking his head. "No sense of self-preservation whatsoever."

The Emperor barely waited until the ramp of his personal shuttle had finished lowering before he began the descent to the hanger bay floor. His royal guards, used to him moving at a sedate, stately pace hurried to flank him. Palpatine paid them no heed, instead fixing his gaze upon the Falleen waiting at the foot of the ramp.

"My Emperor," Xizor said, bowing deep and slow.

"Xizor," Palpatine said, sensing victory in the Falleen's mind. It was an infectious emotion, because if the Falleen felt he had been successful.... then Skywalker was indeed aboard. "You have the boy?"

The Falleen straightened, inclining his head reverently. "Yes, Emperor. He is restrained and surrounded by ysalamiri, as you suggested."

Palpatine nodded, cackling to himself. Ysalamiri were such useful creatures - able to block the Force with no more effort required on their part than merely living, breathing. And the effect of prolonged Force-loss on a Jedi... at the least, the boy would be exhausted and... vulnerable. Yes: vulnerable.

"Good, good. I trust you have also followed my instructions to keep him untouched?" There was a flicker of unease in the Falleen's aura, and Palpatine stopped and scrutinised the taller man. "Well?" he hissed.

The Falleen bowed again. "He suffered some minor injuries during his capture, but my medical personnel dealt with it swiftly and effectively. He is intact."

Palpatine narrowed his eyes, his mind raking through the honesty of the Falleen's statement. But he did not sense any lie, and if the boy was still exhausted and recuperating... well, that was all the better for Palpatine's plan. He smiled coldly, and turned aside. "Very well. Lead me to him." And anticipation danced his mind, twisting the lies and truths in his plan, creating a temptation the boy would be unable to resist.

Vader stood at the most forward point of the bridge, up against the viewport, just a few inches from the plastisteel, as if being just these few feet closer to his destination might ease his mind. It did not, of course.

He felt like he was leaking life faster than Executor was covering distance. If he could have screamed at the stars to push them harder, faster - if he could have done anything to speed their course - he would have done it, and gladly. Because his latest vision had shaken him more deeply than even he, with his newfound acceptance of his paternal feelings towards Luke, really wanted to admit.

I should have just let you die the first time.

He closed his eyes, fighting back the image in his mind, the screaming betrayal in his son's voice. Fighting back the ache of the vacant spot in his mind, lying bereft and dead, weighed down with loss. Vader stood with his feet firmly planted on the deck plates, his hands clasped behind him, but he might as well not have been present on the bridge at all. His mind was in the future, torturing him with the possibilities of how his vision would come to pass - because they always came to pass, his visions, no matter what he did to try and stop them. It was a cruel gift of the Force, his prescience. A curse.

Inwardly, Vader snarled and raged at his inability to fight the future he felt bearing down upon him - a future that, in the short-term, was fogged and uncertain, but in the long-term was doomed, tied to his vision, and he and Luke careened towards it, unable to slow their progress, the momentum of Palpatine and Xizor and Luke's foolish Rebel friends sliding them ever closer....

There was a sharp ping from behind him, and then a soft claxon began bleating: the warning for a reversion to realspace. Vader blinked, glaring out at the relentless swirling mass of hyperspace for one last time before it flashed from existence.

A planet appeared in its place, distant but still visible, a swarm of ships hurrying from the surface, and Vader's hungry mind swept forward, looking with his heart on the line, hoping, hoping....

But the bright presence he sought was not out there. And although he had known, somehow, that he would not find Luke here, still the frustration raged through him. Luke was not here, and for a moment the weight of his grief left Vader rooted in place, still as a statue, too much rage and fear screaming through his mind. He dare not move, lest in his ire he destroyed all the bustling Alliance ships with one fell sweep of his murderous rage.

His mind was poised on a brink, anger begging for a release - a payment in blood for the loss of his son. He grappled with the idea, the temptation. Just a few months ago - perhaps even a few weeks ago - he would not have taken a breath before ordering the slaughtering of these pitiful Rebels, who could not even protect their own. Some friends of his son they were! Where were they, where had they been, when Luke had needed them? What foolish ideals had sent his son into danger for these people?

Vader clasped his hands tighter, unwilling to let the anger out from beyond the confines of his mind, unwilling to do anything so Dark as to slaughter the Rebels, though for a moment he could barely recall why he was bothering to restrain himself. But he did restrain himself - he did rein in his anger, his instinct to murder all those who stood in his way or failed to move out of his way fast enough. But how he managed it... he wasn't certain.

"My Lord? The Rebels appear to be in the early stages of a full retreat. I have ordered the fleet to intercept them before they can escape the gravity well."

Vader nodded, stiffly. "Good. Do not engage them... yet. Order the fleet to maintain blockade placements... and have the Jetstar and Crucible interdictors take up flanking positions. Then send a transmission to the Rebels - I wish to speak with Mothma or Organa."

Piett nodded curtly. "At once, my Lord." He paused. "We are already receiving an incoming transmission from the Rebel fleet, sir."

Vader turned slowly, studying Piett with deathly gravity. "I am only interested in speaking to their pathetic Council or the Princess Organa," he hissed. "I will have answers for this."

Piett appeared only a little perturbed by Vader's obvious anger and grief. He inclined his head towards his commander. "It is from their Council, my Lord. But... it is also from Skywalker's guardians."

Something inside Vader contracted with righteous anger. His agents? Here? Still with the Rebels? Good - he would order their detention, and then punish them, slake his anger and grief on them, for their intolerable failure....

But another thought, lighter somehow, slipped into his mind at the same time as he considered how violent his retribution would be. If his agents were here, perhaps Luke was not dead... because surely they would not have returned to the Rebellion had they known Vader was on his way - surely they would have run for their lives....

Or... or there were other, less agreeable alternatives for their continuing presence here despite Luke's absence. Perhaps his agents had turned on him: decided to lay their loyalty with the Rebels. If so, they might have disposed of Luke themselves... or told the Rebels of Luke's heritage. Perhaps the Alliance Council had decided to get rid of the boy and draw Vader out, with fewer ships than was necessary to take on the Rebel fleet. He didn't doubt that there were less benevolent factions within the Rebel Alliance who would have sacrificed their young idol to bring Vader here hastily, with only the Executor and a few additional gunships at his disposal. It was probably the most equal odds the Rebels had had since before the Hoth victory.

But if so... would not the Alliance have prepared a larger fleet to meet them? And be in battle-ready positions already, rather than apparently in the midst of fleeing the planet? So perhaps if Luke had been disposed of, it had not been a decision by the whole council. Perhaps there were some member of the council who felt that the vicious retribution of murdering Vader's son warranted the risk of Vader's wrath....

Vader shook his head, feeling himself spiral into the possibilities of treachery and double-treachery.

"My Lord? My Lord... the Rebels are still hailing, sir. If you'll pardon my forwardness, sir, I believe you should return their call... before any hostilities commence...."

Vader stared at Piett levelly, remotely impressed with his ability to resist the urge to strike out at the strange, hopeful dread that was lying leaden in his stomach. "Is your ready room free?" he asked, though it wasn't really a question - more like a sudden, bright reflection of the prayer that was winging through his mind, out into the Force, praying for it to pay him back for his restraint. I have spared these lives... spare my son....

Piett nodded, a faint glint of reflected hope in his expression. And though Vader felt the need to guard his hopes close against his chest, he nodded in a brief, shared moment of hope. He felt a desperate smile forming on his lips, though he couldn't say where that strange emotion came from. Perhaps his agents merely wanted to inform him of how his son had died... but still, there was a peculiar light in his mind, the darkness of his earlier temptation to slaughter the Rebels retreating with unaccustomed ease from his mind. And the light... the light that was revealed underneath felt uncommonly natural.

Luke screwed his eyes shut against the sudden influx of light. He'd been dozing fitfully for hours, unable to find sleep with his arm muscles protesting at being pinned in place above him. And he'd had odd dreams - dreams that were cold and muddled. At one point, he'd been convinced that he'd fallen asleep outside on the Tatooine Dunes, he'd felt so cold - until someone had thrown the lights on, and he'd lurched back to consciousness.

He wet his lips, wincing at the dry, cracked skin. Too long without a drink... he felt faint. "I'm not interested, Xizor," he said, dismayed at how weak his voice sounded. Really, he'd meant it to sound defiant... but it had come out more desolate.

There was no reply. Which was unusual - Xizor seemed to enjoy the sound of his own voice far too much to give up an opportunity to speak, and Luke felt a curdling fear in his stomach. He couldn't say where it came from - or where the sudden lurch of his heart came from - but he opened his eyes, blinking against the light. He could see nothing - the sudden light after so long in darkness made his vision pulse with flashes of violent orange and yellow.

"Well, well...." a voice said, and Luke heard the sound of a cane tapping across the floor and slow, shuffling footsteps approaching. His breath hitched painfully in his dry throat and he drew back instinctively, his body recognising the voice even though his mind was too numb with horror to accept it. "Young Skywalker... finally, we meet."

"As I was saying - what a truly wonderful plan," the 'medic' hissed, shifting uncomfortably as the shuttle ramp-way settled to the docking bay floor with a dull thud. "Not only are we colluding with the enemy, but the enemy have got their fingers in their ears and don't want to hear what we've got to tell them. Fantastic - it's like we're dealing with children."

The 'pilot' just frowned at him, his forehead lined with tension. "Give them a chance," he whispered, as a group of guards dashed into view, their blasters trained on the two Imperials.

"To do what? Shoot us and ask questions later?"

The 'pilot' glanced at him exasperatedly, and looked aside to the far doorway. The 'medic' followed his companion's gaze - and sighed as Mon Mothma appeared, striding across the docking bay as fast as she could without endangering her dignity.

"I told you they'd listen," the 'pilot' whispered and the 'medic' resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"Gentlemen!" Mothma said as she approached, her cheeks uncharacteristically flushed. "I hear you've been telling the Control staff that Lord Vader is on his way - would you care to elaborate?"

The 'medic' shared a glare with his companion. "Yes, Ma'am. That is correct - Lord Vader is indeed enroute." He paused, momentarily uncertain - was he really about to tell her about Skywalker's lineage? That was treason, at least, and punishable with death (if he were lucky.) He again glanced at his companion, still uncertain. But it was too late now, wasn't it? And Vader would arrive in-system at any moment.

"Gentlemen," Mothma snapped, for the first time sounding truly angry. "Explain - succinctly, if you please."

He swallowed, thickly. Too late to back out, now. "As I'm sure Battalion has reported, Skywalker's ship was destroyed during the retrieval of Captain Solo. Lord Vader is aware that something has happened to Skywalker, and is on his way here, assuming Luke is still with you."

Mothma narrowed her eyes. "How could he possibly know that? Did you contact him?"

The 'medic' shook his head. "No... Vader knows because he has a connection with Luke."

"Go on," she pressed.

The 'medic' wet his lips. Absently, he wondered when 'Skywalker' had become 'Luke' to him. "Madam, if you recall, you had expressed some... doubt ... about Luke's explanation for his escape from Executor...."

"To the point, gentlemen, if you please."

He narrowed his eyes in irritation - he'd been trying to ease this, but he wasn't sure why he was bothering, really. This would still be a surprise for her, and to hell with easing the blow. Maybe she would take it with more composure than he was giving her credit for. "Lord Vader has a connection to Luke because Lord Vader is his father. In the Clone Wars he was known as Anakin Skywalker, before he changed allegiances - and changed his name."

There. It was said. The air had gone disturbingly still, and Mothma had gone deathly pale, but at least it was said. The 'medic' glanced at the 'pilot' again, who nodded at him.

"W-what?" Mothma finally responded. "But Anakin Skywalker is dead!"

"No, ma'am, he-"

"He was a hero of the Republic! A good man, a loyal Jedi - and most certainly not Darth Vader!"

The 'medic' sighed. So much for composure.

The 'pilot' interjected Mothma's shock. "He is, ma'am," the smaller man said, with surprising care. "And he may well believe his son has been killed. You need to start an immediate evacuation." He paused. "We know, however, that Skywalker was not killed in the battle - we recorded him being retrieved by the Imperial Forces, and transferred to another ship. We have a copy of the trajectory it took and-"

"Where is it?"

The 'pilot' stopped, taken aback by the ferocity of the question. "The shuttle computer-"

Mothma turned to the nearest guard. "Go get a computer tech - run. I want a copy of the data sent to Princess Organa before Vader can get here and intercept it."

The 'medic' frowned. "What? Lady Mothma-"

"Have you already transmitted that data to Vader?" she demanded, interrupting him with an impatient gesture.

"No, ma'am - with Executor still in hyperspace, we could not access the secure channel to Vader, and there are parties aboard his ship who would be keen to intercept any unencrypted message," the 'pilot' replied, hesitantly. And the 'medic' knew where that hesitation came from: he felt it himself, in the bitter dread in his mouth. Suddenly, he truly felt they'd just made a terrible decision by coming here.

"Good," Mothma replied. "Then perhaps we have something to bargain with, when Vader arrives - and we will discover whether you are telling me the truth." She fixed them with a stern glare. "What you are suggesting about Vader is... preposterous, to say the least."

The 'medic' pinched his lips together, to try and prevent the exasperated sigh that wanted to escape. Rebels: they were so distrusting. How could they ever hope to hold the galaxy together even if they could wrest it from the Empire? "It is the truth, ma'am," he replied.

"But you have no proof?"

And for a moment the 'medic' almost felt sorry for Mothma - a strange, cold sympathy: an empathy with her disillusionment. "Only our orders from Lord Vader, to keep his son safe. And Luke believes him, clearly."

A look of pain brief flickered over Mothma's face, shadowing her eyes. "So - Luke is aware of this... relationship... then?"

The 'pilot' swallowed thickly. "Yes, ma'am. He knows."

She took a shaky breath. "I would never have believed it possible... never have believed Anakin Skywalker would betray the Republic." She paused suddenly, and looked at them with a strange, wistful sadness. "No more than I would ever have believed that Luke Skywalker would have deceived us."

The 'medic' didn't know how to respond to that. The silence stretched, and he shifted his weight on his feet as he saw a tech come dashing through the far doorway, running towards them. Finally, the 'medic' opened his mouth to reply - although he wasn't certain what he was going to say - but a loud, blaring claxon beat him to it, shrieking through the air.

He shut his mouth. There was nothing left to say - Vader's fleet had arrived.

The static on the viewscreen contorted fluidly before resolving into an image. Vader crossed his arms, pushing back the rising surge of anger at seeing the two agents he had sent with Luke standing beside ex-senator Mothma. For her part, the woman merely inclined her head slightly.

"Lord Vader," she greeted, with a forced calm. "Thank you for responding to our call."

Does she really believe that grooming me with pleasantries will leave me any less inclined towards exterminating her fleet? he wondered, incredulously. He grimaced with disgust. "Save your pleas, Mothma," he said. "I am in no mood for your games. Where is Skywalker?"

She didn't look even slightly flustered by the question. She clasped her hands in front of her. "Your son was part of a battle group that was recently engaged by Imperial forces. His ship was-"

"You sent him into battle?!" Vader interrupted disbelievingly, too disgusted for the moment to pick up on the fact that she apparently knew of Luke's lineage. "He was recovering from psychic-shock!"

She blinked at him. "Indeed," she said. "After being in your custody rather longer than he led us to believe."

Whether it was the silent accusation that Luke had broken their trust, or the silent judgement on Vader for allowing the boy to contract psychic-shock that angered him more, Vader couldn't say. He leant closer to the pick-up. "Where is he?" he demanded.

"His ship was destroyed during the battle." She inclined her head towards the two silent men beside her. "Your spies recorded the battle on long-range scopes."

Vader felt something hard and painful clench in his chest, a full second's worth of searing pain. He had been trying to send the boy to safety by sending him to the Rebels.... He wanted to ask - needed to ask - if Luke had survived, but somehow the words wouldn't form. He knew Luke was alive; he knew it. The boy had to be, or there was nothing left for Vader. The pain of losing him... would be intolerable.

"He ejected and was retrieved by your forces," Mothma continued.

"They were not my forces," Vader said, almost to himself, somehow speaking around the painful surge of relief that washed through him.

"No, apparently not," Mothma agreed, placidly. "He was then transferred to a private cruiser registered to the Black Sun Corporation." She paused. "Your men tracked its trajectory and then brought that information back with them."

"Where was it going?" Vader demanded, focusing intently at the two spies he had sent with Luke.

Mothma interceded them, though. "I'm afraid I cannot give you that information without some guarantee that our forces will be allowed to leave this base unmolested."

Vader felt a lashing fury go through him - his son had been taken and she wanted to deal with the information Vader needed to track him down? He felt a glowering anger within him, a surge of pain and loss and dread.

He turned to the two men beside Mothma, both of whom were carefully expressionless. "Where did the ship go?" he asked, and when Mothma opened her mouth to intervene, Vader snarled and lashed out with the Force, driving a spear of energy across space, to the planet, and wrapping it around her throat. He could have killed her... just a little tighter and she would have died gagging for breath... but he didn't. Instead, he fixed his stare onto his two spies. "Where did the ship go?" he repeated.

The shorter of the two men swallowed thickly. "We tracked its jump out of the system, my Lord. Unfortunately, the Rebels have taken our master copy of that data... however I know they have already transmitted a copy to Princess Organa, with the returning battle group. They are still in transit and would not have received it yet. I-"

"You allowed them to take that information from you?" Vader hissed.

The man flushed. "My Lord, we thought that-"

Vader put up a hand suddenly, a thrill of... of something rushing through his blood. Something familiar, that he couldn't quite name. The spy trailed off into silence at Vader's gesture: Vader ignored him - stretching out to the Force, reaching for that tremulous feeling that had just passed over him. And felt... the Princess?

He hit the internal comm just as it started bleating. Piett's voice said, "Lord Vader?"

"What is it?" Vader asked. Though he knew: he already knew, even though he should not, logically, be able to recognise her presence.

"Several ships have just arrived in system," Piett said. "It appears to be a battle group of some form."

Vader nodded. The Princess, returning from battle without her vaunted hero - but with the information Vader needed to locate him. "Hail them," he hissed.

"Ysalamiri," the Emperor said, gazing around the room disdainfully. "Crude, but effective. Yes... yes, very effective: I see that your extended Force-blindness has taken a toll on you, young Skywalker."

Luke was still blinking back the bright light from his eyes, too dazzled to respond - too dazzled, and too busy trying to gather together the pieces of his shattered courage. He wanted to shift away from the Emperor, but he couldn't seem to move - his muscles had gone rigid with dread: too tense to even shudder with dread. He felt trapped, pinned by the amber glare of the Emperor's eyes. And, perversely, despite all the fear Luke felt raging through him, the old man smiled - smiled almost kindly.

Then his eyes went to Luke's hands, where they were bound above his head, a strange glint in his eyes. And Luke couldn't seem to rip his gaze from the Emperor's face - only in his nightmares had he ever thought he'd get this close to the Emperor, and it felt like the world was tilting under him, spinning slowly, as his mind struggled to keep up.

"I see that Prince Xizor has not treated you too kindly," the Emperor said, and Luke thought he recognised that odd glint in the other man's gaze as anger, though he couldn't be certain.

The Emperor must have sensed his stare, because he turned back to met Luke's eyes, sucking Luke back into the hypnotic gaze. The silence stretched, uncomfortable and suffocating. Luke swallowed, wincing at the pain in his throat. "You don't...." he started to say, but his throat was too dry - from fear and from too long without a decent drink - and he started to cough, his throat contracting with dry pain. He turned his head aside, and tried to work moisture into his throat, but it didn't work - the racking cough went on, straining the overstretched muscles of his ribs.

He saw the Emperor move away from him, and tried to capitalise on that - to draw more breath into his pained lungs, but that only initiated another racking cough. Angry with his body for failing him - for making him seem weaker than he must already appear, pinned against the cold wall - Luke clenched his hands futilely and threw his head back against the wall, struggling with his spasming throat muscles. It was mortifying, being incapable of answering the Emperor back - not even capable of throwing insults at the man, if that was all the ammunition Luke had.

A cold hand - Force! So cold! - touched his cheek and Luke lurched back instinctively from the deathly touch. The Emperor was crouched in front of him again, holding a full water bulb in one hand. Luke stared at it, almost hypnotised, and then groaned silently - there would be some price attached to that water, he knew. Some price he couldn't possibly pay, though his body yearned for the water. He could almost imagine it slipping down his throat... a dehydrated hallucination, almost comforting, because it felt so real....

The Emperor's gaze softened in what Luke might have imagined was compassion. Had he lost his faint hold on his sanity? Compassion, the Emperor? Ha! What a joke!

The water bulb was pressed to his lips and Luke reared back, pulling his head free from the Emperor's grasp. "No," he said, impressed that the words almost sounded comprehensible despite his barren throat.

The Emperor sighed. "Peace, my young friend. It is only water."

Luke shook his head. "I don't believe-" he started to say, but the racking cough overtook him again. When he'd finished, gasping for breath, the Emperor reached out and grasped his chin again, with surprising strength, and forced the water bulb to his lips. Luke tried to pull away, but already the soothing water was rushing down his throat, sweeping away that instinct the instant it hit his parched tongue.

He gasped, swallowing almost fitfully, expecting the bulb to be withdrawn at any moment, to be taunted with it. Because wasn't that what the Emperor would do - what the man that Leia and Mothma and his father had warned him about would do?

But he didn't; Palpatine let him drink the bulb dry, and then stood and withdrew to an almost respectful distance, smiling thoughtfully.

The Battalion slid out of hyperspace with too little haste for Leia's taste. She gripped the arms of the console chair, pinning herself in place and resisting the urge to stand and pace. Lando stood beside her, and she saw from the corner of her eye his hands cramping with impatience. The she heard his startled intake of breath and her gaze whipped around to the viewscreen.

She stared at it blankly for a few seconds, and then heard Lando's voice, calling for tactical reports. There was a few tense seconds of harried, shocked work from the bridge crew, during which Leia stood, pacing to the viewscreen, her breath freezing in her lungs. The Executor hung with lethal stillness above the planet, a hundred Rebel ships trapped between it and the atmosphere.

She turned back to Lando, feeling as if the image behind her back was pressing against her, as if the Dark Lord himself stood behind her, his hands heavy on her shoulders. Lando stared back at her, and she saw him swallow thickly.

There was something more than just shock in his eyes - in fact, it didn't look like shock at all; Lando didn't seem the least bit surprised to see Executor here, and Leia frowned. "You know, don't you?" she whispered.

He nodded. "Princess..." he started to say." I...." He shook his head, clearly not able to find the words to express whatever he was feeling - pity, disgust, or maybe something more complicated. Because Luke had been his friend, too, and like her he probably didn't know how he felt about discovering Vader was Luke's father.

She shook her head, resisting the part of her that wanted to just scream out loud. "Can you open a channel to Vader?" she asked.

He blinked at her, either surprised or wary of the suggestion, or perhaps both. Right now, Leia was struggling to separate what she was feeling from what everyone else was feeling. Her instinct for reading people, which had been so integral to her usefulness as a politician, was failing her. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Leia. I-"

"Sir!" someone broke in, their voice a shrill shattering of the tension. "We're being hailed!"

Lando turned, snapping his gaze away from Leia's. "From Barutte?"

The tech shook his head. "No, sir... from Executor."

Luke stared up at the Emperor warily. He suspected that now was the time for some brave and noble words, but he couldn't think of any. Instead he licked his lips, tasting the bitter metallic tang of the sore, cracked skin, and continued to stare at the Emperor.

In truth, he wasn't sure what he'd expected from Palpatine, but he was a little... well, under-whelmed, really.

Perhaps it was because the Force was lacking from both of them, or maybe Palpatine's fear-factor had been blown out of proportion by the Rebel propaganda he'd spent the last three years listening to... but the Emperor wasn't as he'd expected. He was shorter, for one thing. And not quite so sinister looking - ugly, yes, but not as vicious or malignant as Luke had been led to believe.

Luke shook his head. A logical part of his mind was well aware that Palpatine was no less dangerous than Luke had been led to believe. But, still....

"Whatever you're going to do, it won't work," Luke said, at last, for lack of anything better to say.

Palpatine nodded thoughtfully, and sighed. "Ah, the wisdom of youth... you may well be right, young Skywalker." He turned then, and moved to the single chair in the room, seating himself stiffly.

Luke frowned and shifted until he sat further upright, taking more of the weight from his wrists. He curled his hands around the bonds, wishing, not for the last time, that he could feel the Force again. He felt vulnerable like this - and yet, not really threatened. Not in the same way Xizor had made him feel threatened. And that was enough to spark his heart into a higher gear. Because he was pretty sure he wasn't supposed to feel more comfortable with Palpatine than with Xizor.

"I suppose... I suppose I may well have to accept the inevitable one day. But today is not that day," the Emperor said, folding his hands harmlessly in his lap. "I have worked with your father for many years. I cannot bear to lose him to this... this foolishness."

Luke narrowed his eyes at that. "He has broken free of your will, Palpatine. He'll never be yours again," he said, and felt a strange welling of hope in his chest - an odd relief at being able to say it: his father was free, even if Luke was not. His father was free.

The Emperor stared at him, long and hard, something cold flashing in his eyes. "And that pleases you does it, son of Skywalker, that your father will die for his foolish ideals?"

Luke's heart skipped fearfully. "He won't die," he said, automatically. "You can't touch him now."

A brief flicker of confusion passed over the Emperor's crumpled face. "It is not I who will kill him..." he said, trailing off before he straightened with apparent surprise. " He has not told you, has he, young one?"

Something kicked hard in Luke's gut at that. He's playing with me, Luke thought, but the idea fell away in his mind, overwhelmed by his rising agitation.

"Told me what?" Luke asked. His throat was dry again, and not through thirst.

The Emperor shook his head, and Luke would have sworn - would have sworn - he saw compassion there. "I have no intention of killing Lord Vader, Luke. I do not have to; he is already dying."

The forward viewscreen was split vertically into two channels - the left side showing Mon Mothma, who looked flushed, flanked by the two traitors Luke had brought back... and the right showed Vader staring down at her, almost looming out of the screen.

Leia spared a glance to the Council Leader, frowning briefly, before turning to Vader. "Lord Vader," she said, feeling the acid in her words. "I see it didn't take you long to get here."

The sound of Vader's breathing echoed across the comm channel. Leia felt a strange tingling sensation in the back of her mind, the hairs on the back of her neck standing upright - like she was standing too close to a live current, the energy sparking towards her. She closed her eyes, recognising the feeling of the Force - of Vader's touch in the Force - brushing against her. Faint memories drifted to her mind - the dark confines of an interrogation cell, the cloying presence of Vader looming over her, the black droid with its needles glistening in the red light....

"You know," Vader said, finally.

Leia opened her eyes, shoving aside the memories. "We figured it out... eventually." She paused. "But too late. What do you want, Vader? It's over - you have him."

Vader inclined his head slightly. "Were that true, I would not be here. I do not have him."

Leia frowned. "But he ejected during the battle. Your ships-"

Vader snorted. "Do you truly think I would send my own forces out against my son, have them destroy his ship and recapture him when I had already surrendered him back to you?"

There were a few hushed gasps around the bridge at that - at the 'my son', and the emotion behind the words. Leia blocked it out. She glanced sidelong at Lando, expecting to see her own disquiet reflected on his face. Instead, she saw him looking at her with an expression of stunned disbelief. He glanced to Vader, then back at her, his expression unreadable. Leia frowned at him, and Lando just shook his head. And what in hell did that mean?

"Alright," she said, turning back to Vader. "Then who?"

Vader stiffened visibly, as if bracing himself. "The Emperor," he said. "In league with Black Sun. My agents captured their movements - after you had fled the battle."

Leia winced inwardly at the implied accusation. She looked away - and looked at Mon and those two Imperials whose names she'd never even learnt.

"Leia," Mon said suddenly, her voice sounding strained, "we know where they've taken Luke. I had that information transmitted to you whilst you were in hyperspace."

She started at that, and glanced over at the comm station. After a pause, the comm tech looked up and nodded at her. The adrenaline surge that went with that information - they knew where he was! - made her feel briefly dizzy with hope. She turned back to the screen. "Good, we'll-"

"Wait, Leia - we cannot give Lord Vader that information. We have no guarantee of our safety if we hand over those coordinates before we have finished the evacuation."

Vader interrupted with a hiss of disdain. "I have no interest in your pathetic fleet. Transmit the coordinates and I will leave immediately."

Leia shook her head. "I'm not giving him that information at all. I'm not going to give Luke to him!"

Vader pointed a black-gloved finger at her. "You are in no position to make demands. You are outnumbered and your fleet is not battle-ready."

Leia hardened her gaze. "You destroy us and you'll destroy any chance of getting Luke back."

His stance never wavered, but Leia felt, somehow, the tremor of denial that went through Vader. "Your arrogance astounds me, Organa. Do you truly believe you can retrieve my son from the Emperor?"

"I will do what I must," she said, but inside she knew he was right. It was a wild hope - a foolish one. But what was the alternative? Give up on Luke? Or worse... give in to Vader?

"As will I," Vader replied, ominously.

Luke just stared, feeling his senses warp around him, the deck tilting beneath him, in shock and in instant denial. "No," he said. "That's not true. You're lying."

Sadness - grief - passed over Palpatine's expression. "I'm afraid not, young Skywalker. Your father has been dying since the moment he passed back to the Light. He-"

"No!" Luke said, though it sounded more like a cry of desperation than the firm denial he had intended. "He is... he's not... that's impossible! He was fine when I left him!"

The Emperor was shaking his head. The cowl of his robe slipped a little off his head, revealing more of his creased white skin and sunken eyes, but Luke was beyond the repulsion that briefly flickered in his gut. "He has been in that suit for many years, young Skywalker... since before you were born. But it is failing him... only the dark side could sustain him, and now that he has renounced that.... You were his only hope, young Luke. You. A father and son, linked through the dark side... you could have healed_ him, Skywalker. Healed him. But instead... alas... he has chosen death, to 'save' you from the dark side."

Luke couldn't breathe. His heart was up in his throat, preventing the air from getting through. He was dizzy, his mind stuttering over this new information and screaming in denial, silently - the scream unable to pass beyond the boundary of his thoughts, blocked as he was from the Force.

Father! he cried, but the words bounced around his mind, each impact unleashing a memory -

---Vader, sweeping into the Tallir detention block in a storm of righteous fury.... ---

---Vader, drawing him away from the pounding spray of the shower, calling for him with desperate concern.... ---

---Vader, brushing a thick towel over his wet hair, his mind brushing against Luke's as he did so.... ---

---Vader, sending him to safety, sending him away, telling him there would be more time for them, more time.... ---

Luke gasped, feeling his body contort in misery. His muscles spasmed as he did so, but he didn't care - he felt like he was burning, deep inside his chest.

"You're lying," he repeated, but the words felt hollow.

He felt rather than saw the Emperor approaching. "No... no, I am telling you the truth." A hand touched his hair and Luke pulled back, viciously.

"No - you want him dead. You attacked him, I felt it - I felt you trying to kill him!"

The Emperor laughed; a sad, dry sound. "I was trying to save him! To force him back to the Dark! But his love for you has clouded his judgement, and he would gladly die rather than see you turn to the dark side." The Emperor paused then, and Luke shuddered as he thought of Vader making that choice: of him sacrificing himself for Luke. It was dreadful, but loving. Caring, but unwanted. Luke wanted to scream at someone - at Vader, preferably.

"I never asked him to," he said, bitterly, and then wished he could bite back the words, because the Emperor had no business knowing what was in Luke's heart. Force, but to lose his father now.... Lost, found and lost again... Luke shattered at the thought of it.

"The dark side is powerful, Luke... very powerful. Long ago, a Sith Lord discovered the secret of keeping alive those whose bodies had failed them... I had hoped that Vader might one day discover that secret himself. But... he did not. Yet you... yes, you are powerful indeed. Whilst Vader's strengths lie in manipulating the Force - in brute power - you are much more in tune with it... you feel it, don't you, whispering to you? Yes, yes - I see that you do. I have felt your presence, across the galaxy, and you are strong Luke. The Force speaks to you louder than ever since you bonded with your father, does it not? Yes... and that is just a taste of what you could do if you allowed the dark side in." The Emperor paused, drawing in a shaking breath, apparently enthralled by his own words. "You could save him."

Luke stared at him, horrified and hypnotised at the same time. "I'm not that strong," he whispered.

The Emperor ran a cold hand over Luke's cheek and laughed, coldly. "This is no time for modesty, young Skywalker. Why do think I have not removed the ysalamiri? Because I would not want you to act rashly without considering the implications first - without knowing the truth."

Luke shook his head. "I...." He didn't know what to say. What could he say?

The Emperor drew in a long breath and stood. "You need time to consider this new information, I see. Good - your instincts will serve you well. You understand, of course, that I cannot remove the ysalamiri before you have made your decision. But... someone will remove your bonds - bring you food, water, something to wash with...." He smiled kindly. "Prince Xizor acted upon his own agenda in restraining you this way - but he will be suitably punished, I assure you."

Luke looked aside, unable to meet that stare. His father was... dying?

He heard the Emperor moving towards the doorway, his cane tapping slowly, in sharp contrast to Luke's racing heart. "Call for me, when you have decided," the Emperor said.

Luke looked up at him, searching for some sign of deceit or malice. But the Emperor's expression was schooled into a caring half-smile. "I have known your father for a very long time, Luke," the Emperor said. "He was a good friend, until he chose to sacrifice himself for you. For his sake... do not wait too long."

And then he turned and was gone, leaving Luke alone with his raging thoughts.

Lando's eyes flicked fitfully between Leia and Vader, his disbelief mounting. Father and daughter talked on - negotiating who was going to go after Luke, Lando supposed, though he wasn't listening: his hearing was drowned out by the deafening incredulity in his mind. Because the way they were talking - they didn't know.

Lando forced his eyes to stop their spasmodic movements and turned to Chewie. If it was possible for wookiees to look smug, then Lando was pretty sure that expression would look like the one Chewie wore now. Because the wookiee had guessed it, even if Lando had been initially sceptical - and he could hardly be blamed for his scepticism: just how cruel would Lady Luck have to be for Vader to be Luke and Leia's father?

It was such a ludicrous, monumental idea - you couldn't consider that kind of thing lightly, even if it did make a certain amount of tragic sense. But the big oath had been right all along and -


That meant he and Chewie were the only ones who'd put the whole story together. And someone had to tell Leia and Vader, didn't they? But... not him! A hundred different possible reactions from both the sith lord and the princess raced through Lando's mind, at breakneck speed - and none of them were pretty. Swallowing thickly, Lando crossed his arms over his chest and sent an 'I ain't telling 'em!' glare at Chewie.

The wookiee huffed disapprovingly, and Lando rolled his eyes. This was definitely not his responsibility though... and definitely not the time or place to just blurt out - 'by the way, did you guys know you're related?'

"- if you expect me to agree to slaving the Battalion to Executor's navigation system-"

"What?" Lando blurted out, the content of Leia and Vader's conversation finally penetrating his shock. "There's no way this ship is being slaved to anyone. Not whilst I'm in charge!"

Wrong thing to say, apparently.

Both Leia and Vader turned to stare at him; Leia with an icy anger that shot right through Lando's own incredulity at the suggestion, and Vader with... well, Lando had no idea what expression might be beneath the mask, but there was an eerie similarity between Leia's expression and Vader's. He swallowed, a flash of fear, most unwelcome, coiling in his stomach.

"Are you in charge of that ship, Calrissian?" Vader asked. Deceptively calm.

"Yes," Lando said, drawing himself up to his full height - which probably didn't impress someone like Vader very much, he knew.

"And if you... die...? I assume Princess Organa would take over the command?"

Lando glanced warily at Leia. "Well... yes, but I-" the words were cut off abruptly, as his windpipe contracted. Without air, without breath, he bent over and grabbed at his throat, as if he could remove the invisible fingers that were squeezing the life out of him.

"Vader!" Leia snapped. "Let him go."

Lando nodded jerkily, agreeing heartily with that demand. His chest muscles spasmed as his diaphragm tried - uselessly - to drag air into his lungs.

Vader tilted his head to one side, just slightly, as if examining a particularly unpleasant specimen with cool detachment. "You should realise, Organa, that any obstacle to retrieving my son will be removed - by any means necessary."

Leia flashed a look at Lando, one that the man couldn't begin to read - not with his vision swimming dizzily, his legs threatening to go out from under him. Just a whisper of breath was making it through to his lungs: just a thread of life. Either Vader wanted him to have a slow death, or -

"I've already agreed to allow you to assist me in retrieving Luke, Vader," Leia snapped. "Lando won't stand in our way."

He began to shake his head, trying to deny that, but the movement sent him a shade nearer unconsciousness and he stopped, staggering against a console.

Suddenly, the constriction was gone again, and he dragged in air, coughing. Leia was talking still, snapping words at Vader, something about a compromise - but Lando couldn't hear anything for the rush of blood to his head, the white noise in his ears.

He glanced up at Chewie. The wookiee stared back at him, pointedly.

... his love for you has clouded his judgement....

Luke swallowed thickly, feeling wretched. The words burned through him, the same words the Emperor had used, but now with a mocking tone, an accusatory tone.

He sighed, attempting to pull himself up off the floor - again. After the Emperor had left, several plainly dressed aides had come and untied him, brought him a bed, a portable 'fresher and a hot meal. But the first thing he'd needed to do once freed was to crawl over the 'fresher and throw up.

Horror still swamped his mind, and the nausea stayed with him even after several minutes of dry-retching. His throat felt raw. He needed a drink, but the food and water was on the other side of the room, by the bed, and he was damned if he was going to crawl over to it. He'd stand and walk over to it, even if it killed him.

Luke rolled onto his side, pushed off the floor, and winced at the cramping pain in his calves as he stood upright.

He'd tried this three times already, and each time his abused muscles had screamed in protest and he'd dropped back down into a boneless heap. His legs had refused to hold his weight after so long without nourishment or exercise. This time, though, they wobbled a little at first but then held firm, and Luke walked carefully to the portable cot that had been brought in for him.

He sighed as he lay down on it, groping for the water bulb that had been placed alongside. He drank as slowly as he could force himself to, well aware that if he drank too quickly he'd be back to retching over the 'fresher.

This was luxury compared to days of being bound against the wall. Now he had freedom to move around the small area, and fresh clothes; even his belongings had been returned to him - minus his blaster, naturally.

Of course, the amenities of the room were nothing compared to those in the quarters Vader had given him. But... well, right now the memory of his time aboard Executor felt cheap and unreal. As empty and untrue as Vader's promises of more time, more opportunities to meet again.

Amongst his belongings, tucked into a pocket of his flight-suit, was the datapad Luke had brought with him: the one with Vader's message on it. Luke's fingers itched to dig it out again, to reread it, but he almost couldn't bear to, lest he find something new in that message - something that effectively said 'goodbye'.

It was a crushing feeling. One that, the more he contemplated it, made him feel like throwing up again.

He was going to be orphaned.


And why? Because he refused to take the power offered to him; because he didn't want the hate or the anger or any of those emotions. He especially didn't want them anywhere near any relationship he could have with his father - and he'd thought he'd managed to avoid that - avoided hate and anger being the only emotions he could share with Vader.

... his love for you has clouded his judgement....

... and maybe it had clouded Luke's judgement, too. How had he ever allowed himself to believe in a happy ending for either of them?

He frowned, dropping the water bulb and throwing his arm over his eyes. He'd believed it because he'd thought Vader believed it, too. And Vader's silent determination, silent planning, had made Luke believe that things could, despite everything, work out just the way they needed them to....

Had his father been playing him for a fool all that time? But... he'd seemed so genuine... was Luke really that gullible? Had he been so blind?

Luke groaned, his stomach spasming again. He re-ran the events of the past weeks through his mind, hunting for a hint of deception. There had been a bond created between them; a deep, comforting connection - was that a lie, too? It would have to be, if Vader had been keeping something this dreadful from him.

Luke curled tighter around his cramping stomach, feeling wretched. Because even with hindsight, he couldn't see the deception. Maybe he'd sugar-coated his memories, but he couldn't see any point where he'd doubted Vader's intent. Disagreed with it, yeah - he'd done that a lot! And he'd doubted whether they'd manage it... but he'd never truly doubted his father's sincerity.

And a rebellious thought wormed its way into his mind - why should he start doubting it now?

Luke wasn't sure where the idea had come from - it just seemed to pop into his head. But the more he considered it, the more uncertain he felt. He knew he couldn't trust the Emperor. He knew it; knew it just as he'd known there was a spark of goodness in Vader. He knew it - but he also knew that if the Emperor was right, then he might be Luke's only chance to save his father.

Was Luke just reaching out in desperation for a reason to believe his father wasn't dying?

Yeah, maybe.

Luke rolled over, burying his face in the soft pillows. Now that the initial horror of the revelation was wearing off, he was feeling the exhaustion of his body. The adrenaline was gone, and it'd left him feeling cold and drained. The thoughts in his mind became less distinct, and he clutched the corner of the pillow in his hand, glad to surrender his worries to sleep.

Just as he was beginning to drift towards sleep, the headache that had taken up residence between his eyes dulling just enough to allow unconsciousness in, he saw something... a memory, murmuring in his mind...

"I don't want to come this far and lose you," Luke said, looking down in embarrassment. Oh, Force - Vader would surely despise that sentiment. And Luke didn't really know why he'd said it: he didn't really think Vader would let anything stand in their way, did he?

But, instead of the contempt he'd half-expected, he felt reassurance flood through him; a warm, comforting feeling seeping into his bones. "You will not," Vader stated simply, and with conviction.

"Are you sure?"

"Luke..." Vader said, pausing. "If everything in the future were certain, preordained by the Force, there would be no point in trying to make something of the chances we are given. Only the Emperor believes in a preordained future, and in the end that will be his undoing. Sometimes, it is better to simply trust our instincts."

- and Luke shot upright, the pillow tumbling to the floor and knocking over the water bulb. He stared at it, the spreading puddle of clear liquid over the metal floor - and something inside of him seemed to click into place. Because Vader had said:

"Sometimes it is better to simply trust our instincts..."

And even before that, back on Executor, when they'd parted, he'd told Luke:

"This is not the end, Luke. I have no intention of giving up so easily"

And Luke smiled - because he didn't have any intention of giving in easily, either.

"Lando? Are you okay?"

Lando glanced up at her, his expression startled. Clearly, he hadn't heard her enter the small ready-room, or heard her cross to the desk and cough discreetly, and she felt a flash of concern at that. She sat down in the chair opposite his. A big desk separated them, made of synthesised wood, polished to a high shine. It was absolutely empty, not even a lone datapad or a lamp upon it - which was an indication of just how rushed Lando's elevation to general had been. He didn't feel any more at home aboard this ship than she did.

"Princess..." he said, slowly. He didn't continue. She looked at him expectantly. Finally he coughed. "Sorry - throat's still dry."

"Are you okay?" she asked again.

He nodded. "Yeah. Don't worry about it. It's worth it for the honour of being the only man to come out alive from one of Darth Vader's choking games."

She couldn't raise a smile to the grim humour. "Lando..." she said, "do you think we've done the right thing?"

He blinked at her, before pursing his lips thoughtfully. She could almost feel him searching for the right words, which in itself made her stomach turn. "I don't know what else you could have done, Princess," he finally said. "Not without leaving Luke to... to whatever Palpatine has planned for him."

"That doesn't make me feel any better about this," she said.

"It wasn't meant to," he replied. She lifted her eyebrows at him. "Didn't think you were the empty reassurances type, Princess."

She smiled. "No, but a bit of hope would be nice."

He shrugged. He looked aside, to the viewport to his left. She followed his gaze. Outside, in the distance, there were ships moving against the face of the planet, the Rebels hurrying to complete their evacuation. Not until that was done, not until they were safe, would Leia agree to go anywhere with Vader. She knew the Dark Lord wasn't happy with that compromise, and she couldn't blame him.

She felt like she was betraying Luke with the delay - but, equally, she felt like she was betraying him by allowing Vader to help them at all. But, truthfully, what else could she do? The bright, painful truth was that she and Lando and Chewie were no match for Palpatine. If Vader was their only hope... well, then, so be it - even if her moral reasoning screamed at her that the man could not be trusted.

A shadow fell across the ready room, and moments later the underside of the Executor appeared, slicing through the view, blocking out the dull light of the planet. Leia swallowed around the hard lump of unease in her throat.

"What do you think, Lando?"

"To what?"

"To Vader - he seems sincere about wanting to help Luke...." she turned back to Lando, looking directly into his eyes. "Do you believe him?"

Something flickered in those eyes. Something nervous, but impenetrable. "What is it?" she asked.

He put his forearms on the polished desk, and Leia tried not to show that she'd noticed him wringing his fingers. "Princess..." he started to say, and stopped.

"What? What is it, Lando? Do you think he's tricking us?"

The man shook his head. "No - No, I think he's sincere. Luke must've trusted him, anyway."

Leia felt herself frowning at him. "What?"

"Well, if he didn't, he'd have done something about those two Imperials Vader sent back with him, wouldn't he? He wouldn't have allowed them near the base if he thought Vader had some ulterior motive." He paused, shifted his weight in his seat. The flicker of Executor's running lights played across his face. "I don't know whether to trust Vader or not. But I know Luke does. So I guess the question should be - do you trust Luke?"

She opened her mouth, about to reply 'of course' - but something stopped her. The words were frozen in her throat. She swallowed thickly. "He's always wanted to know his father... I just don't know....You know, after Yavin everywhere we went he was off searching for information about his Anakin Skywalker."

Lando snorted. "I can imagine that."

"There was one mission in particular when I nearly lost my temper with him over it," Leia said. "We were supposed to be trying to convert a small cell on Naboo into the Rebellion. It would have been quite a coup to have a cell right in the heart of the Emperor's home planet... but someone let slip the name 'Skywalker' and one of the Nubians recognised it - and Luke spent the entire time hounding the poor man about it. That was before Vader knew it was Luke who destroyed the Death Star... I was more worried that we'd let his name slip... but all Luke cared about was finding out what the man knew about his father."

Lando gripped his hands together, tightly, stilling the nervous movements. "What did he know?"

Leia shook her head. "He was too scared to tell us. He said Skywalker had visited Theed once - that's Naboo's capital city - and that was all he knew." She frowned at the memory. "I wonder if he knew more than that...." She trailed off. "Anyway. He was killed when the Empire found us trying to recruit there, so we never did set up that cell." She shrugged. "It just makes me wonder... it might not matter whether Luke trusted Vader or not - he'd probably trust anyone who he could call his father."

Lando was frowning. "Are you sure? If that was true, why didn't he go with Vader on Bespin? Why didn't he defect afterwards?" Lando paused. "I don't think he trusted him... not until he'd had to spend some time with him. Maybe he figured the guy wasn't so bad, once you got to know him."

Leia laughed at that. "He just tried to kill you!" she said.

Lando pinned her with a serious stare. "No - he just tried to scare me off. And that's light years away from trying to kill me."

"What are you saying, Lando?"

He grimaced. "I don't know. Just... I don't know."

Palpatine sighed, allowing the Force to wash through him. Those ysalamiri creatures were, for the moment, necessary - but to be denied access to the Force, even momentarily... he hissed with distaste.

The dark energy coiled to his touch, arcing through him, reviving him. He took a deep breath, allowing the energy to rush into him. He trembled; unaccustomed as he was to being without it, he had not realised just how sharp the bite of the dark side was, how his body both revelled in it and cried out against the ravaging energy.

This flesh... it was failing him. He could sustain himself indefinitely, but the task grew harder with each year that passed. And how long had he lived now? It felt both for just a moment and for millennia. Time meant little to him, not when the future called to him through his visions. He lived in the present, but his mind often strayed into the future. And of late he had been revelling in the promise of a young, vibrant apprentice who would outstrip Palpatine's hopes.

Ah, Skywalkers - really, where would the galaxy be without Skywalkers? It would be a far blander palace, with little sport or challenge for Palpatine. Thankfully, the Force had a sense of irony, and had created the Skywalkers to amuse itself. And Palpatine shared in that amusement, that irony. Because as the elder Skywalker had given himself to the dark side to protect his wife and child... so the child would give himself for the father... and, truly, neither had ever been in any danger of the fears that so plagued the Skywalkers' dreams. But fear... fear was a powerful master.

He laughed abruptly, the sound crackling out from his throat. The laugh echoed into the Force. Ah - that boy was all but his, now. The look of horror on his face, the grief - he would not resist the call of fear. Palpatine had foreseen it, and all that he foresaw came to pass.

"Your Highness?"

Palpatine narrowed his eyes, drawing his mind back to the room. Outside the viewport he faced, the stars seemed to dance in irritation at the interruption. "What is it, Xizor?"

He felt the Falleen's approach, but he did not turn. "Emperor, I have received word from my men about Lord Vader's ship."

"Yes, and?"

There was some hesitation in the lizard's voice. "They inform me that Lord Vader has interrogated one of my men... it is likely that he knows we have Skywalker here."

Palpatine clenched his hands in his robes, a murderous impulse flashing through his mind. "How did this happen?"

"My Emperor-"


The Falleen made a strange hissing sound - which might have been his species expression of fear, because certainly his Force aura was flooded with it. "I am not certain, Emperor. I believe the agent I sent to dispose of Governor Darasbt was caught and-"

Palpatine looked over his shoulder at the lizard, allowing his displeasure to show. The Falleen stuttered into silence. "You have failed me," Palpatine said.

"Emperor, I-"

"Where is Vader now?"

The Falleen's skin had turned a sickly yellow colour. "My agent informs me that he has sent the Executor and her flight group to the planet Barutte, in the Alaya system, sire. To the Rebels; it seems he has made a pact to-"

"What?!" Palpatine hissed.

Xizor did respond to that. Palpatine closed his eyes, hunting for the presence of his errant apprentice. But... the way was blocked. He raged silently, and snapped his eyes open again, glaring at the Falleen. "You have an agent left aboard Executor?"

"Yes, your Highness - I have several."

"Good. Have them destroy the ship," he hissed. Shocked rattled through the Force. Xizor was silent. Palpatine stared at him. "Is there a problem with that order, Prince Xizor?"

Xizor clasped his hands behind his back. "No, Your Highness. I...."

"Then do it. He is worthless to me now, and he cannot be allowed to defect."

"I'm not sure how-"

Palpatine hissed in irritation. "Even your incompetent men should be able to accomplish this. I have known for some time that Lord Vader's loyalties are compromised - I had my own men install a method of disposing of him and his crew should the need ever arise. All your foolish subordinates need do is trigger that device."

"All the crew, your Highness?" he asked uncertainly.

"You challenge me?"

The Falleen crept forward, bowed his head. "Never, my Emperor."

Palpatine wanted to laugh at the insincerity of the alien's gesture - wanted to laugh, or strike him down where he stood. Static energy danced between his fingertips. "His crew are no more loyal than he is - Admiral Piett never did respond to that information I sent him." Xizor looked momentarily puzzled. Palpatine smiled coolly. "And once you have sent your message, take us to Barutte - I would like to witness the destruction of Vader and his traitorous dreams."

"Yes, your Majesty," Xizor said, with false reverence.

Palpatine waved him out, smiling to his reflection in the viewport transparisteel.

Ah, but this would make young Skywalker's turning even sweeter, for once he had given himself to the dark side to save his father, the bitter horror of realising it was already too late would cement his turning through the hatred he would feel for his master. For Vader would already be dead. And the boy would have no one left to turn to.

As it had been with the father, so it would be with the son.

"Kill them, Prince Xizor," he hissed. "Kill them all."

His attempts at meditation were proving fruitless. Settled into the cool silence of his meditation pod, the confusion and apprehension of the outside world closed out, Vader still could not reach the depth of contact with the Force that would divorce him from the frustration of this intolerable delay.

Inwardly cursing with exasperation, Vader released his mental touch on the energy and came back to solid, human awareness with a hiss of barely stifled agitation. He curled his fingers around the chair arms, biting back the anger.

Somewhere out there, at a location only the Rebels knew, was his son. His son who, even as Vader sat tearing himself apart with frustration, remained in the hands of Palpatine. How long could the boy hold out? What games would Vader's former master play with Luke? Vader closed his eyes, a myriad of possibilities flitting through his mind unformed - unformed because he dare not concentrate on them lest he lose control of his tightly leashed anger. Not when that anger had, for the moment, no agreeable target to unleash itself upon and could only be self-destructive.

But when Palpatine was within striking distance... Vader smiled coldly. His wrath would be unrestrained. Palpatine had to die - both for practical purposes and for Vader's own. To finally, irrevocably sever the bond of ownership Palpatine had held him to for so long. To proclaim his freedom, preserve his sanity. To reclaim his son.

But if whilst Vader was forced to wait for that chance, anything should happen to Luke...

Vader forced his fingers to uncurl from the fists that were crushing the arms of his seat. Finger by finger, he willed the tension away and let out a disgusted breath. To think, the Rebels were supposed to be Luke's friends. Some friends they had proved to be! They only solidified Vader's belief that friendship could lead to nowhere but betrayal and anger. Couldn't they feel time draining away from them, as Vader felt it - as if the blood were slowly leaking from his body, his hopes punctured?

Obviously not. Although they worshipped the Jedi, the Rebels did not understand the Force itself and clearly could not hear the hammering urgency that it pressed against Vader's mind. Just a fleeting touch of that energy had Vader ensnared in visions of the future that were growing increasingly confused and muddled, offering little advice or solace. The Force seemed to be in turmoil, screaming at him in a voice so loud and urgent Vader couldn't make out the words.

In agitation, Vader flicked the pod to lower his helmet and cycle open. There was little for him here, other than inpatient anguish and spiralling nightmares. It would be another five hours before the Rebels were ready to depart, and if he continued like this then by the time those hours had trickled past he would have destroyed either himself or his crew.

He rose from the pod, turning to stalk across the room, the agitated energy bouncing around the confines of his mind. Vader's hand hovered over the hilt of his saber and he narrowed his eyes. Perhaps he need not expel this lethal energy on either himself or his crew - perhaps a dozen training droids would suffice. Or two dozen. Or as many as it took for him to forget that his son was in mortal danger and he, with all the might of the flagship of the Imperial Navy at his call, could do nothing but... wait.

Piett pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, listening with only half-concealed disinterest to the captain's report on the Rebel evacuation. Everything was going precisely to plan. All was proceeding as had been agreed. There had been no attempt to deviate from the plans by either side. The Rebels were keeping their word, as Executor and her fleet were keeping theirs. And Piett was left waiting for something to go wrong, his somewhat surreal bemusement at the situation mounting. Perhaps he should just accept that, counter-intuitively, maybe nothing was about to go wrong - that maybe both groups had too much at stake in this compromise.

He turned to the captain, realising with chagrin that the man had finished speaking and was waiting for a response. "Thank you, Captain," Piett said, nodding. "Continue to monitor the situation."

"Sir?" The man looked perplexed.

"Contact me if you need me. I will be in the ready room."

"Sir?" he said again, more incredulously this time as Piett turned on his heel and walked away.

"The bridge is yours, Captain."

He walked through the entrance to the ready room, passing by the drinks station and ordering something hot and strong, and sat down at the desk with a sigh that turned into a quickly strangled bubble of laughter.

How had it come to this? Collaborating with Rebels, traitors against the Empire? And yet... in truth... Piett was not greatly surprised that they were here. Nor did he regret throwing their lot in with Vader. Should they all die fighting the Emperor, then Piett at least would die without regret for the fact that, in the end, he had chosen Darth Vader - or perhaps more accurately, Anakin Skywalker - over the Empire.

Anakin Skywalker. Piett shook his head, his hands suddenly itching for the information that anonymous spy had delivered to him about his commander. He'd read only a fraction of it and the experience had been somewhat unreal - like the years had fallen away from him, taken his cynicism with them, and he was a teenager again, marvelling in stories of heroes beyond his reach.

He frowned, the humour dying quickly as he lowered his caf back to the table. Because those were stories that had never been meant to be told again, and as he recalled them now Piett felt a clawing anxiety in his chest that he couldn't place. Who would have had access to them? Not one of the Navy's spies, surely, and if they had it was unlikely they would have brought such information to Piett rather than Vader. Piett narrowed his eyes, seeing his face in the reflection of the plexiglass viewport, his expression grim and old. Too old to be this blind.

For who could possibly have sent him that information? Who would have had access to them - except, perhaps, the grand storymaster of them all?

Piett reached for a button on the console. "Locate Darth Vader," he instructed it. A message flashed up - the Dark Lord was in his private training salle, non-communiqué. Piett pinched his lips. Who would dare interrupt Vader whilst the Sith was training? And for what - for the sake of a hunch? He smiled grimly at his reflection and stood.

Who would?

He would.

Luke glanced at the door again, but the noise he thought he'd heard could only have been his imagination working over-time. Shaking his head, he went back to his exercises - stretching out the ache of days, mobilising himself. He smiled, feeling the life returning to his limbs, watching the door all the time.

How long before Palpatine grew tired of waiting for Luke to beg him to return? Luke had no idea - but he planned on using the time to regain some energy. He locked his hands together, held out his arms and stretched, easing the muscles awake. He closed his eyes. How long now? He had no idea - but he was ready.

Leia turned away as the docking bay door closed with a muffled sighed. She sighed herself, heard her breath hitch with too much emotion. Lando smiled at her thinly. She smiled back - thinly. Because Han really would be safer aboard the medical frigate. The shuttle that had just left with the carbonite block that encased him would deliver him to that safety: the medics would be far more likely to wake him unharmed than Leia or Lando were. But, still... she shook her head, then shook out her hands, trying to dispel the nervous energy that tingled in her fingers.

"Not long now," Lando said, from where he'd paused to watch the Rebels' retreat through a viewport.

Leia nodded.

Xizor paused outside the door to Skywalker's cell, his hand hovering near the activation plate. He could feel his pulse beating rapidly against the skin of his palm. The order had been given. Now he had but to wait: wait and Vader would be dead, and then Skywalker could die, too.

But not yet. Not yet. With determination, he dropped his hand and stepped away.

Not yet - but soon.

The 'medic' turned away from the view, from the image of the Battalion shrinking slowly into the distance. As he turned, he met the unsettled gaze of the 'pilot'. He shrugged minutely and, feeling uncharacteristically ill at ease, turned back to the view. He narrowed his eyes as they passed the Executor, as movement somewhere near the hull of the ship caught his eye. Or... perhaps that hadn't been the movement of a vessel near the larger warship, but a burst of gas, gossamer-thin, rising from the surface and then quickly dissipating. Or maybe not - it was come and gone so quickly.

"What is it?" the 'pilot' asked.

The 'medic' shook his head. "Probably nothing," he said.

Mon Mothma sipped at another hot drink, wincing as she swallowed and the bruised inner muscles of her throat protested at the movement. She listened with only half an ear to the conversation the generals were having about securing a rendezvous point. Her mind was elsewhere, back in time, thinking about a noble young Jedi Knight who had seemed to her and many of her peers to be one of the few truly noble men to have emerged during the Clone Wars. Thinking too of the knight's son, who had seemed to be that martyr reborn - their hope reborn.

She sighed and took another drink, allowing the pain of her bruises to wipe away the unwelcome melancholy that had settled in her mind. All these years they had fought in the memory of knights like Skywalker - and all those years, those memories had in reality been their enemy.

"Perhaps a totally new destination is required," someone said behind her.

And she agreed, silently.

Former governor Darasbt's eyes stared at the wall, but they were unseeing. His ears heard the quick, repetitive click of machinery, the monotonous beep of monitors, but he barely registered the sounds. His skin felt raw where the restraints held him to the bed, where his skin was sore from lying in one position too long. His eyes saw the white walls of the room, the med droid methodically following its protocols, the cold medical lights flashing off its casing.

A human doctor approached. "Well?" the man asked.

"He continues to deteriorate," the droid said, with neither compassion nor malice. Perfunctory.

"How long?"

"Not long, sir. Hours, perhaps."

The man nodded. Darasbt tried to nod with him, but no muscles responded to his mental order. At last, he thought, not long now.

Piett put his palm up to open the door - and hesitated. This intrusion was unsanctioned, and there was a chance that Vader might just strike him down where he stood. Yet he needed to discuss his suspicions with Vader before they left in pursuit of Skywalker. He reached up again - and hesitated again. There was also a tingle of curiosity driving him on, a foolish curiosity that he should not submit to. But few aboard had ever seen Vader's Force skills unleashed, and Piett couldn't help but wonder what he would find beyond this door.

Piett shook his head - that was a childish reason to want to enter the room, and certainly not a good enough one for a fleet admiral. He pushed back the unwanted curiosity, and hardened his mind with military concerns. If Vader killed him for this intrusion, then so be it - he was merely carrying out his duty.

Piett palmed the door open and entered. And caught his breath.

Vader was moving through a line of battle droids, dismembering them one by one as they attacked. Piett hesitated in the doorway, horrified and awed, and it wasn't so much Vader's skill that made him stop and stare, but the aura of control that radiated off the man. The movement was liquid and graceful, defying Vader's size and bulk, and the Dark Lord seemed to have wrapped himself in energy. Piett closed his eyes, and tattooed on the insides of his eyelids he could still see Vader moving, controlled and powerful, lethal.

The door slid shut behind him with a quiet whoosh and Piett opened his eyes again. When Vader didn't stop - didn't give any indication that he'd either noticed or cared about Piett's intrusion - the admiral hesitated, hovering in the entranceway. He had a feeling that interrupting Darth Vader right now would most certainly be a mortal error. And he wondered what another Force sensitive would have seen if they'd been present in the salle, then - what Skywalker might have seen.

Eventually the fighting stopped, the last of the droids collapsing into a heap of disparate parts with comical listlessness. And Vader had stopped and was staring at Piett. Just... staring at him, lightsaber still lit. Piett swallowed thickly and stepped forward.

"I distinctly remember ordering that I should not be interrupted," Vader said, narrowing his gaze on Executor's admiral. His lightsaber hummed threateningly in his hand.

The admiral gave a neat nod and took another step forward. "Yes, my Lord. However something has come to my attention which I believe you need to be made aware of before we depart."

A flair of anxiety erased Vader's irritation, sweeping it aside easily. "About Luke?"

Something unreadable crossed the admiral's face at that name - Vader's anxiety clawed up another notch and he stepped forward to meet the man halfway.

Then Piett shook his head. "No, my Lord. Although it is probably a related matter." The man paused. Vader waved his hand impatiently. "I recently received-"

The admiral's words came to a stop as the training salle was suddenly plunged into darkness. "What-?" Piett said, but Vader ignored him, moving swiftly into a ready position with the saber - only for the lights to flicker back on, revealing nothing but the salle and its carpet of droid parts.

Vader fixed Piett with a sharp glance. Piett returned it, reaching for his comlink. "Bridge. This is Admiral Piett. What just happened?"


"We lost power in Lord Vader's private wing," Piett said, and Vader tuned out their conversation, reaching to the Force for answers. Something had... changed. He could feel it, in the whisperings of the Force. But what it was... he shook his head in dismay. "Local disruptions?" Piett was saying. "Of what nature?"

Vader turned and started striding for the doorway. "My Lord?" Piett called after him.

"We need to get to the bridge," Vader replied, snapping the words, flicking off the saber and rolling it in his palm before reattaching it to his belt. "Something is not right here..."

He heard Piett's footsteps behind him, hurrying after his longer gait. The admiral followed him into the turbolift, still talking on the comlink to a confused officer. Local disturbances across the ship, all minor in nature. Power fluctuations. A sense of urgency and impending... something... dragged at Vader's patience. This is Palpatine's work, he thought, murderously, as the lift began its ascent.

"And the cooling control system is offline-" the officer was saying, before his words were smothered by the sudden sound of tearing metal, then a violent popping noise, then a screaming wind, and then - nothing. Vader whirled, reaching out instinctively for the comlink - but the line merely hissed with static now, Piett shouting for a response, and Vader reached out with the Force instead and felt...

"They are dead."

The echo of a hundred instant deaths shuddered through him - the image of shattered transparisteel, of the cold touch of vacuum, of bodies ripped apart by the sudden collision of pressures. He closed his senses to it.

"The bridge has been breached."

The last word was not yet finished when the lift came to a sudden, jarring halt. Piett fell against the wall, Vader held his ground. The lights died. He reached for his saber again, flicking it on. The sound of the blade hummed in the enclosed space, the light blood-coloured. Piett looked up at him, his expression filled with anger, not a trace of fear. Distantly, Vader acknowledged the man's gall.

Reaching across, Vader cancelled the command for the lift to take them to the bridge.

"Emergency power should engage soon," Piett said, straightening, "once the auxiliary bridge is initiated."

"We do not have time for that," Vader said, unnerved by the prophetic tone his voice had taken on. He reached up with the lit blade, driving it into the metal ceiling. A shower of sparks from the cables fell down upon them; Vader stepped aside as the circle of durasteel fell to the floor.

"Sir," Piett was saying, "if we wait just a moment-"

"There is no time," Vader growled, and, with a strange, unpalatable sense of deja vu, leapt up through the liftcar ceiling.

Leia jerked awake, already moving to her feet before her consciousness could catch on to the fact she was alert and moving into an instinctive, defensive posture. To meet a foe that... wasn't there. She looked around herself in confusion - only the empty command room looked back at her, the chair she had fallen asleep in turning slowly on its axis.

She reached across and stopped the slow spin, frowning. Behind her the door opened, and light and noise burst into the room. "Leia!" Lando shouted, and then stopped when he realised she was already awake and alert.

"What is it?" she asked, feeling her stomach drop at the look of urgency on his face. "What's happened?"

Piett stared up at where his commander had disappeared, the edges of the hole still sparking with residual energy. "Ah-" he started to say and then stopped, uncertain what he should be doing. With the main bridge gone - which was an unthinkable thought, and yet his military training appeared to have kicked in full-throttle, and he felt little more than tight determination at the notion - the automated auxiliary bridge should have become operational mere seconds afterwards.

Clearly, however, it had not. In Piett's mind's eye he could imagine Executor sailing on through the darkness of space, directionless suddenly, her command deck open to the space.

"Admiral?" Vader's voice asked, snapped demandingly, and Piett looked upwards to see Vader's helmeted face staring down at him, his arm outstretched through the hole. Piett swallowed thickly. "Quickly, Admiral," Vader said, gesturing with his hand.

Piett nodded neatly and, reaching upwards, he grasped hold of Vader's hand and arm. The bigger man pulled him up with apparent ease, through the tight hole and into the cold, echoing space of the lift-shaft.

"The auxiliary bridge-"

"Twenty-three levels up, then we shall have to cross to a more direct lift shaft," Vader replied, already reaching for the first rung of the narrow maintenance ladder that ran the length of the lift shaft. "Wait for my call. I shall levitate you up once I reach the top."

"That won't be necessary, sir," Piett said, an unexpected, burning determination in his heart. Despite the loss of the bridge crew, despite a multitude of unanswered questions, here was what he had been trained for. "I can make it up myself."

Vader regarded him silently for an unending second, before nodding and beginning a rapid climb up the ladder. Piett grasped the first rung and began following, struggling to keep pace with Vader's inhuman speed. Below them, the marooned lift-car sat idly, the last of the sparks dying into nothing.

"Did we do that?" Leia asked, pushing back the instinctive, numbing surprise that had flooded her mind.

"No, Ma'am," someone said. "It just... blew up."

Leia didn't meet the man's eyes to acknowledge the reply - she couldn't take her gaze off the image of Executor sailing through space, the stump where the bridge had been glittering with residual fires that were quickly being extinguished by the vacuum.

"Princess!" someone yelled shrilly, fearfully. Leia blinked and turned to them, but before she could demand to know what the latest disaster was, the need for words was gone, and the question died in her throat. On the tactical screen, the Imperial fleet was moving.

"How long until they're in range?"

"The Refutable and the Discovery will be in firing range in seven minutes," someone told her. An ensign, holding onto his wits with admirable courage. "Their targeting systems are online and ready." He paused. "The Imperial gunships are following them, Princess." He turned to her, death in his eyes. "The whole fleet is turning, Ma'am. Into battle positions."

Leia felt desperation kick at her chest. She glanced at Lando, who was frantically calling into the communication's system. He looked at her, shook his head. "No answer."

As she watched, the Rebel ships began to scatter from the sudden threat, accelerating away in small groups, and the Imperials matched them move for move, chasing. The truce, short and uneasy as it had been, had collapsed. But with Executor suddenly out of action, the match was far more even.
Leia closed her eyes, looking for answers inside her mind. To her surprise she felt a chill, numb horror lurking in her thoughts. And not from what this meant for Luke, but something more... She shook her head, confused by that unwelcome disquiet. The destruction of Darth Vader and the Executor should have been a cause for celebration. And yet something inside of her, an alien and unacknowledged part of her, ached at the thought.

But they didn't have time for her to dwell on her strange distress. They were isolated from the rest of the Rebel fleet, with Imperials closing rapidly. And, truly, the choice that had been so hard was no longer hard at all - the decision about whether to accept Vader's assistance was mute now.

She sighed. "Pilot, turn us around and prepare to jump to hyperspace on the pre-set co-ordinates."

"Aye, Ma'am."

Lando was looking at her with something more than just urgency in his eyes now. He glanced at where Chewie was sitting at the weapon's console; the wookiee howled something Leia could not catch, but the emotion behind it did not seem to fit the situation. She narrowed her eyes at them.


"Ten minutes to hyperspace," the pilot stated, calmly, despite the Star Destroyer thundering after them.

She nodded at him.

"Leia," Lando said. "What if Vader isn't dead?"

"Then he soon will be," she bit back, out of the corner of her eye watching the beleaguered Executor lumbering on, jettisoning broken bodies and durasteel in her wake. "He can't help us now."

Lando pressed his lips together. Chewie howled again, and rose, lumbering towards her and taking her by the arm. "What!" she said, but was cut off as the wookiee roared in irritation and dragged her towards the command room, grabbing Lando's shirt with his other fist and hauling him along too.

"Nine minutes to hyper-" The pilot's words were severed by the closing of the door. Chewie yowled meaningfully at Lando. Lando nodded, turned to Leia.

"Princess," he said. Leia just stared at him, trying to look indignant, but within her chest her heart had accelerated and she could feel the blood draining from her cheeks at the serious expression on his face. "Leia," he started again, "if there is a chance that Vader is alive then we can't leave here without him."

"What?" she said, incredulously, but her heart was hammering with expectant anxiety, "For Luke? Luke is better off without a father like that!" The words were automatic. They seemed to hang in the air, full of mistruth.

"Not just for Luke," Lando said. "For you."

"Me?" The word echoed shrilly. She swallowed around the lump in her throat. That anxiety was peaking.

"For you... Leia, Luke is your brother." She just stared at him, all out of words. "Your brother," Lando said again, as if he thought she couldn't have heard him the first time, she was so silent and unmoved. And then, for good measure, as if he said it just to make sure she understood the implications of what he was telling her, "Vader is your father, too."


No words. She turned away, and her stomach lurched. She bent over, pressing back the instinctive retching with iron desperation. Executor was visible in the reflection on the polished table, the beleaguered hulk moving slowly.

Leia shook her head minutely. "How?"

"It makes sense," Lando said gravely. Which was no explanation at all. Or maybe he hadn't understood her question.

"What do I do now?" she said. Because, for some strange, unreachable reason, the surprise that was going through her was just a barest trickle, a wash of incredulity that was directed at herself - for not realising it sooner when Lando and Chewie had clearly worked it out hours, perhaps days, earlier.

"That's up to you," Lando said, running a hand through his hair. He shrugged, and went silent, perhaps realising that any words he offered now would be inadequate.

"I..." She closed her eyes. Inside the darkness of her mind, she saw the image of Vader reaching out for her. Heard his words from their earlier conversation, echoing with a humanity she was uncertain whether she had attributed in memory, out of desperate need for someone or something to sway her decision, or if it had been there all along.

"Turn us around," she said, and it sounded more like a prayer than a command. "Take us back."

Lando was moving then, running for the door as Leia clawed for the breath that didn't seem to want to make it from her mouth to her lungs. "Cancel the hyperspace jump," he shouted to the pilot.

"But, sir-" she heard, as if from a long way away, as if underwater, "our pursuit."

"Take evasive action!"

Then he was back in the room, the door closing. The sounds of the bridge were shut out, the silence falling in. Lando smiled at her, minutely. It's the right decision, his eyes seemed to say. Leia turned aside, letting a bitter tear slip, unseen, from her eyes. "I know," she whispered.

"Is the decision so difficult, young Skywalker?" Palpatine asked, his tone saddened, as he stepped through the doorway. "Is your father not worth your loyalty?"

As the door closed behind the Emperor, Luke stood from his cot, his body flushed with sudden, expectant energy. This was it - Palpatine had finally grown tired of waiting for Luke to ask for him to return. If Luke could overpower Palpatine now, whilst he was cut off from the Force.... He tried to keep his facial expression neutral, but inside his gut was churning and his body was strung tight with tension. In the back of his mind was a memory of Han slapping him on the back and telling to give up on his appalling Sabacc face. He pushed it firmly aside.

"Every hour you waste on the cowardly philosophy of the Jedi is another hour your father grows closer to death," the Emperor continued.

He studied Luke for a few silent moments as he walked towards him, his expression carefully schooled into one of concerned sympathy, his hands tucked into the wide cuffs of his robe.

But underneath that expression... Luke almost imagined that he could see the shifting, cunning thoughts flickering through Palpatine's amber eyes.

"My father would have told me if he was ill," he said, feeling the urge to give ground, to back away from the Emperor's approach. He took a step backwards, drawing the Emperor further away from the entrance. "Why should I trust you over him?"

Palpatine regarded him with that same calm, sympathetic expression. "He only wanted to protect you, I imagine."

Luke shook his head.

"From what? From the truth?" he asked incredulously.

Palpatine arched a pale eyebrow at that. "From the dark side," he replied, a sharp edge in his voice. "From the consequences of allowing your power to save him."

Luke affected a confused expression, taking a step sideways. Palpatine followed him, almost stalking him, and Luke turned slightly, still trying to get the Emperor as far from the door as possible, his heart thumping in his chest.

"The dark side can provide you with the power necessary to save your father," Palpatine said. "With your combined efforts, you might give him several more years. But..." Palpatine sighed sadly. "But... the dark side has its price."

Then he removed his hands from the wide cuffs of his robe and reached up, hooked his fingers around the fabric of his hood and lowered it. Luke tried to strangle the gasp of disgust, but he couldn't quite quench the instinctive horror at the deformity of the figure before him.

Palpatine's gaze flashed knowingly and he sneered at Luke's reaction. "Does this face disgust you, boy? It should. This is the power of the dark side, young Skywalker. This is what your father is sacrificing himself for - to protect you from becoming as we have become, simulacrums of our old selves."

Luke was trying not to listen to the Emperor's words, but there was a tight knot of anxiety in his chest, and a tightening around his throat, at the persuasion in the Emperor's voice.

"You..." Luke started to say, but Palpatine stepped closer, his expression intense.

"With great power comes great sacrifice, boy. Vader cannot stomach the sacrifice, but refuses to lose his power. To him, you are everything he used to be... and can never be now, after Kenobi's mutilation of him. But you... yes... you, I think, can see clearer than Vader. You must choose whether his life is worth your sacrifice."

Luke pressed his lips together, trying not to listen. This was all a lie: he knew that. He knew it. A trap appealing to the side of him that Han called his 'hopeless-martyr streak'. But something niggled in the back of his mind, something worrying that Palpatine might be right. That maybe his father was wrong - maybe there couldn't be a happy ending for them. Maybe they couldn't know each other as father and son, not without some sort of compromise on their ideals.

Luke narrowed his gaze on Palpatine. "All I have to do is use the dark side, and my father lives?" he said. "It can't be that simple. I don't believe you."


"No," Luke said - and with a desperate sincerity that was only half-acting.

His voice suddenly sharper and more vicious, Palpatine snapped back, "Then let him die, through your cowardice."

Luke took a quick step backwards, and Palpatine followed. Luke's fingers curled slowly towards his palm, yearning for action. He couldn't listen to this anymore, or he might just start to believe it. He had to act, if only to silence the lies. But he could feel the fear churning within him now. If he acted, if he struck out in anger even though he couldn't feel the Force - would that still tempt the dark side?

Palpatine stepped closer and when the man reached out a hand towards him, Luke reacted by pulling away. They were in the centre of the room now, away from the entrance and in probably the best position Luke would get for overpowering the older man... and Luke couldn't listen to him any more.

As Palpatine leant forward Luke moved, reaching out and grasping the bony forearm, using the man's forward momentum to pull him off-balance even as Luke shifted aside to come up behind him.

But for all his age and his crippled appearance, the Emperor reacted with lightening reflexes, shifting out of Luke's grasp, the fabric of his cloak slipping from Luke's hand as easily as sand through his fingers.

Luke's perception of time slowed as the Emperor turned towards him, his mind fumbling with the thought that he'd made a horrible mistake - he'd acted out of fear, and lost control of the situation almost as soon as he'd initiated it.

And now the mask had dropped from the Emperor's face, the expression of concerned interest twisting into something dark and malevolent.

Vader slowed as they approached the access to the correct level, a burst of Force-power buckling the doors and throwing them to the floor of the corridor beyond, the impact echoing down the empty lift-shaft.

It had taken far too long to reach this point. They had been forced to cross the central girth of the ship, swapping lift-shafts three times before reaching a point at which they could access the entry to the auxiliary bridge.

Although there were sound reasons for having the auxiliary bridge so far from the main bridge, Vader chafed at the delay. Their passage through the ship had given him little indication of what had happened on the bridge - although there was a sense of confusion and chaos about the ship now.

The peripheral systems - including the lights and door mechanisms - had shut down, effectively trapping the crew where they had been at the point of detonation. By now the automated systems of the auxiliary bridge should have taken control. The system's artificial intelligence should have been triggered as soon as the main bridge had been destroyed. By now the computer should have been working on safeguarding those left aboard, including ensuring the basic systems - life support, communications - remained accessible. The fact that it hadn't done any of that lead Vader to suspect that this was more than an attack on the bridge - this was something much bigger than that. Something connected to Palpatine - and to Luke.

That unpleasant idea sent Vader's thoughts spiralling back towards his son. If this was Palpatine's work, if Palpatine had done this to Executor - what was he doing to Luke?

Fruitless anger tightening his gut, Vader gripped the top rung of the ladder and leapt up into the lit corridor - one of the few places where the lights still worked, which gave him a faint hope that the auxiliary bridge's protected power source might still be fully functional after all. Although that didn't explain why it had not switched on the emergency systems when the bridge was breached.

A junior officer jogging along the intersection a little further on from the lift bank skidded to a halt when Vader landed in the corridor. The man stared at him a moment, his eyes and mouth wide open. Vader heard rather than saw Piett emerge from the lift-shaft and pull himself up into the light.

When the officer finally found his voice, it was filled with surprise. "Lord Vader!" he stuttered. "Admiral!" he added when he eventually spotted Piett.

Vader started forwards. "We were not on the bridge when it was attacked," Vader told the man succinctly, anticipating the question and in no mood to delay. He strode forwards, his Force senses racing ahead of him.

"We were... working here when everything shut down," the officer said, hurrying to follow.

Vader sensed another man nearby, near to where he estimated the auxiliary bridge entrance to be. "Then why have you not accessed the auxiliary bridge?" he asked, turning briefly to read the officer's name-badge. Baxter. Lieutenant Baxter. The name meant nothing to him.

The lieutenant shook his head. "We have tried, my Lord, however the entrance controls are not responding to our commands."

"Not responding?" Vader asked, still moving.

"We're locked out," the lieutenant said, and when Vader turned to face him the man had the grace to look bashful.

"I see," Vader said at last, and finally they were at the entrance. The man kneeling at the controls turned and looked up at them in surprise. He was wearing a tech uniform. He'd half-dismantled the locking mechanism and was attempting to splice his way into the controls.

"Lord Vader!" the tech stuttered. Vader waved aside his surprise.

"Have you accessed the mechanism?" he asked the man.

Still on his knees, the slighter man shook his head. "No, my Lord. I can't get it to acknowledge our authority." He paused. "But I have managed to get the lights working."

Vader snorted at that. Piett stepped up beside him. "Perhaps a more direct method is required, sir," he said, and glanced at Vader's belt.

"Agreed," Vader rumbled.

He pulled the saber from its clip and lit the blade. The technician blinked up at him in fear, swallowing thickly. He tensed as Vader approached, perhaps expecting death for his failure, but Vader ignored him and plunged the blade into the top corner of the durasteel door. It met with substantial resistance, but the metal around the blade began to glow, melting slowly.

Mon Mothma sat flanked by the Alliance's senior generals, watching on a viewscreen the chaos that had erupted around them.

"How long before we can jump?" someone asked.

"Five minutes, sir," was the reply.

Mon curled her fingers into fists, watching as the first shots were fired - by the Rebels, she noted, firing back in fear on the Star Destroyers closing in on them. They were all running for a jump point, trying to escape the gravity wells of Barutte and the two Imperial interdictors. All of them... except...

"Ensign, is that the Battalion?" she asked, pointing at a distant ship that was clearly at a safe jump point, but was still not running from its pursuit.

A pause. "Yes, Ma'am."

Mon frowned. She turned to the generals beside her and arched her eyebrow. Rieekan had a deep frown on his face. "The Princess plays too close to the fire," he said, unnecessarily cryptically she thought, when he saw her watching him.

She pinched her lips together and thought about that. It was true. And yet she needed to know... why had they not jumped? "Ensign, can you make contact with Princess Organa?"

"We're being jammed, Madam Mothma." And then, "One minute to jump."

Her fingers tapped nervously on the arm of her seat. "Mon?" Rieekan asked.

She glanced at him, turned to the captain of the ship. "Belay that jump, Captain."

"Mon?" Rieekan asked again, more startled this time.

She met his gaze with a practiced expression of steely, unquestionable authority. "Princess Organa would not linger without reason. I want to know what that reason is."

Leia sat down heavily in the command chair as the Battalion was rocked by a glancing shot. Lando dropped into the seat beside her. "Still no contact from Executor, but her fleet is jamming us," he said.

She nodded. From the corner of her eye, she saw the medical frigate with Han aboard make a clear jump into hyperspace. Her heart ached.

They couldn't leave without knowing what had happened to Vader, but with no way of communicating with him or Executor what could they do...?

Except... there was another way they could try and contact Vader, a way which had occurred to her the moment she had accepted that Luke was her brother, Vader her father. But the thought of using the talents of her bloodline was instinctively abhorrent, to have Vader in her mind again... unthinkable.

Images of the first Death Star flashed through her mind's eye and she shoved them aside, unwilling for the moment to think about the past. Because the future was taking shape in front of her, and if this was the only way....

She had no idea how Vader or Luke did this, didn't know what it was she was supposed to look for inside herself that would allow her to speak to them as they had spoken to her. But she had enough willpower to make up for her ignorance.

She closed her eyes, picturing Vader in her mind. The brutal, dispassionate violence she hated; the lethal, consuming power she feared. But to her annoyance and dismay... nothing happened. She sighed loudly, and opened her eyes. Lando was frowning at her.

"I'm trying," she said.

He nodded.

She closed her eyes again.

Vader. Cold, brutal, powerful... but into the image came a memory of the fierce protection he had displayed for Luke, the emotions she thought she'd picked up from him - need, determination and... fear?


That was an emotion she would never before have attributed to Darth Vader. The more she thought about it, the more human the image in her mind became, the more real.

Then she realised, with a mixture of surprise and dread, that there was a presence reaching out to her - answering her.

A quarter-arc of a circle had been burnt through the durasteel door, and Vader concentrated on focusing the Force into keeping the hilt of his blade - and his hands - safe from the heat of the melting steel.

Piett was talking to the technician about why the computer was failing to recognise their authority, but Vader tuned it out. To his mind, there were only two reasons why this was proving so difficult: either the attack on the main bridge had damaged the central computer system - which was unlikely - or the system itself had been compromised. He was beginning to suspect the latter, mostly because it had the signature of Palpatine on it. Perhaps the computer system had even, in some way, been responsible for the destruction of the bridge.

Whatever the reason, he had to get into the auxiliary bridge - everything depended upon their regaining control of Executor: the lives of the men aboard, Vader's chances at destroying Palpatine, and - most importantly - the safe return of his son. He must not fail.

Solidified in his purpose, he concentrated on cutting through the door. Through the Force he could feel the echo of fear and death beyond the boundaries of the ship, and Vader imagined that the truce had broken down when Executor's bridge had been destroyed. The Rebels were most likely running for their lives when Executor's support fleet had come to the defence of the flagship.

He frowned at that, realising that not for one moment had he considered that the Rebels might have been responsible for this destruction. And that should have been the most logical assumption - yet if it had ever entered his mind he had dismissed it so quickly that he couldn't recall contemplating it.

A mental image of Organa flashed through his mind - the pious, righteous princess of a martyred world. Surely he should have suspected betrayal from her. And yet... he had not - and did not.

As he pictured her, Vader felt a shiver run across his nerve endings, a shuddering awareness, like a cold breeze running through him. He frowned, concentrated on it - and his awareness of the girl blossomed in his mind.

Palpatine's sneer had frozen Luke for a few, priceless seconds, and Luke saw the Emperor's eyes dart towards the doorway. Images of what the Emperor would be capable of once outside this Forceless bubble flashed through Luke's mind and he lunged for the man. Palpatine moved suddenly towards the door, but Luke caught hold of his forearm. His footing shifted awkwardly as Palpatine tried to pull away and Luke slipped down to the floor. He held onto the Emperor's arm with a desperate grip, taking Palpatine down to the floor with him.

The Emperor made a strange hissing, laughing noise then. "Good, boy!" he said, surging up and trying to break Luke's hold. But Luke held on. "Your fear makes you powerful, even here," the Emperor said.

Luke stiffened, acknowledging the words but refusing to loosen his death-grip on the man.

"You're a liar," he said. "My father isn't dying."

"By whose proclamation, boy? Yours?" There was a mocking tone in his voice, a blade aimed at Luke's pride. Luke tightened his hands around the fistfuls of fabric and the brittle arm beneath it.

"My father told me the truth," he said, striving for conviction. "You lied. He's not dying."

He'd expected the Emperor to react with anger, but instead the man threw his head back and laughed.

Luke stared at him, a cold knot forming in his stomach. The fear was back, making him feel nauseous.

"Young fool," the Emperor repeated. "He was dying from the moment he met me. And now - it is almost complete." Luke just stared at him. "Only your fear and hatred of me can save him. But you, like all Rebels, are too cowardly to face your own demons."

"Liar," Luke said. The Emperor snorted at that. "I'm not afraid of his death." Luke said again. "He's not dying."

"By now... he should already be dead." In the middle of his last sentence, the Emperor moved, surging up against Luke's hold until he was just millimetres from Luke's face.

Luke's reacted to the suddenness of the movement, throwing all his strength into pushing Palpatine away. The Emperor hissed at him, and Luke twisted away, his arm coming up to strike the older man as he moved.

Palpatine's head connected with the floor with a dull smack.

Leia stiffened in her seat, her eyes blinking open but not seeing anything in front of her. She felt smothered, her breathing ragged in her own ears.

She closed her eyes again, gritting her teeth.


That voice, it was Vader. And yet... not Vader - the sound of the respirator was quieter, almost softer, more organic, the sound of it ebbing and flowing rather than stiff and mechanical. It sent a thrill of fearful expectation down her spine.

"Vader," she said, though she hadn't spoken them aloud: didn't hear the words echoing in her ears. The words were mute, lost as soon as she'd thought them. It was as if her mind had found a voice of its own. "You're alive."

She felt his bemusement against her mind, an unsettling sensation: feeling another's emotion, knowing it wasn't hers but feeling it all the same.

"Indeed. Your concern is unwarranted," he replied, with a biting sarcasm.

Leia instinctively bristled at that. "It's not concern," she 'heard' her mind-voice snapping back. "It's necessity. We need Executor."

She could almost feel the texture of Vader's thoughts, the sobering attention to why Vader had been cooperating with her. "You should leave. Executor cannot aid you now. Go after Luke-"

Leia felt a flash of irritation at that. "I didn't realise you would give up so easily, Vader."

In return to her biting tone, she felt a wave of anger wash towards her, flooding her mind. "Watch your tongue, Princess. You may be unaccustomed to communicating through the Force, but I am far more adept at it. I do not need to see you to reach you."

Leia swallowed thickly at that, the flair of rebellion still burning in her mind. But this wasn't helping either of them. If she pushed him too far, he might well reach out and... and what? Strangle his own daughter? Would he even realise who he was swatting aside? Would the knowledge spill over from her mind to his, if he reached out to her?

As if in response to the shudder of anticipation that raced down her spine, Vader asked with deadly mildness, "And remind me, Princess, how it was that your father never mentioned that he and his wife were Force sensitive?"

She swallowed. "They weren't." Pressure against her mind made her wince and add, "I was adopted when I was... very small."

She almost felt that even that was telling him too much. There was a breathless minute, when she felt that Vader might just have put the pieces together, might just have realised the truth....

That he would realise the truth felt almost inevitable, unstoppable. But stubborn pride wouldn't let her tell him it herself, couldn't force the words out of her. This form of communication... it was too intimate, too close. She could feel what he felt, almost see the shadows of what he saw - could he think what she was thinking?

"We are wasting time, Vader," she sent, trying to turn the questing fingers of his mind aside. "You were right when you said I couldn't get to Luke myself. I need your help." And even those words had cost her.

"You cannot afford to wait for me, Organa," Vader replied. He was aware of his lightsaber slowly burning through the durasteel bulkhead, of Piett still talking to the lieutenant, of the technician on his knees, his hands still in the circuitry of the door mechanism. But those were periphery to the sudden nagging, urgent pressure of the Force. He was missing something here. Something important...

Organa's Force-voice replied something, a side-step of a reply, deliberately moving from the question of her sudden Force-adeptness, and Vader frowned. There was something almost childlike in the diversion, something desperately aversive.

"You are hiding something," Vader hissed, narrowing his eyes as he concentrated and reached for a deeper connection with the girl. His awareness of everything else but Organa's Force-presence was eclipsed.

A memory flashed through Vader's mind, one easy to place: the shared vision with his son, the last time he'd had contact with the boy. The image of the Palace of Alderaan, vivid white against an iron sky. And Luke saying, "This is a bit like something I saw once in a dream...." And Vader replying, "Dreams are rarely so accurate."

And then the princess appearing, running towards them across the grassy grounds of the palace, looking for her imaginary friend....

"Can you at least contact the remains of your fleet?" Leia asked, but she could feel the distraction in Vader. Part of her felt a stubborn desire to hide herself from the coming revelation. She felt like she should be holding her breath.

Vader didn't reply.

"Vader, you need to call off the rest of the fleet. You must-"

"Why would you share a vision, unless-" And then Vader stopped, abruptly, in the middle of the sentence. "You..." he started again, and she could almost feel the pieces falling into place for him in the texture of his thoughts. She hadn't realised she really had been holding her breath until her throat began to spasm for air.

She sucked in a breath, forcing her throat to relax.

She wasn't going to say it. She wasn't going to tell him. She -

"Sister... you are his sister."

Leia closed her eyes, not that it made any difference - suddenly the presence of Vader felt overwhelming, smothering her as he latched on to the truth.

Panic ran along the edges of her control as she felt her awareness of him take shape into something almost physical, as if he were standing behind her now, the rush and wheeze of the respirator stirring the hairs on the top of her head. It felt as if, were she to open her eyes, she'd see the faint reflection of herself in the Battalion's forward viewport - and Vader standing behind her, his hand reaching for her shoulder.

"Not a child... but twins," she heard his mind-voice whisper, and rebellion kicked back to life in her then.

"Hardly a child," she snapped back, thinking, hardly your child. Maybe he heard the thought - he went chillingly silent.

Vader had closed his eyes, shutting out the mocking inner voice that was laughing at him for not having the sight to see what had been right in front of his eyes for years.

He could feel the heat of the melting durasteel through the thick padding of his gloves, his concentration on the Force broken. He latched onto the sensation, trying to ground himself in the face of the revelation, in the face of feeling as if the axis of his world had tilted abruptly and sent him tumbling.

Suddenly, everything was different. Different - but clearer, the future taking on a clarity it had not had before. Here was an ally he would not have anticipated, an opportunity he could not have thought to look for - a hope where everything had seemed so hopeless.

A daughter.

Unthinkable... and yet so obvious he could hardly believe he had not known it before this moment.

The silence stretched. Leia shook her head, trying to clear it of the fog that seemed to have descended.

"This isn't helping Luke," she finally 'said', forcing herself to break through the almost physical tension. "We don't have time for this."

Back to the practical. Somehow, that was a level they could both work on. She almost 'felt' Vader shake himself free of the silence. "I am attempting to access the auxiliary bridge," he said, though his mind-voice still sounded sharp with shock, "and to regain control of the ship. However, I doubt it will be simple - the computer system appears to have been compromised. You should leave, whilst there is still time to reach him."


"Palpatine will have timed this attack to coincide with whatever he is doing to Luke. There is no time to argue."

Leia forced herself to take a calming breath before replying. "With just the Battalion, we don't stand a chance," she said. "We'll need help." She swallowed thickly. "If not from Executor... then at least from you."

Vader's presence in her mind sighed irritably. "If I could just get the communications systems working, I could order the fleet to support you!" he grated, and Leia blinked at the surprisingly human tone to the man's voice. Or was she just desperately hunting for some humanity in him?

"More fire-power won't help us. Not unless we want to blow Palpatine and Luke up. No - there has to be a way to get you off there. If you could get to an airlock-"

"Then it would not work; that system is off-line, as are most of the ship's basic mechanisms."

"Then we'll blast our way in," Leia snapped back. "The Falcon can-"

Vader snorted at that. "Your infuriating stubbornness will get you killed one day, Organa." He paused and added scornfully, "You must have got that from your mother."

Leia laughed sharply at that. "Well then, from you I must have inherited my height," she shot back automatically - and then wished she hadn't.

Vader said nothing. Leia wondered if this felt as surreal for him as it did for her; her lips quirked into a smile at that: if she'd known before that the way to out-manoeuvre Vader was to crack a joke at the wrong time, she'd have done it years ago.

The silence went on - and on. She shook her head. "What are you-"

"We are almost into the auxiliary bridge," Vader interrupted her. "When I have the system back online, I'll communicate with the fleet to stand down."

Leia smiled tightly. "And then get to an airlock."

Time rushed against Luke's mind, too fast and too slow at once, as he stared, hearing the pounding of his own angry pulse in his ears. When the Emperor still didn't move, Luke forced himself to act, to reach out and prod the man's nearest arm.

Nothing happened.

Luke took a deep breath. He reached out, lifted the man's arm, waiting for Palpatine to react.

He didn't.

Luke let go, allowing the Emperor's arm to fall back to the floor, slack and lifeless.

Luke pulled back slightly, sucking in calming breaths. Had he killed him? Could it be that simple? He reached out a hand to check for a pulse - and then pulled it back again. If he had... if he had killed him, then he'd done it in anger, in fear. He'd reacted, without thinking, to the horrible ring of truth in the Emperor's words.

He pursed his lips, sat back on his haunches. He didn't feel any different. Shouldn't he feel different - feel something - when he'd just struck in anger? He stared at the Emperor's slack face. A burning ache swelled in his gut. But other than that, Luke felt... nothing.

Reaching out a hand, ignoring the trembling of residual adrenaline, he touched his fingers to the Emperor's neck. Waited. He felt a pulse beating frantically - and realised it was his own, in his fingertips. He shook his head, willing himself to calm down. He should be glad. He should be celebrating. He'd just struck down Emperor Palpatine. He should be glad. He should-

He felt another pulse. Slower, weaker, but definitely there. He snatched his hand back, coming to his feet with an abruptness that made his vision swim.

Finish it, his mind urged. He shook his head. There was too much anger in him, too much fear. What would happen if he put his hands around the Emperor's neck and strangled the life out of him? What would happen when he left this Forceless room? Could the dark side catch up on you? That was ridiculous, wasn't it?

Calm down, Luke instructed himself, forcing his breathing into a slower, deeper pace. Think.

He considered it for a moment, weighing up the balance between his burning desire to extinguish the life of the man in front of him, and the memory of Yoda's words whispering in his mind. You will destroy all for which they have fought... By what? By becoming another Palpatine? Another Vader?

He shook his head. He couldn't do it. He needed to escape from here to return to his father - sacrificing himself to the dark side wouldn't achieve that goal!

But what should he do, then? Just leave Palpatine here, let his chance at ridding the galaxy of him just... slip through his fingers...?

Luke closed his eyes, trying to picture what Yoda would tell him now. Or Ben - or his father.

He couldn't. The images, the words, wouldn't come. He felt alone, suddenly - more alone than he had in days, weeks... months.

What should he do?

Fear and self-doubt churned in his mind. If he killed Palpatine now, it wouldn't be self-defence. It wouldn't even be for the greater good, not really. It would be because Luke wanted him gone, wanted to be rid of him - wanted to go find his father and forget about murderous plots by maniacal despots.

Could a Jedi kill for those reasons? If he did it, when he stepped out the room and back into the Force would the dark side be waiting for him?

Luke stared down at Palpatine's face, slack in unconsciousness. He wasn't so frightening now. The malevolence was gone. The aura of depthless power had evaporated. Now he just looked like an old man... human, vulnerable. Despised, but not feared - not right now. No - what Luke feared right now was himself: the bloodlust in his veins. His father's heritage? Or just a human reaction - a vulnerable, human reaction?

Luke shook his head. This was pointless. His mind was chasing itself in circles. He couldn't kill Palpatine now - and he didn't need to. If he locked him up in here, Luke could get off the ship: get to the docking bay and run. He didn't need to kill Palpatine. He wanted to, for everything the man had done - but he didn't need to.

Maybe that was where the line was, between the dark side and the Light? Somewhere between needing and wanting?

Luke turned to the cot, stripped the blankets back. He reached down and grabbed the Emperor by his spindly arms, dragging him to the foot of the bed and then heaving him up onto it, covering him with the blanket.

He stood back, took another shaking breath.

Well, it might fool the casual observer. It might give him another ten minutes. And that was all he needed to find his way off this ship, right?

With a last glance over his shoulder - a last, brief thought to whether he was doing the right thing, or whether he was being a fool - Luke turned for the doorway and stepped out into the corridor.

The strength of his reconnection to the Force was so strong that Luke almost stumbled across the threshold of the exit. He didn't know what he'd expected to feel when the Force came back to him, but he hadn't expected to feel like he'd flown head-first into a supernova-in-progress.

There was a guard standing outside the cell - a Royal Guard, with his back to Luke. He was turning around, probably in response to the cell door opening, and Luke acted before the other man had time to realise it wasn't Palpatine leaving the room.

He reached out to the Force and threw out his hand; a wave of Force pressure propelled the guard across the corridor. He crashed into the wall with a clatter before slumping to the floor.

Luke just stared at the man's unconscious body for a moment, amazed at how easy that Force-push had been. A shiver worked its way down his spine and Luke shook himself free of his disbelief. Moving quickly, he got a grip on the guard's foot and dragged the body into the cell, hiding it from sight of the viewing window. Then he was back out in the corridor, jogging away from the cell, trying not to think about the strength of that Force-push.

The Force was buzzing in his head and Luke groaned, almost overwhelmed by the sensations suddenly assaulting him. The enormity of a thousand thoughts and feelings that weren't his own made him feel like his head was about to burst. He grimaced, concentrated on keeping his footing - and concentrated on getting as far from the cell as possible.

He got as far as the end of the corridor before he heard the sound of another set of footsteps. He ducked into an unlocked cell until they passed, pressing his knuckles to his temples as he tried to dispel the pressure building there.

This feeling reminded him of his recent brush with... what had his father called it...? Psychic-shock? Too much information going into too small a space, Luke thought sourly, wincing.

His connection to the Force felt too strong, running through his blood like wildfire. He felt agitated, bursting with energy - almost blinded by it, like he was staring into a light too bright for his eyes to process. Was this still the psychic-shock... or something else?

There were two people he could ask about that - one was lying unconscious in a cell just down the corridor, and the other he was trying to get back to.

So get going! Luke chided himself sternly, forcing his feet back into the corridor.

Someone was shaking her shoulder. Leia tried to concentrate on the sensation, the rocking movement and the urgent pitch of a voice she couldn't discern the words from. She felt disconnected from her own body, her limbs numb.

"... Leia!" Finally, the word seemed to break through. She gasped in a long breath, feeling her muscles protest as she sat up straighter. Her body felt sluggish, as if she'd just woken from a deep sleep.

"Leia?" Lando asked again.

She turned to him, tried to focus on him. "How are we doing?" she asked. Her voice sounded just a little slurred. She shook her head, trying to clear the lingering fog.

"We're keeping ahead of them - just. You reached Vader."

It wasn't a question. She nodded. "He's trying to get access to Executor's back-up bridge and stabilise the ship."

"What about Luke?"

"We have to hold on here until Vader can get off Executor."

Lando didn't comment on what that meant for the Battalion - on their chances on out-manoeuvring the Imperials for much longer. Instead, he levelled a sympathetic gaze at her. "So he knows?"

She pressed her lips together before replying. "Yes," she replied, quietly, "he knows."

Vader gave the circle of durasteel a Force-push and watched it fall from the blastdoor to the floor with a resounding crash.

He stared at it for several empty seconds, feeling the crashing sound resounding in his head. It mirrored the collapse of his beliefs about the world - and about his place in it.


He suddenly felt old. But at the same time... invigorated. The girl was his daughter. Impetuous, hot-headed, irrepressible Organa was his daughter. He wanted to simultaneously laugh at and shake his fist at destiny.


Piett approached, pulling him back to the safety of dealing with the current situation. The man looked perplexed, and Vader wondered just how long he'd been standing glaring at the hole.

Vader nodded at the Admiral. "Let's go," he said.

Luke ducked out of sight for the fifth time in as many minutes as a stormtrooper marched past him. He rolled his eyes at his own bad luck - there seemed to be a trooper or a Black Sun guard marching along every corridor he turned into: didn't they have anything better to do than wander aimlessly through the ship?

Shaking his head, Luke stepped out again. He still didn't know where the docking bay was, but he figured it was probably to the aft of the ship and that was the direction he was heading in. What he needed was a map. A blaster might be nice, too. Maybe he should have picked up the Royal Guard's Force Pike... But if he could just get to the docking bay without running into-

The sound of another set of metallic footsteps forced him to duck down another corridor. Unfortunately, it wasn't an empty one. A stormtrooper stood by a wall, comlink in hand.

Luke froze.

The stormtrooper stared back at him, apparently as shocked to see Luke as Luke was to see him. Why hadn't he sensed someone was around this corner?

The trooper was still staring at him, hadn't yet made a move for his weapon, and Luke tried to make use of the trooper's shock to turn and make a run for it.

"Halt!" the man called after him, and Luke skidded to a stop, hearing the trooper's blast-rifle being readied, aware that he was an easy target in the narrow corridor. "Turn around!"

Cursing inwardly, Luke turned slowly. "Sorry - wrong turn," he said, trying to smile nonchalantly.

Apparently he wasn't very convincing. Still keeping Luke firmly in the sights of his blast-rifle, the trooper began to walk towards him. A voice squeaked through the comlink. The trooper ignored it. "Identify yourself."

Luke swallowed. "I'm with the tech crew," he said. "Supposed to be going to the docking bay, but I'm new and these corridors all look the same. Point me in the right direction?"

The trooper came closer. "Show me some ID," he said.

Luke briefly considered trying another Force-push, but there was a good chance the trooper's blast rifle would go off if he did that. Should he try and use the Force to mind-trick the guy instead? Luke's head was still pounding, and he wasn't sure he could mind trick anything right now. He stalled, pretending to fish for some ID in a pocket.

"Come on, come on," the trooper snapped.

Luke glanced back up at him and, on the verge of adding to his lie, saw a flash of movement behind the trooper... a familiar shape sneaking up behind the man.

He could have cheered.

He straightened up. "Okay, you got me."

The trooper edged closer. "What?" he demanded.

"Truth is, I'm not with the tech crew."

"Identify yourself," the trooper insisted again, the grip on his rifle tightening. Luke deliberately relaxed his stance.

"I'm Commander Luke Skywalker." He held up a hand, began to tick off titles on his fingers. "Destroyer of the Death Star, Commander of Rogue Squadron, Jedi Knight - well, almost - and, oh yeah, Darth Vader's son."

The man froze where he was, the shock halting his approach as he tried to process Luke's words. In those few distracted seconds, the figure sneaking up behind the trooper struck, beeping loudly and prodding the man in the calf with his electric welding torch.

The man yelped and whirled around; Artoo decided to try and ram his shin. The trooper brought his rifle around, aimed it - and staggered as Luke knocked him down with a roundhouse blow to his temple that sent him crashing into the wall. The trooper slumped to the deck and Luke yanked the helmet off his head, ready to deliver another blow - but he didn't need to: the man was out cold.

Luke let out a long sigh of relief. He turned to Artoo, the droid beeping enthusiastically at him. Luke smiled, feeling a sudden, uplifting sense of optimism that he hadn't felt in days, maybe weeks. "Boy, am I glad to see you," he said.

The auxiliary bridge was unlit apart from a scattering of panels glowing with red warning lights in the main hub of the bridge - the command console. Vader sighed, relieved, if only slightly, to see it was operational enough to display those warning lights. Vader lit his lightsaber again, throwing crimson light across the empty workstations. He went over to the other consoles - life support, engineering, communications, weapons - all of them blank, not even a red warning light on their screens.

"Admiral," he said, "see if you can get the communications back online. I'm going to try and access the main system and get the life support back."

"Yes, sir," Piett replied.

Leia chewed her lip, watching the remaining Rebel ships make their jump to hyperspace. Now there was only two left - the Battalion, and the councillor ship. She frowned, not sure whether she wanted to know why Mon Mothma was still here.

"Leia..." Lando said beside her, the tension making his voice sound odd, distant.

"I know," she said, without turning to him. "Just give him a few more minutes."

Luke dumped the body of the trooper onto the floor of the small rec room, locked the door and began stripping the man of his armour. Artoo beeped and whistled at him excitedly.

"Whoa... slow down, Artoo. I can't understand you. Can you get into the computer and find the quickest way to the docking bay? We don't have much time," he said, pulling the armour on. He hadn't grown since the last time he'd tried this disguise and it was still too big for him. But it'd do.

Artoo's warbling just increased in pitch and speed. Luke shook his head. "Artoo - I can't understand you. You-"

Artoo snorted at him and turned, heading for a nearby terminal and plugging in. The screen went blank before green writing began scrawling across it as fast as Artoo's frantic warbling.

Luke struggled to keep up. "We can't leave? What? Why not - Artoo, why not? What? Okay, okay - you escaped from the cupboard they dumped you in. You accessed the computer. You were looking for me. I get it, okay. Go on. You found where I was but you also found out that..." Luke trailed off, bile suddenly rising in his throat. He stared at the droid. "They've done what?"

Artoo beeped at him, insistently.

Luke shook his head. "They can't... " Fear made him want to retch. He scrambled to his feet to get closer to the screen and Artoo. "When did Xizor send the order, Artoo?"

The answer scrawled across the screen - over an hour ago.

Luke went cold.

An hour ago Palpatine, through Xizor, had ordered the destruction of Executor.


More writing scrawled over the screens. "A virus? That's it? You can't take down a ship like that with a computer virus, can you?"

Artoo beeped at him mournfully. More words on the screen.

"... they'll blow up the bridge... stop the fire-control and life support systems?" Luke cursed silently, turning aside.

Artoo beeped at him questioningly.

Luke looked back at him. "They might not have done it yet. Or it might not have worked," he said. "He might still be alive." He closed his eyes, struggling with the wild hope. "He might not have been onboard."

The words felt hollow, looking for reassurances Artoo couldn't offer. The only way to find out for sure was to try and contact Vader through the Force, but....

He'd been avoiding touching the Force since that first blast against the Royal Guard, wary of the feeling that it could sweep him off his feet, swamp his mind. Wary of getting lost in it, when he could feel time ticking away rapidly. How long before the Emperor woke up? How long before he was able to summon aid? Luke shook his head. He had no way of knowing how long he had, but he needed to do this... needed to use the Force to contact his father.

Silently, Luke sat down on the floor, his legs folding underneath him. But letting that power in again... as soon as he reached for it, he felt the flood threatening to overwhelm him. It felt like drowning: he wanted to gasp for air, but daren't - wasn't even sure he could.

He clung on, barely aware of the pain of digging his fingernails into his palms. Somewhere here there should be that connection to his father: the bond that had developed so quickly and not that long ago, though it felt like an age since he'd last touched it.

He searched for it, feeling like he was hunting for a narrow foothold in the dark - and found it.

Vader slammed his fist down on the console, irritated and angry.

The system would not let him in. Any and every trick he tried was rebuffed. Had he hours to spare, he might have a hope of breaking in - but he didn't have hours. The life support system was failing, the basic measures needed to sustain life in space were gone - the oxygen supplies, the heating and cooling systems - and already the ship was beginning to heat up as the coolant system failed to conduct the heat of the engines away to the hull, where it could radiate out into space.

The technician couldn't even get the communication's system to work, to order Executor's fleet to stop pursing Organa. He couldn't-

Vader stilled as a shiver of anticipation raced down his spine.

Where had that come from? Vader shook his head, searching the Force for some explanation for the warmth that had crept into his body without warning. But there was nothing - just the same urgency, the same sensation of tumbling towards a destiny he couldn't discern.

Frowning, Vader turned back to the controls, trying to conjure up a new trick to try. Perhaps if he could-

The sensation was back again, washing through him with greater strength and an implausible familiarity. Vader gripped the edge of the console and cast his mind after the feeling, feeling his body reacting in anticipation to... what? He wasn't sure.


It took Vader several seconds to truly believe what he had heard - to allow himself to believe it. When he did, he stretched out for the presence with a hungry urgency.

"Luke?" When his mind finally latched onto the boy's presence, the contact grew sharper, deeper. "You're alive," Vader sent - just as Luke also said it, the relief bouncing back and forth between them.

For just a second, none of their current problems mattered. Not the near-destruction of Executor, not the discovery that Organa was his daughter, not the continued existence of Palpatine. Luke was alive, and now that he knew that, he finally acknowledged that he'd feared that the boy was dead, that he was clinging to a fool's hope.

But only for a second - and then reality reasserted itself in Vader's mind.

"Luke, where are you? Where is Palpatine? Are you injured?"

He could almost feel the boy deciding which of those questions to answer first, his mind turning over possible answers. Such a deep level of contact should not have been possible at such a distance... but the clarity of this contact would have to be something for Vader to consider later.

"I'm okay," Luke replied, and Vader frowned at that: it was not the stealthiest of evasions, and for that reason clearly untrue. "Artoo has hacked into the computer on this ship. He's says there are Black Sun agents on Executor and they've been ordered to release a virus into the computer systems so they can take out the bridge -"

"A virus," Vader repeated. He had assumed there had been some physical tampering, but a virus...

"You have to get off the ship, Father, before they-"

"It has already been released, Luke. I was not on the bridge."

The boy's emotions washed back to him - relief mixed with disappointment at not being in time to stop the attack. "Are you okay?"

"I am well. The ship, however, is crippled and Executor's support fleet believes this was a Rebel attack and is retaliating against Organa's fleet."

"Leia's there?"

"She is. And once I can get off Executor, we will be coming for you. Where are you?"

He felt the ripple of shock that came from Luke's Force-presence, shivering through him. "Wait a minute... are you telling me you're working together? How did that happen?"

Vader paused, uncertain how to answer that. "That," Vader finally answered dryly, "is a long story."

There were a thousand things he wanted to say - questions about where Vader was, what Luke could do to help... whether he should have killed Palpatine... But there was no time for any of those questions. Luke could feel time running out, almost a physical sensation, a nausea in his stomach that increased with every second that passed.

Pushing down the bitter taste of dread in the back of his throat, Luke pressed back the questions and settled for sticking to practicalities. "Father, I have to get off this ship. Where are you? If I can steal a shuttle or-"

"Barutte," Vader's mind-voice replied, his tone matching Luke's sudden urgency. Perhaps he felt time running out, too, like sand through his fingers.

"The Rebel base? What are you -"

"There is no time for explanations, Luke. Where are you? If Organa could reach you quickly -"

Where was he? He had no idea. There was only way to one answer to that question. Luke opened his eyes and refocused on Artoo, who was beeping questioningly at him. Luke wet his lips, concentrating on maintaining the contact with his Father whilst also focusing on the droid.

"Artoo," he said, "can you find out where we are?"

The words sounded distant to his ears. Artoo turned around and busied himself with the computer terminal. More writing ran across the screen. "Artoo says we're about to come out of hyperspace," Luke told Vader.

"Where?" Vader asked. "Organa could-"

"If I can get to a ship then she doesn't need to... oh...."

"'Oh'?" Vader repeated, a sharp edge to his mind-voice. "What does 'oh' mean? Luke?"

Luke didn't know whether to laugh or frown. "Artoo says we're going to revert in five minutes - in the Barutte system."

Piett looked up from his attempts to help the technician regain control of the communication's systems and glanced over at Vader. His commander had not said a word - not even cursed darkly - for several minutes now. He was leaning over the control console, frozen in place, in the same position he had been five minutes ago.

"Lord Vader?" Piett called.

No response.

Piett's frown deepened. What was Vader doing? They were running out of time. "Sir?" he called again.

Still nothing.

The other officer on the bridge met Piett's gaze from across the room.

Something wasn't right here. Piett pushed away from the console, wondering what he was going to do if Vader still didn't respond when he got closer. "Lord Vader-" he started again - and then stopped when the console he'd been working on chimed. He turned back to it in surprise, not quite believing his eyes as the red warning lights flickered through to amber - and then green.

"Sir!" he called, turning back to the console urgently. "The communications are back up. We can contact-"

Afterwards, he wasn't sure what made him move - some sixth sense perhaps, or maybe he heard the click of a weapon being drawn, or saw from the corner of his eye the reflection of quick movement in one of the dark, glossy consoles. But he moved, diving aside instinctively, catching sight of the blaster bolt flying past his shoulder - that had been aimed at where his head had been a fraction of a second earlier.

His own blaster was in his hands as he came to his feet, firing in the direction of his attacker. His sudden movement must have caught the man off-guard, because Piett's shot hit the officer squarely in the chest, lifting him off his feet and throwing him into a darkened console to an unforgiving impact.

Piett forced a breath down his tight throat, turning towards the technician to check he was okay - and seeing, with a surreal, half-speed dread, the man drawing his own weapon and pointing it at Vader.

Piett moved without thinking, urgently calling out for Vader to respond, stepping in to block the technician's aim.

The man fired, Piett shot back, waiting to see the man collapse from what he knew was a sure aim. But the bolt from the technician's blaster struck him in his shoulder, turning him around, and he didn't see his own bolt hit home.

He was pushed forwards by the impact, falling against something hard - Vader - as his mind blacked out.

"Get off the ship," Vader was saying, in his mind-voice. "Get to a docking bay and get off the ship as soon as she reverts. Organa can cover you. She-"

And then suddenly, as if the Force had flicked a switch marked 'off', his voice was gone.

Luke blinked, startled by the sudden loss of contact. He stretched out with the Force again, trying to press back his instinctive panic. Vader's presence was still there. But... distracted. Something must be happening. And Luke wasn't going to be able to help from here.

"Artoo," he said, turning to the droid. "You didn't just hack into the comm system, right? You've got a copy of that virus."

The little droid let out a proud whistle and rocked from foot to foot.

Luke shook his head, clambering to his feet.

"I don't know where we'd be without you, Artoo. Come on - we're getting out of here and taking that code to Vader. If they can figure out how it works, maybe we can still help."

Something barrelled into Vader, knocking him away from the console. Vader's senses snapped back to his surroundings, and he managed to catch himself against the side of the console before he - and whatever had slammed into him - hit the floor.

A sense of unforeseen danger screamed through his reflexes, and his lightsaber was lit in his hand before he'd consciously thought to reach for it. But there was no danger anymore, just the smell of ozone from blaster bolts and two bodies on the bridge floor. Three, if you counted Piett, slumped at Vader's feet.


Vader reached out with the Force to check his condition. He was alive, but unconscious. The other two were dead.

Anger almost made him stalk over to the bodies and run them through with his lightsaber, just to be sure. But the anger was directed at himself, for trusting the ludicrous coincidence of having two crewmembers so close to the cause of Executor's crippling condition. He should have seen through their story. He should have at least been suspicious. But he'd blindly trusted them - he'd been too focused on the revelation of Organa's blood-tie.

None of that anger was doing Piett any good, though.

Vader crouched down and took in his condition. The man's shoulder was a mess of charred skin and burnt bone. He was loosing blood, but not quickly - the bolt had cauterised most of the wound. But he needed attention, and Vader had little to spare.

A blinking light distracted him for a moment. Vader glanced at it and smiled grimly beneath his mask. So Piett had got the comm back online. That made things a lot simpler.

"Princess!" the comm officer said, almost leaping out of her seat in anticipation. "We're picking up a message to the Imperial fleet," she said. "It's from Executor."

Leia stood up instinctively, expectant energy unable to be contained any longer. She could almost feel the heat of the turbolasers of the ships pursuing them. Their shields were down so far they might as well not be there. Just another few minutes, and a lucky shot could take them down.

"Let's hear it," she said.

She glanced at Lando, who looked like he was holding his breath.

There was no holo with the connection, but audio was enough. More than enough.

"...stand down attack on all Rebel vessels. Captain Jossel, respond and acknowledge. Stand down."

It was Vader's voice.

Lando and Chewie had moved forward to stand beside her.

"He did it."

"Let's just hope they obey," Leia replied.

Lando shot her a puzzled look. "Why wouldn't they-"

"The Imperials are disengaging," someone interrupted him. "Moving into holding positions."

Another voice came over the comm.

"Lord Vader! We thought you were dead."

"Clearly, I am not," Vader replied succinctly. "Move to encoded channel ex-four-seven, Captain. I have new orders for you."

"Immediately, My Lord."

And then the comm went dead.

Leia let out a breath she'd hardly realised she was holding. She turned to the comm officer.

"Can you trace that communication and connect?" she asked.

"Already working on it," the woman said.

"There it is Artoo - a docking bay full of ships. And they're guarded by a whole legion of stormtroopers."

Well, maybe not a legion - but close enough.

Luke leaned back from where he'd peered around the corner. He tapped his borrowed blaster against the palm of his hand. Wearing this armour as disguise, he might just make it - if he was alone. But with Artoo in tow, he was going to raise suspicions.

Artoo whistled mournfully. He looked down at the droid, his mind running through possibilities, none of which he liked the sound of. So much for an easy escape.

But time was running out - he had to make a decision.

"Come on, Artoo," he said, turning and heading back towards the escape pods they'd passed a few minutes back. "You're going to take a short cut."

The droid's response was decidedly unimpressed.

"Princess," Vader said, "what's your situation?"

Leia bit back the instinct to reply tartly, 'very nearly blasted to pieces, thanks for asking.' Instead she said, "We're intact, mostly."

"Good," he said. Hell of an understatement, she thought. "The Emperor's ship is inbound in the next few minutes," he continued, without missing a breath. "Luke is aboard."

"What?" She gasped, throwing Lando a look of disbelief. A wild stab of hope ran through her. "How do you know that?"

"I made contact with Luke," Vader said, the words clipped, hurried. "As soon as the ship reverts, watch for a shuttle leaving the aft docking bay. That will be Luke. He will need cover."

Leia wet her lips, glancing at the pilot. He shook his head at her.

"We've taken heavy damage, Vader. We won't be much cover."

"You will not be providing it. I've ordered the fleet to split. The majority will cover Executor from any attack by Palpatine. The rest will be under your command, to use to recover Luke."

Leia was momentarily speechless. Chewie whuffled softly in disbelief.

"Under my command," she repeated.

"Is that a problem?" he challenged.

She snorted. "Not as long as they obey me."

"They will," he said. "Captain Jossel is a loyal man. And the Emperor is travelling aboard a private vessel. They will not be firing upon the Imperial fleet."

"Why can't you command them from there?"

There was the sound of irritated sigh over the comm.

"We do not have time for this. I cannot have a full over-view of the situation with these communication facilities. You can. And you know what is at stake."

"And what do we do? Sit back doing nothing?" she shot back, instinctively challenging him as she tried to get used to the idea that they were about to command a group of Imperial vessels. And that Luke was alive. Or more than that: he was alive and well enough to make contact.

"Do you have medical supplies on board?" Vader asked.

Thrown off-guard she frowned.

"Yes," she said. "Why?"

"You should come and retrieve me from Executor. I have a man down on the auxiliary bridge. He needs assistance - now."

"Don't be like that - you'll be fine," Luke said. "Give me five minutes to get to a ship and take off and they'll be so busy chasing me they won't even notice a pod going off accidentally."

The droid let out a long string of electronic expletives at what he thought of Luke's plan. Luke just shook his head and triggered the hatch to close.

"Five minutes, and then go," he said, before the door sealed with a thunk.

Vader crouched back down beside Piett. The man was beginning to claw his way back to consciousness. His wound still bled, although not as much as it could have done. Vader placed one gloved hand on the injured shoulder and focused the Force into encouraging Piett's body to stop the bleeding and resist going into shock. If they were stranded for a long time, it would probably not be enough. But if Leia hurried, Piett had a chance. Vader found himself strangely clinging to that chance.

Piett stirred with a heartfelt groan of agony. Vader pressed down on the man's other shoulder, preventing him from moving.

"Be still," he said. "Movement will only agitate the wound."

"I was shot," Piett said, half nonsensically.

"You've been lucky," Vader responded. "Aid is on its way."

Piett drew in a breath that sounded painful as it moved, even slightly, the muscles in his shoulder. The man tried to focus on him.

"The two crewmembers... traitors...."

"I know," Vader said. "They are both dead. You killed them." Then, as an after thought. "You did well."

A shudder ran through the ship, barely perceptible but familiar to anyone who'd ever travelled in hyperspace: they'd arrived. Luke hurried his steps, intent on reaching the docking bay within the next five minutes and giving Artoo his distraction.

But of their own accord, his feet skidded to a stop.

Something was wrong.

Luke whirled around, blaster up and ready, but there was no one in the corridor but him. He turned back around, intent on hurrying back to the docking bay... but something was wrong. The Force was screaming with danger. He -

- pain lashed through him, electric pain like he'd stepped on a live wire. He felt the energy lift him off his feet and throw him against the corridor wall. His blaster flew from his hands. He scrabbled after it, but a second lash of energy ripped through him. He tried to scream, but his throat muscles spasmed painfully and nothing came out.

When it stopped, he tried to scramble to his feet again. The sound of a dozen blasters being cocked echoed in the narrow space. Luke blinked open his eyes.

"No, don't shoot," a voice said. Palpatine. "Leave him to me."

"There it is," Lando said, needlessly, as a sleek ship the size of a large cruiser slid out of hyperspace. But even a brief first glimpse showed that it was no merchant ship.

"What's it got?" Leia asked, looking over Lando's shoulder at the sensors.

Behind them, the comm officer was responding to a flurry of messages over the comm, confirming the Imperial ships under her command were moving into engagement positions.

Lando's hands flew over the sensor controls.

"She's riddled with armaments," he said, and let out a long, low whistle. "Turbolaser placements scattered everywhere, and ten proton torpedo launchers, corkscrewed around the hull." He shifted the display on. "Shields are military standard. Someone's done their homework."

"But they're outnumbered," Leia said, striving for optimism. "One cruiser against -"

And then she stopped, another ship had reverted in the wake of the cruiser. A Star Destroyer. Leia sent a startled glance towards Lando.

"What the hell?" he said, verbalising the words that had just shot through her mind. "Vader never said anything about this!"

"He can't have known," she said.

So much for easily outnumbering the cruiser. If that Star Destroyer had a full wing of TIEs...

"And I still don't see any shuttle, Leia," Lando said.

She glanced back over at the visual image of the Black Sun cruiser as it slid forwards.

"Where is he?" she said muttered.

Lando didn't respond.

A minute passed, and then another. Vader's ships - led by the Refutable Star Destroyer and four well-armed gunships forming a pincer movement - moved towards the incoming fleet. The two Interdictors followed, effectively stranding everyone in realspace. But they didn't move to attack, waiting until the moment she gave the order. And she was waiting for Luke.

"Leia-" Lando started.

"Look - there!" she interrupted him. "What is that?"

"An escape pod," Lando answered. "It's heading this way."

Leia shook her head. "Trust Luke to change the plan at the last minute," she said.

The ensign manning the comm looked up at her.

"Captain Jossel wants to know what's going on," the girl said.

"He's not the only one," Leia said, her heart-rate accelerating. "Put him through."

Artoo whistled shrilly as the escape pod shot through space. The momentum rocked him backwards and he slid along the floor to collide with the far bulkhead. He let out a string of expletives, most directed at whoever had decided the escape pod didn't need a halfway decent gravity-compensator. At least the Rebel pod he and Threepio had used to escape the Tantive IV had included inertia controls.

The take-off blast from the boosters began to subside. Artoo's wheels hit the floor and he pushed forward against the momentum. If he could just get to the control panel on this thing, he'd have it flying properly.

Through the small porthole in the pod's bulkhead, red turbofire flashed. He doubled his efforts to get to the controls. He had to make sure Master Luke had managed to get away and communicate with -

A loud bang reverberated through the enclosed space just as Artoo plugged into the computer. He let out a low whistle of frustration - the communications array had just been fried.

Skywalker's mouth opened in a silent scream as the Force-lightning crackled through his body, cold blue fire crawling over his skin. His limbs jerked as the muscles spasmed. Flopping about like a fish out of water gasping for air, Palpatine thought with a grin of malicious humour. How unbecoming for a desert rat.

But perhaps he should not kill him just yet. Perhaps he should rein in the full extent of his fury until after the boy had been fully turned to the dark side. Then he could devise some painful and humiliating ways to assist the boy in learning that he should never so much as contemplate attacking his master again.

And besides, mutilating him now would deny Skywalker the chance to witness his father's demise. And witness Vader's death he would.

He let the lightning die away to a crackle of wishful thinking between his fingertips. Only then did the boy cry out, as the muscles in his throat opened again and he gasped for air.

The troopers shifted uneasily, perhaps anticipating a deathblow. Palpatine paid them no heed. This was no execution.

Seconds turned into minutes as Palpatine waited for Skywalker to recover enough that he began to become aware of his surroundings again. The Emperor paced, feeling his anger and irritation growing as the time passed.

Events were not proceeding as he had planned them. His foresight had failed him. The runt of his own traitorous apprentice had almost killed him. Why the boy had let him live was beyond Palpatine, and it infuriated him that he had neither anticipated the attack nor understood why Skywalker had failed to follow through. Not only that, but Vader was not dead. He could feel it in his bones: the traitor lived. Xizor had failed him, and failure was intolerable.

The thoughts swirled in his mind, boiling up into anger. But such events were not insurmountable. The boy would yet turn, and this ship and her escort would see that Executor burned.

Palpatine turned as the far bulkhead hatchway slid open. Xizor strode in, his skin a sickly green colour and his hands fisted.

"Well?" Palpatine snapped.

"The remains of Executor's fleet have moved to engage us," the lizard said. His gaze flicked briefly to Skywalker.

"Of course they have," Palpatine replied in irritation. "But they are under Vader's command - he won't risk attacking this ship whilst he knows his son is aboard."

Even as he spoke, the blood-red light of turbolaser fire flashed through the narrow portholes in the corridor. Vader's TIEs were striking out at the cruisers escorting the Star Destroyer and her fighters.

Xizor took a step closer. "The Executor is crippled, my Emperor. Vader may not even be alive anymore. He may not be in charge."

Palpatine's lips curled up in a grimace. "Oh, he's alive," he said. "But he's trapped aboard his dying ship. And he knows we're here, Falleen."

Xizor said nothing for a moment. That in itself was risking Palpatine's wrath.

"Leave us," Palpatine snapped. "Go command the fleet."

"We are outgunned, your Highness. Their fleet is larger."

"But they will not attack this ship, Xizor. Use our escort to destroy them. If you truly think to show me that you are Vader's superior, then show me."

Xizor hesitated. Blue lightning sizzled between Palpatine's fingertips. Once this was over, the lizard would finally be dispensable.

Perhaps he saw something of that last thought in the Emperor's eyes, because Xizor bowed sharply.

"Of course, my Emperor," he said. It lacked sincerity. Palpatine sneered and turned aside. Very soon, he would rid himself of that lizard

He turned to the nearest trooper. "Bring him," he ordered, indicating Skywalker's body. A corridor was no place to initiate a new apprentice. "And get that armour off him."

The temperature on the auxiliary bridge was definitely rising.

Focused as he was on Piett, at first Vader had wondered if the man was developing a fever, but common sense insisted that it was too soon for that.

Then when sensors in his suit initiated the cooling machinery for his respirator, he'd known that it wasn't just Piett who was heating up: the air temperature was rising. And it wasn't confined to the bridge: casting his senses out to the Force told him that the heat was spreading. He could feel the crew's suffering increasing with each passing minute. Lives winking out as their bodies succumbed to whatever unfortunate circumstances the men had found themselves in. They were dying, his crew. Vader felt a heavy weight in his chest. Time and fate were against them, once again.

If this temperature rise was ship-wide, then logically it was a result of the shutdown of the cooling facility that vented the heat from the main drives. If it continued to rise, everyone left aboard would eventually succumb to the heat before any help arrived.

Vader glanced down at Piett's face. The man's eyes were open but unfocused. Vader laid a gloved hand on his face, focusing the Force to the task of once again assessing Piett's health. He was clinging on to consciousness, but barely. Vader's efforts were assisting him, but Vader needed to at least attempt to stop the temperature rise in the ship. That would mean leaving Piett to the frailties of a Force-less body.

He hesitated, despite the logic. Thousands of lives could not be sacrificed for one. Although... he had done it before. A long time ago now - a lifetime ago. And something in Piett's expression said that he would no more appreciate such an act than those before him had.

Vader stood, and cast his eyes across the bridge's darkened consoles. His eyes fell upon the engineering bank. It was as good a place as any to start.

"Leia, we have the escape pod in our tractor beam. We're going to tow it out to a safe point to drop shields and bring it in."

Leia nodded. "How does it look, Mon? There's no response to our hails."

"It may have taken a few glancing shots. It looks as if the communications array was hit."

Lando came to stand beside her. "Jossel is requesting permission to attack the Black Sun vessel," he said.

She glanced from him back to Mon's image on the holocomm. "Tell them to go ahead, Lando. Mon, once you've got Luke aboard, I want you to jump out of the system."


"It'll simplify things," she said. "If we want Vader to stay on our side, Luke needs to be safe."

The narrowing of Mon's eyes told her that the half-truth had been ill-concealed. "Very well, Leia. Good luck."

Leia nodded. The 'comm flickered off. She took a deep breath, glanced at Lando. "Well?"

He frowned. "Well what?"

"What are you waiting for? Tell Jossell that ship's his for the taking."

Next to the pain of his cramping muscles and his searing headache, it seemed ridiculous that the discomfort of lying on cold, hard deckplates had made it through the fog of his brain.

Luke groaned and pushed himself up and over until he was lying on his back. Doing that hurt, but then everything hurt right now, breathing included, and at least he wasn't face-down on the floor.

"At last," someone said, and Luke grimaced as he realised who it was. "Pathetic. You're weak, young Skywalker. Hardly fitting for my apprentice."

"Well that's good," Luke managed to say. If it hurt to breathe, then it really hurt to talk. But silence wasn't in his nature. "Because you've already got my answer on that - I don't want the job."

No response, but he felt, through his still-muddled Force-sense, a swelling anger from the other man. The stormtroopers watched on silently.

"Young fool. Defy me and you will lose everything."

Luke turned onto his side with careful, slow movements. The pain was receding surprisingly quickly, leaving a lingering, burning ache in his muscles. But it was becoming tolerable as he forced his lungs to keep breathing. He registered distantly that someone had removed the restrictive white stormtrooper armour and left him in the black under-shipsuit.

"I have a feeling," Luke said, and paused as he managed to lever himself up onto his arm. From that position, he could see the Emperor's face if he craned his neck upwards. "I have a feeling that obeying you will lose me a lot more than defying you would. Even if you kill me now, there are people out there who can still defeat you. Friends... and family."

A smirk flashed through the man's intent expression. "Your faith in them is misguided. It will cost you greatly. You'll lose... everything."

"Maybe," Luke said, pushing up into a sitting position. He could feel the Force pulsing through him, a dizzying feeling, like a rush of blood to the head. Perversely, he felt calmer than he had in a long time. "But at least I have something worth losing."

Xizor stalked the bridge with an uncharacteristic restlessness. The battle was joined and it was not a battle he would have chosen. That... irritated him.

Whilst it had served his purpose, bowing and scraping to Palpatine had been worth the occasional threat to his pride. But this battle was foolish and pointless. The Emperor was acting rashly by wading into this fight.

Withdrawal was the better option: they still held the winning Sabaac card if they could retreat with the boy. Vader would be the one bowing and scraping in his attempt to retrieve him. If they continued on this path, their escort risked being destroyed and their ship stranded by Executor's interdictors. Defeat was a possibility, and the Emperor was blind to it.

Unless... unless the old man had a back-up plan.

Xizor narrowed his eyes at that thought. Yes, it did seem uncharacteristic of Palpatine to throw himself into such an uncertain situation without an escape route. But Xizor doubted that escape would in any way include saving his minions' skins. Betrayal seemed inevitable, and Xizor would not even have the consolation of killing Vader's son.


Now, there was a thought.

The deckplates under his feet lurched abruptly and Xizor held onto the back of the command chair.

"What was that?" he snapped. But he already knew: Palpatine had miscalculated.

"They're firing on us, Prince," a crewmember said, even as another shot lashed against the shields.

So, he had been correct: either Vader was not in control of this attack force, or he was willing to sacrifice his son to kill his old master. Having the boy aboard was worthless insurance for their lives now.

He turned on his heel. "Pull our ships away from the Executor and have them concentrate on those Interdictors. We are leaving," he said. And then, "Have a detachment of guards meet me outside the docking level observation lounge in five minutes. Make sure they are fully armed."

"We need to get closer," Leia said.

Lando glanced at her. She looked... well, if he was honest, she looked in her element. He'd known, logically, that she hadn't risen in the ranks of the Rebel Alliance without being a capable leader, but he hadn't quite expected this level of intensity or competence from her. Shoving aside any thought of comparing those skills to Vader's, he turned to her.

"Not in this ship, Princess. This is as close as we get."

She turned her thousand-watt glare onto him. "It's not close enough," she said. "We're not using an atmosphere tunnel in the middle of a battle. There has to be another way. Executor's airlocks-"

"Aren't designed to link up with a blockade runner," he interrupted. "This is all we have, Princess. We can't bring a ship this size any closer."

She turned aside, glancing at the screen. It showed the image directly outside the hull of the Battalion - a stretch of Executor's hull, a hundred metres away. A hundred metres too far.

Leia pursed her lips. "Then we need a smaller ship." Her eyes sparkled with an idea.

Lando frowned, searching for her meaning. Then he grinned. "Chewie?" he called over his shoulder. "The Falcon warmed and ready?"

He got a bark in return - the Falcon was always warmed and ready. Lando smiled. "Princess," he said with a theatrical bow, "your ride awaits."

"No," she shook her head. Lando's expression turned to surprise. "I can't leave the Battalion," she explained. "Not when Vader has left me in command." She paused, clearly trying and failing to resist the smile that itched to come through at the expression on Lando's face. "You have to go get Vader."

As another shot flashed brilliant red light across the observation lounge when it lashed against the shields, Palpatine cackled.

"It seems that your father isn't greatly concerned about losing you, young Skywalker. Where is your faith in him now?" he spat.

Luke smiled grimly, accepting the Emperor's barb with a strange sense of calm. There was no feeling of betrayal there, just a sense of relief that his presence wasn't preventing his friends and family from following the path they'd all been walking for years now.

"He's doing what he knows he has to. He's making the right decision. If I have to die to rid the galaxy of you, then it's worth it."

"What?!" Mon demanded, glaring at the communications console even though the connection was voice-only. "What do you mean?"

"As I said, Ma'am," the ensign said. "There's nothing in here but a droid." There was a loud string of electronic chatter, which sounded disgruntled, if she was any judge of droid-speak.

Mon turned away, her mind running over the implications.

Only a droid.

Her gaze caught that of the two Imperials who were on the bridge, and of Reeikan, whose face looked more serious than ever, if that was possible.

Mon closed the 'comm connection without bothering to sign off, adjusted the settings to hail Battalion, and closed her eyes briefly whilst waiting for the ship's communications ensign to respond.

The Executor's corridors were dark, only occasionally lit by a red emergency light that gave the ship an eerie, gothic horror. Lando patted the blaster strapped to his thigh and glanced at Chewie. A wookiee in a sealed flight-suit was a strange sight, he thought, not for the first time, as his companion started jogging down the corridor. Lando followed, trusting Chewie's sense of direction to lead them the right way.

They'd had to suit up when the Falcon's airlock had refused to seal fully. Lando had foolishly assumed airlocks were pretty standard across Imperial, Rebel and civilian ships - but apparently Han had made enough modifications to his that it didn't want to seal with Executor's system. They'd wasted time getting suited up for a two-centimetre jump across open space.

Suddenly, sooner than he'd expected or been prepared for, they were running through the last blast door and into the darkened auxiliary bridge.

Vader stood at a control panel, a shadow that simultaneously blended into the dark of the bridge and stood out in stark, looming contrast against the bleeding emergency lighting.

Lando patted his thigh again - the blaster was still there. Then he shook his head, trying to remind himself that the guy was on their side now.

"Do you have Luke?" Vader asked, without looking up. His hands flew across a console at inhuman speed. Lando took a step backwards, although his initial intention had been to move forwards. "Well, Calrissian? Is he safe?"

Lando mentally shook himself free of the instinctive apprehension. "The councillor ship is picking him up and Leia's clearing them a path to jump out of the system," he said. "Luke will be fine."

If he'd expected a show of relief or gratitude, he was sorely disappointed. Vader didn't even glance at them. "Did you bring medical equipment?"

Lando glanced over at Chewie. The wookiee had already moved - he was crouched beside a figure on the ground that Lando had missed in the gloom. An officer by his uniform, breathing shallowly.

"Chewie has it," Lando said.

"Good. Admiral Piett took a hit to his shoulder. Stabilise him and get him to a medic."

Lando blinked, finally walking towards Vader. "Wait a minute - you're coming too."

This time, Vader turned his mask to face Lando. "I cannot."

"What?" Lando said. He glanced at Chewie, who was busy with bacta and pain suppressors. He turned back to Vader. "You can't stay here. Leia-"

"Executor's coolant system is malfunctioning. I have it stabilised through manual control, but it cannot be left. I must stay here and keep it stable or the crew will die."

Lando sucked in a breath. If he could have done, he'd have run a hand over his face, but the flight-suit helmet didn't allow it. "Can you last in this heat?" he asked.

Vader didn't respond.

This wasn't good. They needed Vader, as much as Lando hated allowing that thought space in his mind. The battle was too evenly matched. Leia and Jossel were holding their own, but it was on a knife-edge. Vader's knowledge could tip it in their favour, and then they would achieve the unachievable - they could destroy the Emperor. Or, if they only managed to incapacitate the ship, they would need Vader to deal with his ex-superior.


"There is no other option. If I cannot control this heat, then I will die alongside the crew."

Was it something in their blood that made the Skywalker line so prone to martyrdom? Lando glanced at Chewie again, and this time the wookiee was looking directly at him. His expression was unfathomable and Lando sucked in another breath.

"Fine," he said, turning to Vader. "You go, I'll stay. I can control the system."

Vader stilled for a moment from his work, turning again to Lando. "The temperature in here is too high for a man to work for long. The Force and my suit can protect me, at least temporarily."

Lando held open his arms and gestured to his flight-suit. "Well, what do you know? I have a suit, too."

Vader considered that for a moment. "There is no guarantee how long that will sustain you against-"

The 'comm trilled loudly, interrupting. Vader flicked at finger towards the console. Leia's voice came across, tight with worry.

"We have a problem," she said without preamble. "Luke wasn't aboard the escape pod."

"What?!" Vader barked, the word so loud and sharp Lando's heart felt like it hit his ribs as it jumped. Or maybe that was the wave of... something... that rippled across the bridge, making the consoles creak as if slammed by an unseen hand of anger.

"Artoo was in the pod," Leia continued. "He says Luke was heading for the docking bay when he last saw him. But the Black Sun ship hasn't launched any shuttles."

Vader's hands were balled into tight fists, squeezing so hard it surely had to hurt. Lando wondered whose neck the Dark Lord was imagining himself crushing.

"Their fleet is moving away from Executor and targeting our interdictors," Leia continued, with a strange bitterness in her voice that Lando didn't like. "They're going to run."

"No," Vader hissed, as if that word alone could reverse time and change recent history. "No!"

Lando swallowed thickly. "Right, that solves one question anyway."

Vader turned to him again.

"You can't stay here now," Lando said. "You have to go get Luke."

His heart was still thundering in his chest. Maybe it knew, even if his head hadn't quite accepted the idea yet, that he was offering himself up into a situation without any guarantee for his own survival. But there was no need for his head and his heart to argue anymore. This felt right.

"I'll stay," he said.

Chewie woofled softly. Lando smiled grimly.

Palpatine watched in silence as Luke pushed himself up to his feet and turned to look at the battle beyond the wide viewport.

"Looks pretty evenly matched," Luke said. "I give us a fifty-fifty chance." He could feel the Emperor's frustration at his apparent indifference. "You've run out of tactics, your Highness," he said, daring to keep his back turned on the man. "I won't turn to the dark side. I'm a Jedi, as is my father." He turned back to face Palpatine. "Whether I live or die, you've still lost."

A snarl flashed across the Emperor's features. His anger erupted from his fingertips in blue lightning. It leapt towards Luke, and reflexively Luke put his hands up, anticipating the oncoming storm.

But it didn't arrive.

The lightning exploded against his palms in a flash of white light, as if deflected by an invisible shield. He stared at his hands, as did Palpatine, the old man's features turning from incredulity to an unsettling expression of anticipation.

"You are foolish," Palpatine said, "but powerful."

Then he lifted his hands again, and the lightning surged -

- into nothing.

"What!?" Palpatine snapped - as the far blastdoor lifted and a crowd surged in, blasters firing. Luke reached for the Force to protect him, but it was no longer there. That suffocating disconnection was back. Adrenaline surged through his veins, waiting for a bolt to slam into him.

Seconds later, the firing had stopped. So intent were the stormtroopers on watching the oncoming battle between the Emperor and Luke, they had been taken unawares. They lay dead or dying on the deckplates as the remaining attackers - four Black Sun guards, all wearing a strange cylindrical backpack - moved forwards.

Xizor followed, the blaster in his hands pointed squarely at Palpatine. Luke blinked, struggling to keep up.

"Xizor!" Palpatine snarled. "What is this?"

Xizor strode forwards, his eyes narrowed. "This," he said, tone laced with acid, "is a betrayal. We are outgunned and trapped. It may have escaped your notice whilst playing with his son, but Vader is firing upon us. Evidently the boy means less to him than your death does. If we stay here, we die. And... you never intended to chose me as Vader's successor."

Palpatine laughed. Luke stared at him incredulously.

"Your ambition made you useful, for a while. But killing me now won't save you from Vader's wrath."

One finely-sculpted eyebrow lifted at that. "Killing you? Killing you is not what I have in mind."

The fire that shot from the blaster was the blue wave of a stun bolt. Palpatine crumpled to the deck.

Xizor flicked the setting on his blaster and swung towards Luke. "You, however, will die."

"Wait," Luke said. "Think about this."

"I have," the Falleen said, "for many months. I worked my way into Palpatine's favour for two reasons, Skywalker. One was for the power. The other was to punish Vader. "

Luke held his hands out and open in front of him and stepped towards Xizor. "By killing me? My father will hunt you down if you do that. You'd be better off staying here and dying cleanly when the ship is destroyed," Luke said, shaking his head.

"They'll think Palpatine killed you. And when they have Palpatine, they'll be too busy to chase this ship."

"Then what kind of revenge is that, if Vader doesn't know you did it?" Luke said. Xizor didn't respond. Luke pushed on. "Let me go. I'll take the Emperor with me. It's us they want," he said, nodding towards the battle beyond the viewport. "They'll let you go if they have us. Vader won't chase you."

Xizor laughed. "And who would stop him coming after me? You?"

Luke smiled mirthlessly. "He'll listen - as long as he's not flown into a murdering rage because you killed me."

There was a wicked glint in the Falleen's eye. "You know if I live, I won't give up on having my revenge, don't you? You only delay the inevitable."

"I know," he said, thinking about the burning hate that he used to feel towards Vader. His need for vengeance had nearly consumed him on Bespin. That seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Xizor hesitated. Without the Force, it was impossible for Luke to read the shifting emotions in his eyes. Then the Falleen was moving - lowering his blaster and lifting his comlink. "Bridge," he said, "hail the enemy. Tell them... tell them we want to broker a deal."

This day was cursed. With each hour that passed, yet another problem reared its head. They were haemorrhaging possibilities, loosing good men. Piett, perhaps. Calrissian too. Every solution was scuppered, every heroic act undone by the next problem that came along on its heels. Only the rush to get off the Executor, the march through the darkened corridors, kept Vader's frustration in check.

Chaos take this day and its impossibilities! Was it so much to ask of the Force that his son should come through this unscathed? What possible purpose could the boy's death serve for the galaxy? Why did the Force so desperately want to take Luke from him?

But even as Vader thought that last, bitter thought, he recognised his anger for the trap it was. There was no solution to be found in his shaking a fist at fate for turning the tables against them. What could Vader hope to accomplish even if, with all his power, he were to reach out and shake the stars for daring to defy his will? Nothing at all: that path would lead him full circle, back to where he'd first lost faith in the people he was trying to save.

Vader stretched out again with the Force, to touch the makeup of the fight continuing beyond Executor's hull, the lives battling for survival across the hundreds, thousands of kilometres covered by the battle. But the Force surged with the upheaval of the fight. The death, the anger, the terror. It clouded the future. And Vader could feel neither Luke's presence nor Palpatine's. They were... hidden from him.

The wookiee had stopped beside an airlock. He growled something, and Vader frowned, drawing on the Force to attempt to translate the speech. It had been many years since he had last had occasion to translate wookiee-speak. The wookiee growled again, impatiently. /We are here/ he said, lowering Piett's semi-unconscious body to the floor. /The airlock is not fully sealed. We will need to retrieve another flight-suit./

Vader balled his fist in irritation.

"Quickly then," he snapped.

"I hate feeling this useless," Reeikan muttered, from where he stood behind Mon's seat.

She glanced over her shoulder at him. "That sentiment is mutual," she said.

Through the viewport, the battle raged at a distance and the command channel chattered with orders. It had moved further away from them, away from the wreck of the Executor as their enemy turned upon the interdictor ships in an attempt to free themselves an escape route. But the combined Rebel and Imperial forces kept them encircled within the battle area, denying them any chance at simply running far enough and fast enough to escape the Interdictors' influence.

"If we could only assist the Executor-"

A loud burst of electronic chatter interrupted Reeikan and they both turned as an astromech scooted into the room at full throttle. Mon raised her eyebrows at the entrance, just as a guard appeared in the doorway, clearly out of breath.

"Sorry, ma'am. He won't stay put."

The droid let out shrill beeping sound at that. His dome twisted left, then right, and he motored to a console and plugged himself in.

The image on the forward viewscreen went black, blocking out their view of the battle.

"Hey!" Reeikan said, heading to stop the droid. "What do you-"

Words scrolled across the black screen, punctuated by the droid's electronic voice bleeping at them.

I have the virus.

"What?" Mon said, standing abruptly. "What virus?"

The droid beeped irritably.

The one the Executor is infected with.

Mon turned to Reeikan. "If we can decode that and reverse it-"

"We don't have the expertise here," Reeikan said.

Someone coughed behind them. They both turned. One of the Imperial spies Vader had sent back with Commander Skywalker held his hand up. The one who had pretended to be a medic.

"Hi," he said, "remember us? We could be of some use here."

Mon frowned at them.

The medic grinned. "I'm not actually trained as a medic, you know." He nodded to his counterpart. "And he's not much of a pilot." The 'pilot' snorted at that and rolled his eyes. "But Intelligence Corps training on decryption and slicing? Oh yeah, we've done that."

It hadn't occurred to Vader before he'd stepped aboard, to wonder what ship Calrissian and the wookiee had used to dock with the Executor. But as Chewbacca lumbered past him, recognition came. How ironic, to be rescued by the ship he had spent a great part of the last three years chasing.

/The medical bunk is to the aft/ Chewbacca said, disappearing down the curve of the Millennium Falcon's corridor. /I will decouple the ship./

Vader turned in the direction indicated, Piett balanced over his shoulder.

The Force sparkled with ghosts, with its memories of his children aboard this ship. The air was threaded with the potent emotions the crew had experienced walking these deckplates.







He entered the crew quarters, lowered Piett to the medical bunk, which clicked and buzzed as it sprang into life and began assessing the admiral's injuries.


Luke's pain - the last person to lay here had been his son. Just for a moment, Piett was gone and Luke was in his place, his body curled protectively over the stump of his mutilated arm.

As quickly as it had come, the illusion was gone. Something tight and constricting had knotted in Vader's gut. His hands worked methodically to strap Piett into the bunk and attach the sensors, set the system, but the knot remained.

The ship lurched, breaking Vader's concentration. There was no time for this melancholy. It served no purpose, other than to slow them down.

/The Falcon is decoupled/ the wookiee barked over the ship-wide comm. /I am in need of a co-pilot./

"This is Princess Organa, in command of the combined Rebel Alliance and Executor fleet. State your terms of surrender," Leia said, drawing on all her years of diplomatic training to keep her voice steady. The connection was audio only - which was just as well, because she wasn't sure how well she could have hidden the desperate hope from her face.

There was a few seconds delay before the reply came back. "Princess Organa, what a pleasure. I expected an admiral or a general - but royalty? How delightful. "

Leia allowed herself a second's pause to bite back the instinctive scathing reply. "Prince Xizor, I assume," she said. "Where is the Emperor?"

"He is... indisposed," Xizor answered smoothly. "I am in charge now. And it isn't a surrender I'm petitioning - more of a... trade-off."

"I will pilot," Vader stated as he entered the Millennium Falcon's cockpit. The wookiee turned from flicking switches on the low ceiling to level a doubtful glare at Vader. "I am familiar with the YT-series." Vader snapped impatiently.

Chewbacca remained unmoved, blocking Vader's path to the pilot seat, eyeing him up and down.

Vader sighed. "We are wasting time," he said, an edge of anger in his voice. The wookiee didn't look the least bit phased by the warning tone. His gaze continued to assess Vader for another heartbeat, before he turned and dropped into the co-pilot's seat.

More than his brief resistance had, the acquiescence gave Vader pause. Chewbacca glanced back at him.

/Hurry, then, if you wish to save your cub/ he said.

"Falcon, do you copy?" Leia said into the pick-up, pacing as she spoke.

"Go ahead." Vader's voice. Leia glanced at the tactical screen. The small icon representing the Falcon began a fast climb away from Executor's surface.

"We have some new developments," she said, unable to keep the tension from her voice. "Xizor has made contact."

The sound of Vader's respirator filled the empty comm air. Then he said sharply, "He is not to be trusted."

She smiled ruefully. "I'd already figured that part out. But he's proposing a truce. He'll give us Luke and the Emperor, if we let his fleet leave unmolested." She paused. "Luke believes him."

"You spoke to Luke?"

"No... but he was there and he wasn't fighting the plan."

On the forward viewscreen, the Falcon could be seen striking out across space towards the heat of the battle. It was still an even fight: both sides were losing by attrition, but had suffered no major losses. The attempts to attack the interdictors were contained, for now. Either side could win... or lose.

"He's proposing that Luke takes a shuttle out from their cruiser, after we've pulled our fighters back. He's made a concession on the interdictors - they go once Luke is clear." Leia wetted her lips. "I need to give him an answer," she said. And yes, technically Vader had given her command, but she wasn't sure whether she could trust this wild hope for a solution where, just this once, everybody lived.

"Xizor is not to be trusted," Vader repeated and Leia rolled her eyes at the reiteration. That just wasn't helpful. "But we may have to trust in his drive for self-preservation. Pull the fleet back to protect the Interdictors, in case he attempts to run."

They were already moving for the docking bay when Xizor's comlink buzzed. He snapped it from his belt. "Well?"

"Princess Organa has confirmed Darth Vader's agreement to the deal, my Prince. She has begun ordering the withdrawal of fighters."

Xizor looked at Luke with a curious light in his eyes. "It seems you were right," he acknowledged. Then, into the comlink, "Order our fighters to permit their withdrawal. Don't provoke them. Inform Organa that we are on our way to the aft docking bay." He cut the connection.

A small part of Luke had wondered what would happen if Vader didn't trust Xizor and rejected the deal. But Leia had sounded composed, level-headed. It was a reminder that he was hardly alone out here, no matter what happened next. There was something calming about knowing she was out there fighting.

Xizor's glanced at him. "I'm sure your father will be fuming at losing," he said.

Luke frowned. "Losing?"

"As long as I live, he hasn't won."

Luke didn't bother to contest that. Right now, winning and losing seemed unimportant next to living and dying.

They reached the docking bay doors within minutes. Part of Luke had anticipated a fire-fight when they reached the docking bay, given the stormtroopers he'd seen there not that long ago and the fact the guards were shouldering an unconscious Palpatine. But the troopers were nowhere to be seen, and the group carried on towards an Imperial shuttle sitting near the exit to open space, the Imperial crest tattooed on its closed wings.

"Hurry up," Xizor said, moving to the head of the group. The two guards carrying the unconscious Emperor grunted as they forced themselves to move quicker. Luke's feet didn't need any encouragement.

Once aboard the shuttle, it was clear that this was no ordinary military transport. The corridor was decorated in Imperial red. The seating area at the rear of the cockpit was filled with comfortable, form-fitting chairs and individual holo-screens. A row of Royal Guard force-pikes lined the arsenal racks instead of blasters or ammunition.

"This is Palpatine's personal ship?" Luke asked, although it wasn't really a question.

Xizor glanced at him but didn't respond with more than an unsettling smile.

The guards dropped Palpatine into a passenger chair, well away from the controls, and began securing him to it with duct tape.

Luke watched the process with a growing sense of deja vu. Hadn't it been just weeks ago that he'd been in the reverse position to this, with the Imperial governor as his captor and no Emperor along for the ride?

Xizor paced impatiently. "Quickly. Then put the ysalamiri in the back compartment. I will disarm the ship." He pulled his blaster from somewhere inside his robe and pointed it at the console.

"No, wait -" Luke started to say, but too late: the bolt hit the console and the board exploded, leaving behind only melted plastisteel where the weapons systems had sat seconds earlier. "You didn't have to do that." Luke sighed.

Xizor pinned him with a feral glare. "And let you loose in this hanger with an armed ship? I think not."

Luke shook his head. "I'm not interested in attacking you," he said. "And you don't need to leave the ysalamiri. As long as Palpatine is unconscious, I can deal with him."

Xizor ignored him.

The Lambda-class shuttle made a swift exit from the aft docking bay, streaking at speed away from the Black Sun ship. The surrounding TIE fighters - enemies and allies alike - scattered to clear a path for it. The shuttle shot through the opening at a speed that bordered on reckless.

Vader moved to trigger the comm. "Luke?"

For a few seconds there was no answer, and Vader glanced at his wookiee co-pilot. Chewbacca shrugged and growled softly. Impatience rattled through Vader, and he wanted to demand an answer from the shuttle. Days, weeks had passed since he'd sent Luke off with the Rebels - but the last few seconds were the most frustrating by far.

Then the boy's voice answered him.

"... you there? I'm still figuring out these controls."

"You appeared to find the accelerator easily enough," Vader replied, his heart lightened by the levity in his son's voice. Chewbacca laughed softly.

"Force of habit," Luke responded. Vader watched the shuttle perform a roll-and-drop through an array of fighters. "I think I've figured the manoeuvring thrusters out now, too."

Vader smiled, though it stretched the scar tissue on his face painfully. If the boy's sense of fun was intact, then there was hope. "Are you well?"

"I'm fine," Luke replied quickly. "I've got cargo, though - some sort of creature that blocks the Force. And my passenger is still unconscious."

Vader nodded to himself. At least that would keep Palpatine manageable. Without the Force he was just a malicious old man.

"Good." It was too small a word for the relief throttling through his body, but it would do. At least ten different possible questions ran through his mind, warring for priority.

"Is that you in the Falcon?"

Chewbacca answered that one. /Never fear, little one. He is not unsupervised./

Consternation at the joke at his expense rippled through Vader, but Luke's laugh quickly doused it. He had the strangest sensation, just for a moment, of a comaraderie that had been all but missing from his life for over twenty years. His hands tightened on the ship's controls.

"My Lord, the Black Sun ship is recalling her fighters and preparing to jump," someone interjected over Vader's private comm. Captain Jossel. "Princess Organa has instructed that they be allowed to leave." He sounded more than a little uncertain of where his duty lay.

Apparently the transmission had carried over the Falcon's comm. "Let them go," Luke said, before Vader could respond. "I gave Xizor my word."

Silently, Vader fought against the demon inside that wanted to order them to attack the ship.

"Father..." Luke said, a tremor of worry in his voice.

"Instruct the interdictors to stand down, Captain. Allow the ship and her fighters to leave."

He was aware of the wookiee's intense regard, but he ignored it.

"Yes, my Lord," the Imperial officer replied, and the comm clicked shut. Had the respirator allowed it, Vader would have let out a sigh - though whether it would be one of relief or regret, he wasn't sure. He hoped this mercy was not a weakness he would later regret. He hoped it really could turn out to be this simple.

Luke's shuttle flew in a long, graceful arc through the fighters and turned to face the Falcon. "Do you have somewhere I can land this thing?" he said. "Before my passenger wakes up."

Vader checked the Falcon's scopes - there was a star destroyer close to them, and it was well-equipped to deal with a Sith Lord prisoner. Except... except that it might not be a wise idea to take Palpatine there. Luke was prudent to conceal the identity of his 'passenger' over the comm. Thus far, Vader's fleet remained unaware that they were fighting the Emperor, and now was not the time to let them know. But the Battalion and the handful of other Rebel ships were out of the question: they were not nearly as well equipped for handling such a high-risk prisoner.


The third option was the abandoned Rebel base on the planet below. The mining station that Rebel's had converted into their latest shelter should still be operational: it was designed to run automatically, with or without the skeleton crew it would have had during its mining days. The system should allow Luke to dock and Palpatine could be dealt with away from any further... distractions.

"Take her down to the empty Rebel base," Vader finally answered. "The automated docking procedure should still be operational. We will follow you down and help your passenger to... disembark."

A thrill ran through him at the thought of that. Not a feeling he should welcome, that one. A bloodlust that threatened to be overwhelming if he wasn't careful. But... he would be careful.

Leia's eyes flickered to the scopes, tracking the movement of the shuttle even as she tried to concentrate on her conversation with Mon Mothma. She ached to call her brother, but something in Mon's expression wouldn't allow her to dismiss the woman's call.

"Leia," she said, "if we can get this wyrm into the Executor's system, it might re-write the virus and restore some of the fail-safes."

Leia nodded, tearing her gaze from the scopes. "What do you need?" she said.

Mon smiled. "To get our tech men aboard with Artoo Detoo. We're coming back in to dock with Executor."

Leia frowned. "Your tech men? I thought all the tech crew had jumped with the transports."

Mon smiled conspiratorially. "They're not exactly our tech men."


"Ma'am," someone interjected her - the communications ensign. "Confirmation from Captain Jossel. All enemy ships have made the jump to hyperspace."

Leia nodded thanks for the information. At least that was one problem solved. Now for the rest.

She turned back to Mon Mothma. "Make sure one of your tech men can relieve Lando. He's been at the centre of the heat for fifteen minutes now." She paused, allowing - just for a brief second - the worry she felt to show. "He's too busy to check in... at least, we hope that's what's happening. The temperature remains stable, for now."

The seriousness of Mon Mothma's expression showed her concern at that news. "They should be aboard in under five minutes."

Leia smiled, knowing it wouldn't reach her eyes. "Good luck. I'm recalling all Rebel ships - we're going to need those medical frigates back here."

"We'll keep you updated." Mothma signed off.

Leia leaned back from the pick-up and folded her arms over her chest. Maybe, just maybe, if the Force was done with throwing problems at them, things could start to get a little simpler now.

Barutte swelled in the cockpit's viewscreen as Luke scanned the surface for the base. He'd never seen the planet from space before and was stunned by the audacity of his comrades for choosing it as their base. And he'd thought that Hoth was as inhospitable a place as they could find... apparently, he'd been wrong.

The planet's atmosphere was stained a liquid red, warning of the gases that made it unbreathable to most life-forms. The mining station itself was a boxy grey complex squatting down low on the tundra. The majority of it was covered by a sealed bio-dome that contained the breathable atmosphere.

Only a large docking complex was not included in that bio-dome, and the shuttle's scanners were reading an atmosphere shield guarding the mouth of the bay, one with the containment power of the shields normally installed in a star destroyer's docking bay. The base looked small and vulnerable compared to the sprawling quarry fields that lacerated the landscape, scattered with deserted mining equipment.

Still, at least it would be a piece of cake to dock with. The shuttle's scanners were picking up an automated landing beacon, just waiting for Luke to get close enough to trigger the tractor beam system which would guide his ship through the atmosphere shield and into the docking bay.

As his eyes and the instruments calculated the quickest way to approach the station, Luke almost missed the faint sound behind him.

It grew louder and the hairs on the back of Luke's neck stood on end, his Force-less senses tingling with a sense of danger. Laughter - that sound was laughter. Slowly, Luke turned the pilot's chair around to face his newly-conscious 'passenger'.

Palpatine smiled at him, but with no humour. There was only vicious triumph in his expression. When Luke said nothing, he chuckled again.

"Young fool," Palpatine cackled, his yellow eyes were septic in the rusty light of Barutte. "And you were so close to victory."

"What?" Luke demanded.

He was tempted to reach for the comm and call Vader, but he checked the urge.

"This," Palpatine almost snarled, "is my ship."

Something inside Luke, a basic instinct, kicked his heart rate into high gear and made his pulse throb in his ears.

Palpatine spoke again, but he wasn't addressing Luke.

"Voice command activation," he said. Luke frowned. The ship's computer trilled. Palpatine smiled. "Activate order sixty-seven. Locate and destroy the source of the last logged transmission. Use any means necessary."

It had been spoken with such melodrama that the next few seconds were something off on anti-climax. Nothing happened. Luke raised his eyebrows at Palpatine.

"I don't think you-"

The ship lurched.

Luke was thrown back into his seat.

In the same split-second, the lights dimmed to emergency power, the forward viewscreen winked to black, and the engine took on a new, deeper pitch as the ship reversed direction in a jack-knife move that pinned Luke to his seat as effectively as any crash-webbing.

"What the hell?" he cursed, fighting against the inertia to turn back to the controls.

He managed to turn the chair around, locked his leg around a support strut to stop the inertia from spinning him back. The ship was knifing upwards, away from the planet.

The controls didn't respond to anything he did. Most of the panels were dark. The navigation readout showed a target outlined in red. The target was moving towards them almost as fast as they were moving towards it. What the-?

"Luke, what are you doing?"

His father's voice, over the comm. Palpatine cackled with a manic sort of glee. Luke glanced at him briefly before slapping the comm to reply, hoping that at least that would work for him. It did.

"I've lost control of the ship," he said, hearing his words tumble out. The deck plates groaned as the ship's infrastructure struggled to cope with the insane acceleration. "Palpatine voice activated some sort of buried command and all the power's been thrown to the sublights. I don't even have visual."

Vader's reply was equally urgent. "You are flying directly towards us."

"What?" Luke said, looking more closely at that targeting screen.

He felt his heart thump painfully in his chest.

"Move!" he said, yelling the word.


"We're locked onto you - you're the target. She's thrown all power to the drives. Move!"

No response - the blip on the targeting screen continued to scream closer. Luke whipped his head around to stare at Palpatine. The Emperor looked supremely satisfied. But then there was the sound of a wookiee howling over the comm and the blip on the screen made an abrupt turn away from them.

"Father-" he started to say, but the words went out of him as the shuttle made its own abrupt change in direction, throwing Luke against the seat again.

"You see, young Skywalker, I was right," Palpatine said from behind Luke. Luke glanced over his shoulder to make eye contact. "Your father will die. That has always been inevitable."

"You're insane," Luke said. "If we hit the Falcon we'll all die, you included. That's not much of a back-up plan, your Highness."

"Death means nothing to me. This body is weak and old. In death, I will become more powerful than you can imagine."

Luke felt his stomach clench with nausea as the shuttle made another sharp turn. He shook his head - had the loss of the Force unhinged Palpatine, or should Luke be listening to the warning bells ringing in his head?

He whipped back around to scan the scopes again. The Falcon was keeping ahead of them - just. He supposed he should be grateful Xizor has blown the armaments, after all. His hands flew over the boards, trying and failing to get something to respond to him.

"Damn it!" he swore, striking the board with his right hand.

Chewie howled at him over the comm.

"I can't get anything to respond," he said.

"No!" Vader suddenly said. His voice sounded strained. "Back off!"

For a second Luke thought Vader was talking to him - then he realised he was hearing only half a conversation.

"Stand down the fighters, Captain," Vader was saying. "No one is to fire on that ship!"

A soft cackle from behind him. Luke ignored it.

"Father, let them target the drives. If they can disable them-"

"No," Vader snapped. "You're flying too fast and too erratically for them to be that accurate. They could destroy the entire ship."

Luke wetted his lips.

"Better that than we ram you," he shot back. "Let them try."

"No!" Vader snapped, and there was a snarl of anger and frustration in his voice, the strain of denying the only choice immediately available to them.

The ship groaned ominously as it hurtled through a move only a fighter could attempt safely. Luke's stomach spun as he finally grabbed for the crash-webbing and buckled it across his chest. This could be a bumpy ride.



The emotion in the word lanced right through him, cut at him. Denial, in a desperate voice.

And then, softly, Palpatine whispered, "There is another way to save him..."

Luke couldn't turn and face him again. He was scared of the fury that was lashing through him. Without the Force, he could still strike out at the old man. He could kill him, if he had a mind to. To be this close to victory made defeat all the more painful.

"The command can be deactivated," Palpatine said, his voice low, "with the right words." Luke gripped the arms of the pilot's chair. "But you will have to take it from me," Palpatine continued, the words slithering into Luke's mind. "You've done it before."

"No." Luke shook his head.

The ship bucked suddenly, as if buffeted by the hand of the Force.

"Come now, don't be so modest. I know Vader has shown you how to invade another's mind and rip the information you need from them."

Luke finally turned back to throw him a defiant glare.

Palpatine's gaze seemed to pierce Luke's shell of stubborn determination.

"You are scared and angry, which makes you all the more powerful. I could not stop you."

For a moment Luke saw himself coming to his feet, dashing towards the older man and shaking him, as if the information would just fall from him like credits from upturned pockets. He shook the impulse away and narrowed his eyes on Palpatine.

Then he remembered the advice his father had urged on him from the moment they had parted: to practice maintaining his shields at all costs. Clearly, letting Palpatine anywhere near his mind would be a mistake. He wasn't foolish enough to think he could just grab the information and be done with it.

"I'm not letting you anywhere near my mind," he said. "I won't give in to your games."

"Ah... pride. I knew it was in there somewhere. This is no game, boy. Kill the ysalamiri, regain the Force, and take what you need to save your father," Palpatine urged. "I could not stop you. Not with that Skywalker temper fuelling your need."

Force help him, he was tempted.

He imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to touch the Sith Lord's mind. He envisaged it to be like dipping his toes into a deep river, and being swept off his feet by unseen currents. Some instinct told him that Palpatine was hardly as defenceless as he was making out. Luke would be sticking his head in the rancor's mouth. Naive he might be - but not that naive.

Luke's gaze shifted to the back compartment, to the weapons rack and the compartment where the ysalamiri had been stored.

Palpatine followed his gaze, and smiled.

Unbuckling the crash webbing, moving against the momentum of the ship, Luke stood.

The Falcon moved through the planet's upper atmosphere as though she were dancing, responding to Vader's piloting with an ease that at any other time Vader would have relished. But not now.

The shuttle followed them doggedly, chasing every twist and turn despite its bulky design, straining the ship's infrastructure. No lambda-class shuttle was ever designed to withstand that kind of speed or stress. All the power - life support, weapons and shields included - had been shunted to drives. It was more like a meteorite hurtling after them than a ship. A darkened missile intent on its own destruction.

He could hear Palpatine's voice whispering over the comm, but the Sith Lord was talking too softly for the words to be made out. Vader gripped the controls tighter, kicked the Falcon into a starboard spin down into the next layer of atmosphere. What was Sidious telling Luke? What poison was he spreading? What -

In a moment of disorientation, Vader was back in the visions that had haunted him for too long, since that first attempt to introduce Luke to the dark side aboard the Executor, so long ago now.

"I never wanted this," Luke had said, standing above Vader with the pale shadow of the dark side in his grey features. "I just wanted... I just wanted to save you..." Luke had laughed then, a dry, brittle laugh, raking across the air between them - the yawning chasm between them. "He didn't tell me I'd have to pay for your life with my soul."

Chewbacca roared out a warning and Vader hit the left thrusters instinctively, veering sharply away from the chasing ship. Outwardly, he regained control of their hurtling descent towards the surface, where he hoped the atmosphere would slow the shuttle down at least a little. Inwardly, he thought he might just be about to come apart.

"I sold myself for you, just as he asked - don't act so disgusted, Father. I did it for you."

Was all they'd done these last few months for nothing? Did all the sacrifices mean nothing? Had all the lessons against anger and fear gone un-learned?

"Luke," Vader called over the comm, hoping the boy would hear him. "Palpatine's promises are poison. Do not listen to him."

As if Palpatine was a bogeyman Luke could just cover his ears to. Vader's gut churned.

He glanced to the Falcon's scopes - a squadron of TIEs had followed them down. They were not made for atmospheric flight... but still, they might be able to target the shuttle's engines, might be able to pinpoint them...or they might not. But shouldn't Vader be willing to take that risk, rather than risk creating his visions of the future?

He couldn't give the order.

If they blew the drives off now, the shuttle would hurtle to the ground. In space it could have been tractored in. Down here... even if the TIEs were successful, the ground would rush up to meet it.

"He cannot die," Vader said, through clenched teeth. His fist came down on the control panel, leaving a dent. "I will not allow him to die."

/The cub is resourceful/ Chewbacca said, although the wookiee must have known Vader had been talking to himself. /Do not give up so easily./

Vader turned an angry glare on his co-pilot. He was about to say, You have no idea what he faces, but the words didn't make it to his lips. Because Vader recognised the fear in them, and was suddenly irritated with himself. Fear would only cloud his judgement now - hadn't he learnt that yet? And the wookiee was right: Luke was resourceful.

And so was Vader.

He glanced again at the sensor readouts of the Rebel base, the automated systems that remained online. And yes - that might just work. He put the Falcon into a sudden twist, kicking the thrusters to full power and arrowed down towards the abandoned base.

"Luke?" he called over the comm, hearing his voice sounding calmer than it had moments earlier.

"I'm here," Luke replied.

"The Emperor-"

"Don't worry. He's... gone back to sleep." Luke paused. "He's still alive, but those Force pikes pack a lot of energy."

A slight smile stretched Vader's lips.


He should have known his son would not be swayed by Palpatine's lies now, not after coming so far. He pushed the Falcon's throttle open as wide as she would go.

"I have a plan."

Luke let out a breath of relief.

"I was hoping you'd say that!"

He glanced again over his shoulder at Palpatine. The man's head had lolled back in his seat, but his breathing remained steady. Luke wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be relieved or disappointed that the force pike hadn't killed him.

The ship was shaking more now, and Luke gripped the seat arms as he turned back to the navigational scopes.

"You're taking us down to the surface?"

"To your Rebel base," Vader confirmed.

Luke furrowed his brow. "I can't land-"

"You will not have to. The base is protected by the automated pilot system - it will not allow a ship to crash through the atmospheric barrier. The tractor system will deploy to slow you down and bring you in."

Luke felt a smile creep over his face. But -

"The engines will probably blow with the stress," Luke pointed out. "This isn't going to be a pretty landing."

"Indeed. Can you get rid of the Force-dampening creatures? With the Force, together we can control the descent and protect you from the impact."

Luke frowned. He didn't relish the idea of killing the creatures.

"I'm not-"

"They would most likely die in a crash, Luke."

Luke sighed.

"All right, I'll -"

The words were cut off sharply as the shuttle made a sudden lurch to starboard. Sparks seared across the interior of the ship, and Luke put his arms up to shield his face from the heat of them. The air was flooded with the acrid smell of ozone.

"Did you see that?" Luke said.

There was a pause from the comm. For a second, Luke had the sensation of falling alone in the dark.


"Your port stabiliser blew," Vader finally replied.

The crash-webbing pinned Luke to his seat as the shuttle began a seesawing motion.

"Your starboard stabiliser won't be long."

At which point the ship would plummet in an uncontrolled fall. Well, at least it made Vader's job of avoiding the shuttle's ramming attempts easier. Luke swallowed thickly. Somehow, all the times he'd imagined how he might die in this war, it hadn't included this particular scenario.


"I'm here."

"There's no time to kill the creatures. I'm taking us down to the Rebel base now."

The shuttle was banking sharply to starboard, listing as it went down, tearing apart the orange clouds of the lower atmosphere. It was not travelling nearly as fast without both her stabilisers working and Vader throttled back to help it stay on their tail, keeping it lolloping after them like a lame bantha.

He scanned the horizon. Below them stretched the empty rocky plains of the planet, the surface slashed with the scars left from the Empire's mines, which had stood empty for years. And coming up fast was the blocky grey structure of the base.

"We're approaching the base," Vader said, for Luke's benefit.

The calm tone he was striving for was under threat from the adrenaline accelerating through him.

"Father... if this doesn't work-"

"Brace yourself," Vader interrupted sharply, cutting off any risk of Luke foreshadowing a disaster with misplaced last words.

"If this doesn't work," Luke continued stubbornly, "I need you to do something for me."

Vader felt the muscles in his jaw tightening. It will work, he wanted to say.

But those were words he didn't want to spend the rest of his lifetime regretting. If this did go wrong, and he'd refused to hear Luke's request...

"Quickly then," he said.

"Say goodbye to Leia for me."

"You have my word," Vader said, both relieved and disappointed that the request was about his sister.

"Oh," Luke said, "and by the way - if you blame yourself for this, I swear I'll come back and haunt you into insanity. Forgive yourself, or all of this will have been for nothing."

Vader was momentarily unable to reply. Surprise and then confusion raced through him, and just an edge of discomfort at the thought of ever being able to shrug the blame for this situation from his shoulders.

The Falcon registered two tractor beams coming to bear on them. Vader let the Force guide his hands, manoeuvring the ship away from the beams' grasp at the last possible moment.

And then it happened.

The shuttle shot underneath them, racing along under the combined power of the tractor beam and its own engines. For a fraction of a second, the Falcon struggled to maintain height above it. Within the same heartbeat, the shuttle attempted to reverse drives to pursue its suddenly uncooperative prey. The tractor beam resisted. Two forces pulling in opposite directions: only one of them could win.

A flash of light flared from the underbelly of the shuttle.

Chewbacca roared in alarm and reached across Vader to get to the flight controls and give the Falcon more height.

The shuttle was briefly obscured by a screen of racing flame and light.

The comm screamed with a high pitch static that echoed the unvoiced tension in Vader's chest.

When the light dimmed, the shuttle was a klick below and in front of them, heading down fast for the base, both stabilisers and the sublight engine now venting a trail of thick, dirty smoke.

Chewbacca barked again.

"I see it," Vader said, but the wookiee growled at him.

/One tractor beam has failed/ Chewbacca said irritably, gesturing at the Falcon's scopes.

Vader's eyes flashed to the readout. And yes - the wookiee was right. One of the generators had blown with the stress.

He looked back to the falling shuttle, the ship dropping with too much momentum for one tractor beam alone to bring her in neatly. The rocky ground in front of the docking bay beckoned.

One day I will be... I will be the most powerful Jedi ever. I will even learn to stop people from dying...

But maybe not this day.

"Which way?"

The 'pilot' looked up and down the corridor that led away from the airlock. He thought he knew this ship, but in the dark Executor was an entirely different place.

"That way," he said, pointing left with his gloved and suited arm. "Come on."

"You're sure? I don't recognise this corridor," the 'medic' said, leaning over his shoulder. Filtered through the suit's vocoder, his voice sounded slightly metallic. Then with a low whistle he added, "Damn, it's hot in here."

"Hell of an understatement," the 'pilot' muttered. "Come on, we're running out of time. Have you -" He cut the sentence off abruptly as Skywalker's astromech droid bumped him in the back of the shins. "What the-?"

The droid scooted past him with a derisive electronic snort, heading forward determinedly. It paused, turned back, and let out an impatient hoot.

"Touchy little droid," the 'medic' muttered, but he started jogging after it.

There were probably worse ways to die, Lando thought. Some more painful, some more prolonged.

He'd always thought being stranded powerless in space, suffering the long starvation and madness of isolation, would be one of the most unpleasant. Time was the killer in that one, having the opportunity to contemplate your own destruction.

At least if this situation turned out to be his killer, he didn't have the attention or the time to contemplate his death too deeply. It was barrelling up on him, getting closer with every minute that passed as he worked in this life-draining heat, but he didn't have time to stare it in the face and wonder where it'd all gone wrong.

And that, if nothing else, he could be grateful for.

The process of keeping Executor's cooling system online was not simple. It required the fine balancing act of keeping the venting systems open without overloading the system. A simple act for a computer, an all-consuming task for a human. The process of watching numbers and shifting power between the systems accordingly made him feel oddly detached from the frantic dance of his fingers across the controls.

Irritating details he didn't have the time for intruded into the process. The sweat dripping down his face itched to be wiped away. His skin prickled with the heat. The desperate thirst in his throat made swallowing a painful reflex. Dizziness crept in.

He wondered, briefly, whether there was even anyone left alive aboard the ship. His atmosphere suit provided some protection, but most crewmembers would not be so lucky. But then, the auxiliary bridge was in the heart of the ship where there was no natural convection of the heat to space, and it was close to the engines. Those lucky enough to be nearer to the hull and further from the engines might still be alive.

Or they might not.

He could be running himself into death for nothing here.

Oddly, that thought didn't worry him. He was gambling man, and he was willing to believe there were at least a few people left alive. He was placing his last bet on that.

He kept working.

A wave of exhaustion washed through him. His hands slowed and he spared a few precious seconds to lean against the console and try to claw back some focus. Warning sounds screeched as the venting systems flailed.

"Damn it," he muttered. "So much for a heroic death, or going out in a blaze of glory. I get to be cooked by a computer. Who's going to remember me for that?"

Talking tore at his parched throat, so he shut up. And so much for memorable last words, he thought with a shake his head.

The minutes blurred as he worked. There was no space in his mind for anything but mechanical, iron-willed concentration to the task.

Exhaustion washed through him again, stronger this time. He recognised the tug of unconsciousness blurring the corners of his vision.

The console screeched warning sounds.

He reached out for it, but his hand missed, slapping at the side of the console. He sucked in a breath, trying to ignore the buzz of his blood roaring through his ears.

This is it, he thought.

Angry suddenly - whether at himself or at fate he wasn't sure - he gripped the console edge.

"This is it," a voice said from behind him.

Disoriented by hearing his thought voiced, Lando twisted around. But although he instructed his body to stop turning, his senses kept spinning and he slid to his knees.

Two suited figures had appeared in the entranceway. An astromech droid pushed its way between them, rotated its head until it spotted Lando, and motored towards him. Was that Artoo?

Help, Lando thought, though it wasn't a plea for aid but a relieved acknowledgement that someone had come to take over his task for him.

He could stop now.

He fell backwards, his helmet making a loud crack as it hit the deckplates.

"Wait," another voice said, coming closer. The words sounded warbled, as if coming across a bad comm channel. Then there was the foggy recognition that someone was trying to yank the helmet from his head. The sound of a droid's electronic warble. "Hold on," the man said.

Hold on? Lando thought, and even the sound of his own mind's voice was fractured, disintegrating. Hold onto what?

His consciousness faltered and he slipped into darkness.

A blackened streak on the rocky ground marked the path of the shuttle after it had impacted on the surface and skidded along the unforgiving ground. The line ran a straight course across the rock, through the atmosphere-maintaining force-field and between the yawning doors of the docking bay entrance. A few stray pieces of hull plating lay smouldering where they'd landed after being thrown off in the impact.

Both tractor beams had blown before the shuttle had hit the ground, and there was no assistance for the Falcon as Vader manoeuvred her through the entrance.

Vader didn't bother to waste time in either fighting or feeding the instinctive fear that lanced through him at his first sight of the shuttle. The ship was leaning precariously on the remains of its starboard wing. The port wing was intact, just. Overall it didn't look as badly damaged as Vader had feared it might be. At the speed it had been travelling at before impact, he had fully expected to find the shuttle had collided with the far wall of the docking bay.

Clearly, it hadn't.

There was no obvious explanation for that minor miracle.

Vader concentrated on performing a fast landing as he dropped the Falcon down beside the shuttle. She bounced heavily on her landing struts at the speed of the descent. Wisely, Chewbacca didn't complain.

The shuttle remained a dead spot as far as the Force was concerned. It might as well not exist. Either all occupants were dead, or the force-dampening creatures had survived the landing. Vader's fists clenched uselessly but he quashed the anxiety ruthlessly - he had to stay focused.

"Bring whatever med supplies this ship has," he said to Chewbacca, rising from his seat as he spoke. Another thought occurred to him, briefly. "And check our passenger is still in one piece after our chase. But do it quickly."

Chewbacca replied with a compliant-sounding bark.

Vader didn't bother to answer or look back, his feet carrying him with automatic speed out of the cockpit, around the curve of the corridor, down the landing ramp, across the duracrete floor.

The shuttle had come to rest under one of the giant lights that marched along the docking bay's ceiling. It sat in a circle of blue light that highlighted the smoke drifting up from the smouldering engines. The hull looked reasonably intact, but the grooves in the bay's floor and the dust that had been thrown up told of a bumpy slide along the ground.

Vader's mind reached out for a presence that wasn't to be found.

He made for the hull, hearing Chewbacca's footsteps on the Falcon's ramp behind him. Within a hand-span of the shuttle, his sense of the Force abruptly vanished. So - the creatures were still alive.

Vader was tempted to call out - Luke?! - but he didn't want to hear only the Falcon's hydraulics and the creak of cooling metal be his only answer. Foolish to be so cautious, but the words wouldn't form past the thick knot of tension in his throat. He gripped the saber tighter in his hand, unwilling to be beaten back by this fear.

"Luke!?" he called.

No answer.

The shuttle was resting with the front hatchway half obscured by the ground. The cargo storage hatch was a more obvious way in. Hitting the release mechanism did nothing. Vader lit the blade of his lightsaber and plunged it into the mechanism. The doorway lurched open a few inches. Vader gripped the hatch with both hands and yanked on it, pulling it back against the mechanism. It moved slowly, with the sound of metal heaving against metal. Chewbacca moved in to help.


There was the sound of movement from inside the ship. Vader yanked harder on the hatchway. Someone was moving around in there, but who?


"I'm here," a voice called.


There was more sound of movement, closer this time, and then a crash of something hitting the hull from the inside.

A familiar face appeared in the darkness beyond the crack opened in the hatchway. "I'm here."

For a second Vader couldn't think of anything to say, only yank harder on the metal hatchway that so stubbornly didn't want to be opened, allowing some of the tension knotting his stomach to come out in brute force. The wookiee gave a determined roar as the panel moved further and began to reveal more of the inside of the shuttle - and, eventually, Vader's son.

And, incredibly, the boy looked relatively unharmed.

None of Vader's suppressed fears were in front of him: no head wounds, no burns, no missing limbs nor any of the other horrors that had gone unacknowledged through his mind in the last few minutes.

Luke was awake and alert.

And alive.

"Are you okay?" Luke asked.

Vader straightened at that, thrown from any chance of dwelling on the relief of the moment. "Am I okay?" he snorted, and finally shoved the hatchway open far enough to make a gap wide enough to get a man through. "Have we not been over this lack of awareness of your own health before?" He reached in and grasped the boy with both hands, bodily lifting him out through the doorway and pulling him away from the hull.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," Luke insisted, but wisely didn't protest at being pulled from the ship.

But it wasn't any thought of injuries or danger that made Vader move away from the hull, it was the suffocating emptiness of the Force.

Three steps backwards, and it was back. And the boy's presence blossomed in his awareness of the Force.

"What happened?" Leia demanded, pacing the space between the captain's seat and the sensor station. Her arms folded over her chest, she gripped either elbow with either hand, and tried to remain focused. There was no rushing down to help Luke or Vader - she was juggling too many operations up here. But that didn't make having to stand back and watch any easier.

"I don't know, Ma'am. We're too far away and the curve of the planet obscures our-"

"Princess! We've got a communication from Executor coming through."

Leia turned to face the communications ensign. "Put it on."

The woman moved to obey. "It's audio only," she said. Leia nodded.

"Executor, this is Princess Organa. Who am I talking to?"

"To the cavalry, Your Highness. We've got the virus on the retreat - life-support systems are coming back now." There was the electronic warble of a droid in the background. "Skywalker's droid is worth his weight in oil."

She knew that voice. She couldn't imagine now how she'd ever believed that the 'medic' and his 'pilot' comrade were just defecting Imperials.

"And Lando?" she asked.

There was an ominous pause. Leia pressed her lips together, bracing herself. Nausea clawed up her throat, making her want to gag.

"I'm sorry, Your Highness."

Not being dead or dying was still surprising, and Luke was pretty sure he was telling Vader he was okay partly to let himself in on the secret, too. That had been close.

As Vader pulled him away from the ship, the Force returned like a wave crashing on top of him. Luke sucked in a breath at the sensation, feeling like he was surfacing from too long without air.

Luke attempted to pull away from Vader, to try and find more air for his suddenly hungry lungs.

"Easy," Vader warned, allowing him some distance - but not much. His hands remained heavy and insistent on Luke's shoulders. Luke closed his eyes and focused on regaining some sort of focus. Hell, he never wanted to go through this transition from Forceless-ness to Force-overload again. On the back of that thought, Luke reached out hungrily for the sensations around him, starving for the feeling of being part of the Force again.

"Slow down," Vader warned, as if picking up on the train of Luke's thoughts. And maybe he had - the bond was thrown wide open. Vader's presence surrounded him. It hadn't been that long, not really, since they'd last stood together, so how had Luke managed to forget how potent that presence was? It was an enveloping awareness of him, somehow closer and more intimate than any skin-to-skin contact could be. That strength was a frightening kind of magic he wanted to cling to.

"Give yourself a second to adjust."

Luke nodded.

"Are you injured?" Vader asked. Luke shook his head again, and picked up Vader's irritable frustration at the one-sided conversation. He grinned and opened his eyes.

"I'm fine. Really. The impact knocked out the guidance system and gave me back control for a few seconds. I had time to hit the braking thrusters and I spun her to shed speed so we didn't plough into the far wall." He nodded back towards the crippled shuttle. "It looks worse than it was."

He was suddenly engulfed by two huge, shaggy arms.

/You have the luck of a devil/ a voice said in wookiee-speak - Chewbacca. Luke spared a second to wonder how he'd missed the wookiee's presence. It wasn't too hard to find his answer: Vader's Force signature seemed to overwhelm everything the man stood next to.

"Hey, Chewie," he said, gripping the big arms. He was being bear-hugged so tight he couldn't even turn around to make eye contact. Chewie was growling at him, but too fast for Luke to keep up. He caught a few words - reckless and untamed and something that sounded like sister, but his wookiee-speak must be rusty because that last one didn't make any sense. "All right, all right - I hear you."

There was a creak from the shuttle behind them. Vader turned to face it, stiffening suddenly. "Palpatine?" he asked, without looking back at Luke.

Luke sobered quickly. "Still alive," he confirmed. "Injured, but alive."

For a second, no one spoke. The atmosphere was suddenly electric.

"Very well," Vader finally said.

He started to move back towards the shuttle. Luke frowned at his back.


"Keep him outside," Vader said, addressing Chewbacca with a pointed finger. "Don't let him come after me, no matter what."

Luke glared, feeling a flare of anger burst through his surprise at the order. "What?! You can't go in there alone. I'm with you." Chewbacca's hold tightened as he tried to move towards Vader. "Let me go, Chewie."

"Luke..." Vader said. From the corner of his eye, Luke saw Vader's saber hand grip the weapon tighter. "I have to do this alone."

"No, you don't," Luke insisted, frustration sharpening his words. "You don't have to fight alone. I'm with you."

Vader paused for a second before moving back to Luke. He placed a hand on Luke's shoulder. Luke glanced from the gauntlet to the eyes of Vader's helmet. "You underestimate me, Luke. This is not about a fight. We have already won."

Luke frowned. "Then what is it about?"

Vader glanced back at the shuttle. "It is about..." He paused. Through the bond, Luke felt the texture of his father's thoughts wrestling in a confusion of anticipation, and sadness, and something too complicated for Luke to define. "Putting to rest some old ghosts." He moved away again. "Stay here. This will not take long."

Luke let out an exasperated breath. Chewie, anticipating a fight, growled softly and tightened his grip. But one good Force-shove, and Chewie would be off him. They all knew it.

Vader stepped across the threshold of the ysalamiri's influence, and the bond between them was abruptly crushed.

You underestimate me... Vader had said.

And maybe Luke did. Maybe Vader didn't need his help in the form of him charging in, swinging a lightsaber. Maybe he needed Luke to show a bit more faith in him than that.

A memory flashed through his mind, seemingly a lifetime ago now: himself, hesitating at the edge of the dark side cave on Dagobah. Strapping his weapons to his belt despite Yoda's disapproval, not realising the lesson wasn't about fighting danger and defeating enemies, but about fighting temptation and defeating the enemy within.

He'd failed then.

But he had the faith in his father to know that Vader wouldn't fail now.

"Father," he said. Vader looked back over his shoulder. "You're right. Go finish it. May the Force be with you."

Vader nodded, and disappeared inside.

Luke had not lied. The inside was indeed in better shape than the exterior of the shuttle. Vader picked his way through a floor littered with the detritus of the crash, towards the cockpit.

There was the sound of laboured breathing from the fore of the ship. The sound of Vader's respirator was steadier and calmer than that pained gasping.

There was little light in the interior of the ship. Vader could barely make out the shape of his old master until he was almost on top of him. Sidious' back was to him, facing the cracked forward viewscreen.

Vader stopped.

"So... come to gloat, have we?"

The man's words had a strange timbre to them, a watery after-note. Vader supposed that was due to the twisted length of metal that protruded from the back of his seat, dark with blood from the shoulder it had impaled on its way through.

"Gloating was always your favoured weapon, Sidious, not mine," Vader said, moving around the chair to face the old man. The floor was tilted slightly at an angle, to the right and towards the fore of the ship. Vader gripped the back of the co-pilot's chair to stay upright. Palpatine's wrists were secured to his seat arms with duct-tape, although the force of the crash had loosened the tape. Not that it mattered: Palpatine wasn't going anywhere with that shaft of metal piercing his shoulder and pinning him to the chair’s back.

Palpatine let out a mocking laugh. "Forty-five years old, and still as naive as the nine-year-old slave-boy who couldn't cope with leaving the protection of his mother's skirt." He grimaced. "I tried to help you, Anakin."

Vader snorted. "The days when I believed that are long since past."

"So I see." Palpatine gave a snarl that was almost feral. "Why are you here then, my friend? To watch me die like an animal?"

As gratifying as he might have once found that concept, it was no longer the prospect of killing Palpatine that was driving him on. "I've freed myself from your ties, old man. I came to make certain that this ends here."

There was a strange glint in Palpatine's eye at that. "The pet that slipped his leash," he said mockingly. "You don't know what the word 'freedom' means."

Vader said nothing. Perhaps he truly didn't know what if meant to be free, yet - but sure as there was still sand on Tatooine, he meant to find out.

Then Palpatine's expression changed. The tension left his body and he went still, his eyes closed. For a moment, Vader wondered if the man had breathed his last. But then Palpatine opened his eyes again. "Please, Anakin. For what we once shared - allow me a true death."

Vader tilted his head slightly. "As you would have given me?"

"I would not have denied you the Force, Anakin," he hissed angrily. "I may have wronged you, but if you truly believe you've left the dark side behind, tell me how you justify this callousness. Not even you denied the Jedi you slaughtered their joining with the Force. You've won. I've lost. Come, Anakin - what harm can it do to be merciful?"

The persistent use of his old name was irritating. "You appeal to a part of me that no longer exists, Sidious."

"If you are no longer my pupil, and no longer Anakin Skywalker, then who are you? Something less than them both, I think."

"Or something more," Vader countered.

Palpatine snorted and shook his head in disgust, wincing as the movement jarred the spike in his shoulder. "You're weak. You've always been weak. That is why everything you touch fails." He pinned Vader with a glare. "You're doomed to tear apart everyone who reaches out to you. You don't know the difference between love and hate. That was why you took to the Dark so easily."

Vader shook his head at the jibe. It seemed that Palpatine had abandoned all attempts at subtle persuasion for a last, scathing attack. "If that is a weakness, then so be it. Neither the Jedi nor the Sith could teach me how to stop being myself. I will take my chances."

"One wrong step from that boy of yours, and he'll be your enemy," Palpatine said, lips curled into a snarl. "You'll open your eyes one day and see that your raging emotions have torn him limb from limb." His expression softened to a mocking smile. "But then... that will hardly be a new experience for you, will it? Not after what became of his mother."

For a moment, neither man spoke.

The tirade seemed to have robbed Palpatine of his remaining energy and he sat gasping for breath.

Rage rippled through Vader briefly. He looked down at the saber in his hand. In one quick movement he could strike Sidious down, silence the poison in his words. He toyed with the idea for a moment before refocusing on the old man, re-attaching the saber to his belt.

"My children have proved they are more than capable of looking after themselves, protecting themselves. Even from me. The only true danger lies in allowing someone else to make my decisions for me." He paused, surprised by the lack of rage in his voice. But it was merely a statement of fact. He let go of his hold on the co-pilot's chair and folded his arms over his chest. "Those days are now over."

Palpatine's breathing came shallow and fast, his expression showed rage. "Don't be so sure."

"He's been ages, Chewie," Luke said, glancing for the hundredth time at the shuttle's hatchway. The air in the hanger was freezing and he shuddered. But that shiver was more than just cold, he was sure.

Chewie fixed him with a gentle stare. /He will be back/ he said. He'd given up on the restraining bear-hug and simply had his hand on Luke's shoulder.

Luke pressed his lips together. "I know," he said, turning to face Chewie. "But why is it that we meet up for the first time in weeks and one of us is running off somewhere else within a few seconds?" He smiled at the irony. "And I'm cold and hungry and ready to go home."

Chewie grunted noncommittally, clearly unconvinced that it was just hunger and cold making Luke edgy. But he reached into the med-sack and pulled out a ration bar, held it out for Luke. Luke took it with a grimace of distaste, but his stomach growled gratefully.

Halfway through his first bite of the tasteless bar, Luke frowned and stopped eating.


Luke glanced up at Chewie. He shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "Something felt wrong. I-"

He stopped as he felt it again. Something had... changed... around them. He focused on the Force, feeling the energy rushing easily to his reach. Nothing felt any different, though. The Force still flowed freely, except for in shuttle, which it seemed to bypass like a river flowing around a boulder in its path. Nothing but-

Luke sucked in a breath.

/What is it?/ Chewie asked, laying a concerned paw on Luke's shoulder.

"The ysalamiri," he said. Chewie looked confused. "The creatures that block the Force, they're dying. I can feel the Force in the aft of the ship now - I couldn't before. I can..." He trailed off, feeling the bubble of Force-lessness shrink further.

He started towards the ship, but Chewie grabbed his arm and held him back.

"We have to warn Vader," Luke said, the words clipped. "He won't realise they're dying until the Force comes back in the cockpit, and if Palpatine is still alive-"

/He told you to stay here/ Chewie pointed out. /No matter what happened./

Luke let out a groan of frustration. "But he didn't know the ysalamiri were dying-" he stopped as the trilling sound of a comlink interrupted.

They both glanced in the direction of the sound. Luke let out a frustrated moan. There wasn't the time...

Chewie fished it from his bag and flicked it to receive.

"Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on down there?"

Leia. And she wasn't wasting time with pleasantries, Luke thought, wondering how long she'd been waiting for someone to answer a hail.

But as much as he wanted to talk to her, there wasn't time. "I'm going in there," Luke said, yanking his arm from Chewie's grasp.

Leia must have heard his voice. "Luke? Is that you?" she demanded to know, although her tone was softened with relief.

Luke closed his eyes, unable to ignore the worry in her voice. He leant closer to the pick-up. "I'm here, Leia. Sorry to worry you."

Leia's reaction was caustic. "Worry me? Worry me? Oh brother, you better be okay, because when I get my hands on you-"

"I'm fine Leia, really," he interrupted. He glanced back at the shuttle, feeling impatience coiling in his muscles. He needed to get in there. He had to warn his father...

"Good," she said. "If you're finished playing down there, we need you up here."

Luke frowned, there was something not quite right about her tone of voice. He shared a glance with Chewie. "Leia?"

"Yes?" she said, tightly.

"What's wrong? Is Executor-"

Leia's voice sounded, if it were possible, even sharper as she interrupted. "She's stable. We put two men aboard with slicing experience. They've destroyed the virus Palpatine unleashed and regained control of the life support systems. Our medical frigates are returning to help with rescuing the injured crewmembers."

Something gripped hard in Luke's chest. Her tone of voice... that wasn't just irritation at not being able to contact them. There was something more in that tone. Something cold and clinical that only crept into her voice in situations where things were going wrong.

"So I guess... we won," Luke said, though without much conviction. Chewie frowned at him, at his sombre tone of voice.

"Not without cost." Leia's voice was equally dark. Again, something foreboding tingled down Luke's spine.

"What is it? Leia?" he asked.

For a moment she didn't reply. Worry flashed across Chewie's expression.

Leia's voice caught at the end as she answered, "It's Lando. He's... he's dead."



"What?" Luke demanded, when the word would finally form in his throat. He felt blindsided, like someone had crept up behind him and given him a blow to the head that had turned the world to darkness. He felt the blood draining from his face, his body throttling adrenaline through his system at the shock of the blow. "Dead?"

He was aware of an angry howling sound in his ears, thought that it was the scream in his own mind until he realised it was Chewie roaring out words too quickly for Luke to interpret.

He shook his head as if that could clear the sudden fog.

Lando couldn't be dead.

They'd won.

They'd won, hadn't they?

Instinctively his mind stretched out to the Force, seeking reassurance somehow. But he couldn't find Lando's presence. Instead he found Leia's, and fell into the gut-wrenching pain that had been hidden behind her steely voice. It stirred an instinctive response in him. He wanted to run to her, to get in the Falcon and hit full throttle, to reach out and quash her pain, pain that reached a blade into his soul and twisted it, demanded solace.

On the heels of that came a flash of anger. Anger directed in too many directions at once. Firstly at Palpatine for setting up this situation in the first place, secondly at the perversity of fate for dragging him through the past few weeks' dangers and leaving him unscathed, when Lando had not been overlooked by death. And lastly at Lando himself, for going and getting himself killed.

The Force boiled up within him, seeking a target for his anger. But that last thought washed the temptation away, as he realised how futile it was, how useless the anger was if it could be directed at Lando himself.

He could direct it at Palpatine, of course. That had been his first instinct, flashing through his mind with gratuitous temptation. But he shoved it aside, sidelining it as the fool's temptation that it was. It was a blunt tool, this anger. It wouldn't only be Palpatine who suffered for his fury.

"Luke? Luke?" Leia was saying, sounding anxious.

He hadn't realised he'd closed his eyes until he opened them again. He sucked in a long breath into his tight lungs. "How did he-" he stopped, realising that Chewie was no longer beside him. Premonition made his stomach turn over.

He twisted around, searching for the wookiee. And yes, there he was, roaring out his rage, his grief, as he clambered aboard the shuttle. There was murder in his friend's body language.

"Oh, hell," Luke swore.

"Chewie? Chewie, wait!" Luke called, lifting himself up through the shuttle's cargo hatch and into the hold, bracing himself against the tilt of the deck. An angry roar was his only reply.

Luke gritted his teeth and, with the help of the nearest wall, pulled himself through the hold doorway and started down the slanting corridor.

Halfway down the corridor to the cockpit, the Force was snuffed out in-between steps.

Luke had no idea how long it would be before the ysalamiri finally died and when they did the Force would return to the whole ship without warning. And Chewie was barrelling towards a cornered Sith Lord.

He heard his father's voice, but his words were drowned out by a loud wookiee growl.

"Chewie!" he called again, but without much hope his friend would take any notice of him.

The sound of growling resolved itself into the form of a furious wookiee as Chewbacca crashed into the cockpit, his teeth bared. For a fraction of a second, Vader was too stunned by his sudden appearance to move.

"What-" he started to say, but the wookiee let out a vicious snarl and lurched towards Palpatine.

Vader started forward to intervene, but halted the action when he heard Luke's voice. Irritation at the boy's inability to stay put was quickly quashed by the alarm he heard in his son's voice.

"Chewie!" Luke appeared in the cockpit entrance. "No, Chewie, listen to me. The ysalamiri-"

But the wookiee had wrapped his paws around Palpatine's neck. The Sith Lord let out a cry as the wookiee made a brutal upwards movement that pulled Palpatine from his seat, tearing his hands free from the duct tape and dragging his body back up the shaft of metal that speared his shoulder. He made a strangled sound of pain, cut off by the pressure of the wookiee's paws closing around his throat.

"Luke?" Vader asked, in a tone that demanded answers. Luke's expression was grim as he met Vader's gaze.

"It's Lando," he said. "Lando's dead."

Vader clenched his fists at the news. That explained Chewbacca's murderous rage. He turned back to the wookiee and his old master. Palpatine was spluttering for breath, his hands tearing at Chewbacca's paws. For a moment, Vader considered whether he should be stopping the wookiee or not. Then Luke pushed forward, moving to try and intervene between his friend and Palpatine. And Vader did move then, grabbing his son's arm to hold him back.

Luke twisted back around to face Vader. "The ysalamiri," he said, "they're dying."

It took a heartbeat for Vader to register that information. A heartbeat too long. In that time, he felt the Force rush back through him, as if a speeder had crashed into his senses, and suddenly he was surrounded by a swelling tide of emotions: anger from Chewbacca, concern from Luke, and fear from Palpatine.

It was Palpatine's fear that mobilised itself first.

"No!" Luke called, but too late - electricity scorched from Palpatine's clawing hands. It leapt over Chewbacca's face, filling the air with the smell of burnt fur.

The Emperor dropped to the deck as Chewie collapsed, apparently unconscious. Somehow Palpatine managed to keep his footing as he landed. His face was fixed into a snarl of rage. Palpatine's hands stayed up, his fingers outstretched.

Vader's hand snapped down to his belt for his lightsaber.

Too slowly, far too slowly - Palpatine twisted towards him, a gleeful look in his eyes, and lightning arched towards Vader. In the briefest moment it took to reach him, Vader registered the danger, the risk to his health, the knowledge of what that lightning would do to his cybernetics.

But it never reached him.

There was a flash of white light that briefly blinded him. When his sensors recovered, he saw Luke standing in front of him, his hands thrown up in front of his face, as if to ward off a blow. And lightning flashed and sparked against his palms, deflected somehow.

Palpatine let out a cry of rage. "Brat!" he hissed. "Why won't you die!"

Vader lifted his saber from his belt and lit the blade. Palpatine saw the movement. The lightning stopped abruptly. Vader started to move around Luke, but suddenly Chewbacca's unconscious body was being levitated into the air, a shield between him and Palpatine.

"Stay where you are," Palpatine said, "or the wookiee will die." Blue lightning sparked briefly from Palpatine's fingertips.

Vader ground his teeth in irritation.

It was Luke who answered Palpatine. "If you kill Chewie, there’ll be nothing to hold us back."

Vader instinctively took a step forward, meaning to somehow shield Luke from whatever plan was forming in Sidious' mind.

"Yes... yes..." Palpatine agreed. "And I see your father is already contemplating whether the wookiee's life is easily scarified for the sake of his vengeance."

What struck Vader as most ironic about that statement was that although just a few months ago he might not have even spared a second thought for Chewbacca in his desire to reach his enemy, the thought of sacrificing the wookiee hadn't been one of the options racing through his mind today.

"No he's not," Luke said, with a calm surety that made Palpatine pause for a moment.

The Emperor turned to Vader. "How touching. He trusts you. At first I thought he was just a fool, but perhaps I was too hasty in that assumption. No doubt you've worked hard to hide your less... paternal... traits." His gaze went back to Luke again. "A piece of advice for you, young Skywalker. If you ever anger Lord Vader, be prepared to pay with your life."

Not daring to take his eyes off Palpatine, Vader couldn't turn to see the expression on his son's face, but he could feel the brief flash of apprehension in Luke's emotions. Vader focused upon Palpatine, feeling anger stirring in his blood at his former master's words.

"Your attempts to drive my son from me are futile, Sidious. This is not an alliance for you to tear apart with words. Our loyalty is bound by blood."

Palpatine cocked his head to the side as if considering that. "Ah, so you think he would be so willing to fight for you if he knew how easily you can turn on those you convince yourself you... love? Have you told him what you did to his mother?"

Vader answered automatically, angrily. "I loved his mother."

"So you didn't strangle her? Ah - my mistake. I was under the impression that it was your chocking her that lead to her premature labour and death."

Fury lashed through him. This was not the way Vader had wanted Luke to learn of his father's past. This wasn't a conversation he'd wanted to have with the boy. Not yet. Not for a very long time.


Vader turned to glance at Luke. He wasn't sure how to respond to the doubt that was in Luke's eyes.

"I didn't kill her," he said. Luke frowned. That flash of uncertainty was a vibroknife twisting in Vader's gut. Vader turned back to Palpatine and raised his lightsaber angrily. "Your lies convinced me that I had and I was foolish enough to trust you."

Palpatine ignored him, addressing Luke. "You see, Skywalker? Your father strangled a woman who was eight months pregnant with his child. Be careful, young one. Lord Vader's 'love' is lethal."

The anger that buzzed through Vader begged to be directed into force. He hadn't realised how little he must have been using the dark side in the last few weeks until now that it was back snapping at his heels, demanding vengeance for the words. If he couldn't kill them, Palpatine meant to at least rob Vader of Luke's loyalty.

And Vader was tempted, sorely tempted, to direct that energy into a lethal blow. With the very thing he had been fighting for over the last few weeks in jeopardy - his son's safety and allegiance - the quick, easy path to power called to him. He imagined himself reaching out with furious mental fingers and crushing the life from his former master.

Mentally, with a supreme force of will, Vader stepped back from the temptation. To reach for the dark side now would only lead him into Palpatine's trap - he would only prove to Luke what he was accused of. Hadn't he learnt that, if nothing else, from Padme's death? His desperation to keep her with him had been the very thing that had lead to him losing her.

The past would not repeat itself here.

Palpatine would die, but not to quench Vader's need to silence him.

He would die because the Empire needed him to.

"You -" Vader started to speak, but Luke interrupted him, stepping around from behind Vader.

"You think I don't know what he's capable of?" he said, and that calm conviction was back. "Stars, I haven't been blind and deaf for the last three years. I've heard the stories, and I've seen his anger first-hand." Luke sighed. "I ran half-way across the galaxy to escape him." He glanced over at Vader, a small smile on his face. "I'm not running any more."

"Then you will die," Palpatine snarled.

"That's not news to me. Everyone dies eventually." Luke's gaze grew distant briefly. "But it won't be my father who kills me. I can feel that much."

For a moment, Palpatine was silenced by the words. Vader became aware of a feeling of quiet readiness from Luke.

Get ready, it seemed to say. He's run out of tactics.

And Vader was ready. Without a word, Palpatine propelled Chewbacca across the room at neck-breaking speed, heading on a collision course with Luke.

Luke's hands came up and Vader felt his son reach for the Force to slow Chewbacca's flight. But the moment he needed to slow the wookiee down gave Palpatine the opportunity he needed.

Lightning scorched across the air towards Vader.

Vader brought his blade up, managing to deflect some the energy. Still, electricity danced across his armour briefly.

"No!" he heard Luke shout. He felt the boy struggling to come to him, to protect him from the lightning.

There wasn't time to think - any more lightning and his life-support could short out. With a feeling of destiny driving his legs forward against the battering of the lightning, Vader struggled forwards until he was in front of Palpatine.

He swept the blade around and down. For a second, electricity ran across his vision, burning it bright blue. When it cleared, he saw Palpatine staring at the stumps where his hands had been moments earlier.

Vader whipped the saber blade back around and plunged it down into his former master's chest.

Shock showed on the Emperor's features. "You... you..." Palpatine started to say.

Vader met Palpatine's gaze, wondering if there were some last words he should be saying now. Some crow of victory. You lose, Sidious. Or maybe, I'm free, was closer to what he was feeling. Not so much like killing an Emperor as like slicing open invisible shackles.

But he didn't feel the need for words: all he felt was the need to end this, and end it now.

He pulled the blade out through Palpatine's side.

Vader caught the man's collapsing body with his free hand. Palpatine let out a breath that sounded like the rattle of water down a narrow sinkhole. His eyes flashed with something Vader thought might be disbelief, as if he'd never truly believed that Vader would kill him.

And then the light was fading rapidly. Palpatine's body slumped.

The feeling of victory Vader had expected to feel sizzling in his veins at Palpatine's death wasn't there. As he watched the body lose tension, muscles becoming limp as the life drained away, relief was the most powerful sensation he felt. And sadness at too many years wasted on too many lies.

He closed his eyes briefly, not allowing the what-ifs any purchase on his soul. It was over today, and better late than never.

But a tingle of warning registered in Vader's mind. He opened his eyes,



Vader twisted towards him, started to reach out with the Force to reassure him.

And realised that the Sith Lord's presence in the Force hadn't diminished yet, though his body had died. If anything, Vader sensed a build-up of power from Palpatine as his presence receded, like the tide pulling back before a tidal wave hits.

The tingle of warning in his blood had turned into a screaming claxon.

Vader let Palpatine's body fall to the floor, turned again towards Luke, reaching out for the Force to shield him.

He had only a second, maybe two, before -

Brilliant blue light erupted through Luke's senses, along with the whistle of an impossible wind rushing through the cockpit, dragging the air from his lungs as it passed. Luke reached out blindly to protect himself and his hand hit something hard and unmoving.

"Father? Where are you?"

"I'm here," Vader assured him, and Luke realised the hard material he'd hit was his father's shoulder plate, where he crouched down protectively over Luke.

Luke swallowed back the surge of adrenaline-led fear that had rocketed through his mind when he'd realised that whatever it was that had exploded, Vader had to have been right beside it.

The wind battered at him, but not nearly as forcefully as the sounds of screaming, creaking metal suggested it should be. He could feel the power of the Force-created shield Vader had thrown around them, a steady determined power, nothing like the crackling, angry power he'd been sensing building in Vader during the last few minutes. This power was stable, comforting. Luke spared a second to wonder what he would have done if Vader had unleashed the power of his anger on Palpatine. He'd no doubt it would have been swift and deadly.

Be careful, young one. Lord Vader's 'love' is lethal.

He opened his eyes to try and look at Vader, but the debris flying through the air made him close them again and turn his head aside.

The wild wind abated briefly, before changing direction and dragging back across them. Luke turned his face away from the reversed gust, found himself facing his father's chest-plate.

"What happened?" he yelled.

"He's dead," Vader supplied, the words almost drowning under the sound of the wind.

Vader's answer didn't explain where the storm had appeared from, but Luke swallowed back the questions as the wind began to die back, waning to nothing but a whisper almost as quickly as it had roared in. When he was sure the wind wasn't going to come rushing back in again, Luke drew away from Vader's protective shelter to try and look up at his father.

Have you told him what you did to his mother?

Luke squeezed his eyes shut. Not now, he thought. Later. But not now.

"It's over," his father said, and Luke knew he meant more than just the explosion.

Luke nodded, attempting to sit upright and lean around his father, although Vader didn't seem eager to allow him up.

There was no body to be seen where Palpatine had stood moments before. There was only the damage to the shuttle's floor and ceiling, the metal twisted and blackened as if a small detonator had exploded in the confined space. It was a small miracle the engines hadn't caught.

Luke looked back at Vader in confusion. "He... blew up?" he asked incredulously.

Vader nodded. "That is not something I have witnessed before," he said.

"No kidding." Luke let out a long breath, of relief and of exhaustion. He didn't know how or why he was able to block that Force-lightning, but he knew it was as tiring as running at full sprint. He moved to try and stand, but Vader held him back.


Vader didn't respond. Instead he reached for Luke's hands and turned them over so that the palms faced upwards. As if not believing the sight of unburnt skin, he brushed his gloved fingers over them.

"It's okay," Luke confirmed. "I'm not burned."

Vader's head jerked up to meet his gaze. "That is not possible," he stated sharply.

Luke just shrugged. He didn't have an answer for that.

Through the Force, Luke felt the assessing gaze that his father ran over him, though there was no clue to his scrutiny from the impassive mask. Finally Vader reached out and placed a hand on Luke's shoulder. A feeling of warmth spread from the contact. Vader's other hand pulled him up to standing and into a brief and unexpected embrace.

It was over so quickly that Luke wasn't sure it had even happened, except that the feeling of being held lingered in his mind.


Luke reached out through the Force to his father. The emotions in Vader were too complicated for him to name. An image entered Luke's mind, of climbing up from the darkness of his aunt and uncle's homestead and out into the brilliant Tatooine sunlight, and being momentarily blinded by it before his eyes adjusted. Seeing everything afresh.

Luke ran his own assessing gaze over Vader - no sign of injuries, at least none that were immediately visible.

"When I told you to stay outside, it was not a request," Vader said, interrupting Luke's relief.

"I know but Chewie-" Luke stopped, twisted around to look for the wookiee. "Chewie!"

Against the bulkhead lay the crumpled form of Chewbacca, face down on the floor, his fur badly scorched, whether from the lightning or the blast following Palpatine's death, Luke wasn't sure. Luke broke away from Vader to go to Chewie, clambering over a seat that had been bent backwards upon its pedestal by the explosion.

Luke's fingers hunted for a pulse at Chewie's neck. He smelt of burnt fur. For a second all Luke could feel was the frantic beat of his own pulse in his fingertips. Chewie couldn't be dead, couldn't be. But Lando was dead, wasn't he? If Lando could die, then so could Chewie.

The wookiee let out a groan and tried to move.

Luke pulled back, releasing a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. He dragged his fingers through his hair, pressing back the rush of fear.

"He's alive," he said, as much to himself as to his father.

Vader moved to stand beside him. He looked at Luke, and Luke felt there were words Vader wanted to say, something he was finding difficult to articulate, something about Palpatine's accusations.

Luke swallowed, waiting. He'd meant what he had said. He hadn't gone into this blind. He knew at least some of what Vader had done in the past. The fact it felt almost too raw to touch upon now would pass, surely.

Wouldn't it?


The shuttle creaked ominously, the deck-plates shifting sharply beneath them. Luke reached out for balance.

Vader met his gaze for a second further before he turned to Chewie and, with the help of the Force, lifted him.

"Let's get out of here," he said.

Leia sat at the ready-room's desk, one elbow leaning on the table, her hand over her mouth. She stared down at her reflection on the polished surface without really seeing it.

They'd won.

She didn't feel like celebrating.

There were still lives to be saved. The first Alliance medical frigate had returned. More were on their way. The Imperial and Alliance ships were rallying to get the medical aid to Executor's crewmembers. She was in charge. She would give orders if they needed her to. But right now, right at this moment, she wasn't needed. And that made side-stepping the knowledge of Lando's death impossible.

She contemplated ordering the Battalion down to the planet to see if Vader or Luke needed her. But instinct told her it wasn't necessary right now. They'd won, too. She could feel it, singing through her veins.

She still didn't feel like celebrating.

The comm trilled. She looked at it, blinked, and reached out to trigger it.

"Leia." It was Vader. She sat up straighter.

"About time," she said.

"Is this a secure line?" Vader asked, the tone of his voice stern, no room for small talk.

Automatically, Leia mirrored his seriousness. "Yes, it is. Why?"

"Because you should know that Palpatine is dead," Vader said.

She fell silent. She wondered if she was supposed to be cheering, but Vader's lack of victorious celebration gave her pause.

"It would be wise to send a team down to guard the shuttle wreck. A Rebel team, not an Imperial team," Vader added. "Now is not the time to have my fleet learn who they have been fighting."

"I'll get someone down there," she agreed. She paused. "Is everyone okay?"

Maybe her voice had betrayed more emotion than she'd intended it to. She felt something brush against her in the Force, like the briefest touch of a hand on her head. "We also need a med-evac. team. Chewbacca has some serious burns and the Millennium Falcon's medical supplies are not... of military standard."

Panic fluttered in her chest at the news. No - no more. No more injury, no more death. Surely it was over now.

"I'll organise it," she said. She pressed her lips together briefly. "Is Luke there?" she asked.

"He's safe," Vader reassured her.

She stared at her reflection on the desk's surface, not sure what it was she wanted to say.

She sat up straighter, took her hands away from the desk. "I'm bringing the Battalion down," she said. "We have a good medical team aboard, and the medical frigate crews are tied up in Executor's evacuation." She paused. "Think you can persuade him to stay in one place long enough for us to get there?"

"You have my word," Vader replied, with a degree of shared exasperation, "that he is not going anywhere."

Luke paused at the entrance to the Falcon's crew quarters and stared down at the medical bunk's occupant, trying to figure out how and why he recognised the man. He was an Imperial, clearly. An officer. But Luke couldn't put a name to the face.

He turned to ask his father, but Vader wasn't behind him. He frowned, but guessed that with the med bunk already occupied Vader was probably putting Chewie down in the lounge area of the main hold.

Shaking his head, Luke turned and sat down heavily on one of the room's other bunks, feeling the exhaustion from the past few hours of chaos weighing heavy in his muscles. He glanced down at the stormtrooper under-suit he wore, that had once been black but was now streaked with dust or worse. He frowned at it, but rather than getting up to get changed he closed his eyes, allowing himself a moment to just sit.


He glanced up at Vader as the man filled the entranceway. Part of him wanted to leap up and look active, pretend he was fitter than he felt, but a greater part of him was too tired to bother. Vader wouldn't be fooled, anyway.

"I think I could use a shower and change of clothes," he said.

Vader studied him for a moment. "You look exhausted," he finally replied.

Luke laughed, without much humour. He rubbed a hand over his face and absently noted the dirt that came away on his palm. His face must be filthy from the dust thrown up in the crash and Palpatine's exploding trick. "I think the last few hours I've been running on adrenaline," he said. "Not that I'm complaining - I'm lucky to still be in one piece."

"You are," Vader said seriously. "I would not have chosen to wager on that crash being survivable by many men. Nor would I have given many much chance against Sith lightning."

Something in Vader's tone of his voice betrayed more emotion than the statements suggested. Luke smiled slightly at his father. It was a strange feeling, having that paternal concern directed at him, even if it wasn't particularly overt. It wasn't something he'd experienced before. Somehow, a few words from Vader said more than anything in Uncle Owen's eighteen years of surrogate-fatherhood had.

"I guess Chewie was right. I'm lucky."

"The Force is with you," Vader corrected.

Luke nodded.

Yes, the Force had been with him. All the way through, it seemed, the Force had been with him - even, maybe, when his access to it had been blocked. He was lucky: the Force wasn't with everyone.

A heavy hand was placed on his shoulder. "Calrissian died a hero," Vader said.

Luke nodded. "Yeah, I know."

"He chose to stay aboard Executor and risk his life because he has strength. Men like that do not go meekly to their death."

Luke had to crane his head back to meet Vader's gaze. "I know. He didn't." He heard the strength of belief in his voice, and was slightly surprised by it. Vader merely nodded his agreement. The hand on Luke's shoulder squeezed tighter and then released him.

"And Chewbacca will live, although he will need bacta treatment," Vader added. "There is a med-evac. team on their way with Leia. Are you ready to face her or should I... redirect her when she arrives?"

Luke smiled inwardly at Vader's use of Leia's first name - clearly, this shaky alliance was working for him at least, despite his words.

"No, I want to see her."

Although the mask could betray no emotion, Luke sensed uncertainty in his father. Clearly, whatever Vader saw when he looked down at Luke, he didn't like it.

"You look-"

"Just try and stop me."

Vader snorted at that. "I would not be so foolish," he replied. There was a note of humour washing through Luke's awareness of his father's presence in the Force. Luke smiled.

"So I guess... we won," Luke said. And yes, they had. They really had. But... "What Palpatine said about my mother-" he stopped, not because Vader had interrupted, but because of the sharp spark of pain he felt from his father. He swallowed. "Never mind, we can talk about it... some other time."

Vader moved further into the small bunkroom, the door sliding shut behind them. He clasped his hands in front of him, and Luke glanced between them and his father's mask.

"Some of the decisions I have made have been mistakes, Luke. I have committed acts that I can no longer condone." Vader pinned him with look. "I cannot change that."

"If you could change it, do it differently... would you?" Luke asked.

Vader sighed. "I've spent years wishing I could change the past, Luke. All it does is fuel my anger. When you appeared that anger diminished, only to be replaced with fear that you would be lost to Palpatine or the Rebellion."

Luke held his father's gaze. "You make it sound like I don't get any say in what happens to me."

Vader snorted at that. "It is probably fair to say that you have aged both Leia and me considerably in the past few weeks. You may have to suffer some of our concern in recompense." He paused. "But you are right. You are more than capable. You're a fine Jedi and I've realised that I alone cannot take on responsibility for your life."

Luke laughed at that. " 'A fine Jedi'? I don't think Master Yoda would agree with you on that."

"Yoda?" Vader said, sharp enough to make Luke look up at him.

Luke nodded. "Yes." He closed his eyes, stretching out in the Force to confirm his suspicions. "He's dead now, I can feel it. He must have died whilst I was with Xizor and Palpatine." He opened his eyes again.

"I thought he was long dead," Vader said, a musing tone of voice making it through the vocoder's mechanical intonation. "Shame."

Luke tilted his head to one side and regarded his father with a frown. "He thought I was reckless and naive and impulsive. I guess he was right."

Vader crossed his arms over his chest and leant against the door. "Master Yoda was a great Jedi, but his proclamations were not always to be taken literally."

Luke frowned. "He-"

Vader waved a hand through the air. "That is not an insult. It is a statement of fact. If Yoda thought pointing out your youth would drive you to prove yourself and achieve his goals, he would have done so, whether he thought recklessness or impulsiveness were weaknesses or not. He had little time to train you." He paused. "You may not have the years of training of the old Jedi, Luke, but you have the heart and mind of a Jedi. Yoda would have been proud. Don't doubt that."

Luke couldn't find any words to either agree or disagree.

"And you?" he finally asked. "Are you a Jedi? Can you-"

Vader's gaze swept upwards suddenly. "Another ship is arriving," he said. He refocused on Luke. "This discussion-"

Luke let out a sigh, wasn't sure if it was relief or disappointment he was feeling; wasn't sure if he was ready to finish this conversation here and now anyway. "Another time," he said, and thought that time needed to be when he'd had some space to digest the day's events.

Vader considered that for a moment. "Very well," he said.

Luke nodded at him, understanding that was probably as close Vader could get to thanking him for not demanding answers to Palpatine's insidious allegations.

He ran his fingers through his hair and dust fell in his eyes. He smiled lopsidedly. "The shower will have to wait, but I've got to get out of this suit, at least," he said. He glanced around the bunkroom. "I must have some spare clothes lying around here somewhere..." His gaze fell on the nameless Imperial again. He glanced up at Vader. "By the way, who's our passenger?"

Vader turned to look at the unconscious man strapped to the bunk, then glanced back at Luke. Luke sensed his father searching for a concise way to answer that question.

"A friend," he finally said. "A good friend."

Leia felt the brief rocking sensation in the deck-plates as the Battalion settled to the permacrete of the base's docking bay. She hit the release mechanism as soon as it winked from red to green, and started down the ramp.

The Falcon sat in front of her, running lights on and casting yellow shadows across the floor. Further behind it sat the wreck of a lambda-class shuttle, leaning precariously to one side. She turned for the Falcon and walked towards it.

The boarding ramp was down, and as she put a first foot on it a shadow appeared at the top. Vader. She didn't halt her steps. Luke appeared behind Vader, and their gazes met.

"Leia," he said and grinned, opening his arms.

She jogged the last few steps and went into the offered embrace.

"Luke," she said, holding onto the fabric of his shirt as she held onto the hug. The shirt was clean, but he smelt of ozone and smoke.

"Hey," he said.

She pulled back a couple of inches, hit him lightly on the arm and scowled at him, though it lacked heat and was cracking into a grin of her own. "That," she said, "is for not following orders and jumping with the Battalion." She pulled him into a tight embrace again, wrapping her arms around his back. He felt thinner, she thought. He'd lost weight. She kissed his cheek. "And that's for coming back in one piece."

There was the sound of booted footsteps behind her.

"The two injured are onboard," Vader said. Leia stepped back from Luke. "One is in the main hold, the other is in the crew quarters."

Leia turned to face Battalion's medical crew. The lead man looked between Vader and her uncertainly. "As the man said," Leia agreed, "get to it."

She saw the look of bemusement on Luke's face at the interplay and stopped to consider how strange it was to be in Vader's presence and not to be angry, or scared, or both. When was the last time she'd faced him? Bespin, she decided, and then as quickly decided not to allow her thoughts to wander down that path.

The medical crew headed into the Falcon. She turned back to Vader. "I've got a security detail to guard the shuttle wreck. We can take the body aboard into secure storage."

"Have the detail maintain a perimeter," Vader said, his tone one of instinctive command. "But there is no body."

Leia frowned. "But you said-"

"He exploded," Luke said. She turned to him, incredulous. "When he died, he just sort of... blew up."

Leia let out a long breath. "Well that solves that problem," she said.


"The evacuation of Executor has started. Casualty estimates are high."


She turned back to Vader. She had a pretty good idea what he was going to say next, and she braced herself.

"My condolences over Calrissian. He was a good man," he said.

She straightened her spine, pushing dignity up front where sorrow wanted to take hold. "A lot of good men died today," she said, and it sounded defensive, sounded marked with a big sign that read don't go there.

He inclined his head. "Nevertheless. His sacrifice will not be forgotten."

She pressed her lips together. She wasn't ready to take pity from Vader. She doubted she ever would be. "No, it won't." She turned to Luke, eyeing him up and down deliberately. "You look terrible," she said, aware the diversion lacked subtlety.

He looked down at himself with a rueful smile. "Hey, come on - I changed my shirt."

She shook her head, feeling the smile returning. At least Luke was taking the hint and keeping the tone light. She put a hand on his arm and sent silent thanks with her eyes.

"Come on," she said, "the clean-up from the battle is going to last a while. Time enough for a shower and sleep."

Instead of his customary attempt at escaping medical attention, Luke merely nodded with acceptance. He allowed a flash of concern to show in his expression. "And what about you?"

"I'm fine," she shot back.

"You are-" Vader started.

She cut him off. The last thing she wanted now was paternal advice. "I'm needed," she said. "And so are you. We have to decide what we do next."

Vader took a step closer, and she thought she heard irritation in his voice when he replied, "What we do next is let the tech crew assess Executor's condition. That will take some time."

"Let me amend what I said - we need to discuss and plan what we do if Executor is salvageable, and what we do if she is not," Leia shot back. "And we could also be thinking about whether this truce of ours lasts."

Vader let out a sound of irritation and turned briefly to Luke. Leia wondered if there was some wordless communication going on between them. She planted her hands on her hips.

"My apologies," she said," I had forgotten that you're not overly keen on democratic decision making." She was aware, even as she heard the caustic tone of her voice, that her grief was finding an easy outlet in anger. It gave her a moment's pause.

Vader's attention had snapped back onto her. "You're definition of democracy appears to involve -"

"Force, please stop!" Luke interjected with an exasperation that sounded fonder than she thought he'd probably intended. "Can't you save the verbal mauling for later? Like when I'm not around?"

Leia turned to Luke, pressed her lips together. She was aware of Vader standing beside her in an almost identical stance to her own, except his thumbs were hooked into his belt, levelling Luke with a steady glare. Suddenly, the humour in the moment bubbled up in her chest. She let out a laugh and shook her head, the anger disappearing almost as quickly as it had come.

Vader turned to Luke. "Clearly your sister and I need to agree a second truce, one between ourselves."

"Well, I -" Luke started, and then stopped abruptly. Leia watched his eyes widen and his mouth fall open in shock. Oh, boy, she thought. He doesn't know. "Wait a minute," he said, pulling back from them both. "What do you mean, 'sister'?"

For a heartbeat, no one spoke.

Leia smiled softly at her brother.

"I thought you knew," she said. And then, ruefully, "Everyone else seems to."

Luke shook his head, without any words to reply to that. He glanced between Vader and her, and for few a brief seconds Leia experienced a pang of worry that this wasn't the good news she might have anticipated it to be. If the only thing positive to come out of this for Leia was discovering the man she held as best friend was also her twin, then she thought she could cope with the battle's consequences. But if Luke didn't feel that way...

Suddenly she was being embraced fiercely and the world was revolving as Luke spun her around. He was laughing. A light seemed to shine in her mind, a deep pleasure that wasn't hers but was Luke's. She closed her eyes and smiled.

"Welcome home," she whispered.

"One recently-healed blaster wound to the right thigh. Bruising along the right side and more recent bruising on the torso in a pattern that appears consistent with crash webbing contusions. Minor dehydration. Exhaustion. The start of decalcification of the skeletal structure... which is inexplicable unless you have been exposed to a powerful energy field in the recent past, such as being hit by lightning."

Luke smiled ruefully. "I was - but then I learnt to deflect it."

The medical droid looked unimpressed. "I see," it said, "of course." It paused. "Have I missed anything, sir?"

Luke shook his head. "Not that I know of," he said. "Listen, are you done? I've got to get to a meeting."

The droid turned away, tapping at diagnostic buttons on a scanner. "I don't think so, sir. You must stay here, unless you are willing to have a full-body bone replacement procedure."

Luke moved away from the bio-scanner like it had burnt him. "What?" he said, attempting to make sense of the scanner's read-out but failing. "You're kidding."

"I am not programmed to 'kid', sir," the droid said. "Substantial rest and electrolyte therapy will help. Otherwise, your bone structure will begin to break down within the next twenty-four hours and leave you with crippling lifelong pain." It paused. "Of course, I cannot force you to consent to treatment.

Luke let out a short laugh at that. "No, it's okay - I think I'll consent."

The droid missed the irony. "Very well, sir," it said, triggering a button on its chest that caused a bed to slide out from the nearest wall. "Please have a seat for a moment while I prepare the treatment."

Shaking his head in irritation with the situation, Luke hoisted himself up to sit on the bed's edge. So much for being able to get a quick medical and then join Leia and his father at the Alliance Council meeting. But it was his own fault - he'd overslept and not left enough time to get himself there. Pulling the comlink from his belt, he started to key Leia's frequency.


Luke looked up.

"Sir, I have already informed Princess Organa of your condition."

Luke frowned. "You did? When?"

"Whilst we were conversing, I sent a binary communiqué to her comlink."

Luke considered his own comlink for a moment before reattaching it to his belt. The droid turned away. Would Leia be irritated with him for missing the meeting? Luke stretched out with the Force to gain a sense of her thoughts. He felt a wave of quiet reassurance from her, although he wasn't sure whether she knew she'd sent it. She was still getting used to the Force, he supposed.

His sister.

It was a bizarre concept - and yet not so bizarre. There had always been something between them that wasn't really attraction, wasn't really friendship. Something else. And now he knew. It made a strange kind of sense.

He smiled, wondering at how Leia had managed to hold up so well with the knowledge that Vader was her father: held up well enough that she was able to explore some rudimentary Force skills.

It was in marked contrast to Luke's own reaction to the news of his paternity.

He frowned, crossed his arms over his chest and leant back against the wall. Bespin seemed so long ago now, almost another lifetime. The horror he'd felt... that had been erased during the past weeks and months. He was left with the same yearning he'd lived with throughout his life, a yearning to know a father. It seemed to have redoubled rather than diminished with his acceptance of Vader.

But was that acceptance dangerous? What Palpatine had insinuated about Luke's loyalty being in question fell short of Luke's own worries - he was more concerned that this longing to belong would win his loyalty without him ever considering the consequences of joining Vader.

He wished he could speak to Yoda, or to Ben... although, in some ways, he was also glad he couldn't, because he had a feeling that this decision was his to make alone.

But Vader had changed.

Luke was certain of that.

It was obvious for all to see, if they chose to look hard enough. Luke had felt his father use the light side on Barutte, had sensed his conscious rejection of his anger and fear. It was more than just a glimpse of light. It was like his father's spirit was coming out of an eclipse. What was being revealed was both startling and fascinating.

"Where am I?"

Luke turned at the voice. In a bed not far from his own, the injured Imperial admiral lay with his head turned towards Luke. Luke sat up straighter.

"Welcome back," Luke said. "You’re onboard the Alliance blockade runner Battalion, in the medical bay." He frowned slightly. "Have we met before? You look familiar but...."

The Imperial smiled slightly at that. "I serve aboard the Executor. You may have seen me when you were aboard."

Luke nodded, thinking back. "Are you one of Vader's aides?"

The Imperial's smile grew more amused. "Something like that." He began to lever himself upright in the bed, but stopped with a wince when he jostled his patched shoulder.

"Careful," Luke said, coming to his feet to put a steadying hand on the man's other, uninjured shoulder. "You've not been out of the bacta long and that bacta-patch will come off easily."

The man raised his eyebrows. "Sounds like you're overly-acquainted with bacta." And then, "Firmus Piett," he said, offering a hand to Luke. Luke shook it firmly.

"Luke Skywalker," he said, "but I guess you already knew that."

"Mmmm," Piett said. "Given your father's dogged hunt for you, I think most of the crew would know you on sight." The man paused. "Is he well?"

"Vader?" Luke asked, still puzzling over the fact this man knew he was Vader's son. Did everyone know?

"Yes. I was shot trying to protect him." Piett paused. "Is he well?" he repeated. "Did we win?"

Luke nodded. "We won. And Vader's fine. Thank you." Piett looked confused. "For protecting him - thank you."

Piett nodded solemnly. "It's my job," he said.

There was a silence then, one that threatened to stretch into something uncomfortable. Luke glanced over at the medical droid but it was still busy preparing whatever torturous treatment it had in mind for Luke.

"You looked like whatever you had on your mind was serious," the man said, and Luke turned back to him.

Luke considered his reply for a moment before giving a mental shrug. "I was thinking about my father," he said.

"I see." He became solemn suddenly. "I suppose you have a difficult decision to make now." Luke said nothing. "If Lord Vader hasn't already decided in your stead."

Luke winced: he hadn't considered that.

"If I were you," Piett continued, candidly, "I know where I would choose to be. But then I am hardly unbiased, am I? When I was young... younger than you are now... your father's exploits in the Clone Wars were legendary. I was impressed with him as a Jedi, and I have been impressed with him as a commander."

Luke's attention immediately peaked. He took a step closer. "Really?"

Piett nodded. "He's a demanding leader. Failure is not tolerated. I respect that. I have to respect it, or I would have been... removed... from command months ago." There was a glint of grim memory in Piett's eyes, but he shook his head fractionally, not elaborating the point.

"What-?" Luke started, but Piett had already moved on from the subject.

"He is no less demanding of himself," Piett said. He glanced up at Luke. "Have you heard the story of the Battle of Praesitlyn, for example?"

Luke shook his head, intrigued. It was a not-so-subtle diversion from the suddenly dangerous territory of discussing Vader's command style, but Luke didn't press the issue: he already knew the worst of Vader's history, didn't he?

Piett nodded, pulling himself up the bed a little further. Luke moved to help him.

"Ah, well," the man said, "then let me enlighten you. It happened several years into the Clone Wars...."

"The Kuat Drive Yards have dispatched a recovery flotilla that should be in-system within the next six hours. The Executor will require some preparation before she is able to make the jump to the Yards. The majority of the fleet will stay to protect her, in case Black Sun decides to launch a further attack."

The members of the Alliance Council nodded in satisfaction at this. Vader reigned in the urge to issue instructions to them and get this meeting over with so he could return to Luke. He could feel the boy's emotions rising and falling like a turbulent sea. Vader sent a silent curse after Palpatine's departed spirit, for sowing the seeds of doubt within the boy. Although in truth, the question of what they did now would always have arisen. But perhaps not in the context of Luke having just learnt of Vader's greatest crime, the near-murder of his wife. Guilt twisted a blade in his gut at the memory.

"And you, Lord Vader? What will you do?" former-senator Mothma asked.

He turned to her, resting his arms on the polished wood of the Council table. He could feel the discomfort in the room, radiating off the Council members, especially Rieekan, who was barely containing his distrustful glare. But tolerating Vader was something they were going to have to get used to if the future was to follow the plan.

"As we have already agreed, I will return to Imperial Centre. When the Emperor's death in a... tragic... shuttle accident is declared, we will observe the period of mourning and I will be declared Emperor."

"I am still concerned that we have no body for the populace to see, there will be rumours of a conspiracy."

Vader met Ackbar's gaze. "I have cloning contacts that can create a simulacrum of Palpatine's body."

"And I am still concerned that we have lost many men today, and yet gain no victory for the Emperor's death. Did they die for nothing?"

Vader slammed a fist against the table, although with less ferocity than he was tempted to use. "Very well, crow your victory. All you will do is cause anarchy in the capital. I will be forced to act against it to contain panic." He leant across the table towards the woman who had spoken. "By having patience and waiting for me to reinstate the Senate and invite the Alliance to join me in a cooperative rule, you will lose your chance to dance and celebrate Palpatine's death. But you will speed an orderly return to a more democratic rule."

"More democratic?" That was Leia. He might have guessed she would pick up on that. "What does 'more' democratic mean?"

The more he looked at her, the more he saw as much of himself in her as he did of Padme. Vader smiled at the challenge. Maybe she sensed his smile, because her eyebrows furrowed and she shot him a look of warning. Probably she was not in the mood for humour; possibly she was warning him to keep his promise of containing the secret of her identity as his daughter.

"The details of that remain open to discussion. However, I do not have the time for your committee meetings. I must return to Imperial Centre soon or risk an attempted coup in the absence of leadership."

She seemed dissatisfied with that. But instead of commenting on the lack of a plan that was vacuum-tight, she said, "You're leaving."

"I must," he confirmed. "Soon."

He felt a flicker of emotion from her, a sadness. And what about Luke? the worry in her eyes seemed to say, although whether she was worried how Luke would react to the plan or worried that he would leave with Vader wasn't clear. Quite possibly it was both.

Someone voiced the question that was being left unsaid by Vader and Leia. "And Commander Skywalker?"

Vader braced himself mentally against the answer that truly demanded to be given: he will be coming with me. That is non-negotiable. Instead he said, "He must make his own choice on whether to stay with the Rebellion or come with me to Imperial Centre. If he comes with me, it will be as my son and heir."

Rieekan spoke up at that. "What? Do you seriously expect him to choose to go with you willingly?"

"If he does, will you let him go - willingly?" Vader challenged.

Rieekan's scowl deepened. "He is too valuable to let go. As both a Jedi Knight and the destroyer of the Death Star, his inspiration to the troops-"

"And what have you used this great asset for, before now? As a mere squadron commander, risking his life with tasks any Rebel could be assigned to perform," Vader interrupted. He was aware he was approaching a tirade. "If you cannot use the skills of your men effectively, then you do not deserve their loyalty."

"We do not take advice on tactical deployment from you, Lord Vader," Rieekan snapped. "Skywalker must stay with the Alliance."

"So you would deny him the freedom of choice you have spent so long fighting for."

They were cornered and Rieekan knew it. He let out a grunt of irritation.

Leia spoke up. "Luke must make his own decision," she said. She met Vader's gaze. "On that point, I do agree." And she looked as uncertain of what that decision would be as Vader felt. Loyalty - that was the seed of doubt Palpatine had sown in Vader's mind at the end. Whilst they were fighting for their lives, Luke and he could stand side by side. But when the battle was done... what then?

"First, however," she continued, "I trust you will be staying for General Calrissian's memorial service?"

Vader nodded. His chest tightened with some emotion he couldn't name. "Of course," he said. "Although I do not think ejection from a proton torpedo bay an appropriate memorial."

Leia looked at him curiously. "What then?" she asked.

"There is a Jedi ceremony for bidding farewell to the dead," he said, "that would be more fitting."

A murmur spread around the table. Leia was smiling, just slightly. "Go on," she said. "Tell us more."

Leia glanced down at her chrono and cursed inwardly. She was late.

The meeting between the Alliance Council and Vader had gone on for far longer than even Leia had dreaded it would. But at least some decisions were made now, for better or for worse.

"I'm here, I'm here," she said as she entered the medical frigate's surgery room and headed for the slab of carbonite that lay horizontally on a reinforced surgical table.

"Careful," one of the men warned. "Don't touch him yet."

At those words, her hands itched even more to reach out and re-establish the lost contact with Han. But as she watched, the carbonite began a slow melt, the grey metal warming to a red colour and disintegrating into a fine mist that was sucked away to the ceiling by an extraction unit. The air smelt acrid, metallic.

"We're doing it slowly," another man said. "We're hoping it will reduce the risk of permanent blindness."

Leia couldn't find anything to say to that. She turned back to the carbonite, and the slow exposure of her lover's features, his face still contorted in a mask of pain. It felt as if she and the men in the room were holding onto a collective breath.

How long had it been since he'd been frozen? She'd lost count of the days. Too long, but then five minutes would have been too long. Suddenly the prospect of having to explain all that had happened in the last months worried at her mind. Where should she even begin?

The scream Han had been screaming as he was frozen suddenly came out in a choked gasp.

Leia's heart was up in her throat. She moved to touch him - ignored the men who tried to warn her away. "Easy, easy," she said. His skin was cold, clammy. He shuddered uncontrollably.

"What... what the hell?" his throat sounded raw. He was looking at her, but his eyes were unfocused. "I can't see," Han said. His hands groped in the air until they found Leia's face. His fingers traced her features: her nose, her chin, her lips. "Leia? Leia is that you? What the hell happened?"

His hands were trembling. She turned her face to kiss his palm. "It's me, Han. Vader froze you in carbonite," she said. "Don't you remember?"

She glanced at the men around the table - they, too, looked concerned.

"No I... wait a minute - Vader?!" he gasped. And then, "He's after Luke! We have to get to Luke before Vader finds him."


"Help me up," he said determinedly. He tried to brace himself against the table, tried to get weak arm muscles to hold his weight. "Come on, Leia - help me up. The kid ain't got a hope against Vader."

Part of her ached at the determination in him. If only she really had been able to defrost him so quickly, and they had been able to save Luke.

"Han, it's too late for that. You've been frozen for months." Her voice broke, just a little. "You're onboard a medical frigate. You're safe."

He was trying to look at her but clearly failing. "What? But it was only seconds ago we were..." he trailed off. "Months?"

She ran her hands through his clammy hair, brushing it away from his eyes. "It's over," she said. "That's history now."

His hands snaked around her waist suddenly, holding on so tight she found it hard to breathe. She didn't mind. He pressed his face to her stomach briefly before looking back up at her.

"The kid... is he...?"

"Battered and bruised... but he's fine," she said. "He's just fine."

He grinned lopsidedly. "So who rescued him when I wasn't around for the job, huh? No, wait - let me guess," he said. "Lando."

She closed her eyes, forced the frozen breath in her lungs to be exhaled.

"His conscience always was too big for his own good," Han said.

Leia swallowed thickly. "Han, a lot has happened in the past few weeks... months..." She stopped. Change the subject, she thought. "I shouldn't be wearing you out like this. Your hibernation sickness needs treating."

He didn't speak for a moment, just pressed his lips together and nodded. "So that's how it is, huh?"

She opened her eyes to look at him, saw an expression of wariness on his face. "What?"

" 'A lot's changed'. That's your unapproachable royal pain-in-the-ass voice." He paused. "Spit it out, Leia. Whatever it is, it ain't gonna kill me."

She wetted her lips, glanced at the other occupants of the room. "Can we have some privacy, please, gentlemen?" It wasn't really a question. One of them started to argue. "Ten minutes," she said. "Any more than that and you can come in and get him yourself."

As Vader swept into Battalion's medical bay he already knew what he would find. Luke lay sedated on the bed, dressed in medical clothing, an IV line running from a small droid unit to a vein in his arm.

Vader sighed in irritation. So little time before he had to leave, and Luke would be spending at least some of it unconscious. Vader folded his arms over his chest, studying the boy. What Organa had thought on first seeing Luke on the planet's surface was correct: Luke had lost weight. And there were shadows under his eyes. Vader frowned, turning to locate the medical droid that ran this ship's medical bay.

"Lord Vader."

He turned towards the sound of the voice. Admiral Piett sat upright on a medical cot, his shoulder covered in a bacta dressing.

Vader had been so intent on Luke, he hadn't even noticed the admiral. Nor had he noticed Chewbacca floating in the bacta tank at the end of the room, a 2-1B surgical droid monitoring his status.

"Admiral Piett," Vader greeted Piett. The admiral started to rise to salute him. "No - as you were. You appear to be recovering well."

Piett nodded. "Yes, my Lord. Although I understand I am due for another session in the bacta tank."

Vader nodded. "My sympathies, Admiral."

Piett's lips twitched. "Thank you, Lord Vader." The man glanced at Luke. "If I may, sir... the 2-1B told your son he will recover well from his injuries, now they are being treated."

Was his concern so evident? Vader straightened his back. "Good," was all he said. He'd had no idea that Force-lightning could have such effects. But then, no one Palpatine had electrocuted in the past had survived long enough to require medical attention.

Vader turned back to his son, arms crossed over his chest.

He sensed Piett's hesitation, wondered if the man was going to point out to Vader that Luke might be unconscious for some time yet.

Vader waited.

Piett apparently thought better of pointing out the obvious and kept his silence.

Vader continued to stand silently, contemplating his son.

The wet foliage seemed to grab and slap at his face and hands as Luke pushed his way through the undergrowth. It was hard work driving his legs through the tangle of vines and wet mud, climbing up a sharp incline. Luke grasped at the fat stems of the over-sized plant-life to give himself leverage against the slippery ground, used the thick trunks of trees to balance against when he paused to catch his breath. The next planet out from the Barutte System's star was nothing like its dry, rocky neighbour the Rebels had used as their base.

Vader was up ahead. Luke could feel his presence shining like a beacon at the top of the hill. Luke wiped away water that dripped onto his head from a leaf the shape of a dinner plate, and pressed onwards.

Eventually the foliage began to thin, giving way to rockier ground with thinner soil. The blue sky began to be revealed through the leaves of the thinning trees. Another one hundred metres up and he finally reached the summit.

"You're a hard man to find," Luke said.

Vader was waiting for him, standing with his thumbs tucked into his belt. He regarded Luke for a moment before shaking his head.

"You," he said, "are supposed to be resting."

Luke grinned. "I never was very good at that. Besides - you disappeared. When Too-Onebee finally let me out of the medical centre, you were gone."

Vader snorted. "I did not 'disappear'. I am preparing the funeral pyre."

Luke looked at the structure that Vader was building on the crest of the hill, a pyre of logs and thick branches. He sobered abruptly.

"It could have been you or me on that pyre tonight," Luke said. "It came that close."

"In many ways, it should have been me. Calrissian stayed aboard Executor in my stead," Vader replied.

Luke swallowed thickly. "Because you left to come after me." It wasn't a question. Unacknowledged guilt stung him. He felt the echo of it in Vader's own emotions. Vader looked aside briefly. Then he walked towards Luke, placing a gloved hand on his shoulder.

"Respect his choice," he said. There was a wave of something reassuring through the Force. "Don't undermine that by believing you could have avoided his death, had you not needed help. It was his decision."

Somehow Luke felt that Vader was saying the words for himself as much as he was for Luke. He nodded his understanding in the silence that followed.

"I talked to Leia," Luke said. "She said a Jedi ceremony was your idea."

Vader nodded. "It was."

Luke smiled at that, was about to say more when Vader turned aside and walked over to a pile of logs that had been cut out from a felled tree. For a moment he thought that daring to accuse Vader of doing anything 'Jedi' had overstepped the mark, but then Vader asked, "Did Obi-Wan or Yoda teach you anything about traditional Jedi funerals?"

"Yoda told me Jedi were cremated."

Vader lifted a large log with his hands. It occurred to Luke that the pyre could have been built in minutes with the use of the Force levitating the logs. But Vader had chosen not to do that. He had also chosen to do it himself, rather than recruiting help.

"Is that all?" Vader asked. "Did he teach you the death meditations to undertake in preparation for a funeral?"

Absurdly, Luke felt like he'd been found wanting for his lack of knowledge. "I didn't ask. Although now I think about it, it seems a bit unnecessary if we vanish when we die."

Vader placed the log on the pile and turned to Luke. "Obi-Wan vanishing on his death was as much of a surprise to me as it was to you. That is not the norm."

Luke blinked. "Oh," he said. "I thought...." He paused, wondering what else he had taken for granted. "Is it normal for Jedi to come back as ghosts, too? I've seen and heard Ben. He was there when I blew up the Death Star, and he told me not to leave Yoda to go to Bespin."

Vader's posture suddenly stiffened. "Obi-Wan can appear to you?" he asked sharply.

Warily, Luke answered, "Yes."

"Have you seen him recently?"

Luke shook his head. "No." And then, "But he told me that if I faced you, I'd do it alone."

Vader stared at the sky briefly before refocusing on Luke. "Interesting," he said.

Maybe he doesn't want to face the man who killed him, Luke thought, and realised too late that he hadn't shielded the thought from his father. "What I mean is -" Luke started to say, but Vader interrupted.

"I know what you meant. And you may be right. I... would not blame Obi-Wan for not wishing to confront me." He paused. "A lot has changed since we were brothers."

Luke felt an echoing sting of regret from his father. A part of Luke, an idealistic part, was praying to the Force for Obi-Wan to put in an appearance now and tell his father that what was done was done, and to concentrate on stopping it from happening again.

Ben didn't appear.

Luke figured maybe it was his job, and not Ben's, to point that out to Vader.

First, though, he really needed to know what Vader had done... what had happened to Luke's mother. Luke turned a number of ideas for ways of asking in his mind, not finding any options that he felt comfortable with. Instead, he moved to help Vader with the pyre.

Vader put a hand on his arm. "You should not be out of the medical bay yet, let alone down here doing manual labour."

"I want to help."

"Luke -"

Luke sent him a look of frustration. "I'll go easy," he promised.

Vader laughed sharply at that. "I doubt I shall ever see the day where you 'go easy' at anything." But he removed his restraining hand and allowed Luke to continue.

For a while, they continued to build the pyre in silence.

Vader had already cleared the summit and cut down several trees, his lightsaber obviously making quick work of the wood. They piled them one on top of another, trying to keep the platform level. The work gave Luke a strange sense of peace. It seemed fitting, somehow, for Lando to have a Jedi funeral, despite not being Force-sensitive. There was something appropriate about it. Maybe that feeling came from that hunch that it should not have been Lando that died yesterday, but his father or himself. Maybe it was just an acknowledgement of the reason for his sacrifice.

Luke wondered what his mother's memorial had been like. Had she had a pyre too? He supposed he would never know, not unless he asked Vader. And he still wasn't sure how to break the peace of the moment to do that.

Luke balanced another thick stem of wet wood on the pile already in his hands, and turned back for the pyre.

"Do you truly want to know what happened with your mother?"

Coming from somewhere on the other side of the pyre, Vader's voice was almost disembodied. Luke paused briefly before continuing towards the woodpile. Clearly, his shielding still needed work, and now wasn't the time to be leaking emotions. He focused for a moment, building up his shields to a strength that kept his thoughts hidden. He wasn't sure Vader would tell him the truth if he sensed the apprehension in Luke right now. "I meant what I said in the shuttle with Palpatine," Luke said, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm not running away." He paused. "I just need to know."

There was a long silence. Luke began placing the logs on the pile, one at a time. He waited.

When there was still no response, he added, "But it doesn't have to be now."

"No," Vader said. "No, we will talk about it now. This will not be easy to hear, Luke, but you should hear it."

Luke turned back to collect more logs. Somehow, physical work made this conversation bearable.

"I do not know how or why your mother died," Vader said. "I do not know if my actions killed her, but even if they did not, they were inexcusable. I... allowed my anger full rein."

Luke shivered. His body was trying to tell him to do something to shut Vader up, or to not listen. He reached to the Force to help calm his tense muscles.

"I had already sacrificed everyone else that mattered to me for her," Vader continued "I slaughtered the Jedi to try and save her. I gave away my freedom for her. I planned not only to save her life, but to rule alongside her in a galaxy where she could never be in danger again." Vader paused for a moment. "And she rejected me."

Luke looked down at the ground, memories of Bespin whispering in his mind.

Join me....

I'll never join you!

If he hadn't jumped... would Vader have saved him the bother? Luke couldn't imagine that now. Vader had... changed.

"I choked her, using the Force."

The muscles in Luke's neck spasmed uncomfortably.

"She stood in front of me, days from giving birth to my children, and told me she didn't recognise me any more, that she couldn't follow me. And I was furious. I had sacrificed everything to keep her safe.

Vader paused for a second, and Luke imagined him searching for his own calm.

"Obi-Wan made his presence known then, and the last I saw of Padmé was her lying unconscious on the floor whilst I fought him."


Luke tasted the name, trying to picture the woman he should have known.

He couldn't.

"I lost that fight. Only after I recovered did I learn she had died," Vader continued. "I assumed I killed her."

Vader paused again, and Luke realised he was looking for some reassurance that Luke wasn't about to run full-pelt down the hillside, back to the Falcon where he'd set it down in a clearing at the foot of the hill.

"Go on," Luke said. "I'm still here."

"I survived by avoiding thinking or feeling anything about my past life. My body was destroyed, my reason for living gone. I fell into step with Palpatine because he was the only thing left to me and he gave me purpose where I had none."

One of the logs Luke was placing on the pyre rolled from the pile and fell to the ground. He bent to pick it up. When he straightened, Vader was standing beside him.

"I cannot forgive myself for what I did to her," he said. "I do not expect your forgiveness."

Luke frowned. He brushed tree bark and dirt from his hands by rubbing them against his shirt. "I don't think it's me that should be forgiving you," he said. "It's Ben and... Padmé... and... whoever else was there. And you - you have to forgive yourself some time."

"That," Vader said curtly, "is unlikely."

Luke nodded. For a moment he didn't speak, and he felt his father quietly searching Luke's presence in the Force for some indication of his feelings. Vader shields were down, hiding nothing, and Luke felt briefly ashamed of his own need for distance: his shields were still up, and he felt his father's uncertainty rising. "But I can forgive you for not telling me sooner."

Vader pinned him with a stare. Luke felt that gaze assessing him, running over his skin like cool water. "Really," he said flatly, clearly disbelieving. "And for Cloud City?"

A shiver ran down Luke's spine at the name. "Eventually," he said. And it was true. It was too raw now... but later, maybe, when it wasn't such a scar in his memory... He focused on Vader, allowing the conviction he felt to enter the tone of his voice. "And I'm not just telling you what I think you want to hear. Leia's the diplomat, not me." He took the log from Vader's hands and placed it on the pyre.

That uncertainty he felt from his father was growing, Luke realised, despite the reassurance, along with an indecision about something. Vader considered him for a long minute. Finally, he seemed to reach a decision and Luke felt his father brace himself as he said, "When I discovered you lived, I... changed. Suddenly I had something to lose again. It was a mistake to send you to the Rebels for protection."

Luke nodded. "I guess we figured that out too late," he said.

Something in Vader's presence wavered briefly, to be replaced with a sudden spark of what Luke recognised as grit-your-teeth-and-do-it determination. "Separated, we are merely powerful. Together, we are matchless."

Luke smiled at that. "I can't disagree with you there."

"Then come with me," Vader said, forging on. "I must return to Imperial Centre after the memorial. The Empire is too vulnerable for me to linger here any longer. But... you could come with me. As my son."

Luke swallowed thickly at that. Here was the balance point, the decision he didn't know how to make. He was appalled by what Vader had told him, yet his heart whispered that he was safe, that Vader had grown, was no longer the man who had nearly killed his wife. And the very fact he was being asked, not told, was evidence of a shift in his father.

Leia had told him about the plan the Alliance Council and Vader put together, about Vader taking over as Emperor before bringing back the Senate, integrating the Alliance, returning to democratic rule... it all sounded so different to the 'rule the galaxy as father and son' offer from Bespin. Now it was just... come with me. No expectations - just come.

And everyone would know he was Vader's son. No more hiding, or pretending. It seemed everyone on the Council already knew it. And Han knew it, and Chewie. But this would be... everyone. Oddly, that wasn't as terrifying an idea as he would have expected it to be a few months ago. It was who he was, after all. And Luke had never been much good at pretending to be something he wasn't.

In his mind, he began imagining the process of following Vader back to Coruscant. Rumour had it that Vader's palace was so large it could house the Imperial Intelligence Service twice over. Luke could barely imagine it. But it wasn't, and would never be, the promise of luxury that would draw him after Vader.

"What about the Alliance?"

Vader hesitated before replying, "You cannot be in two places at once," he acknowledged.

"They need me. Leia needs me... and Han and Chewie."

I need you, seemed to whisper in his mind, but Luke wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it.

"This is your decision, Luke. You have until tonight," Vader said, and moved away to continuing building the pyre.

"I'm out of it for a little while and suddenly my girl's free for the taking."

Leia stopped outside the docking port Luke was bringing the Falcon in to dock with. Han, refusing to hold onto her arm and let her navigate him whilst his eyesight healed, bumped into her. She shook her head at him, although she knew he wouldn't be able to see the movement. "I hope you're talking about the Falcon there, Captain," she said.

Han shot her a lopsided grin, arms crossed over his chest. "Well you defrosted me, didn't you? That means I gotta count for something."

A smile wanted to come through in her voice, but she pushed it back. "You're incorrigible," she said. Incorrigible he might be, but it was oh, so good to be back around that grounding wit.

"I'm right," he said. "Besides. Now I know Luke's your-"

"Han," she snapped, warningly. She glanced left and right down the walkway, relieved to find they were still alone in the medical frigate's corridor.

"Relax, Leia," he said. "I wasn't gonna..." He trailed off. Suddenly he moved closer, managed to blindly kiss her hair, wrap an arm around her shoulders. "Still can't believe it," he said.

"Nor can I," she whispered back. His arm tightened around her shoulder.

The docking control panel starting winking, indicating a ship had started to dock. She let out a long breath.

"You know I'm tempted to force my way in there and blast the Falcon outta here. You, me and the kid, even if I have to drag him kickin' and screamin'."

"It's his choice, Han," she pointed out. "If he wants to go with Vader... Besides - you can't leave Chewie behind."

"True," he said.

The word belied the depth of his concern about the wookiee