"Tell me, Lord Vader...how went your audience with Governor Sedris?"
Vader, who had by this time risen from the floor, looked up at the gigantic hologram of his master, Darth Sidious. The flickering image dominated the room: but Vader knew that a mere 20 meters high picture was nothing to compare with the Sith Master's presence in the flesh—or in the Force.
"Quickly, master. He is dead."
Palpatine nodded, unsurprised by the news.
"I am sending my chosen replacement forthwith. Perhaps the resurrection of the Gran protectorate will serve as a useful reminder of the price of defiance." Vader did not reply—he stood still, compliant—in anticipation.
"I was impressed at the swiftness with which you quelled the insurgency," his master continued, casually. "A campaign that all the greatest military minds on Coruscant said would take weeks—you execute in a matter of days. They will not believe it." He laughed softly to himself. "You continue to baffle them, Lord Vader."
"All that matters is that my master knew it could be done," Vader replied, and he allowed only a sliver of contempt for his detractors seep into his voice.
Palpatine heard it, of course. He steepled his fingers, and Vader reflected, not for the first time, on how little he could discern his master's true intentions—even after all this time. Unlike his servant, the Emperor did not need to rely on a mask to conceal himself.
That was why he could not risk handing Luke over to him. Not yet. It was an unfortunate truism he had to remind himself of constantly...the only way Vader could keep himself from going mad with worry and from raging against his own weakness in letting Luke go.
But he will not forget such an act of faith. He will see reason, soon—he must. Now he is safer far away from me.
But would that ever not be true? The treacherous voice in his head that he for so long had relied on the Dark Side to silence sounded more and more reasonable.
"I know what you are capable of better than anyone in the galaxy...but you have, upon occasion, managed to surprise even me." He lowered his hands to the arms of his seat of power. "Indulge me. It will be instructive to the Council to relay the wisdom of someone who understands how true power is wielded."
"The uprising lacked unity of purpose. The Dugs' will to fight was no stronger than that of the weakest chieftain...the deaths of their commanders broke their spirits. Their capitulation after that was... inevitable."
The Sith Lord's expression changed. Sidious's smile could not be further from Luke's if his master had been trying.
"It is an old story. Without guidance and a firm hand, even the most devoted acolyte will go...astray."
Vader's breathing filled the room as his master did—but while the Emperor dwarfed all, the regulated, steady breaths—like a heartbeat—echoed off the walls and ceiling and made the Sith apprentice smaller.
Palpatine folded his hands into his lap. The gesture's effect was total—all at once Vader was staring not into the face of the Emperor, but his mentor—the man who had guided and advised him from an early age. The man he had once thought of as his friend.
He no longer suffered from such naïveté.
"You have been away from Imperial Center for a long time, my friend. I believe the endless campaigns these past months have been fatiguing."
Vader bristled—though not as much as he might've.
"Not more than any of the others, master."
Palpatine chuckled, indulgently.
"It is not a slight, my apprentice," he soothed. "You are, after all, a man, not a droid—whatever the Rebellion's propaganda feeds may claim." His mouth curled in an ironic smile. "Even the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy must take furlough upon occasion."
There was concern in the Emperor's voice—even the ghost of affection. Vader felt a pang of pride...and then he tempered it. It had been so long since his master had expressed either sentiment; there would be a reason for it, a calculated one. As a consequence, he was on his guard, already preparing for the sharp sting that always followed.
"If I have displeased you—"
"You have acted as you always do—with a single-minded determination...the quality that marked you for greatness almost from birth. Nevertheless—" The benevolent old man he had been aping hardened. "I sometimes feel that you, in your zeal, have a tendency to...overtax yourself. Do you not see it?"
Vader opened his mouth to argue—then forced himself to swallow the protest. Sidious was not truly asking—and nor was he wrong. Denial would gain him nothing.
"Yes," he agreed, dully. The Sith had barely slept in weeks—and despite the defensive fortress he constructed around his mind, his master had seen that at once.
His master always knew.
"Then you understand why I wish to see you back at my side on Coruscant."
"If that is your command."
Palpatine closed his eyes and let out the long-suffering sigh, expelling the worries and cares of the galaxy as though they were nothing more than mild irritant.
"It is. The Imperial court wearies me...as the war wearies you. Perhaps when you return, we shall turn our attention to matters that concern neither."
Vader knew at once what his master spoke of.
The Sith Shrine.
Buried beneath what had once been the Jedi Temple, it contained most of the holocrons and artifacts that made up Sidious's Sith treasure trove. A massive, natural cave—the last of it's kind on the planet—and a true monument to the Dark Side, it was his master's most guarded secret. Only Vader knew of its existence, and over the years of his apprenticeship to Sidious he had never been so openly invited to plum its depths.
The Apprentice was once again deemed a worthy successor.
But he had no interest in the great mysteries of the Dark Side anymore—if he ever had. There had not been a time when the chance to bask in the magnetic darkness of Darth Sidious had been less appealing— when his heart had been less in it.
A treacherous, fragile thing, but he knew what that ache above his ribcage meant now—it was his heart, and his heart pined for his son.
If Palpatine could see where Vader's thoughts rested, it did not trouble him.
"There is also the question of Empire Day." Ah, Vader thought, cynically. There it is. His true purpose. "I trust that, despite your travels, you have not forgotten it is fast approaching."
"No, master." He knew better than to start an argument over this subject. His master's false warmth was fast morphing into sarcasm.
"I thought not. As my strong right arm, you will be at my side for the festivities." Palpatine leaned forward in his throne just a fraction. "All of them."
Vader felt as though an invisible leash was tightening around his neck. The entire ceremony—the entire day? To be at the Emperor's side during his customary address, that he expected—but to be forced to attend the endless array of feasts, parades and galas—the Empire's great propaganda machine at work— was an unbearable prospect.
I am doing the true work of keeping the Empire safe.
"I know you find it tedious, Vader," the Emperor said, dangerously understanding. "But it is vital that the people see you."
"They do not want to see me," he replied, before he could stop himself. This answer actually seemed to surprise his master for a moment. The Sith's yellowed eyes flashed with bemused interest.
"You sell yourself short, my apprentice. There is no one tied more in the collective imagination's mind to their security, happiness—to peace itself—than you."
"I am nothing to them," he said, thinking of the fear and distrust that followed him everywhere he went on Coruscant. How little he cared for the opinions of the bloated imperial court, rife with corruption and greed—how could he, when one such as Luke Skywalker existed in the galaxy? "I am nothing more than a 'blunt instrument.'"
"You have always had a long memory for petty slights," Palpatine said, more coldly. "It feeds your anger, it is true—but take care to temper it, or you will risk overreaching."
Vader bowed his head, chastened. Inside, he was roiling with anger. After a moment of silence, Palpatine seemed satisfied.
"In addition to your presence," he continued, lightly. "I require that of your admiral."
Vader raised his helmet again, the pretense of subservience forgotten.
"Yes." The Emperor steepled his fingers. "He will join us for Empire Day as well."
"Yes, master." His slight hesitation was obvious. He cursed himself when he saw Sidious recognized it.
"Is there a problem, Lord Vader?"
In truth, he wanted Piett on the Executor—so that as soon as it was humanly possible, he could leave Coruscant again.
"But you are curious."
Again, he saw no point in lying. Palpatine would enjoy it more if he did.
"Yes. You have never asked for such a thing before."
"That is true. My plans for this year's celebration are—somewhat different. The party around me will be smaller, more intimate. As for Admiral Piett—" He paused. "I would have thought my interest obvious."
"He—has proven himself a loyal servant of the Empire," his apprentice said, haltingly. Control—or at least the appearance of it—was rapidly slipping through his fingers. "He is both...obedient and adaptive."
Vader knew he was being steered somehow, once again out of his depth. The direction—his purpose in the Emperor's grand design, however, still alluded him.
"More impressive still, he has survived working under your direct command for far longer than any of his predecessors. For Piett to have earned the trust of you—whose standards are so exactingly high—is to have earned my attention. In military matters—" He was careful to emphasize the word. "You must know you have my implicit trust in all things. You would not be the supreme commander of my navy were it not so."
"Yes—I know, master." In spite of his trepidation, Vader felt his ego soothed. He should no longer care, and yet...he sensed in the Force that it was true, and was it not worth something to have earned the respect of this man, above all men?
Palpatine gave him a moment to ruminate on his praise before continuing.
"I am intrigued by Piett. His promotion was...unconventional, but he appears to have proven himself worthy of it. He will attend upon me—one of my chosen guests of honor."
"Then this is a reward?"
The Emperor gave him a look of mock-hurt.
"Is it a punishment to stand at my side?"
He did not reply. He could see from the cold glint in his master's eyes that this amused rather than offended him.
"I will inform Admiral Piett of your wish at once."
"Of course. I also think—" he paused, as though he were considering something, before continuing, airily, "That this is an opportune time for your flagship to undergo maintenance. You have run it from one end of the galaxy to the next in pursuit of the rebels, after all. The shipyards on Coruscant are now large enough to service a Super Star Destroyer-class warship. I will send all my best men and finest engineers to attend to her while you are in the capital."
Vader felt an immediate stab of anxiety. The Executor had not been docked in-atmosphere since the Emperor had first given the ship's command to him. It would mean at least a month on the capital planet, if not more.
A month away from any potential meeting with Luke.
"But master, what if—"
"You will not have need of her, Vader," the Emperor cut him off, briskly. "The Rebel fleet is scattered— they can make no serious play now. And in my meditations I see they are not so foolish as they once were. After your triumph on Hoth, they have learned caution." His master studied him for a long moment. "The Executor and her lord have served me well. They have both earned a well-deserved rest."
Vader had an unexpected flash to his youth in the Jedi Temple. The Order had set punishments for their padawan learners—usually repetitious training exercises or cleaning, tasks that were meant to "humble" the digresser. Knights with apprentices were allowed to enforce disciplinary actions of their own design.
Obi-Wan's chosen form of punishment for an errant apprentice had, naturally, been created with him in mind. The revocation of speederbike privileges.
'Grounding' was what his former master called it.
The Emperor held up one gnarled hand, warding off all of the concerns and excuses he already knew were coming with a single, blunt motion.
"In the event of some crisis, I am sure you will manage to procure yourself an adequate ship. You always do," he pointed out, amused. "But I assure you, it is unlikely you will need one."
"I will return to Coruscant, then."
"Yes—I think it better you not delay. I have a surprise of sorts for you." He said this with the air of an indulgent uncle. "I will not bore you with the details now. Soon enough we will be together—unless... anything else keeps you?"
Darth Sidious raised one eyebrow.
"No, master. The last of my men are sweeping Malastare. They will return to my Star Destroyer in hours...and then there will be nothing keeping me from Imperial Center."
The Emperor studied him—gave him that probing look he knew so well. It was the gaze that swept across the galaxy, that saw and knew all. A hint of disappointment flickered across Palpatine's wasted face.
"I am surprised at you, Lord Vader," he said, eyes narrowing a fraction. "You have not once mentioned your hunt for the boy."
Vader was caught off-balance.
"You—did not ask for an update on my progress—"
"Nor did you volunteer one," the Emperor returned, caustically. "I must confess, Vader, when I ordered you to return to Coruscant, I expected more fight from you. Perhaps your desire to capture Skywalker is not as strong as I first believed it to be."
Immediately, a mighty surge of boiling, defensive anger rose in the Sith—an unstemmable tide. Not as strong as he believed it? Sidious dared to assume he knew the extent of Vader's desire, but he knew nothing of his apprentice's primal need for his son.
A need that was all the stronger for its two decades of dormancy.
The holoprojector in the ceiling rattled—the blue image flitted in and out of focus.
Palpatine's mouth curled into a smile of undisguised delight. His eyes flashed knowingly, as if to say —"Ah—there it is. I knew I could fish it out."
"No...no, I see my initial instincts were quite correct," Sidious chuckled. Vader cursed himself for falling right into the trap. He mustered all that was left of his self-control; the shaking in the chamber stopped. "You want him more than ever, Lord Vader...but such restraint. It is unlike you."
"The hunt for Skywalker will...keep," Vader rumbled, evenly. "As soon as the Executor's repairs are complete and you have no more need of me, I will pick up the search."
Outwardly, he was as calm as the glassy lake at Varykino. At his core, the fire raged on, stoked by a paternal righteousness that burned far longer and brighter than his rage did.
"You have an idea where you will next find him, I trust?"
Vader turned the surface thoughts of his mind to Luke. Only a few hours earlier, the agent he had placed at Jabba the Hutt's palace reported back—Solo was the gangster's latest wall decoration. His son was probably on route to the Rebel fleet, and would undoubtedly be knee-deep in preparations with Princess Leia to mount a recovery operation soon enough.
Given his son's track record of rescue missions, this wasn't a comforting thought.
His master nodded, approvingly—but did not ask for elaboration. To have done so would have been to show doubt in his apprentice's abilities.
"Continue to exercise patience. The boy's presence in the Force is—wild, unpredictable. He will be difficult to trace—but not impossible."
"He does not follow the Rebels blindly."
"No," Sidious murmured. "As I thought. I did not expect a rank-and-file soldier, given his—lineage." He tilted his head and appraised Vader, thoughtfully. "You are wise to accept my counsel, my friend—but do not despair. You may find yourself surprised by how quickly the boy makes himself known to you again."
Vader tried to stem the tide of longing in his heart. However foolhardy his child was, he did not—he would not let himself hope that Luke would risk the danger of coming to Coruscant in the middle of an Empire Day celebration. That would hardly be the ideal setting for their reunion, however much he missed his son.
"Perhaps, master," he replied, morosely.
"Perhaps." Sidious smiled, and there was a predatory gleam that his most devoted acolyte recognized. It made him uneasy. "One never knows where a Skywalker will turn up."
"Well, that's the last of it..." Doctor Aphra surveyed Luke's pre-flight prep with a critical eye. "Now if we could only get you fitted with one of the rationality scopes I put on all my high-risk droids, you'll be all set."
"That's rich, coming from you. You're not exactly a poster child for self-preservation." Skywalker shot Aphra a smile that did not entirely meet his eyes as he threw a meager sack of his belongings back into the storage unit in his X-Wing. "I'm not a kid. I've been looking out for myself...with the help of my friends, anyway...for three years."
"No wonder there's such high casualties among your father's officers."
The pilot shoved a bag into the cockpit with unnecessary roughness. He had several colorful retorts ready, but this time—Luke bit his tongue. The word had come a few hours previously; Luke didn't trust Vader not to change his mind again, and so he felt it was better not to drag out a goodbye with the good doctor.
It had taken a week of cajoling her with assurances that yes, he would be fine, that his friends were nearby ("No, I'm not going to tell you where") and that he was healthy enough to be allowed out of bed before she capitulated, sent the message to his father, and received Vader's terse—and from his perspective, rather cool—consent. He was to be let loose at the nearest neutral system, to go from there wherever he pleased. No questions asked.
The Sith Lord had even agreed to Luke's request that she not follow or track his movements. That wouldn't stop the young pilot from putting several extra lightspeed jumps in the nav-com before he rejoined the fleet, but it was surprising not to have to argue his position.
"I guess if he was going to track me, he wouldn't bother with the pretext of letting me go in the first place," Luke murmured, as he secured Artoo snugly in his bay. The droid beeped a comforting reply. "But it's...still hard to believe."
"I know. I don't think Coruscant does much for Lord Vader's judgement, to tell you the truth. I'm a little disappointed." The rebel glanced over at her wrist, as if expecting at any moment to hear her comm go off. She shot him a shrewd look. "And I think you are, too."
Flushing, Luke turned his face away from her and towards the rusted underbelly of his ship.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You want him to call," she said, watching him fiddle with the engine thrusters for the fifth time. "Really afraid pop doesn't care, aren't you, kiddo?"
"I am not," Luke said, spinning on his heel. The amusement in Aphra's eyes made his face heat up. There was something accusatory lurking just below her surface that had him on the defensive. "It's just that— he's spent the last three years chasing me across the galaxy and back. This is kind of a turn-around. Anyone would be confused."
She crossed her arms and leaned against the wing of his X-Wing, not convinced.
"Sure. Maybe your father is just testing out the old adage 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.'"
"You got an act yet?" he asked, with a sourness that did not suit him at all. "You should think about taking it on the road."
"This isn't a joke, Luke." Any trace of levity vanished from the doctor's face; she suddenly seemed much older to Luke. When he looked at her he saw, not an aberration in Vader's sphere, but a natural extension of his will—a dangerous woman, under that bright exterior. "You're the one who's acting like you can go back to the Alliance and pretend none of this has happened."
"Of course I'm not—"
"You haven't told any of your rebel friends about Lord Vader, have you?" Luke's clenched his jaw so tightly that it trembled. He said nothing. "What do you think would happen if someone in the Rebellion found out the truth?"
"I haven't betrayed the Rebellion or my principles," he replied, evasively.
"Oh, come off it, farm boy! Not even you can be that naive." She pushed off his X-Wing with unnecessary force and stalked towards him, pointing one of her slight, gloved fingers at his face. "You're the only son and heir of Darth Vader, and you've made a deal with him. I'm no expert in military law, but I'm pretty sure that qualifies as colluding with the enemy, and it's something that could get you court-martialed."
"The Alliance is not going to execute me for being Vader's son," Luke said, coldly, half-turning his face away from her. "It's not the Empire."
Aphra stepped around him, forced Luke—wedged between the body of his ship and its wing—to look her straight in the eyes again.
"What are you going to do when they find out who you really are?"
"I know what you want me to do, Aphra," Luke shot back, at last losing his temper. "Give up everything I've fought for and go with him—well I'm not going to. Nobody can force me, not him, and not you."
She laughed, humorlessly.
"Please, kid. I've got a recording of you chatting away with the second-in-command of the entire Empire in my ship. If I really wanted to force your hand I'd just send it anonymously to Mon Mothma, or whoever is running the show over there." Luke was already pale, now he looked ashen. "Then when Lord Vader got wind of your impending execution, we'd run in and nab you right before he blew their entire fleet to smithereens."
Luke's legs were so shaky he wondered if she had been right when she told him he wasn't ready to fly. Right now he didn't feel up to standing.
"Then there'd be no more war, and no more Rebellion for you to return to..." Now she was the one turned away from him: shoulders hunched, arms crossed and pressed tightly to her chest. "All the galaxy's problems solved in one neat little annihilation."
His stomach turned at the image—not least of all because he could see it happening so easily.
"If you truly think that would work, why..." His voice shook. "...Why don't you do it?"
"Because—" She turned around and her face softened, mouth twitching into a rueful half-smile. "It wouldn't be in my best interest. He'd kill me if he found out I'd put you at risk like that. I'm not noble, I'm not going to sacrifice my own life just to force you to reconcile the two of you."
His legs at last gave way and he sank to the ground.
"Does it make me a disloyal son when I say I'm relieved you don't like him that much?" Aphra plunked herself down on the grass next to him. The doctor's temper had abated, given way to a gentle but firm concern.
"Listen to me, Luke. I've worked for your father for a long time. I've seen what he's capable of first hand. I've seen him requisition an army from a Geonosian queen, go from being an errand boy for Tagge to being the undisputed number two in the Empire. Most importantly, I've seen him track you down and keep it a secret from the Emperor for over two years." Luke gave her a sideways glance. "He is going to win. The Rebellion is done. Honestly, you're probably the only reason it still exists. He's going to get what he wants in the end...you're only making things harder for yourself by not accepting it."
"There has to be another way—"
"What—siding with rebels over your own flesh and blood?" She snorted, derisively. "Political radicals over your own family?"
"You don't know Han or Leia," Luke retorted, a pang of guilt seizing him at the thought of his friends— Chewbacca too, and Threepio, who was probably worried sick over him and his counterpart after a week of no contact. "They are like family to me. They need me—"
"—More than your father does?" she finished for him, her voice cutting.
"I..." He clenched the fist of his prosthetic hand and pressed it against the ground. "I don't know what he needs."
"Oh, like hell you don't!"
"I have other people I'm responsible for!" he cried, fighting back the tears he had been afraid would come the second he lifted off the planet and his last point of contact with his father was a distant speck. "Do you know how he got me the last time? It was by torturing my best friend. He knew I'd feel Han in pain, that I'd come, like the naive idiot you both think I am—and I did, and thanks to me he's a prisoner now. I think given the circumstances, even Darth Vader would acknowledge who has the greater immediate need here."
Now Aphra was the one rendered speechless.
"Once I've rescued Han," he said, more quietly. "Then I'll worry about saving my—about everything else."
Sighing, he fixed his eyes on a clump of grass at the base of his feet. Aphra placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, gently.
"You really think your father needs to be saved?"
"Of course," he turned his gaze from the soft soil of the ground to her face. "Isn't it obvious?"
Behind those usually perceptive eyes was only a blank.
Before he was frightening, powerful, angry—before and above all things—his father was in pain. Why was he the only one who could see it? He did now, with startling clarity. Was he just the only person who it occurred to to even ask the question?
No, Aphra cared for his father, in her way. She even had a protective streak, if not of the man himself, than of his interests...but she also held him in a kind of blind awe that made Luke's heart ache. The archeologist admired him for his power, for his apparent invulnerability and implacable exterior—all the things that made him such an object of fear and hatred in the Alliance.
To her, there was no choice. She wanted Darth Vader to win.
He didn't think winning was at all what his father needed.
"I know I'm a disappointment to him." He sighed, hauling himself to his feet. "I'm sorry I am to you, too."
"Hey, Luke..." She let go of his shoulder. "Don't be angry. If before now I'd ever met someone even half as good as you, I'd probably think galactic peace and justice were possible, too." He rolled his eyes skyward. "You're too good for this galaxy, kiddo. That's why pop wants to lock you up and throw away the key."
"To save me from my own idiocy?"
"No...to keep you safe. But speaking of your own idiocy..." Aphra rifled around in her pack for a minute, before pulling out something small and metal. It took Luke a second to recognize the lightsaber. "This is yours, I guess."
Luke looked at it for a long moment.
"Keep it. Return it to your boss." He hitched up his pack. "Tell him I...appreciate it, but I want to build my own."
It was a Jedi rite of passage to build one's own lightsaber, he knew—and he still wanted that. The fact that it would give his father a reason to be impressed the next time they met (if, indeed, he got it done before then—it was alright if he saw Vader before... he wasn't fussy) was entirely incidental.
"Take care of yourself, little lord. And remember..." She wagged her finger at him. "Not everyone has parents who take such an active interest in their future."
She pressed something into his palm.
"How could I ever forget?" Luke looked down at his hand—it was a private comm, obviously of her own design. "What's this for?"
"In case you get in trouble and need a bail out. Take it—" She folded her arms. "Or I'll pitch my idea about infiltrating the Rebellion to Lord Vader."
Immediately he shoved it in his pocket.
"You really are just as bad as he is. Twisted. Crazed." She grinned so widely all her teeth showed. "Thank you."
"I can't believe you spent all that time on Florrum, when they already knew that Fett wasn't going to show—!" Luke's eyes tried and failed to follow Leia as she paced frantically up and down his tiny bunk. She's the only person small enough to pull pacing off in here. "I thought this Hondo Ohnaka wanted to do business with us!"
"I'm sure he does, Leia. He just doesn't mind doing it with the Empire, too."
Leia turned her head, sharply.
"Why would you say that? Did he say something to you?"
"No—not exactly. He's just...an opportunist." The princess let out a frustrated sigh and threw herself on the bed next to him. "I'm sorry. I know how badly we need supplies. I hate to be the harbinger of news about yet another dead end."
For the Alliance and Han.
"It's not your fault," she said, her brown eyes softening. It was funny, but...since he'd gotten back, that look in her eyes had started to remind him of someone else, though he couldn't for the life of him place who it was.
And I've never known anyone like Leia.
She pointed to his bedside table where the ancient holodisc lay, but before he could scramble over her to nab it, Leia had already picked it up.
"That's...the only worthwhile thing got out of Hondo, actually." Leia raised one finely drawn eyebrow. He gave her a chastened look. "It's personal, that's why I didn't mention it in the mission briefing." Along with everything else that happened on Florrum.
"What is it?"
"It turns out that during the Clone Wars, Hondo Ohnaka met my father a few times. He—had an old data recording."
"That's what this is?" She held it up to the light. "A holorecording of your father, the Jedi knight?"
"Yeah. It's not very long, so I've watched it a few dozen times already—" He saw how her expression changed and flushed. "I realize how stupid that probably sounds to you."
"It doesn't. Luke, you never knew your father—" He looked towards Artoo, then the ceiling. "It's only natural that you would want that connection. And it's a valuable artifact—the Empire has destroyed almost all records of the Jedi. Frankly, I'm astounded this Hondo Ohnaka was brave enough to keep it."
"He said he needed the reminder that the Jedi existed." He squinted at the crack in the wall above his bed —was it getting bigger? Anything not to have to look in those big brown eyes and lie more. "I think with Hondo, it's a bit of a thrill to do something that dangerous. Preserving the lost heritage of the Jedi is not what's foremost on his mind."
Leia ran one of her slender fingers—he could see the nails were bitten off—over the disc before gently putting it in his palm.
"Do you want to see it?" Luke asked, without thinking.
"Oh—I don't want to intrude on anything private."
"It's not private." Somehow, Leia was just about the only person in the base he didn't mind showing this to—and he could see for all her demurring, she wanted to. "You can tell me if you see a family resemblance. Come here, Artoo."
He stuck the disc into the slot in Artoo's dome before she could protest again. A fuzzy blue image flickered into view.
Anakin was obviously a few years older than he'd been in the wedding holo. His hair was longer, not close cropped, braid absent. Since his marriage he'd acquired a long, thin scar over his right eye that lent the casually arrogant face an aura of danger.
"General Skywalker," A familiar disembodied voice hailed—"Hondo," Luke murmured to Leia. "It's a very long way to Coruscant from here, my friend. I hope you're planning on paying for this call."
"Hondo," The young Anakin crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat, smirking. "Lucky for you, I'm not on Coruscant. I'm right above Florrum, actually."
"Really? I don't see any Jedi cruisers floating above my house."
The Jedi's face tightened. He drew himself up in his chair, even taller.
"It's just me today."
"If I didn't know better, Hondo, I'd say you like Obi-Wan more than you like me."
His smirk widened, and the challenging tone in his voice dared Ohnaka to confirm it.
"I thought the two of you were a package deal."
"He's busy with the Jedi Council." Anakin barely concealed his eye roll. "I'll be sure to send him your warmest regards. I'm flying a Delta-7 Aethersprite-class ship. Transmitting the ship's identifiers to you now. I'll be there momentarily," he paused, fixing the pirate only he could see with a look of warning. "I'm only telling you because I don't want to get blasted out of the sky—again."
"Skywalker, Skywalker—don't you trust me?"
Anakin dropped his arms to his sides.
"No." His caustic smile turned to one of true amusement. "You'll be happy to hear what I'm after—trust me."
The image winked out.
"What..." Luke turned to the princess and was surprised at how perturbed she appeared. Leia was staring hard at where the hologram of Anakin had been, her brows furrowed in familiar concentration, the way she looked when she was trying to puzzle something out. "What do you think?"
"I didn't know your father was a general." She looked away from the now empty spot next to his droid and into Luke's face. "Like General Kenobi—only he doesn't look any older than you are now."
"Maybe the Jedi started them young," he shrugged. He was unfazed by his father's many accomplishments at this point. "Personally, I'm glad to just be a commander at this stage in my career." And the last Jedi knight, destined to 'rule the galaxy'... supposedly. "I don't see why you're so surprised, Leia. After all, you're the exact same age I am, and you're a leader—on the Alliance's High Council, a former Imperial senator, not to mention a princess."
She smiled, chagrined.
"I was born into the title 'princess,' Luke. It's not exactly the same thing." She curled her legs up and hugged her knees. For once the youthful ruler looked her age. "He certainly spoke with a lot of authority for such a young man. It takes a lot of guts to tell pirates you're going to land, whether they like it or not."
"I think he comes across as a bit arrogant," Luke admitted.
"Well, I didn't want to say..." He and Leia exchanged identical grins. This was worth it just to get a smile out of her. "You do look like him—minus the height."
"You're not the first person to say that," Luke said, dryly. "Apparently I get my height from my mother."
"Who told you that?" she asked, surprised.
"I'll...tell you the story some time," Luke murmured. The momentary distraction of her presence was fading. I've had too much time to think these past couple of weeks.
"It's funny...something about that recording of your father...strikes a chord with me. It...reminds me..."
"Of someone else?" The hairs on the back of Luke's neck stood up. "Not of me?"
"Yes—I'd never even heard of your father before I met you, but watching the holo I couldn't help but feel..." She growled in frustration. "It was like I'd met him before. I can't shake it." She gave Luke an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Luke, I know that's impossible, not to mention insensitive—"
"Leia—" He shook his head. "It's not. It's not at all—"
"It's—I don't know, the way he's holding himself, his posture—" She rested her chin on the top of one knee. "This is going to sound very—strange. But...how he crossed his arms gives me the oddest sensation of familiarity."
In that instant Luke realized that the same thing that struck Leia had been bothering him since he first watched this recording.
Vader. He reminds her of Vader.
He had seen it, too—though he had been no more conscious of it than she was until now. Anakin's clothing was dark synthleather, and he had a proud, autocratic air that they both knew well from their many encounters with the Empire's chief enforcer. Anakin Skywalker's hard determination—his purpose —was something he could see was central to his father's being. It flowed freely across the boundary between Jedi knight and Sith Lord.
If there had been even the ghost of a doubt in his mind about who lay beneath that black mask, Hondo's recording exorcised it, once and for all.
"Is it a good familiarity or a bad one?" he asked, staring down at his gray, standard Alliance-issued coverlet and smiling faintly to himself.
Leia actually pulled his downcast chin up and forced him to look at her.
"It just is," the princess said, softly. "What's really bothering you, Luke?"
"The same things that are bothering you, of course." He pulled the blanket over them both. "And I'm not sleeping well."
"There's a reason for that you aren't telling me!" Her brown eyes swam with concern. "Luke, whatever happened...on Bespin—" He saw how her expression changed to one of grim determination—not unlike Anakin's—and Luke realized his panicked look must've given him away. "That's it, isn't it? It's what happened to you there."
"Why are you bringing that up?"
"It's on your mind." She pressed a finger to his lips—a silencing gesture. "Don't ask me how I know, I just do."
"Fine...you're right." Sometimes it was as though Leia could articulate his jumbled thoughts before and better than he ever could. She crawled closer to him on the bed and put her arm around his shoulder. It reminded him of something Aunt Beru might've done. "Something did happen on Cloud City, Leia. Something I...haven't told you."
She bit her lip.
"Huge. I probably should've reported it to the High Council." She slipped her hand into his and held it, tightly. "And now I'm in over my head."
"If you're afraid of drowning, desert boy...let me pull you out of the water." She squeezed his hand, as though to remind him she was there, solid, dependable. Leia would not desert him. "You can tell me anything, Luke...you know that, don't you?"
He knew, with a certainty that the Force didn't often allow him, that Leia spoke the truth. He could tell her anything...that beautiful, heart-shaped face would not look at him with condemnation. He could tell her right now who it was that the young Anakin reminded her of—unburden himself of a secret that he had once thought would destroy him from the inside out. He did not fear it anymore.
But for now, he felt he owed both his father and Leia more than that.
"I've been holding something back from you...and I want to tell you, I just need..." He laughed. "A little more time to work things out. A couple days, that's all. Then I'll be back, and we'll get back to—"
"I understand." She brushed tears out of her eyes and offered him a watery smile. "You've got some time coming up, Luke—after this last supply run with Rogue Squadron..." She trailed off. "I can talk to the Council. They—think you're owed some leave. It should be easy enough to get it early."
They think I need it for psychological trauma.
"I appreciate that. But I'm not going to abandon you—"
"You said it yourself: it's only a few days. I want you to talk to me again, and if a few days off on one of your mysterious Jedi missions is what it takes..." Leia shook her head and hugged him—a fierce, tight embrace that he returned. He began to miss her before he even let go. "You know where you're going, right?"
A slow grin crept over his face.
"Well, well..." Aphra stared at the blinking green light on her console. "An incoming call from the young master. You must really be strapped for guidance, lordling."
She pressed the 'accept' button, and a staticky voice greeted her.
"Luke—what are you up to? You come to your senses—"
"I know what you're about to say," the disembodied voice spoke over her, rather rudely."You're probably about to ask me if I've grown a brain since the last time we've spoken... if I'm ready to trade in my Alliance Crest for an Imperial Cog. That's why I'm sending you this prerecorded message."
"So you can avoid the voice of reason? Wonderful."
"I actually need you to pass on a message to your boss for me."
"You don't need my help to talk to him, kiddo," Aphra clicked her tongue and bent her head back over the game of computer holo-chess she was playing with her droid. "What are you up—"
"I don't want to risk contacting him the... other way, right now. I think it's dangerous when he's so close to the Emperor. So I'm counting on you!"
"I can't decide if you're better or worse when you can't respond, kiddo."
Skywalker sucked in a large breath, audible in the recording, as though he was nervous about what he was next going to say—and about Aphra's reaction, even though he would have no way of knowing what it was.
"Can you please tell him I'm—heading to Naboo, and I'd appreciate it if he could get the Imperial blockade lifted for a few hours?"
Luke left a pause for Aphra to presumably say something—but the only sound that permeated her ship was staticky silence and the clanging of the wrench she'd been holding falling to the floor.
"If he can't, that's okay. I'll figure something out. It's just that—" There was an unmistakeable shy grin in his voice. "My birthday's coming up, so I thought I might be able to call in the favor."
"Luke Skywalker—" She shoved the Jerry-rigged astromec aside and stood up. "That is the belly of the Imperial beast! Do you have any idea how many troops are on the ground—"
"I've been thinking a lot about what you said... about how much family matters. That's partly why I'm going. I have to see my mother's home world. I'm going to go to her grave tomorrow... it's my birthday, but it's also the anniversary of her death. If you could... let him know where I'll be..." The voice trailed off. "It would mean a lot to me."
Aphra's strangled protest died halfway out of her mouth. Luke's voice brightened.
"I'm about to go into hyperspace, in case you're planning on trying to track me down and change my mind. Won't be able to get any calls for awhile—please, pass the word on, would you? I'm sure I'll see you soon."
There was the customary static-ridden click that marked the end of a scrambled, distant holomessage.
"That brat!" She pulled off her headphones and swore profusely. "Just because he's not in danger of getting strangled, he thinks we all share his untouchable status..."
Annoyed—and, in spite of herself, worried—she paced around the room, searching for something to fix. There was nothing, no pending weaponry upgrades or research to distract herself with, and so the archeologist did what she always did when she needed to drown out the relentless sound of her own thoughts.
She flung herself down in the captain's chair and turned on the Imperial propaganda feed.
"... A minor trade dispute on Malastare was concluded with a treaty, signed by the recently reinstated Gran Protectorate and Dug High Council, for immediate ratification, which should lead to increased trade in the so-called Mid-Rim 'spice corridor'..."
She closed her eyes and let every carefully crafted word wash over her. The day's events all blended together were oddly comforting in their bland, prepackaged state: white noise for the masses. It helped her focus on the things that actually mattered.
Things like Luke Skywalker.
She'd heard of playing with fire before, but the kid pushed the boundaries of that expression like no one else. What worried her was that Luke was no adrenaline junkie—he had weighed the risks carefully and decided this venture was worth it. He was really hoping that she would arrange a family visit for him on one of the most fortified Imperial strongholds.
Aphra wanted to, worst of all.
"... a seven percent increase on all hyperspace lane taxes to the Outer Rim, for the purpose of increasing security and free trade..."
How would he react? Would he be upset that his son was daring to defy him so brazenly by venturing into the world of the most taboo subject of all...or would he be touched that Luke was reaching out in his own clumsy way?
She wondered if 'planting' this idea in Luke's mind would be it for her. Delicately, Aphra massaged her neck. It wasn't as though she'd never considered the possibility of having the life choked out of her, it was a thought that crossed her mind at least once a day...maybe she really would die trying to get the two of them to work out their relationship. It wasn't how she'd ever expected to go, but there were worse ways—
"... in a last minute change that surprised many, his royal highness Emperor Palpatine announced in a private address this afternoon that he will be taking a rare trip off of Imperial Center for the Empire Day celebrations—"
Aphra's eyes snapped open.
"—by honoring his home world of Naboo with an official state visit, the first in nearly four standard years..."
She spun her chair around and cranked up the volume.
"... he will be accompanied in his journey to Theed Palace by Lord Vader and a cadre of the elite, for a celebration hosted by Queen Apollonia and ending with a parade in Victory Square. The events on Coruscant and Naboo will be broadcast simultaneously..."
She flipped on the view screen and helplessly watched as the prerecorded Emperor, Lord Vader and several Imperial bootlickers of various stripes boarded a SSD shuttle, a crowd of excited Core World citizenry cheering all around them. The time stamp on the image said that it had been earlier that day— frantically she did the math in her head.
Father and son were on opposite sides of the galaxy and simultaneously hurtling towards the same point in space. They would probably reach Naboo within hours of each other.
Luke was going to get his birthday wish after all.
A family party—but with one galactic despot more than he wanted.
"I am definitely getting blasted out of an airlock."