Lev was still chatting with the woman. The printout he'd picked up earlier lay untouched on the nearby table. Luke sighed at the sight, wondering why he'd bothered coming back so soon. He'd foolishly thought his friend would have grown tired of waiting, given it was well over an hour since he'd left. Lev looked up at his arrival and then stood up to say goodbye to his new acquaintance. Luke hovered by the top of the stairs, staring at his boots. He couldn't meet Lev's gaze as he approached.
"Never mind," Lev said, reaching up to rub his shoulder. "You can sit the test again."
"How did you know I failed?" Luke said, surprised.
"You look like your energy was just sucked into a black hole. What happened?"
"I don't want to relive it," Luke said, turning away. "Let's just go home." He fished the key to the speeder out of his pocket and handed it to Lev. "Here. You fly. My piloting days are over."
"Luke!" Lev followed him down the stairs. "There's no need for that."
Luke didn't reply. He walked on ahead quickly and then waited by the passenger door. When Lev caught up, his friend noticed the dent in the back engine casing immediately.
"Oh. I see."
Luke hung his head.
"Well, if you're sure you want me to fly," Lev said.
Luke nodded and climbed into the passenger seat. Lev started the engine as soon as he was seated and then did a quick three point turn to get them out of the hangar.
He glanced over at Luke as they rose into the sky, and Luke saw the concern in his eyes.
"Lots of people fail the test," Lev said, after a few minutes. "I had a cousin who sat it five times before he passed. Some of the testing officers are very picky."
"The testing officer was the same one who arrested me for traffic diving," Luke said, distantly.
"What?" Lev slowed down slightly. "That wasn't fair. Maybe I should go back and have a chat to them."
"No!" Luke said. "I failed fair and square. It wasn't his fault." Rhy had felt almost as bad about failing him as Luke had felt about being failed.
"What happened? Did you completely panic like Threepio the last time we tested the fire alarm?"
"Well …" Luke rubbed his head. "It was all going well at first. We flew around the city a few times. I missed a few points because I went over the speed limit once or twice, and merged without signalling for long enough. But I was still passing. Then I had to demonstrate my landing ability on a pad outside Extreme Thrillzone amusement park. It was one of those landing bays where you have to come in on an angle."
"I know," Lev said.
"So I was a little nervous. Very nervous. I've messed up landing so many times. But I was sure if I just concentrated I could do it. I spent about five minutes just lining up, then cruised in using the guidance computer to try and get straight." Luke demonstrated using his hands. "Then I found I was too far above the ground, so had to sink down a bit. It was a little rough, and I was a little crooked, but he said it would do."
Luke stared out the window at the passing traffic, cringing to himself at the memory.
"I was so thrilled at having done it, I guess I felt overconfident. I shot out of the bay backwards way too fast and hit a durasteel pillar." Luke shook his head and punched his fist into the seat. "Stupid! I was too busy staring at the guidance system to bother looking behind me!"
"What did the officer say?" Lev asked, carefully.
"He said, 'Stars, that could have been a person!' and I said, 'A person would have got out of the way!' I suppose I was a little upset. Then he told me to go back to the traffic center, and I knew it was all over." Luke groaned. "How am I supposed to tell my father?"
"Understand? How would you feel if you were the greatest pilot in the galaxy, and then you had a son who couldn't reverse out of a landing bay without hitting a pole?"
"I would understand."
"Well, you're not him," Luke said. "He'll probably disown me."
"Luke, if he didn't disown you after you were arrested for traffic diving, he's not going to disown you for reversing into a pole. Keep things in perspective. So you made a mistake. It's no big deal. You'll sit the test again and you'll pass, and one day you'll laugh about this."
"I am not sitting the test again," Luke said, firmly. "I'm just not meant to fly."
"Now if anything will make your father angry, that attitude definitely will," Lev said. "You nagged him for years to let you fly."
"He'll be happy," Luke said. "He never wanted me flying in the first place."
"If that's true, then why would you think he'd be disappointed that you failed the test?"
Luke sighed. "Because he hates failure." He glanced at Lev. "You can't argue with that."
Lev didn't reply.
"He'd prefer that I never flew at all than I tried and failed," Luke said, miserably. "Even if I wanted to, he wouldn't let me sit the test again."
"Why don't we go and have some ice cream at the mall?" Lev said. "That jelly smothered chocolate stuff you like."
"I'm not hungry," Luke said, sadly. "But thanks anyway."
"All right," Lev said, turning out of the airway and diving towards the Imperial Palace. "I'll be here for another few hours if you change your mind. Then I have to go and get ready for a date."
"Oh, that's great." Luke smiled, despite his mood. "While I was suffering one of the most humiliating moments of my life, you were scoring a date."
"What can I say? Women like men in uniform. And look on the bright side. It means the afternoon wasn't a total loss."
"For you, maybe not," Luke sighed, as they came into land. "I'm going to my room. I may never come out."
Vader was surprised when he realized how late it was. He had intended to return home long before now, but he would lose valuable information if he abandoned this interrogation now. The captured Rebel had proved harder to break than the initial reports had led him to believe. The last hour had been very productive, but it would take at least another hour before he was satisfied he'd learned everything there was to know. His parental duties would have to be carried out remotely.
"I will return shortly," Vader said to the stormtrooper who was assisting.
In the corridor outside the cell, Vader switched on his comlink and selected the frequency for the catering service droids. A droid responded immediately.
"7I8 at your service. How may I be of assistance, sir?"
"Earlier I asked you to prepare a special meal for Luke."
"Bantha steak, yes sir."
"I want you to deliver it to him now. Tell him it is to celebrate the start of his flying career."
Vader released the call, and switched the comlink to connect to Luke's frequency. After several minutes of unanswered beeping, Vader concluded that his son was either too busy or too lazy to be bothered speaking to him. Knowing him, he was probably down in the hangar tinkering around with the speeders.
He turned to re-enter the cell, deciding there was little point trying again. There would be time later on to talk with his son.
The next hour passed productively. By the time he concluded that the prisoner was only fit for execution, he had enough information on the Rebels to keep the intelligence department busy for weeks. Some of it would no doubt prove especially useful to his own agents in the field.
All in all, it had been a reasonably good day. A few weeks ago, he had been terrified at the idea of Luke having his speeder's license. Now he was feeling almost excited on his behalf. There was a pleasure in watching Luke's discovery of the joys of flying that he'd never anticipated.
When he arrived in their personal living space, he paused outside Luke's bedroom for a moment, wondering if he should let on that he was pleased for his son. He didn't want Luke thinking he would be lenient if his son decided to misuse his new license. But perhaps they could have that particular discussion later. His son had no doubt exhausted himself with his nervousness and excitement.
Upon opening the door, he found the blinds were closed and the lights were switched off. There was a body-shaped lump in the middle of the bed, with two pillows covering the head. Vader checked the time on the bedside chronometer as he walked forward. It wasn't even 20-hundred yet. He'd certainly been right about his son exhausting himself.
"Luke," Vader said, pulling away one of the pillows.
There was no response. Becoming worried that his son might have been smothered under the bedclothes, he hastily pulled off the other pillow. Luke was lying face up and appeared to be still breathing. He opened his eyes and gave his father a quick glance.
Vader used the Force to turn on the lights, and Luke quickly covered his eyes with his arm.
"Ah! Warning, next time, please!"
"Did you enjoy the steak?" Vader asked.
Luke sat up on his elbows. "Oh. Thanks for the thought, but I told the kitchen droids to save it for another time."
"I thought it was your favorite food."
"It is," Luke said. He was avoiding his gaze. "But I'm really not hungry."
"Then perhaps you would prefer to do something else to celebrate your license," Vader said. "I am open to your suggestion."
Luke closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "I have to tell you something."
"What happened?" Vader asked, beginning to understand there was something he was missing. "You didn't destroy anything, did you?" Perhaps he should have visited the hangar bay first.
"I have good news and bad news," Luke admitted.
"What is the good news?"
"I'm never flying again," Luke said.
Vader wondered if his hearing implants were malfunctioning.
"The bad news is that I failed the test," Luke mumbled in a rush of words.
Considering he still managed to understand that sentence, Vader had to conclude that his hearing was very much attuned.
"You failed your license?" he repeated in disbelief. "Let me guess. You forgot about that important thing called a speed limit?"
"Look this is bad enough without you lecturing me," Luke said, his voice breaking slightly as if he was near tears. "Please, just leave me alone."
"So you failed your license, and now you are giving up flying," Vader said, derisively. He sat down on the bed, on an angle so he was facing Luke. "I find that hard to believe. You are too stubborn to give up so easily."
"Why do you always have to insult me and disguise it as a compliment?" Luke asked.
"You love flying," Vader continued, ignoring Luke's remark. "With every last cell in your body." Luke started to open his mouth. "Don't argue with me," Vader added, pointing at Luke. His son quickly closed it. "Now, I am willing to help you pass this test if you will let me. Where did you go wrong?"
"I hit a pole," Luke mumbled.
"Because I was staring at the guidance computer like you told me!"
"Was the pole not present on the guidance computer?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Or maybe I'm just not cut out to be a pilot."
"Where did you get this intolerant attitude to failure?" Vader demanded.
"I can't imagine," Luke said.
Vader did not miss the sarcasm. It took him a moment to understand Luke's point.
"I never said you were not allowed to fail the test."
"You assumed I passed," Luke countered.
"Because I overestimated your ability to park."
"After I crashed into that other speeder outside the mall?"
"You gave me the impression that your problems were due to my presence."
"I thought they were," Luke admitted. "I guess I was wrong."
"Come on," Vader said, standing up. "Tonight you are going to park properly if it is the last thing I do."
"I don't know if I can take your constant criticism tonight," Luke protested.
"Very well. I will refrain. But I reserve the right to tell you where you are going wrong, or you will never learn."
"All right, but specific things," Luke said, standing up. "Telling me to focus and concentrate doesn't help!"
Vader gestured for Luke to exit the room first. His son hesitated briefly and then moved past him. When they reached the elevator, Luke looked up.
"I haven't fixed the dent in the speeder yet."
"How hard did you hit this pole?"
"I guess it wasn't really a pole," Luke said. "It was a durasteel pillar holding up the roof of the landing bay."
"Never mind. I would not have let you fly that speeder if I was going to overreact about every bump and scrape." He stared down at Luke. "But do not take that as an invitation."
When they arrived in the hangar bay, he had the opportunity to inspect the damage for himself. It was more of a glancing dent, and the shape indicated Luke had been reversing at the time.
"Where were you parked when this occurred?" Vader asked, staring at Luke across the roof of the speeder.
"The landing bay outside Extreme Thrillzone amusement park," Luke said. He raised his hands. "I'm not going back there. The security guards will recognize me."
"We will find somewhere suitable," Vader said, climbing into the passenger seat.
His son hesitated for a moment, before firing up the engine. Then, for someone who had claimed a short while ago that he would never fly again, he flew very quickly out of the hangar bay. He was handling the controls with the confidence of someone far more experienced.
"I've never flown at night before," Luke said.
"There are many conditions you are yet to experience. It will take time. Fortunately, there is little extreme weather you need to worry about on Coruscant."
"I drove the landspeeder in a sandstorm on Tatooine once," Luke said. "Uncle Owen and I were on our way back from Anchorhead when it hit. You couldn't see anything but sand on all sides. But somehow, I managed to get us home. Good sense of direction, I guess."
"How old were you?" Vader asked, surprised.
"About ten or eleven."
"And your uncle let you drive?"
"He didn't have a choice," Luke said. "He'd broken his wrist when he fell off a ladder and Aunt Beru was sick. We needed supplies."
More evidence of his son's latent Force abilities. He would have liked to explain to Luke that it was the Force that guided him home that day, rather than his sense of direction, but such a thing could cause his son to attempt to use his powers. The Emperor would not allow that. But perhaps there was a way he could use that latent ability to help his son anyway.
"There is a suitable landing pad," Vader said, gesturing down. It was lit up brightly and there were several speeders leaving and landing.
"That's a holomovie theatre," Luke said. "Are you sure?"
Luke dived, then leveled out as they approached. He stopped a short distance away from the pad.
"Where should I park?" His tone was nervous.
"You choose," Vader said.
Luke moved forward slowly until he was hovering over a group of three empty spaces. He started to lower the speeder, but Vader reached out to stop him.
"Switch off that guidance computer."
"You heard me."
"How am I supposed to line up without the guidance computer?"
"I will let you in on a secret, Son. I have never used a guidance computer in my life."
"You haven't flown at the speed limit in your life, either," Luke said with a grin. He obediently switched off the computer.
"Now look out the window and eyeball it, as we say in combat. Trust your instincts."
Luke leaned forward so he could see the pad below. After a few brief maneuvers, the speeder was lined up directly over the center space. A moment later, they touched down smoothly, level with the ground.
"Good," Vader said, simply.
"Wait," Luke said, staring around. "There must be something wrong. It can't be that easy!"
"It was only difficult because you were making it difficult," Vader said. He tapped his fingers on the seat for a moment, idly thinking that he sounded like Obi-Wan. Still, it was an accurate observation.
"Let's try again," Luke said, excitedly. "A harder one!"
"Very well," Vader said, leaning back. His work here was done.
A week later, Luke found himself once again climbing the stairs of the Coruscant Airway licensing office. Despite a week of practice that had left him with far more confidence in his abilities, he still felt mynocks buzzing around in his stomach. Lev, beside him, was humming an advertising jingle they'd heard on the HoloNet during the flight over.
"You know, I had to insist on being the one to accompany you here today," Lev said. "After the other officers heard about my date last weekend, they all wanted to come. Who would have thought the licensing office was a good place to meet people?"
"I'm here for one reason only," Luke said.
"Good luck with that," Lev said, straightening his hat.
"Thanks," Luke said. "I'll see you after."
"You know where I'll be," he said, gesturing towards the waiting area.
There was no queue at the licensing desk, and Luke walked straight up to the waiting droid. It accepted his datachip, and after some processing time, it spoke.
"Mr Skywalker, follow the red line around to the right. Your testing officer will arrive shortly."
"You said the same thing when I was here last week," Luke said.
"My programmer was unoriginal," the droid explained.
"Thanks," Luke said, smiling at the droid. He followed the red line as suggested. Rhy was already waiting for him.
"Well, look who's come back to try and kill me again," he said. "I've been dreading this all day."
"Someone else could have tested me," Luke said. "Unless you drew a short straw?"
"Considering some of the alternatives, I decided you were least likely to kill me," he said, "which says more about the other license candidates that your abilities."
"Don't worry about my abilities," Luke said, grinning. "I'm ready this time. Ready as ready can be."
"I'll decide who's ready and who isn't," Rhy said, in a tone of mock indignation. He gestured to the exit. "Come on, short-stuff."
Vader sensed Luke's arrival in the vicinity shortly after the start of his meeting with an admiral and a diplomat who had recently returned from the Higemon system. A moment later, his son arrived outside the door to the conference room, indicating he was moving very fast. He barely had time to berate himself for not posting guards outside when Luke came bursting in.
"Guess what? Guess what? Guess what!" he shouted. "I've got my license!" He held it up. "I passed the test! I've got my license!"
He grinned widely and then noticed that they weren't entirely alone.
"Oh," he said, staring at the officers. "Hello. Um, can you excuse us for a moment?"
"Excuse us?" Vader asked, amused despite himself.
"I need to ask you something," Luke said, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial tone.
Vader briefly considered his options for a moment and then conceded he had none. As usual, the needs of the galaxy would have to wait for Luke's convenience. He walked towards the door, pushing his son ahead of him on the way. Once they were alone in the corridor, Vader turned to his son expectedly.
"So, I understand you have your license," he said.
Luke smiled, staring at the floor. "Sorry for barging in like that. I was just excited."
"To put it mildly."
"So, I was wondering?" Luke said.
"Seeing as you're the best father in the galaxy …"
"So I've heard."
"And I'm your favorite son …"
"And I've been grounded for a whole month now, and you did say you'd reconsider in a month."
"So you've had your license for less than an hour, and now you want to go for a joyride in one of my speeders?"
"I want to go over to Ben's," Luke said. "Just to show him my license. And maybe we'll go for a short ride. A short, safe, speed-limited ride."
"I will have to think about it," Vader said.
"Okay, but if you say yes now, I won't hug you."
"Go," Vader said quickly. He waved a hand in the direction of the hangar. "Just be home for dinner."
"Thank you!" Luke called, already running down the corridor. "Get that bantha steak out of the freezer!"
Vader released a weary breath. Why did he feel like he'd just let a giant clawbird free in the Coruscant skies?
Ben had been suitably impressed with his new license. Unfortunately, it had taken at least an hour to convince him to trust him enough to go for a ride. Once they were airborne, though, Ben had to concede that this new development had a lot of potential. They ended up visiting several hologaming centers that were previously too far off any airbus route to bother with, and finally doing something that Luke had wanted to do for years. Going to a fly-through restaurant.
He arrived home a little later than he'd planned, hence why he was now feeling a little sheepish as he entered the conference room. It didn't look good to be pushing the boundaries on his first day of freedom. But it was only twenty minutes after his usual eating time.
"Hi," Luke said.
His father was sitting on the far side of the table, reading a report. He looked up at his entrance.
"Still alive, I see."
"Alive and hungry," Luke said, grinning. He pulled out a chair opposite, and glanced at the door, wondering when the kitchen droid was going to show up. He'd requested his meal during the elevator ride on the way here.
"So," he said, looking back at his father, "is it all right if I take a speeder to school from now on?"
"Very well. But I do not want you flying outside Imperial City without my permission."
"Okay," Luke said. "Can I take a different speeder every day?"
"Stick to the one you have already dented for now," his father said.
"I fixed that dent," Luke protested. "It's as good as -"
The door to the conference room slid open at that point, and Luke turned in anticipation. As expected, it was a droid with his bantha steak. In less than a minute, he was enjoying the first mouthful.
"This tastes great!" Luke said. He paused to pour sauce over it and then said, "Luke Skywalker, pilot! This is the best day of my life." He refrained from saying anything more until he'd munched his way through a quarter of it. When he paused for a drink, he glanced up at his father. "I guess I should thank you."
"For putting up with your moods?" his father asked. He was still focused on his monitor and appeared only half listening.
"Yeah, for that," Luke said, reluctantly. "And for letting me get my license, and teaching me to fly, but mostly for not letting me quit flying last week." He chewed through another mouthful, thinking. "You know, I thought you'd be the last person to want to talk me back into flying."
"This may be a revelation to you, Son, but I do not enjoy sensing your misery. Besides, I do not believe you ever really wanted to give up on flying."
Luke was silent, thinking it over. He finished the steak within ten minutes and then started sipping the juice.
"Do you think," Luke asked, suddenly, "that there's one thing that every person has that they're supposed to do?"
"Like a destiny?"
"Not really," Luke said. "More like an activity that makes you happy unlike anything else. Aviry said on Zolan it's called a boon. She thought mine was flying. I thought she was right at first, but then when I failed the test, I thought I had been completely mistaken. That's when I wanted to quit. I thought it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing."
"I imagined it was something as ridiculous as that," his father said, turning to regard him.
"So you don't believe there is such thing as a boon?" Luke asked.
"It sounds like a solid enough idea. But from the description you gave, it is only something that fulfils you. Not a test that you are immune to fail at. Hence it was ridiculous to imagine that not succeeding all the time meant flying was not your boon."
"But if something is your boon, you should be good at it," Luke said. "It would be pretty twisted if you were terrible at the one thing you enjoyed doing over anything else."
"I think one would naturally follow from the other," his father said. "If you enjoyed flying, you would work hard at becoming a good pilot."
"Did you have to work hard to become as good as you are now?" Luke asked.
"Yes. Not only to learn to fly, but to keep in practice. The natural talent we share can only take you so far. The rest is sheer hard work."
"Is it really work when you enjoy it?" Luke wondered.
"Sometimes one enjoys the results far more than the work," his father said, staring at the monitor. "I am leaving for the Mony system tomorrow afternoon. They have attacked an Imperial base."
"Oh," Luke said. "What will you do?"
"What I must," his father said, distantly.
"Will you be flying in combat?"
"It depends on which plan of action I choose to go with." His father gestured to the screen. "Mind your curfew while I am gone. And fly safely."
"Sure," Luke said, standing up. "I better leave you to it. "
"Night, Father," Luke said.
He'd barely taken two steps out of the room when he stopped. There was a question he'd been meaning to ask for weeks, and he'd just missed the ideal opportunity. He debated whether or not to interrupt and then decided there was nothing for it. If his father was going away tomorrow, this could be the last opportunity for a while. He turned around, and the doors slid open invitingly. His father looked up when he returned.
"If you had a boon, what do you think it would be?" Luke asked, quickly. "Flying?"
"You returned just to ask that?"
Luke shrugged and smiled in anticipation.
"It is a very personal question," his father said, leaning back in the seat and tapping his fingers together.
"Considering Aviry told you about my personal life, I think you owe me something."
"Very well. I have found being a father is the most rewarding experience in my life to date."
Luke stared at his father, wondering if he was serious.
"You mean," Luke said, slowly, "you enjoy being a father more than being a Sith? More than ruling the Empire? Even more than flying?"
"I thought I drove you crazy."
"You do. Sheer insanity is probably why I imagine being a father is rewarding. Fortunately, there is not a test."
"Come on, you'd pass," Luke said, smirking. "Maybe not the first few dozen times, but you'd get there eventually."
"Your faith in me is unshakable," his father said, dryly. "I think I may change my mind about you flying to school."
"You misheard me," Luke said, hastily. "I said you'd pass first time."