Title loosely borrowed from "If I Needed You" by Townes Van Zandt, which is both a fitting song for a story about crossing the seas to ease the pain of someone you love, and also an impressive power move by a guy who namedrops his parakeets.
Spoilery notes at end.
"Well, kiddo, I guess I owe you one," said Han. "What have I missed?"
Chewbacca groaned something that translated roughly as "nothing much, the Princess has been too heartbroken worrying about you to get anything done."
"That's not true!" Luke said. "She's the one who planned this whole operation. We couldn't have done it without her."
"Is that so?" Lando teased. "I thought the original plan involved you doing your Jedi tricks on Jabba. Easy in, easy out."
"There were a lot of plans," Luke protested.
Han squinted. "Are my eyes still feeling the carbonite, or are those general's stripes you've got there, buddy?"
Lando gave a dramatic shrug. "There were a couple skirmishes on the Outer Rim. I figured as long as I was here I might as well make myself useful."
Han shook his head. "Wonders never cease."
"We had an intelligence lead that the Empire was constructing another Death Star," said Leia. "Several of our Bothan spies followed up with it before we realized it was a decoy. All the blueprints they would have needed were destroyed at Scarif. So whatever the Emperor's planning, it's pretty well-hidden."
"Let me guess," said Han. "You've been scouting more planets to find us a new base on a system so uninhabitable not even the Empire will look there."
Leia smiled. "You'll be glad to know we've just been using the Mon Cala flagship. We'll meet them at the new rendezvous after we go into hyperspace."
"Well, what's keeping us? Don't tell me Chewie busted the hyperdrive again."
Chewie protested his innocence, and Luke spoke up. "I'm the holdup. I need to take my fighter to Dagobah to follow up with my Jedi teacher, but I wanted to make sure you guys were all set first."
"Ain't that sweet," said Han. "You a cyborg now? That a Jedi thing?"
"Your hand," Leia said gently.
"Oh," said Luke, wiggling his artificial fingers. "Yeah. Um, just after you went into carbonite, Vader found me. I mean—it was a trap, right, that was why he was there—"
"Vader did this to you?" said Han with disgust.
Vader had done this. Vader was his father. Ben Kenobi's ghost had not reappeared to tell Luke, yet he had felt Vader's presence even as they were leaving Bespin. Anakin Skywalker, who had grown up in the dusts of Tatooine, was the Emperor's right hand, who had killed Ben and nearly shot down Luke's fighter. It had been six months, and he still didn't have words for it, even with Leia. Yet he felt the urge to, if not defend Vader, at least rationalize why it hadn't been so bad. "I mean, I was the one he was trying to kill. You guys were just bait."
"I," said Han, "am never just bait. There's a dozen bounty hunters out there looking at my finances who can tell you that."
Leia laughed. "With Jabba out of the way, you'll have to settle for being just another Alliance officer."
"I suppose I can live with that."
"As long as you do live."
"All right, all right," Han said. "Let the kid get moving before we get all mushy."
Luke hugged him, then Lando and—for several long beats—Leia. "I'll see you soon. Unless Yoda needs some more piggyback rides."
R2-D2 whistled in amusement. "You stay out of trouble," C-3PO scolded. R2 replied with a me? Get in trouble? tone that was nearly a match for Han's. The others' well-wishes followed them as they made their way to the small X-Wing, and then into hyperspace.
Dagobah was hardly a technologically developed planet. It was teeming with life, of course, but Yoda's hut and staff were as artificial as anything there got. R2's systems, when he'd reluctantly accompanied Luke on his first visit, had more computing power than the rest of the planet combined.
So it was strange to see a customs ship in orbit, an outdated model from the days of the old Republic. Was the Empire imposing taxes here? What would anyone want?
Maybe it was Yoda's idea of humor. When they had first met, the Jedi master had been happy to play the part of an unassuming alien. Perhaps this was his way of reminding Luke that after all, he could adapt to the modern galaxy too.
"This planet is a protected biosphere under Clause 5-12 of the Galactic Ecosystems Act," came a droidlike voice from the customs ship. "Please identify yourself."
"Ben Lars of Corellia," Luke said. "Exobiologist, here to study the trees. If you have any information on their genome, feel free to send it over."
There was a long pause. "I got this ship secondhand," Luke rambled. "Trader on Dantooine. I know it's not great, but on a budget—"
"You may proceed," the ship interrupted. R2 gave a reproachful you bluff even worse than Solo moan.
"Hey," said Luke, slightly indignant.
He carefully guided the ship down, choosing a drier plateau than his previous landing, and opened his mind. When Yoda had been pushing him before, he could sense the life all around him, though whether that was due to exhaustion or the strength of the Force he wasn't sure. This time, he wasn't conscious of the Jedi master's presence, but there was a pulsing feeling that seemed to echo his heartbeat within him.
The cave. Where he had confronted the image of Vader wearing his own face. But Luke had accepted the truth that he had not recognized the first time. Whatever the cave had to show him now would not be Vader, but perhaps would lead to the next step forward. And if Yoda had wanted to show him something—a message? A ghost?—he would have known Luke would search there.
"Stay back, R2," he said. "I don't think Force pools are very fun for droids."
R2 whirred and beeped disapprovingly, but Luke merely grinned. Then, after a moment's thought, he unclipped his lightsaber. Yoda had warned him against bringing it the first time, and had he listened?
"Hold onto this like you did at the barge," he said, entrusting it to R2. "Just in case."
He didn't need the Force to feel all the different kinds of life; fish bubbled up from dark lakes, insects buzzed, snakes dropped down from trees, and the smells of decay and rebirth filled the air. The entrance to the cave felt larger than before, and a few fireflies hovered at its entrance without casting light on the interior.
"Yoda?" Luke called. No response.
He stepped forward. The pulsing feeling was still there, and growing louder, like someone's breath. Another step, another—
A flash, as if lightning had struck from inside the cave. But there was no thunder, and only the oppressive humidity of Dagobah in the place of rain.
Moff Jerjerrod was not having an easy day. There were no easy days in the devoted service of the Empire, but the prior week had been particularly demanding. First there was the struggle to convince his disgruntled underlings that despite its might and firepower, the Death Star was gone and there was no replacing it. It would be a better use of their time to invest in miniaturization technology to augment the destructive capabilities of individual fighters. Even if dozens were shot down, there would be hundreds, thousands more that could follow.
Just when his staff had gotten the message, Darth Vader himself had shown up to urge them to make progress, threatening him with the Emperor's arrival. The Super Star Destroyer had been a bustle of activity, haggard-eyed troops unquestioningly taking on inhumane shifts.
And then, with the deadline in sight—nothing. No Emperor. No inspection team. Was this Vader's idea of amusement? Toying with him, slowly inducing fear, when shooting down rebels was too easy?
"Lord Vader?" he dared to ask.
Vader nodded slightly. "Commander."
"Lord Vader, my men have accomplished a great deal in a short time. Already the defenses on the TIE Fighters are up by fifteen percent, and the non-sentient mouse droids are displaying great navigational ability."
"Your efforts are to be commended, Commander. You must inspire a great deal of loyalty in your staff."
"Thank you, sir. We—hope the Emperor is also making satisfactory progress."
"The Emperor?" Vader echoed through his vocalizer. It was unnerving, Jerjerrod thought, that Vader's mask did not display typical human signals of and now I'm going to kill you.
"Yes, sir. You had mentioned that he would likely be here by now, and—I would hope I could showcase my troops when they were at their peak, not exhausted after a month's worth of unanticipated overtime."
Vader said nothing.
"Perhaps he has met with some delays. I certainly know the—"
"He has not."
"You may resume your normal schedule, Commander. I will see to this myself."
"Yes, Lord Vader. Thank you."
It was, all things considered, a remarkably tranquil meeting by Vader's standards. This didn't make Jerjerrod feel any better.
Yoda's training had pushed Luke's limits. Swinging through trees, balancing on one hand, and giving Yoda piggyback rides through the swamps of Dagobah had made him sore in muscles he could not otherwise have identified. So the wave of pain that hit him upon awakening did not expand his anatomical self-awareness. But otherwise, it was a comprehensive display of pain, head to foot.
He was in a spacious cell, with harsh metallic walls and rigid symmetry. Wherever he was was a far cry from Dagobah's lush wetlands. Instinctively, he reached for the Force, and met—
Not nothing. The Force was still there, surrounding him. But grasping it, using it, felt like tracking a ship that had already made the jump to hyperspace. It might as well be in another dimension entirely, because he could no more use it to control space around him than he could resist the gravity of wherever he'd found himself, planet or moon or artificial ship's field.
Luke remembered the stark utilitarianism of the Death Star, where he had saved Leia from a smaller cell. He couldn't be sure, but his quarters felt different than that. The Death Star's purpose was as a weapon, a planet-killer; it had plenty of space to incarcerate people, but that was a secondary task. This place felt like it had been built to contain someone. Or was that just a delusion of grandeur?
A cylindrical monitoring device gave several beeps above him, and Luke winced. In some ways, Leia was the strongest person he knew, yet even she shuddered at the memory of the Imperial probe droids. But it made no moves to interrogate him, or even beat him up further.
A few moments later, a hologram of a humanoid figure appeared, projected by the monitoring device. "Luke Skywalker. How pleasant to make your acquaintance."
Luke said nothing. If they did want to probe him, the less information he gave, the better.
"As you surely have recognized, this is a deterrent zone. You cannot manipulate the Force here. However, this is only a temporary restriction, and it can be lifted at any time."
How had whoever it was known to find him? Luke gave a start, remembering Yoda. Was he imprisoned, or worse?
"In time you will understand the full strength of the Dark Side of the Force. I hope you will be suitably inspired to fulfill your destiny as my apprentice. If not—"
Luke did not care about the hologram's threat. The offer, contemptible though it was, stirred up memories he was still unsure how to grapple with. "Father?" he blurted. Was this what Darth Vader looked like beneath his suit? Merely an old man, ashamed of his mortality?
"Ah. You acknowledge the truth. Yes, you are the son of Darth Vader. His past was once dead to him, but while you live, some part of the Jedi who was once Anakin Skywalker lives. And that, we cannot abide."
Luke blinked. This was not Vader, nor Ben nor Yoda. Another Force user? And yet, despite the helplessness of his situation, one thought still rattled in his brain: my father. Anakin Skywalker still lived. Still feared for him. Still, in some twisted and monstrous way, cared.
"But he is old and weak," the hologram continued. "He will trouble the cosmos no longer, once you have accepted your destiny. Use your strength, your courage, and we will bring true order to the galaxy."
"You're the Emperor?" Luke snorted. The wizened figurehead, a Force user? It would have been laughable if he was not holding Luke captive.
A laser bolt shot down from the monitor, and Luke jumped back. "Titles are merely one form of power. The Force is another. For your sake, I hope you accept the Dark Side of your own accord. The alternative would be...most unpleasant."
Luke looked around the cell, as if Ben's ghost would tell him what to do, or Leia would somehow know where to find him like she had in Cloud City. All that greeted him was ornate floral etchings on the wall. The hologram flickered and vanished; the Emperor wanted to deliver his next message in person.
"Incoming fighter," Lando announced, "single craft."
"Oh dear!" fretted C-3PO. "Have the Imperial scouts really spread themselves so thin?"
"Nah, that's one of ours. No biosig, though; just an astromech."
"Those astromechs have a dreadful tendency to take initiative," said C-3PO.
The fighter docked, and R2 disembarked, immediately beeping and whirring. "R2!" C-3PO said. "How dare you abandon—kidnapping? Secret cave? Slow down!"
R2 impatiently blipped and related his account, displaying the lightsaber where he had stowed it. Luke had entered a mysterious cave that had scared him in his previous visit. Shortly after, the customs ship had descended and a small group of stormtroopers had entered the cave before reemerging and taking off. They had not noticed the X-Wing, and R2 had returned on his own. Chewbacca moaned, asking why R2 had not gone after Luke himself. R2 beeped, pointing out that Dagobah was not a particularly droid-friendly environment. If Master Luke could not protect himself with the Force, what help would he have been?
"I quite agree," said C-3PO. "Though you've picked an odd time to develop a sense of self-preservation."
"What about Yoda?" asked Leia. "The Jedi master. Was he there?"
R2 gave a negative response.
Luke had made Yoda sound like an indestructible, centuries-old force of nature. What could have defeated him? "Vader," she whispered.
Han blinked. "What about him?"
"He's obsessed with Luke. Look how he tried to—"
"Cloud City, I know," said Han. "Like the Empire wasn't happy about freezing the guy who smuggled ten kilos of jezz-brine out of Nurlap. Give me a little respect."
"He must be behind this."
"Okay," said Han slowly. "But, uh, I'm not sure if that makes a difference. Even if I was in a rush to meet him again, which, I'm not."
"We rescued you from Jabba," said Leia. "Vader is cruel, but he doesn't threaten to feed people to sarlaccs, either. We'll find a way."
"We?" Han repeated. "You know I adore the kid, but the Alliance is stretched thin enough as is without going on a wild bantha chase."
"It won't be wild. When we get close enough I'll find him, I know I will. It—it's how it worked last time."
Han, who had heard various versions of that story, rolled his eyes. "Next thing you know you'll be doing Jedi mind tricks, too."
"Leia," said Lando gently, "even assuming you had some way of finding Vader and defeating him, we have no way of knowing if Luke is still alive."
"Vader wants him alive," Leia said. "I know that. There would be easier ways of killing him, with their firepower."
They could have just destroyed the landmass on Dagobah, R2 whistled, and it wouldn't have been a great loss.
"I'd know. If he'd been killed, I'd have felt it."
Before Han could dismiss her, Lando said, "We should probably report to Mothma and Ackbar. They're going to want to hear R2's report directly."
"And check his fighter for monitoring!" C-3PO pointed out. "We don't want them following him here."
"Yes, yes, I'm quite sure you could have taken on the entire Imperial fleet by yourself, but really, there's no need to resort to such histrionics."
Leia let the others lead her through Home One. Mothma's advice would be useful, she knew, even if it amounted to the same thing as Han's. For all that she loved him, it was so much more frustrating when he played the pragmatist.
But he was alive and well, because they had found him. Well, the infiltration had been a delicate operation, but they hadn't needed to search long or hard. Jabba's base of operations, and his predilection for displaying prizes, were both well known.
So if—when—she wore them down with the necessity of the next plan, their first question would be: where would Darth Vader hide a young Jedi?
Darth Vader was never truly alone, even in his fortress on Mustafar. There were medical staff to maintain his suit and the bacta chamber, technical personnel, a few droids doing ship maintenance. And, of course, his master had the power to summon him, through technology or through the Force, even at a great distance.
Except the Emperor had shut himself off from Vader. He was not entirely sure whether this was a good thing.
Today, however, saw a patrol scout doing flybys from outside the atmosphere, adjusting for Mustafar's gravity as it carefully surveyed the planet. Vader did not think that Palpatine would be so inefficient as to taunt him that visibly, but the Emperor had been increasingly unpredictable of late.
"If you seek permission to land," he radioed, "you will need to contact the ground station directly."
A pause, and then a reply. "That won't be necessary."
It could have been synthesized, of course, but the voice used to broadcast was that of a female human. Uncommon among Imperial troops, but not unheard of. Then again, there were other factions that would no doubt be pleased to survey Darth Vader's base. "Our shields are activated. If you're planning a military strike, don't waste your time."
"Luckily for you," came an acidic response, "not all of us are armed with planet-killers."
That voice. The contemptuous, fragile frame of a young woman who refused to show fear. What was Leia Organa doing in the Mustafar system? Alone?
"Dispatch a half-squad of fighters to scramble," Vader radioed to his troops. "Defend yourselves if needed, but don't shoot to kill. Get a tracker, though."
"Roger," came the reply.
He kept the channel with Organa open to see if she had any further taunts, but she seemed content to continue orbiting until the Imperial troops had reached orbit. Then, she backed away, and performed some odd maneuver with her ship before accelerating away from the planet, back around the sun.
A couple of the Imperials fired—but not at the scout craft. The ship had detached some large sort of pod, almost as big as the original ship itself, and its heat shield provided scant protection as it seared through the atmosphere. Most biolife would have melted, though perhaps some extremophiles could…
No. This was Organa he was dealing with, and she'd tried to pull the same trick she'd gotten away with on Tatooine. "There are likely droids or some other kind of electronic debris in there," he ordered. "There will be a reward for whoever brings the contents to me, intact."
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
Whether it was because Mustafar had much less native life than Tatooine, or because it was better mapped by the Empire, it did not take long before the troops confirmed the pod's landing site. There was nothing left inside, and the computer held no files of note. An autonomous droid, then, that had made its escape.
For a moment, Vader considered pursuing it himself. It had been too long since he had been able to pilot and enjoy the thrill of being just another flyboy. Not since the Death Star. And Luke.
He had nearly killed his son. It had taken a Sith to tail a pilot with inhuman reflexes. Only the Millennium Falcon's timely arrival had stayed his hand—it was a name that meant nothing to Vader at the time, of course, but had come up time and again as he and his master had set their trap. Had the Emperor known? Surely he would have confided in Vader if he had realized Anakin Skywalker's son still lived.
But Palpatine was locked away, without even the pretense of the Senate or a new superweapon to keep him distracted. After two decades, had he finally begun to fear the old lore about apprentices rising up to kill their masters? Why would he keep secrets even from Vader?
Well, none of that mattered at the moment. A small droid would not show up on most in-atmo scanners, and Vader was too important to go out into the skies himself. His master wanted him safe behind walls, alone on the planet where he had been reforged, so that was where he would remain.
He kept tabs on the sky, but Organa made no further approach. If this was the Rebels' idea of a trap, it was a slow one. The search for the droid took longer than expected. Considering that most protocol droids or humanoid-shaped beings could not traverse the rivers of lava, anything that evaded the scouts for longer than a few hours almost had to be an astromech with limited capacity for self-propelled flight. So Vader was not surprised when his troops returned with an R2 unit.
He was surprised, however, as to how closely it resembled his onetime companion. If droids could display confidence and nonchalance about finding themselves surrounded by enemy forces, this one did. R2-D2 had been the same.
Anakin Skywalker is dead, he told himself, and steeled himself to interrogate the droid.
"Sir?" said one of the troopers. "You had mentioned a reward?"
Vader resisted the urge to throttle him remotely. "I am promoting you to Grand Moff Jerjerrod's personal staff." Just because the Emperor thought Jerjerrod's projects beneath him did not mean the man did not deserve security. By Imperial standards, he was a loyal and competent officer.
"Thank you, Lord Vader! Most benevolent."
"Now," Vader addressed the astromech. "What is your princess playing at?"
They called it the Dark Side of the Force, but what Luke felt was light. Blazing light, streaming forth from the Emperor's hands. Burning him, blinding him, tearing him apart. The first sentients to discover fire had used it to cook their meals, and then to destroy. The first civilizations to harness the power of the stars had provided energy and warmth, and terrible weapons capable of plunging their enemies into endless night. Perhaps some bright thinker could find a way to use this lightning for good, but all Luke felt was pain.
Then a moment of respite. Mercifully, the cell itself was dim. Luke let his eyes flutter shut, too tired even to conjure an afterimage. Palpatine wanted him sane enough to plead.
"You can have this power too," he said. The Emperor no longer seemed old or frail; anyone who could wield such a tool was far stronger than outward appearance indicated. "Do you seek vengeance?"
"Is this what you did to my father?" Luke asked.
"Anakin. He was a Jedi, before he became...like you. Did he break under torture?" Obi-Wan had given his life for Luke and the others to escape, but at least the lightsaber had been quick. Yoda...Luke feared that Yoda was dead, too, but he was surely too stubborn to surrender after hours when he had endured for nine centuries. (Had it been hours? It felt like days.) If those lightnings had turned Anakin into Vader, Luke could not condone it, but he could understand.
"Your father has nothing to do with this, young apprentice."
"So this is how you treat your apprentices, then. Interesting."
Palpatine lashed out again, and Luke bit his tongue, that pain barely perceptible next to the rest. He could not beg, could not accept the Emperor's mercy. All he could do was hope that unconsciousness came quickly, before the agony changed his mind.
The R2 unit was relatively well-behaved for a captive. Relative, at least, to R2-D2, who had been an invaluable assistant when it came to things like rescuing Chancellor Palpatine from Grievous. This one seemed content to wheel about the fortress and listen into radio signals. It even accepted being plugged into the mainframe for a brief scan that concluded it was not possessing any high-level blueprints, although it was carrying a transponder that would sync up with the scout ship. Vader had confiscated that.
"This is the Alliance's master plan? Drop you off and have you call the princess for a ride when you're bored here?"
She is not a princess anymore, the R2 unit blipped.
Alderaan was destroyed, as you well know. She is a civilian strategist.
"And you are a prisoner, so consider your situation wisely before further commentary."
I'm not a prisoner, said the astromech, I'm a scout.
An uncommon level of confidence, for a droid. "Tell yourself what you'd like."
If you'd like to throw me in with your cyborg captives, I'd appreciate it. It would save time for both of us.
Surely R2-D2 had never been this inane. "What?"
You are a cyborg, and a Force-user. This is a secure facility for your use. It makes sense that if you had other cyborgs and/or Force-users in your custody, you would detain them here. If you truly consider me a danger, please guard me as you would any serious threat.
"I have your transponder," Vader reminded him. Really, he was doing the droid a favor by not signalling. If Organa returned, expecting her droid to have freed himself, only to be met by Stormtroopers…
No. The R2 unit, for all his absurdities, was right. Organa was no longer a princess, nor a valuable captive. He did not need to be cruel for cruelty's sake.
For now, said the astromech, and promptly amused itself pulling up a large external monitor. Vader sighed, ordering the base's computers not to give it any access. Where was Galen Erso when he needed a competent technician?
To make matters worse, the droids stationed at Mustafar were, well, not as independent or ingenious as that one. Palpatine had recalled several of the interrogation probes, but the sentient robots who remained were drilled and programmed for compliance. Then again, one could say the same for some of the Stormtroopers.
"Sir, this astromech appears to have infiltrated your personal arsenal," a K-X droid informed him. "Requesting permission for a full-scope holoscan."
"Please elaborate," said Vader to the K-X.
"The mass-density ratios suggest that it has confiscated your lightsaber."
I have done nothing of the sort! protested the R2. What would I want with your stupid weapons, anyway?
"Then I presume you will consent to the holoscan?" Vader challenged.
He had not expected the droid to call his bluff. Since I am in your territory, I shall certainly consent to any reasonable request.
Its optimism was bordering on the insufferable. "Proceed." But the K-X summoned him to the screen shortly thereafter. Vader parsed the image output; the droid was carrying a lightsaber! "Explain," he demanded.
It's not yours. Yours is still wherever you keep it.
"That is unlikely," said Vader. The Jedi were extinct, and he certainly didn't think Organa would have plundered Palpatine's weapon.
Your new one, I mean. Your old one is still somewhere in the Bespin ionosphere, as far as I know.
Bespin. Where his son had faced him with the blue beam that had once been Anakin Skywalker's. Which meant that R2 unit…
"Leave us," Vader ordered.
"Sir?" the K-X said dubiously.
"I am confident that my own weapons remain secure," he said. The breathing apparatus meant that none of his hesitations filtered through into audible speech. "But thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will deal with this matter personally."
"Roger," said the droid, pacing off.
Vader stared down at R2-D2. That his onetime companion and the carrier of the Death Star plans were one and the same explained a great deal about the rebels' fluky success. "I have no time for your games. What are you doing here?"
Scouting for captives.
That made no sense. "How long have you been working for Organa?"
This seemed to stymie R2. Had his memory been wiped? A long time, he finally said. Previously I was in the custody of Senator Organa.
Who had died with his planet. R2 had been with him on Mustafar, Vader remembered, but then what? When he had been reborn, Padmé was gone, and the other losses had been negligible. "What do you want?"
To know the occupancy of this base, and whether—
"I did not ask what Organa wants. What do you want? If you wish to return to fighter combat, I would be happy to find you a place."
For an Imperial officer, your respect for droids is commendable.
"For droids? You are unique."
As it happens, I already have a combat position.
The Death Star. The pilot who had shot by instinct. "You're Luke's co-pilot."
Yes, Luke. Where is he?
Where are you keeping him? I have found no trace of him here.
"Are you…" Vader trailed off. "Organa brought you here to search for my son? He is AWOL from your rebels?"
Perhaps. He may—
"He is not dead," Vader hissed. "I would have felt it."
R2 gave an amused beep.
He was on Tatooine, following a trail of footprints in the sand. Sometimes they were nearly the size and shape of his own; other times they were heavy and far between. But he pushed on. He had to cross the Dune Sea. He had to find Ben.
"Luke," a voice called. "Beware! Your pride can deceive you."
"Ben!" he said. No, hadn't he died? Or did he have a way to speak without a body, like a ghost? Or a wizard.
"This place is in danger. You can only hide here for so long."
The wind beat at his face and blew sand in his eyes, but that was the most he had to fear. Nothing had ever changed on Tatooine, and nothing was going to change. That was why he had to get out. "I'm not a child anymore, Ben. I can take care of myself."
Ben shouted a reply, but it was lost in the wind.
And then he was back in the cell, the Emperor's Force lightning searing through him again. Had he been dreaming, his mind creating a shelter where he was beyond pain? Or was this a vision of the Emperor's, contrived to make him lower his guard? If his sleeping mind didn't know where or when he was, how could he guard the Rebellion's secrets?
Focus, Yoda had said. Reach out to everything around him. But when the Force itself was elusive, it felt difficult to imagine a galaxy beyond the pain at hand.
"Back so soon?" Palpatine said. "Perhaps you are ready to accept your destiny?"
There was no such thing as destiny. He could have stayed on Tatooine, grown to be an old moisture farmer. Or been shot through by Stormtroopers like Owen and Beru. It might have been kinder. "Not a chance," he spat.
"The odds," said Palpatine, "are higher than you'd think."
The pain resumed.
R2 had explained Organa's thought process, and Vader had to admire the rebel's ingenuity. Of course, very few sentients knew just how Vader had been created on Mustafar, but if he had succeeded in convincing Luke to accompany him, the planet would have been one of their first destinations.
The Empire, of course, had no shortage of military bases. But whatever Palpatine was doing was something secret even from Vader, if the official computer records were anything to go by. Perhaps instead of steel and uniformity, he hid among luxury and splendor. Where would his ostentatious follies be more natural than the planet where he'd risen to power as a mere Senator? Where would Vader be less prone to venture than Naboo? The pleasant memories that Anakin Skywalker had once made there were poisoned now, tainted by Vader's wrath. Nothing could lure him back to Padmé's home. Nothing but Padmé's child.
He had several squadrons of Stormtroopers ready to take flight. Enough for an honor guard or a surprise inspection, not a first strike. His true power was the Force, but his master was more than a match for him in that category.
"We are deploying to Naboo because there may be deserters who are abusing their Imperial uniforms for petty gain," he explained. "You will make a full report on any military outposts or personnel you find—directly to your superior officers, and if necessary, to me. You will not take orders from local troops. If questioned, you will identify yourself as part of Moff Jerjerrod's miniaturization corps. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Lord Vader," they echoed.
Aren't you forgetting something? R2 chirped up.
"This will not be an aerial dogfight," he said. Luke would not need any help flying rings around the average Imperial pilot. "You will stay here."
I don't think Leia will approve of that. She's probably already getting worried.
"I have no need for the princess' approval."
So you expect her to, what? Keep orbiting this sun like a lost asteroid?
Was she still in the system? "What she does is not my concern. She is fortunate I was in a lenient mood. If she has any sense, she is far from here now."
R2 gave an amused whistle, then paused, as if calculating a multibody orbit trajectory. But Luke is your concern?
You are plotting against the Emperor, putting yourself in great risk, on the suspicion that Luke may be in danger. Why?
"Because he is my son, you obstinate astromech. Now, will you remain here, or—"
What are you to him? Your troops killed his aunt and uncle, your step-brother. You killed his mentor while he watched. You nearly obliterated him near Yavin, you froze his friend, and cut off his hand. Who is he to claim you as kin?
Vader reached for the Force. It would be easy to silence R2 with a grasp. But droids did not need oxygen like humans—or cyborgs. He could not intimidate, only destroy.
Finally, he said, "My mother knew me only for a short time. If the Jedi Council had had their way, she might never have known me at all. But I would still be her son."
R2 regarded this for a few moments, calculating silently. Then he said, I do not like your men, and I do not particularly trust you. But there is something you should know before you proceed.
"Something like what?" Vader snapped. Could this all be an elaborate trap, to lure Vader and his men into the rebels' clutches? But how would they know to get to Naboo? R2 had not had access to anywhere he could signal…
R2 turned on his holo-projector, summoning up an archived video. A motley group of sapients appeared in miniature; C-3PO and the late Bail Organa, accompanied by a levitating med-droid. But was that Yoda with them? And Obi-Wan? "What sort of manipulative editing—"
No edit, said R2, but his voice was dulled as he amplified the murmured chatter of the med-droid. Watch.
Behind a wall of glass, separated from the droids and men, a woman screamed in agony. Vader needed no prompting to recognize her. He had seen the memory before it happened, in his nightmares.
"Enough! I know the price of my folly. You need not taunt me further." Would it ever be enough? If he rescued Luke, repaid Palpatine for his treachery twice over, what could make up for the grief of destroying Padmé?
You know little, said R2, and understand less.
Vader watched as the blurry image displayed Obi-Wan hovering at Padmé's side. How could he have mistaken Kenobi's protectiveness—loyalty, friendship, the faith in the Republic they had shared—for jealousy? As if his attachment was the only force in the universe worth measuring. "Luke," Padmé whispered. The newborn was too small to appear in the hologram, but he was there, the child who would take down the Empire's planet-killer.
If R2 wanted to shame him into silence, he had succeeded. But why? If anything, he had even more to lose from letting the droid roam free, with two decades of lost data inside his chassis. And then—Padmé was screaming again, and the droid reaching for something, someone else, and Obi-Wan translating its binary chirps; "It's a girl."
Padmé breathed an unsteady, ragged, but joyous name. "Leia."
A humid jungle—Yavin?—with lush flowers that drooped from branches and lizards sleeping on warm rocks. He had to stay hidden. The Empire was looking for their base, and if they found him—
Then there was a woman beside him, her dress elegant, as if she was attending some formal ceremony. But there was no need for politicking. There was only the Empire, and everyone knew the Empire dressed in colorless uniforms. She was wearing a small knapsack, and produced a canteen that she handed to him. "Drink."
Water was precious, a commodity to be farmed and sold. But he was so thirsty, and the heat was unrelenting. Luke took a grateful gulp, then coughed. It was only gritty sand, and it fell from his mouth and his nose as he choked on the dust.
The woman took the canteen back. Her hair was tied back elaborately, like Leia's, but her face was a blur, like an oasis that turned out to be just a mirage. When she shook the canteen, it made the sound of fresh water tumbling, and she handed it to him again. "Drink!"
No. It wasn't real. He was dreaming. But he had run into the jungle because it was safer than being out in the open. What was out in the open?
"We can heal you," a grandfatherly voice was saying. (Why was it grandfatherly? Luke had never had a grandfather.) "Help you grow, stronger and greater than you were before. That hand of yours will become a mighty blade."
His hand? Luke looked down at the canteen, and saw that the hand that gripped it was a metallic construct, pieced together like scrap. Except...the droids who had built it were loyal. He trusted them. His friends, an alliance that had come from different planets and species to defend the galaxy. "No," he said.
"You must drink," said the woman.
He poured the canteen on the ground, and it fizzled into steam. "No," he repeated. "I will not—"
—will not join you, he found himself stammering, but he could not move his tongue to speak. The Emperor's lightnings had faded. Was it another hologram, or did Palpatine himself seem older than before? He was not sure if he had been there for hours or years.
"You are a stubborn one," the Emperor said. "And here Vader thought the familiar traps would be of use." Traps?
"No matter," Palpatine went on. "I care not whether your visions are true or false. You cannot hide there forever. Soon enough the darkness will consume them, too. Then you will have no escape."
Leia had given R2 eight flybys before she would evacuate and consider contingency plans, and this was the sixth. When he signalled her from the planet, she expected news—if not of Luke, then perhaps that Vader and his lackeys were briefly distracted and he had a plan to escape. Instead, what he sent seemed to be some code. Vader was sending a team of Stormtroopers to seek out the Emperor? And was offering her safe passage? Obviously this was cover for some more dangerous truth. But none of her Alliance-vetted steganography schemes produced any valid message from the raw signal.
This isn't a trap, R2 followed up, when she made no response.
Don't be ridiculous, she replied. You know I can't believe that, and you know I'm not talented enough to reset you. Nor could she bring herself to, she thought, though there was no need to tell him that. Alderaan was gone, Luke was gone; R2 was one of her last links to her past, near and far. Better to let him live, whatever Vader had made him, than to risk destroying him entirely.
What could you believe?
I will return at the next approach. Decide by then what assurances you would need, from Vader, to agree to this plan.
More nonsense. But when she circled back towards Mustafar, there was a tiny cargo ship, carrying R2, alone and seemingly unharmed.
"You know I can't trust you," she said. "I'm sorry, I wish I could, but they could have done anything."
True, said R2 cheerfully. For instance, Vader gave me this transponder, so I can contact him personally. Here you are! He opened the hatch to reveal a small communicator, as well as Luke's lightsaber, apparently undisturbed. A gesture of goodwill.
"Well," said Leia, "at least you're honest."
As I see it, R2 continued, we have three options. We can leave the system and return to Home One.
"No. Not with them tracking you."
Reasonable. We can remain here until Vader and his team have returned from their expedition, and see what news they have to bring.
"Even if we could trust them, that wouldn't bring us any closer to finding Luke."
Then, I assume you wish to take advantage of his invitation to accompany him to Naboo.
"R2," Leia began.
Then a metallic wheeze echoed through the transponder. "How secure are your ship's communications?"
"You let Vader overhear that entire conversation?" Leia said.
R2 beeped impetuously. You can't get any more paranoid, can you?
"I assume," Vader continued, "that you have some method of sending messages to your superior officers, so that you could report on Skywalker's whereabouts or make plans to rendezvous. May I assume they are up to quantum cryptographical standards, or is your technology just as precarious as your political situation?"
"Really, Vader," said Leia, "out of all the methods you could use to get information out of us, this is about as stupid as it gets."
"You are prudent to assume any guarantee of your safety means nothing if it is shared between the three of us." Three? He was counting R2 as a person? "However, were I to transmit such an assurance over your networks, then your allies would have some crude collateral."
Leia snorted. "Likely story."
"Did R2 not relate that I am suspicious of the Emperor personally? There is a high chance I will not be in his favor, whether or not this analysis is accurate."
"He calls you R2?" Leia mused.
"That is his designator, is it not?" There was something unnerving about Vader—he was not just Tarkin's bold accomplice, but someone with an agenda of his own. That was almost as scary as facing the Emperor.
But she had come that far, hadn't she, expecting to meet Vader again? The simple, petty tyrant? If it could help Luke…
She switched on the communications channels: one to Mothma and the crew on Home One, another to Han and the Falcon. The latter, she considered, was not likely to be up to quantum cryptographical "standards," but it was likely to be even more secure than the Rebellion's networks. Smugglers had their priorities in order. "You're broadcasting," she said. "Speak your piece."
There was a brief pause; maybe Vader was configuring a secure channel on his end. She had expected some pompous grandstanding, if anything, but he was surprisingly to-the-point. He had no knowledge of Luke's whereabouts and was privately interested in determining his location. He had no desire to harm Leia, and would not participate in any attempt to capture her or put her under Imperial authority, nor order his men to. He would allow Leia to provide updates on their position until she rendezvoused with her allies, and—if he was still alive once Luke had been accounted for—would defer to her in non-Force political matters.
"That means you accept my authority," said Leia, once she'd closed the broadcast.
"Not on this mission," Vader said. "You are ignorant of the ways of the Force, and your tactics would prove an impediment in any confrontation with the Emperor."
"I mean, after. You'd surrender yourself to Mothma if I gave the word?"
"Do not underestimate the difficulty of this mission. By the time young Skywalker is found and secured, my life may no longer be a concern." Nor yours went unspoken.
"Besides," Vader continued, "as R2-D2 has assured me, you seem unlikely to take advantage of your monarchic authority."
"I don't have a planet anymore," Leia said. Because of your men went unspoken.
"If Mothma wishes to supply the medical technology necessary to sustain me, she is welcome to," said Vader. "Though from what I have seen, that might be a strain on your budget."
"Medical technology?" Leia repeated, to R2 more than Vader.
It was the astromech who answered. Yes. It would be strenuous for him to spend much time in a transit ship like this. If you want to discuss strategy in person, you go talk to him yourself.
It was a howagi sunset, when the two stars seemed to come together at one vanishing point because of Tatooine's orbit. "Your eyes can deceive you," Ben Kenobi had said. "Don't trust them."
That was strange. Why would Ben be giving him advice about his eyes? Ben was just a strange old wizard, everyone knew that.
There was a handsome man approaching the farm. He had long flowing hair, and some strange weapon in a holster at his waist. "Luke!" he called. "I've found you!"
No, Luke told himself. This is wrong. There were dangerous strangers coming to the farm, strangers who wanted to seize the droids. Droids?
"How do you know my name?" Luke finally said. No matter how peculiar the situation, that was a safe enough response.
"Luke," he said, "it is I, Anakin. Your father."
"My father is dead," Luke said.
"That's just what your uncle told you. Accept the truth."
His father was a navigator on a spice freighter. No. His father had been Darth Vader, who had killed Obi-Wan and cut off Luke's hand. Why was he here?
This was a nightmare, a trap. One of the visions Yoda had warned him about. He had to resist. Turning away from Anakin—the mirage—Luke stared into the howagi. His eyes burned, but he let them; this was no realer than the rest. The double image wobbled, slipped in and out of focus, the red suns' light beat down. "You fool," Anakin raged, but it was not his voice, not Vader's either—
The light had not blinded him, because he still beheld the floral carvings of the cell. He was hugging his knees, Palpatine's quiet laughter beyond him. This vision had been worse than the rest. There were no Sand People or krayt dragons attacking, but the fear that Palpatine's temptations could poison everything, even memories of a father he had never known, were enough.
"You see?" Palpatine said. "Give in to your destiny. It is the only way."
Leia had rescued him from Cloud City, had known where to find him when he had lost hope. He could not let that be in vain. He could not call out, or Palpatine might use her against him, too. Maybe Yoda's training had been meant to exhaust him entirely, to prevent him from giving voice to his fear when he could not endure. Maybe.
"Nothing?" Palpatine went on. "So be it."
No one could be fully sentient and fully symbolic at once. The Alderaanians' image of Queen Breha was a multidimensional hologram, while Leia's mother had been a real person who sang off-key and swore behind diplomats' backs and always got bug bites while Leia escaped unscathed. Her father's stories of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the selfless Jedi knight, were hard to reconcile with Luke's memories of an eccentric hermit amid the Dune Sea. Tarkin was a military hero of the Empire; in person, he was an odious, odorous bully.
Still, it was jarring to see Vader's armor, not as a uniform to frighten rebels but as technology necessary to keep him in fighting shape. And even more jarring to see R2 puttering around the deck of the transfer ship like he owned the place, plugging into terminals and whistling merrily. Perhaps, in some sense, he did—Leia still couldn't be sure he hadn't been reprogrammed in part. But he still seemed like her R2, both obstinate and tremendously competent when the need arose.
"Well," Leia said, as R2 wheeled by, "he's at least more polite than Jabba. I suppose that counts for something."
"Excuse me?" said Vader. She had not heard him emerge from bacta—his med-chamber took up nearly a third of the shuttle on its own. The outside corridor was not an inviting or pleasant place to spend the hyperspace journey, but then, the Stormtroopers gave it a wide berth too.
"I said that you're content to leave me alone and not display as a prize, and you obviously haven't done that to Luke either, which makes you a half-decent hostage taker by Hutt standards," said Leia. "Don't let it go to your head."
"And what would a…diplomat such as yourself know about Hutt standards?"
"Quite a bit, since you had my…" Was there a word for what Han was to her? She loved him, and not in the way she loved Luke—she wanted Han's fingers and hair and scent just as much as his reluctant loyalty and wide-eyed deflections and cocksure attitude. He understood her, and her need to see the war through before she could dream of a smaller, more selfish future. But what did Darth Vader know of love? "...had Captain Solo frozen and given into his possession."
"Unlike your friends, you are here alive and in one piece. Some gratitude for your circumstances would behoove you."
Leia couldn't help laughing. "You don't know."
"Han's free. We got him back, no thanks to you, and Jabba won't be enslaving anyone else again."
Vader was, of course, expressionless, but R2 added, Even if your Force powers don't keep you informed of everyone's comings and goings, it might be on the webs by now.
Vader paced over to a terminal, calling up news broadcasts from the Outer Rim. Tatooine was not, of course, a particularly eventful planet, but Jabba's influence was far and wide. He had been eaten by his own bantha, the holos said. Or he'd been assassinated by a rogue droid. Or strangled by a dancing slave.
On one thing, they agreed. "Jabba is dead," said Vader.
"And this is the doing of...your rebels."
Vader stood wordless. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, of course, but maybe his Force was warping the air around him. It seemed as if he might choke her for daring to surprise him, or perhaps make her a Moff of the Empire merely for informing him of the fact.
At least, R2 began, you could—
"Silence," said Vader, and even R2 heeded him. "Perhaps it is for your own good you have accepted my protection. You are much safer here than elsewhere."
Leia could only snort.
Ben and Yoda sat on a log near the swamp in Tatooine. They seemed content. Peaceful. A strange light bent and shimmered around them, but maybe that was just the fog.
"He must survive," Ben said. "That boy is our last hope."
"No," said Yoda. "Others, there are."
"No," Luke blurted. It was a trap. Palpatine would do anything in his dreams to make him give up. Even Obi-Wan and Yoda's memories were not sacred. He was the last of the Jedi. He had to be strong, for all of those who had come before.
"If you fight the Emperor," said Obi-Wan, "we cannot interfere. But we have become one with the Force, and the Force is with you wherever you go."
"Not here," said Luke. "He—trapped me. Cut me off."
"Luminous beings are we," Yoda repeated, and the light around him seemed to pulse that much brighter. "Hmm?"
"Maybe you are," Luke said. "Not me."
"All that lives is bound together by the Force." Obi-Wan gestured over the swamp. "Only a few of us may call upon it to work our own will, but the rest of the cosmos is no less united."
Luke attuned to the life around him, moss and lichens and trees and snakes. This could not be the future. Was it the past? Or had Obi-Wan and Yoda found themselves someplace out of time?
"Learned much, you have," Yoda said. "Wise, you are—and wary. But even if you cannot trust us, trust the Force, you will."
"How can I?" Luke said. "I can't touch it, and Palpatine keeps trying to show me the Dark. I'm not calm or at peace, I'm locked in a cell!"
Obi-Wan and Yoda exchanged glances, almost amused. They had been in exile, Luke remembered, for much longer than he. "Truly wise, you are," said Yoda, "to account your own triumphs as little."
The light faded, and fog covered the swamp. "Remember," Ben's voice echoed, "we are always with you."
There was no Palpatine this time, upon awaking, only droids who hauled him to the fresher and gave him meager food. They were not humanoids nor astromechs, but seemed to have been modeled off some other bipedal species. Leia might have recognized them, might have formed a guess as to where they'd been manufactured, but he was just a farmboy from Tatooine.
Yet he drank what the droids gave him. Continued to live, even if that life meant being thrown back into the storm of the Emperor's lightnings.
The Stormtroopers' reports concurred. Near the outskirts of Theed, a local squadron of Royal Centurions frequently patrolled the former Spring Chambers that had been an honorary residence for the Naboo senators. Most of the Republic's infrastructure had either been quickly converted into Imperial utilities or shut down entirely—particularly on Naboo, where Palpatine had always been revered. But displays such as the Spring Chambers served little purpose and had been left to fall into neglect, or given new coats of paint and made tourist attractions. Culture was fine, as long as you avoided any talk of the past or the future.
Most of the Centurions, the Stormtroopers agreed, stayed near the Palace proper. Naboo's planetary government was no more a threat than any other figurehead—yes, Breha Organa had been a thorn in the Empire's side, but that was not because of her queenship. The latest young girl to assume power would be flanked by proud Naboolians, who briskly saw to their duties.
Not always a young figurehead, Vader reminded himself. How old had Leia been when she was his prisoner? And yet…
He was not here for the Palace, he reminded himself. A few troopers had said, unprompted, that the Centurions outside the Spring Chambers were different. Had modern weaponry, not the antiquated scimitars of their palace brethren. Cared more for guarding entrances than marching in showy formations. Were all human men of nearly the same height, while the Palace guards featured several women and even a Gungan or two.
The ship could not approach closely enough to get a scan, and the Stormtroopers had not seen any unusual electronics. That was no surprise. On small scales, a Force-blocker might be no larger than a coatrack or speeder-bike. Hadn't Yoda enabled some on occasion, when he wanted younglings to practice balance or meditation without the Force as a guide?
Yoda was dead, most likely, if R2's report was true.
"You have done well," Vader said. "To proceed: you will separate into sub-platoons, synchronize your position devices, and enter from each door. If you are questioned, you will identify yourselves as performing an audit on my orders. If you are met with force, you may use any available means to advance. Should you find any captives, use the circular button on your po-dev and do not interfere. In the event that His Imperial Glory is present, you should not attempt violence against his person and be ready to stand down on his orders."
That got a laugh from one of the troopers. "Glad to know we have your permission to not attempt treason, sir."
"Do you find this amusing?" Vader asked. "I would regard any or all of your deaths as a trifling inconvenience, were they not likely to betray useful information to our enemies."
"And the princess?" another trooper asked. "She hasn't picked up any useful information?"
"She is an asset. Should you require further knowledge of her movements, you will be briefed on them. Until them, be grateful you do not share the responsibility of high-level strategy."
Leia was sitting in the back of the shuttle. The Stormtroopers had an advantage on her in that they could wear masks to disguise their distaste for the peculiar mission, but she had an impressive command of her visage and posture, all sixty-one inches of it. The Senate had not been useless after all, if it had taught her to shield that instinctively. Still, Vader could sense her frustration at the plan.
"Dismissed," he told the troopers. "Plan to reconvene near dusk, unless you are alerted otherwise."
"Yes, Lord Vader," came their chorus.
"This isn't going to work," said Leia, once they were alone. "You need me to find Luke."
"Do you doubt my abilities in the Force, young one?"
"You tried to kill him and he got away, I was the one who found him in Bespin. Surely R2 has told you that much."
"If the Emperor is there, he will be prepared," Vader said. "Our Force abilities will not—"
It was Leia's reaction that alerted him that something was off. "What?" he said. "Powerful as I am, my master is far more subtle."
"You said 'our' abilities. I'm not—like you."
"Like me?" Vader echoed. "And you suppose your piloting skills are mere luck?"
Leia stared at him, tense, almost amused by some private joke. "In any event," she continued, "I don't need to be armed, I'll just be searching on my own. I'll attract less attention than a squadron of troopers."
"You will attract plenty of attention if the Emperor is present. There is no need to expose yourself to danger, when I am more than—"
"How touching," said Leia. "Drop the charade, Vader. What are you playing at?"
"Unlike the Emperor, I do not find deception to be effective."
"Well, then you'll probably get slaughtered by someone who takes a minute to plan. And while I can't say I'd lose sleep over it, it is my concern if it affects our—my—ability to find Luke."
Her spite was what he deserved, he reminded himself. He had brought it upon himself, by what he had done to Padmé. Except, how had she survived long enough to give birth? Had his anger really been enough to kill her, if Bail and Obi-Wan had spoken with her later?
No matter. "R2," he called. "Inform Leia of the necessity of precautions."
Before R2 could reply, Leia spoke. "You call him R2, and me Leia. Who are you?"
"The last time I answered that question, young one, it caused a great deal of anguish. I do not wish to foster any self-destructive tendencies in you."
"That's rich," said Leia. "After you killed my planet, my family—"
"No," Vader said. "I am your father."
She stared at him as if he was speaking binary, or Huttese. No, she knew Huttese.
"Your biological father," he continued. "That is why you are so strong in the Force, aware of it or not, and Luke—"
"No," she said. "No!" The burst was brief, not as wild as Luke's had been, but every bit as revulsed.
The shuttle was hardly big enough for her to flee, but she ran anyway, as if her rage was its own hyperdrive and she could escape back to the rebels in one step. R2, reserving only a contemptuous squeal for Vader, followed in her wake.
He was floating in a river of fire, his flesh in agony, and the Force failing him. There was nothing beyond the pain. Maybe there never had been.
Then he was soaring, exulting in the degrees of freedom from the cockpit of a TIE fighter. Beyond him, something—someone—was drawing on the Force. The child had Kenobi's patience, but burned with a hope that was something new, something his own.
No, Luke thought, through the fugal logic of the dream. That's me, I mean, I'm him, I—who am I?
Of course that was your son! thought the other-him, the mind that was not him. Of course! You fool, how could you not see. He was there!
I am not, Luke pressed. I am not Vader, the shadow in the cave was no one. I am me! But focusing took effort, and effort brought back pain. It was easier to accept the absurdity.
Then he was aboard an unfamiliar ship. And Leia was facing him, defiant and proud in the face of doom. She speaks, and expects the galaxy to believe her, to fall in line. How did you not know?
And then he was Leia, seeing Luke—seeing himself—in the flesh and at a distance. Leia jumping into the garbage chute and urging him to follow. Leia waiting in the Yavin base, waiting for the battle above to seal her fate. Leia icily staring down Vader on Bespin, and Vader dismissive, yet chagrined. Leia on the Falcon, eyes wide, sensing his presence in the Force.
Leia. My sister.
If he could have willed himself out of the dream, he would have—let Palpatine do his worst, he could not shake the joy, the pride that came from that! Instead he let a new swirl of images and voices take him. Ordinary dreams, for better or for worse, would fade. But this was real.
"Go away," Leia said, as R2 rolled towards her. Maybe she could lock herself in Vader's bacta chambers. It would at least make him angry, which couldn't hurt.
I understand that you cannot trust me, he said. Would it help you if you were armed and I was not? He opened the lightsaber hatch again.
You do not need any training in the Force to wield a lightsaber. As I recall, Han—
"I'm not going to attack you, R2. Just leave me alone."
Even though you don't know what has been programmed inside me? Even though I may be blindly, fixedly, opposed to you now? You are that confident that you would never use force against me, metaphysical or otherwise?
"Is this a challenge?"
I suspect Vader's concern towards you is much the same.
She was too exhausted to yell at him further; instead, leaning against the shuttle walls, she tried to parse his beeping again. Vader. Her. How? "Did you tell him that so he'd bring me along?" she ventured.
Yes, said R2, but it also happens to be true.
Maybe he'd been hacked, given just enough false memories to obscure the real ones.
I will not tell you to search your feelings, he continued, as human search methods are inefficient and poorly-documented, but consider the evidence. How did you find Luke in Bespin?
"That was his powers. Or the will of the cosmos, or something."
The will of the cosmos may be just another name for the Force.
"No it's not."
"Because...when I found him, it was a miracle. If you're saying I only did that because I had Vader's DNA and symbiotic microorganisms in my blood, then what am I?"
Queen Breha and Viceroy Bail's daughter would always have shaken the galaxy, one way or another.
"You think so?"
Of course. You are still their child, as well as Anakin's and Padmé's. Padmé? The name rang a bell, though she couldn't place it. And Luke's sister.
Luke's sister. She wondered if it would have made a difference, having led with that. Maybe not.
Still. "That's all the more reason to bring me along, then, isn't it? Now that I know I'm Force-sensitive, just think of the trouble I could get up to by myself."
I'm not the one you have to convince.
"But you'll help?"
R2 gave a whimsical trill. Probably.
Even if he had not admitted it to himself in exactly those terms, Emperor Palpatine was coming to realize that Luke Skywalker would not make a very good apprentice. Sith Lords required a certain selfishness and desire for power—whether to protect a loved one, bring security to the galaxy, assure immortality, or some less savory aim. Even if it led them to seek to overthrow their masters, they were at least predictable; one could be on the lookout for them. But Young Skywalker was remarkably uncurious as to what he could become. And while the Jedi of the Temple had been sophisticated, trained as scholars and warriors as well as Force-wielders, Skywalker's knowledge of the galaxy was mostly limited to what he'd seen from his T-16 shooting womp rats.
Still, he could have some uses. A guarantee of Vader's good behavior, should the latter become restless. Perhaps a hostage to extract concessions from the Rebellion, although it was beneath an Emperor to negotiate with a fringe paramilitary. And torturing a captive who would not break had its own pleasures. Yoda had been too dangerous to keep alive, Mace Windu had needed to be permanently eliminated under the circumstances, but Luke? Breaking his spirit, under the shadows of Padmé Naberrie's tomb, would be a quest worth the pursuit even if it was not a necessary stratagem. Palpatine had ruled for two decades with little disruption, the boondoggle of the Death Star aside. It was nice that, even at the top of the galaxy, one could still have hopes and pleasures.
"My lord!" gasped a trooper, who had the sense to exchange his scimitar for a blaster. "An intrusion!"
"Speak," Palpatine said, already hustling down the hallways to Skywalker's cell. Had the rebels tracked them? There were dissidents, and it only took one defector to let a secret out, but this squadron had been deliberately small-scale.
"They're ours. I mean, yours. I mean...regular troopers, with the armor and everything."
"Are you sure they're not rebels in disguise?"
"I'm pretty sure."
"Oldest trick in the book." Palpatine exhaled upon confirming that Luke was still captive and half-lucid. Not a rescue, then.
"And they're deploying mouse droids."
"Mouse droids, sir. Unarmed, but quickly scanning the perimeter."
There wasn't anyone to send messages to, and there wasn't anything to repair. What in the galaxy? "Do whatever you must to repel the intruders, and destroy any droids you see."
"Did I make myself unclear?"
"Of course not. Only, there may be some collateral damage to the building, and I understand it is an important cultural landmark…"
"I don't care. Take them out!"
"Of course, my lord." The trooper dashed for a staircase. Palpatine slowly returned towards the main hallways; no one could access the prisoner without going through him. No doubt the other troopers would be just as slow to take initiative.
Maybe that was for the best. Initiative could be dangerous.
There were very small plinks and bangs of miniscule detonations, as the mouse droids were overcome along with anything else in the immediate vicinity, yet even these were not enough to cause severe damage. This was almost too piddling to be the rebellion. Some Naboo patriots who had gotten wind of what they were doing?
And then—his cape flapping slightly in the wake of the explosions—Vader was there. How? Yes, Palpatine had wanted to show off his prize to his second-in-command, to teach him his place, but not under these circumstances.
"Sir?" Vader asked. "I happened to be moving troops through this sector, and I heard there was a disturbance. May I be of assistance?"
Something didn't add up. What were the odds? All the same, he would not turn down help. "Are you blind? Take out the Stormtroopers; they've chosen to desecrate this relic for whatever reason."
"Of course, sir. Is your position secure?"
"Certainly. I know this building! There's a bunker in case I need to take shelter."
"My power is no match for yours, of course." Vader gave a slight bow. "But I was concerned when I could not sense the Force here."
Ah. "Merely testing blocker devices," Palpatine said. "In case we get a lead on Luke Skywalker. Or perhaps Yoda."
Vader gave no reaction to the mention of his son. "Yoda? He's still at large?"
"With his lifespan, it's plausible," said Palpatine. "Though 'large' is perhaps not the right word—"
With the Force-blockers still in place, he had no way to sense Vader's loyalty. No forewarning when the cyborg drew his lightsaber from beneath his robes and sliced him through the midsection.
R2, hooked into the ship's computer, gleefully remote-piloted another mouse droid. This one had climbed the stairs to the top of the Spring Chambers, ducking into a fresher, before being taken out by a fake guard along with half of the plumbing. R2 gave a jolt when one of his units was destroyed, but they were expendable. Except…
Maybe Leia had just been concentrating too hard, but something surged in her after the demolition. A sense of purpose mixed with anger—Vader searching the building? And a weak, tentative hope—Luke, wounded? Or maybe an incapacitated Palpatine?
"I think that was it," said Leia. "I'm going in. If I see one of yours, I'll tweak the antenna, okay? So you can follow me."
Without giving R2 a chance to protest, she checked her blaster and helmet, then sprinted into the foyer of the Chambers. Dust and debris marked closets or banisters where the mouse droids had been destroyed.
This close, it seemed as if the two presences were separated. Vader would not hide from an injured Palpatine, would he? He'd have finished him off. As if navigating through a dark room by touch, Leia tried to head in the direction of the fainter one, unsure how exactly her brain was communicating but trusting the Force.
She slipped through an abandoned pantry, climbed up a side staircase, and then there was Palpatine. Or rather, the remains of him. The man who had brought so much oppression to the galaxy was now severed from his legs. His face was more withered than the holos made him seem, but tyrants could project anything they wanted.
It was too fresh even to reek. Leia stood a moment, unable to muster pity or even contempt, but then shuddered and pressed on. She had more important things to do.
The noise of the battle died away as she proceeded down the corridor. With the Force-blocker destroyed, Vader should have had no trouble killing the fake Centurions, or even stunning them if he was feeling merciful. It was not a frame of mind she associated with Darth Vader, but then, there was more to him than she had known. Had wanted to know.
The Force ebbs grew stronger behind a locked door. She knocked: no response. "I'm breaking this down," she announced. "Get away from the door."
A quick spree from the blaster, and the hinges gave way under her knuckles. She could get used to this.
Luke was curled up against the back wall, his hair longer and ragged, his clothes loose. Leia exhaled a silent thanksgiving, then shook his shoulder, urgent but gentle. "Luke?" she said. "It's me, it's Leia."
He came awake slowly, blinking and shivering. "Leia," he repeated, as if reconciling reality with a dream. "Leia."
"You're safe," she said. "Palpatine's gone. We're going home."
Luke tried to sit up, though even this seemed an exertion. "No," he said. "What if...you're not? Maybe a trap."
What had Palpatine put him through? "Can you feel the Force? What does it tell you?"
"The Force!" he repeated, still dazed. He was silent a minute, focusing. "Yes," he finally said. "Here now."
"Can you walk?" Leia asked. Luke was not very large for a male human, but she wasn't sure she could carry his weight back to the ship. Some more strength in the Force would have come in useful.
His only response was a numb stare, so Leia knelt to help him upright, and led him over the exploded door back into the hallway. "No garbage chutes this time," she said. "Promise."
That got a smile, whether he could verbalize the memory or not. For a few steps he would shuffle along the wall, then double over, clearly in pain, while Leia impatiently perked her ears to see if there was any further battle. No noise. But if one of Palpatine's troopers accosted them…
"We have a bacta bay," she said. "A really advanced one, you can heal up." Who would have known there was an upside to Darth Vader's complex maintenance needs?
Vader. Could Luke handle the knowledge, or was he too frail? But better her to explain it than R2, she thought, and especially not Vader. "Luke," she said, "there's something I need to tell you."
She checked the halls again, but neither her senses nor the Force detected any movement. "You, uh, you might want to sit down."
In spite of himself, Luke laughed as he staggered. "Do you think?"
Leia helped him back to the floor, then joined him, legs crossed and arms clutching his. It felt wrong to let him out of her grasp, even for a moment. "This is going to sound strange, and it is strange. But I'm your sister."
This seemed to make Luke brighten. "I know," he said. "Somehow. The Force told me."
"There's more," she said.
"I know about Vader." Leia froze, but he went on, "He's here, isn't he? I can feel him."
"Yes," said Leia. "I don't understand, but he—wanted to rescue you."
"I knew it!" he crowed, the pride in his voice belying his wincing. "Leia, listen. You need to learn from each other."
"The Force is strong with you. Vader—Anakin can help you understand it. And you'll help him, too."
This, Leia thought, was absurd, but Luke was in pain. There were more important considerations. "All right, all right. Whatever you say, brother."
That time she could sense his amusement in the Force, but something else as well: a feeling of distance, like he was already distracted by the future. Before she could probe it, Vader was there in the hallway. "Leia," he said, not even bothering to scold her for leaving the ship. "Move aside."
"I found Luke," she said. "He's here."
As she turned, Luke limply moved with her, tilting his head up. "Father," he stammered.
"Luke," said Vader. "My son." Was it merely seeing what Palpatine had done to him that brought such gravity from his vocalizer, or would he speak her name with the same strength?
"The Force will be with you," said Luke—she could not tell if it was for Vader or herself, but he gripped her hand with his prosthesis. "And I'll be with you, in the Force. Always."
She wanted to chide him—the wreckage of a Naboolian manor was not the place for theology—but then his grip on her hand gave way, and the brilliance that was his presence in the Force flared, dimmed, and dissolved into the light of the galaxy.
It had not been hard to commandeer Palpatine's local ships for the Stormtroopers, both Vader's and the Centurions. Leia had insisted they keep track of everyone's designations so that their activities and loyalties during this time could be documented and vouched for if need be, should whatever new government arise impose large-scale trials. Privately Vader thought this a completely unrealistic plan, but at least they could agree on clemency for low-level minions. She was, he recalled, Padmé's daughter as much as his.
The pieces of Palpatine's body were frozen in a cargo bay, so Mothma and the other idealists could identify it, as if Vader's word was not enough. It was unjust, Vader thought, that the Emperor had left something corporeal to mourn, and his son had not. Luke would not have seen it that way, of course. He had learned from Obi-Wan's asceticism, and both had had their pride tempered by nineteen years in the desert.
As if he had read Vader's thoughts—which Vader was mostly certain he couldn't—R2 whined and slid open his lid latch. There was the lightsaber the K-X droid had identified. "Luke built this?" Vader said. "After he—lost the old one?"
"Yes," said Leia. "It's not that impressive. They built him a new arm, too."
"They," Vader surmised, had to be the Alliance. Perhaps their technology was better than he'd given them credit for.
Leia would not be inclined to accept anything he forced upon her, he knew, and even less likely to accept an appeal to Luke's memory. "Would you like it?"
"The lightsaber," he said, carefully choosing his words. "I think it would be formidable in your hands. As would many weapons."
"I would rather not have to use one," she said, but she stepped towards R2 anyway.
"The Jedi of old were many things, not only soldiers."
"The Jedi of old are dead."
Did Luke ever tell you why he went to Dagobah? R2 said. The first time, I mean.
"Of course," said Leia. "To learn from Yoda."
But how he knew Yoda would be there?
"I don't know," said Leia. "I suppose the Jedi can sense each other everywhere."
"That is not true. As you well know, or Palpatine and I would have done many worse things."
Palpatine, not his master. He could, he had to, speak plainly about what he had done and what he might have done, without excuses or self-pity. Even if it would not win her loyalty, it did seem to bring about a sort of quiet respect. Perhaps even she could have the years gradually change her mind.
He claimed Obi-Wan Kenobi told him. Not when he was alive, but as a voice out in the snow on Hoth.
"And you believed him?" Leia said.
It seemed improbable. But many things carbon-based life forms do are improbable, especially the Force-sensitive ones. If the probability of destroying the Death Star was one in a million, I think your chances of hearing from a ghost someday are significantly likelier.
Anakin and Leia exchanged a glance. "Well," he said, "I trust R2 to calculate these things."
Leia picked up the lightsaber, held it out tentatively, and turned it on. There was a soft green glow, and then beyond them, the magnificence of light-waves dilating in their wake as they made the jump to hyperspace.
Originally inspired by the prompt "Tortured character dies in loved one's arms after being rescued." :( The plot may have run away with me just a bit.