Luke had never felt this sort of cold.
On Tatooine, there was the cold that took away - it cut, it whipped, it peeled everything from the surface of your skin, no matter how diligently layered, wrapped, and bundled, and it stole, absorbing heat as greedily and infinitely as the desert swallowed water. Luke was used to that. He didn't like it - but he was used to it. Here, though, in these corridors that dripped, where massive blocks of stone were striped with deep green water marks and faint, white mineral deposits, where the sound in the deepest layers of the distance was the high tap of droplets - here, the cold gave itself to him. It radiated from the walls, from the ground, from the darkness itself, in which his torch made only a feeble fracture. He felt like he was being preserved. The cold was knitting itself into his molecular structure, and when he emerged, he would be - something different.
All he'd wanted was a little relief from hot stagnation of the jungles of Yavin 4. As usual, he'd come into more than he'd bargained for. And, as usual, he was doubling down.
Is there anywhere here the cooling units actually work? he'd asked, irritable under the crushing weight of this moon's humidity, in the middle of yet another late-into-the-night conversation with a smattering of his new compatriots - an activity he relished, although he had to wonder if the other pilots were only around because they couldn't get to sleep, either. The response - sure, if you're not afraid of ghosts - had been designed to elicit precisely the stubborn response he was demonstrating now, and he knew that, but - he wasn't afraid of ghosts. He wasn't.
And he wasn't hot anymore, that was for sure.
He must have been pretty deep into the belly of the temple. Any indication that this place was inhabited had vanished twenty minutes ago, the echoes of Rebel voices and the vibrations of their equipment having died to nothing. He might have been the only person left alive - not a fantastic mental image, considering how close this place had come to going the way of Alderaan - and as he turned a strangely acute corner, he was overcome with a fleeting sense of disorientation. Had he already been here? He felt perhaps he had; or that he'd been somewhere like it. He flashed the torch onto the floor behind him, hoping to see a set of footprints he could follow back to the base, if it came to that. But a few paces' worth of wet, patchy outlines was all he'd left.
That was all right. Worst case scenario, they had bioscanners - they'd come and find him eventually - Luke Skywalker, Red Five, rescuer of Princess Leia and destroyer of the Death Star, she'd come looking for him, he wasn't alone, he wasn't lost, and he absolutely, unequivocally did not believe in ghosts.
Whose ghost? the ever-skeptical part of him asked, and he clamped down on that thought before it could grow into anything like a theory. He'd too recently heard a dead man's voice to be very comfortable opening up that line of questioning. Ben's gentle but urgent suggestion, perhaps no more than a memory dredged up by the desperate adrenaline of battle, had had the solidity of a voice in his ear, the warmth of someone sitting right beside him. What it had been, he couldn't say, not for certain, but it hadn't steered him wrong; and maybe here, if he shut his eyes again, and simply listened …
Luke pulled in a breath, even and silent. He shut his eyes.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Condensation, slipping away on stone. An impossibly distant, far-away whistle of wind. Nothing else. Only cold - which had no sound.
A moment (a minute? an hour?) later, his eyes flew open, narrowed in frustration. The cool, grey light of his torch, and the weak, fuzzy field it left upon the wall, more shadow than light, seemed to him suddenly ridiculously insufficient. He had a far more potent option available to him, and it wasn't like there was anyone around to hurt, he didn't see why he shouldn't use it, and if he fumbled slightly in unhooking his father's lightsaber from his belt, it was only that he needed practice. These narrow - and narrowing, he could swear - corridors were hardly the ideal spot for swinging away at swordwork, but the illumination the weapon gave off would make short work of them, and as he turned another corner and felt again the directionless sense of moving the wrong way, he engaged it, filling the hall with an icy blue and a deep, comforting thrum -
"Woah!" A sharp, short bark echoed through the empty halls, seeming to multiply as it bounced along every angle of this intersection in the temple's passageways - and the man who'd dropped it, who had come out of the darkness far too close to the lightsaber's blade for any sort of comfort, jumped back, his hands raised, one of them clutching a torch. In the blue light he was starkly pale, and his face was deeply sculpted in shadow. Luke's grip tightened - he froze, caught in the spiraling terror of what might have happened if he'd taken one more step - and he let out a breath, that fear blustering out of him in a wave of pique.
"What in space are you doing in here?" he bit out, the blade still activated - although still for light, rather than defense. He didn't recognize this man, but he looked like he was unarmed, and in civilian clothes - a light shirt that clung to him in the clammy sort of way Luke could feel his own shirt sticking to his back even now, a pair of boots that had obviously seen their share of mud. Maybe he was one of the myriad soldiers he hadn't met yet; maybe he'd been sent by the pilots snickering in the ready room to follow him, and give him a scare.
The man lowered his arms, muttering a whispered oath; he ran one hand back through his stiff, dark hair. His face seemed to struggle, for a moment, in the quivering light from the blade, between shock and confusion and anger. The latter won out: after giving Luke a solid once-over, he met his eyes with a flatly cross expression, his mouth twisting to the side. "You know," he said, his voice heavy with vexation, "I've been halfway around the galaxy looking for you."
But he wasn't twelve. He wasn't driving their old cargo sled and looking forward to a big and well-earned dinner. A lot had changed, and none of it the kind of thing that might simply fade in the sun.
He did try, though. As he walked under the massive overhang of the temple's entrance, into the black shadow of its huge, echoing hall, once a hangar bay for Rebel fighters (and before that, who knew), he was whistling. He'd come here for somewhere quiet to think, but really, quiet wasn't what did it for him; he'd come here to steep a little in the past of this place, a past that had always, always buoyed him up, and touched him in ways that he could never articulate but that had seemed deep and grave and important, even as a little boy. This place was hope. The entire moon had come within bare seconds of being blown out of existence, but because of what had happened here, his home was still spinning, thriving, glowing in the sun. When he lost things, he liked to come here, to remind himself: you have to push on. It was a cheerful message. It deserved an appropriate accompaniment.
In the past few days, he'd lost friends. He'd lost leaders, colleagues. He'd lost the entire Hosnian system, where he'd trained and served and made so many friends during his years with the New Republic fleet - and they'd all lost the New Republic, a home and a cause to which he had always, always been loyal, even in resistance. And he'd lost a little nameless something when he'd come home at last a few days ago, his physical wounds nearly healed, and found there was something aching in him that even coming home couldn't assuage. Something inside of him wouldn't thaw; it called out for the all-penetrating heat of the jungle, for the optimism inherent in a place that for millions upon millions of years had never once stopped breathing, rustling, growing.
He knew the interior of the base pretty well, having cleared much of it out by hand in the decades after the Alliance had abandoned it for another temporary home. He knew the hangar bays and meeting rooms and barracks and, his favorite, the ceremonial hall; he knew the corridors and store rooms and underground safe bunkers. He even knew a few of the more twisted, unusual spaces, the ones he thought he could feel the temple itself trying to dissuade him from finding - strange little blind halls or bottomless wells or chambers deep in the dark center of the temple that were almost impossible to get to but, when ultimately found, were completely bare, containing nothing but a suspicious chill. Someone who'd paid a little better attention in history classes might have been able to suggest that this was the residual presence of the Sith son of a bitch whose body had probably liquified around five thousand years ago somewhere within this structure; and that Poe should perhaps not have carved his initials and more than a few tags to the tune of if you can read this, get bent on the walls of his sacred eternal home, or whatever. Luckily, few of his friends had ever had scholarly inclinations. So now he could meander through these halls, brushing his fingers every now and again along the work of his youth, as his whistling seemed to grow more muffled and deadened, quieting in the close, oppressive atmosphere of the temple, his thoughts resolutely turned to the good that had happened here, the triumph that loss and death had bought, the fact that every step he took was a great big fuck you to the owner of this tomb and his spiritual successor, Klyo kriffing Ren -
Until he heard what he could have sworn was - someone else. Breathing. The unnamable but unmistakable sound-sense of a weight shifting against the floor.
He knew it wasn't the reanimated form of some ancient evil returned to punish him for his youthful disrespect. He did know that. ... He was pretty sure he knew that. But dark did things to a man - he froze, and he held his breath, and he lowered his torch a little closer to belt level - out of useless instinct, as it happened; he wasn't armed. And while he was actively rationalizing that if some vengeful ghost had wanted to take a bite out of him, it would surely have done so years ago, it was hard to feel anything but: oh, shit.
And then there was a flash of blue, a droning hum, and Poe leapt back with a shout - to find Luke Skywalker glaring at him like he'd just busted through a door without knocking. The wrong Luke Skywalker, too; one who looked as though he hadn't aged a day from all the archival footage and ceremonial holos that had always been Poe's visual touchstones to the history of the Rebellion. It couldn't possibly be him - this was in his head, the product of fatigue and nerves and one of his interrogators crossing some wire in his brain - it was the temple, the strange presence here that made him a little too nervous, a little too suggestible. It was not Luke Skywalker.
But Poe had a thing or two to say to the man, so - he decided he might as well pretend.
"You know," he said, shutting off his torch and clipping it to his belt, "I've been halfway around the galaxy looking for you."
Skywalker hesitated, clearly brought up a little short. "I've only been gone half an hour. Maybe."
"You've been gone for years. And I don't know what you think you're doing," Poe continued, stepping forward, forcing himself to disregard the disconcerting drone of the lightsaber, "but if anyone else kept the General waiting that long, you'd better believe they'd hear about it. Do you know, I've -"
"What General? It's the middle of the night cycle. I was taking a walk."
Poe stared at him, his mouth a flat line. There was a certain ridiculousness to the speeding drum of his heartbeat, like waking up angry at someone for something they'd said in a dream. "The General. Leia Organa."
"The princess," Skywalker said, his shoulders dipping a little. "Look, that's fine. I'm trying to get back to her. Just point me in the right direction. This place is a maze - I don't know why it hasn't been closed off already. A guy could get lost in here."
I'm trying to get back to her. Poe was seized with the sudden, deeply irrational, bone-deep suspicion that this was where Skywalker had been since his disappearance; that he'd been wandering these dark, dripping, sepulchral halls alone; that the map would lead Rey here, too, to wander into the trap that was the temple's puzzle of passageways; that maybe she was just beyond the wall, hunting even now through a vain infinity -
He really needed to get out of here, before he lost it entirely. "Let's go find her. The princess." He turned his back to Skywalker, the lightsaber casting his shadow out in front of him in a long, flickering distortion of his form. He couldn't see where it ended; it faded into blackness too far ahead of him. "I'll get you back to the hangar. It's this way." Unless it wasn't, anymore. But if he let himself get rattled, he'd take a wrong turning anyway. He just needed to follow his tracks - to keep to the path he'd walked a hundred times in the past.
"Why are you here?" Skywalker asked, though it was more curious than skeptical - he was following, Poe could see from the shuddering light on the walls, progressing with him step by step.
"I was just - taking a walk. I needed to think."
"It's probably the only quiet on this whole moon. I mean - I like it here." There was a note of uncertainty in Skywalker's voice, and Poe felt a little twinge behind his ribs. Skywalker, on Yavin IV, a kid - could he possibly have liked it here? After all that had happened to him, after the losses that were part of his mythos now, the ones Poe had heard as a boy and tried to understand - what would it mean, to have to pick up and leave behind your entire world? "I do. But it's so busy. And man, is it hot."
Poe had to laugh, at that. "You're from Tatooine."
"It's different. It's not like this at all." A pause. "Where are you from?"
"Here. Just over the hills - not far."
"Here? I didn't know anyone lived here. I'd never even heard of it before - you know. Before we got here."
"Well, that's all right. I never heard of Tatooine before, either."
"Yeah, well." Under the noise of the lightsaber, his voice became more difficult to distinguish. "There's not much to hear."
"You do much flying, there?" Poe was afraid to let the conversation lapse, still beset with the eerie conviction that if he let the silence grow, it would swallow them - that if he turned around, Skywalker would disappear again. "They say you're pretty good."
"Pretty good?" The spike of boyish indignation in his voice sparked another involuntary smile; Poe pursed his lips to smooth it away. "Did they see that shot? Even I hardly believed it. Pretty good."
"I didn't see it." Poe led them through a left turn, his muscle memory coming through for him thus far. "But I heard about it."
"Well, it was - you know. Han shot them off my back." This quick pivot to humility would have been charming, if the skin on Poe's neck hadn't been crawling quite so aggressively. "And if we hadn't had the plans, I couldn't have - and I wasn't really sure I had it locked in, but there was …" His voice faltered again. Poe could hear his heart in his ears; his boots slapping on stone. "I had help," Skywalker said at last, and it was impossible to tell whether the small, tentative, nervous quality to his voice was real, or whether it was something Poe had put there - a glimpse through a crack in his storied facade, of a frightened boy who hadn't yet begun to realize how much he had to fear. "I don't think - I don't think I've ever done anything, alone."
So don't, Poe wanted to say, preferably while shaking it physically into him. So don't run from the people who can help you. Don't abandon them, not after everything they've done for you. Don't be alone. Come back. Come back.
But he said nothing. And the silence didn't consume them - it didn't steal Skywalker away from him, hiding him once more in the vast, intricate labyrinth of the galaxy he'd traversed so much of to try to bring him home. Poe had left more than one person behind on that journey. He didn't want to make it again.
The darkness faded into grey, and soon the light of the afternoon spilling through the ruined walls of the hangar bay was visible straight ahead from their position deep into the last leg of tunnel. Skywalker shut his lightsaber off, and his pace quickened - and he strode right on as though nothing were amiss, although Poe could see the hangar stretching out in front of them in shambles, half overgrown with vines, rocks strewn everywhere, and not a ship - not a person - in sight.
"Do me a favor," Poe said, turning, finally, to look at him, once they were on the threshold - and he was still there, still painfully young, relief painted clear on his face although he was clearly trying to play it off. "Don't go wandering around by yourself, huh? We want to be able to find you when we need you."
"Yeah. Sure. All right." Skywalker clapped his hand onto Poe's shoulder, solid and warm - and he gave him a smile, awkward as it was. "Thanks for the tour."
Poe grabbed his arm before he could advance any further, scanning the desolate space around him. "Do you see her?"
"Who - Leia?" Skywalker looked at him like he was an idiot. "It's the middle of the night, she's asleep, she's probably -"
"Go find her. I'm serious," he added, stirring in a little of the stone he slipped into his voice when he needed his squadron to listen to him, now. "Go find her. She's looking for you."
"Okay. Seriously." Skywalker tugged his arm out of Poe's grip, giving him one last affronted look. "I'm going. Cool off." And then he strode forward, into a beam of sunlight and its dancing, curling pillar of haze - and he was gone, as quickly as though he'd simply winked out of existence altogether. Poe stood there, for a long time - seconds, minutes, an hour, who could say - before turning, slowly, to start to climb over the ruined landing pad to find his bike again.
The heat of the day swirled up around him, enveloping him from head to toe. The chill of the temple was burned out of him in half a minute, less - but something else remained, a shadow, perhaps, cast across the hope he usually felt when he looked up at the temple's jagged lines against the sky. It was as though the sun was setting, though it was still high in the sky; like the light had skewed, and time with it. He'd done what he could, he knew, to bring the Resistance back its hero, forged first not so very far from here. He knew Luke Skywalker wasn't lost - not anymore. But there was a dark notion, dripping slowly, slowly into him, like water carving new paths through the temple's depths, that perhaps too much had changed between the Skywalker of the Battle of Yavin, and the one that would come back to them.