In a space of one breath they became strangers. Luke, always six months ahead, six thousand years into Han’s future. How long does it take for a body to decompose so completely, no trace of it is left in the universe, not even reflected light? Han remembers an ancient book on sciences he had seen just once, matter can be neither created nor destroyed (funny times they were, living on this beautiful ball of stardust, of earth), and the rust-shackled, timelessly old stuff was always supposed to be either a great myth or an even greater wisdom.
Matter is neither created nor destroyed. There is a trail of atoms six billion light years long that starts at Han’s home, atoms which belonged with Luke once.
The boy from Tatooine, a thawing beam of light against the infinite cold, the pilot, the rescuer, head always tilted back in laughter, the friend, a slanting smile bruised with blood, the boy scowling at a treasure, an austerity, the boy knee-deep in guts and glory, the boy and the sun, — it’s a story as numinous and primeval as time: a shipful of death he carries in the tender wax of his bones.
He was supposed to be safe. He was supposed to be. Han catches glimpses sometimes, a sliver of dread that stings like any other hope, but the kid’s always been brave, and now he made it his active duty. Luke Skywalker the Fearless, Han spits half-heartedly, with affection almost as hopeless as disappointment. Now, how ‘bout that? The kid laughs for some reason (honestly, Han is just glad he can still do that), gives him a heedless smile, real big, one that reaches even the tips of his fingers, as if it were some sort of benevolent surrender. Oh, the long-lasting comfort of your stinky one-liners, he says. Never change, Han.
“Yeah, no. But, Luke—”
The kid, still smiling at him, his face humbled and very young, candid to a point of being generous not quite as much as pained. An affliction so transient, so infinitely crippling. Han will always blame himself.
It changes you, that other word with a capital L, big like your name.
“What?” he scowls, worried for thousands of things at once, Han can tell. You can trick your friends and you can trick your smiles, but eyes betray no Malatesta, since betrayal requires a third. Luke used to wear his heart on his sleeves, and when he’d cut them down with his sword, like the real knight, — matter can be love can be neither created nor destroyed, — it all had to go somewhere.
Maybe Han is just making scientifically assured excuses for things more delicate and inexorable than the universal truths.
“Nothin’, kid. A tad rich, coming from you, s’all.”
In Luke’s eyes worry shifts into something all the old things are: a resilient, benign sadness.
Han breathes, and each time his lungs expand or contract, one thousand million years pass for Luke, the time around him bending with love and a darkness that comes not from the dearth of light, but from the ubiquity of it. Han wonders how much of it has to do with Luke’s father.
Everything, says the quiet tilt of his head, the unyielding wounds of his open palms.
“Not your fault,” Han says, never mindful or generous enough to catch the briskness in his voice. “Ain’t nobody’s fault we’re alive and kickin’, ‘cause — guess what, — even wookies evolve, alright? To say nothing of smart fellas like ourselves.”
Luke’s smile is an arcuate, mysterious thing, much like those holier-than-thou teachings Han imagines his life is teeming with these days, but his heart is still in it in all its fullness, as if loss were a bold, tangible thing that slaked it to a point of a surfeit so violent and profound as to seem like mercy.
“You have changed,” Luke says fondly, as if it once hurt him. “Turning into a wise old man, aren’t you?”
Laughter rises too fast to Han’s throat, almost choking him.
“You’re one to talk,” Han gripes, and says:
You changed me.
Luke is watching him with all the candour in the galaxy, and he must know absolutely everything about Han by now, because for an honesty that still and soft-spoken, you’d have to be either holy or in love. Bits and pieces of both, perhaps. How long does it take for a martyr to be canonised? How much?
“I don’t hate you,” Han says. “Just so we’re cut ‘n clear about this, okay? I don’t hate this new and improved Luke Skywalker 2.0 or the crappy parentage or even your prissy Jedi buddies with their mumbo-jumbo of embracing one’s True Destiny, whatever shit show it holds. The only thing I can’t fuckin’ stand is what it does to you.”
The polite, ceaseless absence in Luke’s face hardens fleetingly into a forgery of itself, as if he were trying to shield himself from the brutality of someone caring about him, but the wounds ran too deep to let his fingers close, so he stayed, hands at his side, too brave for someone so exposed, as he always was.
“Han,” Luke says in a breath of a name, implicitly at home with it, “this is what it means—”
“You’re not happy,” Han cuts him off. “An’ that should be the end of it, far as everything else in the goddamn universe’s concerned, but, in fact, I’d say you’re pretty fuckin’ miserable, ‘cause this thing,” Han gestures vaguely at Luke’s dingy clothes, the glove as bleak as his father’s legacy, “ain’t a hyperdrive dream ride into the meteor shower for a desert-born an’ bred starry-eyed kid. Alright?”
Luke breathes, nods politely, but out of necessity, not out of spite. A loneliness, scalding as shame, in the hollow of every smile.
“Life,” he says, “is seldom everything you once dreamed it to be.”
You have lost, death says, everything, in a stark, arid voice that reminds him of the lands on Tatooine, barren of life or hunger, surviving on spite and contempt. A sun for the sky, a sun for the sky walker.
“Please, Han, do excuse me,” Luke says, brushing past already, so effortless in his stance and distance, Han has to wonder whether the life they used to have together was a sort of escape one indeed could only find in dreams. Luke used to talk about his childhood, as mindlessly as breathing, cute little backstories every hero tells to cover up the blood oozing from a wound the shape of their happiness. Nowadays family talk leaves a pithy, grieving distaste in the curve of Luke’s mouth that tries too violently to fit into a smile. Smiles were the vernacular expressions of Luke’s eyes once, but everything grows into murder someday.
This is what they are now:
“I don’t really want to talk about it, Han.” Firmly apologetic, apologetically firm — Han can never guess these days.
“I’m sorry.” An expression of Luke’s duty to draw out the void between his mouth and the bite of Han’s ribs.
Like galaxies, they are drifting away from each other at the speed of irreversible disappointment. Ubiquitous is the light; fast as the cutting of a throat. Once seen, eternity was just a flyby.
“Of course I will excuse you,” Han says, not looking back, ever so thief-like. He steals the words right from his own battered liver, everything below his hairline tingles and hurts so badly, he thinks of being frozen again, thinks of death and how one could rob life of its innate cruelty, of change.
I will excuse you, I will concede you, but accept you I will not, because I could never forgive you for our past, like you could never live in my future. This is the way of my father, and his father before him. You would know everything about that; you are the only one who knows.
Luke goes. Han imagines he can see straight to his spine as he leaves, because bones are the last things to remain of heroes when the ending comes.