The boy is nine, and prone to petulance, and when Obi-Wan catches sight of him at the markets it is unfailingly heartbreaking. Luke looks so like his father did, once upon a time.
The boy knocks politely at his door, now, and says "Ben, sir, you haven't been seen by anyone for almost two months. I wanted to see if you were all right."
"Thought you might see yourself a sand-weathered corpse, did you?" Obi-Wan asks him with a smile. The boy looks disturbed.
"You shouldn't joke like that. My aunt says death is nothing to laugh about."
"If you want to take up that argument, you must admit that life is a grave thing also, yet we laugh from start to finish."
"But we cry, too," the boy protests, still standing at the threshold of the small home. "And think, and talk, and chase the womp rats who try to get into the evaporators. We don't just laugh."
"All those things can be applied to our attitudes to death, also, Luke," Obi-Wan says, an old enjoyment at helping a child learn rising in his heart. "We cry, and think, and talk. I'm not sure about the womp rats, I must admit. Why can't we laugh as well?"
The boy looks thoughtful for a moment, and then shakes his head. "I don't know."
"'Knows he knows not, the wisest man does'," Obi-Wan quotes, motioning for the boy to come inside. "An old friend told me that when I was just a little older than you. His Master had told it to him, and he told it to me in turn. It's worth remembering. It keeps us humble."
The boy sits down on one of the worn, comfortable chairs, pulling one knee up to rest his chin on. "What's a Master?"
"Something like a teacher, but much more than that. I will tell you all about it when you're older, Luke, I promise."
"Oh, it's one of those things." The boy sighs. "Everything is 'when you're older', these days. I'm older now than I was a year ago, and nobody ever said it to me then!"
"I'm sorry innocence feels like such a burden for you." Obi-Wan pours the boy a glass of milk. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes, sir. Are you sure you're all right? I thought you might be sick."
Obi-Wan shakes his head. "No. Something unexpected happened to me, and I have been meditating in an attempt to make sense of it."
"It was very unexpected."
"Did I interrupt you?" The boy looks apologetic. "I didn't mean to, I -"
"No, you didn't. I gave up yesterday."
"Oh." The boy looks down, then brightens. "Can I help?"
"No, it's all right. I am willing to let answers come in their due time."
That remark causes the boy to make a face. "Wonderful. More waiting."
It has been fifty days since Obi-Wan's mind went quiet.
There have been periods of silence in the past, but never without warning. Never so abrupt, like a door slamming down or a light switching off.
He had been working through a kata, trying to learn tricks to compensate for the growing stiffness in his bones, and remembering a long-ago sparring match.
"Really, Master, if you don't pin me soon, I'll begin to think you're letting me win."
"If only that were true, Obi-Wan. I fear youth will always have the edge over wisdom when opponents meet with equal skill."
He could feel the chuckle ripple through the Force around him a moment before Qui-Gon spoke. "What will it take, I wonder, to keep your concentration on the here and now? Once upon a time, the future held your attention, and now you wander back into the past."
"It isn't polite to tease an old man," Obi-Wan had answered with a smile, making a point of focusing on the world around him. Qui-Gon began to reply, amusement in his tone, and then the quiet fell like a blade.
Even the deepest of meditations have not quelled his disquiet, but to spend any more time thinking on it would be pointless. He shall trust the answers to come when they will.
And so the weeks pass, and the months. Luke begins to visit more often, spending afternoons tinkering with bits of old droids and chattering about the adventures he'd been on.
"... and then I fell off, so my uncle made me walk home, but that was all right because I still got home before him because the speeder broke down, which he said was my fault because I'm always taking things apart, and I said that I hadn't taken anything in the engine apart for weeks, and then he looked like he was going to make me scrub out the pipes with the sonic brush again so I came here instead. This is a good hide-out."
"I've come to think so," Obi-Wan agrees.
"Have you found out what happened to you, yet?"
"No. Not yet."
"Did you lose something? You look like you lost something."
"What makes you say that?"
The boy shrugs, and sets a small spider-like droid made out of scraps down on the floor. It begins to stumble unsteadily. "You just do. I guess I feel like that too, so I notice. You never used to, and now you do."
"Is that why you visit more?"
"I guess so." Luke pokes at the droid. It twitters at him, irritated, and he giggles. "Didja see that? Now I've made him mad!"
"Your aunt and uncle love you very much. It's just not their way to say so."
He makes a face. "I know. I just wish... I don't know anything about my parents except their names, and that my dad was a pilot, and that they're dead."
Owen and Beru Lars already view Obi-Wan's friendship with the boy as an idea of doubtful merit, at best. They will be vastly unamused if they hear that Obi-Wan has been telling him stories about things they consider best forgotten.
But Obi-Wan never was very good at choosing easy paths.
"Your mother was a compassionate, thoughtful woman. A born leader. The universe lost a champion of justice when she died."
Luke stares, his light eyes wide. "You knew them?"
"Oh, yes." Even now, the memory of them makes him smile.
"What about my father? What was he like?"
"A lot like you. You remind me more of him with every day. He wanted to run before he could walk, too. And he had a knack for fixing things."
Luke grins. "Not much like me, then. My uncle says I break more than I fix."
One evening, as the suns begin their slip down through the colours to darkness and Obi-Wan marvels that such a sight can be new every night even after almost a decade of observation, his contemplation is interrupted by a visitor.
"Ben. I'm glad I caught you at home."
Her worry surrounds her like a fogged halo. "Hello, Beru. Is there something I can be of help with?"
"Luke said you told him that you knew his parents."
"Ah. I know you and Owen disapprove of me talking to-"
"Never mind that." She holds up her hand to quiet him, and shakes her head. "You knew his mother?"
"Yes, I did. I was there when she died."
Beru shakes her head. She looks to be on the verge of tears, but her mild face does not crumble. "I don't know which of you is lying, but someone is."
"She's here. Luke's mother. She's with him now."
Obi-Wan reaches instinctively for a weapon which has not been at his hip for years. "That's not possible."
"Believe me, I would rather you were right," Beru says softly. "We were not meant to be parents, I think, Owen and I. We are not skilled at it, and our bodies seemed to know we were not suited for it. But that boy is all my joy, Ben. I cannot lose him to her."
"You won't. It cannot be her," Obi-Wan says.
It is her. Her hair is braided back from her face, and her smile is warm and entertained as Luke shows her the gadgets he has created.
She turns as Obi-Wan and Beru arrive. "Isn't he a funny little boy?" she asks him, beaming. "Oh, Obi-Wan, it's so good to see you."
"Ben!" Luke greets him happily. "She isn't dead after all!"
"May I speak to you alone?" Obi-Wan asks as Beru leans against her husband, looking weary for the first time Obi-Wan can remember. When Luke makes a sound of protest, Obi-Wan does his best to keep his tone light. "Only for a moment. The droids will keep, I'm sure."
"Of course, Obi-Wan," she says, smiling again at Luke before releasing his hand from hers.
They walk together up to the surface, out onto the sand.
"There are so many stars out here," she says, drawing in a deep breath. "I forgot."
"Who are you?"
"Don't. Don't begin with suspicion. It has been -"
"I don't want to hear pretty lies. Tell me the truth."
Her face hardens. "I am General Amidala of the Imperial Army, and I am here to make sure my son is safely removed before the troops arrive."
"You didn't think the Emperor would tolerate the suffering of innocents, even this far out of the central systems, did you? Tatooine needs regulation. It will be provided."
He watches her face and the movement of her hands, and puts his own hand to his mouth. He feels ill. "I never thought... oh, Anakin, what have you done?"
"He gave his children back their mother. He restored life where death should never have intruded. He remedied the errors of the past."
Obi-Wan can't look at her. He turns away, finding a little solace in the familiarity of the stars. "It's obscene," he says quietly, sickened. "Are you altered? Has he made you obedient and docile? Or has he simply grown himself a new copy of her, accelerated to the point where she left off? You are nine years too young for who she should have been."
"I am not a copy. I am her."
"That's not possible."
"While you've sat in your sand hut, the Empire has made leaps and bounds in technology. We live in an age of wonders."
"You know about the girl?" She had said children, after all.
Obi-Wan puts his hand to the lightsaber once again at his hip. It does not yet feel familiar there. "Is there any point to me killing you? Will another, exactly the same in all respects, simply spring up to take your place?"
She turns away. "I don't have time for this. If you try to stop me, I'll kill you and those who've sheltered him. If you kill me, your deaths will be difficult and prolonged, and Luke will still end up with his true family."
"I'm so sorry, Padme," Obi-Wan says.
"So am I," she says, and then something hits him, hard.
He wakes inside the sleeping quarters of a ship. Giving in to panic would serve no purpose, so he sits up carefully and checks his injuries. A nasty bump on the head, and marks on his wrists where Force-inhibitors were applied while he was transported. His captors do not underestimate him, then.
As Obi-Wan eases himself off the bed, the small room's door slides open and two children step inside. The little girl beside Luke has a serious, kind face and sleek dark hair, but she is obviously several years younger than the boy. It cannot possibly be Leia, can it?
"Ben, this is Shmi. She lives on a starship most of the time, can you believe it?" Luke gestures widely, making the heavy shawl draped across his shoulders slip down a little. It looks to be of high quality, coloured the same dark plum Padme favoured for such items. It reminds Obi-Wan of another child, a lifetime ago, who was taken by surprise by the cold of space.
Obi-Wan stares at the girl, who gives him a shy smile before ducking her head, embarrassed by the scrutiny. He'd never seen Anakin's mother, but he heard stories enough about her from his padawan that he'd always felt like she was someone he had met.
"We have to get out of here," he says to the children. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he is faintly surprised that he is still capable of being so horrified, after all else he has lived through.
Heavy footsteps approach outside the room, counterpointed by long rasps of a breather. "Leaving, Obi-Wan? My hospitality is offended."
Vader stands behind the children. Luke looks wary, unsure of what to make of him, but Shmi takes one black-gloved hand in her own small brown one, and tugs to get attention. Vader leans down, listening as she whispers something close to where his ear would be underneath his helmet. He shakes his head.
"Not yet, little one. Take Luke and go find Padme."
Shmi nods, and gestures for Luke to follow. The boy glances at Obi-Wan, who nods.
"Go. It will be all right." He hopes it isn't a lie.
"I want you to know you are forgiven," Vader says when they're alone. "Palpatine's rule was a time of insanity for many. I bear you no grudge."
Obi-Wan is too staggered by the words to find breath for a reply to them, so instead he contents himself with folding his arms and shifting stance. "The Emperor is dead, then?" he manages to say finally.
"I am Emperor now."
"And you've taken it upon yourself to play at being a god," Obi-Wan spits, regaining his voice. "How could you... your mother, Anakin."
"I had a lock of her hair. Now she will have the life she was denied. A safe and happy childhood."
Obi-Wan is rubbing at his forehead before he realises his hand has moved. The whole situation feels surreal, like something from a feverish dream. "I knew you had gone rotten at your core, but I did not realise you were mad."
"I always knew I would find a way to stop death, sooner or later."
"This isn't stopping death! This is perverting life! What do you hope to gain by -"
"It wasn't supposed to be like this!" Vader snaps, insofar as the voice synthesizer in the breather allows. "It..." He turns, and walks out the door. "You have succeeded in making me lose control, as usual. I should have expected that to stay as it was. I will return to speak to you later. For now, I will see to my family's wellbeing."
Obi-Wan kneels on the floor, ignoring the protesting creak his legs give as he does so. He can sense that the ship is not large, nor moving particularly fast. They are headed for a larger cruiser, then, rather than a planet.
He can feel Luke's Force signature, the edges jittery with worry and wonderment at this wild and strange adventure. Vader's roiling emotions would be audible to any Force-sensitive, and they lap at the edges of the old, discarded training bond still bridging between his mind and Obi-Wan's.
And there is something else, a breath of queasy recognition whispering through the Force, damped down by inhibitors and confusion. Obi-Wan strives towards it, like failing eyes trying to focus on faint words. It skitters away, dark with fear, and he lets it go for now.
Luke comes back alone a few hours later, still wearing the dark shawl around his shoulders. "Ben? Are you awake?"
"Yes. How are you?"
Luke shrugs, and sits down on the floor beside where Obi-Wan still kneels. "You sure can stay doing the same thing for a long time, huh?"
"It's a skill anyone can learn with practise."
"Not me, I bet." Luke is, indeed, fidgeting already. "Don't you get bored?"
"No. Where's your little friend?"
"Shmi? I think she's with my mom and dad."
"Did they tell you to call them that?"
Luke shakes his head. "No. But that's who they are, isn't it?"
Obi-Wan considers before speaking. "Do you remember, months ago, when you told me it was wrong to laugh about death?"
Luke nods. "Uh-huh."
"From a certain point of view, you were right to do so. I laugh at death because I recognise it as part of a circle, a circle which holds both joy and sorrow in it. But many who laugh at death do so without understanding what it is they are doing. Do you understand?"
"Kind of." Luke looks confused, but stays quiet and lets Obi-Wan explain. His aunt and uncle taught him to be polite, at least.
"Your father has broken that circle, Luke. He has created life where it does not belong."
"He said you would say that."
"What else did he say?"
With a shrug, Luke traces one finger against the floor. "He says I'm coming back with them. I... I'm not so sure I want to." He whispers the confession, sounding ashamed. "Do you want to?"
"No, I don't."
Footsteps outside again. Luke springs to his feet, shaking a little with fear, while Obi-Wan rises more slowly.
"I thought I would find you here," Vader says to Luke.
"You didn't lock my door," Obi-Wan remarks. "Your faith is disturbing, all things considered."
"You cannot hurt me now," Vader says calmly. Luke flinches a little, doing his best to hide it. Vader turns to him. "Are you so afraid of your father, boy?"
Luke shakes his head. "No. It's just... your mask is strange. I've never seen anything like it."
With a nod, Vader taps his fingers against the side of the helmet. "Such things could never function in the sand and wind of Tatooine."
"Can you take it off?"
"Someday soon. When I have enough of those I trust around me, I will create a new body for myself. Then I will have no more need of this mask. Then we can meet face to face at last, my son."
All Vader's attention is focussed on the boy, and Obi-Wan chooses the moment to strike. His options are limited without his lightsaber, but he has had hours to plan his attack. He unbalances Vader with a shove through the Force and heads for the door, grabbing Luke's hand as he does so.
"Run!" he tells the boy, and a split-second later his breath leaves his throat in a choked gasp as his windpipe is squeezed in an invisible vice.
"It's not that I don't want to best you in a fair fight, Obi-Wan," Vader says idly, flexing his fingers a little. Obi-Wan's vision begins to swim. "It's just I'm sure we both remember how well that went for all involved last time, and I'm in no hurry to repeat history."
Vader lets go, and Obi-Wan falls to the floor, gulping at air.
"I had hoped we could begin again, my old Master, but it seems you are going to make things difficult," Vader says, and Obi-Wan just has enough time to think why must they always knock me out? before the darkness takes him down again.
This new room is black as pitch, and there are inhibitors back on his wrists and around his forehead. They're locked on, and Obi-Wan can't help but wonder why Vader even made a pretense at civility and reason. Surely they both knew that things would end exactly as they have when Obi-Wan was brought aboard.
"Obi-Wan?" a voice asks hesitantly, and all the clues Obi-Wan refused to notice fall into place. The sudden silence in his mind, and the strange familiarity just on the edge of notice. "That's... your name, isn't it?"
It seems redundant, at this point, to boggle at the audacity and horror of what Vader is trying to do.
"I knew that was your name." The voice -- Obi-Wan has to think of it as that, and only that, for fear that sanity will leave him entirely -- sounds awed and happy. "I remembered it. Usually I have trouble with things like that, but not with you."
"Your memories are damaged?" You should not be. This should not be happening.
"Something went wrong... Lord Vader tried to put something in my mind, like the others have. Something to give me clarity about the Empire. But it... didn't work. And now I can't remember a lot of things."
"Are there any lights in here? Where are we?"
"It's a holding cell. There's no way out or in unless you have a key, or the Force... and we've got inhibitors on, and don't have the key."
"Yes, yes, I'll worry about all that in a minute. How do we get light?" Obi-Wan stands, leaning against a wall for balance. He can feel the hum of the engines through it, which places the room near the back of the ship.
"Here, let me." There is the sound of movement, and a dial being turned. Thin, pale light seeps in, casting thin shadows from what little cargo there is: some crates, a cold-storage device, and a heap of blankets on the floor.
Qui-Gon is dressed in black pants and a dark tunic, his feet bare and his hair cut haphazardly short. He looks to be perhaps sixteen years old.
"He wanted an apprentice," Obi-Wan says, and for the first time almost wishes he had the strength in his heart to end Anakin's life.
"My aging slowed two weeks ago. That's when he realised something was wrong in my head."
"That's why he's come for Luke?"
Obi-Wan draws in a deep breath. "Show me the key mechanism for the door."
It's state-of-the-art, but the art in question is the Empire's, and that means corners have been cut. Obi-Wan prods at the wires, disconnecting one and twining it with another. It's finicky, difficult work, but eventually the mechanism chirps and the lock hisses as it unseals.
"Got it!" Obi-Wan says, and smiles at Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon looks thoughtful for a long beat, staring at the exposed circuitry, and doesn't seem to hear.
"I... there were lessons, and... you didn't like them. You wanted to be reading instead..."
Obi-Wan blinks hard, and swallows back his sorrow. "Yes. That's right."
"I never remember this much."
"There are meditations we can try which might help you. For now, we have to get Luke off this ship and away to safety."
Obi-Wan presses his palm against the door's electronic latch. The corridor outside is dark; the humming sounds of the engines stronger. Obi-Wan gestures for Qui-Gon to follow.
There is a light patter of footfalls, and Luke tears around the corner in front of them, stopping himself barely short of crashing headlong.
"Ben!" he pants, surprised. "I'm here to rescue you." He holds up a ring of cardkeys.
"Good, good." Obi-Wan holds his wrists. "Is there one to deactivate these?"
Luke sifts through the cards. "This one might work." He waves it over the inhibitors. They click open, followed a moment later by the band around Obi-Wan's forehead. It's like being able to breathe again.
"Here, let me," Obi-Wan says, and unlocks Qui-Gon's own encircled wrists. Their bond, strong when Obi-Wan was a student and made moreso over the slow years by the edge of the Dune Sea, flares between them like an arc of electricity. Obi-Wan was anticipating the jolt, and lets it pass through him, but Qui-Gon stumbles at the power.
"Easy, easy." Obi-Wan puts a hand on his shoulder to steady him. The familiarity of Qui-Gon's body, always a few degrees warmer than Obi-Wan's own, is an unexpected surprise. His throat chokes a little. "Let it flow as it will."
Qui-Gon nods, and regains his balance. "I'm all right."
"What do we do now?" Luke asks. Obi-Wan smiles at him.
"You're the one who rescued us. I assume you have a foolproof plan."
Luke looks exasperated. "Are you ever serious about anything?"
"We should find a pod, and return to the surface before the ship moves out of range. We must go collect Leia, and get her to safety," decides Obi-Wan. "Hopefully Bail has some knowledge of where... allies might be found."
Qui-Gon grasps at Obi-Wan's hand, drawing strength and focus. "I think I know..." His mind darts, skipping over the yawning blanknesses Obi-Wan can sense spotted across his memories and dreams, and his brow furrows. "I used to..."
"Save your searching until we are out of range. There would be little point in discovering the answers when they may be overheard by unfriendly ears."
"Yes, of course. I am sorry," Qui-Gon says, letting go of Obi-Wan's hand.
"No need to apologise. Any knowledge you have will be of great help."
Luke clears his throat. "You two remember the part where we're escaping, don't you?"
Obi-Wan pats the boy on the head, smiling at the growl of irritation the gesture earns him. "Come along, then."
He can feel that Vader is asleep, and that the onboard crew are clever but not Force-sensitive. Padme, who has always carried an amount of unconscious, unfocused power in her, is reading and thinking of... an ocean? No, a lake, and imagining children playing at the water's edge. Obi-Wan cannot tell if it is a memory or a hope.
They head down to the lower levels, moving as quietly and quickly as they can. Qui-Gon's bare feet aid him now, but will become a problem if they manage to reach the surface of the planet. He is already too tall and lanky to be comfortably carried. Obi-Wan hopes they land close to a settlement.
Luke points down one of the side corridors as they reach the bottom of a narrow flight of steps. "Here, I think it's -"
"You can't leave."
Shmi is standing at the top of the stairs, a small blaster clutched in both her hands. Her mouth trembles. "I won't let you."
Obi-Wan is about to react when Luke steps forward, his face stern. "Put the gun down."
She begins to shake. "No."
"Put it down. You're going to go to sleep now."
She glares at him furiously, tears in her eyes, but after a moment she puts the blaster aside and lies down, pillowing her head on her hands. Her face doesn't slacken as her breathing evens, a look of concentration and effort pinching her features.
"Luke?" Obi-Wan asks quietly. The boy's shoulders sag, and he turns. "Where did you learn how to do that?"
Luke shrugs, offering a tired smile. "I just knew, I guess. Like walking, or talking, or something like that."
Obi-Wan rubs his forehead. Two young would-be Jedi in his care, both in need of particular attention, and a third if they manage to reach Alderaan before Vader. He's too old for this.
"Come on," he says. "She's fighting it already. We need to move fast."
The pod they find is built for three, luckily enough.
"I'm not in the middle!" Luke declares, keeping his voice quiet, and clambers in.
"Neither am I," Qui-Gon says. Obi-Wan quirks an eyebrow. Qui-Gon gives him a small, nostalgic smile. It looks particularly haunting on such a young face. "I fear youth will always have the edge over wisdom when opponents meet with equal skill, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan tries, and fails, to hold back a small laugh. "Fine. I'll be take the centre."
As soon as they close the door on the pod and set coordinates, an alarm begins to sound. It'll be pure dumb luck if they manage to evade capture for any length of time at all.
"I have a bad feeling about this," mutters Obi-Wan, hitting the release button.