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By Any Demon's Name

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Cloud City

The man on the scan grid twisted inside steel binders. Facial muscles twitched uncontrollably, reporting another hopeless struggle of pride against flesh and nerve as focused energy strobed purple across his frame, shattering tenuous limits of comprehension and control. A bead of blood appeared when the captive bit down hard on his lower lip. Stimulators targeted his neural pathways, rushing corrosive demands straight towards the brain, battering the man’s senses with a phantom agony that left his skin unscathed. He’d hung on to belligerent silence for the longest time, but the increase of intensity forced vocal acknowledgment. Curses in Corellian came first, then half-muffled groans until a furious scream wrung from his sore throat. And another. And another.

The Dark Lord signaled for a due measure of respite. He could sense the captive’s defiance and confusion, emanating from a mind that clawed through the slow ebb of pain. The man had expected interrogation; now pain-fogged comprehension struggled feebly with his captors’ lack of interest in the petty secrets he protected.

Darth Vader nodded at the stormtrooper captain. The scan grid reactivated, and the man’s head jerked back at the first stab of tightbeams targeting his body. His eyes were glazed, his teeth bared in a subhuman snarl. Within less than an hour, Vader calculated distantly, the prisoner would be reduced to shivering flesh and mindless instincts, ready to betray the scant principles he’d lived by, his Rebel friends, the Princess, even his Wookiee companion. But he had nothing valuable to offer. He was bait.

Measuring his steps, the Dark Lord headed for the door. Another scream trailed behind him, and intense pain washed around him in slowly building waves, glittering with the life energy that was drained from the man on the grid. Pain was just another form of that volatile energy, generated by a violent conversion of flesh into spirit. Vader felt it sparkle on the edges of his awareness like a mild intoxicant, but his mind was poised aloof. Waiting. Sharpened with expectation, his senses turned outward, straining for the slightest echo.

If Solo’s agony brought no resonance, the Princess would be next to scream her soul out for an unlikely savior. A sandy-haired farmboy who’d stumbled into her prison cell, declaring his purpose with shining eyes and the witless arrogance of youth.

I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you.

Such unworldly innocence. Such unrefined power.

Darth Vader had studied the recording many times in private, apprehensive of the rampant sentiments those images stirred. My son.

But the boy’s untrained senses were unresponsive to the father’s demands and promises, sent impatiently across an unfathomed distance. Luke required less subtle summons, it appeared.

As the Dark Lord strode towards the lift, Solo’s muted screams rang through the corridor, the pauses between them shortening steadily. The bounty hunter’s prattle and the complaints of his reluctant ally Calrissian intruded on Vader’s concentration.

"I’m altering the deal," he told Calrissian sharply. "Pray I don’t alter it any further."

Cloud City burned in brilliant white, the color of unknowing, flared at him in mockery of his impatience. The Dark Lord had not known that sentiment since —

The lift doors snapped shut, abruptly cutting off thought and sound, though Solo’s uncontrolled screams continued to whisper enticingly against the outer defenses of the great dark mind. And yet there was nothing. No echo, not the faintest tremor in the shifting webwork of the Force.

Are you so insensitive, my son? Vader thought restlessly. Or have you learned to shield your mind against all needs but your own?

Nothing. And then —

The shockwave pulsed through Vader’s senses. A white glitter of agony, a piercing flare of rebellious fear, scintillating until the raw power filled his hungering mind for a brief, entranced moment.

Luke! he called back, insensibly longing to convey his presence through the riot of unchecked emotions. He floundered for a moment, adrift between possibilities, immersed in the clash of conflicting futures. If he discarded this truth, Luke would still come to him; he had foreseen how they would meet in lethal combat —

An instant later, the heedless flood of emotion ended abruptly.

With a mental command, Vader stopped the lift and stilled his quickened breathing. If he were to encounter his lost child in armed confrontation, he might find himself forced to harm Luke in order to demonstrate the weakness of Kenobi’s schemes and ideals. Yet he wished no harm on his only son. If there were another way...

An upsurge of triumph brought with it the unfolding of new possibilities, plans more complex and intriguing than any Vader had considered before. Before he’d learned his son’s secret.

A split second had laid it bare to the father’s probing mind. Luke’s response to Solo’s anguish had exceeded every expectation; bursting past all the limits of compassion and friendship, his reaction betrayed him. Within the privacy of his mind, Vader savored the lingering fragrance of his son’s passion. Sharply controlled, shaded with untimely bitterness, yet frantic for requital.

Han — Han, where are you?

From the edge of annihilation, Solo’s mind had called out to Luke, and he had responded with the brightest despair that swept aside every thought of self-protection.

Vader commanded the lift to reverse its course and relished the lightning change of plan for another second. The bounty hunter would have to leave Bespin without his trophy, Solo would serve a higher purpose now. No longer bait, but the agent who could guide Luke where he belonged.

Beyond the plexicurve of a viewport stretched wind-swept skies, infused with the copper hue of the day’s decline towards night. The Dark Lord breathed deeply and gathered a final reserve of patience to himself. It would be worth the waiting.

* * *

"Captain Solo."

Without turning, Vader appraised the man’s instant reaction to being so formally addressed. Suspicion and quick calculation pierced the haze of anguish that shrouded Solo’s mind. Giving him time to adjust, the Dark Lord studied the sight beyond the viewport a few seconds longer. The steely splendor of stars penetrating a vault of layered blackness, gleaming like unfulfilled promises.

He’d had the Executor rotated away from the gaseous planet to face this challenging depth. And when he turned, he caught the expected glint of longing in Solo’s dark eyes.

The sentiment was swiftly shuttered. Considering his state of destitution, the man’s degree of control was remarkable.

"What d’you want?" Solo asked into the silence.

The Dark Lord’s gesture snapped electronic binders off his bruised wrists and sent them clattering on the deck plates. "Some of your time," Vader said calmly.

Solo’s laugh was hoarse and raspy. "Sure. Could’ve saved yourself a whole lotta trouble if you’d asked nicely in the first place. Before you had me strapped to that grid."

"I doubt that you would have been so accessible to reason. I am your enemy, am I not?"

Solo’s fingers rubbed across his wrist in an unconscious, reassuring gesture. "You got that right," he said defiantly. "We’re not the same side, that’s for sure."

"Indeed?" Vader let a touch of amusement slide into his tone. "Have you then become a Rebel at heart, that you can be so certain which side you’re on?"

The dark head shook reflexively. "I’m not entirely anybody’s side, except my own," Solo returned. A forced grin broke on the haggard face. "‘Cause no one’s entirely on my side, y’see."

The man’s candor was almost refreshing. "You may find it difficult to believe," Vader answered him after a calculated pause, "but I am familiar with this particular constellation." A clash of denial and sober reflection brightened Solo’s eyes, and Vader raised a hand before either could find a voice. Let the man consider this in private. The Dark Lord was confident that some unadmitted doubt had been stirred. "Let us simplify the argument," he suggested easily. "If you cannot define the side you’re on, perhaps you will find it less complicated to explain what makes me your enemy."

"Ain’t nothing personal," Solo snorted, "counting out the past few days. How about, you tried your best to blast my friend out of the sky at Yavin ‘n had the Princess set up for execution on the Death Star. Not to mention what you did to our cozy little base on Hoth."

"Come now," Vader chided, his tone almost pleasant. "Surely you realize that such acts are prompted by the dictates of war. Your Rebel friends could be charged with equal crimes against loyal servants of the Empire." He took a step closer. "Is it not true that you, as all your companions, consider me an incarnation of evil?"

The challenge met its mark and produced the anticipated response. "Evil?" Solo echoed sarcastically. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I ain’t got no use for superstition. Hell’s a gun pointed at my head, period. Whatever you are, under all that get-up, you’re just as mortal as the next guy."

Vader looked down at the man who prided himself enough on his libertinism to disregard his own security. Narrowed eyes burned darkly in the bloodless face, openly challenging retribution. But nothing of the kind was necessary. Solo’s pragmatism had thrown open several doors all of which Vader would examine carefully.

"I see," he said solemnly. "Your insight serves you well, Captain. If all your companions were possessed by such rationality, this conflict could be ended soon, and to our mutual benefit."

The dark head tilted defensively. But underneath all that insolence, Solo was battling a growing weakness of flesh and spirit. When Vader probed the smuggler’s presence in the Force, drifts of confusion brushed his mind.

"No need to flatter me," the man replied with strained mockery. "It’s not gonna get you any closer to what you want than your torture rack did."

"But I have made no request of you yet," the Dark Lord reminded him. "And you don’t seem particularly interested to learn my purposes."

"Would you tell me if I asked?" Solo squared his shoulders. "You’ll let me know in your own good time, if it suits your plans, right? And besides, I can guess a few—" He bit off the rest, mouth curling.

"Yes?" Vader prompted. "Indulge my curiosity, Captain. I rarely have the pleasure of conversing with such an outspoken and fearless individual as you are."

"You’re after Luke," Solo said with sudden violence. "You’ve had it for the both of us since Yavin. Didn’t take Lando telling me that."

"You are protective of Skywalker," Vader observed. "What has he done to inspire such loyalty?"

The Corellian snorted again, a hollow sound and a poor disguise for his battered state. "What’s it to you anyway?" Chin raised, Solo stared back at him, but some vague uneasiness began filtering through his hostile front.

For the moment, Vader abandoned this line of inquiry. "It hardly matters indeed," he agreed off-handedly. "Essentially, you make no distinction between good and evil; therefore, your loyalty — and your betrayal — are available at a certain price, is that not true?"

Denial sprang to Solo’s mouth and twitched there before it was caught back. With an angry flip of the head, the Corellian tossed straggly dark hair back from his forehead. "You wanna hear what my price is, Vader?" he charged. "Gotta warn you though, you’re not gonna like it."

"Of that I am almost certain," the Dark Lord conceded.

Solo’s upper lip lifted in a sneer. "Leave Luke alone ‘n let my friends go — there you have it. No point in carrying this conversation any further, is there? Seeing that I ain’t who you’re after."

"Very noble, Captain Solo." Vader studied the man a moment longer, watched the disquiet rise and tighten the skin around his dilated eyes. "Yet you have merely tasted pain during our prior meetings. A few more hours in the hands of our inquisitors, and I assure you, the survival of your friends would no longer concern you."

He stepped closer and saw the Corellian’s muscles tense beneath his soiled shirt. Grounded in the reliable strength of flesh and bone, this man’s pride was a most vulnerable creature, already bruised and driven into rage by the recent abuse Solo had endured.

"I’d advise you to seat yourself," Vader said smoothly. "We are not finished yet, and in your present condition, it would be unwise to waste your resources." Behind the black mask, enhanced optic nerves picked out a frantic flutter of pulse in the Corellian’s throat. Sweat glistened on his collarbones and tension thrummed in his body, surrounding the man in an aura of apprehension, spite, and powerful survival instincts. Vader focused on the chaotic currents of Solo’s mind.

Is this the consort my son desires? And what are your secret cravings, Captain?

Solo gave a rough laugh. "You don’t care if I live or die anyway."

The Dark Lord shook his head. "You lack vision. There may yet be a way for us to end this and allow you to survive. You and Skywalker, both."

Dark eyes narrowed reflexively, refusing credence as conflicting responses were reined back sharply. Interesting, Vader thought, his mental probes already funneling through the turmoil of an unschooled spirit. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, the Corellian was torn between resentment and need, between grudging attachments and the petty criminal’s life he’d carved out for himself.

"What do you want from me?" Solo asked in an unsteady voice. Fear shimmered close to the surface of his thoughts — and shattered into disparate fragments when the Dark Lord overrode all defenses with an imperious influx of vision.

That is not what I ask of you now, he countered. What do you want for yourself? What is your true price and purpose? With a sweep of will, Vader opened the man’s inner sight to a vista extracted from his own mind.

A cargo hold crammed with Alderaani crystal and latinum and judiciously sealed boxes of Kessel spice. A port town on some fringe world ruled by the appetites of a smuggler who’d struck it rich, squalor swathed in the gilding clouds of various intoxicants. Part of the Corellian’s mind latched eagerly onto a scenario pulled from juvenile fantasies, but the rest of him regarded it with a startled disinterest that almost shadowed Vader’s distaste.

Solo’s desires were a confused tangle edged with hunger and spite, and the Dark Lord had no wish to inspect them closely. Impatience turned his approach harsh, the incorporeal onslaught shuddering through Solo’s frame. He sagged against the bulkhead and began sliding down. Without loosening his grip on the man’s mind, Vader caught his fall. The Princess, he suggested, isolating another ambition.

Haughty Leia Organa, challenge and prize for a man of Solo’s inclinations and background — an easier target, some nameless voice whispered in the gaps between one mental presence and the other. From some reserve of unconcerned sarcasm, Solo sneered at the vision of himself as prince consort. Uneasy regrets laced through his recollections of the Princess, of her tremulous smile when control gave way to helpless attraction. The Corellian had succeeded in kindling her passion — and realized that affection would render Organa more vulnerable than capture and inquisition possibly could.

How perceptive, the Dark Lord thought. Fickle desires of the flesh were a tool he could apply to his purpose, regardless of personal disdain. Once exposed to their treacherous nature, Luke would grow beyond such entanglements and learn to cherish the rewards of undiluted power. Within his mind formed an image of the young Skywalker, radiant with the Force that poured from him like visible energy. The sight brought an instant reaction as Solo struggled weakly against the crushing mental hold.

Sweeping aside the feeble protest, Vader delved further, and there were the memories of Luke that he’d sought. Memories of shared confidences, of playful contest and companionable silence. Vader knew a moment of absurd jealousy as he savored the wanton warmth of human closeness through Solo’s perception.

You’ve placed your life in jeopardy for him, and even now you wish to protect Skywalker. Show me the reward you desire.

From the wafting steams of some common shower emerged the slim frame of his son, water beading on lightly tanned skin, spied covertly from the corner of the Corellian’s eye. Denial surrounded the memory, prompted by a bizarre sense of honor, perhaps another guise of self-protection that recoiled from the living image of untouched innocence. And perhaps not. Vader paused. Perhaps that violent reaction provided the leverage he had sought.

I will give you what you want, he told his captive. You will take and destroy that innocence, you will be my messenger and the very agent of Luke’s corruption.

As he thrust his probes more deeply into Solo’s mind, the man’s anguish percolated through his thoughts like a strong wine. At the core of the Corellian’s presence, Vader briefly sampled the mortal aroma of raw and powerful urges. Unstilled hunger lodged there, strong enough to flare into the kind of greed that reached beyond material possession. A sheer hunger for life burned in the man who lay sprawled on the deck plates at his feet, for a life entirely controlled by his own choices.

Presumptuous, the Dark Lord thought, who could afford such luxury? — but he was careful not to let that notion reach the Corellian’s awareness.

He examined the man’s buried anger, pent up from all the times when his moves and plans had been curbed. Each occasion of impotence had bred fury into him, and the Dark Lord gathered those threads into a tighter weave, nurtured the flaring unrest with commands and promises of absolute liberty. Inadvertently, the Corellian’s willpower would buttress his own thralldom. Weaker minds were more susceptible to control, but likely to waver under duress. Given the choice, Vader preferred availing himself of the stronger tool.

In another moment, he withdrew, having learned more than enough to refine his plans. Even before he’d planted his suggestions, Solo’s sentiments had been ambiguous, tainted by instinctive warning.

"Yes," the Dark Lord said, stepping away from the prone form on the deck. "Your reticence to allow Luke too close was justified. He and I share a legacy of power, and you are as afraid of him as you are of me. Because he has the power to bind you."

For a while, the silence filled with Solo’s labored breaths. Unmoving by the viewport, Vader shed the clinging residue of too-close contact with the clay and stench of human existence, his mind arcing outward for the welcome coldness of distant starlight. Although he stretched far into empty interstellar reaches, no trace of his son’s presence remained now, but Luke’s sentiments were not at all difficult to guess.

Given the boy’s miserable upbringing, it was easy to see how romantic delusion must have compensated for a dreary, futureless reality. Foolishly wearing his heart where it would take the most severe blows, loving with the blindness of youth, Luke had set himself up for scarring disappointment. For someone so young and inexperienced, temptation in one of its lesser guises would suffice, shattered trust would bring Luke into the fold of his father’s tutoring and protection. All it took was one man. One betrayal.

Absently, Vader signaled the guards outside the chamber. "Return Captain Solo to the detention cell," he ordered. "I will have him brought back for instruction later on."

* * *

Luke was in his arms, his body curled around final flickers of warmth, every muscle clenched up against the cold. Frost in his eyebrows, ice crystals in his thick lashes, melting slowly. Don’t do this, kid, c’mon...

He cupped his hands around Luke’s, holding them close to the heater coil. Breath plumed white into frozen air, but Han was fighting random stings of heat in the depth of his body. Sensation crowded him. Luke’s breath brushing ragged against his face as he leaned over, soft hair curling with sweat behind his ear. His own hands shook as he searched for a thready pulse. His fingertips dreamed the feel of skin beneath layers of insulating fabric.

This ain’t right, he thought with a desperate rage.

Luke’s eyes flew open, dilated and dark like the far side of the moon. The blond hair hung in damp tangles, muddy splatters covered the side of his face and throat. Han breathed harshly at the tearing sensation in his chest that could have been stifled laughter. Where are we? There was a nervous sound in the air, a rising buzz as if the atoms themselves had taken to the sky in a midsummer swarm.

Dagobah, Luke whispered dryly. Wait for me.

But as Han reached out to brush dirt crumbs off the blond strands, shapes and colors receded from his sight. Out of a deep purple haze swam a pale patch that split open and said in Leia’s voice, "Don’t move so much, Han."

Her face was without contours except for the tense line of her mouth and her widened eyes, liquid with worry, anger, tenderness.

"Must’ve dreamed..." Han muttered, listening after the slurred sound of his own voice.

Compassion overtook every other sentiment as Leia curled her fingers into his. "I wish I could tell you that it’s all been just a bad dream," she whispered.

Shadows and blurry patches of brightness solidified slowly into the likeness of a low-roofed, steel-enclosed cell. In one of its corners sat the torso of Threepio, a pale metal ghost in the gloom. When Han levered up on his elbows, sore muscles protested the sudden movement and shortened his breath.

"Damnit," he gasped, "what happened? I didn’t dream that part about... being taken to Vader’s ship, huh?"

"No," Leia answered, slipping an arm around his shoulders to help him sit up on the smooth slab that served as a cot. "What did he want?"

"He asked me lots of questions."

"About what?" Concern rang sharply in her voice. "About our bases and contingents?"

"Nothing like that." Han lay back and closed his eyes to force the memory into focus. "From what I remember, it was... general, abstract stuff. The difference between good ‘n evil, that type of thing."

"Darth Vader had you brought to him to discuss philosophy? What is he trying to do?"

"Beats me." Han let out a slow breath. "But it’s all connected to Luke. I remember that much."

"Vader must be afraid of him," Leia mused. "Luke has Jedi powers... Perhaps Vader perceives him as a serious threat. His hatred of the Jedi Knighthood seems unlimited."

"Yeah, maybe." But there was more, something Han couldn’t quite recall, embedded somewhere in the murkier chambers of his mind. Assorted aches from every part of his body conspired against his efforts to remember and left room only for a searing sense of danger. "If the kid’s smart, he’s gonna stay away from this place," he rasped.

Leia’s cool hand caressed his temple. "How would Luke know where we are?"

"He knows."

The hand stilled and for a moment tightened in startled reaction, then Leia said, "I don’t think so, Han. It would take him much longer to find out, and we will use that time to plan our escape."

The steely note in her voice allowed no objections, and Han bit back a blunt retort.

"I don’t trust Lando," Leia said thoughtfully, "but I don’t think he likes Vader either. Nor Vader’s plans to take over his profitable mining operation."

"He wouldn’t," Han murmured, overwhelmed by a grey flood of weariness. "’Sides, he’s taken a shine to you."

"Well, perhaps that will work to our advantage," he heard Leia’s determined reply, but by then, he was sliding under.

For an unaccounted, dim stretch of time, Han drifted along the nebulous periphery of consciousness until the sound of the door’s unlocking slammed through his detachment. Boots clattered on the polished floor. Vague shapes of white helmets swayed into his field of vision.

"Where are you taking him now?" Leia demanded in the regal tones that left no room for disobedience. "He won’t survive more torture. If you’re going to kill him anyway—"

"Lady, we have orders from the Lord Vader himself," the stormtrooper captain informed her in an electronic snarl. "We’re to take the prisoner back to his Excellency’s ship."

Armored fingers closed around Han’s elbow and hauled him to his feet. "I’m comin’," he growled. "I can walk."

Across the stormtrooper’s shoulder, he met Leia’s misted eyes, saw her control crumble bit by bit, and worked up a lopsided smile for her benefit. "Save yourself, Princess. You’re needed, you know."

He was swept from the cell before Leia could answer.

* * *

Time disintegrated into a weary cavalcade of fragments that no longer formed a sane whole. At times, Han floundered on the dissolute borders between hallucination and reality, slipping back and forth over that edge until it became a division within himself. Part of him answered to Vader’s summons and queries, gaining confidence as he came to know the complexities of his enemy’s mind.

It was strange how the obsidian mask altered its expression when tilted toward starlight or turned to the shadows. How the amplified voice that rasped from the mouthpiece communicated subtle nuances and insinuations. The deck plates were reassuringly cool against Han’s aching back as he listened, his vocal chords too raw to form articulate sounds, but a repetitive chant seemed to scrape the inside of his skull.

Seven hells, what d’you want?

my son my son my son... it echoed sickeningly.

He could see Luke again, a slim silhouette between mist-shrouded trees, wheeling sharply as if alarmed by some half-perceived sound. A sudden upsurge of nausea plunged Han into vertigo, and then he was back with Leia, observing from a distance how she bathed his face and poured water past his cracked lips. On his other side, Chewbacca crouched, rumbling impotent threats against their captors.

When they came for him again, Han knew the end instinctively. Fine with him, he was getting tired of all the riddles, the waiting, the dragging pain in his bones. Lando accompanied the stormtrooper detail, a pair of his own guards at his heel, the dark brow furrowed with concern and dissent.

"So this is it, huh?" When Han pushed to his feet, his mind cleared like he’d just sobered up from a bout of serious drinking. Perhaps he’d dreamed the last few days, creating some subconscious escape from the scan-grid sessions.

"Listen, buddy, I’m in a very tight spot here," Lando returned in a lowered voice, his face unrevealing. "I’m just doing the best I can."

"Oh, great, I feel better already." Without turning, Han felt Chewbacca’s presence at his shoulder, bristling with rage. "Relax, pal," he muttered. "Just hold your temper, it ain’t over yet."

Truth to tell, he wasn’t sure if he believed that. But for all he knew, Vader’s attention was focused exclusively on Luke and himself, and perhaps that raised Chewie’s and Leia’s chances of escape. Han made no move to resist when his arms were pulled behind his back and binders slapped across his wrists.

The snowy brilliance of the corridor was almost blinding. Against the white walls, the stormtroopers that marched them to the lift cabins became disjointed wraiths, and from the corner of his eye, Han caught a glimpse of open sky beyond a sumptuous viewport. Maybe for the last time.

Leia moved closer to his side as they entered the lift. Reaching around, she gripped his hand with icy fingers that trembled. The doors closed, leaving Lando and Chewbacca and the other half of the trooper detail to wait for the next cabin.

"Han," Leia whispered, leaning into him as if to absorb his body-warmth into herself. "There’s so much I’ve never told you."

"Shhh." He turned his head to brush her unraveling braids with his lips, then pulled back to meet her eyes. He’d never seen her so vulnerable, so exposed. Regrets churned in his stomach, but he steeled them aside.

"Look, Princess," he said, "you care too much about me, and I sure as hell ain’t the right guy to waste it on. Like you said, you wanna pick a nice man for yourself. Someone like Luke."

Her expression froze.

"My timing really stinks, huh?" Han raised his shoulders in a dismal shrug. "Guess I’d just like to attend my own execution with a clean slate." As far as that was possible. He felt a clutching tenderness for her that thickened his voice. Leia deserved better than anything his limited stocks of affection provided. "And you’ll need that stubborn head of yours for more important things than worrying about me," he finished.

Leia’s fingers unclenched slowly and released his hand. "Is that what this is all about? Are you trying to make it easier for me?"

In a way, he was. Performing some sort of emergency surgery before the Princess could trap herself in illusions about him. Only the tuck of her chin betrayed an effort.

Yeah, that’s better, Han thought with sardonic amusement as he saw her old resilience revive. Turning away, he said, "Just stick close to Chewie, he’ll take care of you."

Lift controls chimed as the cabin slowed and stopped, releasing them into a lower-level corridor. Han could feel Lando’s gaze prickle the back of his neck as the second group joined up.

"So, what’s next, buddy?" he asked without turning.

"They’ll put you into carbon freeze," Lando answered, his voice pressured and rough.

"So I’ll make a handy package for Boba Fett? Cute."

"Just stay sharp," Lando hissed angrily.

Whatever that was supposed to mean. Except for the pair of blue uniforms that flanked Lando, Han didn’t see any security guards on their way into the vaults of Cloud City. All the passages were gorges of blackened durasteel, no need to shine them with the white polish of the public sectors.

Han’s breath caught as heavy portals dilated, exhaling an acrid stench of vaporized carbonite. The chamber closed around him with an architecture of banked fire, the steps that led down to the carbon pit glowing like slabs of molten iron. At his back, he heard Chewie’s apprehensive rumble, but his eyes were commanded by the dark figure on the other side of the pit.

"Captain Solo," Vader acknowledged him with ill-timed courtesy.

Boba Fett had positioned himself at a wary distance from the Dark Lord, the slitted Mandalorean visor glittering as he turned his head. "You have kept me waiting a long time," his voice rattled from the corrosion-bitten helmet.

"The delay was necessary, bounty hunter," Vader replied indulgently, but Han caught a note of leashed anticipation in the resonant tones.

Curling fumes stung his eyes as he watched the Dark Lord preside over the procedures. So you’re really handing me over to Jabba? Han thought, unnerved by the frustration that coiled in his stomach. As if he’d expected better from someone like Vader. Sweat trickled down his backbone.

He was nothing but a carcass to the Dark Lord who’d stooped to pluck through his mortal mind. Echoes of that voice throbbed at the back of Han’s skull — not a dream, but some incomprehensible violation he couldn’t even remember. The Force has a strong influence on the weak-minded, he recalled in Kenobi’s unassuming tones.

And: I was once a Jedi knight. But who’d said that, Vader or Kenobi?

Not that it mattered. Sith or Jedi didn’t make so much of a difference, a difference only in the kind of madness that came with their obsessed superstition. Jaded Ben Kenobi with that trance-like brightness in his eyes and his Old-Republic nostalgia. Vader with his schemes for some grand galactic order that discounted lives by the million. And Luke —

Han swallowed sharply. Not my thoughts, he protested in silence, none of this, what do I know about the goddamned Jedi? He stared across at the black mask with a sickened hatred he’d never felt when he still considered Vader an enemy with a clear goal of destruction. The ebon helmet tilted slightly, as if acknowledging the sentiment, catching dull red lighting that sharded back at Han like a reflection of private glee.

A stormtrooper sidled closer to the Dark Lord. "Lord Vader, ship approaching. X-wing class."

"Good. Monitor Skywalker and allow him to land."

"Luke," Han muttered through clenched teeth. "He’s coming."

Leia’s troubled eyes flew up to his face.

"Didn’t you hear that?" he asked.

She obviously hadn’t. Well, perhaps imminent execution could sharpen a man’s senses, and he had more urgent problems to consider. Over Leia’s shoulder, Han caught Lando’s eyes. "You gotta refuse the landing permission," he hissed.

Dark hands spread and signaled helplessness. Stepping forward, Lando placed himself in Vader’s line of sight. "Lord Vader, we only use this facility for carbon-freezing. If you put Han in there, it might kill him."

"It might indeed," Vader replied after a moment’s consideration.

Lando’s eyes widened in surprise. He sure hadn’t expected Vader to take counsel from the voice of reason.

"What are we waiting for?" Boba Fett rasped impatiently.

Slowly, the dark helmet turned towards him. "Did you not warn me yourself that Captain Solo is no good to you dead?" Vader inquired.

While the two of them engaged in some sort of staring match, Lando approached the controls of the carbonizing unit where a pair of Ugnaughts cowered, quietly waving them aside.

Han’s pulse accelerated. Another delay. Time was an icy trickle down his spine, suddenly picking up speed to hit his stomach with a savage chill. It drove him forward to the edge of the pit. He’d played the part of Vader’s bait long enough. This wasn’t how things should be. Right behind him, stormtroopers shuffled their feet nervously.

"Han!" Leia whispered urgently. "Han, what are you doing?"

From the look of things, he’d been about to end the whole argument by dropping himself into liquid carbonite, though he couldn’t remember why. His heart thundered in his throat, and there were distant footfalls along the corridor like an echo to his rampant pulse. Adrenaline swamped his veins.

"Get outta here," Han bit out, "tell Luke it’s a tra—"

He choked on the last word as a vise of air and darkness closed around his throat. Staggering backward, Han fought for breath, his vision blurring. My son my son my son — pounded through his head. And it was too late anyway.

The portals sprang open with a shriek of tearing metal. Oxygen rushed into Han’s lungs. He staggered back from the pit, scarcely catching his balance as he pivoted.

The reddish shine slanted across Luke’s hair and caught his eyes in liquid bronze. Skidding to a halt in the open doorway, he swung a sharp glance around the chamber and showed no reaction at the stormtrooper rifles trained on his head. "I’m here, Vader!" he called.

And everything exploded into chaotic discharges of light and plasma, streaking inward to collide over the carbon pit. With his hands bound, all Han could do was duck and squint for some kind of pattern in the cyclonic action.

The stormtroopers’ shadows had assumed a life of their own, turning against the Imperial soldiers in the form of blue-clad guards that fanned out into the chamber. A savage hiss filled the air as dangling pipes released hot steam.

"Down, Han!" he heard Lando yell. "Chewie, get him!"

But Han had already taken a dive. "Get those damn binders off!" he shouted when Chewbacca’s massive frame loomed over him. "And gimme a gun."

While the Wookiee made short work of his shackles, Han’s other demand went unheard. Hauled to his feet by a long, furry arm, he was nudged towards the portals.

"Let go of me, damnit!" Han shook his head to dispel the black sparks that danced in his vision. Shoving at the Wookiee’s bulk, he turned back — and froze.

While Fett and the stormtroopers were exchanging fire with Lando’s guards, Luke had rounded the pit and launched himself at Vader with a cry that shattered through Han’s bone-marrow. The lightsaber ignited, painting pale blue streaks across his face and shoulders as Luke swung it in a two-handed attack. Vader’s blade parried in throbbing crimson, but his defense was calm, unperturbed, as if the interruption didn’t bother the Dark Lord one bit.

And why should it. He’d played for time throughout.

"Get me a fuckin’ gun!" Han bellowed again, struggling with Chewbacca’s protective grip around his waist.

"Luke!" Leia screamed from some hollow, echoing place. "Let it go!"

The lit blades clashed again and hummed like reverberating glass. Frozen in the motion of blind attack, Luke glanced over his shoulder, but his eyes found Han instead of Leia.

In stunned silence, Han shook his head no. His stomach flipped when he saw the slight curving of Luke’s mouth, blanked by another billow of steam — and then Chewbacca swept him towards the open doorway with a roar that echoed gratingly inside Han’s ribcage.

If he could just reach Luke somehow, warn him, yank him back from that edge. Dreamed up by a clouded mind, another reality was about to rise up around them at Vader’s command. But he’d lost his voice, and his knees were buckling with each step.

"All right, let’s go," Lando snapped. He’d captured Leia’s wrist and dragged her out into the corridor where five guards formed a tight circle around them. "We haven’t got a second to lose."

"Where are you taking us?" Leia asked sharply.

"The Falcon. Believe me, I wanna get outta here just as badly as you do." Lando signaled to their escort to run ahead.

They were moving. Tearing loose from the carbonite-drenched core of the city, jogging, shuffling along, catching their breaths during the brief ride in the lift cabin. Brilliant lighting made Han’s eyes water, but as they stumbled out on an upper level, he knew he’d slipped into another insane dream, just couldn’t figure out which part of him was dreaming.

The part that staggered through the icy elegance of Cloud City’s public sector, or the part that’d stayed behind and watched their heedless escape through the drifting steams of the freezing chamber. It slowed him down like dead weight, no matter Chewie’s frantic growls. I’m not here, he thought strangely, this ain’t me.

The next instant, fire seared his left side and broke his drunken run. Steps approached from behind, and blaster bolts whistled up in the wake of that first shot from Boba Fett’s rifle.

"Run!" Lando shouted, pushing Leia on in the direction of the landing platforms while he wheeled to face the pursuit.

I’ve been shot, Han told himself, hanging on to that simple reality as he sagged back against Chewbacca’s chest. Unconcerned, he glanced down at scorched fabric and blood trickling through it. Bursts of adrenaline kept the sensation at bay, sight suggesting the likelihood of a pain he couldn’t feel. Unnatural heat burned in him like a fever.

"You go on to the Falcon," he told Chewbacca quite clearly — before a wave of blackness rolled through all his senses.

From somewhere far away, he heard Luke’s labored breathing.

* * *

Sweating fingers slipped on the lightsaber’s hilt. Luke gripped it more closely as he circled his enemy.

His blade half-lowered, the Dark Lord stood watching him. "Obi-Wan has taught you well," he said approvingly.

Luke shook damp hair out of his face and clutched the hilt. The gunfight had spilled over into the corridors, slowly leaching from the carbon chamber until they were isolated on that liquid-iron reef amid the vapors. Exchanging blows, launching forward, retreating. From the aching heaviness in Luke’s arms, it could have been forever.

Each time their blades clashed, the jarring impact rocked through his bones, and Vader’s grating breaths rang in his ears. This wasn’t how he’d imagined it when he’d jogged lightly through the eerie silence of Cloud City’s white corridors, every atom of his body jangling in anticipation of battle.

"Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker."

Without effort, Vader’s voice filled the chamber as if setting down the law. Angered, Luke raised his blade high, but the Dark Lord parried with a sharp upward movement.

"No," Luke gasped.

"Obi-Wan knew this to be true." The black mask turned, and opaque eyes tracked his movements with unsettling confidence. "Only your hatred can destroy me," the Dark Lord said in an odd tone of regret.

Luke backed off, avoiding the edge of the carbon pit. What do you know that I don’t? He could see his own face under the black helmet again, the warning, the mockery of multiple meanings. A silent cry of protest raced through his body like a white thrill, and Luke flung himself into another attack. The Force thickened around Vader — he’d never felt that so strongly in anyone — and it seemed to incite a wilder energy in himself, the reflections bouncing back and forth between them.

Trust your feelings.

But what was it that he felt? Deep within him lodged a churning memory of the screams he’d sensed more than heard on Dagobah, the visceral echoes of torture that drew him parsecs across the galaxy. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t even think clearly until he’d ended this, no matter which way.

His whole body electric with rage, Luke swung his lightsaber through a savage sequence of forward thrusts. Destiny, maybe, to confront this enemy, kill or get killed, and he put his entire life into each blow.

Driven back, the Dark Lord was thrown off balance and disappeared down one of the access trenches around the pit. When Luke glanced down, steam wafted sluggishly from a torn pipe. After a moment’s hesitance, he jumped into metallic silence.

Pungent smells assailed him in the gloom, but there was no sign of Vader’s presence now, no sound except for the low pulsations of the carbonizing unit and his own steps. He walked on, afraid, and with another part of his mind suspected that this was why Vader had chosen temporary retreat. Exposing him to his own fear until it rose to uncontrollable levels.

No, Luke thought, all his senses straining, I am ready.

He’d learned a lot about the different shades of fear recently, and this state of alarm was infinitely preferable to his sickened dread on Dagobah.

Vader stood awaiting him with the serenity of a monument, devoted to the midnight cold. Electronic hums swelled louder when Luke crossed the doorstep into a machinery-crowded chamber with a single large window. Expecting to continue the duel, he raised his ‘saber, but this time, the Dark Lord made no move to engage him.

"Fight me," Luke murmured, breathless in the twilight of this room. Perhaps all would come to an end here.

The crimson blade moved fractionally, and there was a tooth-jarring screech behind him. Even as Luke whirled, a heavy panel ripped loose and slammed into his back.

Yanked alive by a voiceless fury, the chamber’s steel and glass joined the attack, directed by sparse gestures from Vader’s blade. Pipes and electronic components hurtled towards Luke while the Dark Lord watched impassively. Some of the missiles he deflected, but the attack accelerated all around him. Wires whipped up from the torn panels and sparks hissed in his singed hair. A heavy pipe struck his temple before Luke could spin out of its path.

His body burned with shame as much as agony from each blow. At the center of the disintegrating room, the Force curdled with a dull pressure that throbbed in his head. An energy storm swirled around him, bursting the large window, and a rush of decompressed air tossed glassine splinters into his face. Luke raised a shaky hand to wipe blood off his cheek, eyes fixed on the obsidian mask as another panel came rushing towards him. He fell through a cyclone of exploding glass.

His fingers caught on a narrow ledge, breaking his fall so hard that he would have screamed, but there was no breath left in his lungs. Pulling himself to marginal safety, Luke slumped down and lay on his back. Icy gusts clawed at his torn ground uniform.

Get up, Luke told himself, but when he moved again, it was with the mechanical determination prompted by a lost cause.

He’d been given a demonstration of his own vulnerability, perhaps a warning. There was no hope for him to beat Vader in combat, and he wondered crazily if the Dark Lord would allow his escape, should he back off now. Something was not right here.

From somewhere above, Luke heard the thud and crash of an explosion. A few moments later, ripples of a distant shockwave passed through the ledge. In the control chamber, an alarm wailed briefly, gurgling into silence as power failed.

This city is dying, Luke thought with total clarity. He scrambled up. If the reactor core was affected, the floating city would be torn from its moorings and burn out in Bespin’s toxic atmosphere. If he held Vader’s attention long enough, they’d both get caught in the destruction. He could still turn his defeat into victory for the Rebel Alliance.

Han, he thought, Leia. I can’t do this for the Rebellion. I’ll do it for you.

The Dark Lord met him on a slim gantry. Pausing only for a fraction, Luke reached into the vibrant energy that surrounded him and poured through him. This was the moment of his fulfillment. He would die fighting like his father, like Ben, like Biggs and all the pilots who’d given their life in the Death Star run.

Such a lamb, a rich, dark voice whispered inside his mind.

As if ripped from his own fantasies and nightmares, he saw an image of himself — Vader’s bane, a battered and bruised creature, pathetically struggling with overwhelming odds. His heart throbbed violently in his throat.

"Why have you come?" Vader asked.

"To stop you."

"You hope to distract me from your friends’ escape. And you seek revenge."

Chilled, Luke felt himself stiffen. It was one of the passions Yoda had warned him against, but denial had become pointless. He nodded. "For my father. For everyone you’ve killed and destroyed."

"Is that what Kenobi told you? That I killed your father?"

The rasp of fury in Vader’s voice made Luke’s skin crawl. "Yes," he hissed, loosening his shoulders inside the uniform as he brought the lightsaber up. "And you killed Ben." All the losses that he’d buried far from conscious reach burst through him once more, pressing up against his lungs.

"He challenged me." There was a significant pause in the mechanical breathing, then Vader held out a hand. "Join me, Luke. You don’t know your own power. Together, we can destroy the Emperor, we can build a new order."

For a moment, the offer curled seductively into his thoughts, taunted him with a vision of dark splendor and effortless triumph. "No!" Luke shouted, snapping himself free, "don’t play with me. I’ll never join you!"

His blade sliced the air, but before it reached the black-gloved hand, Vader had ignited his own lightsaber.

This time, the Dark Lord countered his attack with unbridled force, his blade creating harsh patterns of biting brilliance. Step by step, Luke found himself driven back along the gantry. Trickles of sweat seared down his cut temples and cheeks. He spun with the lightsaber, coaxing a final reserve of energy into the motion, but his blade caught on Vader’s, and during that terrible, straining moment the hilt slipped from his boodied fingers. Already thrown off balance, he lurched after it, tripped and fell, landing hard on his back.

He’d lost his lightsaber. He was as good as dead.

"Don’t make me destroy you," Vader warned.

"I’ll never join you," Luke repeated in a hoarse whisper.

He stared at the crimson blade, waiting for the strike that would end his life, but it didn’t come. Lowering the ‘saber, Vader touched the tip to his shoulder, and the cold burn pierced him to the quick. Paralyzed, Luke watched as the glowing blade painted a swift line of fire and agony down his right arm, cutting through fabric and skin.

You are mine.

Red sparks erupted in his vision, and a burst of pain slivered his mind. When he surfaced again, fire licked along the sides of the reactor core. The gantry quivered beneath them.

Through the cold queasiness of shock, Luke felt a hand seize his left arm and haul him up, pushing him over the gantry’s edge. For a split second, he sensed an endless fall down the reactor shaft, then his head collided with a hard surface, and blackness shot through him.

A motion jolted him back to full consciousness, and again he seemed to be falling. Overhead, he saw the gantry dwindle, but Vader had disappeared. Abruptly, Luke realized that he’d landed on top of a service lift that slid steadily down the inner wall of the reactor core. There was a hatch immediately below him. Yanking it open with one hand, Luke dropped through into the small cabin and cried out loud when the impact lashed through him with a brutal flare of pain. Pushing to his knees, he managed to hit the lift’s controls, and the cabin wobbled to a stop.

Emergency lighting bathed the corridor in dull red when Luke staggered from the lift. His right arm was a mass of pain. Blood ran down his shoulder and dripped from his fingers as he sagged against the nearest wall. All was quiet here, but there was no telling how long these levels of Cloud City would remain stable.

With closed eyes, Luke reached into the Force and clutched its healing warmth to him. His fingers shook violently as he fumbled for the comlink at his belt.

"Han? Leia?" he rasped. "Anybody hear me?"

A sizzle of static was drowned out by a Wookiee roar, then Leia’s voice filtered through. "Luke? Luke, where are you?"

"Somewhere on... the lowest levels." He paused to suck in a ragged breath. "Han — is he with you?"

"He was shot, but he’ll be okay."

"Where — what happened?"

"We’re getting off in the Falcon. Boba Fett captured Lan— never mind. Luke, we gotta get out of here, fast."

He couldn’t have agreed more, but the odds for pulling it off were another matter. "I don’t think I’ll be able to reach my X-wing. Is Artoo with you?"

"Not only that, he helped us fix the hyperdrive." Leia’s voice quivered briefly, under the impact of some unspoken emotion. "Luke, listen," she went on urgently, "there are docking ports for supply ships all along the underside of the city. Try to get to one of them, and we’ll pick you up."

He was already moving. At the next intersection, lit signs pointed the way to the docking ports, and Luke broke into a stumbling run.

* * *

"Chewie, how much longer until we can go to lightspeed? The Slave’s catching up on us again." Leia divided her attention between the Falcon’s sensor screens and wrapping a final layer of gauze around Luke’s injured arm.

Chewbacca’s furred hand was already closing around the hyperdrive lever.

"It’d better be," Leia answered his growl.

Shakily, Luke leaned back into the passenger seat. Indicator lights danced dreamily in his vision. Yet all of this seemed infinitely remote, a false kind of comfort like a painted veil drawn across his overtaxed senses. Methane storms still roared in his ears, and his eyes watered from the sting of Bespin’s harsh sunset.

When he looked up again, stars reeled and blurred into a nebulous brilliance, and he saw Leia’s shoulders slump with weary relief.

"Plot a course to Sullust," she told Chewbacca, passing the back of her hand over her brow before turning back to Luke. "And now I suppose you’ll want to know how we landed ourselves in this mess..."

With her account of their captivity on Bespin, Leia swept fatigue aside, retrospective agitation simmering behind every word. "We didn’t know that Lando had planned an attack against Vader’s troops," she said eventually. "Boba Fett came after us, and Lando covered for our retreat. That’s the last we saw of him. Chewbacca had his hands full of carrying both Threepio and Han back to the Falcon..." Her mouth tightened to a line of white anger. "I don’t know about Han... he went into shock and hasn’t come around since. Only Vader knows what exactly was done to him."

"I’ll go and see him," Luke said quietly, the slight tremor filtered from his voice before he let himself speak.

Pulling herself upright, Leia glanced across the displays of the co-pilot’s station. "I’ll be with you in a minute."

Luke walked down the corridor favoring his right leg, the left hip still sore from a badly calculated jump through the Falcon’s dorsal hatch. He supposed he should be grateful to the point of exuberance for being alive — for all of them having slipped through the fangs of a death-trap — but he felt only a vast, numbing confusion.

Apprehension pulled him up short on the doorstep to the passenger lounge. His right arm was on fire, and failure hovered at his shoulder like a nightmare waiting to swoop in the moment he lowered his defenses.

We’re safe now, Luke told himself, drawing a sharp breath as he struggled for credence and composure.

Han’s face was averted, turned towards the shadow of the bulkhead. When Luke approached the medical bunk, his pulse picked up again, stumbled at the sight of clenching hands and blood-drained face. Tangled hair fell into the high forehead, the set of Han’s jaw defiant even in his unconscious state. Thin lines of pain were carved sharply around his eyes.

The sight of him tugged recollection back into trenchant focus, and for a moment, Luke fell back into his final, sleepless hours on Dagobah when the future had imposed itself like a dead stretch of space without stars. He shouldered the memory aside with an effort and checked the monitor. All vital functions registered stable, and yet Han was only a hair’s breadth away from slipping into a coma.

For long moments, Luke searched the familiar face and ached with the strange fragility that had come over Han’s features in sleep. The tight safety straps across his shoulders and thighs were too reminiscent of captivity, necessary as they had been for take-off and the jump to lightspeed. Luke slid them off gently and reached for Han’s hand.

Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t an instant reaction. Although it lasted only for the space of a heartbeat, an unfamiliar shimmer of the Force charged the contact with something close to electricity.

Han drew a fitful breath and turned his head to stare at him, eyes unfocused and empty of all comprehension, reflecting a mind ripped from the dead of sleep.

"Han," Luke said, his voice dry. "It’s me."

Slowly, the black absence of understanding faded from Han’s expression. "Hey, kid," he muttered, and his hand closed hesitantly around Luke’s. "How’re we doin’?"

Luke’s breathing eased at the sound of that voice, and for the first time he thought he might be able to forget the screams. "Not too bad," he answered, lacing his fingers through Han’s. "Chewie and Leia are both uninjured. We’re on our way to the Sullust sector, but Chewie’s plotted a couple of decoy jumps to shake pursuit."

"Your... arm." Han’s free hand lifted for a vague gesture.

"Not as bad as it looks. I guess I’m lucky to be alive." Relief set in the moment those words were out, and Luke felt a giddy weakness settle in his stomach.

Han’s mouth twitched in reaction. "What about... Vader?" he murmured, his eyes slipping closed.

"I last saw him above the reactor core—" Luke started when Leia’s voice interrupted him.

"He got away," she said scathingly from the door. "There was an Imperial shuttle docking at a supply port when we passed by, escorted by TIE fighters."

Glancing back over his shoulder, Luke met her eyes and let go of Han’s hand in reflex, as if Leia’s presence had turned the gesture into something far too intimate.

"It’s a wonder they didn’t pursue us," she added with a weary shrug. "Well. Maybe we deserved a little luck after all that happened lately."

Leia had already turned back into the corridor when Han shifted on the bunk. "No such thing as luck," he mumbled. "He let us go."

Luke froze, but Han said nothing more, his face relaxing as exhaustion overwhelmed him again. Something dark crawled across Luke’s thoughts and was gone before he could reach it, leaving only a flutter that stirred faintly against the edges of his awareness, slow and strangely wistful. A shiver snaked down his spine.

Vader could have killed him easily. And yet he’d let him escape.

* * *

Aboard the Executor, the Dark Lord stood by the central viewport of the command bridge, his eyes turned towards a radial configuration of stars. Clear as an ion trail, he could see the trajectory of the Falcon’s headlong race towards hyperspace, and his mind yearned after the Corellian freighter. Allowing his son’s escape had been a most difficult exercise — close to impossible, once he’d encountered the boy’s full presence in the Force.

There was a blinding measure of power in his son, and whatever training he’d received had honed his battle skills as much as his keen senses. Possessive pride had swept the Dark Lord with astounding intensity, but the violence of his own reaction warned him against the wanton impulse to claim his son at once. He could not risk such rashness. He would pass this final test of his patience. In lesser men, the Dark Side brought out only the savagery of base mortal instincts, consuming themselves in an explosion of insatiable greed. Greater minds found discipline in Darkness.

Luke, Vader thought. Son. But he took great care not to let the words coalesce into a Sending. If the Emperor became aware of his sentiments, he would bend his ravenous will on seizing the son of Skywalker before the father could get to him.

With a certain effort, the Dark Lord turned his thoughts towards Solo and located his presence easily, like the waver of an unsteady flame. Spatial dimensions lost all relevance in the Force, and Vader no longer required the assistance of tracking technology to trace the Falcon’s passage. Commands and suggestions were firmly planted in Solo’s willful spirit.

Guard my son, Vader thought. Nurture his doubts, fuel his hunger. Bring him to me when he’s ready.

 

Sullust

Luke shivered in an icy gale. Below him, radiant gases twisted themselves into a cyclone, and savage flares of sunlight stabbed at his eyes. He was lost, hanging on to the frail metallic structure only to taste his full loneliness before he gave himself to the inevitable fall. His left hand began slipping, and his right hand...

In its place, Luke felt only a numb throbbing. The lightsaber had cauterized the terrible wound, and all the agony was within his mind. Words cutting deeper than Vader’s incandescent blade — yet he couldn’t recall what those words had been...

A soft noise snapped Luke from the morass of his nightmare. In wild reflex, he groped for his lightsaber, but his fingers found only the rumpled sheet and the smooth sturdiplast surface of a bedside drawer. From the darkness of his room, Artoo beeped softly in concern.

"I’m okay," Luke managed, sitting up on the edge of the bunk. "It’s all right, Artoo, nothing to worry about."

He ran his hand up the wall for the lighting controls, not yet familiar with the layout of his new quarters. It was only last night that he’d moved from the rehab wing of the clinic to the camouflaged base complex, nestling into the folds of a deep gorge below the med center. But if he’d expected the transfer to rid him of the persistent nightmare, that hope had just scattered to the winds.

A lightpanel hummed to life and spilled its warm shine across the crumpled sheet. Luke hauled in a breath of stale, recycled air and wished for a window he could open to Varoo’s nocturnal winds, letting them blow away any residue of the dream’s fear. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, touched trembling fingertips to his palm to assure himself of living warmth and pulse.

The nightmare was always the same, all the details so excruciatingly clear that he might have suspected another vision — except that he recognized the feverish skies of Bespin and couldn’t think of a single reason that would force his return to the gaseous planet. Cloud City had been all but destroyed, Intell reports stated. Lando’s security guards had employed thermal detonators against the Imperial troops, and one of the explosions had set off a chain reaction. The city had been reduced to a floating ruin, drifting moorlessly and deserted in the methane blasts.

Luke pulled the sweaty undershirt over his head and settled with his back to the cool wall. Was it possible that Force sight tapped into fraudulent currents of the past as much as the future? He’d have to ask Yoda — provided the Jedi master still talked to him by the time he returned to Dagobah to complete his training. Which wouldn’t happen anytime in the near future anyway. Recent events on Bespin had alarmed the Rebel Council to a degree that would thwart unauthorized side-trips for a long time.

Slowly, the clenching terror drained from Luke’s muscles, but with it went every trace of sleepiness. Early as it was, he commanded himself to the shower.

For minutes, he stood motionless under the spray, watching distractedly as the tepid water made rivulets down his right arm, snaking past the slender white scar that ran from shoulder to wrist. Cloned skin had been applied to the injury, half-healed by the time they reached the Sullust system, so that a thin seam of brittle tissue remained. Luke toweled himself dry until energy seemed to pulse directly under his skin. The training on Dagobah had toughened him up enough to recover fast, and all he needed now was some practice to get back into shape. Perhaps he and Han could begin working out together soon.

Han... Worry dragged at him once again.

Luke slipped into his jumpsuit and left the spartan room, both hands pushed into his pockets as he strode down the dimly lit corridor. A short flight of stairs took him up to ground level where he stopped by the drink synthesizer for a cup of kaffin.

Two weeks had passed since their arrival in the Sullust system, and by all ordinary standards, Han should have recovered from that blaster wound by now. Luke’s fingers tightened around the plasticup as he thought of the gaunt, exhausted face and the dark smudges of insomnia under Han’s eyes. Not much to anyone’s surprise, Han tried to cover up the weakness, and his temper flared at every show of solicitude from his friends or the clinic’s personnel, but the medical report had spelled trouble in stark, unsettling facts.

A first cerebral scan had produced evidence of severe shock. Traumatized nerves, Luke recalled, signs of a minor hemorrhage close to the temporal lobe, unexplained by Han’s visible injuries. The psychological report had diagnosed symptoms of disorientation and a tendency to compensate by aggressive behavior.

Only Leia’s station and rank within the Rebel Alliance had given them access to these confidential data, and they’d sat in stupefied silence for a long time after they’d studied the compiled test results and evaluations together.

Finally, Luke made himself voice what they were both thinking. "The torture?" he’d asked.

"I don’t know." Leia’s shoulders twitched in a nervous shrug. "The doctors don’t have any reliable statistics in that particular field. Understandably, most torture victims don’t remember what kind of drugs they were given in which dosage, or for how long they were exposed to mind probes."

"But he’s going to recover?" Luke persisted, wrenching away from the gravitational pull of horrified imagination.

"It’s only a matter of time," Leia had assured him. "Meanwhile, the doctors want to keep Han under strict surveillance, and I agree." She’d paused there, reaching across the table to touch his hand. Her fingers were very cold and white. "Luke, for the time being, I think it would be best if you stayed here as well. This base is one of the safest places we have in the entire galaxy."

Luke bit down on his lip as instant protest was overtaken by a sweep of ambiguous sentiments.

"Don’t even start arguing with me," Leia had stalled him. "You’re important for the Rebellion, and we can’t risk losing you. Right now, Vader seems very determined to locate you..."

"Which means my presence could also endanger any of our operations," Luke concluded bleakly.

"Possibly." Leia patted his hand in a gesture of distracted consolation. "But I don’t think Vader can afford devoting his entire time to hunting you down, no matter how badly he wants to capture you. You’ll just stay out of sight for a time, while we monitor Imperial movements. Then we’ll see."

If it hadn’t been for Han, Luke would have fought his confinement to the barren precinct of the medical complex. He might even have talked Leia into letting him accompany her to the conference with the Bothan delegation on the major planet, just to escape the lethally dull routine of this place.

Head ducked between his shoulders, Luke crossed the entrance hall, barely acknowledging the guard by the door. When he stepped out into the open, a cool breeze caressed his heated face, and over the sable cliffs in the east, a fringe of grey twilight brightened slowly. It was a near perfect hide-out, constructed on the largest moon in Sullust’s orbit. Scranee, Varoo’s twin satellite, was visible at dawn and dusk, a shimmering, wraith-like sphere, a white shadow to Varoo’s dark mountains and valleys.

Wandering up the path towards the med center, Luke turned for a glance at the Rebel base, a complex designed to house research labs for the clinic. But since Sullust had in due secrecy joined the Rebel Alliance, the facility had been turned over to Intell and would soon be used to prepare operatives for undercover missions. At least he was close to their major source of information, Luke told himself, although he doubted that Intell’s combined efforts would solve the mystery of Bespin. Or that the clinic’s highly trained analysts could provide a convincing explanation for his recurring dreams.

The curved rim of the second moon had appeared on the horizon, and Luke sent a sketchy salute in the direction of its ethereal light before he entered the clinic. Everyone in the staff knew him, and no one stopped him to offer a lecture about visiting hours. The place never saw many visitors during regular hours, either.

With bated breath, Luke let himself into Han’s room. Heavy silence surrounded him, overlaid only by the ventilation’s whirr and Han’s slow breathing. Relieved that Han slept soundly, Luke eased into a chair by the bed. The psychological report had listed intense nightmares and pointed out that prolonged insomnia would contribute to Han’s mental instability.

Mental instability. Words that’d stick in his throat like fishbones, if he ever said them out loud. But Han seemed to be sleeping peacefully, so perhaps that episode lay behind him at last. Luke glanced at the diagnostic display beside the bed and recognized his mistake at once. They’d sedated Han for the night, most likely without his knowledge or consent.

Annoyed, Luke pushed from his seat. How long had this been going on? He could just hear the doctors argue that Han needed his nocturnal rest to recover fully. Pacing the short stretch from bed to door, Luke resolved to discuss the matter with Leia as soon as she returned, later in the day. Perhaps the doctors had run out of different options to treat Han and ease his unbalanced state, but it still didn’t feel right.

Luke’s clenched fist shot out towards the nearest wall, but he caught back the blow at the last instant. Knuckles scraped white plaster with a muted thud. He had to get a grip on his own frustration, concentrate on gain instead of loss.

Han was safe here and in the most competent hands. Nothing short of a miracle, considering Vader’s plans for him. The difference between mild sedation and shock-induced hibernation had to be infinite. At least they’d spared Han the carbon freeze, with its predictable consequences of brain damage and a trauma-for-life sentence, if nothing worse. But no sense of pride or achievement came from the assertion. Han owed his freedom to Lando’s intervention, not the botched swashbuckling of a would-be Jedi. Once again, Luke felt the clinging sense of defeat, defined sharply against his recollection of Vader’s eerie power. Perhaps Han owed his escape to the Dark Lord’s disinterest more than anything else.

Luke returned to the chair and sat, unable to relax. The muscles in his neck and shoulders were all bunched up with resentment and impatience, his mind churning with questions. He’d failed Yoda — and Ben — by his untimely departure from Dagobah, but he couldn’t regret his choice, even if it’d earned him this chafing ignorance.

Almost before he knew, his hand had lifted to reach for Han’s, and he moved his fingertips down the back of that lean, capable hand so lightly that he touched only the fine dark hair, not skin. The fleeting contact couldn’t wake Han, but it loosened a sting of heat in the pit of Luke’s stomach. Split-second fantasy blossomed in his mind, and he was in that bed with Han, covering the lean body with his own, kissing warmth back into pale lips — but the image collapsed momentarily, scattered by a mordant sense of reality. Indulge this, and make things even worse.

Withdrawing his hand, Luke laced his fingers tightly together. The vision on Dagobah had changed everything... that, and what he’d seen in the cave. But the latter still seemed like the easier lesson — live by fury and transform into a monster — although Luke suspectted that it cloaked something far more personal than a general warning against the Dark Side. But when his mind had relinquished all anchorage within time, yielding to an influx of sight and sound that slid through every nerve with the fire of Han’s torment, he’d also come away with merciless insight into feelings that he’d failed to recognize before.

He’d responded to Han’s pain with all of himself, and the feeling crested until it blotted out the universe and reason with it. He’d managed to make himself stay on Dagobah through all of another twelve hours, and during each minute of every hour felt like a primed detonator ready to blow.

By then, the heart-pounding terror of the vision alternated with brief spells of embarrassed incredulity at his own naivety. Or maybe he was just particularly good at shutting out truths he didn’t want to acknowledge. Like his own eagerness to spend time with Han, or the way each gesture of approval and affection went straight to his insides with a warm glow that could be made to last for hours and sometimes spilled over into confused, half-remembered dreams.

Yoda’s warning against passion suddenly made blinding sense. It’d seized his body and mind with unrest like a fever, and he knew that this was one more reason why Yoda had opposed his decision. On some level, he understood the argument; on another, it made no sense at all. A Jedi’s immunity to passion couldn’t possibly come from ignorance or indifference. To reject love, you had to know it in the first place.

Not that it’s all that likely, Luke countered his own self-defense. With the truth about his own feelings, he’d accepted their impossibility, both were one and the same. Sure, Han cared about him — much more than he liked, judging by his occasional bursts of denial. It’s your Rebellion, kid, not mine, and if you wanna go get yourself in trouble, don’t expect me to come running. I’m outta here anyway.

Right. And then Han stayed on a month or two, until another cycle was complete and closed with a variant of the same tirade. But there was Leia, and Luke had watched Han focus his charms on females of diverse species often enough to know that Han had never looked or smiled at him that way. Instead, they had all the friendship, the trust and genuine affection between them that hardly seemed to figure into Han’s standard courting rituals. Luke could almost persuade himself that this was the part he would have preferred, if he’d had a choice.

He’d resolved all this for himself long before he’d plunged his X-wing into Bespin’s atmosphere. And sooner or later, it would stop him from wishing.

On the bed, Han shifted drowsily, lips parting to release breath like a sigh. How could anyone be immune to him? Luke felt heat rush his cheeks at the idiocy of that thought and levered out of the chair. Pale daylight was crawling up the curtains; he’d better remove himself before Han woke up — or someone from day shift came in to initiate the process.

* * *

Late in the afternoon, Leia’s shuttle landed on a plateau east of the clinic, dropping into the shadow of wind-bitten pinnacles. Luke waited until the runlights switched off and reached the hatch in time to hold out a hand to the Princess. She smiled at him, the shine in her eyes easily dimming the crystal necklace she wore over her formal robes.

"Good to see you," she said warmly, but her enthusiasm had little do with his presence.

"So the meeting was a success?" Luke asked.

"Much more so than I’d hoped," Leia answered emphatically. "The Bothans have an invaluable network of agents, and they’re putting all those resources at our disposal."

"What else?"

She laughed softly, a rare sound of pure delight. "A group of Mon Calamarians attended the meeting, Luke. They’re joining us at last. Just think of how that could tip the balance in our favor! They’re wonderful ship-builders, they’ve got the best navigators, and—" Leia broke off to brush trailing strands back from her face. "Listen to me! I sound as if we’d won the war already."

"It’s good to see you so happy," Luke said honestly.

"I’ve been needlessly morose lately, haven’t I?" Leia stopped to meet his eyes with an apologetic half-smile. "How is Han?"

"Pretty much the same as always," he returned with a shrug. Which meant grumpy and closed-off and bristlingly impatient with the dragging pace of his recovery. None of this was news to Leia.

She searched Luke’s face for a few moments, worry building in her gaze. "Has he talked to you about... the things that happened on Bespin?"

Luke shook his head. "But I haven’t asked him either."

"He should be encouraged to talk about it."

"To get it off his chest? You believe that’d help him heal? Or is it... do you think he knows something that might explain why it rattled him so badly?"

Leia steeled back her shoulders. "Yes," she said after a moment. "I think he does."

"But why wouldn’t he tell us?"

Some of the sudden tension faded from Leia’s expression, and she shook her head. "Maybe he just doesn’t want to think about it," she offered, but Luke could tell that she’d kept the disturbing part of her thoughts to herself.

Before he could insist on a full answer, they’d reached the clinic’s entrance, and differrent considerations imposed themselves. As they walked down the corridor, Luke told Leia what he’d discovered this morning. She frowned. "What does Han say about it?"

"I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know. He wouldn’t like being drugged that way."

Leia massaged the bridge of her nose for a moment. "If you feel there’s something wrong with it, perhaps you should talk to Han’s doctor. But — honestly, what are they supposed to do? Would you let a patient deteriorate, just because he happens to be touchy about accepting medication? I’m afraid this is all about Han’s ego getting in the way once more."

Luke knew she had a point, but the coolness in her tone made him uncomfortable. In silence, he followed her the rest of the way to Han’s room.

When they entered, Han stood by the window, dressed in a sleeveless tunic and loose pants that were too short for his legs. The faded grey color seemed to bring out an ashen shade in his skin.

"Hey, Your Worshipfulness," he said flippantly, "if I’d expected you, I would’ve gotten out the dress uniform."

Leia returned a strained smile. "I didn’t know you had one."

"There’s a lot you don’t know about me." Han’s eyes wandered over to Luke. "Hi, kid. Thought you’d drop by earlier."

"I actually came in this morning," Luke returned, a little flustered and inordinately pleased that Han’s mood seemed on the incline at last. "You were still asleep."

"So, what’s the scoop, Princess?" Han returned to the bed and gestured Leia towards the only chair.

Fleetingly, Luke considered sitting on the bed with Han but leaned against the wall instead, content to listen to Leia’s account of the conspiratorial meeting. More restrained than it had been on her arrival, Leia’s enthusiasm was still tangible as she spelled out the range of new possibilities an alliance with the Mon Calamari would unclose for them.

"They’ve supported us with ships and technology for a while," she said, "but if they’re willing to send a whole fleet when the time comes, it could make all the difference. They intend to become full members of the Rebel Alliance."

"Good for you," Han said caustically.

Annoyance clouded Leia’s expression. "Now why had I thought you’d be interested at all?"

"I don’t know." Han’s mouth curled into a mocking grin. When he pulled up his knees, causing his pants to slide back to his thighs, Luke caught himself staring at those long, lean legs and averted his eyes fast.

"Maybe you’re tryin’ to impress Luke," Han continued, "but you wanna be subtle about it."

Leia’s cheeks darkened, though with irritation more than embarrassment. "I don’t know why I put up with you," she said snappishly. "But I have more news that you should hear. About Lando."

"I thought Boba Fett had him."

"He does indeed, and he’s put word about, too. Our sources report that some of Lando’s former business partners might be willing to pay for his head."

"And now Fett’s waiting for the highest bid?"

"It would seem so," Leia confirmed stiffly. "We have to do something about it."

"Lando can take care of himself," Han said dismissively. "Wouldn’t be surprised if he ‘n Fett got along just fine."

"We owe him that much," Leia insisted.

"He handed us over to Vader on a platter, remember?" Han shot back belligerently.

From his place by the door, Luke could almost see Han’s mercurial temper go through another flip towards the shadowed side.

"He got us out of there, too," Leia persisted.

"So what d’you expect me to do? Break down and cry? Or go after him? And how’d that fit in with keeping me under medical observation?" Han swung to his feet, and although the rash motion drained the color from his face, he paced over to the window. "You’ve got me good as jailed here, Your Worship!"

Startled, Luke’s eyes flew to the tense profile, a chiseled study in cold anger. Leia had pushed from her seat.

"That seems to be one of your favorite delusions," she said in chilled tones. "That I’m trying to keep you around at all costs."

"Leia," Luke started, but she was already heading for the door. After brief hesitation, Luke accompanied her out into the corridor, sending a troubled glance in Han’s direction that went unnoticed.

"What’s wrong?" Luke asked, matching Leia’s angry stride. He’d seen the sparks fly between them too often to count, but this was different.

Before, their banter had included a certain playfulness, and the kind of tension Luke had come to read as unadmitted attraction. Sparks would catch fire, given half a chance, and while he was on Dagobah, Han and Leia had spent considerable time alone together. Yet those undercurrents had faded, exposing a harsh discord. What he’d just witnessed was nothing short of animosity, though it seemed more personal on Leia’s part. Han could fly into a temper at anything these days.

"What happened between you and Han?" Luke tried again when Leia refused to acknowledge his presence with so much as a sidelong glance. "I thought you... cared about him," he finished lamely, groping for some inoffensive description.

"I don’t think I ever said that!" Leia snapped. "A droid has more heart and sensitivity than Han Solo."

"He’s been through a lot lately."

Her lashes lowered. "I know," Leia returned on the faintest note of concession. "Luke — do you feel the same way? That it’s like... another kind of imprisonment? It must be difficult for you."

"Sometimes." He managed a reassuring smile. "But I’m just not used to having so much free time on my hands anymore. And that’s got to be bothering Han, too."

When he walked Leia back to her shuttle, the planet’s shadow had expanded, throwing a blanket of premature night over Varoo’s mountains. It would pass slowly, yielding to another hour of daylight before sunset.

 

Back in Han’s room, Luke paused a moment to study his silent friend by the window. There’d been far too many times lately when Han went into stony withdrawal, blocking off reality like a threat.

"Let’s go for a walk," Luke suggested.

Han turned slowly. "Guess I could use some fresh air."

Waiting outside while Han got dressed, Luke watched the watered shadows lighten. Neon illumination flickered off in the corridor, timed to the moon’s rotation.

They took a path that skirted the plateau and from there sloped down towards a winding gorge. A brook snaked through its length, sustaining a patchwork of wiry vegetation.

Gravel crunched sharply when Han suddenly broke his stride. "I didn’t mean it like that," he said, squinting his eyes at nothing in particular.

"I think Leia knows that."

"Does she?" Taut discomfort seized Han’s expression. "It’s not her fault, you know." He started walking again in a quickened stride as if he’d given away too much. "So what’ve you been doing all day?"

"Exercising, mostly."

"How many laps around the prison yard?"

Luke gave a chuckle. A note of dry humor had replaced the trenchant sarcasm in Han’s voice. It wouldn’t last, but right now it was just enough to warrant hoping for a fresh start. "Thought you liked layovers. You used to complain about leave regulations—"

"Leave means I get to choose where I spend it," Han said pointedly, pausing by the water that reflected a brightening sky.

"Where would you wanna go?" Luke asked, totally unprepared for Han’s reaction.

Hands balled into fists, Han stared at him. "Anywhere," he said in a voice like sandpaper.

Numbed, Luke shook his head.

Something gave. Shoulders sagging as if the weight of weeks had just fallen over him, Han turned away, his fists loosened, hands coming up to rub over his face.

Luke was with him, transported to that spot half a step behind Han without any awareness of the motion. He would have touched, except for the heaviness that surrounded Han, spreading outward to fuse the air into a barrier of glass.

"I’ve been having... weird dreams," Luke said hoarsely. "Almost every night. It’s like I’m looking at another life just... drifting away from me." He needed to pause for a breath. "Is that about the scope of what you’re dealing with?"

Han came around slowly, his expression another struggle against going under. "Got rid of the dreams." His eyes betrayed a flicker of anguish that shaded into something more savage before he glanced aside. "They’re keeping me on tranks." His upper lip curled derisively. "You thought I didn’t know, huh? I didn’t ask for it, but..."

As Han left the sentence hanging, the note of defeat lashed out at Luke. Alien, inacceptable.

"We’re going to pull through this," he said without the first idea what he meant by that, but kept talking.

He told Han about Dagobah, about Yoda and the vision. He could hear the white buzz of insects over the swamp again, feel the warm, moist wind rush down from the sky. He talked himself into another reality so much that he didn’t stop to wonder why Han wasn’t cutting off all the Jedi mumbo-jumbo with some caustic comment. When he finished, drained and cold, sunset scintillated on the edge of the sky in shades of glassy green and jade.

"And I was the bait," Han said into the silence.

Luke yanked himself back to the present, to the facts of survival. "It didn’t work out that way."

At least the talking had unraveled a few knots inside him, and maybe it could do the same for Han, sometime soon. "It’s gettin’ late," Luke said. "C’mon."

Without thinking about it, he caught hold of Han’s hand and felt it lock hard around his own.

All motion froze as Han met his eyes. "I’m sorry."

"No," Luke said sharply, "don’t be. That’s the first thing."

And from there — what?

Han’s free hand lifted to capture his shoulder, forcing attention. "You shouldn’t’ve come. You shouldn’t be here. None of this is right."

Luke couldn’t guess what drove such an urgency into the words, but he had no time to consider, not with that look in Han’s eyes and the touch of his hand trailing slowly up the side of his neck. He felt his expression slip, as if his facial muscles were exhausted from keeping up with the emotional leaps and bounds of the past hour. Han’s fingertips brushed up into his hair, hesitantly, before the motion caught.

Within the stillness, Luke could hear his heart kick into double speed. He lost the ground under his feet when Han leaned over with that same, reluctant thoughtfulness and brought their mouths together. Sharing a breath, as if that was all the oxygen they’d got left between them. Contact lingered, softened into searching closeness, and loosened a small shower of sparks in Luke’s stomach. The rest of himself was focused on the gentle pressure of Han’s mouth against his own.

It ended just as quietly as it had started, but when Han let him go, reality took a while to gain Luke’s attention.

They were walking back up the path towards the clinic, casting long shadows across the gravel. Mind still bouncing back and forth between the many facets of total strangeness, Luke didn’t know what to say. Perhaps he’d better trust all of it to the kind protection of silence.

Han slanted him a quick glance. "D’you wonder sometimes... about Vader? Why he let us go?"

It caught him cold.

"You’ve said that before," Luke managed at last.

"He’s not what he seems. Same goes for the things he does..."

The clinic’s western wing offered its angular security straight ahead, but Han slowed down again. "Not that much of a surprise, maybe, when you think about it. He was a Jedi before—" Han gestured vaguely, expansively. "Well, before he turned into whatever he is now."

"How do you know?" Luke asked, startled. A young Jedi knight who turned to evil, he recalled Ben’s words. Was that the reason why Vader had been reluctant to terminate his life. Some ingrained reflex? Curiosity? Or just unwillingness to crush the near-to-last specimen of a valued enemy?

Han shrugged.

"Leia says he interrogated you personally," Luke pressed.

"Yeah, well, I don’t recall so much of that part." Han paused, sweeping long fingers through his hair. "I remember he asked me about evil. Imagine that."

A faint chill hunted down Luke’s back.

"I mean, what’s evil?" Han continued. "I don’t buy into all that mystical crap. There’s laws and crimes and ending up on the wrong side of the punch. A matter of perspective."

"There’s random destruction," Luke suggested, coercing his mind into the argument, his voice none too steady. "Pointless cruelty, just for the sake of causing pain." And it flashed through him that he couldn’t accuse Vader of that either.

"Yeah?" Han pulled up his shoulders. "Or is that just another way of saying we don’t get the logic? So your Jedi Master tells you to let us die — what d’you call that?"

Cruel, Luke thought despite himself.

They’d reached the western wing’s portal, automatic slide doors responding to their presence. Han gave a small and tired grin. "Too late to figure it out, huh? Maybe some other time. Right now, I feel more like cashing it in for the night."

"Yeah, I’ll — uh, see you tomorrow," Luke said without much hope for making it sound casual.

He couldn’t tell if he’d expected anything more. As he directed himself towards the base and his quarters, lightheaded disbelief returned, and he abandoned conscious reflection. Galvanizing memory spread all through his solar plexus with a weightless warmth until nothing else could count anymore.

At least not until tomorrow.

* * * * *

Two steps to the window, three to the door, Han paced his room in anticipation of the doctor’s afternoon visit, temper kept on a very short leash. The way they made him wait amounted to the kind of impersonal affront he’d never handled very well.

An unnatural energy fired in him and refused to burn up. Only a short while ago, there’d been times when he’d thought the gears in his head were seriously slipping, but he was starting to adapt, almost liked it at times. It didn’t register on any of the limited medical scopes, but he felt stronger, energetic. Except for those strange lapses when he blacked out, for a split second, sometimes less than that. As if he existed on two different time levels.

Those seizures came and went, but he could tolerate that a hell of a lot better than nightmares or anything that left tracks in the conscious mind. By all rights, he should be released from the observation ward any day now. They’d cut down the tranks, and Chewie would be back on Sullust shortly, after hauling shield technology to one more remote Rebel base. Not that anyone’d bothered to ask his permission for the use of his ship, but things were finally perking up. Another week maybe, and he’d be free to leave.

When the doctor and his droid cronies finally showed, Han sat on his bed and looked placid. He’d had a lot of practice at that lately, with nothing much to do day in and out except fend off odd bouts of claustrophobia. That sense of being stalked, watched, appraised.

Maybe the medics were right ascribing it to his scan-grid sessions — he’d never had that kind of problem before, not in all the times he’d found himself confined to narrow spaces, from backwater lock-ups to the hidden compartments inside his own ship. And he felt sure it’d fade as soon as he took the Falcon skyward again.

"Well, doc, how d’you like me today?" Han asked when all the minutiae of the physical had been completed to the letter.

The doctor was a leather-skinned Durosian with a shock of white hair and a face like bad news. "Promising," he said shortly. "Of course, the committee will have to evaluate today’s results."

"Right."

There was always some committee involved, no help for it. If he ever thought about the Rebels’ utopia, Han pictured it like committee heaven, each overriding the other with happy chatter. They called it democracy, but there was something to be said in favor of the Imperial style with its cleaner chains of command, even if he’d never been good at taking orders.

Han changed back into his outdoor clothes and went to find Luke. At least the kid had something to keep himself occupied, running long stretches, working out in the gym, or freezing in painful-looking poses for what he called meditation. But in between those dedicated fits of activity or total stillness, he got twitchy as well.

Han didn’t have to walk very far. Instead of the base’s underground facilities, Luke preferred using the clinic’s gym with its wall-to-wall windows. Pausing in the open door, Han leaned against the frame and watched.

A lightmetal pole replaced the lost ‘saber, its length sparking off reflections as if to outblaze the radiant blade. Luke spun with it, flung it up high and managed to complete a back flip before lightly catching the replacement. From there, he went into a series of attack patterns, each strike deadly and executed with elegant, controlled precision.

A cut that would open the standard human’s midsection to the liver, an upward thrust that would take out the shoulder joint, an elegant slash to puncture the carotid artery just below the jaw. Pushing through the exercise, Luke was fighting a shadow host that gained in definition with each swing and thrust of the blade, spilling shadow blood over the gym’s padded floor, while new limbs sprouted to join the violent dance.

Abruptly dizzied, Han knuckled his eyes.

At that moment, Luke paused briefly and sent a smile over his shoulder. "I’ll finish in a minute."

"Sure, go ahead," Han muttered.

He made himself concentrate on the moves, the slide of muscles beneath Luke’s undershirt. Every ripple and stretch of muscle took part in the performance, suffused with power and weightless confidence. Luke was all of the light, focused as if he could release his essence into bright motion and become that dance. The effect was pretty close to hypnotic.

Han shifted with the crawl of a faint heat on his skin. That part of the sensation was familiar enough — but not the hunger that opened inside him, a black void of incalculable dimensions, staring like a naked singularity. Like something had torn a bullet hole into him, and around it twisted threads of impossible hopes and unspoken needs. It took him here every day, with the mad promise that Luke could somehow tie all those ruptured threads back together.

Luke with his near boundless energy and enthusiasm, all that open, trusting warmth that made him so goddamn vulnerable. Like a flame Han had wanted to shelter almost from the day they’d met. And if that wasn’t bad enough, those arresting blue eyes revealed more than affection whenever Luke thought he wouldn’t notice. Lately, even the most casual touches between them had been charged with barely restrained want. ‘Til watching him like this became a rehearsal of forced endurance.

Han swallowed against the growing tightness in his throat. Almost a week had passed since Leia’s visit and their little outdoors jaunt. One day dragging into the next, and the biting memory of letting his guard slip never seemed to fade. It came back each time he saw Luke’s glance skip sideways, the puzzled sadness in those cloudy blue eyes.

Luke had no idea.

Exercises complete, he settled down cross-legged on the mats.

Han chose a spot by the wall like a security margin. "Done for today?"

"Yeah." Luke fingered his ‘saber prop. "But it just isn’t the same, you know." When he looked up, his eyes reflected metallic light bouncing off the pole. "I’ve talked to some of the techs around the base, I’ve tried to figure out how to put the different components together for a new lightsaber, but it just isn’t working."

"Not like you’d have much use for it anyway," Han said off-handedly.

"You don’t understand."

"What, that you wanna be a Jedi at all costs? Sure, I got that just fine. But what if it’s pointless? Don’t you ever wonder why they no longer exist?"

Surprise washed over Luke’s face. "Because the Emperor hunted and destroyed them," he said, repeating a lesson he’d never questioned.

"Yeah, but why don’t you ask yourself how he could do that?" Han challenged. "Why no one came rushing to their defense. Why they went the way of the old bureaucracy and the noble houses and nobody gave a damn."

Confusion shaded into dismay as Luke shook his head. "Are we talking survival of the fittest here?"

"Maybe they got complacent and dogmatic." Han shrugged. "Maybe they couldn’t handle change ‘cause it threatened their position."

"I don’t see how that could’ve happened," Luke said sharply. "A Jedi shares his essence with the Force, and the Force is never static — just like life isn’t." His fingers closed hard around the pole. "No. I need to construct a new lightsaber for myself. My only hope is that Ben kept the schematics at his place on Tatooine. Or some notes at least."

"And I say, stay away from it!" Han snapped. "You shouldn’t’ve messed with all that in the first place, and maybe the fact that you lost your saber’s a sign to let it go."

A fraught silence hung between them as their gazes locked.

There was fire in the blue eyes all right, subsiding into smoke-clouded sparks as Luke’s expression softened. "It’s because Yoda wouldn’t let me leave, right?" he asked quietly. "That’s why you say all these things."

From one moment to the next, Han didn’t really know any more. The rough breath he drew ached in his chest, he could almost feel Luke reaching out with all that gentleness and wanted to release himself into it. Rest. Go under.

"Come here," Luke said on a lighter note. "If we’re gonna work out together, we’d better get you loosened up first. You’re gonna sprain something with your muscles cramped like that."

"Who said anything about working out together?" Han muttered grouchily, but that reluctant part of himself wasn’t pulling the strings anymore. A sleepwalker version of him took over and made him get up to sit in front of Luke.

Strong fingers searched and located the tension knots in his shoulders, smoothing them out carefully, circled his shoulder blades to work down his back. Warmth fanned into his nervous system until it became a silky current of desire, weaving sinuously through his senses.

Hell, I’ve tried to warn you, Han thought, but perhaps the warnings he’d given himself had been too vague, too ambiguous.

"All right, here we go." Luke gave his shoulder a pat and held on for a moment before his hand slid away. "Let’s see if you can still throw me."

Back on his feet in an instant, Han grinned. "You think a few weeks in hospital make any difference? Get real, kid."

Eager energy lashed through his body, and if that could stop him from thinking, it sure outrivaled every legal and outlawed drug. He launched himself, like something had just pushed the trigger that delivered him from half a lifetime of frozen anticipation.

Luke sidestepped his lunge with a breathless laugh and caught his arm. "Whoa, take it easy!"

"I’ll show you easy." Gripping his shoulder, Han twisted and had him sprawling on the mat for a moment — until Luke slid out from under his hold and swept at Han’s ankles, bringing him down.

They gained their feet again, grappled, broke apart, building a pattern of charge and comeback that was almost musical. Han felt it flow in his veins, heady and powerful like the dark rhythm of a drum. The collision of tense muscles, rush of breaths, pounding heartbeat like a race to freedom.

The training on Dagobah showed in Luke’s speed and timing. He was good, but he didn’t take this serious enough.

Feigning retreat, Han leaped, throwing them both off balance. A hard fall slammed the breath from Luke’s lungs, and that moment was all it took for Han to secure a hold on the slighter frame. Something within him was flung open wide and quivered in triumph at the feel of Luke pressed against the length of his body, trapped under him with little option to resist. He shoved down hard, getting his knee between Luke’s thighs, and the struggle led where he’d always known it would when he pinned Luke’s shoulders with more force than needed.

Heat flowed inward and swept his groin, cresting in fury. Luke wasn’t fighting him, his fingers dug reflexively into Han’s shoulders as he arched his back. A second wave rushed Han’s spine and presaged deliverance. He ground his hips into Luke, felt a sharp jolt that tightened him further, to the pulse and the rhythm beaten out in his blood.

Both hands buried in the tangled blond hair, Han swept in for a kiss that turned out scaldingly sweet. Luke’s mouth opened under his own, yielding to the rough pressure of his lips and tongue, and then he was plunging for full depth, their teeth colliding briefly until he yanked Luke’s head back. All he wanted was get it over with, ride this wave and rid himself of the pointless struggle, the fever, set himself free —

Anger curled in Han’s stomach and rose bitter to the back of his throat. When he broke away abruptly, Luke gasped in surprise, the heat in his face and eyes laying him bare. No defenses left.

Han felt a wild pulse saunter against his fingers. Conscious surrender, unconcerned joy.

This is what you’re gonna break, he told himself. A friendship already marred beyond recognition, bound to be crushed along with the intensity of feeling that burned in Luke’s eyes. He’d seen that kind of light dim and falter before, and something in him sneered, ‘cause that’s just the way of things.

Trust shriveled, love corroded to greed, desire rotted away into unfeeling appetite. What madness to ever trust anyone — another inbred failing of the whole goddamn species.

Something fragile surfaced in Luke’s gaze, building towards a new edge of confidence, and that too would be broken.

Han levered himself away, shoving Luke back against the mat, and ignored the bruised look in his eyes.

"See? Better think again before you take on more than you can handle," he said brusquely and stalked away from victory or defeat, it didn’t matter which.

Weakness spread out slowly from his stomach. He felt hollow as if he inhabited only some cramped part of himself and the rest had been turned into a ghost town. Outside, Han headed straight for the short landing strip above the Rebel base. The vehicles parked along its side were short-range shuttles that would take him no farther than the major planet, but they all screamed escape at him like a guarantee for salvation.

Han disabled the alarms before he started on the hatch’s codelock. It was an old model, the type he could finagle half asleep, and he wasn’t in a much more lucid state right now. Damn this place where he was locked up inside his own head all the time, chasing impossibilities round in circles until need twisted into violence that drilled through his skull.

As the shuttle took off and zoned towards Sullust’s aquamarine stratosphere, his pulse sang in tune with the sublight engines, and his heart hammered in a fever. Maybe he couldn’t stop it or control it, but he knew where to take this. The memory of Luke pressing up against him, of silky hair falling over his fingers, clogged in his flesh like an ache, and if he couldn’t relieve it soon, he was in for a lifetime of regrets. Or worse.

Han swung the vehicle off the course to the planetary capital with its polished, sterile elegance. He’d been to Sullust before and knew all about the back country where illegal trade thrived along with gambling operations and the full spectrum of entertainments, catering to all tastes. The whole flight was a rush of darkness ruptured by brutal flashes of light, and when he’d finally set the shuttle down, Han felt almost drunk with the speed of his plunge into night. He moved fast and in silence, turning off a deserted avenue as if he’d picked up a scent.

In one of the backstreets, hookers paced like sentinels, sliding past the spills of colored light from pleasure parlors and bars.

The light caught on blond hair, edged a slim silhouette that set off a jab in Han’s gut. Both fists pushed into his pockets, he followed the young cruiser into a shaded doorway. A general resemblance was enough to serve his purpose in the dark, and perhaps burn out all those frantic fantasies that clawed through his brain.

The youth tilted his head provocatively as he made an offer in a soft, husky voice, baring a long throat. For a second, Han could see his own hands closing around it.

He accepted the boy’s price without argument and grabbed a fistful of blond hair. "Just hope to hell you like it rough." The words tasted like wet ashes in his mouth.

The youth turned foggy brown eyes on him. "I can handle rough, man, it’s crazy that gives me the creeps."

* * *

The sun ducked behind the moon’s craggy horizon as if lurching for cover. Turning from the landing strip, Luke hugged both arms around himself against the chill breeze. He had no reason to expect Han back anytime soon.

And when he returned, Han would be in trouble for hijacking that shuttle — but the notion danced inconsequentially across the surface of Luke’s mind. A nervous tension had taken hold inside him, steadily inclining since Han’s abrupt departure, and he couldn’t think through it.

He needed to talk to someone, but there was only a single person he could turn to now, even if time and place argued against it.

The base was quiet when Luke approached the communications center. Having filed his request, he seated himself in one of the com booths.

It was nearing midnight in Sullust’s capital, and his call reached Leia in her private quarters. When the holo transmission flickered into focus, Luke could see that she wore a loose gown. Unraveling braids fell around her shoulders.

"Luke? Is something wrong?" Leia’s voice filled with concern at once, and he felt a small sting of regret.

"No," he said quickly, "there’s just — a few things I need to talk over with you, and it can’t wait. I’m sorry." He paused. He’d never called on the friendship between them quite like this, and it brought back some of the awkward diffidence he’d felt around Leia for the longest time.

"It’s Han, right?" she guessed with the usual accuracy, her chin lifting. "I thought he was getting better."

"Well, physically, he is. But the whole situation isn’t really helping, otherwise."

"He doesn’t handle inactivity too well, does he?" Leia suggested with a tight smile.

Luke shook his head. "Remember what the psychological file said about it? The part about torture affecting a person’s... self-esteem? I’m thinking that Han needs more control over his own life than they’re giving him right now."

"He certainly isn’t the type to cope with it through introspection," Leia agreed with a fleeting touch of irony. "I just don’t think that... well, letting him loose is such a good idea at this point. What do you suggest?"

"He should be allowed to move over to the base for a start," Luke returned, unthinking. Practical matters offered a handle on the situation, and he felt himself relax a little. "Maybe Han could be included in the training program."

"If the doctors pronounce him fit for active duty, I don’t see why not." Leia paused, considering for a moment. "In fact, a commando will transfer from Intell headquarters the day after tomorrow. It’s up to the commanding officer, of course, but maybe Han could be assigned to their group for the time being." Her tone softened. "But there’s more, isn’t there? You look so... worried."

Upset and shaken would have been more to the point, and Luke forced a self-conscious smile. "I don’t know how to tell you," he admitted. "It’s kind of personal, and I... well, I can’t seem to figure out what to do." A revealing warmth rose into his cheeks.

"It concerns Han again," Leia suggested in a very dry tone.

"Yeah." His reply came out hoarsely, and he stumbled into silence. Months of expecting to see romance evolve between Han and Leia returned in a rush, and he couldn’t discard the thought now. What if that explained Han’s erratic behavior? Luke lifted his gaze to meet Leia’s eyes. "How do you feel about him?"

"I’ve learned to appreciate some of his indisputable talents," Leia answered with a small frown. "He has been a great help for us—"

"But you’re not in love with him? Attracted to him? Is he in love with you?" The questions poured out before he could think twice.

"In love?" Leia gave a sharp, startled laugh. "What kind of question is this?" Her cheeks turned a shade of pink as she shook her head. "I’m sorry, Luke. If this means what I think it does, maybe I should tell you what happened during our trip to Bespin." She sighed. "I think Han’s approach to relationships sums up as ‘grab all you can get.’ Maybe I’m oldfashioned, but I feel that intimacy should be given time to develop and grow beyond mutual attraction, or it will grow stale within a very short time."

Her words kindled volatile memories that tightened Luke’s stomach. Slightly breathless, he waited for Leia to continue.

"Yes, I was attracted to him," she said soberly, "but I’m not interested in a... casual affair of this kind. He must have lost interest when I failed to respond to his advances."

Luke let out a long breath. "Thanks for telling me."

"I don’t want you to get hurt," she said quietly. "I know Han cares about you, but—"

"I see what you mean," Luke cut in. Perhaps he’d only imagined the condescending tone, but there was no way he could tell Leia that he’d already been hurt, that he was hurting for Han’s touch and couldn’t pretend that nothing had happened.

As soon as the channel deactivated, memory returned to tease his nerves with wanton shimmers of heat until it flooded his throat and cheeks.

He wanted to close himself around it, inflict that sting of excruciating pleasure on himself again and again before another day could wash him back into the listless flow of business-as-usual.

Back in his quarters, Luke threw himself headlong across the bunk. Face buried in the crook of his arm, he pushed his hips into the mattress and almost groaned in frustration. His whole body felt torrid, parched.

Han wanted him. And the thought filled his mind and senses until nothing else existed but that unbelievable, overwhelming truth.

* * *

Han didn’t return to the base until the following afternoon. A swollen bruise slanted across his cheekbone, announcing involvement in a fist-fight. A faint scent of alcohol mixed with sweat surrounded him when he approached the base’s main entrance where Luke stood rooted to the spot. Alerted by the hum of engines and the stutter of repulsors, he’d rushed out blindly. As if he needed to see the look on Han’s face before it could be covered up.

Han slowed his pace. "Hey Luke," he said with a grimace, faltering midway between regret and pained amusement. "Shouldn’t’ve run out on you like I did last night. It’s just this whole situation, rattling my cage, y’know."

But the shadowed look in his eyes remained.

"No problem," Luke said, and it came out almost right. There’s more, was all he could think.

Han gave a short nod and brushed past him to stalk straight towards the base commander’s office.

Without looking back, Luke headed away from the complex. Jacket tied around his hips, he broke into a run and felt the cool air sweep his bare arms in the rhythm of their pumping motions. He’d learned on Dagobah how running could clear the mind, how to let the flow of synchronized movements take over, feel the blood circulate and flood every capillary until that lightheaded cadence opened all his senses. Until it made him one with rock and air, with the sound of wind and the slow rotation of the moon in its orbit.

He ran until he felt exhaustion descend and curbed his tempo to a jog, then a slow trot. Sweat had painted a broad streak down the center of his undershirt, cooling in the breeze. Now he could let himself think again.

Meanwhile, Han would have received the due dressing-down from the base commander, but in all likelihood, little else would follow. Making off for a one-night bash was the most common regulation breach among Alliance pilots. Bred on fast-paced action and thriving on pressure, they generally had a hard time tolerating forced inertia, and the commander had to be familiar with the symptoms. Just like Leia, he’d recognize the necessity to channel Han’s excess energies into some productive chore. And everything would revert back to normal. Luke drew in a deep breath. If he let it.

He started running again, working his muscles past the point of exhaustion. The mocknight of the planetary shadow crawled across Varoo and faded again. By the time he approached the base, dusk had torn shadow-gulfs of deep blue into the jagged landscape.

A quick chat with the guard on duty informed Luke that Han had been assigned quarters in the base and spent the rest of the shift repairing the alarms he’d taken out the night before.

"Corellians." The man grinned.

Luke retired to his quarters and showered extensively, soaking up a measure of tranquility from the steady rush of water over his skin. Before him extended the long emptiness of night, demanding a decision. He thought of Leia’s cool analysis and felt sobriety twist through his vague dreams like a dry wind from the desert. But the decision made itself on a visceral level.

Behind closed lids, Luke could see Han’s fingers slide over his skin, and a shiver fled down his back. His skin was starved for touch. He couldn’t even remember the last time someone had just held him, excepting a fever-blurred memory of that night out in Hoth’s blighting frost when Han had urged his own body’s warmth into him. And he’d never missed it so much. Sometime between last night and the present moment, the loneliness of being enclosed in his own skin had passed the limits of endurance.

Dressed in his pants and undershirt, Luke slipped out into the corridor. It was late enough for Han to be asleep, especially after his nocturnal excursion. The door to his new quarters swung slowly inward, opening on a warm and heavy darkness.

Luke stepped in cautiously, listening for a reaction, but Han’s breathing came in a deep, regular cadence, almost imperceptible through the staccato beats of his own heart. Not pausing to think, Luke stripped to his briefs and found the bunk blind as if homing in on the infrared signature of Han’s body. He lifted the covers and eased down quickly.

Han was awake almost before he’d completed the move, one hand shooting out to trace his bare shoulder and arm, then flinching back.

"What? Luke — hell, what’re you doin’ here?" His voice was rough with sleep and surprise.

"Something I want very much," Luke answered, the tight pulse in his throat a throbbing echo to every word. "Look, before you say anything... I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to explain anything. Han, I’m just... tired of waiting."

The words stumbled out, but no matter how convincing he made them sound, it wouldn’t be enough to break through Han’s defenses. Shifting closer, Luke wound his arm around Han’s waist and molded himself against the taller frame. He felt the heave of a fast breath and ran his hand down Han’s stomach. There, Han caught his wrist with a curse.

"Hold it, kid," he snapped.

"You want this," Luke said, calm with a strange sort of terror. The possibility of rejection simply didn’t exist. "Call me kid all you like, it’s not going to change anything."

"So what? You can’t always get what you want, didn’t they tell you that?"

Luke virtually heard the defenses crumble in that reluctant growl and smiled in the dark.

"Not always," he agreed. Following his best guess, he leaned closer until his mouth brushed Han’s throat. "But we can have this, and I don’t see any reason why not." Quickened pulse jumped against his lips, a genuine sign after all that agonizing speculation.

"Stop it!" Han’s voice rasped from the dark, and one hand captured Luke’s jaw.

"Stop it yourself," he murmured back. Vagrant warmth eased from his stomach into his groin. He pushed against Han’s thigh and felt himself harden rapidly with the friction.

An instant later, Han was over him, and the rush of forcefully expelled breath warmed his face. "Damnit, Luke—"

It was the strangest prelude to an impulsive, urgent kiss that brought every inch of them into close contact, focusing scent and taste into an expanding radius of desire. When Han released his lips, a small sound of longing spilled from Luke’s throat.

Han’s breath caught sharply. "You’ve got. No. Idea."

Maybe not, Luke thought, but it was beginning to take shape now, like an imprint of Han’s body heat on his senses, defining depth and limit. He wanted some light to read the look in Han’s eyes but couldn’t make himself ask for it.

Drawing Han’s mouth down against his own, his fingers moved softly across the clenching jaw, traced movement and tension up to the furrowed brow. Han shifted his weight, driving the breath from Luke’s lungs in a gasp as he settled down with the full pressure of his lean body, every angle of bone and plane of taut muscle an unyielding demand. Heat lurched in his nerves. Luke heard his own heart pound as he fought for some measure of control.

"Luke—" his name drifted on a ragged breath, still full of ambivalence — savage and tender and strangely desperate — but Han gave him no chance to answer.

Luke’s fingers tangled in thick, dark hair as their mouths clung together. Blackness spread around them with smothering velvet that whispered on bare skin and focused all the heat inward. Sharp reflections bounced back and forth in Luke’s stomach until they became almost painful in their intensity.

Held down by Han’s weight, Luke felt the muscles shift along the front of his thighs where they pressed against his own. In wordless invitation, he arched his back and opened his legs, almost dizzy with the feel of Han’s cock shoved against his groin in a quickening rhythm.

Teeth raked his throat, blazed a trail of impatience up towards his ear, and a flush of heat blossomed all over his skin. Warm lips moved across his face and stifled the breathless sounds of need. Against his inner thighs, Luke felt the rhythm of lean muscles tensing and straining as Han worked his hips faster.

Like a blaze of summer unfolding beneath his skin, pleasure made a conquest of him in a scalding sweep of sensation. Raising himself, Han grabbed the waistband of his briefs, yanking them down to surge forward again — and the raw contact shattered a last line of defense. Luke shuddered as hard flesh frictioned against his own, closing a circuit that neared overload with solar flares spreading from his stomach. He pushed up frantically as the tremors seized him, urging outward in waves, blinding the rest of his senses.

Darkness reeled around him, devouring all the wanton energy, and it took his heart as much as his breath.

Don’t let go now, Han, just don’t — don’t let me fall — and he tried hard not to think of the future or the next day, burying all thought as a groan pressed up through his teeth.

Through an electric haze, he felt Han shorten his thrusts, his whole body caught up in reflexive struggle, then flung back against him, freezing. With a loud, wracking breath, Han slumped forward and buried his face at Luke’s shoulder, the muscles in his throat moving sharply as if holding back words, breath, sound. The dark shivered around them.

Luke stroked both hands down the tense back, lost in the closeness that joined skin alone and locked them in silence. He’d never expected it to hurt so much. Emptiness threatened on the edges of his overstrung nerves, and all that saved him from it was the warmth of Han’s body, pressed close against him.

He tensed automatically when Han rolled off him, exposing damp skin to the sober touch of recycled air. But then an arm wrapped around his middle and tugged him into a loose hold.

While his body slowly released all residual tension and drifted towards sleep, Luke lay waiting for a long time, but Han said nothing.

Maybe there was nothing left to be said.

* * *

Unexpectedly, Leia arrived aboard one of Intell’s shuttles the following afternoon. Notified at the last instant, Luke jogged towards the landing field to meet her. When the ramp extended, his spine stiffened as if he’d been caught at another trespass. Surely Leia would read it all in his eyes, and his reaction was a turbulent mixture of apprehension, pride and confusion.

"Luke!" Her smile was genuine if a little distracted as she joined him, detaching from the group. "I wanted to be here to discuss the details of this particular mission," she explained, taking his arm. "But to be honest, I was a little worried after your call..."

"I needed to talk to someone," he returned evasively. "Clear my thoughts. So much has changed since we all left Hoth... my own perspective is changing."

"Yes, we’ll have to talk about that, too," Leia agreed, as if reminding herself of another problematic issue on the day’s agenda.

"And what else?" Luke asked softly.

But something else had caught Leia’s attention, and her eyes narrowed against slanting sunlight.

A tall shadow between the bronze-edged shuttles, Han straightened out slowly at their approach. He’d been working on recalibrating the older crafts’ locking systems for hours.

Luke kept his glance fixed on some neutral spot in the middle distance. Change burned on his skin, with the physical sensation of an electric field moving between Han and himself. All day long, they’d managed to negotiate the razor line between acknowledgment and denial. No matter how long it took, he was going to wait for a sign.

"Han," Leia said in a noncommittal tone.

"How’s things going on Sullust?" he returned flippantly, wiping his hands on a rag. "I’m still waitin’ to hear from Chewie."

"I’m afraid he’ll be out of touch for another while. We don’t expect him back before next month."

Han tossed the rag down irately. "What d’you mean, next month?"

"Please try to understand." Leia raised both hands, distraught, concerned. "We owe it to Lando."

"Oh yeah? And who said you could use my ship to bail him out, sister?"

"Chewbacca volunteered."

The words fell into heavy silence. When he glanced at Han again, Luke saw his jaw lock hard, a muscle jumping in his bruised cheek.

"Without Lando, you’d be frozen in carbonite," Leia said gently. "Or worse. But if that isn’t reason enough, Boba Fett must have been tracking us for some time. We can’t tell how much he knows about our bases and plans, but he collaborates with the Empire. He could be dangerous."

"It had nothing to do with Lando," Han countered roughly, "and everything with Luke."

Watching from the side, Luke held his breath a moment. Something burst through him, bright and hard like a meteorite, too violent for joy, too gentle for terror. The truth, he thought. You belong with me.

Stone-faced, Han turned away from Leia, aggression radiating from every movement as he stalked towards the base.

"I wonder why he has to make it so difficult for himself," Leia said softly.

 

Luke was distantly surprised that she stayed with him when they entered the conference room for the briefing. While Han had taken a seat among the officers, Leia paused on the steps that led down into the circular chamber, fingers interlaced inside her robe’s wide sleeves.

"Listen," she said intensely.

Operation Commander Rittin was a wiry man who paced as he talked, exuding the strict, military brand of enthusiasm. "Something is going on within the Empire," he said, hands clasped behind his back. "We have heard wild rumors over the past weeks, and they all suggest that the confederates of the late Governor Tarkin have the Emperor’s ear. They are urging him to channel all resources into the development of improved weapons technologies... for a final strike against the Alliance."

"Maybe they even want another Death Star," someone muttered, and there were nervous chuckles from the back.

Almost automatically, Luke’s eyes strayed towards Han and found him shifting in his seat.

"We can’t rule out such a possibility," the commander said sharply, "until the situation has been clarified. And that, as you’re all well aware, is our job." Rittin tapped the desk console, and a star chart formed. "A courier has been dispatched from the Core worlds," he continued. "Officially, to transport the newly appointed Imperial consul to Sullust. However, our Bothan sources report that the same ship carries plans and personnel connected to the Emperor’s latest project. We will intercept the courier during scheduled stopover on this outpost." The commander indicated a yellow blip on the fringes of the Sullust system and held up a hand. "Open battle is not an option, since we cannot afford drawing attention to our presence here. Furthermore, if our operation prompts heightened security measures or even a change of plans, all the data will be rendered worthless." He paused, bracing both hands on the desk. "We will therefore contrive an incident that can be passed off as a local squabble."

"Does that mean we get to pose as pirates?" someone in the front row asked.

The commander smiled thinly. "That is a possibility."

From his place by the door, Luke saw Han lean forward, chin propped on his fist. No, he thought, as if he could be heard.

Han raised a hand. "I volunteer. I’ve been to that station at least a dozen times. Figure you could use a guide."

The commander’s eyes sought him out instantly. "Captain Solo, is it? We could also use your piloting skills, I imagine."

Luke felt his gut tighten, but before he could open his mouth, he realized why Leia had kept an eye on him throughout. Laying a hand on his forearm, she motioned him out into the corridor.

"You want to go, too, don’t you?" she asked quietly.

"What if I do? And if you disagree, why make me attend the briefing?" Luke broke off at the angry sound of his voice. He’d never talked to Leia like that before.

"Because our decisive battle against the Empire is drawing closer," she returned evenly. "You must be prepared. And you must understand your role in this. The Jedi were the guardians of the Old Republic..." Leia walked to the window, sending a glance out into the lowering sky before turning back to him. "You’re more important as a symbol for the Rebellion, Luke."

"What if I don’t want to be a symbol?" he shot back.

"We don’t always have a choice." A frail calm surrounded her in the chill evening light, and her eyes were full of compassion. Another impulsive response caught in Luke’s throat.

"I’m not a Jedi yet," he said helplessly. "Sooner or later, I’ll have to finish my training, or I won’t be useful to anybody."

Suddenly, Leia looked very tired. "Yes," she said, "but stay safe a litte while longer."

When Luke wrapped an arm around her shoulders, she accepted the gesture, but there was no comfort in it. From the stone floor, Luke felt a deeper cold creep up his legs and settle in his stomach.

The base on Varoo had been a sanctuary for Han and himself, but now that time was drawing to an end. War had found them again. War would claim them.

* * * * *

The starfield shimmered into an ecstatic rush of color that faded slowly, each shade leaching into black. Hard vacuum made way for a different kind of void closing around the light explorer. Briefly, Han checked the nav display and the coordinates for the next jump point. Not the slightest deviation there. His eyes returned to the viewport, absorbing the dark, mesmerized.

Exhaustion lingered around the small bridge, almost a stupor after all the split-second action. And these were the Alliance’s finest. Experienced Intell officers with the proper training, their senses sharpened for swift, silent kills. Men who’d learned to delegate moral qualms to their superiors — now slumped into the seats at their stations like unstrung puppets. Han stared at the dark with an ironic smile. He felt energized, despite the shortened sleep cycles of the past week. They were going somewhere, rehearsing maneuvers, hashing over tactics. They’d given him a ship to fly.

His fingers drummed out a staccato rhythm against the console’s edge. Would they even notice if he changed their course? Mission completed, he’d earned his liberty. And if he had the Falcon now, he could just swing her around, and there’d be no pledge they could cite to stop him. For all the stupid things he’d done in the past few years, he’d kept enough of his wits about to avoid rank and formal obligations.

Han leaned back in his seat, forcing strung muscles to relax. No point getting himself in trouble now. He could bide his time, then make his move. And take Luke with him.

Where would you go? reason whispered mockingly.
Where we belong, he snarled back. Out there.
Take him and bring him in and bring him to me, sang the blackness outside.

All the veils of color and form had been swept aside by its cold force. At the core of things, nothing existed except the clean and brutal dance of lightless atoms, waiting for the hand that seized them, shaped them into something that made sense. Strange that in all his years of space-hopping, he’d never really thought of it this way.

A living, breathing blackness sheltered the galaxy until it chose to collapse back on itself one fine day. The quantum mechanics’ equivalent to madness, Han supposed. And he could almost feel its chill breath against his face, seeping through the canopy’s clearsteel.

Something in him recoiled. Sitting up straight, Han found his hands clenched around the flight chair’s arm rests, cold to the bone, although sweat plastered his shirt to his back. For a moment, he felt the sickening pull of vertigo. All those nights of fighting the madness, dreams he suspected to be memories edging their way through the mire of thought and feeling. He couldn’t dare to sleep. But the danger was to Luke, not himself. Gods be damned, he’d worn himself out until there was nothing left but the raw ache of wanting and a great, blanketing weariness. Han rubbed a hand over his eyes and checked the chrono. Two more hours to the next jump point. They would reach Sullust’s moon with nightfall, and Luke would be waiting for him.

Whatever you do, come back, Han, you hear me? he remembered. Like he had any real choice.

He wondered if Leia had stayed on as well to await the commando’s return. He could see her now, poised by the landing field, quiet worry in her eyes and steel in her spine. She’d never really liked him, but she’d cared for him, at least for a while. Sure enough, things had turned out different lately. Whenever he’d caught Leia’s eyes, they held speculation and concern. Suspicion, when she watched him together with Luke. How much did she know?

A lot, Han guessed by the way she’d kept Luke close whenever possible, marking her claim. And Luke, in all his trusting gentleness, let himself be manipulated. Maybe he didn’t want to consider how much the Alliance used them all. But, damnit, there was so much more in him than any of those gutless idiots could see.

Han rubbed at a dried blood stain on his wrist. There were more spattered across his sleeves and the front of his shirt. Maybe he’d better toss all his clothes straight into the recycler, the stale smells of sweat and fear would never wash out anyway. The last few days were a blur in his mind. Between agonized waiting and adrenaline highs, they’d reeled past almost without a trace. What he recalled with unforgiving detail was the night before they’d set out from Varoo.

Luke had come to him again that night. And the dark filled with sensation, joined breaths, fevered touches. Heart clenching in his chest, he’d held on like he’d never let go, but there was a terrible horizon in him that he couldn’t cross. Words he could never make himself say. On the edge of sleep, Han had felt himself slide towards nothingness and longed only to go under.

The flight console chimed, and his head jerked up. Somewhere behind him, hushed voices talked rapidly. He’d slipped out of time. How many hours had passed? They’d almost missed the jump point.

Determined steps approached across the flight deck. "Captain Solo, your relief has arrived."

They’d grown suspicious of him because he hadn’t folded under the strain. Han shrugged. When he brushed matted hair from his forehead, his fingers came away bloody. It was only a scratch, but something had torn it open again.

"Captain Solo, if you’d please follow me to sickbay."

Maybe it was all for the better. When he pushed from his chair, the bridge spun around him. Instead of finding a clear hold, his stare painted out darkness. He took another step and fell straight into its cavernous depth.

* * *

It was different this time, nothing at all like his tortuous confinement in the clinic. Sickbay droids had a much more practical attitude towards the frailties of organic lifeforms. When the ship swung into orbit around Sullust’s larger moon, they handed him clean clothes and some pills and let him go.

Han walked down the explorer’s ramp without turning, although he could feel stares pricking the back of his neck. All those fine officers with their freeze-dried conscience. He’d never been one of them anyway.

Varoo was wrapped in a windless night, sullen clouds languishing over the corrugated mountains. Han felt the dank air stick to his skin, the hint of rot in this unmoving darkness. Even the lights slanting from the clinic were a sickly yellow that trickled into shadow, and he wondered if Luke was still in the gym, practicing with his ‘saber. Playing with a different kind of light.

Han could see it now, a clean, pale-green radiance cutting paths of purpose and providence. The way Luke moved with it, loose-limbed and slender, perfectly balanced within himself. Last of the Jedi.

Han paused, the air unpleasantly humid against his face and throat. Luke lost his lightsaber, you jackass. And the blade clashing with Vader’s had shimmered in whitish blue.

Had to be those cure-all pills the sickbay droids dished out in liberal doses. He felt all tuned up again, as if running a light fever. How long had he been standing here anyway? Chained to the spot like a watchdog they’d kicked out to pick at the bones of an old kill. The distant sounds of voices and engines had faded into nothing, and most of the lights were off.

One level below, the corridors breathed warmth stored during the day. Han pushed two fingers inside his collar, yanking it open as he walked. And before he’d given it any thought, he’d already knocked on the door to Luke’s quarters. A rustle came from within, followed by quick steps.

Still fully dressed, Luke opened. "Where’ve you been?"

"Went for a little walk." That sounded reasonable enough, even if the rest of the commando had reported back hours ago. He was losing time again.

A smile broke on Luke’s face and slammed into him, almost made him turn on his heel. "Come in."

And he went inside, sleepwalking on borrowed time, moving on the thin glass he was going to break. In an hour or a day or a week. If that much time remained.

Luke’s hands reached up to his shoulders and held him to the light. "What happened? You look like hell."

Han shrugged, sure he’d looked a lot worse on several occasions. And they’d washed the blood off his face too, made him presentable. "That job wasn’t what you’d call a picnic."

"Wanna talk about it?"

"No."

Luke’s eyes searched his face, troubled and watchful, holding insurgent sentiments at bay.

"Not now," Han added.

And when Luke’s arms wound around him, he burrowed into that embrace, though perhaps it came closer to falling. The sensation was in his body, tugging sharply at his gut, plummeting with a hot rush across his skin as he held Luke tighter. Their mouths found each other with perfect ease, fitting together within the space of a quick breath, warming. When Luke pressed into him, Han screwed his eyes shut, lips buried in soft hair, and found shelter in the twilight of his own senses.

"I’ve missed you," Luke said in that clear, breathless voice of total honesty.

Han let a long breath escape through his teeth. The softness of those lips against his throat. How could he tell Luke he was wrong, that whatever he’d missed and dreamed up just didn’t exist anymore?

"Ah, kid," he murmured, "you don’t know."

Luke shook his head, almost violently. "I think I can feel it now. Tell me what you need me to do."

As simple as that. Han’s mouth twitched in a nervous grin, and the smile he received in turn lightened him by several degrees. Light as deception — but what the hell, he felt at ease in his skin once more, centered around random energy, and he’d missed that too. He cupped Luke’s buttocks, pulling him up closer until he was pulsing tight and hard against the pressure of Luke’s body. This was forgetting, acceleration, relief, and all his delusional plans of escape could fly a little while longer. He tugged at Luke’s belt, prying it open, his hand tightening over Luke’s groin where no encouragement was needed. Pausing a moment, Han felt the push and press against his open palm. Heard that soft moan close by his ear, the heightened breathing. Heat flared and pooled at the small of his back.

"Don’t need to tell you," he answered, long after the question had slipped from mind.

His tongue teased across the gentle curve of Luke’s mouth, past his teeth, and found a fervent response as he urged Luke backwards, in the direction of the bunk, until they could simply fall across it.

Luke made a motion as if to sit up, perhaps to remove his boots, but Han grabbed his shoulders. Caught a startled reflection of his own urgency in wide open eyes before he turned Luke over, a move performed with the practiced smoothness of their work-outs.

Luke gasped when he pressed him into the mattress. "Han, what—"

"Not now!" he bit out.

He’d wanted too badly for too long. He reached around to unfasten Luke’s pants and pushed them down, exposing firm curves of muscle and smooth skin.

Straddling the lean thighs, Han stopped only long enough to open his fly and pinned Luke under him, pressed hard and snug against softer flesh, the shock of it running down his body, sharp as lightning. This would do. Catch fire, flare, sink low. Body heat and a thin film of sweat sheathed his cock as Luke struggled up against him. Han wondered fleetingly if anger had any part in this, and maybe it always did.

He leaned down to push the shirt off Luke’s shoulder, lips pressed against the nape of his neck while he slid up and down between Luke’s buttocks. Increasing rhythm and pressure, straining harder, or hell knew what else he would do. Channeled into rough motion, the heat in his groin swelled to a throbbing ache. Luke’s hips pushed off the bed to meet his thrusts, and Han wanted only to drive into him, hard and fast — own him, whispered some insane fantasy.

A dark tide sparked through his blood. He tried not to think of it. He shuddered and held his breath another moment and another until it exploded from his lungs with raspy, inarticulate sounds and he spilled over Luke’s back, his whole body clenched up until there was nothing left to hold him together. Nothing.

Between himself and the present extended an odd, empty distance, filled slowly by heavy breathing. He placed his lips where his teeth had marked the curve of Luke’s shoulder. Soft hair rubbed against his cheek as Luke turned his head.

"It’s all right, Han," he murmured, but it sounded like a question.

Shifting to the side, Han carded his fingers through the dark blond hair and when Luke turned over held him close and kissed him — so that he wouldn’t have to talk at first, and then because a hazy surge rushed the hollow under his breastbone, with the haphazard tenderness of another lifetime. Han detached for a moment to pull the bunched shirt over Luke’s head. Luke’s erection was pressed tight to his belly. And the wanting had gone from bad to worse, just like he’d feared it would.

Deepening the kiss, Han covered his throat with one hand, felt pulse hammer against his thumb and index finger, slowly tracing a path down Luke’s chest and stomach with just enough pressure to gauge the tempo of his breathing. He followed that path with his mouth, toying with a nipple that peaked between his teeth, slowly working his way downward until his lips created moist patterns in the groove between hip and thigh. Luke moaned and turned into the caress.

Leaning over, Han took him in his mouth, plunging himself in the welcome mists of sensation — touch, scent, and taste like a living shelter. Luke surged forward, then caught back the mindless response, trembling.

"Oh, no, you’re not stopping now," Han growled and dived again.

He felt the heat gather and swell in his mouth and let it take over. For a while, he kept a firm grip on the slim hips that writhed towards him, each taunting caress fetching broken sounds of pleasure. A shiver concentrated at the nape of his neck where Luke’s fingers played and tightened.

Bracing himself, Han loosened his hold and slid his hand under Luke’s back, searching, probing, before he drove two fingers into him. He sucked harder as Luke bucked in a near-frenzied rhythm, and even though his own body had released all tension, the pleasure was raw and cleansing as it raced through him in a mirrored wave. Luke filled his mouth and his senses, and his own hand shook where it rested on Luke’s thigh. Heartbeat drummed anxiously, too hard and fast, a spark in the night’s darkness.

Later, when they’d finally undressed and slipped under the cover together, Han felt the warmth leach out of his body, drain from his mind, and he knew what would crawl in next to fill out the hollow places within. Nightmare had become his home ground, and all the defenses he’d built against it had just been washed away.

* * *

Although no natural light reached into the room, Luke could feel the night wane outside, cowering before the pale ghosts of dawn that reflected across the lesser moon. All around him, the dark was alive with a sense of haunted waiting. He hadn’t been able to sleep much and knew without question that Han was awake as well, although he kept his eyes closed and his breathing even. He should be exhausted, Luke thought. Instead, Han had folded up around something fierce and consuming. Through the brittle shields, Luke could sense it churn. A raging vibrancy, it came and went in the taut stillness that was so unlike Han.

The mission? Luke wondered. Bespin? Or something buried even deeper, revisiting from a disclaimed life before he’d known Han? It trembled on the edge of cognition and slipped from reach again as if goading him. Even apart, his awareness of Han had sharpened to a strange degree, evidence of the way he felt, or the progress he’d made learning the surreptitious currents of the Force, or both.

He turned slowly and touched Han’s face. "You’re not sleeping."

Han gave a grunt. "Don’t really feel like it."

"Why?" Luke paused. "What about... those dreams?"

"They’re not dreams, they’re memories."

He’d expected reluctance or denial where there were none. Nothing but the flat note in Han’s voice that could be resignation. Or terror. No, not that, Luke thought. Entirely impossible.

But the dark kept weaving into a barrier of physical substance, and suddenly he couldn’t endure it any longer. Luke touched the panel over the bunk and brought up the lighting to its lowest level. Han stared at him from narrowed eyes.

"I want out of it all," he said, his voice low and intense.

Luke leaned up on his elbow to search the stony profile. Not so long ago, those words would have bruised him, but that kind of selfish innocence had given way to complex worries. Something was deeply wrong — and very different from what he’d suspected. "What happened on that outpost?" he asked on impulse.

Han shrugged. "You know the routine. It’s a dirty little war like any other. We hit them, they hit back. Maybe some day they’ll just hit harder. Or it could go on and on..."

"Not forever."

"Well, I guess you should know." Resentment had crept into Han’s tone. "With your foresight and all. But tell me one thing, Luke... if you have all that special power, why don’t you use it?"

"How? You think it’s that easy, and the war will simply be over?" Startled, Luke met Han’s gaze and wanted desperately to catch something familiar, the old mocking light in Han’s eyes that reduced everything ominous and grave to manageable format. "Even if I could do such a thing... How many times’ve you told me that authority and corruption are one and the same thing? And now you want me to—"

"Maybe I’m just sick of seeing it all go to waste," Han stopped him. "Look, I don’t care, I’ll just get myself shot down one day. You’re the guy who wants to make a difference. What’d almighty Yoda have to say about it?"

Luke frowned, struggling to think past the bleakness in Han’s words. Power had never figured in Yoda’s lessons. Not in the abstract sense, and not in the way he’d felt it around Vader, coiling like electricity. "Yoda warned me..." He trailed off.

"Against confronting Vader and the Dark Side," Han supplied in a dry voice. "And you had no idea what you were up against."

But you do, Luke thought. Abrupt knowledge drove through him with a dizzying tremor. He knew. How he’d blinded himself all along, clutching at a different, gentler ache, promising himself that Han would be all right and nothing had changed. Without thought, he stretched harder, focused mind and inner sight on Han until he felt the wild fluctuations brush his own presence —

But Han recoiled, and his reaction slammed into Luke, driving him away with the force of sheer instinct. "Don’t ever do that again!" Han snarled.

Luke stared at him. Han couldn’t have noticed, no one without training could possibly feel his tenuous contact with the Force. "I didn’t mean to..." Whatever. He’d intruded. He hadn’t been thinking.

With a brief shake of the head, Han rubbed a fist over his brow, knuckles white with pressure. "Doesn’t matter. It’s too late anyway. C’mere."

In another wild mood swing, he unclenched his hand to wrap it around Luke’s neck and pulled him into a crushing embrace. Luke reached back, gliding his palm down Han’s side in a helpless caress and wished he could be blind again. Han was almost shaking with the tension, truth urging to the surface, savage enough to rip him apart.

I’m with you, Luke thought, his heart beating out time that slipped through their fingers. "Why did Vader let us go?" he asked, because he had to, his face buried at Han’s shoulder. "You know, don’t you? Tell me now."

There was a rap on the door, and they both flinched, breaking the tight hold.

"Captain Solo?" a colorless voice called. "Time for the debriefing."

"How do they know you’re here?" Luke asked under his breath, but Han wasn’t listening.

"Damn them," he muttered, his face ashen. "Oh, Gods."

* * *

Luke could tell right away that much more than an ordinary debriefing was going on. Only a few Intell officers had gathered in the conference room, and Leia had returned from Sullust in the company of General Madine, now the ranking officer around the base. But more than the General’s unexpected attendance, a looming sense of guarded anticipation warned Luke.

No one looked directly at Han when he strode down the steps and headed for a seat. Halfway across the room, Commander Rittin intercepted him, waving Han towards the front row. Discomfort soured the commander’s expression.

Luke turned to the sound of quick steps on rubber soles and saw the Durosian doctor approach down the corridor, a datapad tucked under his arm. It was like a web tightening. Like pieces of a puzzle locking together to create a damning silence around Han.

Slipping into a chair by the door, Luke rubbed cold hands together and tried to catch Leia’s eyes. Officially, he hadn’t been summoned to this meeting that exuded all the chilling rigors of a court martial. Leia seemed unaware of him as she took a seat beside Madine on the dais. The door slid shut. When Luke glanced sideways, an armed guard had posted himself by the exit, a live blockade.

Madine shifted printouts on the desk top and leaned forward, fingers steepling. "Well, now," he said, his tone a fair imitation of jovial. "Good morning, gentlemen. Princess. Shall we begin?"

Begin what? Luke thought as the general’s eyes roamed, confirming his command of the situation. He’d never seen Madine out of uniform and still found it hard to believe that the man was Corellian. On good days, Han called him a blockhead. Strict, ambitious, and without a modicum of humor, Madine combined the living opposites of all the qualities that defined Han.

"Commander Rittin," Madine resumed, "let me start by saying that I appreciate your promptness. I received your report last night and have studied it carefully." A thin smile formed on his mouth. "Let me also congratulate you on the success of your mission. You have provided information that may well prove crucial for the Alliance. The losses your team has suffered will not be in vain."

So there had been casualties. Across the distance, Luke caught Rittin’s short nod of acknowledgment.

Madine’s smile disappeared as if switched off. "However," he said, "certain points in your report require clarification, in particular where Captain Solo’s assignment to your team is involved. It has also been suggested that these... open points are connected with recent events on Bespin, when Captain Solo was captured and interrogated by the Imperial forces."

"Sir." Rittin raised a hand. "I certainly did not suggest such a connection."

"I am aware of it, Commander." Madine settled back and scrubbed a hand through his neatly trimmed beard. "Would you please start by recapitulating."

"We’d planned an attack on the Imperial party that would give the appearance of a street robbery," the commander said. "While two Imperials remained with their shuttle to oversee the recharge, we tailed the others to their lodge. Captain Solo volunteered to guard the docking bay, and Lieutenant Antrim joined him. At this point, we were not aware whether the classified information would be found in the shuttle’s databanks or on a personal pad carried by the Imperial consul."

"What were the orders you gave Captain Solo?" Madine asked.

"To observe the Imperial ship until further notice. Sir."

"And what did you find upon your return to the docking bays?"

Apprehension sent a swift chill down Luke’s spine.

"Both Imperial officers had been killed," Rittin answered neutrally. "Lieutenant Antrim was missing. And Captain Solo had managed to locate and download the data we’d hoped to obtain."

"Killed — how? And what happened to Lieutenant Antrim?" There was a morbid eagerness in Madine’s voice.

"One of them had been shot at close range," the commander reported. "The second officer bled to death from a knife injury. As for Lieutenant Antrim, we retrieved his body from a storage compartment in the docking bay."

"Shot also," Madine supplied.

Reality skewed ever so slightly. At the back of the room, Luke held his breath in denial. They had all killed. Dear gods, they’d even whooped in triumph sometimes, when speed and hazard reduced space battle to a split-second exchange of fire, and the enemy remained faceless. But this —

"Captain Solo," Madine said into the numbing silence, "is there anything you’d like to add to those observations?"

Han’s head lifted sharply. "No."

"Would you care to explain what befell in the docking bay, while you were under strict orders not to take any action?"

"What do you suppose happened?" Han charged with heavy sarcasm. "If you thought you’d joined the choir boys, you’ve got the wrong outfit."

"We assume that your presence was noticed and you came under attack," Leia intervened for the first time, ignoring the general’s quick sidelong glance. "Forced to defend yourself, you took advantage of the situation and salvaged the data. All that remains puzzling is the location of Lieutenant Antrim’s body."

"He... heard something," Han returned after a long pause. Shoulders hunched forward, he seemed to be staring at his own hands. "Noises from their shuttle. Wanted to check them out right away. I told him leave it, but... he couldn’t wait to become another damn fool hero, I guess. I was just gonna alert the commander, when I heard the shots. That’s all."

"That’s all?" Madine echoed incredulously. "And you just rushed in, killed a pair of Imperial officers and hid Antrim’s body?"

Han straightened out slowly, every line of his body tense. "I don’t remember that part," he said at length.

Smoldering anger had roughened his voice, and Luke felt numbness settle over him like a frost that seized every nerve.

In another instant, Han’s temper flared into rage and drove him from his seat. "What’re you trying to hang on me?" he barked. "What’s your problem, Madine?"

"The problem, Captain Solo, is that your memory seems to fail you in other important areas as well." Madine sifted through the printouts before him. "Following your return from Bespin, you were interviewed about the details of your capture, in particular the questions you were asked under torture. I need not explain the necessity of that procedure, unpleasant as it may be. It transpired that Darth Vader had interrogated you personally, but you claimed not to recall any of it. Is that correct?"

"’S gotta be, if you have it in your blasted report," Han snapped.

Madine regarded him evenly. "Captain Solo, we are not your enemies. You’ve been of invaluable help for the Alliance, but we have to investigate the circumstances of Lieutenant Antrim’s death, and I must add that random butchery is not the way we prefer to deal with our enemies. Concerns about your mental stability have been raised, and I cannot ignore that either."

For a moment it looked as if Han would storm up the dais, then he backed off slowly and shook his head. "You bastard," Luke heard him whisper.

No one reacted to the insult. Luke twisted his fingers together, hard. He should feel something, but his mind had been swept blank.

Pushing the printouts aside, Madine turned to the Durosian doctor. "Doctor Ferin, can you verify Captain Solo’s supposed amnesia?"

The Durosian’s face crinkled into a profusion of worry lines. "Our examination turned up traces of lingering trauma when Captain Solo was first delivered into our care," he said. "There is a distinct possibility that partial amnesia was caused, but over a week had elapsed since the event. Memory engrams recorded after such a time span are never entirely conclusive."

"Did you scan Solo’s memory engrams upon his return last night?" Madine persisted.

"I was not ordered to do so," the doctor returned stiffly.

"Of course not," Leia cut in before Madine could speak again. "Yet it would seem that such an examination could provide us with much-needed information." Her eyes found Han, and even over the distance Luke could see all the anguish she’d banished from her voice. "Captain Solo, if you would submit to the procedure..."

A lean hand gestured angrily. "Why not," Han said in a flat, hard tone.

"Good. We will resume this hearing when Doctor Ferin has completed his examination." Leia rose, commanding Madine’s attention with an icy glance. "General, we need to talk."

* * *

For a long while, Luke sat on the edge of his bunk, trapped in stunned incredulity. Time drifted like a fog above his head. An imprint of Han’s body remained on the sheets and the pillow where his scent lingered. And each breath Luke hauled in only deepened the chill.

He should have done something. Defend Han, question the procedures. Protest against Madine’s insinuations, the case he was trying to build. Insanity. Beyond that, Luke couldn’t think.

The sound of a soft knock lashed through him, absurdly amplified, and he rushed for it, sweeping the door open. Anything to be snapped out of this.

Leia’s face was pale and when she essayed a smile, it only deepened the lines around her mouth. "Luke..." She reached out to hug him gently. "I know how you must be feeling."

"You do?" He captured her hand for a moment, squeezing thin fingers as if that could speed some answers. "What’s going on, Leia? What happened? How can Madine treat Han like — like a traitor?"

"It’s standard procedure." Leia threw both hands up in exasperation. "Oh, Madine is such a law-and-order type. He doesn’t mean to be hostile, he just can’t help it."

Anger stirred sharply, leaving a bilious taste as Luke swallowed a hot retort back down. "But what is he on to? He can’t seriously believe that Han killed Antrim!"

"No, I don’t think he does." Leia paced a few steps, arms folded. "But beside other concerns, we must also make sure that the plans our commando retrieved are genuine. The Empire could intend to bait us by playing certain information into our hands, Luke. It has been tried before. Combined with the fact that Han doesn’t seem to remember, that’s quite enough to call for an investigation. If Han could at least tell us what Vader wanted from him..."

"What do you expect from someone who’s been tortured?" Luke snapped.

Leia wrapped both arms around herself, hugging tightly. Held aboard the Death Star three years ago, she’d been subjected to similar procedures, but they’d never talked about it.

"You should know," Luke said, his voice thickened by acute discomfort. "I mean, how did you manage — what was it like for you?"

When her brown eyes lifted again, a defiant young girl looked back at him, an unwilling specter from the past. "I don’t know if I can explain," Leia said, dragging words from the silence she’d built around old injuries. "It was like an instinctive reaction... I simply collapsed in on myself. And nothing could reach me anymore."

Luke bit his lip. It hadn’t been the same for Han. The past weeks reared to offer injurious evidence, but honest to himself, he’d felt it on Dagobah, when those gut-wrenching screams split his senses — and only this morning... "Then you don’t remember either?" he asked.

"Bits and pieces. It’s all very vague... thankfully." Agitation radiated from Leia’s small frame as she resumed pacing. "It’s not just that," she said intensely. "Han has... practically alienated everyone since our escape."

Luke scraped the heel of his boot against the floor and said nothing.

"Except you," Leia admitted with a sigh, pausing, "but, Luke—"

His hand shot up, and he was surprised at the rush of anger into the gesture that seemed to curl around his fingers like a minor current of electricity. "Don’t say it!"

For the first time, he saw her flinch from him. "We must consider all possibilities," Leia returned with trenchant sobriety, shoulders steeling as she checked her reaction. "There’s such a thing as... subconscious conditioning, for instance."

"What about all the psychologoical tests they ran on Han?" Luke shook his head. "They should’ve turned up something."

"Not if an unknown technique was used. Not if they buried the commands so deep that he couldn’t reach them... until they’re triggered."

"And then he’ll suddenly run amok? You’re wrong, Leia."

Two steps took her close to him, and Leia searched his face a moment before answering. "I’d rather not be. The alternative is nothing I’d like to contemplate."

"What, that Vader has... turned Han, and he’s just waiting to shoot us in the back?" Luke’s fingers curled into fists. "I don’t want to hear this. Han would kill himself sooner than—"

He broke off, his own words striking terror through him. He couldn’t say that he hadn’t been warned. It was unsettling to think just how much Han had tried to warn him off.

Luke crushed the thought with a savage sweep of will. There had to be another explanation, a way to make sense of this.

"We’ll find out," Leia said, but she didn’t touch him again as she turned towards the door. "And we’ll find a way to help Han."

Left to himself and the random stings of premonition, Luke showered for a long time, but the cold refused to release him. When he stepped from the stall, he caught sight of himself in a scratched reflector. Naked, the tension knotting muscles so hard they showed anatomically clear through his skin. He touched the hollow of his throat, ran his hand downward to recapture the route Han’s fingers had invented across his chest and belly. The sense of a want so deep and desperate, it reared violence and shaped tenderness as if both were the same. He recalled the bruising pressure of Han’s arms around him and the whisper of a breath that fanned heat across his skin. The mirror misted over with steam escaping from the shower stall.

Luke toweled himself off mechanically. He’d been condemned to impotent watching, helpless against the grotesque machinery of military protocol that threatened to bury Han beneath it. They could put him through more tests and painstaking interviews, chart his soul, dissect his loyalties. Drive him away for good, if nothing worse.

If only I had the power to stop it, Luke thought. A shiver snaked under his skin. Han believed he possessed that power — and more.

Just like Ben had manipulated the stormtroopers in Mos Eisley, he should be able to influence Madine and suggest a different line of questioning. Prompt an attitude that would allow Han to relax and share whatever he knew. Perhaps the Force could be used on Doctor Ferin’s mind too, compelling him to deliver exonerating evidence.

Luke shook himself free with an effort, denying the pull of spiteful fantasies, churned out by resentment and fear. He had to be calm. He closed himself around memory, around the sparks of warmth and anguish, sheltering them. I’m with you, Han. With all I have, all that I am. And he refused to believe that it might not be enough.

* * *

Several hours had passed by the time Doctor Ferin returned from the clinic, followed by Han and a sullen Rebel guard. Luke stood by the door to the conference room where he’d waited all along. The walls and ceiling were a chalky white; stare at them long enough and they began to extend infinitely.

Acknowledging him with a short nod, the doctor brushed past, and the guard was gracious enough to take himself out of earshot.

"Han." Luke reached for his arm, searching sensitive nerve under the fabric. Impossible to say this, at the worst of times and places, without touching him.

"I love you."

He felt a distant tremor from Han, a sensation in the mind more than his flesh, and found a smile. "Nothing’s going to change that."

Emotion flashed in Han’s eyes, a storm seething through dusky clouds. For a moment, they were locked in a strange conspiracy of silence over something neither of them understood, then a clatter of steps broke in, harsh as gunfire.

"Don’t be too sure," Han said hoarsely. "Luke... I’m sorry."

When they entered, Doctor Ferin had climbed the dais to present his results. Madine’s scowl competed with the Durosian’s as he looked up. Beside him, Leia was quietly removed as if contemplating broken shards at her feet and the possibility of piecing them back together. Luke took a seat in the middle of the auditorium.

"Close the doors, please. Now." Madine’s larynx bobbed sharply. "Captain Solo, it won’t come as a surprise to you that no medical data validate your claim to amnesia. However, Doctor Ferin has made me aware of certain abnormal readings, detected during the cerebral scan."

Luke shifted fretfully. From where he sat, he could see Han’s unmoved profile. Hands resting on his thighs, he sprawled carelessly in his seat. Maybe he wasn’t even listening.

"Doctor, if you could please elaborate," Leia said tersely.

"Not at this time, I’m afraid." Ferin tapped his datapad with an expression of worried distaste. "The patterns traced by today’s scan differ greatly from earlier engrams. Only long-term observation can determine the degree and possible cause of these anomalies."

"Very well." With a nod for the doctor, Madine turned back to his printouts. "Captain Solo, do you want to retract your earlier statement that you cannot remember the incident in question?"

"You callin’ me a liar, Madine?" Han asked back with a cheerless grin.

Annoyance stained the general’s cheeks. "No formal charges have been filed at this point," he said. "But perhaps I should point out that there is enough evidence here to warrant proceedings against you. Your unexplained disappearances—"

"What disappearances, General?" Leia cut in.

"I took a shuttle planetside, ‘bout a week ago," Han supplied.

Madine ignored him. "Since Lieutenant Antrim is no longer among us to testify," he continued acerbically, "there is a period of several hours in the docking bay to account for. For all we know, Captain Solo could have used that time to confer with the Imperials."

"Sure, we had a beer and then I just butchered them like you say. Makes sense."

Searching Han’s expression, Luke watched for signs that would betray the pose in his sarcastic detachment and found none. Ruthless arrogance had taken the place of anger.

"You must understand our concern," Leia said. "Darth Vader is one of our worst enemies — Han, you know that as well as I do. If our plans are revealed to him, he will destroy the Rebel Alliance as surely as he destroyed Alderaan."

"He didn’t do that exactly." Han leaned back and glanced at the ceiling. "Tarkin was in charge of the Death Star, remember?"

Leia slapped both hands down on the desk. "How can you say that? You weren’t even there!" Her voice trembled dangerously.

"There we have it!" Madine said with grim satisfaction. "Sympathy with Imperial policies, Captain Solo? Or personal sympathy with Lord Vader? Perhaps you feel obliged for your surprisingly easy escape from Bespin?" Avid expectation sent another crimson flush into his pale cheeks. "It has been brought to my attention that on several occasions you’ve voiced opinions that might be regarded as traitorous."

Han turned his head slowly until his glance found Luke, and for a moment his eyes flickered, furious with betrayal. Luke returned a breathless shake of the head. He hadn’t mentioned anything to anybody.

"Maybe I’m just tired of the whole goddamn war." Han aimed a stone-faced glare at Madine. "Remember one thing, General. You got no jurisdiction here, and I ain’t part of your sorry troops. I don’t owe you nothing."

"I think," Madine said carefully, "it is time to disclose the subject of your conversations with Lord Vader. He singled you out for a purpose. And for my part, I believe that you remember it well."

Luke felt a cold stir in his chest, slowly gaining definition. Something curdled on the edges of his perception, thickening the air around him.

"You do, huh?" Han’s short laugh cut the silence, a chilling, soulless sound. He leaned forward. "Why don’t you ask his son?"

"His son?" Madine glowered at him. "What madness is this?"

Luke’s breath turned to ice in his lungs as Han glanced over his shoulder — straight at him. It took only the space of a heartbeat, and reality splintered into a myriad cutting pieces, reflecting and refracting the cool gaze that indicted him.

"He’s here," Han said.

"Luke?" Leia cried. "That’s crazy, Han!"

"Damnit, Solo!" Madine slammed his fist against the desk, scattering foils and papers. "If you think you can get away spreading filthy Imperial propaganda, you are mistaken!"

Slowly, almost clumsily, Han gained his feet. "It’s the truth," he said, his voice rasping. "He has... the same power."

Luke sat back, and it felt like falling. Shock ripped through him like a scream that made no sound and drove inward instead, a missile tearing his heart, his lungs. Vader’s son. He remembered the cave on Dagobah. And believed it.

A few steps away from him, Han lurched forward, stumbling into a guard who’d snapped from his frozen repose. When Han slumped, the man barely caught him by his shoulders. In slow motion, Han slid to the floor.

"Alert security!" Madine snapped.

Leia pushed her chair back sharply. "General Madine, you will discuss all further measures with me first. Captain Solo is a very sick man."

"That is most probably true," Doctor Ferin joined. "I shall have him taken to the clinic at once."

"I will assign a guard to watch him," Madine insisted.

"To prevent him from running?" Leia asked sarcastically.

Luke heard their voices over a great, distorting distance. They were part of a different continuum where right and wrong held each other in a faltering balance, where truth could hope for comfort. They didn’t see his fall. All their attention was focused on Han as a team of medics swept in and gathered him on an antigrav stretcher. The dark head lolled, asserting unconsciousness, but Luke could feel a spark of awareness holed up deep inside Han’s mind. A sheltered place where Han was plotting escape.

I know, Luke thought numbly. There’s nothing left for you here.

Nobody noticed when he slipped from the room. All his life he’d chased after his own curiosity, asking questions that flustered his guardians, always yearning to see and to know. He’d never been warned that the truth would maim him. Or perhaps he’d just preferred to ignore those warnings.

Outside, he took off his jacket and knotted its sleeves around his waist, desperately needing to move. If he didn’t, the silence that wrapped around him would implode. The truth had turned him into a blank slate, uncharted territory full of sheer drops into darkness. He ran.

Vader’s son. Why hadn’t they told him?

The answers were far too obvious. Because this kind of truth would crush all they’d tried to make of him, and their only choice was between a sheltering lie and merciful execution. How could they dare to let him live? Luke could see his own face inside the black mask again. Death had locked an expression of disbelief on those waxen features — clay in the hands of power that struggled for possession of him. Fury and terror made their sickening progress through his insides. He couldn’t let them overtake him. He ran faster.

He was still running when sunset faded into a milky darkness that mocked him with its gentleness. All that was left of him had clenched up into a hard, unfeeling knot, but the coldness allowed thoughts of Han and gave way to comprehension that was long overdue.

It all made terrible sense, like a flawless nightmare. The change, the struggle that consumed Han little by little.

And I thought you could love me. Vader’s son.

Sensation registered somewhere within the void, a bright flash he would have labeled pain in another life. Now it almost warmed him, and he held it close, running from the words Han must have swallowed back down time and again.

Vader did this to me. And you’re his son.

At least Han would be free. To Doctor Ferin, he was a medical puzzle, a subject of study, not a prisoner. And Leia knew how to control Madine’s martial tendencies.

Han would find a way to escape, surely.

To forget, maybe.

Somewhere in the distance, the slow grind of engines started up like the sound of hope. Luke threw his head back and imagined the Falcon’s flight across the nightsky. Be free, Han. Perhaps there was hope for him too, if he could still feel loss and loneliness. And perhaps it was his private path into darkness. From hope into terror and from terror into rage.

Why didn’t you tell me? he released that silent scream. But there was no answer, only the wilted memories someone else had collected and called his own. The one they’d wanted him to be.

Run, Luke, run.

He ran faster.

* * * * *

Two days later, in the hour before dawn, a hot-wired shuttle tore through Varoo’s cloud-heavy atmosphere and streaked towards Sullust’s nightside. Alone on his bunk, Luke traced its path with an inner sight that no longer allowed him any sleep. He shivered under the thin cover. There was a faint sense of relief at having passed this test. A little while later, he got up and dressed.

When a siren howled out grouchily, he’d already packed his scarce belongings. News arrived that Han had camouflaged his escape by tucking a deactivated droid into his clinic bed. By that time, Luke sat in a communications booth, waiting for a request to be filed, his hands restless. In his stiff back, the immobility of two days lingered. Keeping away from the clinic had been trial as much as necessity, a duty owed. A small price for Han’s liberty.

The console chimed softly, shining confirmation at him in effervescent green. Through several relays, Luke made a formal appointment with the representatives of the Alliance Council on Sullust. His own transport took off when the white curve of the lesser moon disappeared behind Varoo’s mountains. Luke made himself watch until the base, the crags, and the listless rivers had all been swallowed up in ice-crystal clouds.

* * *

Leia found him on a small landing platform, its expanse designed for civilian vehicles, not the battered one-man fighters parked in the shadow of an industrial complex. Luke was in his flightsuit and watched as a binary lifter lowered Artoo into the X-wing’s astromech socket. Anxiety formed a troubling knot in her throat.

"Why are you avoiding me?" she asked, not raising her voice, certain that he’d expected her anyway.

"Leia."

He turned, and she forced herself to meet his gaze steadily. Acknowledge the change in him, the painful growth that tightened the lines of his face into an expression of permanent wariness. His eyes had misted over, as if something distant and compelling commanded his vision and mind.

"You know that I can’t accept your choice," Leia insisted.

A thin smile bent his mouth, but it did little to alleviate her worries, because there was no trace of his youthful brightness left in it.

"I know," he said patiently. "But everyone of us has to follow their own path. Remember? You said that when—"

"Yes, I remember," she interrupted. "And I don’t think it applies." Ruthlessly, she cut to the heart of the matter. "Is this Han’s influence on you? Just because he has no sense of responsibility and discipline—"

"Leia!" For an instant, temper flashed in his eyes, clean and achingly familiar, but it drowned just as quickly. "This is all about responsibility and discipline and my own duties," Luke said, his voice almost without inflection. "You want a Jedi for the Rebellion, and that’s why I have to leave. I’ve resigned my commission because I must complete my training. The Council left me no other choice."

"Because you’re needed."

"Needed to stay hidden until it’s safe for me to crawl out from this hole?" he asked scathingly.

"You’re putting yourself in a very dangerous position," Leia insisted. "Men like Madine find it difficult to understand your decision."

He regarded her with unflinching, terrible calm. "Because I’m Vader’s son."

"Nobody believes that, Luke!" She hesitated, her need to say more so urgent that it almost took her breath. But the time hadn’t come yet, and he wasn’t ready to listen. Despite herself, Leia sent a silent curse after Han. For his betrayal, his arrogance, his inability to admit weakness and defeat. "You’re not going after him, are you?" she asked.

Of course Luke knew who she was talking about. A vulnerable expression crossed his face, and he glanced aside. "Han has spent half his life sailing under false IDs. The galaxy is wide, and if he doesn’t want to be found..."

"He’s insane," Leia said. "He needs our help." But all she could count on was the vague possibility that Han would try to contact Chewbacca and reclaim the ship he loved.

"I need answers," Luke returned after a pause. "I have to go to Dagobah."

Leia shook her head. "We have so little time left."

"I’ll be back," he assured her. "Soon. As soon as I can."

But even as he offered the promise, Leia could sense how much he was hiding. Not the wild hurt or confused anger she might have expected. All that remained was cold anticipation. As if every feeling had gone out of him.

* * * * *

Han’s fingers slid across the flight console and initiated final course corrections. The yacht’s command responses were sluggish, a rich man’s toy never meant to perform under extreme conditions, but he wasn’t planning to keep her anyway. For his present purpose, she would do.

Her speed was nothing like the Falcon’s either. With the Falcon, he could have turned this dive into a powerful rush, driving himself starblind before a single thought gained his attention.

On the console, indicators flickered anxiously, announcing a steep incline of hull temperature. Burn, baby, burn, he thought with sardonic amusement.

Shame he had to use a stolen craft, there was something flawed about racing towards the sweet, annihilating brilliance out there in someone else’s ship. Or maybe it was just an old error surfacing.

Integrity, honor. Concepts that had meant something a long time ago, until he’d discarded all that ballast and allowed only one purpose. Freedom. He could still have that now. At a certain price.

Han settled back and watched the primary star in front of him grow, filling the viewport. He could see the corona flare, the silent explosions of prominences striking out at empty space. Luke was of that same light. Come too close, get burned, he couldn’t help it. Sunwinds rocked Han’s rickety craft. Tarnished gold filled his vision until his eyes stung, and something within him righted itself, shifted back into balance. Han drew a deep breath. All over in a few more moments.

Burn, hummed the laboring engines that carried him towards a hard, feverish light.

A second later, all sound died around him. Han had no time left to check the controls before a violent lurch sent him headlong into darkness.

 

Endor

The Dark Lord contemplated the purity of light emanating from faraway suns, traversing the starkness of vacuum. Powerful in its raw, actinic glare, light progressed unhindered; measure of time and motion, its velocity the gauge for interstellar travel. Unaware and unwavering, the light charged forth until it collided with another celestial body. Fell into atmosphere, drowned in hydrogen, to be bent and fractured into the murkier hues of mortal existence.

This light fell on a steel wraith in orbit around Endor, mocking the shape and shading of a smaller, pock-marked moon. Incomplete. Deceptively so.

As the Dark Lord’s gaze swept across the battle station, his thoughts turned to the completion of plans and ambitions refined over long years. Impatience stirred and was instantly quenched. Soon, his son would be with him. Luke — no longer so innocent, so guileless and self-righteous in his callow passions.

It was done. He had felt his son’s lust, his eager submission to a transitory fever. His violent distress when sentimental delusion exposed its core of treacherous, selfish need.

Vader clasped gloved hands behind his back. Indeed, it had been strange to witness such wanton indulgence in his own child, feel it beckon to the memory of long-discarded foolishness. But once that fever passed, it would foster immunity, and different yearnings would take its place. For the potency of vision, the purity of power. A mind flung out towards the future would choose detachment, the kind of solitude that fused passion and discipline into a source of inexhaustible strength. And this, my son, we will share, the Dark Lord thought. Soon.

Isolated from his companions, Luke had already taken the first steps, steered on destiny’s path by an ignorant smuggler. Vader spared a fleeting thought for the irony in this. Some of the developments had surprised him, it was true, yet the ramifications were fascinating to observe. In his unpredictable, blundering fashion, Solo had served the very purpose he had fought with such senseless, self-destructive vigor. He’d efficiently driven a wedge between Luke and the Rebellion, leaving the boy moorless, in need of directions.

During the past weeks, Vader had often sensed Luke’s questing spirit, seeking his presence in pain and anger. Father? he challenged, trapped in a paradox that bound him to the truth he denied. Almost ready, Vader knew. But beyond acknowledgment, he had not answered the boy’s call. Curiosity was one of Luke’s most pronounced traits and in time would decide the struggle.

Time. The Dark Lord turned from the forward viewport and paced thoughtfully. Time had scarcely figured in his calculations until he was summoned to Endor. A thread of uneasiness wove through him as he recalled his last conversation with the Emperor. Why the sudden insistence that he should supervise the Death Star’s construction?

Indulge me, my friend, Palpatine had answered him, affecting caprice to conceal calculation. Bear with me, and you won’t be disappointed. We shall see the Rebellion destroyed, you and I.

Of that, Vader had no doubt, but the Emperor’s orders coincided unfavorably with the most sensitive stage of his own plans. No, the Dark Lord thought impatiently, coincidence had no part in it. And it troubled him greatly.

* * *

When Luke stepped outside and crossed the wooden platform, a great stillness folded around him. Through the trees, the evening sky was a curve of frosty blue glass, and no breath of air touched his face. Indistinct sounds floated in soft bubbles from the rough timber structures that clung to the massive trees like bulky nesting places. A drum stick twirled up dry and nervous rhythms. Luke wandered to the railing and leaned against it.

All around him, those small, rampant noises of life were swallowed into the stillness of the Force. Poised, its sweeping currents had fermented into a denser mass that electrified the air, but no storm came. The night just grew heavier, falling over trees and village like a tar blanket. Luke heard his own breath and in reflex tried to quieten himself, before it could give him away. Lush foliage dusted the shadows and laced a loose canopy overhead, yet he felt exposed, infernally visible. Breath and heartbeat and his body’s negligible warmth like an energy signature. No doubt that Vader knew his exact location, wherever he walked on the sanctuary moon. Sanctuary. The irony in that.

During their passage to Endor, there had been a brief, heart-stopping moment of acknowledgment, like weeds sliding through water, brushing within the current.

Father.
Son.

At least the past months had taught him how to breathe, think, exist with that truth. The monstrosity that lived inside him, occasionally uncurling to rake its claws through his flesh and feast on his very essence. He’d learned how to let it feed. Maybe that was why he’d spent such a long time on Tatooine.

Isolating the carrier of that endemic truth in the desolation of the Jundland Wastes. Exposing body and mind to the purge of blinding heat, where the patterns of wind and light were as intimately familiar as the rhythms of his own body. Where he could be sure that every visiting demon was his own soul’s creation. Dust storms had burned thin lines into his face, sand had settled on his hair and shoulders and made him invisible under the suns. And what Yoda had tried to teach him about the endurance of stones at last made sense.

There’d been moments when he’d reached that state of supreme, timeless detachment. Inert like a rock baking in the heat. But it had never been more than an escape.

Perhaps, Luke thought, he’d chosen Tatooine because it meant safety, absurd as that was; because it quickened withdrawal into the remoteness of his own mind — until he’d accepted that he’d never be safe again. His own thoughts turned against him, inventing lives he’d never led and possibilities he couldn’t dare. Instead of one, there were many of him, a legion of dry ghosts of the desert.

Change had come on the most basic level of organic existence, with the demands of his body, refusing to wither. With a strong heartbeat that urged him out on a run before the suns rose, hands that demanded activity. It was then that he’d started to construct a new lightsaber, its cool weight now taunting against his hip. Luke closed his eyes.

...the lightblade blossomed from his hand — again — as if he’d been given another life, cast in a different color, and damned if he knew what to do with it, but he’d been just as ignorant the last time, when Ben had placed that steel promise in his palm, together with the unfelt weight of his lie. His eyes burned and he licked wetness off his lips, tasted salt, didn’t think he could have cried those tears. Not in the torridness of Tatooine. But the blade pulsed and shone eagerly. He couldn’t stay in the desert any more than he could stop his own breathing.

From the drought of Tatooine, he’d traveled to Dagobah, for the first time aware how the savage profusion of life on that humid world bordered on rot and decay.

Your father he is, Yoda muttered unhappily, but Luke no longer needed that confirmation, he’d already left disbelief a good distance behind. And he wasn’t surprised that no one could make a Jedi of him except himself. A misfortune, a hybrid of conflicting dreams, he didn’t fit any known patterns. And still they called him their only hope.

As he sat with Yoda through the long dusk, a small warmth had snaked into him. But later on, when the Jedi Master had joined his essence to the light, Luke was unable to tell if Yoda had allowed him near out of utmost acceptance or supreme indifference. And he couldn’t stay on Dagobah either.

According to his teachers, it was up to him to make a difference. His choices would decide the flow of the future when the Force reached its apex, immobile like the sun at noon, casting no shadow. And he knew the difference wasn’t between ascent and decline, but a matter of shadows falling into different directions. That was all.

Not much, he thought bitterly.

Ben and Yoda had both urged him to confront Vader and left it to him to sort through the various meanings of their counsel. Confront his own potential to become Vader and let himself be cut down, much like he’d hacked at his dark twin in the cave? Challenge Vader and kill him in the dispassionate way of the Jedi? Kill his own father and usurp the legacy of power in the name of goodness? Learn to understand his father’s choices, his fall or flight? Competing futures skirted every step he took, and there was nothing within material reality that offered a firm hold.

A soft noise stirred Luke from his thoughts. When he turned, a Rebel soldier hurried across one of the walkways and slipped into the Ewoks’ assembly hut — in search of Leia, most likely. Leia had taken charge of the strike team dispatched to Endor, while Lando would guide the fleet to the half-finished Death Star. Maybe there was justice in the fact that the Falcon would head the attack against the Emperor’s new battle station, and that Chewie would be aboard, assisting her new pilot.

Luke bit his lip. The Falcon had been the first sight that greeted him when he rejoined the Rebels on Sullust, and during an endless second, impossible hopes soared and bled themselves dry. After a long chase, Chewbacca had returned with a liberated Lando, gaunt and worn out from long captivity, but profoundly grateful to the Rebellion. Luke had taken great care to avoid the man’s presence and with it the resentment that surged whenever he looked at Lando, driving discarded pain into his stomach like a knife. It was hardly Lando’s fault that he’d taken Han’s place.

Luke stared hard into the shifting twilight of the forest. Time and again, he’d denied the impulse to cast his heightened senses out into the vast interstellar reaches to search for Han’s presence. It was pointless, a tainted contact that would prolong poisonous memory if Han became aware of him. It shouldn’t be possible, but Han had felt his cautious probe before, and Luke wasn’t sure of much anymore. Instead, he sought out another presence, one like a great, dark storm in the Force. His father. Contained in waiting.

He can afford to wait for me, Luke thought. I have no choice anyway.

A buzz of voices drifted into the night air as the door of the Ewoks’ hut opened again. Light steps approached across the timber platform.

"Something wrong?" he asked without looking at Leia.

"I don’t know." Trouble rang clear in her voice, and when Luke turned, tight lines framed Leia’s mouth. "Some of our group saw an Imperial shuttle land," she explained. "A good distance away from the shield generator, but not too far from here." Her glance moved past him and roamed across the dark trees. "When our ground team located the landing site, there was no sign of the shuttle or its passengers, but two of our scouts were found dead."

"There was a fight?"

"Not even that. They still had their blasters holstered." Leia pulled up her shoulders as if suppressing a shiver. "Someone strangled them."

"But that makes no sense." Luke caught the cold note in his own voice and with some difficulty focused on the puzzle. The zone he’d inhabited during the past months bore little resemblance with Leia’s world of clear goals and straightforward concerns. "I mean, the Imperials would have captured and questioned them."

Leia nodded distantly. "I don’t understand it either. We’ve doubled the watch, but if this is a trap..."

It was time for him to tell her.

"I can’t stay any longer," Luke said gently. "Vader’s somewhere close. I felt his presence when we arrived, and he can feel it when I’m near—"

Before he could continue, Leia had swung towards him, one hand gripping his with urgent pressure. "No, Luke. Don’t leave. Don’t go to him because you believe that lie. Han was wrong!"

Startled, Luke shook his head. "How can you be so sure?"

Her fingers loosened their hold and moved across the back of his hand in a tentative caress. "It will be difficult for you to understand..." Worry was overcome by agitation when Leia looked up again. "There’s something I never told you," she said. "I have a twin brother, separated from me at birth. I wasn’t even supposed to know of his existence. Our father had been killed in the war, our mother died when I was still very young, and Bail Organa raised me like his own daughter."

"But what—?" Luke started.

"Please, hear me out!" Leia took a nervous step to the side. "I overheard a conversation between Bail and... an old friend when I was ten years old. They talked about my brother, worried about his safety. I never mentioned it to anyone." Her eyes wandered, unfocused, conjuring the past. "I was resentful. I thought they were protecting the royal heir to the throne... the male heir. Even then, Palpatine longed to make himself ruler of Alderaan. But later on, I realized that my brother remained hidden because he had Jedi gifts. Ben Kenobi was his appointed guardian." Her head came up sharply. "Yes, Luke. I’m the daughter of Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi knight and student of Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my brother."

The words took a while to unfold in his mind. Luke felt his pulse quicken as instinct refused another permutation of reality. Wherever he looked, the shadows wavered, taunting him with promises that multiplied past and future. "And you — you knew this all along?" he managed. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

"You don’t know how many times I wanted to!" Leia answered, a slim hand moving up to her throat. "Try to understand. When we met — when I began to guess who you were — I also realized that Kenobi had never told you the truth about yourself. And the last thing Bail said to me before I left Alderaan was, ‘trust Obi-Wan Kenobi, follow his advice like you would follow mine.’ I was raised like that, Luke. I assumed they had their reasons for keeping both of us in the dark. They’d given their lives to protect us, and I trusted their wisdom."

"I can’t understand why Ben kept it from me," Luke said softly. "And Yoda... Yoda must’ve known."

But the answer came to him as soon as the words were out. His ignorance protected Leia from Vader. Or had they feared that he would pull Leia down with him, that he’d taint her with his corrupt legacy?

"It doesn’t matter now," Leia said firmly. "I’m your twin sister. Don’t you see what that means?"

He could sense how she wanted him near, just like Vader wanted him — for very differrent purposes certainly, yet both of them drawn to his potential. Impatient to use him like Ben and Yoda had used him, a tool in their schemes.

The voice proposing those thoughts sliced through him with unsparing cold, and Luke flinched from it. He should feel joy at the revelation, build his hopes on this kinship that balanced another. His throat tightened as a shadow of compassion stole into the emptiness that made up such a large part of him. "Leia, think again. Think of what you’re saying!"

She backed away as if she’d caught something in his eyes that made her afraid. "Anakin Skywalker was our father," she repeated. "He died before we were born."

Luke reached for her shoulders. The truth could break Leia’s strength, her resolve to win this war, and he couldn’t burden her with it. Perhaps it was better this way. "I believe you," he whispered.

A tremulous smile formed on Leia’s mouth, and he hugged her, drawing a shallow sense of comfort from her warmth before he made himself continue. "But I still have to go and confront Vader. He can feel my presence through the Force, and as long as I’m with you and the group, I’ll endanger our mission."

Protest tautened Leia’s face. "He’s going to kill you!"

"Show a little more confidence in my abilities." Luke forced a smile. "Look, perhaps I can buy time for us all that way. I can distract him."

"And where will you be when our fleet attacks? A captive on an Imperial ship? Battling him in their outpost when we blow up the shield generator?"

"We’re all putting ourselves in danger. I’m just as ready to die for the Rebellion as you are." His own voice sounded so clear, so calm that Luke almost believed himself.

"Yes," Leia whispered, burying her face at his shoulder. "I just wish, Luke. I just wish."

* * *

All the light that fell into the throne room came from the frosty pattern of stars beyond the window. Pausing at the chamber’s center, Vader kept himself absolutely still.

"I told you to remain on the command ship." Reflected by dark steel, the voice drifted through the crepuscular hall, conveying, without effort, both censure and disinterest.

"A small Rebel force has penetrated the shield and landed on Endor," Vader returned. His decision to ignore given orders had not been made lightly, nor without struggle. Yet if the Emperor were appraised of the Rebels’ movements by a different source, his own loyalties would be untimely questioned.

The Emperor’s throne swiveled sharply. "Yes, I know."

"My son is with them."

Speculation crept into the golden eyes, and that he was allowed to see it gave Vader a clear warning.

"I had expected it," Palpatine said. "As did you, my friend."

Vader indicated a bow of the head, acknowledging the long years of shared ambitions. They knew each other too well. If anything could blind Palpatine to his intentions, it would be overconfidence, glutted by self-indulgent use of the Force.

"It is his destiny," Vader answered, forging fierce belief into a shield that screened more specific purposes. But when Palpatine regarded him thoughtfully, he sensed a quivering, a stirring of too many possibilities in the Force that assailed him with ripples of uneasiness.

"You have waited so long," the Emperor whispered. "And now the time is near. Together we will fold your son in darkness. I can feel your anticipation..."

"It has been a long time indeed, my Master," the Dark Lord agreed.

Palpatine’s demeanor changed abruptly. "And you have not hurried the process," he said, his voice cold and incisive. "For one so eager to ensure the boy’s allegiance, you have demonstrated remarkable patience. You have been very subtle in your approach, Lord Vader. Perhaps too subtle. You could have profited from sharing your plans with me."

Ignoring the final remark, Vader reinforced his shields against the fine probes that molded his thoughts like velvet. "Allowing him to take the first steps on his own will make his allegiance to the Dark Side more permanent and enduring," he said stoically.

"The Dark Side," Palpatine echoed with a wan smile. "Not the Emperor. An interesting choice of words." A pale hand rose, stalling objections which had not been offered yet. "And Captain Solo is such a fascinating instrument, is he not? A single unstable factor can unbalance any system and generate chaos. Don’t misunderstand. I am most impressed by your foresight and daring."

The sting met its mark and for the first time sparked doubt. Vader felt a quick jab of anger at his lack of precaution. He had underestimated Palpatine’s unpredictable curiosity and restless intellect. It would not happen again.

"Solo was never more than a minor tool," he said noncommittally. "He has outlived his purpose."

"I understand your motives," Palpatine retorted silkily. "You did not wish to bother me with trifles and therefore made no mention of Solo. But perhaps you discarded the use of his... natural talents too quickly. You sought to thwart and limit your son’s desires and leave him nothing but one. Once again, we differ in our understanding of power." A soft chuckle spread as the Emperor turned his seat back towards the stars. "Such ascetism, Lord Vader, and in all these years, I have failed to convince you. We shall resolve our argument with the young Skywalker in attendance."

"Yes, my Master." Only part of his keen anticipation slipped into Vader’s tone.

"Good," Palpatine said, stretching the word with relish. "Go to the Sanctuary Moon, and when he comes to you, bring him before me."

* * *

Soft mists wound between the large trees and clustering ferns on the forest floor, and from dark blue heights came the distant calls of hunting nightbirds. Luke walked slowly, his senses drenched in the constantly changing tapestry of sounds, scents, and mobile shadows. They washed around him, affirming an abundance of unconcerned life of which he was no longer part, and he needed to remind himself of it one last time.

Somewhere nearby, the waters of a lake licked a reedy shore with lazy insistence. Pausing, Luke probed the Force. He was in no hurry. Whoever had landed that shuttle in the middle of the forests, it had not been Vader. When he crouched by the lake and cupped his hands, the water rippled through his fingers like cool, liquid silk. Soothing him with its mindless drifts. Cleansing.

Slowly, Luke unbuckled his belt and took off his clothes, the black overcoat, tunic, and pants made in the semblance of a uniform. Without doubt, his father would be on Endor in time to meet him. Once again, Luke stretched out with his senses, tracing the edges of Vader’s presence. Contact was permitted, but he’d never been allowed beyond those borders. Why did Vader close himself off? Why not show himself to the lost son and assert the power he’d felt so clearly on Bespin?

Who are you, Father?
How much is left of you?

Luke placed his lightsaber atop the bundle of clothes and stepped into the water. He’d taught himself how to swim on Dagobah, but its murky puddles had been nothing like this lucent stillness, a mirror of darkness and scattered stars. He floated. In an hour or two, he would meet his father, confront and engage him and hope to buy crucial time for a Rebel attack neither of them should survive. Like the last time, Luke finished the thought with distant sarcasm. Vader had been aware of his intentions all along, and they’d escaped from Bespin owing him their lives. Would Vader ensure his survival one more time, out of possessive instinct or cold calculation?

Luke recalled the deep voice that reverberated through his backbone, the gloved hand balled tight. Together, we can destroy the Emperor, we can build a new order. But was there a covert entreaty for the son to rescue the father? Impossible to consider Vader an unwilling prisoner of the Dark Side — someone so much in possession of himself, so full of savage purpose that nothing escaped its reach — but what if he’d become a prisoner of his own choices?

You need me, Luke thought, startled, but the sweep of liberation was overtaken by cutting insight and he found himself staring at a familiar pattern, another cage. Vader needed him just like Ben and Yoda had required his talents, incorporating him in their plans, raising him on half-truths and lies to cloak his emptiness.

However much he struggled, it always came back to that. All the circumventions, all the small escapes into hope and trust and confidence, chased, defeated, running like a frightened rodent, spending strength without purpose. Falling.

You’ve destroyed my life. You’ve taken everything, and without you I don’t even exist — whatever you choose to make of me, I’ll be left with nothing.

For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Cool water enclosed him and spread around him in slow ripples that seemed to echo his heartbeat, wrestling guarded agony from him until it swept out and darkened the Force with loss and rage. It was all he could feel, an erratic rise and flow that left him drained and cold when it ended, not enough to sustain him, yet too much to control it any longer.

Luke parted the water with swift armstrokes and headed for the shore when small noises caught at him. Sand crunching softly under someone’s boots. Rustling movement among the reeds. A tall silhouette striding up to pause on the shore.

Heart pounding, Luke stood where the water washed around his waist, cool rivulets chasing down his chest and stomach. Something insane bubbled up inside him, twisting his stomach, and transmuted into hallucination.

"Han?" A dry sound floating over the water.

There was a slight motion, an infinitely familiar gesture that broke the taut stillness. "Yeah, it’s me. Who’d you think it was, a ghost or something?"

The sound of his low, roughened voice rang hollow in the silence, and Luke shook his head. Han wore a long, dark coat, blending him to the shadows, but there was something else, something undefinable about him. He looked changed. Leaner than before, all the traces of weariness steeled aside, the clear cut of purpose in his face and bearing.

"Are you comin’ out, or do I have to come in and get you?"

The water dragged at him as Luke started to walk, but Han had already waded into the lake, not bothering to discard boots and pants, coat spreading and trailing on the surface.

White spray clouded Luke’s vision, each moment a fine drop bursting on the glassy water, the splashing sounds echoing distorted time. Something snapped when Han’s arms hauled him across the infinite distance of one final step. Reality made a hard impact that shivered through every inch of him, kick-starting breath and heartbeat.

"This can’t be. Han, how—" Luke reached back with both hands to crush him close, fingers burying into the light fabric of Han’s coat. "No, don’t tell me."

"You wouldn’t believe it." Han captured his face in his hands.

For the moment, it was enough to believe in sensation, a fine tremor lifting the hair at the back of his neck. Luke tried to say more, but his throat closed on the words, and their mouths met an instant later, skipping transition from controlled impulse to thoughtless claim.

Desire hollowed his bones with abrupt intensity. Luke felt weightless in the silky water, caught up against the solid warmth that radiated through Han’s clothes. Frantic to feel skin, he fumbled with the fasteners of a loose shirt until heartbeat thrummed under his palm. He stiffened against the pressure of Han’s thigh while the water licked cool caresses across his hips and back. Han’s arms wound tighter around him, his body the frontier of night, the pressure between them generating a sinuous heat. Claiming, cleansing, it ran through his veins.

The wet coat slipped off Han’s shoulders, glided away into the dark, slowly sinking beneath the surface. Han flung both arms around his neck and kissed him hard.

"Didn’t think I’d find you," he said.

And I thought I’d never see you again. Luke felt his mouth twitch in the fleeting semblance of a smile — and how long had it been since he’d caught himself smiling blindly, wrenched out of himself? Wordless, Luke burrowed into Han’s embrace. Through him he connected with life in all its chaotic currents, as clear and present as the wetness sliding between his skin and Han’s palms, slowly roaming down his back. He shivered again.

"C’mon, let’s get out of the water," Han murmured, drawing him along to the reed-grown shore.

When Luke pulled himself up, the ground under him flashed warm and electric, raising sweat on his body that mingled with the beading drops. Han leaned over him, still up to his knees in the water. Hands circling Luke’s waist, he urged him forward until they were pressed close together. Dark hair fell against Luke’s chest like a soft shadow as Han trailed a path with his mouth, kissing, licking wetness off his throat and from the hollow above his collarbone.

Shoulders pushed back against humid soil and thin reeds, Luke arched into sensation, a sparkling flood pouring over his skin that seemed to rise out of the ground and charged the air with static. He felt himself drawn back to the surface of his skin with a sharp pull clear as pain — after all those months of living at a great distance from his own body, it reeled through him, frightful and dazzling, marking every touch and point of contact. The slight roughness of Han’s palms, pulse at the wrist, breath dancing over his stomach, and solid heat where Han pushed against him.

Luke opened his eyes to remote stars piercing the latticework of branches and foliage, an opening in space and time that wouldn’t last long.

"Make love to me," he said between shortened breaths. "Take me. Now. Here. We don’t have much time left."

He sat up to unmesh Han’s belt, fingers probing through the cloth, and met Han’s eyes as he freed him to the cool air.

"Luke, you gotta believe—"

"What?"

Han shook his head. A thin line edged his mouth like a track of denied pain.

Luke pulled him closer, until the warmth off Han’s skin and flesh cocooned him, and all he wanted was to cradle that heat, take it into himself until it filled him out completely.

"I’ll hurt you," Han murmured against his mouth.

"Maybe that’s what I want. Make me feel—"

His breath caught when Han probed him with a wet finger. Knees bent, hips lifted off the ground and held in a steely grip, Luke dug his fingers into the soft ground. There were walls inside him that he’d thought could not be breached before sensation tore through him with one brutal flare, and only a small part of it was physical pain. He gasped, struggled, unable for the moment to accept this intrusion, needing the force of it to define him anew, against the pressure of Han’s cock, his own body closing tight around it. Threads of pleasure laced through pain, interweaving, widening into swift ripples. Han lunged forward. Again. And again.

Luke caught hold of his shoulders, heartbeat striking up thunder against his breastbone. Each move and breath opened him, loosening tight knots within until he cried out. Alive and breathing dark sky — and this was the memory he’d take with him, every atom of his body stirred into unfocused energy. He felt Han move inside him, callused fingers that pressed searing paths down his waist and hips, the deep, claiming pressure that took him beyond pain, centered where his own life ended and another began, locked together in a harsh rhythm like a fever trance. He heard Han’s voice mingle with his own and tossed his head as the waves washed over him like a thin sheet of ground lightning, while Han filled him, hips heaving, and a final surge wrenched through them both.

Warm fingers touched his mouth, trembling slightly. Luke listened to his own loud breaths and heard the boundless surprise in those soft, uncertain sounds.

For long moments, they stayed like that, curled close together on the shore, but time was running out. Unable to resist, Luke reached for Han’s presence, caressing with an incorporeal touch lighter than the breeze off the water before he sat up.

He slid back into the lake, rinsing fragments of dry leaves and dirt crumbs from his hair. Han took his boots off to let the water run out and watched him dress as if he might disappear.

"Now what?" he asked.

"You’d better go to the village," Luke said, hooking the lightsaber to his belt. "Leia’s there with most of our group—"

"Are you crazy? We gotta find a way outta here!" Han took a quick step forward, his jaw locked with sudden anger. "Luke, whatever you’ve been planning, it’s not gonna work. The Emperor’s here."

"Yes, we expected that. But how do you know? How’d you get here?" Luke paused, sharply aware of Han’s growing tension, the dark gaze that wandered restlessly — trapped, and loathing it. "You were in that shuttle, right?" Luke asked softly. "Leia told me that two of our team were killed. You didn’t—"

"No." Resentment burned in Han’s eyes. "But they’re not gonna believe a word of what I say. Remember Madine? He’d have me court-martialed on the spot."

"You must join them," Luke insisted. "I can’t go back now."

"What’s the idea? You’ll just walk into their trap? You ain’t got no idea what Vader’s planned for you. And the Emperor’s with him. They’re gonna rip you to shreds."

Han’s anger loomed over him, but behind it Luke could sense something vast and desperate, threatening with the force of a nightmare. Han turned abruptly, long strides taking him into darkness.

Separate worries clenched into a single, cold fist as Luke followed. He had to ask now. "What do you mean, Vader’s plan? What did..." He closed his eyes for a moment. "What did my father do to you?"

Han gave a dry laugh. "What’s it matter? He took so much trouble to send a real convincing invitation, and now he’s got you where he wants you, no matter what I say. You wanna go see him?" He waved his hand in the direction of the Imperial outpost. "Not too far now. Go ahead, ask him!"

Luke stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Han, tell me."

"Don’t go there."

"I have to, and you can’t come with me."

"You think I care?" Brushing his hand off, Han stalked on. "I’m dead anyway. They’re gonna do the same things to you or make you do them, and then you’ll know what I’m talkin’ about. Gotta be grateful I won’t be around to see it."

Somewhere in the distance, a white glare outlined the edge of the forest. They were getting too close to the perimeter of the outpost. Pulling himself back from countless misgivings, Luke stepped into Han’s path, blocking him.

"Yoda was right," he said, "I have to confront this... I have to confront my father, and the part of me that’s like him." In the silence that fell, he looked at Han’s face, committing each line to memory, curiously calm. The Force was vibrant around him, warmth coursed through him, joined him to all things alive, and soon he would be one with it, energy without mind and limit. He reached up to touch Han’s face briefly and stepped back. "I told you the last time. Nothing changes. You’ve given me so much more than you know. I want you to live, Han... and be free."

Unchecked feelings recoiled sharply on Han’s face and hardened into scorn. "Forget about free," he said through clenched teeth. "You think Vader had me tortured just to hear about you? ‘Cause he wanted some firsthand news about his son? You think he stopped at that?"

"Go on," Luke made himself say, a sickening ache closing around his heart.

"He made me do all this. It’s like I can’t live, can’t breathe without you, and I never wanted it this way, I wanted a choice!" Han’s upper lip curled derisively. "I didn’t recall much at first," he continued, his voice biting with cold fury, "but the closer we got, it all came back to me. You don’t know how they can play your feelings and use them against you and suck you dry. All this time I’ve betrayed you, cheated on you, and I’m sick of it, sick of myself. Heard enough?"

A tidal wave took Luke’s breath with soul-deep chills. He’d felt that same loss of security within his own mind, and it still didn’t compare to the violation of Han’s spirit. Loathing suffused him at this darkness that left nothing untouched, that consumed whatever he’d hoped to claim for himself. Out of control, rage trembled through him, refusing to be sealed off, spreading its vicious desires.

Luke heard the choked sound that wrung from his throat, but when he looked up Han had his blaster out and pointed at him.

"It’s set on stun, but don’t think I won’t blast you," he warned. "I can’t let you do this."

Without thought, Luke reached into the Force, and it rushed to his command with unfamiliar intensity, curling around the blaster to yank it from Han’s fist and hurl it into darkness. A shot tore loose, splitting the night.

Han staggered back. "That’s it then," he said, his pale face engulfed by twilight. "Hell knows I tried."

Hurried steps were already bursting through the underbrush, and seconds later, stormtroopers closed in around them.

And I thought I could just surrender myself, Luke thought, end this, end this all. Only an hour ago, he’d felt drained and depleted — now he burned with all the passions he’d been warned against. Surrender was no longer in him.

* * *

The time had come at last. Gloved fingers closed around smooth metal, appraising weight and balance of a hilt constructed by smaller hands. Dormant energy filled the lightsaber. From it, the Dark Lord looked up into luminous blue eyes.

"I know, Father."

"So, you have accepted the truth."

For a long moment, there was silence, and Vader heard the harsh sound driven out of his respirator. He had endured so much silence over the years — where was his tolerance now?

The moment lay before him, hammered out in steel, clear and promising. The one moment of convergence that would decide the fulfillment of ambitions and beget deliverance. And yet, incalculable dynamics pressed in from all sides; generative power and mindless anarchy nestled close together, the very ambivalence that Palpatine so cherished. Resentment reared and was pushed aside as the Dark Lord measured his steps. A strange stillness prevailed in the corridor, centered on the slender youth beside him.

Luke paused, searching his mask as if it possessed the treacherous nature of organic features. "I have accepted that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father."

Soft, colorless tones covered an arrogance that was Skywalker heritage, and each word struck a spark within the Dark Lord’s mind, conflicting, ungathered impulses of pride and startled annoyance. No one dared to offer him acceptance on limited terms, least of all this half-formed, untutored boy.

"That name no longer has any meaning to me," he replied coldly.

Luke turned from him, an empty gaze seeking refuge from the brilliant lighting of the corridor. Liquid night air and verdant growth pressed close to the clearsteel windows, but no sound filtered through.

There is nowhere you can turn, my son, Vader thought, but he made no attempt to force that inevitable truth past the boy’s imperfect shields.

Somewhere deep within cowered wounded animal strength, frantically seeking escape, even if it meant destruction. It was far too easy to guess what Luke tried to protect from his insight.

Vader turned the lightsaber hilt over in his fingers and pressed the ignition. Infinitesimal reaction stiffened Luke’s back as the blade hissed to life with pale green sparkles. Did the boy think him capable of senseless murder? Was he so bent on his own elimination, driven into confusion by the feeble, yet inflexible morality of his Jedi teachers?

But when Luke turned, his gaze showed none of the desperation Vader had expected. The lightsaber sang in his hand, transmitting the vibrancy of perfectly focused energy through bionic circuits. Anguish clung to it, a struggle overcome and channeled into refined, restless power.

"Your skills are complete," Vader acknowledged. "Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen."

Luke nodded. "I’m ready."

Again, arrogance flashed forth, but this time, Vader recognized the calculated challenge. Futile wishes crossed his mind, taunting him with impossibilities. If only he had time to instruct his son, nurture that soaring spirit to greater knowledge, open this unschooled mind to unlimited vision...

"You speak in ignorance," he said, testing the boy’s defenses. "You do not know your own destiny. Your path lies with me, my son."

The taut stillness broke as Luke took a step forward. "Why didn’t you tell me?" he demanded, and tension enveloped him like a scintillating aura. "Why did you hide the truth from me? Why use someone else when you could have explained it all to me face to face?"

Such openness deserved honesty in turn. "You were not ready, Luke," Vader said gravely. "The truth can sometimes crush what it seeks to achieve."

"Oh, and you thought it wouldn’t break Han? But from your point of view, I suppose he’s... expendable."

For the first time, furious anguish surfaced in Luke’s tone, yet it remained leashed, and simmering anger subsided in another moment. It pleased the Dark Lord to see that his son had learned control since their last encounter. Greater grief and knowledge had etched their thin, undeniable traces into the youthful face, and there was little left of the sentimental imprudence and blind righteousness which had defined the boy on Bespin.

"Do you accuse me of cruelty?" Vader asked patiently. "You will learn that equality is nothing but a meaningless ideal. Sacrifices are a simple necessity, and some lives, by their very nature, are of lesser value."

Pale blue eyes swept aside in denial, searching for a hold in the barrenness of the corridor. "I could have died on Bespin," Luke said. "I certainly thought that I would... but I’m not sure if I should thank you for my survival. And maybe that’s what this is all about." A strange smile formed on his mouth when his gaze lifted again. "How much you must want me near you, Father."

The coldness behind those words lashed out at Vader with unexpected force. His son had never known him. He’d longed to know him, certainly, conjuring a father from stunted truths and pure fantasy. Now that desire was consciously withheld and turned against him. Deep within the Dark Lord’s mind trembled a sense of loss, a cauterized nerve blazing to life with disturbing suddenness.

"We are set apart from ordinary existence," he said, matching the chill tone to completion. "You have already felt the true meaning of this. How much longer would your Rebel companions tolerate your presence? How much longer will you close your eyes to the truth?"

He knew that he’d stirred a fresh wound, but Luke showed no reaction. "What is it that you cannot accomplish without me?" he continued with scornful insistence. "Free yourself from your Emperor? I will not let you use me."

Once again, Vader could sense the wild currents of anger, frustration, and incredulous agony within the boy’s soul. Palpatine would savor harping on those emotions, plucking the fine strings until they snapped. Releasing a potential that would turn against the instigator in a flawless chain reaction. Too sure of himself, Palpatine would prime the instrument of his own demise.

Abruptly, the paths of destiny cleared, spurring a surge of anticipation more powerful than anything Vader had experienced since the moment he’d learned of his son’s existence. Palpatine’s interference would effect precisely what it sought to thwart. And Luke would join him more willingly than he’d ever thought possible.

"You have never met the Emperor," Vader returned with conscious ambivalence. "Come, it is time to begin your instruction. You will reconsider your choices before this night is over."

* * *

Beyond the clearsteel window, the Rebel ships were uncertain glitters, afloat in a midnight ocean streaked with lightning. Luke stood with his hands clenched to his sides. He could feel the Emperor’s eyes on him, and some hypersensitive nerve claimed awareness of the wasted hand on his lightsaber where it sat on the throne’s armrest, a few steps behind him.

"Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design," Palpatine continued his litany of omniscience. "Your friends up there on the Sanctuary Moon are walking into a trap. As is your Rebel fleet. It was I who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator..."

Luke clung to silence. The storm had gathered around him, trembled up from his nerve endings, a frozen swirl from within and without. And in a single, violent sweep, it could bare the emptiness of him, throw him open wide to be overflowed at random. As tenebrous energy thickened the air, he could sense the Emperor’s probes slither close, picking carefully through his imperfect defenses.

"Your fleet has lost," the disembodied voice crooned. "And your friends on the Endor moon will not survive. It is a simple lesson, my boy. Destruction is infinitely more powerful, because it disregards circumstance and consequence. Disregard... that is what you must learn."

Outside, battle progressed in eerie quiescence. Hundreds of deaths reduced to immaterial flickers in the night, an illumined backdrop for the Emperor’s entertainment. And each death indicted him, beckoning to the storm that would be his final defeat. Luke closed his eyes, but the image of his lightsaber burned on the inside of his lids.

Palpatine chuckled. "Yes, the hate is swelling in you now. It strengthens you. Your friends will die, but you shall live... and serve the Dark Side."

"I serve no one." An empty claim. He turned, facing them, his father a solemn shadow beside the throne.

They would let him live, beset by countless deaths, until death was all he breathed and tasted. Rage slid through him, drawing each separate emotion to it in a building current.

"An insolent whelp you have sired, my Lord Vader!" The Emperor leaned forward, bloodless lips intimating a smile while the hood cast darkness across his eyes and brow. "Much like Anakin," he added, his voice lowered in a parody of wistful recall. "Anakin was proud, ambitious... and reckless, wouldn’t you agree, Lord Vader? Yet compassion was not one of his stronger traits."

"Compassion is the kind of comfort only the weak require," Vader returned impartially. Or was there a hint of anger embedded in the electronic modulations of his voice?

The Emperor’s glance stole sideways, and for a moment they seemed locked in irresolvable contest like players in a fatal, lifelong game. Leaning back, Palpatine ran a withered index finger down the length of the lightsaber.

"There you have it, young Skywalker. Your father despises inefficiency. Wasteful emotions are a nuisance to him, especially when his own son indulges them. Yes, he is quite possessive of you. One might even say... jealous."

Luke caught a quiver of reaction that passed through his father’s tall frame, though it caused no more than the slightest ripple in the black cape.

"You disagree, Lord Vader?" Palpatine asked sharply. "Did you not take great pains to divest your son of all companionship?"

Luke’s eyes flew back to the obsidian mask. What do you want from me, Father? My potential, my hatred, my submission to your demands? Is it all the same to you? Yet Vader made no reply.

Golden eyes gleamed from the dry and ravaged face as the Emperor’s hood slipped back, appraising them both. Luke could feel Palpatine’s eagerness fold them in a merciless grip, flexing, gauging the exact leverage it would take to effect the greatest wreckage. In every fiber of his body, anger and revulsion churned with promises of false warmth.

"It seems to me that you were overeager," Palpatine said derisively, without looking at Vader. "It is unlike you, my friend. Even someone who served you exceedingly well, you would have committed to death." The Emperor’s tone shaded into deceptive regret when he added, "A fine messenger, your Corellian smuggler."

Luke fought an impulse that raced through him with terrible speed until his heart pounded, betraying him.

"Death was his own choice," he heard Vader say.

"Ah, but since when do we allow our subjects the choice to end their lives at will?"

Utter cold seized up every nerve as Luke met the Emperor’s stare, absorbing his heedless reactions with avaricious glee.

"You crave undivided loyalty and affection... from a single man? You are much too modest, my boy. But I understand. I once felt as you do." Palpatine sent a speaking glance in Vader’s direction, the golden eyes glittering. "Young fool," he continued softly. "Love is never undivided. Betrayal is its nature. I can feel your hunger. Let it guide you. Seize what you need, and it will make you powerful."

"You’ve never felt like I do," Luke snapped and heard only the dry sound of impotence in his own voice.

"He has already tasted betrayal." Vader took a slow step forward, towering over the Emperor’s seat. "It was a lesson well learned."

"Your father does not relish my participation in this private game," Palpatine said blithely, ignoring Vader. "For myself, I find it highly instructive." A pale hand tapped the controls set into the throne’s arm. "Very well, my young apprentice. This is how we shall begin your education. I will give this fine specimen of the human race back to you, and together we shall examine the nature of loyalty and compassion."

On the far side of the throne room, portals split open with a sharp hiss. Scarlet-robed guards swept in, dragging Han between them. Still in his soaked and muddied clothes, he was manacled, blood smeared across his chin from a broken lip. The guards pushed him to his knees in front of the wide steps ascending towards the Emperor’s throne. Head bowed, Han made no move, but the set of his shoulders revealed a terrible tension.

Luke walked down slowly, each step drawing metallic echoes that vibrated through his bone marrow, each step taking him deeper into sick dread.

"Yes, go to him," Palpatine encouraged, "and take this with you."

Luke spun in reflex as his lightsaber arced towards him, igniting in mid-flight, and for a split second he could see the incandescent blade cut through his hand, but he caught the hilt effortlessly. His palm tingled with the subtle flow of energy, warming a small part of him, but it did not last long.

Cruel curiosity plied at his mind, seeking memories, delving deep — and he could feel Han’s mouth on his own, hands gripping, reaching back, heat surging —

The Emperor sighed. "Yes," he whispered. "And yet he betrayed you. Strike him down..."

Luke froze halfway down the steps. "You can’t make me do that."

A dry chuckle drifted up at his back. "Then perhaps he should be given a weapon. I assure you, his kind does not hesitate to kill for their own survival. And your friend has done so on many occasions."

Eyes narrowed, Han glared towards the throne, his face locked in a silent struggle.

Palpatine had risen from his seat when Luke turned back. "Is that your lesson?" he asked abrasively. "That everyone can be coerced? That you could bend his will?"

"Ah, but how would you be sure?" The Emperor interlaced his fingers and watched patiently. "Survival instincts are the most powerful urges in every creature, beast or sentient. You are still far too trusting, my boy. Search this man’s mind, control his intentions. It is the only way to be sure."

Dark suggestions crept over Luke’s skin like an unclean breath, insinuating themselves into his guarded fears. He forced himself not to flinch. "Then perhaps we have to live in doubt."

"Scruples," Palpatine scoffed. "Compromise. You have no need for that. Or is it that you are afraid of what you would find?" A fine smile returned. "Yes, you fear... the hatred, the loathing of those you called your friends."

"Don’t listen to him, Luke," Han said, breath hitching on the last word as an invisible hand squeezed his windpipe.

"Enough." The Emperor’s hand rose from his wide sleeve in a negligent gesture. "End his miserable life now."

Luke felt the ‘saber hilt heat until it burned against his palm. He looked down at Han, his face averted, dark hair hanging in tangles. "I can’t."

"Ah, love..." The word fell apart, stretched out on a mocking sigh that floated from the shadows above. "Don’t you see how it makes you weak? What use is your compassion to him, if it cannot save him from slow torture? And I promise you, my young apprentice, I shall have you witness the procedures. The human organism can endure an amazing degree of agony before it is finally wasted."

"I can’t," Luke whispered.

"Kill him, or he will curse you for denying your mercy."

Luke closed his eyes, but through his lids shone the pale green radiance of his blade. Luminous beings are we. A final, wavering barricade against the blackness that cajoled his senses.

Around the Emperor’s raised hand, turbid energy gathered. Lightning washed around Luke, crawled over his skin and struck out at Han, darkness rushing a vibrant spark of life.

"No!" Luke screamed.

"Kill him," Palpatine chanted with low-lidded eyes.

A blue-white nimbus enveloped Han, and through its corrosive brilliance, Luke could see shriveled flesh, scorched bone, death in an explosion of terrible light that coiled around the writhing body on the floor plates.

Wheeling, he lunged forward, and the fiery blast slammed into him, shrieking through every nerve before he was flung back against the steel steps. Dimly, he heard Han groan, the distance between them dilating, forced wide by a hungry shadow. It streamed his veins, and Luke was on his feet, the lightsaber ricocheting back into his outstretched hand.

"Yes," the Emperor’s voice whispered. "Your hate has made you powerful. I am defenseless. Strike me down, and give yourself to the Dark Side..."

He leaped, but the snarling blade was swept aside before it grazed Palpatine’s deceptively frail form. White bolts tore through him with agony that shredded his bones, incinerating consciousness until he was reduced to no more than frenzied pain. From somewhere far away, Luke heard his own scream.

* * *

Darth Vader moved slowly as he gathered the Force to him, but Palpatine remained unaware, suffused in a rapturous pleasure of destruction that polarized the air and condensed into volatile electricity. Vader felt the power build inside him in a triumphant wave. The moment was at hand, come in a guise quite different from what he’d expected, but that no longer mattered. The Emperor’s indulgence would be his undoing. Lethal energy continued to rain from his splayed fingers, dancing across Luke’s curled-up form. Palpatine’s awareness had narrowed down to the agony radiating off the boy in hot waves, mingled with the rage that shadowed his spirit.

Yes, my son, now you feel the Dark Side and all it can achieve, Vader thought, almost exultant. Even though he’d wished to keep the boy safe from harm, there would be no permanent damage, only the recollection of consuming agony and intrusive hunger that gorged itself on every emotion. And it would teach Luke an inevitable lesson. From this day onward, the rash, soft-hearted boy would exist no longer. Vader could sense his allegiance to the Light burn out fast, the essence of him reaching out to his only savior.

Father...
Yes, son, I’m here.

Blue eyes locked on his mask, and the Dark Lord let the Force flow through him, bursting past iron shields he’d forged over long years.

Then at last — too late — did Palpatine become aware of his intentions. Without effort, Vader lifted the gaunt body in his arms, felt the Emperor flail in furious surprise. White lightning arced backwards from his hands and struck sparks off Vader’s helmet that flowed down his cape. Electricity threaded into his body armor while he wrestled with his former Master’s will, infusing intricate bionic circuits to lance through him with jabs of pure fire. Too much energy began channeling through his armor’s life support.

Infuriated, Vader wrenched the Emperor towards the throne room’s central core. Black sparks sizzled along his optical nerves and obscured his vision, but Luke had clawed back to his feet, the lightsaber held in shaking fists as he struck out at Palpatine. A howl went up and resonated in the Force, generating ripples that turned solid matter into chaotic tides. The radiant blade lashed out again. Renewed strength pulsed through the Dark Lord’s body, and he hurled Palpatine down the bottomless shaft.

His respirator labored when secondary circuits took over, as they were designed to do in an emergency, but even those failsafe mechanisms seemed to have been affected. From the depths of the Death Star, a brilliant particle wave roared up, spilling into the throne room. Momentarily blinded, Vader straightened slowly, trying to assess the damage to his life support. Components would have to be replaced, delicately aligned implants readjusted, but the medical facilities were excellent and equipped with all he required. Brushing the weakness aside, he turned to face his son.

He barely avoided a fierce slash of the luminous green blade. Trained reflex set in much faster than surprise, and his own blade flamed in Vader’s hand, parrying the next blow. Sabers crossed with malignant crackles and framed Luke. Sheened with sweat, his face had turned into a mask, carved in a rough semblance of those expressive features, now drained entirely of emotion. The blue eyes were unreadable, a frozen surface concealing savage storms that twisted into aimless rage.

His son would be powerful in the Dark Side, Vader acknowledged, yet the strangest ambivalence troubled his sense of pride. It was up to him, to control and direct what Palpatine had unleashed. They circled, the Force swirling like a murky cloud between them.

"Is this what you wanted me for, Father?" Luke asked with a jerk of the head towards the throne room’s core. "Help making you Emperor, no matter what the cost?"

"I will be Emperor, and you shall be my heir," Vader returned without lowering his blade — and the next attack came an instant later. The respirator wheezed in a sluggish effort to catch up as the Dark Lord fended off furious blows. Each breath burned in his chest, a sharp discomfort that fueled his irritation.

"No." The word came as a raspy whisper from Luke’s abused throat. "Not on your terms. Not on any terms."

He swung the lightsaber again, a fast sequence of attack patterns guided by cold fury. Vader felt a chill seep into his body, raking raw nerves. He had waited long to claim his son. It could not be too late now.

His arms moved mechanically as he countered each blow, driven into a different kind of rage that frayed his control. He could not afford this loss of balance when a swift defeat alone could make Luke accept realities.

Defeat? the Dark Lord scorned himself harshly. Step by step, his own son was forcing him backwards.

"Luke—" A dry voice drifted through the hum and clash of their blades.

Luke snaked a glance over his shoulder as he spun sideways. Battered and white-faced, Solo had climbed the stairs and leaned against the railing.

Luke shook his head. "Go, Han." Lightsaber raised in both hands, his icy gaze returned to probe Vader’s mask. "You would’ve let him die."

"I merely honored his own wish."

"And who drove him that far?" Fast blows rained down against Vader’s blade as Luke lunged into another frenetic attack. "You and your Emperor... you’ve twisted everything, you’ve taken everything, and I want to know why!" A tremor infused Luke’s voice, but his motions retained their savage elegance. "How can I live with myself that way? Is this what you wanted — make me feel what a monster I am, what it’s like to be hated?"

The absurdity of it struck the Dark Lord more than the despair behind those words. All the untamed power in his son, this furious radiance surrounding him — and Luke would turn it against himself, sooner than seize what was offered?

Join me now. Rule the galaxy with me, Vader rushed his son’s mind with promise and command, unprepared for the shockwave of anger and fear racing back at him.

Over Luke’s shoulder, Vader caught sight of Solo, taking an uncertain step towards them. "He’s right, y’know, I wanted to die... but I’m free now."

Luke backed off at the sound of the man’s voice, turned, his blade sagging fractionally.

A glint of the old, stubborn pride crept into the Corellian’s eyes. "I love you," he said. "Remember that."

Vader sensed the change like a distant tide reversing direction. Victory was caught in an incomprehensible landslide, slipping through his fingers together with Luke’s mercurial soul.

A long, shuddering breath escaped his son. "You didn’t think it was possible, did you, Father?" Luke turned back, his chin raised, determined and strangely vulnerable. "And you never thought that I could love you. Give me a chance to do that."

Without effort, those words penetrated the Dark Lord’s layered defenses, and the ice had melted off that calm blue gaze. Warming to the blazing azure of midsummer on Alderaan, its heat slithered through Vader, searing paths where all had been sterile and cauterized for the span of a lifetime.

"I do not require love, son." Although he’d slowed his breathing rate, Vader heard his respirator rattle. A disturbance spread in the Force, vibrant and taunting. Compassion. Ignorant love — for what did the boy know about him?

He brought his blade up high, and it caught against Luke’s, a fine curtain of sparks shimmering between them.

"You’ve tried to isolate me, turn everyone against me." Grief trembled in Luke’s voice, but his gaze was level and bright with a different power that gained steadily. "Do you think so little of yourself? Did you think I’d come to you only if I had nowhere else left to go?" A shiver ran through the slender frame. "You can’t destroy me, Father, because you don’t want to."

For another moment, their blades remained locked together, poised in fragile balance. Vader felt a biting cold spread in his chest, a hopelessness that was intolerable.

He lashed out blindly, but this time, Luke did not meet his attack. The crimson blade slithered downward, following the path of enraged denial, cutting into flesh and bone beneath Luke’s wrist. Incredulous pain seized his son’s face as he stumbled to his knees, and his cry tore through Vader’s body and mind. He’d maimed his son, and the loss of his right hand reflected through him with vicious intensity, fetching buried memories of death and rebirth and a crazed agony of transformation.

Through a wild eddy of shadows, Vader stared down at his son, the bloodied stump pressed under his left armpit as Luke folded up around mindless pain. Flesh of my flesh. And the same torment tore through him, prized denied sentiments from his grasp until they turned into a flood that threatened to overrun his control.

Solo staggered forward, snatching up the lightsaber where it rolled extinguished on the floor plates. Crouching beside Luke, he activated the blade, but his hands shook as he pointed it at Vader. "You goddamn bastard!" he hissed. "Can’t you see what you’ve got here? How’re you gonna rule an Empire when you’re that thick?"

The Dark Lord’s hand shot out. He still possessed enough strength to break the man’s neck with a snap of his fingers, but pride shrank from it, and the impulse drowned in a numbing cold that spread insidiously through his arms and legs. Slowly, disjointed fragments of reality began leaching through to his awareness. Around the Death Star, the battle continued, but its tides had shifted. Alarms shrilled in the distance, and a tremor raced through the steel floor plates, building until the throne room seemed to convulse around them.

Vader lowered himself to the floor, kneeling with a clumsiness that should have angered him. Solo had switched off the lightsaber and wrapped an arm around Luke, cradling the slight form against himself. Across the body of his son, Vader met his eyes.

"You’re dying," the Corellian said flatly. "This whole blasted station’s fallin’ apart under our feet, and there’s nothing more you can do. ‘Xcept save your son’s life."

Narrowed eyes studied Vader with dispassionate comprehension — knowledge he’d imparted for his own purposes, understanding gained over the last minutes. Ironical, the Dark Lord thought absently, when my own child hardly knows me.

He looked down at the bloodless face, blond strands clinging damply to Luke’s brow and temples. My beautiful son. When he touched the pale cheek, lashes fluttered, and Luke turned into the hesitant caress, a pain-hazed glance searching for his face behind the mask.

"Father," he murmured, as if caught up in a strange dream.

Forgive me.

Acceptance bathed his senses for a short, intoxicating moment until Luke’s strength faltered, and he slid back into unconsciousness.

With Solo’s help, Vader gathered the limp form up in his arms, and they reached the lift together. Inside the cabin, the Dark Lord steadied himself with an effort.

"You will take my shuttle," he said over the dreadful rattle of his respirator. The numbness had reached his backbone and crawled slowly upward. Soon, it would take his voice, the warmth of his son’s body a fragile barrier that blocked out the cold. "I am a Jedi. Like my son. Tell him."

"I will," Solo returned evenly. "I’ll tell him... everything."

The lift doors opened onto a smoke-filled docking bay. Uniformed personnel ran heedless across the flight deck, their shouts piercing the resounding crashes of explosions deep within the Death Star’s core. Unnoticed by officers who’d trembled in his presence mere hours ago, Vader leaned into the support of a ribbed wall.

The shuttle rose on a cushion of steam, graceful wings lowering as it sailed towards open space. White jet flares burned into Vader’s retina, but he watched steadily. Something rose inside him, a sliver of light like an echo of Luke’s presence that clung to him, painful and soothing. The ground shook under Vader’s feet, and he felt himself slide, unconcerned, weightless, floating. Before his inner sight, the tiny spark burst into overwhelming brightness that filled him and set him free. And all was Light.

* * * * *



Epilogue

They’d given him a room with a view. When Luke turned his head to the left, he slipped towards an illusion of unshielded space where protostars pointed themselves through the methane-yellow clouds of a nebula. The viewport took up almost the entire wall. It felt like sleeping next to a dead drop.

Invisible from here, on the other side of the Mon Calamari frigate, rotated Pindhast, the outermost planet of the Sullust system. Immediately after the Endor battle, all casualty-carrying ships had returned to their point of departure, to the well-equipped labs and medical facilities that were badly needed. Luke recalled the battle aftermath in discontinuous flashes, split-second impressions of light and sound alternating with long stretches of sheltering darkness. He’d half expected to be taken back to the clinic on Varoo, but that hadn’t happened.

For the first two weeks, he’d been kept under careful sedation. To give your neural system a break, the chief medical officer announced with professional cordiality, expressing amazement at the number of microscopic electric shocks his nerves appeared to have suffered. Let natural regeneration do its bit, was the doctor’s recommendation, and Luke hadn’t volunteered any information about the Emperor’s preternatural use of high voltage bolts.

During the past week, a counselor had dropped by several times on her grim tour of duty, to discuss the loss of his hand while planetside lab techs worked on a bionic replacement. He’d been fitted with a provisional prosthesis this morning. The final one would feel infinitely more natural, he’d been told, a true marvel of biogenetic engineering, but they wanted him to start practicing as early as possible. Luke had spent about an hour obediently rolling crystal globules around in the hand, practicing grips on differently sized stylos, and trying hard not to think.

The hand was an impossibility. Its weight, balance, temperature all felt wrong, bionic circuits shooting impulses like hot needles into organic tissue. Luke wondered if this showed him a sliver of what his father must have endured over twenty years ago. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to feel more natural. This way, it would always remind him. The least of what he deserved.

The counselor had disapproved of that notion, urging him to reclaim his own body and compensate, develop a positive attitude. Undeserved, she called his loss. An accident.

Accidentally lucky, he called it, in private, since there was no point in arguing. Accidentally spared. But he was among those nurtured back to life, cradled by a vast cloud of optimism which received regular boosts whenever news arrived from the war zone.

The bulk of their fleet had stayed close to Endor, hunting down Imperial stragglers, salvaging ships and technology while the Alliance Council worked on setting up a provisional government and administration. For all Luke knew, Han was still with them as well. The situation left no room for private com transmissions, and the only personal message he’d received had come from Leia, dating back to the day after the battle. Unspecific, warm words of gratitude, emphatic wishes, and a promise to see him as soon as possible.

Luke closed his eyes, conjuring the only memory fragment that included Han after his father’s final attack. Han was a silhouette in the flight chair, racing an Imperial shuttle through the outermost ring of fire that spread from the Death Star. Bright incandescence throbbed in time with his wound, a reddish haze on the inside of his eyelids, exploding into darkness. From the memory, Luke retreated into unthinking twilight and fell asleep with a startling suddenness that left no trace in the mind at all.

When he woke again, there was someone in the room with him. Luke slid his maimed arm under the covers without opening his eyes. It still felt like a stump with something attached to it, proclaiming the mutilation instead of concealing it. Someone shifted on a chair placed a few steps away from the bed, and Luke caught his breath, uncertain for a moment if he was awake at all. His instinctive sense of the visitor was nothing he could dare to trust.

Through lowered lashes, he peered at the man trying to relax into a chair not designed for comfort. Arms crossed, brow furrowed under the shaggy hair, his face still haggard. Luke’s eyes flew open before he could catch his reaction.

"Hey," Han said with a crooked smile that didn’t half hide the awkwardness.

Luke shook his head. Roles reversed, the situation reminded him of Varoo, all the hours he’d spent sitting at Han’s bedside, and recollection crowded him with obsolete versions of electric anticipation and blind confidence, forcing an acrid taste up the back of his throat. A wash of insensible relief followed instantly.

"How long’ve you been here?" he finally managed.

"Not that long. How’re you feelin’?"

It could have been just another standard sickbay conversation, except for the banked shadows in Han’s eyes, and the wrenching sensation in his own stomach.

"Rested and repaired," Luke said. He reached for the controls, raising the bed so he could sit up, careful to keep the mechanical hand out of sight.

Han gave a dry and joyless chuckle. "Don’t talk that way."

"Well, what d’you want me to say?" Luke returned, his tone sharper than he’d intended.

"I want you to tell me how you feel." Slowly, deliberately, Han pushed out of the chair and stood by the bed. "Got it?"

The answer to that was more complex than anything he could let himself voice. Luke sent a restless glance across the crinkled white landscape of the covers, searching for some kind of half-truth that would get them past this moment. If he let himself feel — just feel — he was still suspended on that same brink, with an inevitable fall tugging at him and emotional overload pushing from behind.

The mattress caved as Han sat down beside him. "Luke," he said. "Forget about all those lines running through your head, it’s not gonna work with me. I was there."

"I didn’t want you to be."

"We’re still alive, both of us."

"Not my fault," Luke said bitterly.

A hand closed hard around his shoulder, forcing his eyes back to Han’s face. "Stop it right now, y’hear me?" Han’s voice was harsh with more than anger. "All right, let’s have it. You think you’re a complete failure ‘cause you couldn’t beat ‘em all by yourself, ‘cause they had you out of control for a while, and I bet you blame yourself for dragging me into it on top of everything else. Does that about cover it?"

"No," Luke said. "I mean, yes, but there’s more..."

"Yeah, what?" Han’s grip tightened for a moment, then his hand slipped away, allowing room for answers.

Luke leaned back and closed his eyes briefly, the weakest part of him wanting to plead exhaustion and inch back into dreamless, fragile peace. "It’s like... so much is just sliding out under me. A past that could have been, the future I thought I was working up to. Chances I didn’t get. In between all that, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever wanted to know."

"What about me?"

"I was hoping you could forget."

"What if I don’t want to?" Han charged.

Luke met his eyes, the simmering temper that swept deeper worries aside to challenge him instead, and it brought on a curious calm. A single question had already formed in his mind, though he’d never let himself know about it. "Was there a moment..." Luke started. "Didn’t you wish that we’d all get caught up in it, me, my father, the Emperor, and all this would be over for good—?"

"Say that one more time, and I’ll try knocking some sense into you," Han growled at him. "Besides, your father wanted you to live, don’t you recall that much?"

There was still the slightest stumbling of the tongue over that word — father — and something else that sounded impossibly close to acceptance.

"Yes," Luke answered softly, "I remember, and I wanted to know him and understand..."

"Maybe there’s a few things I could tell you," Han said after a tense pause, and ambivalence thickened his voice. "Sometime."

"I’d appreciate that." Too formal, and nowhere near the truth. Luke shook his head again and let his breath go slowly. No use putting it off any further. "How do you feel?"

"I thought I’d already told you," Han said shortly, cutting straight to the heart of that vague question. "Back there. Think I changed my mind, or what?"

"That was—" Luke broke off, now stumbling over the words himself, a sudden surge of memory wanting to claim more than his due. "An emergency," he finished. Gods, he could have laughed at the pathetic sound of that.

"Just like when you said you love me." Han grabbed him around the neck, pulling him up close. "But that’s the past, right? So what about now? What do we do about this?"

Luke felt the warmth of his body and breath and the speeding of his own pulse that answered it and came close to just throwing his arms around Han, but the weight of the prosthesis on his wrist stopped the mindless impulse.

Han’s eyes narrowed, and with a soft curse he reached across to pull the mechanical hand free. "Goddamnit, don’t hide this from me!"

But for all the anger in his voice, his fingers closed lightly around the hand and Luke couldn’t help his response to the gentleness of that touch. Interlacing artificial fingers with Han’s was difficult and clumsy, but manageable somehow.

"I was there, Luke," Han said in a different tone. "No matter how long it takes you to believe it — we’d both be dead and your father a dead wannabe-Emperor and nothing else, if it hadn’t been for you. And all I ever said was I wanted a real choice instead of being used to bring you down."

From the sudden rush of words, Han stumbled to a halt. Reaching with his free hand, Luke touched his face. "Don’t pretend that it’s all dead and buried past that can never get in the way."

"And don’t you go pretending there’s nothing else left," Han said roughly.

The fingers that gripped his mechanical hand squeezed tightly — to cover a tremor, Luke thought, unless he’d projected his own response, breathless and lightheaded and nowhere near pretending when Han leaned over — and he closed the remaining distance to bring their lips together, drowning in the heat of Han’s body and the ache that tore loose as he felt Han’s mouth move against his own, for a moment almost too much to endure — but only when he let go did reality take his breath completely.

Han’s smile was still crooked and just as shaky as whatever expression had taken hold on his own face. Luke didn’t even try to guess. Relaxing slowly into new awareness, he leaned into Han’s embrace, his heart in his throat as he traced the confused path Han’s fingers made across his hair and down the side of his face.

"I was afraid you wouldn’t even want to see me." He was surprised to hear how sober his own voice sounded.

Han pulled back to aim a half-hearted glare at him. "You thought I didn’t want to come earlier? They didn’t let me, and it wasn’t just a matter of grabbing a transport. Leia finally got me signed on with the contingent headed for Sullust."

Luke was still sifting through all the implications when Han asked, "Is it true she’s your sister?"

"Yes... but she doesn’t realize — doesn’t want to see — that Vader used to be Anakin Skywalker, our father."

"She’s gonna need a lot of time, that’s for sure, but now that he’s—"

Luke raised both hands to Han’s shoulders, stopping him. "There’s something you’re not telling me. Why wouldn’t they let you go?"

Han snorted, annoyed, and trying to discard it. "Madine and some of his pals are gearing up to have me accused of killing those two scouts. And there’s the other unfinished business — you can bet he’s not gonna leave off. I’d be under arrest if he had his way."

"What happened on Endor?"

Han glanced aside, but not fast enough to hide the faint shadow that moved across his face. "Ain’t got a clue. Last thing I knew, I was staring down the heart of a sun. Next I got hauled onto that shuttle by the Emperor’s orders. Like a weird dream. Got dumped on the edge of the forest to go looking for you. But who’s gonna believe that?"

"We’ll get you out of this. I can explain what you went through—"

"Better think about what you’re gonna tell them, or you might find yourself on the wrong side of the fence with me." Han shook his head, jaw setting with a grim kind of pragmatism. "Careful, Luke. Sure you want them to know that you’re Vader’s son? What if they accuse us of — some kind of conspiracy?"

"They have a lot more sense than that." However much conviction he put into his voice, it couldn’t cut a path through the random swirls of possibility. "Just don’t try to disappear on me again, because I’d find you," Luke said softly.

Time ahead of him was a jumble of incalculable factors, nothing more, but for the first time since waking up in sickbay, he could let himself reach fully into the Force, not to envision the future, but to reclaim his part in it. As he felt his senses unfold, Luke recalled times when the Force had suffused him with raw energy in one single wave. Now he discerned the conflicting currents in it, the shadings of ungathered passions and the marks of other lives, a greater complexity than anything he’d known before. It rushed him with unexpected, painful intensity, though part of this ache was joy, the kind that tore down every boundary.

Through it, his awareness of Han grew until he could feel the fatigue in his muscles, and the many threads of unease. Inevitable, when Han had seen so much of his mixed heritage, recklessness bending the Force into a power that invaded and crushed minds, that brutalized every feeling. And although Han had lived through this, there would be scars left, injuries beyond healing, and perhaps the necessity to build walls instead of taking them down. He didn’t want to know. But he had to.

Shifting focus, he brushed the edges of Han’s awareness. A spasm of pain tightened Han’s face, and Luke felt a responding lurch — enough to hate himself for all that he’d done and caused.

"Each time you look at me," he said, his voice lifeless with premonition, "you’ll see part of him... my father in me. How can you possibly trust me?"

A rash answer was caught back, and Han met his eyes with blunt candor. "I got a close look at the scope of it all, remember? The limits, too. Might be able to see the difference between you ‘n him more clearly than you do." He pulled up his shoulders. "But, yeah... it’s gonna take time."

"Then I hope we’ll have that time." When he leaned back, Luke felt hollow and tired. A cold mist of sweat had gathered on his body.

There was a knock on the door, and Han grimaced. "Guess time’s up for now. I’m due for another medical myself." But instead of rising, he curved a hand around the back of Luke’s head. "Hope so too," he murmured, "‘cause I want it."

Luke couldn’t think why it hurt like it did, but his mouth had found Han’s almost before he knew, returning the claim until they were both breathless with their arms locked around each other, a different tension stirring troubled and reckless between them. Desire brushed Luke’s senses, reaching towards him.

I’m free.

More than memory — when he met Han’s eyes again, he could read it there. A reviving fire, returning from the clutch of long shadows. Instead of all the haunted pressure, only weariness carved those tight lines around Han’s mouth and eyes.

All I ever wanted.

The hollow inside him filled up, flooding his face, his senses with a liberating heat. Luke released Han’s shoulders to trace the roughness of his stubbled jaw, the edges of a smile that bent his mouth.

A promise that still tingled on his skin when Han got up, that hovered in Han’s eyes when he turned back on the doorstep. "There’s something he wanted me to tell you, y’know. I am a Jedi, like my son... Sure hope that means something to you."

It took Luke incredibly long to find his voice, and then it seemed to come from somewhere outside of himself. "It does."

"Good. I’ll be back."

When the door had closed, Luke turned to look into the depth of open space and the rage of light enclosed within blackness — the light his father had joined and the darkness they’d shared — until he could trace both on his skin, in shivers of possibility and change.

Be free, he thought, and opened himself wide.

* * * * * The End * * * * *