Ben Solo is ten years old when Uncle Luke sits him down and tells him about Darth Vader.
Ben has heard of him, of course – who hasn’t? Even now, people tell stories about Darth Vader, their voices hushed and fearful with memory – but the story Uncle Luke tells him is very different to the ones that Ben has heard before.
Ben hears a story of one of the greatest heroes of the Old Republic, the Hero with No Fear, who, tainted by fear and darkness, fell to the Dark Side. He became Darth Vader, a figure of terror to all, the Emperor’s right hand man and one of the rulers of the galaxy. The Emperor may have been the one in charge, but it was Darth Vader that the people feared, Darth Vader who killed all who stood in his way. Where Anakin Skywalker had been one of the poster-boys for the Old Republic, it was Darth Vader who symbolised the Empire’s might.
Uncle Luke speaks of a man unrivalled in the Force, a man who faced down trials that would have destroyed anyone else. That’s not how Uncle Luke describes it, of course – he dwells on the tragedy of Darth Vader’s life, of losing everything he cared about, but all Ben hears is that Darth Vader survived through sheer strength of will, becoming all the stronger for the hurdles he faced.
Uncle Luke goes on to describe how Darth Vader faced down the Emperor, to save the life of his only son and dying in the process, but Ben is barely listening by this point. His imagination has been caught by the description of Darth Vader: strong, determined, and feared by everyone else in the galaxy.
For someone riddled with fear and self-doubt, it’s an enticing image.
I want to be powerful like that, Ben thinks, hands clenching unconsciously. I want to be as great and powerful as Darth Vader.
Ben doesn’t say it aloud, but Uncle Luke looks at him sharply like he heard the words anyway, and a look of concern crosses his face.
But he doesn’t say anything, and Ben doesn’t either.
Ben is almost asleep when he suddenly feels a powerful Force presence next to him. Uncle Luke has the most powerful Force signature Ben has ever felt, but this – comparing Uncle Luke’s Force signature to this one is like comparing a hill to a mountain.
Ben startles awake, eyes flying open, even though he can tell that the presence means him no harm. Their Force signature is light, through and through, like Uncle Luke’s; but where Uncle Luke’s Force signature is filled with calm good humour, here there is a great, grave sorrow winding all the way through it. Ben looks around, to see who the Force signature belongs to.
Standing next to Ben’s bed is the figure of a man dressed in what Ben immediately recognises as Jedi robes – but the man is a ghostly blue, and transparent enough that Ben can see the wall through him. The man looks young – maybe twenty – but his eyes look far, far older.
Ben knows, instinctively, that the man isn’t exactly alive, even if he isn’t exactly dead, either.
“Who are you?” Ben asks, and his voice comes out trembling and frightened, even though he knows that the man next to his bed carries no ill intentions. Being faced by a Force spirit will do that to you.
“My name is Anakin Skywalker,” says the man, smiling a little. Ben sits upright at that, some of his fear immediately forgotten.
“You’re Darth Vader.”
The smile vanishes, and a look of deep unhappiness flits across Anakin’s face, for a moment.
“I was once. But no longer.”
“Why not?” asks Ben. “Why would you give that up? You were powerful.”
Anakin shakes his head.
“It was the illusion of power,” he says, his voice serious and sad. “With it came the absence of choice. I lost everything and everyone I ever cared for, in the end – except for Luke. I almost lost him as well, and would have, if I hadn’t broken free of the Dark Side at the last moment. My every living moment was a torment, a reminder of what I had lost. Believe me, I may have looked powerful on the outside, but on the inside, I was helpless. Turning back to the light saved me.” He shakes his head. “My son saved me.”
Ben stares at Anakin. He isn’t sure what to say.
“You didn’t seem very helpless,” is what he settled on.
Anakin takes a seat next to him on the bed.
“But I was.” He glances at Ben, but his eyes are distant; far-away from here and now. “I could do nothing to change what I wanted to change. I felt that my destiny was set in stone, no matter how I hated it. I was drowning beneath the weight of all the burdens I carried with me – and the entire time I held the bitter knowledge that the very reason I had turned to the Dark Side in the first place, the task I had given myself, I had failed in.”
“What task? Uncle Luke didn’t say anything about that.” All of Ben’s fear is gone now; instead he’s fascinated.
“He never knew my reasons for turning to the Dark Side,” says Anakin. The sorrow in his Force signature surges to the forefront. “I told myself that I would save my wife, my angel, from the death that awaited her. Instead, I caused it.”
There is nothing but self-loathing in his voice, self-loathing and bitter contempt for his past self.
Ben’s vision of Darth Vader as all-powerful and great is crumbling, because there’s no denying how Anakin feels. Ben can feel it in the Force, as well as see it in his grandfather’s deceptively-youthful face. Anakin hates himself, and from what he’s said so far, Ben thinks that Darth Vader hated himself, too.
“What happened?” Ben asks, more because he thinks Anakin wants him to ask than because he wants to know.
Anakin tells him.
The story bears some similarity to the story Uncle Luke told, but this version has all kinds of bits that Uncle Luke left out – that Anakin was a slave, for one thing, who hated his enslaved state and wanted to be free, before the Jedi rescued him, only to impose a completely different set of constraints on him, with their rules and regulations on how a Jedi was supposed to behave. Jedi weren’t supposed to love, or feel attachment; they were supposed to be like an island, alone and untouched by anything but the seas of the Force.
“But Uncle Luke loves us,” he protests. Uncle Luke is an undeniably calm presence in Ben’s whirlwind life, but he’s also full of life and warmth, and a love that sings fiercely through the Force.
Anakin’s smile is sad, but genuine.
“I know. And if the Jedi back then had been more like Luke’s Jedi Order, maybe I wouldn’t have fallen to the Dark Side. But the Jedi back then were very different to the Jedi you know.”
Anakin talks of how alone he felt, how resentful and lonely, and of the two people who reached out to him, and showed him the affection and attachment that he craved: Senator Padme Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, and the Chancellor of the Old Republic, Palpatine.
“You mean the Emperor?”
“Exactly,” says Anakin. His short laugh isn’t amused at all. “He became like a father to me, for many years, guiding my choices, encouraging my feelings of resentment and arrogance; grooming me to become his apprentice, although I didn’t know it then. It wasn’t until it was far too late that I found out the entire thing had been a trap to ensnare me and tempt me away from the Jedi.”
Anakin broods over this for a moment, before continuing his story. He talks of Padme, and his dark mood lifts, his tone fond and wistful as he speaks of her courage, her stubbornness, of how beautiful she was.
But Padme, in the end, was Anakin’s lifeline, and when he saw her life ending during a series of terrifying Force visions, Anakin vowed to do whatever he must to stop that eventuality from coming to pass.
“Instead, my turning to the Dark Side killed her,” says Anakin, his voice heavy. “She couldn’t bear to live with what had happened, knowing the truth of what I had become.”
Ben is wide-eyed, unsure of what to think of the sad, sorry tale.
“So you see,” says Anakin, looking straight at Ben, his expression intent, “I was not truly great, or powerful. There is no point in wanting to be like me. My life was nothing but suffering.”
Ben feels himself scowl as he looks down at the bedclothes, avoiding Anakin’s all-too-knowing eyes.
“I just don’t want to be scared anymore,” he says.
“I know,” says Anakin’s voice, barely more than a whisper.
When Ben looks up again, he is alone in his bedroom.
Ben doesn’t tell anyone about his visitation from his grandfather. But he thinks about it a lot.
It makes him feel special, that Anakin came to him. Ben knows his parents love him, but his mother is always busy, and his father is gruff and sarcastic, always managing to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Ben feels sometimes like their lives would be better if he wasn’t around. It’s a terrible feeling to have, at ten years old, but Ben can’t deny it, however much he’d like to.
Uncle Luke always has time for him, of course, but it’s not the same. People talk about Uncle Luke like he’s this great Jedi Master, but Ben can’t see it: although he’s strong in the Force, like a beacon in the night, Uncle Luke is always gentle and kind, and never anything else. Ben has never heard him raise his voice in anger, or become agitated or angry. Ben loves Uncle Luke, but he has to admit, for a supposedly powerful Jedi Master, Uncle Luke is kind of boring, really.
Uncle Luke has been teaching Ben little things about the Force for years: how to feel it around him, how to move objects with the power of his mind, that sort of thing. Never how to use a lightsaber, though. That was for Jedi only.
Sometimes Ben thinks that he might like to be a Jedi – to truly know the power of the Force. But if he becomes a Jedi it will undoubtedly be a very different kind of Jedi to Uncle Luke. Ben wants to be the kind of Jedi people will remember, in ages to come. The kind spoken of in awe and veneration.
Other times, though, Ben doesn’t think he wanted to be a Jedi at all, because Jedi are supposed to be serene and humble, and not want for things – and Ben want, so much it hurts. He wants to be strong, to be respected, to be fearless – to lose this constant feeling that he isn’t enough. He knows people don’t mean to make him feel this way, but as the son of General Leia Organa and the hero Han Solo, nephew to the leader of the Jedi Order, people make Ben feel that he ought to be taller, braver, stronger – more like his parents and uncle. Being himself is never good enough. Ben is sick of people dismissing him, resents it, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He wishes he could be more like the rest of his family.
He knows, deep down, that he never will have their certainty or bravery. And that stings most of all.
With a huff, Ben redirects his thoughts, concentrates on levitating the apple in front of him without ever losing his posture – upside down, in a handstand. It’s a trick he’s seen Uncle Luke do before, levitating objects around him while standing on one hand. Uncle Luke says it concentrates the mind, whatever that means. Ben can’t quite pull off the one-handed part, yet – he still needs both hands – but the apple rolls over before rising straight up in the air.
“Well done,” says a voice, and Ben abruptly loses his balance, toppling over with a thump that knocks the breath out of him for a moment. The apple thuds to the ground.
Ben sits up, feeling angry and humiliated, and glares at his grandfather’s spirit.
“You distracted me!” he accuses, hating the way his voice has gone high and shrill. “You made me fall over!”
“Please, Ben, I wasn’t being nearly as much of a distraction as my master used to be,” says Anakin, with a slight upturning to the corners of his mouth. “He used to throw things at me and expect me to catch them. While doing a handstand with one hand. Then he’d lecture me on not paying enough attention to the Force. ‘You need to ground yourself, Anakin,’” Anakin adds, in a clipped accent nothing like his own, and rolls his eyes, before looking back at Ben. His expression is faintly mirthful.
“Uncle Luke doesn’t do that,” says Ben.
“Uncle Luke is too fond of you to push you too hard,” says Anakin, and Ben isn’t sure how to take that, whether to be pleased or offended. There’s a gleam in Anakin’s eyes when he says, “Fortunately, I understand that holding back out of fondness doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Which is how Ben ends up doing a very wobbly one-handed handstand while Anakin throws things at him. At first Ben fails to catch any of them, barely remaining in his handstand as cushions and a stuffed bantha toy hit him in the face, but then he gets the hang of it. He manages it just in time, because the next thing Anakin throws at him is a heavy datapad. Ben catches it, and throws it back in retaliation. It sails through Anakin’s head and hits the wall with a loud sound, and Anakin laughs in delight.
“You’re doing good, kid,” he grins, so obviously proud that Ben beams back. He’s not used to people being proud of him.
There’s a knock on Ben’s door, and Anakin’s grin vanishes in sudden alarm.
In the next instant, as the door opens, Anakin disappears, leaving Ben alone and still in a handstand as his mother walks into the room.
“Ben, are you okay?” she asks, and frowns. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” Ben lies. “Look what I can do!”
He maintains his one-handed handstand, and closing his eyes to concentrate better, lifts every cushion in the room into the air.
When he opens his eyes in triumph, his mother is smiling, but it’s a distracted sort of smile.
“Very good,” she says. “You’ll be as good as your Uncle Luke, yet.”
Ben sags in disappointment, because being reminded that he isn’t anywhere near as good as Uncle Luke wasn’t what he was aiming for, but his mother is already turning away.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” she says. “Make sure you wash your hands before you come downstairs.”
Ben doesn’t say anything, just watches her go. When she’s gone, he slowly topples over, landing on his feet.
“You didn’t want Mom to see you,” he says, even though he’s alone in the room.
“Your mother and I don’t have the best relationship,” says Anakin, and when Ben turns his head, he sees his grandfather standing behind him.
“Why not?” Ben asks. It’s true that his mother never talks about her father: it was Uncle Luke, after all, who told Ben the story of Darth Vader. Ben has never thought to wonder why, before, but now he does, suddenly and intensely.
“It’s complicated,” says Anakin, then catches the look on Ben’s face. He sighs. “Your mother and I were adversaries for a long time, and then I did something terrible to her, something I devoutly regret.”
“What did you do?” asks Ben.
“I tortured her for information, and stood by as her home planet was destroyed by Grand Moff Tarkin.”
The words are spoken simply, so much that their meaning takes a moment to sink into Ben’s brain.
“You tortured her?” Ben is horrified. “But you’re her dad!”
“Believe me, I understand how heinous it is,” says Anakin, and the self-loathing is back in his tone. “But I didn’t know she was my daughter at the time… and if I’m honest, even that knowledge might not have made a difference. I knew that Luke was my son, and yet I harmed him as well.”
“I cut off his hand,” says Anakin plainly, even though the words clearly hurt him.
Ben has known all his life that Uncle Luke has a prosthetic hand, of course… but to find out why…
“You were a monster,” Ben really realises for the first time, something sick and swooping in his stomach.
Anakin says nothing, but Ben can tell he agrees.
“What did Uncle Luke do?” Ben asks. Surely Uncle Luke did something, after that.
“He forgave me.”
“Forgave you?” If anyone cut off his hand, he can’t imagine forgiving them, even if it was his father who did it.
Especially if it was his father.
“One day, you will find that Luke’s capacity for forgiveness, his faith in the good of others, is one of his strongest traits,” says Anakin. His voice is still bitter, but there’s a tinge of wonder in it. “I don’t understand it – I was never exactly the forgiving type – but he gets it from his mother, I guess.”
Ben thinks on that a while. When he glances back at Anakin, the Force spirit is gone.
Ben gets used to his grandfather dropping by and teaching him things. Anakin tells Ben a lot about his life, and about how his desire to prove himself led to him being resentful and angry, and how the Emperor had taken advantage of that.
Ben’s heard speeches like this before, but it’s different coming from Anakin, who understands what it’s like. He wanted to be special too, once. Anakin encourages Ben to do his best, and even when no one else cares about Ben’s achievements, Anakin is so obviously proud of him that Ben vows, then and there, never to disappoint his grandfather. Ben knows that his family loves him, but only Anakin has ever been proud.
Also, it’s easier not to be angry, Ben finds, when someone actually understands him.
Anakin’s visits to Ben might have remained a secret forever, except –
“Ben,” says Uncle Luke one day, his tone serious, “what do you think of Darth Vader?”
Ben flinches a little.
For a moment he’s silent. He knows what Uncle Luke is worried about – that moment where Ben had thought a little too loudly that he wanted to be like his grandfather. Ben isn’t sure that he doesn’t still want to be like his grandfather, but if he does, it’s not the way he did before. Darth Vader was a monster, but worse, he was an unhappy monster, and Ben is sick of being unhappy. Being Darth Vader is clearly not the way to go.
“I think he was very angry, and very sad,” says Ben slowly, and it dawns on him suddenly that the same description could apply to him. Ben loses himself in that epiphany for a moment, before realising that Uncle Luke is still waiting patiently. Ben swallows, and blurts out: “Did he really cut off your hand?”
He can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt Uncle Luke, let alone Anakin, who clearly loves Luke a lot, from the way he talks about him. But Ben also knows that Anakin has never yet lied to him.
Uncle Luke’s brow creases. Anyone else would asks how Ben found that information out, but Uncle Luke just says, “Yes, he did.”
“Well, we were duelling at the time,” says Uncle Luke, with a flash of black, ill-timed humour, before he sobers abruptly. “Father wanted me to join the Dark Side, and I refused.”
“That’s awful,” says Ben, after a moment.
Uncle Luke nods.
“I know,” he says quietly. “But he saved me, in the end.”
It’s on the tip of Ben’s tongue to say ‘But that’s what he says about you,’ but Ben bites back the words before Uncle Luke can hear them. He says something else instead.
“Mom doesn’t love him, does she? Not like you do.”
Uncle Luke sighs.
“No,” he admits. “She doesn’t. But then, her history with Darth Vader is a dark one.”
“So is yours,” Ben points out. “But you don’t hate him.”
Luke looks up at the sky for a moment, like he’s asking someone somewhere for help.
“I grew up as an orphan,” Uncle Luke says finally. “I had Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, but my whole life I longed to know more of my parents. Finding out that I had a father – that he was alive – was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“Because you had a Dad, but he was a monster,” says Ben. He thinks he understands.
“Pretty much.” Uncle Luke ruffles Ben’s hair. “But I knew I could save him, if I tried hard enough.”
“Did Mom believe he could be saved?”
Uncle Luke laughs a little.
“No. But then, I don’t think she wanted him to be, because then she could just hate him without feeling any other feelings about him. Hating someone is harder when you know they’re not completely evil. I think part of your mother is sorry that she never got to know the good side of him.”
“Oh.” Ben isn’t sure what else to say, but Uncle Luke smiles at him, warm and fond, and Ben decides that he doesn’t need to say anything else at all.
They sit there in silence, before something occurs to Ben.
“You never talk about my grandmother,” he says.
Uncle Luke’s eyes are sad.
“That’s because none of us know who she was,” he says. “All of the records pertaining to Anakin Skywalker were destroyed after the Clone Wars, when the Emperor and Vader came to power. There’s no way of tracking her down.”
That is the saddest thing that Ben has ever heard.
“Padme Amidala,” he blurts out.
“What?” Uncle Luke looks confused.
“Her name was Padme Amidala,” Ben says, and Uncle Luke goes still.
“Ben,” he says, “how…?”
“He talks to me, sometimes.”
Uncle Luke doesn’t look like he understands, so Ben explains.
“Grandfather. He visits, and talks to me.”
Uncle Luke’s eyes go wide with astonishment.
“His Force ghost speaks to you?”
“Yeah,” says Ben. “I – I think he was afraid I admired Darth Vader too much. I thought Vader was strong, and powerful – but now I understand he wasn’t. Grandfather explained.”
Uncle Luke is still staring at Ben with big eyes, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. But there’s something hurt in his expression, too, like he’s wondering why Anakin hasn’t talked to him, too.
Uncle Luke shakes his head.
“I knew he could manifest as a Force ghost,” he says, half to himself, “I saw him after the Emperor was destroyed, but – then why…” He shakes his head again, looking baffled and sad.
“Because we come to those who most need us, Luke,” a voice intones, and Ben jumps at the sudden Force presence. He stares at the new Force spirit. The man is wearing Jedi robes a little like Anakin’s, but he looks old where Anakin looks young, and he has a beard where Anakin is clean-shaven.
Luke smiles a little.
While Ben is blinking at that, the Force spirit smiles.
“It is good to see you, Luke,” he says.
“Uncle Luke, who is he?” asks Ben. Curiosity is burning in him.
“Oh, right – this is Ben – I mean, Obi Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master of the old Jedi Order. He was one of the Jedi who trained me.”
“I also trained your grandfather, young Ben,” says Obi Wan, with a serene smile.
“You’re the one who used to throw things at him?” asks Ben.
“What?” Uncle Luke looks to Obi Wan, confused and amused. “Ben?”
“It was part of a training exercise,” Obi Wan explains. “Anakin would stand on one hand while I threw things at him. He was supposed to catch them.”
“And I did catch them, old man,” says a familiar voice, full of teasing good-humour, and Uncle Luke stiffens, and turns to look at Anakin, his face full of emotion.
“Father,” Luke breathes, and Anakin smiles wistfully at him.
Uncle Luke makes an abortive movement as though to rise, longing on his face, but Anakin clearly reads his intent, and shakes his head.
“You can’t touch me, Luke. You’ll just go through me.”
“Of course I will,” says Uncle Luke, sounding self-deprecating. “I just – for a moment–”
“Forgot,” Anakin finishes for him. They stare at each other, and the emotions radiate from them through the Force.
Ben shifts uncomfortably.
“Perhaps we should give your uncle and grandfather a moment,” Obi Wan suggests. “I sense that they have things they wish to talk about.”
“Right,” Ben agrees. “I’m going to go inside.”
“Ben, you don’t have to –” Uncle Luke begins, but Anakin smiles at Ben and says, “Thank you,” so Ben goes back inside, leaving them to it.
Anakin continues to visit. This time, Uncle Luke knows about most of the visits, including the training Anakin is giving Ben. Uncle Luke jokes that at this rate his father should be taking on Ben as a padawan.
“What’s a padawan?” asks Ben.
“A Jedi apprentice,” says Anakin. “No, Luke, I’m pretty sure that’s your job. Have fun breaking the news to Leia,” he adds, with a grin. Uncle Luke throws a cushion at him, and it goes straight through him.
But Uncle Luke does get Ben’s parents alone one night, and suggests that he should train Ben as a Jedi Knight. Ben sneaks downstairs and listens from behind the door. Anakin follows him.
Ben’s father is full of bluster at the suggestion that Ben become a Jedi, but Ben’s mother says simply, cutting through the argument: “You’re worried he could turn out like Vader.”
“Actually, I’m not as worried about that as I used to be,” admits Uncle Luke. “These days I’m more worried about someone else training him before I do.”
“What?” asks Ben’s father.
“Who?” says his mother.
“Uh-oh,” whispers Anakin, from beside Ben. “No, Luke, don’t–”
“Ben, could you open the door?” Uncle Luke says loudly, and Ben does.
There’s a moment of silence, as Ben’s parents blink at the Force spirit, and Anakin looks hunted, while Uncle Luke stands there calmly. There’s a very faint grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, but he’s hiding it well.
“Leia, meet Anakin Skywalker,” says Uncle Luke.
“You are far too much like Obi Wan,” Anakin accuses, while Ben’s mother turns pale and his father goes “What?”
“He’s been guiding Ben away from the Dark Side,” says Luke serenely. “And doing a good job of it, as far as I can tell.”
“Um,” says Anakin, still looking alarmed.
“Get out,” said Ben’s mother, white around the mouth. “Get out of my house–”
“Leia–” Ben’s father tries to intervene.
But Anakin looks Ben’s mother in the eye and says, “Leia, I am so sorry for everything I have done, truly. I know that I can never make amends, but watching over my grandson seemed like the least I could do. The last thing I wanted was for him to repeat my mistakes.”
And something in Ben’s mother’s expression crumples a bit. Ben has never seen that happen before.
Anakin vanishes then, and Uncle Luke says gently, “His intentions are good, Leia. And his help has done Ben more good than I can explain.”
Ben shifts awkwardly at that.
“He’s really helping Ben?” Ben’s father demands. Uncle Luke nods.
Ben’s father looks conflicted.
“Well,” he says at last, “as long as he’s helping.”
Ben’s sudden impulse to hug his father takes him by surprise, but he gives in to it. Ben’s father looks just as surprised, but hugs him back anyway.
Ben’s mother isn’t as easily swayed – stubbornness runs in the family, as Anakin once said wryly – but in the end, she concedes that Anakin doesn’t seem to have hurt Ben in any way, and may even have done him good.
Ben goes to live with Uncle Luke at the new Jedi Temple. He’s not the only padawan Uncle Luke is training, he discovers, but the knowledge that at least he has Anakin to himself soothes the unpalatability of that discovery.
The other padawans are curious about the new arrival, perhaps a little envious of the son of two of the great heroes of the New Republic. Ben isn’t used to dealing with other people his own age, not really, and doesn’t know what to say to them. He soon develops a reputation for being stuck-up, which isn’t helped by the fact that’s he’s far more skilled than any other of the padawans at the things Uncle Luke is teaching.
But Ben has Anakin to complain to, and that always helps. Anakin usually commiserates with him, but is quick to tell Ben off when he thinks Ben needs it. And Ben listens.
“You’re not going to ever leave me, are you?” Ben asks one day.
“I’ll be around for as long as you need me,” Anakin promises.
It’s not the answer Ben was looking for, but it’s enough.
Ben never falls to the Dark Side. He’s too busy trying to make his grandfather proud.