HIS FATHER'S SHOES*
by Morgan Dawn
Han sped up the stairs, seeking cover for his advance through the palace corridors. His boots slipped on the smooth marble, their scuffling drowned by blasts and alarm sirens.
His shoulders bruised the walls as he ducked beneath heavy cross-fire. Focused, he did not feel the burns the near misses left behind. His rage had burned away most sensation long ago.
He slipped past sealed doors, now blasted ajar, and penetrated the foyer. Red spilled across the path where the Imperial Guards had fallen. Han noted the absence of scoring or wounds; their swirling cloaks the only color among the muted greys and blacks.
His hands sweated and he resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder. ‘Chewie won't be there, stupid,’ he thought. Chewie was still lost in mourning, along with the remaining survivors from their home planet. An entire population 'relocated' to serve the greater needs of an Imperial labor shortage. The fact that many perished in the "transfer", the Empire apparently considered just part of the transactional cost.
There would be a high transactional cost for the Empire today. The Rebels planetary siege had ended with this single, marshaled assault. The discovery of the force inhibitors gave the Rebellion the last tactical advantage they needed to break through the Emperor's defenses. But Han had no need for full-scale attacks or battle plans. He preferred the clarity of revenge.
He should have tried something long before Kashyyyk. But he hadn’t, just as he had not believed the stories that Leia and her operatives uncovered after Bespin. But now he knew better. What happened at Kashyyyk was more than evil. It carried the taint of something darker to it. To Han, it would always be something he could have prevented. If he had only believed.
He gripped the thermo device tightly on his belt. It would take out every living thing within a 50-meter range. With it, he could not miss. He would not hesitate.
He had never planned much before - impulse, intuition and daring had given him most everything in life. The rest he had stolen or done without. But if the coldness of this plan had felt alien, it was nothing next to the coldness he felt when he thought of how he -- how they -- he corrected himself -- had been betrayed. He had made certain he'd outpaced the rebel forces pouring past the Imperial Troops stationed before the Palace. He'd paid dearly for the Inner Palace schemas. And then again to keep them out of Leia's hands.
Han blinked the sweat out of his eyes, moving cautiously through the next chamber. Leia could have no part in this. This was dirty work, and even if she approved of the purpose, she could never have agreed to his methods. ‘Still the Princess, always the Princess,’ he thought and then shut her and her objections far away.
The inner chamber was frigid, the air clammy against his face. He slowed his breathing, trying to hear past his beating heart. He could hear it echo through the barren space, every pulse betraying his living presence to the dead.
He continued gingerly past more reddened pools of cloth and bodies, skimming around the grey crumple that had been an Imperial General. ‘ Where are your armies, now?’ he mocked the corpse. He slid into the small access corridor he discovered on the schemas and knelt.
His breath echoed harshly in the small space. This was the only way to enter the throne room without being immediately detected. Unless the Emperor picked up on Han's approach. His skin tickled as he worked his work through the electronic coding. Damn the Force. If he were lucky, all attention would be focused on the Rebel attack. No need to worry about this one approaching life form. Han did not believe in prayer, so he forced his fingers to type in the lengthy sequence even faster.
The hatch slid open, and he jammed his body through the opening. Designed for maintenance droids, he twisted and slithered through the dark corridor until he entered a cavernous darkness. He was beneath the Throne Room.
He moved carefully, keeping his back to the wall. The dark heightened his senses - he could feel the smooth wall, cool under his hands. Muffled screams came from above.
Han touched the outer access door and paused. The sounds were louder - over and over the same words: "Please, no. Please, I followed your orders exactly. Please –“ The voice choked and a sharp wail spilled into the darkness, landing deep in Han's gut. Using the sound as a shield, he popped the door open.
The light flooded his vision. This was his most vulnerable moment and he quickly fumbled for the thermo device and triggered the firing sequence. The dealer had warned him that to be absolutely sure his target should be in sight and within 15 meters. He held onto the final switch while his eyes adjusted. The throne stretched above him to his left. He crouched at the side of the dais, shielded from view by the arches that stretched into the corners of the room like inverted stepping stones.
Acrid burning reached the back of his throat as he edged closer. He blinked, and twisted his head to find the smell. The dark robes were hard to see at first -- so well did they blend in with the grey-black stone. The face was lined, its green-tinted skin frozen by a life of hate and cruelty. Even in death, the Emperor could lock a man into icy stillness.
And still Han remained, refusing to accept that this enemy had walked away, slipped past him by the simplest act of death. So still, that Han almost missed the soft brush of feet near the top of the dais. Han's blaster was not still, targeting the movement even as he flicked his eyes up.
Luke stood next to the throne, light saber humming. ‘He doesn’t look any different.’ Han’s first thought circled wildly, taking him back to the last time he had seen Luke. Was Hoth really so long ago? Then his awareness sharpened. No, this was not the Luke he knew.
The saber’s light had been swallowed by the same darkness that had once nurtured the Emperor. Luke's own darkness -- black fabric, black boots, blackened eyes, filled with a fierce hunger -- all a pale echo of the Emperor lying dead at his feet. The limp body of an imperial operative Luke had tortured to death made the image symmetrical. It had been Luke's soft voice questioning his servant. Just as it had been Luke's hand that had signed the relocation order for Chewie's planet. Not the Emperor. Not some stranger. Han pushed away the hollowness that sprang, unwelcomed. Grief would not consume him. His memories would not betray him. Not here, confronted by his enemy.
Han's hand tightened on the trigger. He closed his eyes and felt the his fingers spasm as he detonated the bomb. Die, the device sang and he felt it carry the weight of his anger and fury and loss into the air between them.
The air grew biting, forcing Han's eyes open. Luke gestured with his right hand and Han's throat locked, the air bleeding past his lips. Han's fingers fell from the thermo bomb, numbing cold shooting up his arm into his chest. The device pulsed against his thigh, and then fell silent. The blast had been neatly blocked with the impatient flex of Luke's leather glove.
The pain unbalanced Han, causing him to sway, choking, forcing his defiance past his silence. And within that well of pain stood Luke, smiling triumphantly. Han’s mind went numb. ‘I was supposed to die destroying Luke,’ he thought painfully He had never considered any other outcome. After Luke had turned, he had known he had no other choice.
Neither man moved. Han, hating, filled with impotent remembering. Luke, light saber at the fore, eyes fixed above Han's head, looking distractedly past Han, gazing at something beyond the throne room. Nothing seemed to register in Luke's eyes. Not the dead, scattered like bones across somber marble. Not Han, his heart bleeding from a betrayal he could not and would not understand. Not even the rebel troops threading their way through the chamber entrance, weapons drawn and ready, force inhibitors carried like talismans.
Then Luke wavered, his saber falling. Han followed the saber’s motion numbly, air suddenly streaming back into his starved lungs. The first shock troops had been assigned the largest force inhibitors. They sent up a tooth-jarring hum that even Han could sense.
Reacting, Han jerked his blaster from the holster and aimed it squarely at Luke’s chest. It was only then that he realized the rebel soldiers had poured up the dais, cutting off Han's line of fire. Swearing, he lowered the weapon, his eyes tightly locked on Luke.
More and more troops plunged into the throne room, almost piling into one another to reach the heart of their hated enemy. One veteran, scarred by an Imperial pogrom, lunged recklessly for Luke's saber. Luke tried to strike back with a Force he longer possessed, his feet slipping on the marble. Another soldier took advantage of the diversion to blast the saber out of Luke’s hand. Han swore again, his voice drowned by the weight of men and women crowding the room. There would be no chance for him here. He pushed his way out of the crowd, his fingers frustratedly tapping the deadened thermo. A shout went up from the dais. Han turned back, catching the flash of Luke's derisive smile as the troops dragged the Emperor's commander-in- chief, and now self-appointed successor, down to the cold floor. The smile would twist into Han long after the memory would fade.
"Luke! Move it!" Han stomped his feet impatiently, trying not to express more irritation than necessary. The kid needed cheering up, but even he had his limits.
The past three nights would have tested the best of men. The kid must be made of stone -- first, a trip to the Kader to game, then a three hour jaunt through the Shlomo for several rounds of exotic performances, and finally a quick shot at the Tertevov Races. Nothing seemed to work. Nothing could shake Luke back into the cocky, arrogant, irritatedly self-assured farm boy that had both annoyed and secretly amused Han.
But no one was immune to the Manacles Palace. Pleasure -- the ultimate mood elevator -- would do the trick. Han chortled, leaning casually against Luke's entryway, letting anticipation build in slow, waving pulses. Well, what else should one spend ones reward money on?
Han waved his hand over the sensor, setting off the chimes again. What was holding that kid up? He tried peering though the force field, but it had been opaqued for privacy.
He sighed. He really should have kept moving. Even after the brief rush of destroying the Death Star, the embarrassingly enjoyable award ceremony on the Yavin moon -- he should be gone by now. "Keep moving or die" -- that was his motto, and he'd never once regretted it. Yet.
Han shifted his hip against the force field, bouncing off the field slightly. He watched the crowd of fellow visitors stream by -- nothing unusual there, just the typical hues of races, beings, and droids found at every large commercial center. The field gave way suddenly and he nearly overbalanced backwards.
"Damn!" he swore, grabbing Luke's arm before catching his footing. "I wait for hours and then you pop up like a womp rat from its hole."
Luke stood silently in Han's grip. His eyes were tired and he looked as if, for a moment, he wanted to retreat back into his rented cubicle. Han tightened his fingers and pulled Luke onto the moving passageway. "Never mind. You won't believe what I've got planned...."
He kept his hand on Luke's arm until they were out of sight of the rest areas. He knew he was babbling. Well, what else was he to do in this silence?
The Manacles Palace was by invitation only, but Han, with a judicious amount of preparation and credits, was waved through. He glanced over to see if Luke was impressed, but the young man's attention wandered again. He stood in the entryway, blond hair glinting in the blue highlights, looking at his feet.
Can't take him anywhere, Han thought and hustled them both into the private room he'd reserved.
The room was everything he expected. It had been designed to his specifications -- opulent red walls and bright green recliners matched the plush blue carpet. A small orange fountain sprayed fragrances into the air.
Luke moved into the room, looking uneasy. Han signaled the menu bar with a flick of his wrist and a holographic image appeared. "Gentle Creatures. Please select your species."
"Well Luke. What'll it be? Redarian is always a classic choice, but I've heard that the Cynthains are particularly skilled."
Luke sat down on one of the recliners and jumped up again as it molded itself to his body. His eyes, a bit wider than before, darted around the room to fasten on the fountain again.
"M not sure." Han thought he heard Luke sigh, but the mumbling was hard to decipher.
"Mansurians?" the holograph piped in cheerfully. "So sorry Gentle Creatures, but we do not carry that species. Please select another."
Luke had turned an unusual light pink. Han's grin widened. He could really get into this. "I think we'll try something more --" Han did not move his eyes from Luke's face, his tense hands clutching an empty drinking cup from the recliner tray. "Show us your novice trainer. Preferably humanoid. "
Luke started and then slammed down the cup. "Screen off!" he shouted, and the hologram faded abruptly.
"What's' the matter, Luke? You want to try something more unusual? This is the place then. They've it all - flaming sex, simi-sex, twenty-one stands. Hell, I've got credits. We could even try the musoids."
Luke's eyes flared blue. "Don't give yourself airs, Han. I know what a musoid is and you couldn't handle one even if you were cloned three times over." He jostled the fountain, causing some of the simulated water to splash over the edge.
‘Much better ,’ Han thought. "Your education is very limited, my boy. But don't be too hard on yourself. It must have been difficult coming up with --certain experiences -- on that backwater."
"Well, that backwater had a lot more going for it that the latest perversion. I used to--" Luke's face lost all color and the words died. He turned away, studying the shifting colors of the recliner as if they were a new creature.
‘Damn,’ thought Han. He had had him almost back to normal. He paused to regroup, before signaling the holo again.
"Yes, Gentle Creatures?"
"My friend and I would like two - no make that four - Duras, extra dark." Han winked at the horrified expression on Luke's face as he signaled the holo to close. "Don't worry kid. It's a drink, not a "perversion" as you call it."
Luke blushed again, moving back to the recliner. He muttered something, just out of Han's earshot and remained there until the drinks arrived.
Han carefully portioned the drinks to weigh heavily in favor of Luke. After the first taste the young man would be barely standing. By the time he had taken his third cup, he'd be feeling no pain -- and hopefully no inhibitions. Han congratulated himself on his staying power -- clean living got you nowhere. He could at least still tell his colors apart.
"So what'll be," he asked Luke. "Ready for some perversion?"
Luke barely raised a flush at this. "I didn't call it perversions," he answered, sipping his drink slowly.
"Did too. I heard it." Han nettled.
"I meaned," Luke was starting to slur a bit, "those weren't my words. They were someone else's". His eyes looked lost and wandering.
"Whose were they? That crazy old fool? Damn Jedis always did have a purity streak to them."
Luke shut his mouth and shook his head.
"Ah, your Aunt and Uncle. Well, no wonder, what else do you expect living on a moisture farm in the middle of nowhere? Smiling was probably a perversion." Han was getting warm under the vest, angry at all the narrow minded stupidity in the universe. Particularly when it tried to interfere with his pleasure.
Luke shook his head again and swallowed. His eyes watered a bit.
"Well, it couldn't be your friend, Biggs? He didn't seem too planet bound. Don't find too many of those fighting a rebellion."
Luke looked up at this, his eyes fading under the lights, washed away in a face lined with pain. He breathed softly, "Biggs wasn't ‘planet bound."’ He gulped the rest of his drink and stood quickly.
Swaying, Luke would fallen through the fountain if Han had not caught him. Flipping the man over on the recliner, Han checked his pulse. Duras wore off quickly -- that's what made them such great icebreakers.
Dammed if he could figure out what was bothering the kid. He was acting like he'd lost his pet fullat. Han disposed of the rest of his drink into the trash slot. His eyes were still watering in reaction. Damn side effect of the Duras -- made you look like you were crying.
Han took a sharp gulp of air and turned around to look at the resting figure. He'd been a fool. Of course, Luke had been acting like he'd lost a pet. He'd lost enough for twenty pets. Family, friends, teacher -- all dead in a matter of days. No medals could make up for that. No grand words could cancel those debts.
Han shifted himself uneasily back into his brightly colored recliner. He didn't understand how to handle this. He shouldn't have to handle this. He really shouldn't be there.
Luke moved and spoke. "Biggs. Don't go. Biggs..." He was crying, his face pale as the Duras removed the last of his barriers.
Han swore to the gods of his family and their forgotten honor. He could have the Falcon ready in a matter of hours. He could sling Luke into his cubicle, leave him sleeping it off and get back to his life. Pay off his debts.
Luke rolled limply as Han lifted him off the recliner. Then he jerked, throwing his arms around Han, embracing him. The warmth of Luke's body sent shocks through Han's middle, his cock thickening in response. Not now, he told it, struggling with a Luke gone akimbo. Han reached behind, trying to untangle Luke's arms. The Duras should have worn off by now.
Luke's hands kept moving. Han felt a feather touch on his face, followed by the softest kiss. His cock lifted inside his pants, the pressure building. Han steadied himself against the recliner and started to pull away.
"Han," Luke whispered and his mouth opened confidently, tasting Han, sliding his tongue beneath his defenses. Movement flared into light, building into a flow that carried Han with it. He pulled Luke closer, slipping his fingers beneath the white tunic, soothing the tension away. He kissed Luke again, seeking the flesh between the neck and shoulder. He filled his mouth with sensation, savoring.
So this is what he needed, Han thought and then jerked when Luke rolled off the recliner, hands reaching into Han's pants, the cool fingers pressed hard against his cock. "You better know where you're going, farm boy," he hissed.
Luke, bent down on one knee, glared up at him. "Don't flatter yourself. You're not the first" he said, and then took the tip of Han’s cock into his mouth. Han leaned back, thanking gods he no longer believed in. As Luke's lips and tongue pushed him higher, he remembered to send a brief thanks to Biggs too. Then, the demands of the moment took charge and he pressed his hands over Luke's ears, thrusting his cock deeper and deeper into Luke.
The room circled in on itself, the colors and light spinning Han into a web of pleasure until his senses combusted. He shuddered, clutching Luke's shoulder's fiercely as every muscle arched and then released. He felt the coolness of air as Luke rose and seated himself on the recliner. Struggling against the torpor, Han peeled open an eye and grinned.
Luke's face was flushed, his lips held firmly between his teeth. His breathing came fast and his eyes glittered. Han shut his mouth quickly. He was never one to not return a favor -- particularly when it had been so generously given.
His hands found Luke's cock, and he stroked it. Luke trembled, and his body flushed a dark red. He buried his face into Han's chest, biting and licking. He tried to push Han away and then, with the next movement, tried to pull him closer. He came quickly, pulsating over and over.
Han leaned back, satisfied. Luke curled up against him, drifting into a light rest. Han leaned over, signaling the hologram.
"Yes, Gentle Creature?" The ever-present politeness could grow grating. But Han was in a forgiving mood.
"Three more rounds of Duras. But add a stim." Han waved the creature off, but it raised one limb before he finished the gesture.
"Any preference?" the holo asked. Han shook his head, again waving the creature away. He didn't need any further distractions.
Luke stirred, moving the recliner. His face was clear, his breathing slowed into a deeper slumber. His hair, moistened with sweat, stood on ends. Han smiled and brushed it flat. You can take the boy off the farm...." he thought and chuckled. Maybe he'd stick around a bit longer, after all. Jabba could wait.
Three months later, Jabba was the least of his worries.
Shaking the hair from his eyes, Han sneered back at his interrogator. Amateurs all of them. The room was bare, the colorants used on the surfaces ten years out of date. His captor's methods were equally outdated.
His head rocked back as the Hadden's fist connected with a painful snap. He let the blow roll through him and spat blood back.
"Tz-where did you hide the cargo-li?" Out of the corner of his eye he saw the second blow coming and braced for it. His arms were tied firmly behind his back, wrists now numb. They had even used rope, instead of DuraNeb. Lucky for him. At least the rope's numbness would fade.
He peered dumbly at the Hadden, emoting stupidity with enough effort to convince the greatest simpleton. Some times you really had to work with them to get them where you wanted.
The Hadden snorted in frustration, then turned and shuffled out the open door. They didn't even bother to lock it. Han would have smiled except the situation was already embarrassing. Bad enough to have been caught by amateurs. But to have been caught on the return trip of a smuggling run -- that was even more embarrassing. There was no cargo. Or credits. Luke had insisted that the funds be wired directly to the rebellion as soon as the sale was completed.
Han licked the blood from his lips. The kid really was taking this rebellion too seriously. And the rebellion was taking the kid too seriously. Let him blow up one death star, and they would have had him on every skirmish run till he dropped.
The side trip with Han was supposed to be relaxing. Han could hear shouting as someone -- or something -- clattered against the walls. He hoped Luke was doing allright.
He shifted, working the ropes a bit looser. It was too early to stage a break. Darkness would be only a few hours away. And Chewie would know to hold off his takeover of the Falcon until then. It was just a matter of waiting.
Han shifted again. He wished he could have had time to clue Luke in on the plan before they'd been separated.
A sharp scream caught his wandering thoughts and he strained to listen. Could have been human. Maybe a young male.
Suddenly the whole experience did not seem that funny.
He almost missed the entrance of the new interrogator. A sleek droid, half his height, moved silently across the room. It had been refurbished -- a few after market attachments added that Han knew were not legal. Even in this territory. The stakes suddenly rebalanced.
He looked around for the operator and then swallowed hard. It was fully automated. Which meant it wouldn't stop until it had what it wanted.
"I have completed my identification and interrogation of your partner. Please confirm your identity." A soft whirring began as the droid switched to recording mode. Han remained silent.
"Your cooperation is requested, but not required. Your name is Han Solo, you operate several smuggling entities. Currently a death marker has been placed against your name by a Tattoine lord, Jabba the Hutt. You have been recently engaged by rebellious elements for fund raising efforts. Please confirm."
Han's estimation of the programmer inched up a notch. Recent intelligence was expensive. Correct intelligence was even pricier. He twitched slightly as the first needle slipped into his shoulder. A faint buzzing swirled around his ears.
"Your partner initially refused to cooperate. But remarkably, he was easier to turn. No drugs were necessary. The Force-sensitive are easier to persuade to the rightness of one's cause." The droid raised another mechanical limb, and prepared the next injection.
Han’s thinking grew more muddled. ‘The Force. Always back to the Force, Luke’d be okay if it wasn’t for the crazy old Jedis.’ The second needle slid home.
"Luckily for us, he feels extreme loyalty to his cause. Which is more easily transferable. Of course, he wishes you would share the same degree of commitment. But he understands. He has great caring for you."
Han blinked. His eyes felt large and papery raw. His head weighed heavier than before. He shook it roughly.
"Understand then, that when he decided to cooperate, he felt badly that he could not give us everything we needed. Which is why we are here. "
Han shook his head again, more in denial than in an effort for clarity.
"I see you do have doubts. Your friend assured us you would. So he told to us to tell you that in spite of what Biggs may have thought, he does not consider it a perversion. Not any more."
Han jerked himself upright. His heart pounded painfully. "What the hell..." he muttered before he forced his mouth shut. The drugs had thrown him off balance. That was all. No way would Luke have cooperated. Force or no Force.
The droid continued, its monitoring lights intensifying. "We have taken a break from his interrogation. It became clear that you were the one who held the transaction codes for the credit transfers. Please confirm."
Han felt his stomach roil. This was not a dumb cargo interception. Someone had credits to gather intelligence and fund the droid. Someone who could detect a 3 million credit transfer, even through unsanctioned channels.
"Please confirm." The droid hummed expectantly into the silence. Han twisted hard against the ropes, but his muscles had slackened. 'Oh Luke,' his mind whispered. 'What have you done?' The room titled slightly. He closed his eyes against the next needle.
The droid made a sharp crackling noise and then fell silent. Breathing heavily Han tried to focus. The warm hands that tugged at the ropes felt odd, unreal. The hand that brushed the hair out of his eyes did not fit the cold sterility of an interrogator.
It was only when he heard Luke whisper his name, that clarity returned. Shoving himself to one knee, he leaned on Luke's shoulder for support and tried to stand. He fell, the painful contact with the cement a distant experience. He shoved again and felt the floor spin.
"Hold still, Han. Let me try something. It worked for me." Luke sat cross-legged, curling his arm around Han's shoulder. Han relaxed into the embrace. He felt weightless, his every motion disconnected. He heard Luke take a deep breath and then one hand was placed on his chest. Heat radiated away from the contact, seeping through his torso, then his arm, and finally reaching his face. Cold, sharp clarity flooded in its wake, and a welcome sense of well being. Even his arms gave off their complaining. No numbness. Only crispness and the warmth between Luke and his chest.
Han shuddered. "What did you do?" His voice trailed hoarsely.
Luke shrugged. "When they started with the drugs, at first I started babbling. Luckily, it was just personal things. Nothing about the mission. And then I found I could clear the effects away if I just did this --"
Luke reached out with his hand again. Han pulled himself abruptly up off the floor. He swayed briefly, before feeling the firmness in his limbs.
"What the hell are you talking about!" His voice sounded clearer. He scanned the room for the droid, and saw it smoking next to the interrogation chair. "What's going on here?" He suddenly wanted to get away, as far away as possible.
Luke looked at him bleakly. "I *was* explaining --". He bit off his words and sighed. "Han, we've got to get moving now. Chewie will be waiting for us."
'But I didn't have time to tell him about Chewie,' he thought before shifting his gaze away. "Right, kid. Explanations are for later." Without pausing for a response, he hustled into the corridor. And ignored the motionless guards, the unlocked doors, and Luke's silent presence until well after they returned to the Rebel base.
Luke tested the strength of the force inhibitor outside his cell using familiar force pathways. The give increased, but not enough.
He circled the room again -- small, stark white walls, no windows, no opening in or out except for the heavily shielded door. A small rest area with not much else. They'd stripped him of all insignia and weapons. They thought they'd left him with nothing. Except his dulled sense of the Force and a simmering rage.
When his operative had planted the force inhibitors in the Emperor's throne room, Luke intended to be far away when he finally struck down the Emperor. And he had been - buildings away, sensing the Emperor's feebleness increase under the relentless pulsing of the inhibitors. By the time Luke attacked, it had been too late for Palpatine. A perfect plan. The death of the Emperor would be blamed on the rebels, with the presence of the inhibitors providing the necessary physical evidence.
But they had miscalculated the strength of the rebel attack. Luke stifled the urge to reach out with the Force now, knowing that he'd only find a vestige of his potency. Maybe he shouldn’t have entered the throne room. But the risk had seemed so slight. Once his operative had disabled the force inhibitors, it was a simple step to kill the only witness. Besides, his presence was necessary. Who else could have verified that the Emperor had really died? No, it would have worked perfectly, if the rebel troops had not broken through. And that was not his miscalculation. It was Palpatines.
He touched one smooth wall. They'd kept him here for three days. Hadn't even tried to interrogate him. No point in dealing with the condemned.
The hatch unsealed and Luke turned to meet his visitor. A thin Argonian walked through the multiple field layers, glancing nervously behind it. Its brilliant greens and blue scales had faded under stress. The hatch closed quickly, stranding the creature between the white walls, floor and ceiling.
Luke leaned against the back wall, his arms folded against the grey prison coverall. The Argonian looked for a place to sit. There was none.
"Acgehm." The tongue flicked in irritation." I am your Advocate." It paused, waiting for some sign. Luke gave him nothing.
"As I was saying, I am your Advocate. Your trial is tomorrow and we have much to cover." The being called up a holo. It was a re-creation of the Death Star raid.
"We will begin with your greatest contributions to the rebellion." The soft voice hissed slightly. "That, coupled with other mitigating factors-"
"What are the applications against me," Luke interrupted. The muscles in his right arm began twitching.
The Argonian blinked, its flat mouth gaping. "You want me to state all 766 applications?"
Luke smiled insultingly with his bared teeth. "Not necessary. You are, after all, my Advocate." He crouched down against the wall. Now his left arm was twitching. It still felt phantom pain, even after being synthetically replaced. The creature was risking a lot by irritating him.
The Advocate shuttered its double eyelids in agitation. "Of course, I am. As such it is my duty to bring all evidence before the Senate. Not just the favorable. We are, after all seeking the truth." He raised his arm again, bringing up another scene: Hoth. "Your next contribution to the Rebellion...."
The words grated on Luke's nerves. The force inhibitor had thrown him badly off balance. He felt the darkness pressing against him every moment now. His hold on himself weakened every passing day. The key to being a master of the Dark Side was not to let the dark side master you. Even when he possessed all of his skill, it had been difficult to keep the Emperor at bay. Now, with Palpatine dead by Luke's own hands and the inhibitor......
Luke leaned his head back against the cell wall. Hoth swam fuzzily in the center of the cramped room. The Advocate kept talking, his soft whistles slicing into Luke's brain. He had a headache.
"...there is more to show on the positive side. However, in the interest of time, I will need a complete statement of the last three years. Why you betrayed the Rebellion after Bespin, the acts committed as the Emperor's Counselor of War and then Counselor of Reeducation, and, of course, your recent proclamation of yourself as the new Emperor." The Argonian swung another jointed spur and a different holo appeared, a scribe waiting to record Luke's statement.
Luke stood slowly, feeling his bones crack. He stared through the holo, through the Advocate, focusing his gaze inward. He had had enough. They had no idea of what they were up against. They had no idea of the power of the Force.
The room grew colder. Luke strained against the inhibitor, channeling all of his rage, all of his pain, all of his disgust and contempt. The temperature fell again and then again. The Advocate's voice faltered, its movements growing sluggish. Luke pushed harder, feeling the ice grip his skin, press against his eyelids. The Argonian hissed and turned towards the door. He fell before he could reach the seal. Luke's own body was shivering, but his internal defenses still protected him against any serious harm. The reptile was another matter.
The seal split and two armed guards entered the room, scooping up the Advocate. They kept their blasters trained on Luke. He gathered the remaining strands of the Force and pulled against their minds. Their blasters did not waver and before he could try again, they shut the seal, leaving Luke trembling in the frigid cell. He sank back on his haunches, letting it all slough away from him. He felt so weak. But it had shown him enough. Enough to know that he was not as helpless as he feared. As the Emperor had so often told him -- nothing could stand against a Dark Knight of the Force.
He let his head rest against the wall for support. The walls seemed whiter in the cold. His eyes flickered, then slid closed.
The sound of the seal startled him, but he forced himself to remain motionless. Another Advocate so soon?
A man, his face distorted through the security fields, sauntered past the guards, dismissing them with a nonchalant wave. Han would never be mistaken for an Advocate. He had been on the wrong side of the law far too often. It showed.
Luke narrowed his eyes and rigidly repressed the snarl that flared at the studied casualness. Han could not fool him. His fear -- doubt - and hate -- could be read even through the inhibitor fields.
Han nodded once and then looked around at the bare walls. "It suits you."
Luke waited. Han shifted, the cramped cell clearly forcing him closer than he would have he preferred. Luke smiled inwardly at the evident discomfort.
"Cold, bare of life. The perfect end for someone like you. With luck, you'll be able to stay conscious until the very end."
Luke decided to play along. After all, nothing else to do until he made his move. "So how's Chewie doing? "
Han's face flushed, then paled with the painful draining of blood. "He'd be here if he could. But don't worry. I'll be taking good notes for him. And his people."
Luke shrugged in disinterest. Well maybe he wouldn't play along. Han could be too predictable.
Sudden movement swirled. Han's fist cracked into Luke's face, forcing him back against the wall. Luke swallowed blood as he slid down the smooth surface For a heartbeat, Luke wagered the possibility of another assassination attempt. But Han only stepped away, his eyes intense, his lowered hand empty of any weapons.
"But there's one question they'd never want answered." Han bit the words out, clipping them of all emotion. "One that no one will ask. Probably 'cause they don't give a damn. They don't want your explanation or justifications. They just want you dead." Han moved fractionally closer, the light glinting off his dark hair.
“And you don't?'’ Luke asked sarcastically, moving his jaw against the swelling. Then, with careful calculation, he made his next play. "So you're the only one who wants to know why? That's why you're here?" He glided to his feet, boosting his movements with a trace of the Force. It would give him a ghostly, almost viper-like appearance.
Luke stretched, watching Han react uneasily through lowered eyes. "Interesting that you would ask the question now," he continued. "When you weren't interested before." He relaxed briefly against the wall before straightening. "I mean, did you really think you could take me down?"
"I've done better than that against worse odds." Han was playing a dangerous game. "You should know that. You were there." ‘ Needling a Dark Lord was never wise’, Luke thought, then dismissed the idea as a distraction.
Han plunged on. "And not even the Emperor could survive a thermo blast. And you were never more than Palpatine’s apprentice." He squared his shoulders, relaxing the hands that had involuntarily curled again into fists.
Luke responded instinctively. “And I am the man who killed Palpatine. Which makes me the Emperor, now doesn’t it?” He shifted against the wall and changed his line of attack. “But what kind of man are you Han? One who did not even attempt to rescue his friend from Vader’s torture cells. Not that I minded that much. How else would I have been introduced to my father? Or take my rightful place?"
The words strummed though Han, his hand blurring into a blow that never came.
"Leia and I had no idea you were on Cloud City." His voice grated harshly. "No idea that they had succeeded in luring you there. And after I had been placed in carbon freeze -- well, what was she supposed to do, leave me there to die?" Han stopped, breathing heavily.
"Nice try, Luke," he continued after catching his breath. "But even if it had been you that Vader had strapped down and punctured full of needles, nothing changes the fact that you *chose* to follow him. And by the time I got out of carbon freeze—well there wasn’t much point to rescuing you. We’d all heard about your personal involvement in hunting down the rest of the rebel cells on Mon Calarami .Oh, yeah, you made your choice pretty damn clear. And nothing that Leia or I did -- or did not do -- will ever change that."
His speech made, Han stepped back. Luke allowed a sad smile to play across his face. "Well Han, we'll never really know will we? How it would have been if Ben had not lied to me about my father How it would have been if Leia had come back for me after I called and called for her. Instead of Vader. How if would have been if you had come for me – well, maybe even Kashyyyk might have been spared." he calculated the pause, waiting for a few seconds before continuing. "But as you said, Han, none of that really changes anything."
The words had the desired effect. He could almost feel Han’s guilt growing, the harsh edges of his intent blurring. This had been the first lesson he had learned from his father. How to use words to break the will. No need for violence or direct action. Not when you could use love as a weapon.
Luke paused, carefully controlling his expression. He had tried to put his past behind him after Bespin. But Han had been his final weakness, as the Emperor called him. Palpatine used Han to mock Luke almost daily. Until one winter’s morning, Luke found himself scanning the daily intelligence packet on Han’s movements and found himself curiously aloof, finally desensitized. Luke had released the memory of Han then with gratitude. His feelings had become a deep, excruciating burden, but the teachings of the Emperor finally smoothed away the last painful edges of remembrance, leaving a honed, polished surface behind. Like a rock, Luke knew he would never be moved again.
Nodding slightly, Luke prodded Han again gently, almost sadly . “None of it changes anything now, does it, Han?” And waited, watching with satisfaction as Han’s eyes widened. The man’s expression had grown opaque, the lines around his mouth and forehead deepened. 'His hair has gone grey,’ Luke thought and then nudged Han’s mind with the Force.
It was too much, too obvious and Han reacted stepping further back, his hand reaching for the gun belt he did not wear. Then his arm dropped. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. Guilt had been replaced by a surge of palpable hate and rage. Emotions that Luke knew too well. They had covered him for many years like well worn clothes.
"See in you hell," Han snarled and then signaled the guards. Stiffly, he jerked his way through the seal. Luke watched him leave, a feeling of dissatisfaction settling. Not very impressive after all these years. How many times had he played this scene in his head? So many, and yet the reality was left wanting.
He coughed against the bitter air. It was colder than he thought. He doubted his captors would try to readjust the temperature to accommodate him. As he struggled to warm the cell, he remembered the last time he had felt this cold. A sudden image flared in his mind -- Han standing over him on Hoth, the winds stripping away their breath, leaving them both numb.
The memory gave Luke enough anger to pull the temperature up another few marks. But the anger could never shield him from the pain, even after these many years. And pain would not give him the will to warm the room further. Grimly, he reached deeper, immersing himself in the bitterness that had become part of his life.
The tent was small, barely enough to hold the two bodies close together. Luke fumbled against the arms that enlaced him, relaxing only when Han breathed his name.
"Stay still kid. This thing isn't holding together." Han's hands made small circles, the warmth bleeding through to Luke's frozen muscles and skin.
Luke shifted his legs, hoping for some sensation. They felt cold and distant, the sensation pulling at his consciousness. It was so cold, even with Han's body pressing life into his side. The roar of the wind echoed inside his chest, each gasp hurting worse than the next. His lips became numb.
"Wake up. Come on kid." Han's seemed to have moved away, his voice coming from the other side of the tent. Luke relaxed into the voice, letting himself drift.
The grip on him tightened, shaking him back. "Damn you Luke, stay with me." Luke tried to speak, but his lips had frozen. He felt his chest convulse with effort.
Softness brushed against his lips, warmth and breath flowed from Han's kiss. "Luke," Han whispered, then his mouth covered Luke's. The taste -- smoke and hint of ice -- filtered through the mind-numbing cold. Han's kissing me, Luke thought. His arms struggled, trying to return Han's embrace. The kiss deepened, spreading the warmth into his core. I must be alive. If alive, then Ben must be a dream. He felt a sharp stab of relief.
"Ben," he whispered. Han shook him again.
"That old man is dead. Give it up, Luke." Han's anger battered against his nerves and he flinched. No, it hadn't been a dream. Ben wanted him to leave. Wanted him to leave Han.
"No," he croaked pushing back against the arms holding him down.
"Stay still. This shelter won't hold. Shhhh." Han's soft breath smoothed away the fear. Han was there. It would be allright.
He woke inside the bacta tank, fluid surrounding him, deadening all sensations. The procedure was painful, his lungs coughing uncontrollably as the oxygenated fluid drained from his lungs.
Wrapped in the heat sealing blankets afterwards, he stretched his aching muscles. They had very few resources on Hoth -- but the medico-droids had been the best they could acquire on the after market. His body ached, but the healing was well underway.
But the fragmented dreams weren't healing. He knew he had to leave for Dagobah. Knew with that queer certainty that had led him away from his home after his aunt and uncle were killed.
The door whooshed open and C3PO clattered into the room, followed by R2-D2 and Leia. Listening to the droid's mindless chatter was a welcome distraction. He didn't have to leave this minute. He had to heal first, didn't he?
Leia smiled in greeting, letting C3PO speak. She wore her white thermal suit, almost blending into the cool walls.
Han swaggered into the room, Chewie at his heels. "How're you feeling, kid?" Han leaned over the edge of the bed and peered loudly into Luke's face. Luke felt a silly smile spread, stretching the new scar tissue. "You don't look too bad to me. You look strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark."
Luke had long given up asking Han if the creatures he referred to were real. Too many farm boy jokes had worn that line of thought down. Over Han's shoulder he could see Leia's frown of displeasure. Luke relaxed letting their familiar banter flow past him.
Chewie’s loud hooting caught his attention Han had turned to face the Wookie. "Laugh it up, fuzz ball,” he offered. Keeping a close eye on Luke, Han moved over to Leia and put his arm around her. "You didn't see us alone in the south passage. She expressed her true feelings to me." Han beamed as his arm encircled Leia.
Luke felt a stab beneath his ribs. He rubbed the spot, but the ache remained.
Leia shoved Han. "What? Why -- Why-- you-- stuck up -- half-witted -- scruffy looking--- nerf herder!" Leia sputtered as Han sauntered back towards Luke. The ache grew deeper.
"Who’s scruffy looking?!" Han exploded with righteousness.
In one step, Han bent down towards Luke. "Must have hit pretty close to the mark there to get her all riled up like that, huh, kid?" His breath warmed Luke's face. Luke looked down at the floor, depression tugging at him. Han never spoke to Luke like that.
Leia nodded her head silently and approached the two men. Her teeth were clenched as she glared at Han. Luke felt irrelevant.
"Well, I guess you don't know everything about women yet," she said and pulled Luke's face towards her lips. The kiss was pleasant, but Luke felt tension roiling in his stomach. As she moved back, Luke peered up at Han expectantly. But Han had no eyes for him. Only Leia. And only after she left the room, did Han seem to remember Luke. By then, Luke had pasted a smug grin on his face. As Han looked distractedly down at Luke, his mind was still clearly on the princess. After a few seconds, he finally muttered, "Take it easy," and then walked hurriedly away.
Luke leaned forward, watching Han leave. He sank back dejectedly as Han passed though the bacteria seal. Who was he kidding? Han had never promised anything. But lately, he had been careful to avoid even the appearance of commitment. To him. To the Rebellion. And a thousand snow rescues would never change that.
But what made it all worse was that whenever Leia was around, Han had started acting different. Ever since Luke had used the Force to get them out of the interrogation cell.
His chest started to throb, echoing the painful pulses in his face. The medico droid was busy elsewhere, otherwise he'd ask for a painkiller. But then again, given his latest string of hallucinations, maybe not.
He closed his eyes, feeling with his senses. The faint presence that he'd always associated with Ben was not there. But the dream -- or vision -- was still fresh in his memory. Luke pushed the drink dispenser next to his bed and perused the recommended list of drinks. He selected alebe, more out of homesickness than anything else.
So who could he talk to about this crazy idea? And what a bright idea. Wandering through the star systems, searching aimlessly for a mythical Jedi master. Han would laugh at him. Leia would talk about the urgent need for men to support the rebellion. Neither would understand. They couldn't feel the Force, could not appreciate its existence. Not like he did anyway. Luke sipped the drink, barely registering its floral taste.
He didn't understand it either. All he ever wanted to be was like his father. Since his family's death, all he could think of was destroying the Empire. It wasn't like he was abandoning his friends He swallowed again. And Dagobah was really only a short trip - more like a detour. That couldn't hurt. And well, --- Luke sipped the rest of his drink. Han would do allright. Anyway, Han'd made it clear that he wouldn't be staying around for long.
Luke tossed the cup into the recycler. Come to think of it, maybe it was best that Han didn't stick around. Leia could be very convincing.
He caught up on the missed briefings after he left the infirmary. Pausing only briefly, he collected his few personal belongings before heading to the flight area. The fighter's engines whined as they were prepped for battle.
He ran over to Chewie, busily welding the Falcon. "Chewie." Luke called out. "Take care of yourself, okay?" Smiling, he turned to leave, but was caught in Chewie's arms. Luke returned the hug, wishing, not for the first time, he could understand what Chewie was saying. Another thing to learn after the Rebellion.
He moved away, peering up at Han. He stood, braced against the Falcon, his body leaning causally again the upper deck. "Hey kid," he shouted. Han was gesturing to a servo droid. "There's gotta be a reason for it. Check it out at the other end. Wait a second." Dismissing the droid, Han glanced down at Luke.
There was an awkward pause.
"You all right?" Han asked. Luke stared back, fumbling for words. "Yeah," was all he could muster. The somber expression on Han's face surprised him. Suddenly wanting to add more, Luke began to speak. Han smiled instead, a gentle tug at the corner of his mouth and Luke fell silent. Luke nodded back and turned to leave. He heard Han's voice rising. Be careful." Warmed, Luke turned back and managed to reply. "You too." He tuned away quickly before he could embarrass himself any further.
What could he say to Han that he would -- could -- hear? Not much room for tenderness there. Not many more words that Luke could speak into the space between them except good-bye. Feeling the ache again, he turned away, boots sliding on the iced floor. He was acting childishly. It wasn't as if he was leaving forever. He just had to follow a path that had been laid before him long before he had ever met Han.
With his back turned, he could not see Han's eyes reflecting the growing sense of doom that iced his heart.
"Bring the accused before the tribunal." Luke rose smoothly, facing the pompous charade of the republican court. He'd presided over enough Imperial sessions to know that the decision had already been made. The Rebellion didn't know it, but they had very much in common with their hated Empire. They had even elected to use the Imperial Tribunal protocols. They must have reasoned its impact carefully. The symbols had once been the cornerstone of the Old Republic. Now the Rebellion would cleanse the ancient trappings of the Empire's taint.
He kept his eyes forward while the jurist began reading the 766 applications. His use of the Force had almost completely returned. The inhibitors only blocked one path to the Force. The mind, with its flexibility and agility, was engineered to seek out new connections. He sensed the life forms about him, the crushed spirit of the carved wooden decorations forced into the Imperial insignia, the fading impressions of stone quarried into a monument to the Empire. A smile twitched on his lips.
Leia was there. Not inside the court, but within the Cloud City. Power brokering again, no doubt. Hiding their blood connection would be key to her political survival. She was .... Luke pushed harder against the force inhibitors. She was negotiating for a marriage. A key alliance with the Royal House of Kara. How farsighted.
Luke's right knee began to ache as the jurist reached the 257th charge. He smoothed the Force around the muscle and into the bone. The guards had indulged themselves a bit before bringing him into the public. Nothing that would show, of course. They would be the be first, Luke decided.
The jurist droned on and Luke listened to the soft coughs and hisses from the onlookers. He wanted this to be over. But it suited him - it suited the Force's purpose -- to allow the conviction. So he stood, counting off each application like a grim checklist to the execution.
Luke's knee stabbed without warning. Han had to be there. Han had to be sitting three paces behind, his eyes burning into Luke. Leia could coolly broker her own marriage while Luke stood condemned. But Han had carried his hatred into the tribunal. Han had to make this personal.
Luke could see Han clearly in his mind's eye. His hair slightly shaggier, his clothes even more ragged. The dark circles under his eyes. The empty blaster holster where he had to surrender his weapon to enter the tribunal. Luke could even see the faint twitching in his neck.
Poor Han, Luke thought. He'd be discarded by Leia soon. Well at least he'd have Chewie to keep him company. The jurist's voice seemed to waver in the distance. Application 633 -- the willful destruction of Khashykk, the forced resettlement of an entire planet, the near genocide of the Wookie race.
Luke shut his eyes. They had no idea what really happened. The choice had been either the complete destruction of the planet or relocation to the labor camps. At least some of them survived.
His eyes shot open. Who was he to care about the fate of a technologically backward race? This was the kind of weakness Palpatine had warned him against. The same kind of weakness that had caused his father to turn against Luke and Palpatine. The man who had been Anakin Skywalker had surfaced only briefly before dying. His features haunted Luke's dreams -- when he was allowed to have them. The Emperor controlled the influences on his young protégé very carefully.
The room started to clear. Luke brought his attention back to the podium. His new Advocate, a Legite, tugged at him. 'They're taking a brief pause in the readings of the Applications. Please relax." This Advocate had volunteered, even after learning of the fate of his predecessor. His yellow eyes reminded Luke of the clouds surrounding Bespin -- light and air, mixing together, to form a new world.
Luke glanced at the delicate creature, seeing the fragile bones and tendons through the being's upper layer. Palpatine was wrong -- it wasn't a being’s nature to be only be controlled or broken. There was more to it than even the Emperor could understand. Luke had caught a glimpse of it in Palpatine’s mind before he died. Something dark -- something heavy and deep, more powerful than he had ever been led to believe.
Luke's legs felt weak as he sat down. The air had grown chilly again and he shivered. Soon this would be over. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply, keeping his mind focused. There could no room to doubt the truth of the visions offered by the dark side of the Force. He had seen the path the dark side promised. More power than Palpatine could ever imagine. And freedom. Freedom from a life shaped by others. Freedom from the influences of others. From being guided by visions that were not his own. Old Ben, Leia, Yoda, his father, Palpatine. And Han.
Luke breathed again, deeply. He needed clarity once this silly masquerade ended and he took his leave of them and their foolishness. They had no real hold over him. No one had -- not for a very long time. Luke began the meditations that would regain mastery of his thoughts.
Han watched the tribunal reach the verdicts in quick succession. The fact that there could be no other decision did not make a difference. The fact that justice served, what little there was, did not silence the memories. The fact that Luke was sentenced to die -- to be taken to a place of immediate execution -- could not erase the past. Han had very few expectations from the universe. And even fewer from Luke.
Han stood up with the rest of the crowd and slipped out of the tribunal before the crowd began to move. He did not wait to see Luke's expression. Nothing had penetrated the chilling face, relaxed the dead eyes into any semblance of humanity. The boy he had met on Tatooine was no more. The friend he treasured had died within the dark twisting they called the Force. As far as Han was concerned, the Force had brought only grief into their lives. The Force and the Jedis.
He moved quickly down the corridors, ignoring the excited babble of excitement. The Empire was finally dead. Evil was defeated. There would be a new tomorrow. Han picked up his pace. He needed to reclaim his blaster and get out of here. Bespin held too many memories.
His quarters were already cleared of most of his belongings. He keyed the command to send a time-delayed message to the Princess. He paused to look over the room. She had risked much to rescue him from Jabba and Bobba Fett. The memories of the carbon freeze still gave him nightmares. He could never repay her. But Luke had been right about one thing. Han may not have know that Luke had reached Cloud City. But Leia had known. And had made the cold, rational decision of a military leader. Cut your losses and save those who could be saved. He wondered if the decision haunted her as much as it did him. He pressed the exit button and started towards the docking bay.
He was getting tired of thinking about friends who had failed him. Lando. Luke, Leia. It was time to stop trusting and get back to what he was good at. Taking care of himself and Chewie.
The crowds thinned when he reached the Falcon's launch pad. It stood, much battered, glowing in the light of Bespin's fading sun. The air that lifted across the platform sliced into his shirt, sending his breath into a mist. Breathing was barely tolerable at this altitude. A few hundred meters below and the combination of gases and air pressure would instantly crush an unprotected human.
The Falcon required little warm up, but Han fiddled with the controls, mindlessly adjusting one, then another. He switched on the com unit and listened to the Tribunal's procession towards the main docking bay. The proceedings had been sent to all reachable areas of the Galaxy -- and recorded from those who could only receive compressed bulletins days later. Soon all the Galaxy would know that the last vestige of the Empire was gone.
‘But is it really over?’ the voice inside wondered. ‘You stood there, with her at your side and watched your blasts fall harmlessly against Darth Vader. And this is the man who killed Vader. Who took the Emperor in his own throne room.’ Han jabbed the flight control, listening to its soft whine. He had to be certain. It would only take a few minutes, and he could see Luke safely loaded on the transport. And it would only take a few more hours to escort the transport securely to the place of execution.
Han stood and shut down the power. "Control, request launch flight plan as escort for the Justice Transport."
The command center hissed back. "General Solo? Please confirm?"
"You got it right. I'll be escorting that bastard to where he belongs. And this time, don't send me to the far end of the jump point. I want to escort the transport, not eat its wake."
"Yes sir, we'll guarantee a direct vector." Han switched them off, satisfied. This one time they'd get it right. The whole galaxy was watching.
The boarding area was crowded -- and the guards would not let him through at first. But the commodore recognized Han and had been listening to the open com channel. "General Solo, over here."
Slipping past the ring of men, he surveyed the area with satisfaction. There was no chance for anything to go wrong here -- the ship was backed against the edge of the platform. 50 men crowded the edges, armed with blasters. The path was lined with force inhibitors.
The crowd began shouting. Some of the guards struggled against the press of bodies. Everyone wanted to be able to say that they had seen the passing of the Empire. Han's eyes narrowed. He'd have to remember every detail for later.
The crowd was forced back and Luke was dragged into the open. His coverall had been ripped and he looked tired. His eyes were downcast, and his body limp between the guards. The verdict seemed to have finally sunk in.
As Luke stepped into the ring of inhibitors, he straightened. His eyes raised to stare at the ship. A small smile appeared, and then Luke stepped sideways. The movement caught his guards by surprise and one of them stumbled. The guard never rose, his other companions falling to their knees, clutching at their throats.
The crowd did not respond at first. Han would never forget that he too froze for that fateful minute. Then panic reigned, the crowd stampeded back over the guards toward the port way. Han, on the inside of the circle was spared most of the rush as they moved away, not towards Luke.
By the time he turned to face Luke, more guards had fallen. The commander was shouting into the com unit, but Han knew that the unit had died before the first guard fell. Just as he knew that the recording units mounted above the doorway had lost the signal. The inhibitors had ceased working.
Han hit the ground, instinctively seeking cover that was not there. He felt a chill slither across his back. 'So that's what the dark side feels like' flashed through his mind before his attention was diverted by blaster fire. A guard had managed to fire on Luke. Several more guards joined him, their blasts ricocheting off Luke to strike back with deadly accuracy. Han swore and then rolled to his right. He aimed for the top of the port way and pulled the trigger. The blast hit the edge of the shield door instead and angled back towards Luke.
Come on, hit him he urged. The blast struck Luke's back -- or rather a few inches away from Luke's back ---and returned to explode the door lock. As the door began its silent close, Han rolled back to his feet.
Luke turned, taking in both Han and the door with one cold sweep. Their eyes locked and Han felt something catch in his throat. As he fell forward, he held onto his blaster until he pain grew too great. The deck seemed a long way down.
Luke watched Han struggle for air. He should have killed him in the throne room. Now he was just wasted effort. Still, Luke glanced at the shut door, he had saved him the effort of locking the door. The inhibitors did require some effort to overcome. He was growing tired.
'Soon I will live again.' The voice inside Luke's head was strong and familiar. He'd spent the last two years listening to that voice teach him the nuances of the dark side of the Force. 'Your feeble attempt at assassination will not go unpunished, my dear boy.'
The pain cut through Luke and he fell to one knee. This was not the uncertain Palpatine that he had seen die in the throne room. Between gasps, he reached out with all his strength and gripped the intruder tight.
Bits and pieces of the intruder's memories floated into view. His childhood on a desert planet. The old teacher who lied to him and then died. The woman -- girl really -- who spurned him for another. The man who left him for the girl. The power that filled him when he left his so-called friends to join up with his true destiny.
Luke knew this man well. It was the face in the cave -- the person behind the mask. The evil he had had seen on Dagobah was the evil he had become. The power he had sought and obtained had turned this man into Luke's enemy. How could he have been so blind?
The pain intensified. Luke's gasps became ragged pants. What had Ben told him -- "If you go to meet Darth Vader now, you will fail." Ben was right -- except this was the final failure -- this would be the final silencing of Luke Skywalker.
He turned his head towards Han. Maybe he could -- but no, Han lay where he had fallen. His eyes, though open, held only the ever familiar rage. No help there.
'Oh. I am sorry. So sorry.' Luke thought, struggling for control. All the pain, anger, and the blame could not absolve him of what he had done. Or justify what he had become. The flaws he had seen so clearly in others were mere reflections of the taints he could not accept in himself. Luke had no idea if he could revive the youth who had loved and been loved in return. After so many years of living in the Emperor's shadow, he had no idea how much of himself still remained. But if he did not try, then who – or what – would be left?
The other voice laughed. 'There is no try, do or do not' it mocked and forced his body up. Step by step, he steadily closed on the waiting ship. A simple act to assume the controls and block any pursuit. A simple game to escape and kill. And kill and kill.
Luke gathered the strands of his fading memories into a rope and flung it to back to himself. Something steadied inside and he felt the cool breeze play around his face again. His hands, his feet, even his legs shifted in response to his commands. "Don't worry Ben,' he whispered back into the ether. 'I'll finish what I started. I promised, didn't I?' The pressure inside shifted abruptly, painfully. Grimly, he forced himself to move forward. He had worried once he might become like his father. He never dreamed he would instead stand in the Emperor's shoes.
Han used his elbows to push himself off the deck. His lower body still felt numb. His blaster laid next to him, useless. Luke would get away. And Han would face another failure that would only add fuel to his nightly dreams.
He pushed again, but his muscles refused to cooperate. Frustrated, he forced himself to look towards the ship. The boarding ramp was down, the engines warming, the landing lights signaling the ship's readiness. But Luke stood, head bowed, on the edge of the platforms. Han swore again and reached for his blaster. It slipped through his cold fingers and clattered to the deck.
The noise echoed through the wind, cutting across the silenced bodies. Luke turned. His eyes were tired, but they held the darkest and clearest blue Han had ever seemed. The face was different -- as if someone had holoed the young farm boy on Tatooine, freezing him for posterity. A cloud broke above and Bespin's pink hues burst into life. Luke's hair turned the light back and gave the impression that its flaxen color and the golds that fed the clouds of Bespin had merged into a new hue.
Luke stared back until Han counted each heartbeat, waiting for his throat to constrict again. But each beat passed into the next, building. Han's mind screamed for release.
And then Luke smiled. Faint at first, the image of a man who had forgotten his way, but now traced an old, familiar way home. The smiled deepened until it reached Luke's eyes, lightening his face into one that Han still remembered. One that he had never stopped loving.
And then, with a quickness and ease that Han could never forget, Luke stepped off the edge of the platform into the open air. His body hung, silhouetted, against the golden clouds and for a brief moment Han thought he was flying. It was only after Luke fell, after Luke dropped below Han's field of vision and into the poisonous atmosphere, that Han understood. And as he rose to his feet, beyond tears, beyond speech, he felt something warm, almost living brush his cheek. But it must have been the wind caressing him like a forgotten lover.
*This story orginally appeared in "No Holds Barred" #22, publ. Oct. 2000 and is still in print. Copies can be ordered via Kathy Resch.
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