Disclaimer: I admit they’re not mine, though I wish they were. I’m just playing with them, then I’ll give them back. You don’t have to sue me now. (Really, you don’t.)
By Linda Bindner
A/N: thanks a million to yeahsureyoubetcha for a great beta - I owe you one!
Using the Force, Luke activated the deflector shields on the Imperial shuttle he had stolen from the Death Star II’s hangar bay. An energy shield instantly surrounded the small ship, and not a moment too soon. Fire erupted behind the shuttle to chase it out of the hangar bay, rocking its occupants, but not as much if the shields had not been active.
The fire abated after its initial outburst, and Luke breathed a tiny bit easier. He engaged the sublight engines as much as possible, and the shuttle shot forward, chased again by red-orange flames as the fire gained its second wind.
“Come on, come on!” Luke muttered to himself, and shut down everything except the shields and the engines in order to increase the shuttle’s speed. Judging by the amount of wreckage already filling the hangar, the Rebellion must have succeeded in destroying the Death Star II’s Power Regulator. An even more powerful jolt rocked the shuttle as Luke frantically worked to put more distance between himself and the now collapsing battle station. Someone must have hit station’s main generator. The Death Star II was collapsing directly behind him, and he could only count on the shuttle’s thin hull to protect him from what promised to be a truly colossal explosion.
The grinding of the engines blended in with the great boom as the Death Star II finally burst into a monstrous ball of fire exactly two and a half seconds later. The shock wave caught the shuttle despite its speed, and only the fact that Luke turned his ship at the last second so that the wave snagged onto the rear shields saved his life. He grabbed the navigation control with both hands, letting the explosive wave propel the ship along at breakneck speeds, using the Force to help guide it around the occasional piece of floating debris.
What seemed like eons passed. The torture that Luke had recently endured at the hands of the deceased Emperor still played havoc with his arm muscles, making them quiver and shake. Willing himself not to give in to the seductive pull of exhaustion, Luke fought to control the careening ship.
The energy wave slowly dissipated, and the shuttle controls ceased their shaking. Daring to reduce the shuttle’s speed a fraction, Luke relaxed his left arm one muscle at a time, but didn’t release the controls just yet, still needing two hands to stay on course. He didn’t lift his left hand away until at least a hundred thousand kilometers and three defunct Star Destroyers were between the site of the Death Star II’s explosion and the shuttle. At long last, he felt secure enough to gently peel his left fingers from the main attitude controls. He replaced the shields around the entire shuttle and engaged the life support systems, leaving the flight controls to just his right hand. Soon, even that hand relaxed.
Against all odds, he was still alive. Relief flooded him, clouding his senses to a dull throb.
Like all the other times he’d heard that word, Luke had no intention of freezing. Though he didn’t know who had issued that order or why, there was a 99.999999 percent chance that a blaster accompanied it. Too tired to properly assess the situation, Luke swivelled his chair and lashed out with the Force in an unusually aggressive move to unmercifully yank the predicted blaster away from the person standing directly behind him. He pulled the weapon to him, then threw the gun up high into the air while reaching for the lightsaber he’d retrieved minutes ago in the Death Star II’s Throne Room. In one blink of the eye, he had sliced the weapon into three pieces that fell to the deck with individual thuds. Unfortunately, he also lost his tenuous balance, following the last piece to the deck plates where he lay in an unmoving heap of exhaustion just beside the pilot’s chair. He panted for breath as his arm muscles quivered. He was even too tired to extinguish his lightsaber.
A helmet mic distorted that voice, but even so, there was something familiar about it.
“What in the blazing twin suns of Tatooine are you doing here?”
That was an invective he recognized, though he hadn’t heard it in a long time. Tank?! Luke lifted his head just enough to squint at his adversary standing in the green glow of his saber. He hadn’t seen his desert friend Tank since the other boy had left Tatooine to enter the nearest Imperial Academy with Biggs several years before. But it wasn’t his teenage friend that he stared at now. A uniformed stormtrooper met his gaze. “Who are you?”
“Luke, it’s me! Oh, the helmet.” With one impatient yank, the stormtrooper removed his helmet to stare avidly at Luke. “Steaming Bantha fodder, Luke, are you a sight for sore eyes!”
It was Tank! Invoking phrases about Bantha waste had always been one of Tank’s favorite pastimes. But instead of his heart swelling at unexpectedly seeing his old friend again, Luke couldn’t dredge up even that much emotion. He simply let his head fall back to the deck to close his eyes with a groan. “Uh, yeah, even my eyes are sore.”
Now that he thought about it, he hurt everywhere; his head ached, his back hurt, his every muscle spasmed… his finger throbbed when he deactivated his lightsaber. Even his hair hurt. Now that the saber was extinguished, the only light in the shuttle was the dim glow emitting from the main controls. “I hurt all over.”
Tank dropped his helmet to grab Luke under the arms and carefully haul him up into the pilot’s seat. “Let me ask again, what are you doing here?” He glanced around as he spoke, indicating the shuttle interior as well as the sector of space the shuttle now occupied when his gaze landed on the silent black form stretched out on one of the shadowed bench seats in the rear compartment. “Lord Vader!” he yelped. “Sir, I… I--”
“It’s all right,” Luke gently said, and reached out a hand even as he appreciated the irony of a Rebel soothing a stormtrooper. “He’s…” His voice trailed off into silence before he could voice the awful truth.
There was no rasping hiss of life support that had always symbolised Darth Vader, so it was quite obvious what he was. “He’s dead,” Tank whispered, finishing Luke’s statement, adding a dash of cold reality to the scene.
Yes, his father was dead. Luke waited for the pain of that truth to engulf him, but only a hollow emptiness settled over him like a blanket of dust. Somehow, that empty feeling was worse than the anticipated pain.
Tank’s shocked voice next asked, “Did you..?”
“No, I didn’t kill him.” Wanting to forget about the events that had brought him to this point, Luke wished he was still on the floor so he could burrow his face into the unforgiving deck plates. He settled for grinding his hands into his eyes. “The Emperor did that.”
Tank took a surprised leap back at that news. “What? The Emperor would never harm Lord Vader!”
Luke gave a sad laugh of denial. “Don’t worry; Vader gave as good as he got.”
Tank pointed at the Dark Lord, gaping. “You mean he killed the Emperor?”
“Yes,” Luke ground out just as an overwhelming vertigo suddenly spun the world away. “Aaaand… I’m going to pass out now.” With that, he slid to the floor, wholeheartedly giving himself over to the lure of oblivion.
Luke’s eyelids shot up, his gaze sliding around the darkened cabin. Things looked the same inside the shuttle as when he’d last seen them except for two things: he was now laid out on the shuttle’s bench seat across from his father’s prone form, and Tank was in the pilot’s chair, attempting to steer a course around the obstacles of what remained of the Death Star II. Luke had no idea how long he’d been out. It could have been moments or hours. He blinked rapidly to clear his head, moaning as it started to pound.
Tank looked around. “Good, you’re awake again. I don’t know the first thing about flying. You and Biggs were always the ones who were good at that.” It was clear that he wanted the more experienced Luke to take over the controls.
But another wave of sadness accosted Luke, freezing him in his spot. “Biggs.” He slowly sat up so that he didn’t have enough energy left over to dwell on memories he’d rather forget. The pain in his head subsided with his new position, and he looked around, confused. “Where are we?”
“Somewhere… I don’t know, exactly.”
How could a pilot not know where they were? All they had to do was let the Nav. computer’s readout tell them. Amused, Luke repeated, “You don’t know?”
Tank defended, “They don’t teach common footsoldiers flight navigation tricks at the Academy!”
Tank’s voice was just so loud! Luke winced, his hand going to his aching head. “I wouldn’t know what they teach at the Academy.”
At last giving up on flying the shuttle, Tank set the auto pilot, and swivelled his seat around to face his companion. “All right, Lukas-pukas, what’s going on?”
“Wow, I haven’t heard that name in years.” Luke decided that he would have died happy if he hadn’t heard it now, either.
“Cut the Bantha turds. Out with it.”
Luke let out a strained sigh, rubbed his face to fractionally delay the inevitable, then let his hand fall away with an air of unrepentant resignation. “I’m with the Rebel Alliance.”
Tank rolled his eyes. “I know that, you nitwit! Your face has been plastered on all the Imperial wanted posters for ages. You are enemy number one for destroying the first Death Star. Most of my unit thinks of you as some kind of desert terrorist.”
Luke’s bark of surprise was as dry as his throat. “I’m no more a terrorist than you are.”
They sized each other up, Rebel and Imperial, then both grunted a laugh. “All right,” said Luke, “we’re both terrorists. What of it?”
“At least I don’t have a price on my head. I could get rich if I turned you in.”
Luke let his head fall to the wall behind him. “You would never do that, Tank.”
“How do you know?” Tank the stormtrooper asked. “A lot has happened since I left that hunk of space junk that is Tatooine.”
Luke wondered if he should use a Jedi mind trick to influence his old friend into not turning him in, but he was just too tired. “Fine then, turn me over to some superior officer. But I won’t fly the shuttle if you threaten to do that. You’ll be stuck here.”
“So will you.”
“I’ll slip into a Jedi trance, and you won’t have anyone to talk to for days.”
That gave Tank pause. “A Jedi trance? I thought the Jedi were extinct.”
Luke gushed another sad sigh, thinking of Yoda, and Ben... and his father. “I’m the last one.” Then he nodded at the dark form on the other bench. “Now that he’s…” Again, he couldn’t say it.
Following Luke’s gaze, Tank glanced at Vader. “He’s no Jedi. We called him a Dark Lord of the Sith.”
Luke let his head fall back to the wall once more. “He was a Jedi… then he wasn’t… then he was. It’s a long story.”
Tank snorted his puzzlement. “Jedi… Sith… what’s the difference?”
Tank gave an aggravated sigh at Luke’s lack of explanation. “Just tell me what you’re doing in my shuttle.”
“Your shuttle?” That surprised Luke enough to distract him from his thoughts. “I wasn’t under the impression that stormtroopers were each given a shuttle.”
“Okay, okay, it belongs to my unit. I was in the back compartment, fixing a glitch in the long range sensor array, or else I would have been with the rest of my unit on the Death Star II when it…” His voice was the one to trail away this time.
“When it exploded. When everyone on board died,” Luke softly added. “I’m sorry.”
As the shock slowly seeped in to become reality, Tank lashed out to yell, “What do you know? Maybe the wanted posters are right; you were just a killer when you destroyed the first Death Star, and you’re still a killer!”
Roused now in spite of his exhaustion, Luke allowed himself to set loose his sarcasm. “Oh, and it’s all right for you Imperials to just blow the Rebel Base sky high with your super weapon, but no way can I do the same to the Empire! It was a case of the Empire had to lose, or the Alliance did, and I chose the Empire to lose something for a change.”
“I had friends on that space station!”
“I had friends on that Rebel Base!” The energy drained out of Luke as fast as it had materialized. Tired to the bone now, he nodded towards Vader. “He killed Biggs.”
Tank shook his head in instant denial. “No way! Biggs was stationed on some ship - nowhere near the Death Star when it exploded.”
Luke groaned and ruffled his hair. “Wrong. He jumped ship and joined the Alliance right before I did. He was one of my wingmen at Yavin. I’m alive because he isn’t.” This point had eaten at Luke since it had happened four years earlier. Unfortunately, he still didn’t know how to stem the tide of guilt that engulfed him.
“Oh,” Tank flatly said. “I didn’t know. I thought… Biggs and I, we… we trained at different things, but we were both fighting for the Empire. We never questioned that. He didn’t… I didn’t…” His voice trailed off, and Luke never found out what Biggs and Tank didn’t do.
“It doesn’t matter now, anyway. They’re all dead. Yoda, Ben, Biggs, Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru...” Father.
“Your aunt and uncle are dead?” Tank was instantly distressed. “What happened?”
Luke’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “They were killed by the Empire.” His eyes zeroed in on Tank’s hazel equivalents. “Now who are the terrorists?”
Tank spluttered for a moment of objection. “They must have had good reason.”
“Huh.” Luke rubbed his gloved hand through his hair again; it hurt slightly less now. “You know how Uncle Owen always wanted more droids for the South Ridge. He just bought the wrong ones. The Empire didn’t let him do it again.”
Tank’s surprise was apparent. “And your aunt?”
Luke shrugged. “She was there.”
“Where were you?”
The question reminded him of how he’d met Ben, and how Han had had to blast their way off Tatooine, and how Chewbacca’s growling had scared him back then, and what rescuing Leia had really been like. Luke let a half grin lift his lips. “I had things to do that day.” Yeah, things like rescuing a princess who turned out to be my sister. When Tank didn’t say anything more, Luke asked, “What about you, Tank? How’s your parents?”
“Dad’s dead - Arruvian plague.”
“Oh.” Now it was Luke’s turn to be distressed despite the fact that Tank spoke in a casual manner, telling Luke that it had happened several years before.
“Mom lives in Imperial Center.”
“What about your sister?”
“She’s an Imperial holo editor.”
“Wow. Then she did okay for herself.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
The conversation petered out as they looked at each other, both considering those holos that Tank’s sister was responsible for. Luke especially thought about the negative way he was portrayed in those holos
“Those Imperial holos are just propaganda,” Luke gently insisted.
Tank calmly assessed Luke sitting on the bench. “I’m sure that one taken of you right now in that black get-up would be nothing but anti-Rebellion propaganda itself.”
Luke glanced down at his black shirt and trousers. “Oh. Yeah, I suppose I do look like the Big Bad Jedi.”
“What’s a Jedi doing with..?” and he nodded in the direction of Vader.
Luke couldn’t stifle his sigh of unrelenting sadness. “I plan to bury him on Endor… give him a funeral of some kind.”
Tank must have noticed how he hadn’t answered the question, but only wrinkled his forehead in puzzlement. “You mean, from one Force user to another?”
Luke barked a bitter laugh. “Yeah, something like that.”
Tank leaned forward as much as his stormtrooper armor would allow to thoughtfully link his fingers. “I helped build the shield generator on Endor.”
Luke idly shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”
Tank continued as if Luke hadn’t spoken. “We constantly had digging problems. The dirt on Endor goes down about a meter before you hit rock that’s impossible to dig up. You’d have an easier time erecting some kind of funeral pyre than trying to bury him.”
Interested at last, Luke glanced up to take in his friend’s honest expression. “Thanks. I’ll do that.”
Still in the same no-nonsense tone, Tank went on, “You’ll need my help.”
Luke’s exhaustion didn’t stop him from understanding how that was a bad idea. “As much as I appreciate the offer, there’s bound to be hundreds of Rebels down there. Endor’s not a good place for a stormtrooper just now, and I don’t know if I could protect you.” As things were, Luke wasn’t sure if he could stand up.
Instead of bristling when Luke mentioned that he would need protection, Tank’s pensiveness only increased. “I don’t know what happened to you, Luke, and I’m not asking. But I’ve known for hours that you aren’t in any shape to protect anybody. You’re anemic, seriously dehydrated, and covered in what looks like electrical burns.”
Remembering the events of the last few hours in spite of his efforts not to, Luke could only give a sardonic grunt. “I suppose I am.”
Shrugging, Tank swivelled around again, dismissive now. “I put Bacta patches on the worst burns, but a good meal and a night’s sleep would do more for you than I can.”
Luke suddenly grew aware of the itchiness he’d always associated with Bacta patches, and shrugged to get rid of the crawling sensation. “Thanks. I guess I owe you a lot.”
“And I owe you my life,” Tank casually said. “Let’s call it even.”
Luke slowly rose and walked the few steps to the cockpit, settling carefully into the copilot’s chair so that he wouldn’t unintentionally hurt himself. “Okay. If you’ll help me build a funeral pyre, I’ll teach you how to fly this shuttle back to the Imperial fleet.”
Surprised, Tank studied him. “I figured you’d turn me over to your Rebel friends at the first opportunity.”
Luke’s eyes filled with resolve. “Turning you over to the Rebellion helps no one. The Emperor’s dead, Darth Vader’s… dead…” Luke’s voice caught in his throat. Unbidden, he remembered how on Cloud City, his father had initially wanted them to join together so they could restore order to the galaxy. What Luke was going to propose was probably not what he’d had in mind, especially at the time, but it was a beginning. “Somehow, we have to bring this war to an end, and it might as well start with us.”
Skepticism suffused Tank’s hazel eyes. “What have you got in mind?”
Warming to his topic, Luke showed more enthusiasm than he’d displayed for anything in a long time. “I didn’t outright kill you the moment we encountered each other in this shuttle. You didn’t even confine me when I was unconscious. You plan to help me build a funeral pyre, and then I plan to teach you how to fly back to the Imperial Fleet. Don’t you see?”
Tank continued to show his confusion. “No.”
“We’ve already started helping each other.” Luke’s brows lifted in question. “A Rebel helping an Imperial and vice versa; has that even been considered before now?”
Tank sat in a thoughtful pose, his hands slack on the controls as the auto pilot steered the shuttle. “Not that I’ve ever heard.”
“This is an opportunity to start something new,” Luke insisted. “We should both talk about this shuttle experience when we get back. Talk about it a lot.”
Tank furrowed his brows. “Talk about it how?”
Luke shrugged. “Tell everyone what happened.”
Tank gave a disbelieving snort. “They’ll probably claim that we missed an obvious chance to turn an enemy into a prisoner.”
“I don’t know about you,” Luke quietly said, “but I’d rather have a friend than an enemy or a prisoner.” He swivelled his chair forward to cover up any subsequent unhappiness; he was so tired of having enemies.
Tank’s skepticism skyrocketed. “That might be enough for our personal friends, but I know that my superior officers won’t accept an explanation as simple as that.” A second snort of disbelief filled the cockpit. “I’ll be thrown into a holding cell for dereliction of duty faster than you can fly through Beggar’s Canyon.”
“Then I’ll come rescue you.” Steely resolve sounded in Luke’s voice.
Tanks eyes widened in surprise. “You’d do that?” His own eyes showed how his doubt immediately began warring with his surprise. “You can’t just break into an Imperial detention block!”
“I’ve done it before.” Luke switched off the shuttle’s auto pilot to return to manual control, then took over the suddenly bucking ship. He steadied their trajectory with a hand that no longer shook; with the help of the bacta patches, his was recovering from the Emperor’s torture faster than he’d anticipated.
A moment went by while Tank sized up his friend, at last saying with an amount of awe, “You’re serious.”
Luke’s gaze was forthright. “Rebel Jedi never lie.”
Tank sat in silent contemplation for another minute before slowly grinning from ear to ear. “I think I’m going to like having a Rebel for a friend!”