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Faith in Darkness

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Most nightmares started simply. Something small, the first tremor before the shockwave. The sand grains shifting, a tool tumbling to the floor. Something tiny, mundane. Too simple to attach a greater meaning to. Not in time. Not for most people.

Sometimes, not even for Jedi.

It was a humid, sunny midmorning. The sky above the temple was a vault of burning blue, the air full of the humming of jungle insects. Luke had been leading an attempted meditation session. It would have helped if he’d been a bit better at it himself before trying to guide five excitable kids and one toddler into sitting still and staying quiet for more than two minutes at a stretch, but hey. Like Aunt Beru said, grumbling about it never got any chores done. Best thing to do was get stuck in and work it out from there.

It had worked for him before, after all. Well. More or less. And hey, at least he wasn’t trying to figure this out upside-down in a swamp this time. In the middle of war. With an aggravated gremlin throwing rocks at his head. It could be worse. He had time now. Him and the kids both.

And there. Right there. The moment he thought it. He felt the tremor. Just a tiny thing, a quiver of unease. The meditation state snapped. Slipped out of his grasp completely. If he’d been on Dagobah, he’d have toppled over and dropped Yoda into the swamp. Luke opened his eyes and sighed. Some Jedi Master he was. Even after all this time.

But he wasn’t the only one who’d been startled, he realised. Looking over at his charges. He wasn’t the only one who’d … felt something.

Most of the kids were still at least pretending to mediate. Ben was the very picture of composure, completely still and professionally posed, with his best expression of pious innocence on. Luke might even have been fooled, if he hadn’t seen Lando wearing that exact face after cleaning out four Corellians at sabacc and surviving the ensuing firefight with only mild singeing. Ben was fully present and aware and only pretending not to be right now.

Shinari, beside Ben, had actually fallen asleep. In her defence, she was only four. Ben’s face was only twitching slightly at her snoring.

And Grogu, a little way behind him, was sitting bolt upright. Dark eyes wide open, ears out flat and quivering. Staring straight at Luke.

Luke felt his stomach swoop abruptly. Felt something sour curdle in the back of his throat. For no reason. Nothing he could hunt down, nothing he could put a name or a source to. The Force was quiet around him. Or it felt quiet around him. There was no warning, no disturbance, not really. Just that small … twinge. That tremor. And the look in Grogu’s eyes.

Not fear. Not quite. More like … a memory.

But nothing happened. Not that humid, sunny day, not the days after. Nothing fell out of the sky. Nothing blew up, either at the Temple or back in the Core, with Han and Leia. Luke checked. He scrambled a comm and checked, under the guise of giving them an update on Ben’s progress. They were … fine. Both of them. Well, Leia was frustrated to the point of ranting, fed up of politics, and wearing that tight smile of hers that had probably been the last thing Jabba had seen before he died, but she was still fine. Cutting polite swathes through the New Republic senate, while Han cheered her on from the sidelines and did his best to keep some of their more colourful associates from doing anything too publicly explosive at inopportune moments. You know. Your typical life in politics these days.

Leia hadn’t felt anything. Not a murmur in the Force. But she’d stopped ranting immediately when Luke tentatively asked about it, her eyes zeroing in like a target lock, hard and sharp. A surge of instant, instinctive fear. The fear of a mother, a sister. A woman who’d survived the death of her world and torture by her own father.

Then she had, at least mentally and possibly also physically, somewhere beyond the holo’s field of view, promptly pulled her blaster and offered fire support.

“Is something wrong?” she asked sharply. “Do you need us to come, Luke? I can have a ship scrambled by the end of today.”

“Less,” Han put in. Leaning over her shoulder, his easy-going face suddenly as tight and hard as Leia’s. Ben was his son as well, after all. Luke his friend. “Lando’s in town with the Falcon. We can leave in an hour if we have to.”

And that was … a lot more worry than Luke had wanted to cause. Not for a feeling. Not even that. Just a twinge. He shook his head hurriedly. Passed it off with a sheepish smile.

“No,” he said. “No, I haven’t felt anything. Just had a … I don’t know, a thought, I suppose. Everything’s fine, guys. I promise.”

Promised. Hoped. But it really wasn’t big enough. Surely if it was a real warning, the Force would have put a bit more oomph into it. Right? This thing had been barely a nudge, and one that only he and a toddler had felt. That meant it wasn’t serious, right? It had just been a thought. An odd notion. Maybe he’d fallen asleep in mediation as well. Just like little Shinari. Maybe Grogu had been thinking about something completely different as well. His father. Maybe his father was in trouble somewhere. You never knew.

Han and Leia weren’t reassured. Not really. Luke couldn’t blame them. He wasn’t particularly reassured himself. But they let it go for the moment. Promised to keep Lando around for a few days, ready to go, just in case, but other than that they let it go.

Now Luke just had to do the same.

He looked at Yoda. Obi Wan. They were there, just on the edges of his vision. A pair of Force ghosts, frowning thoughtfully at him. But when he spread his hands in question, they shook their heads. Whatever it was, they didn’t feel it either. If it was anything at all.

Luke shoved it down. Away. Put it in a box inside him. He tried to meditate it away, let it dissipate naturally. It wouldn’t go, so he boxed it up instead. He had a school to run. The kids had been picking up on his unease. Getting rowdy, getting distressed. It was time to put this away. No chores ever got done for grumbling, or worrying either. No one except him and a toddler had felt anything weird at all. It was nothing. Probably. Hopefully.

And even if it wasn’t, it was still time to pull his head back out of the swamp and focus back on the here and now.

***

Three days after that call to Leia, he found Grogu chattering agitatedly at Artoo. Shoving his little pendant at the droid, the metal one his father had given him. When Luke interrupted, gently but firmly, the tyke turned to babble angrily at him, too. Pushing at him through the Force. Alternately demanding and pleading. He toddled over and shoved the pendant up at Luke as well.

“Brr,” he said. It sounded like more than just a random vocalisation. Like a word, fierce and insistent. Desperate. “Brr.”

His thoughts were full of his father. The Mandalorian. Luke could feel them. The kid was shoving them at him. Fierce and angry and desperate. Father, father, father. Brr. He waved his pendant, and turned back to Artoo. Jabbed it at the droid. Not … Luke didn’t think it was meant to be a weapon, an attack. The kid was trying to tell him something. Ask him something. But the feelings were so jumbled, he couldn’t tell …

Grogu threw out a little hand abruptly. A wave of Force. He’d always been alarmingly good at that particular skill. Artoo wailed, a sharp, crackling noise of shocked offense, and his …

His holo emitter flashed on. A blue cone of light. Empty, since he wasn’t actually playing anything or contacting anyone, but it was definitely his emitter. Grogu grumbled fiercely, and stabbed his pendant savagely into the light in demonstration. The strange, carved creature lit up blue from the glow.

Oh, Luke thought. A little dumbly. And a lot sadly.

Maybe it had been the kid’s father. That feeling days ago. Maybe the man really was in trouble. Maybe that was why it had been him and Grogu that felt it, the only two in Luke’s circle who’d actually met the man.

But if that was the case, then the problem was …

“I’m sorry, kiddo,” he said softly. Squatting down to Grogu’s height. “I don’t have his comm. I can’t call him for you. I don’t know how to find him.”

There were so many times when he regretted leaving so abruptly on that cruiser. He hadn’t offered anything, or let anyone else offer it either. At the time, he’d been so caught up. In the kid in his arms, in the adrenalin from the fight, in the ebbing sensation of a threat. In the echoes of violence, the waves of grief and hope and gut-wrenching loss sloshing around him. In the memory of Grogu’s call, the first time he’d ever felt something like that wasn’t from his sister, from someone known to him. The kid had called him all the way to the Outer Rim. He’d been reeling. A kid like that needed training. Needed protection. Immediately.

And the man had … had given Grogu up. Willingly, if heartbrokenly. Like it had been the plan. A necessary step. Grogu had asked permission, like Grogu thought it was a necessary step, and the Mandalorian had given it. Luke, almost in a fog, feeling like he was just treading prelaid steps, had followed along with them. Taken the kid. Left the man behind.

He regretted it. He did. He hadn’t fully understood what the man was to the kid, or why Grogu had been so willing to leave him despite that. It had only been later, talking to Grogu, or rather fumbling around through the kid’s thoughts and feelings as broadcast through the Force, that he realised that Grogu didn’t quite … know how to conceptualise separation yet. Not properly. His sense of time was odd. His sense of the Force even more so. While the Mandalorian had understood what was happening, Grogu … hadn’t. Not fully. He’d been fully confident in the man’s promise to see each other again. Had utter faith in it. But the actual logistics of the thing …

Well. Let’s just say that they were a bit beyond a toddler’s frame of reference. Even one like Grogu. He’d come with Luke because he’d figured that was a thing the grown-ups could figure out. Luke had found him, after all. And his father, too, apparently. Several times. If he needed him, Grogu was fully confident that his father would just be there. Somehow.

Which, if the Mandalorian had been Force-sensitive, maybe might have been an option. But.

“… I’m sorry,” he said again. Resting a hand gently on Grogu’s head. “I don’t know what’s happening to him, kid. I don’t know how to reach him. But I guess we’ll just have to … have faith that he’ll get through it. He’s tough, your father. I didn’t see much of him, but I know that. He’ll make it. You just have to have faith in him, okay?”

Grogu blinked up at him. His eyes were so huge. Yoda’s eyes were never that huge. That black. Yoda had felt like he knew everything. Grogu felt like he saw everything. Every white lie and desperate hope. Luke swallowed faintly.

Then the kid looked down at the pendant again. In his hand. His ears flicked back. His tiny fingers curled slowly and solidly around it. Pulling it away from a still-disgruntled Artoo and back in to Grogu’s own chest. He held it there for a bottomless moment. His little hands so tight around it.

“Brr,” he said again. Slower, this time. Softer. He babbled a little, words that weren’t words. Almost thinking to himself. And then, finally, decisively: “Brr.”

Luke didn’t feel anything. He’d thought, been afraid, that Grogu might try to reach out for his father again. The way he’d reached for Luke across half a galaxy. He’d been ready to stop the kid if he tried. Without a focusing stone, the effort would have … well, not killed him, probably, but knocked him out for sure. But Grogu … didn’t. Didn’t reach. He looked up at Luke instead. Held out the pendant again, this time just in demonstration. Just to show it.

He pushed his thoughts at Luke again. Softly, this time. Much more gently. He gurgled up and wrapped his surety around Luke. Like reassurance. His thoughts were full of one person, his father, and wrapped in a fierce, boundless sensation of protection.

Not Grogu’s. The Mandalorian’s.

Have faith, Luke had said. And Grogu did. He did. Absolute, unbending faith.

Don’t worry, he offered Luke. Thoughts, not words. Sensations. Rock solid beliefs. The foundations of a child’s world. Don’t worry. Father will protect us.

That twinge came again. That swoop in Luke’s stomach. That not-a-feeling in the Force.

Don’t worry. Father will protect us.

No. Oh no.

It wasn’t the Mandalorian in trouble after all. Was it.

Hindsight was always perfect. Like that moment he’d looked at a splintered Jawa sandcrawler and realised that, if Imperial troops could track two droids to that, they could also track them …

Hindsight was always perfect. And nightmares always started too small to be believed.

Artoo beeped suddenly. Urgently. Spinning in place and tilting himself back to spit binary at the sky. Signals. Ships in atmosphere. Unauthorised ships. Imperial ships. A lot of them.

TIEs. TIEs and a cruiser. Old ghosts come again.

At the same moment, behind him, Luke felt a new presence. Or rather, an old one. One that hadn’t showed up in a while. Since … Since Grogu came.

He turned.

“Luke,” said Anakin Skywalker’s ghost. Softly, desperately. Guiltily. “It’s Dark. The tremor you felt. It was the Dark Side. An … an echo. You have to get the younglings, Luke. You have to get them now.”

Hindsight was perfect. And all nightmares came back, eventually. All nightmares came again.

***

Nothing felt real. Nothing made sense, and nothing felt real. It was like the cave on Dagobah all over again. Everything crawling, heightened, strange. Full of shadows.

Full of Dark.

Luke ran through the temple. He’d had dreams like this. Exactly like this. Or almost. Grogu’s tiny claws against his neck were new. The toddler in his arms. Everything else was almost perfect, though. TIEs screamed overhead. Somewhere, somewhere so close, Ben was in danger. His nephew, his family. And his younglings. His children, the ones he’d promised, sworn on his life, to keep safe. All of them in danger.

Like Hoth. Like Bespin. Like Dagobah.

In his dreams, he found them in the hollow bowl of a Tatooine moisture farm. Seared black, burned to nothing, recognisable only by size. Sometimes Leia would be among them. Han. Others, they were still alive. Screaming. With little Ben’s blackened body between them.

Blaming him. Hating him for letting their son die.

And he knew … he knew what they were. The dreams. He knew what spawned them. The Force, the shadow, crawling behind them. He’d felt it on Dagobah. Faced it. Failed to it. And then the Emperor. The poison in his veins, in his mind, the rage, the hatred. The blind fury lashing out of him. Around him. The Dark Side had sunk its claws into him. Not enough to take him, not enough to corrupt him. He’d turned it aside before the end. But enough … enough to mark him. Enough to scar him. Enough to remind him.

Enough to whisper to him. A tremor. A murmur of old horrors and new ones, looping back on each other. A warning, or reminder, that only he, his father, and … and Grogu could hear.

Him, his father, and Grogu. One lost to the Dark Side, one almost lost to it, and one …

He hugged the toddler tighter instinctively. This ancient child who was both older than him and so very much younger. So old and so innocent. Had he been touched already? Almost lost?

Or was it … Was it for the same reason his father hadn’t visited since the child came? The history, the moment that left the same mark on them both. Echoes. Echoes in the Force. And memories. Huge black eyes that saw everything. That had seen everything. Everything his father had done. Once upon a time. Thirty years ago, in another temple, on another world.

Had Grogu touched the Dark, or had he only felt …

History repeating. The black weight of an echo come around again.

Not this time. Not this time. Not Luke’s temple. Not his children. Please. Please not his children. He’d promised them he’d keep them safe. He’d sworn.

He found Ben and the others huddled in the colonnade around the meditation garden. He could have tracked them across the planet by the feeling of their terror alone. Y’luble was carrying Shinari, the twins huddled together, Ben in front of them. They’d grabbed each other. Instinct. They’d pulled together, hidden together. But outside. Waiting for Luke. Out in the open. Something half rage and half despair tumbled through him. But children shouldn’t have to know what to do when the world came falling down. Innocence shouldn’t need survival instincts.

That’s what adults were for. That’s what Jedi were for.

Something exploded to his left. Beyond the bulk of the Temple above him. Luke spun to face it, Grogu in his arms. Feeling the children spin too. Feeling them cluster close around him, Ben reaching for his shirt instinctively. A shockwave roared out, a gout of flame, followed a moment later by a secondary explosion. Artoo screamed shrilly behind him. Rage, not pain. Absolute fury. A litany of curses in binary, to cover the smallest hint of fear.

The landing pad. They’d hit the landing pad. The TIEs. The freighter had been out on it, ready for the supply run next week. That … That would have been the secondary detonation.

Luke couldn’t fit six children into an X-Wing.

He stared blankly at the subsiding flames, Artoo still hissing shrilly beside him. He felt blank. Empty. Bewilderment, mostly. Confusion. Not despair, not yet. There were ways … he still had options. This was a Jedi temple. An old one, full of history. Secrets. Tunnels. He could still … keep the children safe. Hide them, keep them out of sight. Leia had eyes on the planet. They couldn’t have risked a shield, it would have drawn too much attention, but Leia had not fought her way through the deaths of everyone she held dear to risk leaving her son open to the Empire now. She had eyes on him. She’d realise foreign ships had attacked. All he had to do was last long enough.

It was just … the precision of it. Military efficiency. Cutting off the escape route. An echo, all right.

How had they known? He’d been so careful. They all had. Making sure there was nothing to drawn attention here. It wasn’t Coruscant, or even Yavin. It wasn’t anywhere the Empire should have known to look. They hadn’t put anything up. No shields, no trade routes. Supply runs were by smugglers, ex-Rebels, trusted allies. People who knew what they were doing. How had the Empire known?

And he thought, involuntarily, of Bespin. Of Lando. Of Dagobah and the feeling that, worlds distant, everything he loved was in danger. That thing inside him twinged again. Old scars. The touch of a tainted instinct, soft and gleeful.

Betrayal, whispered that instinct. That memory. Betrayal. That’s how all the temples fell.

Grogu huffed against his neck, pressing his face into Luke’s shoulder. He chirred softly. Sounding exhausted. Not despairing, no more than Luke, but just … so very tired.

“Luke,” said Anakin softly. Sad and tired, with the crushed weight of old sin. Luke looked at him. The greatest traitor of them all. His father gestured tiredly. “Go, Luke. Get them to the tunnels. Keep them safe. This time … keep them safe.”

Something else exploded. The top of the temple. A few thousand years of architecture, gone like that. You had to love the Empire, didn’t you. The children flinched. Ben pressed himself against Luke’s leg, looking up at him desperately. Luke blinked down at him. And then shuffled Grogu over to his other arm, so he could reach down and press a gentle, reassuring hand to his nephew’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Ben,” he said softly. And honestly. “We’re going to be fine. Your mother will be here soon. We’re just going to play hide and seek for a bit until she comes, all right?” He waited, until he got a round of hesitant nods. “Trust me, okay. I know it seems scary now, but we have people coming. All of us. All we have to do is keep out of the Empire’s way until they get here.”

Which was easier said than done, maybe, but the children didn’t need to know that. Logistics were the adult’s concern. And besides. Leia was coming. Luke had absolute, unequivocal faith in that. He had the Force, and Artoo, and his lightsaber, and a thousand years of secret tunnels to work with. He was a Jedi. And when all else failed, Leia was coming. They’d be fine. He believed that. This time, this temple, they would be fine.

So why did he still feel that swoop in his stomach? That tremor of the Dark Side digging its claws in? He looked to the top of the temple. The shattered summit where a TIE had come in to land. Amongst the splintered stone under the TIE’s panels, a familiar slash of ruby red appeared.

Oh. Of course. That was why. Because the Empire had a Sith.

***

“Not a Sith,” his father murmured, as they fled through the dark, mossy stone of the tunnels. “None of them could challenge us. They were Inquisitors. Hunters. We set them … We set them to hunt Jedi. And younglings. To prevent the Order from returning.” He paused, his sorrow pale and palpable through the Force. “They were gone. Fled, some of them. From me, specifically. From my … punishments for their failures. I had thought them all long since lost or killed. I’m sorry, Luke. I thought they were gone.”

Luke closed his eyes. He didn’t need them, anyway. It was dark enough down here that they were all navigating by hands and feet anyway, stumbling along the walls. Or by the Force, those of them sensitive enough for it. Mostly Luke, that one. Y’luble, a bit, and Ben. Maybe Grogu, too, though it hardly showed when he was still scooped in Luke’s arms.

There was danger in that. Navigating by the Force. Down here. In the dark and the terror and the wet. There shouldn’t be. Luke should have more faith and more control than that. More peace. If he’d been a better Jedi, maybe he would have. A better person. If he hadn’t …

Been scarred. Been touched. If he couldn’t feel those tremors in his mind, even still.

The children were frightened too. Well, of course they were. You could talk about calm and peace and trust in the Force all you liked, but six children, not one of them over seven, being hunted through their own home, of course they were going to be terrified. Of course they were.

And that was a problem. Such a problem. Luke could have found them by the feel of their terror alone. Above ground, in the garden. He could have felt them across half the planet.

He was full sure this ‘Inquisitor’ could probably do likewise.

He had to calm them. He knew that. He had to find his own peace, his own centre. Create an island of stillness for them to latch onto. Fear begat fear. Faith begat faith. He just had to ground himself again. Pull away from the clawing thing in his mind and his heart. The echoes.

He wished the tunnels didn’t remind him so much of that cave, then. So very much.

He reached out. Instinctively. One hand fumbling for Ben, still clinging to his shirt. The other tightening around the child in his arms. Trying to anchor himself to them, so they could anchor themselves to him. Ben clung right back, a wave of fierce, desperate courage, a spike of anger and fear. Grogu …

There was anger there, too. Older and grimmer in feeling than Ben’s. There was a readiness in Grogu’s anger, a willingness to fight. Luke should have flinched from it. But underneath it …

An island of calm. A steady determination, and a shining thread of faith.

“Brr,” he said. Feeling Luke’s regard. Feeling the shadows of Luke’s thoughts, the tremors and the fear. He turned a bit, in Luke’s arms. Reached up to pat clumsily at his cheek with tiny claws. Reassurance. Like before. Blind, blithe reassurance. A toddler’s faith.

Don’t worry, he thought. Still thought. Don’t worry. Father will protect us.

And Luke … He felt a wave of grief. Of shame. Knowing that Grogu’s father couldn’t. That he was too far away, too divided from them, left with no way to know he was needed. By Luke’s own actions, too. But also …

Grogu’s father couldn’t come for them. Couldn’t protect them. But Ben’s mother could. Luke’s sister. And, when it came to it, Luke himself. To his dying breath, Luke himself. All he had to do was buy time. Grogu was right. Not the right person, but the right idea. All Luke had to do was buy them time. Leia was coming. Leia would protect them.

And in the meantime, Luke could find them somewhere safe to hide, and give this ‘Inquisitor’ something a lot more troublesome than some children to think about.

The fear rushed out of him. Exhaled on a breath. He felt himself centre. Felt it click, like a target lock. The meditation state that had slipped from him all those days ago, when the Dark Side had first started whispering to him. He felt himself righten, holding straight in the swamp, Yoda borne up easily on his feet. Free of the morass. Around him, he felt the children centre too.

Faith begat faith. He laughed faintly. Buoyed up. Faith begat faith. And there was no faith more blind and sure than that of a child. He’d anchored to them by instinct. He’d been more right than he knew.

“This way, Luke,” Obi-wan said. Glowing softly in the darkness as Luke opened his eyes, smiling proudly and gently at him. He pointed the way down the tunnels. “There are places here that no Dark Side user will easily breach. Bring them this way. We will keep them safe.”

Luke reached for him automatically. Moved towards him. And then paused, by some instinct, and looked at his father.

Anakin smiled too. More sadly, but still genuinely.

“Go,” he said as well. “I will watch for the hunter. Follow Obi-wan, Luke. He was always wiser than I was.”

“And glad I am to hear you say it,” Obi-wan answered him. A little smartly, but with joy. “It only took you until after death. Both our deaths.”

“What can I say?” Anakin smiled. “I guess I’m just a slow learner. Or perhaps it was the quality of my teachers?”

He vanished at that point. Faded back into the Force, perhaps before Obi-wan could throw something at him. Obi-wan looked like he was thinking about it. Luke blinked at him. He’d never seen his old master so … joyful? Or playful either.

Grogu burbled at them. Cheerfully. He looked straight at Obi-wan, seemingly the only one of the children who could actually see him, and … blew the Jedi master a raspberry. Of course he did. Only the child in either arm kept Luke from facepalming.

Obi-wan blinked slowly at the tyke. Nonplussed. “I don’t think Master Yoda ever did that.”

Grogu stared at him. Chirring softly in blatant disbelief. And Luke, thinking back to some of the moments on Dagobah … had to agree. Maybe Yoda had made sure nobody had ever caught him at it. But Luke would lay odds that somewhere, at some point, the old Jedi had blown a raspberry at somebody.

And, much like Grogu, he’d probably gotten away with it too.

***

It didn’t take long for the Imperials to resort to breaching charges and explosions in search of them. Honestly, Luke was more surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner. Maybe the blunting of the children’s fear had stymied the Inquisitor enough that he’d finally started brute-forcing it. He still had a good line, whoever he was. Fear was never fully conquered, not in a four-year-old. But they’d muddied the waters enough that he’d clearly resorted to just blasting his way through.

Luke allowed himself a moment of grief. The temple was hundreds, thousands of years old, it had been their home, his children and him, if only briefly, and he had no idea how much of it would be left by the end of this. If any. He allowed the rush of grief.

And then, like everything else, he set it aside. Let it dissipate. And focused back on the here and now.

Like Aunt Beru had taught him. Long before any Jedi. The chores don’t get done for worrying. She’d taught him that first. He sometimes wondered if she would have made a better Jedi than even Yoda.

Not that he’d say so. But he wondered.

The tunnels were cloying again. Shrinking, tightening, as the blasts grew closer. Drowning in darkness. It wasn’t just his imagination. The Inquisitor was getting closer, and the Dark Side with him. The claws, the whispers in Luke’s ear. The pounding murmurs of betrayal, of loss, of hate. His scars itched. The lightning marks scored across his skin. The Emperor had touched him, after all. Whatever else might happen, whatever else he might become, the Emperor had almost taken him, once upon a time. He couldn’t escape that.

He wasn’t planning to. The Inquisitor hunted by fear, by the thrum of the Dark Side in a child’s terrified heart, the echo of his own. All right. Luke had been terrified too. To the death, almost. He could give the Inquisitor something to hunt for too.

He could show the creature where to come.

The children would be safe. The chamber Obi-wan had showed them had … It had been a blanket, almost. A shield. It covered them over. Wrapped them in safety. The Dark Side wouldn’t find them there. The Empire might, if they blasted enough, they might cut through to them the old-fashioned way, but no Sith would manage, nor any pretender either. And if the Empire was currently being steered by a Sith pretender, well.

Time to give them the old Rebel tactic. Dress yourself up as a pretty lure, and run them around until the cavalry arrived.

And if he happened to winnow them down himself in the meantime, all the better.

So Luke steadied himself. Drew in a breath. Pictured Grogu’s steady faith one more time. His own. The absolute promise, come storm or sand people or sarlacc, that Leia was coming for them. He wrapped them up, those promises, and settled them at the centre of himself. Something to reach for, something to stop him, before he let himself fall too far. A bright ball, that would bring him back at the end of this.

And then, putting it aside, in the dark and the damp and the distant sounds of approaching violence, he opened his mind, and let the Dark Side in.

It curled around him lovingly. Purred, like an old friend. His skin lit up with electric terror. His heart throbbed with old hate. The knowledge of everything these people would do to his children, to Ben, if he let them past, flooded savagely back to the fore. His heart pounded. His hand clenched sweatily around the hilt of his saber. He felt his father beside him once more. Felt old grief and older sin. The echoes of another purge.

And there. Somewhere distant, but not distant enough, nowhere near distant enough. He felt the flickering touch of another terror. Another hatred. And the will to enact it once again.

All right then. Hunter and hunted. Let’s go.

***

And it almost went well. Or terribly, of course. Depended on how you looked at it. But it almost went well.

They’d brought more troopers. Those things Luke had faced on Grogu’s carrier. The droids. They’d brought more of them. Enough to make Luke wonder if these Imperials and those Imperials might be … a bit more connected than they should be.

It didn’t make much sense. From what his father said, an Inquisitor would want to kill Grogu or turn him. Not experiment on him. Not … clone him, or make more children from him, or whatever it was they’d been doing. Those were the goals of someone who didn’t have the Force and wanted it, not someone who’d already been touched by it. Sith never wanted more of each other. One apprentice, maybe, but any more was just a threat. More betrayers to try and take power from you. More children waiting to stab you in the back. Or throw you down a shaft.

But then … the Dark Side always wanted more power. More means, more life, more time. A long-lived, extremely Force-sensitive child. Maybe there were things even a full-blown Sith would value pulling from him, and be willing to tolerate the steps in between to get there.

Or they could be working at cross-purposes to each other. The Imperials and the Inquisitor. Always a possibility. From the Dark Side’s point of view, the enemy of your enemy was still also your enemy. You just might want to use them for a while first. Before you killed them.

It was so easy to think like them. To let himself. To drown in them. He’d felt it in the cave. Worse, so much worse, so much easier, on the bridge of the Death Star. His father before him, the man who’d cut his hand off, weak and frail and there to be destroyed. The Emperor egging him on, cackling in wild delight at the excess of his hatred. It had been so easy.

It was always so easy.

And that was why … why it had gone well. And gone terribly. In those tunnels. Underneath his betrayed temple, his betrayed school. While all his enemies gathered around him and hammered at the safety of his children. He had to let himself feel. To draw the Inquisitor out, draw him away. But the lure was always its own trap. The Dark Side was always so easy.

They’d whittled him down. Worn him out. They’d brought enough droids for that. Enough troops, enough cannon fodder. Enough to bloody him, to weary him. To bring out the fear. The rage. The grief, too. He could feel how afraid the stormtroopers were, too, the human ones, how they were being driven forward against his blade by fear and hate alone. Hate for the Jedi, hate for the Force, hate for the power that drove them against him as well. They couldn’t kill the Inquisitor. They were too cowed for that. So they tried desperately to kill him instead.

And his children. If they found them. They’d kill his children too.

So he had to kill them. Or stop them. He tried to just stop them. Force push. Quietude. Knocking them out, pushing them down. But there were dark troopers too. The droids. There were forces that did their best to punish him for every scrap of mercy he tried to show. A man he’d knocked out getting back up to shoot him once more. A droid to ram a fist against his skull while he focused on shoving a living trooper away.

They’d learned from the last time, he thought wearily. From the cruiser. Maybe they were the same Imperials. Because they had learned. They’d brought enough people against him this time.

By the time the Inquisitor himself showed up, his ruby blade shining bloodily in the tunnel darkness, Luke was reminiscing fondly on the swamp. On running exhausted through every pit and mudhole on Dagobah, a gremlin on his back egging him relentlessly onwards. Oh, how he missed that exhaustion, suddenly. How he thought back on it fondly. His blood was burning. His limbs were aching. He had stars in his vision, a spike of agony behind one ear. His thoughts swam with exhaustion. With darkness. One of the droids had nailed him across the hip, scoring a deep line through the skin and muscle. He could feel the blood seeping gently down his leg. There were bodies all around him. The shattered remnants of droids, the (mostly) more intact and breathing forms of stormtroopers.

The Inquisitor, by contrast, showed no wounds as he casually stepped forward, shoving the body of a wounded stormtrooper contemptuously aside as he passed. He wasn’t relaxed, no one wound so tight and hateful could ever be relaxed, but he was certainly far fresher than Luke. So much stronger. So much more of a threat.

Hatred surged automatically. He’d spent what felt like so long down here, so long drowning in the dark, trying to keep what felt like infinite enemies from murdering his children. The hatred was instinctive. Raw and virulent and instinctive.

But it was also tired. For a lovely irony. It was instinctive, but exhausted. Luke, for all the Emperor’s prodding, had never really been built for hatred. He couldn’t sustain it. The endless depths, the fountain of it that the Dark Side seemed to find in other people, the thing that kept them alive and burning long after monstrosities like them should have been dead

He didn’t have it. He just didn’t. He looked at the Inquisitor now, and behind the cursory surge of hatred, all he felt was exhaustion. Complete and utter exhaustion.

He probably wasn’t going to win this fight. He could feel it. He just didn’t have enough strength left. Enough hatred, enough spur. Like the fight with his father and the Emperor before it, he could feel that he wasn’t going to win. That he was going to die here. Maybe slowly, maybe painfully, maybe bloodily. The Inquisitor was not his father. He had no reason to stop, to turn back, to spare Luke. There’d be no one to save him down here.

But he thought … he hoped he’d bought enough time. He should have done. He’d winnowed them down. Taken out almost all of the droids, crippled and wounded many of the Imperials. He could get a few blows in on the Inquisitor too. He would get a few more blows in.

And the children were well hidden. The Force was strong down here, kind down here. They were well hidden. No Dark Side user would find them. With so few forces left at his command, at least in any shape to go looking, it would take the Inquisitor days to find them now. Days he didn’t have. Leia was coming. It might take her a while, from the Core, but she was coming. The Inquisitor had no hope of finding her son before she got here.

And no hope of surviving once she did. Almost-Sith or no almost-Sith. No one could touch Ben Solo and live. Not once Leia got here.

So, all in all, it had gone … all right then. He watched the Inquisitor stride towards him. Watched him raise his blade. In the end, it had gone all right. Magnificently and terribly. He was going to die. He was drowning in the Dark Side and he was going to die. But his nephew would live. His children, his younglings. His school.

This time, at the low, low cost of one Jedi, the temple would not fall.

Luke smiled tightly. Strained, but with genuine humour. He smiled and shifted his sweaty, bloodstained palm around his own saber. Lifted it, just one more time, with herculean effort. A rebel cornered, in the end, but that was fine. That was fine. He had a few shots left. And if they hadn’t figured out yet that he was only the diversion, well, more fool them.

And then. And then. Because the Dark Side liked nothing better than a good joke. He heard it. And the Inquisitor did too.

Grogu looked ridiculously tiny in the darkness. In the red-green of the saber lights. He looked tiny and bedraggled and frail. Covered in dust, in filth. Standing gingerly next to the smashed remains of one of the droids, the things that had once carried him away. The things that still occasionally woke him from his sleep, panting in silent terror. If they frightened him now, he didn’t show it. He wasn’t looking at the droid. He was looking at Luke.

“Ah-da-urr,” he crooned angrily. Waving both tiny hands at Luke. Glancing only briefly at the other figure. At the red light of his blade, another feature of Grogu’s nightmares. An older feature. More ingrained. Grogu flinched at it, shuddered, but turned his head back to Luke. Dismissed it, dismissed all his old terror, in favour of grumbling angrily under his breath and tottering forwards towards the object of his disdain. Towards Luke.

The Inquisitor watched him. For an endless second, while Luke’s breath vanished, punched from his chest. The Inquisitor watched, half bewildered himself.

Then, hateful, he lunged.

Luke made it in time. Barely, just barely. He darted forward with a hoarse yell, his bad leg almost giving beneath him, and got his saber across Grogu in time to halt the darker one swinging bloodily downwards. The force of the blow dropped him onto one knee, knocked the breath out of him, and the crossed blades dipped dangerously towards the tiny figure beneath. It took every scrap of strength Luke had to turn them, to twist his weight and lever off the bloodied knee to push the blades away. But he managed. He managed. He knocked the blade away from Grogu.

And it promptly, immediately, swung back towards him. While he was staggering. Wounded, crippled, off-balance. Extended across Grogu’s tiny figure, wide open for the spun, arcing swing. The Inquisitor’s mouth split open, bared his teeth in a horrible, victorious grin. The blade came down. Luke couldn’t catch himself in time to stop it. He was already so tired.

A tiny hand flung out. Three-fingered, clawed, black eyes full of ancient anger over it. A wave of Force ripped outwards, and flung the Inquisitor clear across the shattered room. He hit a wall. Crumpled against it. Luke couldn’t tell if he’d heard a bone break or not.

Grogu had always been … so worryingly good at that. Hadn’t he.

Then, the enemy dealt with, at least as far as Grogu cared to deal with him, the toddler turned back to Luke. Expression grumpy, hands already reaching out again. Towards his leg, first. The gaping wound at his hip. Grogu closed his eyes and gathered the Force in his hands determinedly. Luke could feel such a wave of exasperated annoyance from him. A palpable thought of stupid

Stupid father. Oh. Oh.

That’s why he’d come out here. Managed to get away from Obi-wan, from the chamber, from safety. From anything that might hold him back. Because … because people died protecting Grogu. Every time. If he didn’t help them, if he didn’t fix them, they died for him. They died to keep him safe. And he couldn’t let them anymore.

(He couldn’t let his father get hurt for him anymore. That’s why he’d come with Luke. To get stronger. So no one would keep hurting his father because of him).

And now he was fixing Luke. Because Luke had tried to die for him too. Because nowhere was safe. He’d always known that. From that day thirty years ago, that first betrayal, Grogu had always known that nowhere was really safe. Maybe he’d hoped, for a while. Thought that Luke’s school might be different. But in the end …

It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Nowhere was ever really safe. So you just … had to get up, and do your chores, and fix … fix whatever bits of it you could fix.

Luke felt the grief swamp him. Felt it pour through him, as the trickle of Grogu’s strength worked through his leg, the sadness and healing flowing in lockstep. He felt it swamp him, strangle him, and reached out to trace a trembling fingertip over Grogu’s ear. That little ball in his chest burst open, all the brightness of his grief. The Light Side. Every inch. He’d never loved anything more than he loved this child this instant. Anything. Except maybe Leia. Han, Chewie. Artoo. Ben.

His father. In the moments before he died. His father.

Love was sacrifice. Love was fixing what you could, when you could, for as long as you could. Nothing more, nothing less. And no force of any evil could ever stand against it.

Though of course, every time, the forces of evil would try.

He didn’t see the blow. Didn’t sense it, not in time. The Light Side swamped it out, drowned the whispers of darkness inside him, the knowledge of betrayal. He’d been too lost in wonder, in grief, in joy. He couldn’t sense it coming. He couldn’t stop it.

The lump of metal slammed viciously into Grogu’s side. Below his extended arms, right into his ribs. They gave way instantly, with a crunch that Luke felt in his own chest, a wall of shock and agony slamming through his side. The flow of healing cut off instantly. The force of the hit flung the toddler aside like a ragdoll, smashed him into the floor. He didn’t even scream, didn’t have the breath for it. He hit the ground, pinned savagely under the durasteel fragment of droid. Blinking dazedly. Staring in bewildered agony up at Luke.

The Dark Side fountained up in Luke just as powerfully as the Light. It roared through him, flooded his veins with more hatred than he’d felt even while beating his father into the ground at the Emperor’s feet. His hand clawed. The metal one, his father’s gift to him. He’d already spun towards the threat. Towards his enemy.

But too late. Too late. Luke wasn’t meant to fight Dark with Dark. He wasn’t good at it. Far too many people had far too much experience over him.

The rest of the droid’s remains drove straight at his head. He got his arm up. Got his blade in place. It barely helped. Metal smashed into his arm. Into his back. Into his head. The Inquisitor was standing again. Through the sudden spray of blood and storm of metal, Luke could see him. He was standing, arms extended, snarling at Luke with every fibre of hatred in the universe. Or it felt like it. The black storm of the Force around them was stained pitch black. Only the Emperor himself had ever been darker.

It didn’t last. Couldn’t last. Not even the Dark Side could sustain that amount of rage that long. But Luke was only barely conscious by the time it was done. Only barely hanging on. He felt the Inquisitor stalking towards him. Saw the glow, the blood red light of the saber. There wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He’d been spent an hour ago.

So he pulled Grogu towards him instead. Faintly, feebly, cringing at the agony the motion sent through the child’s shattered ribs. He felt himself keening. Felt the sorrow, felt the grief. The others were safe, the other children. Ben. But Grogu had tried to help him. Grogu had wanted to protect him. And now he was dying for it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, pulling the child in against his chest. Crying against the top of the child’s head. “I promised to protect you. I’m so sorry.”

Grogu chirred at him breathlessly. Made an effort. Reached up and fumbled at his cheek. Incredibly, impossibly, Luke could feel the child nudging up against him. In the Force, in the flesh. He could feel Grogu trying, through all his own agony, to reassure him. Again, once again. He could feel Grogu trying to help.

It’s all right, the child sent dazedly. All right. Father will protect us. It’s all right.

Father. The father light years distant. The father Luke had taken him from. The father who didn’t even know his son was dying. Grogu thought, believed, that he was coming to help them. A child’s tiny article of faith. That somehow, when he needed him, his father would simply be there.

The knowledge hit like a blow. Like Force lightning, like agony. Even the lightsaber descending wouldn’t hurt as badly. Luke closed his eyes, and curled up around the child. Desperate to shield him, for even half a second.

So he missed the first blow. The tiny missiles that whistled out and slammed, mercilessly, into the Inquisitor’s back. Like vengeful angels.

The force spun the Inquisitor above them. Splintered and mangled his right shoulder. The hand holding the blade. Luke, his eyes flying open, stared up in shock at the bloodied mess. The Inquisitor staggered, breath whistling in shock, trying to keep his feet. Fumbled and dropped the saber. And then a monstrous figure in gleaming silver metal ploughed into him. Nearly through him. Bore him up and flung him away, somewhere behind and beyond them. Out of sight.

Luke lay there blinking. Stunned, truly stunned beyond comprehension. It didn’t … make sense.

Another figure darted forwards. Two figures, looming over him. One of them was familiar. Enough to send a shard of fear spiking through the shock. Enough to wake him up, or try to. The ghost of Boba Fett leaned over Luke, a strange woman at his side, and reached for the child at his chest.

That won a response. Luke swung his arm up. Bloodied and limp, possibly broken. He swung it protectively across Grogu. “No,” he hissed. Blind with despair. “No.”

The dead bounty hunter chuckled roughly. “Peace, Skywalker,” he said. Nudging Luke’s almost useless arm aside with relative gentility. “I’m not going to hurt him. I just need to see how bad it is. Brought some bacta with me. Figured you’d want the kid done first.” He paused, and tilted his helmet slightly. The voice was darker from it, the second time. “And if you don’t, Mando definitely will. We didn’t come here to rescue you, after all.”

Didn’t come to … That didn’t make sense. None of that made sense. But he caught the word ‘bacta’. And he could feel no threat from the man. Truly. No threat, and something like concern.

Luke shifted his weight. Got a hand around to try and lift Grogu gently. Turn him wounded side up.

“His chest,” he rasped. The sounds of violence crescendoed behind him, crested in a … a gurgle. A wet, empty-sounding gurgle. The wall of the Inquisitor’s hate faltered. Went pale. Luke did his best to ignore it. “Caught his chest. Ribs. He can’t breathe. He needs to breathe.”

He could feel Grogu fading. Feel the pained exhaustion and the struggle of tiny lungs. But he could also feel …

A vast, immense satisfaction. The great peace of a validated faith.

“… Brr,” the child whispered. A bloody bubble, but fiercely, vindictively pleased. “Brr,” he said. And patted Luke’s cheek in a feeble I-told-you-so.

Fett laughed thickly. A little brokenly. To Luke’s surprise. “That’s right, kid,” he said. Turning him gently over to lift his robe and spray bacta on his horrifically lumpy, mottled side. “Your Buir came and showed them for you. Absolutely right.”

Buir, Luke thought. So that’s what that attempted word was. Huh.

Buir, he presumed, would be the Mandalorian word for ‘father’.

Grogu,” the final voice came. Wrenched out, raw with terror, as the gleaming monster dropped heavily to Luke’s side in a clang and clash of metal on stone. No. Not a monster. A man. A man with blood on his armour, on his fists particularly, where he’d apparently beaten a threat to his child very literally to death. A man who brought those same bloody hands over, to run a shaking finger over a fragile ear, to cup his palm underneath a tiny head, with as much tenderness as any mother holding a babe. “Grogu.”

Grogu cooed up at him. Delighted. At peace. His hand found his father’s finger. Curled around it. He closed his eyes in the desperate relief of safety.

“He’s all right,” Fett cut in gently. Distracting the man. “Looks like he only took one hit. Skywalker must have done his job up to then. It’s bad enough, but the bacta will see to it. He’ll be all right. He’s a tough little womp rat. He’ll be fine.”

Skywalker must have done his … Ah. Yes. Skywalker had done his job so well. Hadn’t he.

“He was protecting me,” he whispered. Not even bothering to hide his shame. “He followed me. He was supposed to be …” He did hesitate, there, but Grogu would never trust anyone who would hurt a child. “Supposed to be with the others. They’re hidden. I was leading them off. But Grogu … followed me. He was trying to protect me. Managed it, too. The hit was … in revenge. Sith don’t like to be interrupted. He was trying to heal me when—” He cut off, shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t have an excuse. I’m so sorry.”

He wished he’d been a better Jedi. He wished he’d been a better anything.

They looked at each other. Helmet to helmet, and the woman as well. It was oddly … expressive. The helmets. What should have been the blank masks of them. Grogu’s father held Fett’s gaze exhaustedly, and Fett bowed his head a moment later.

“Suppose you can’t keep a kid from trying to protect what matters to him,” the bounty hunter said softly. Again, a little sadly. With old pain and old humour. Luke blinked at him. The Mandalorian nodded quietly.

“He does that,” he said. To Luke, looking down at him gently. “I didn’t … I couldn’t stop him either. He’s protected me too. It’s … what he does.”

His finger rubbed over Grogu’s ear as he said it. His grief spilled out, as bright as Luke’s. The endless wave of it Luke remembered from the cruiser. Grogu chirred softly at them. Opened his eyes and waved his hands up at them. Remorseless, full of bright, vindictive satisfaction. Justified faith. Luke laughed breathlessly. He half-sobbed.

“He isn’t sorry,” he whispered, with rueful adoration. “Not for any of it. He isn’t sorry in the slightest.”

And he wasn’t, either. Not even a tiny bit. More smug than Yoda had ever been.

Fett laughed harshly too. Where the Mandalorian apparently couldn’t, struck silent. The bounty hunter huffed out a rueful laugh as well.

“Of course he isn’t,” he said quietly. “And why should he be? He managed it, didn’t he?”

“Mostly,” the woman cut in. Speaking up finally, her voice wry and amused. “They’re both alive, at least. But you might want to check how many pieces Skywalker is in too, if we’re not killing him.” She smiled, a thin, hunter’s grin, and gave Fett an odd look. Almost teasing. “From the looks of things, you might have to break out the cybernetics again.”

Luke blinked up at her, bemused, but held up his right hand. His mostly intact right hand. Pretty much the only part of him that was right now.

“Already got some,” he said lightly. Flexing the cybernetic fingers in demonstration. She tilted her head in curiosity, and then smiled again. Patting her own stomach.

“You might need some more now,” she said. “But they’re handy things, aren’t they? Better than being dead.”

Luke swallowed. Thought of his father. Looked at his father, the ghost of him standing over the Mandalorian’s shoulder. But nodded anyway.

“Better than being dead,” he agreed. It was true enough.

“Most things are,” Fett interjected wryly. Actually giving Luke a look-over, nudging gently at his shoulder to get a look at him. “We might be able to do without, though. Looks like mostly surface damage. Bludgeons. If we get him back to the ship, the bacta I’ve got should do it.”

Which was still … If Luke had ever pictured who might patch him up one day, while he lay beaten and bloodied in the ruins of his school, the ghost of Boba karking Fett would not have been it. After everything the man had done to them, to Han, to Leia, Luke could not have imagined him gently easing Luke up around his injuries. But … here they were. Apparently.

“… How did you get here?” he found himself asking. Faintly. A thin, more than a little shocky sound. “You … Any of you. Grogu couldn’t reach you. I know he tried. I found him trying with Artoo. But he … he couldn’t have reached you. How did you know?”

How did the Empire know? How did everybody apparently know?

Did the whole karking galaxy know where his school was?

Had been. Before.

They glanced at each other again. The three of them. The Mandalorian ducked his head. It was Fett, again, who answered.

“We followed the Imperials,” he said roughly. Quick and harsh and efficient. “We’ve been listening out for them since the cruiser. Well. Mando over here has, and it did no harm for me to keep an ear out as well. We got word that they were … hunting for a school. That there was a new force behind them, and that it was hunting Jedi children.” Luke couldn’t see it, but he could picture the hunter smiling mirthlessly. Nodding to the Mandalorian. “As you can imagine, our friend over here took that a little badly. And these days, when the Mand’alor calls for aid, to save his child and to stop another Imperial purge, well. He gets listened to. Doesn’t he.”

For some reason, Grogu’s Mandalorian flinched at that. From the title, or something else, Luke couldn’t tell. He ducked his head and curled his fingers tight around Grogu’s hand.

“We thought we were too late,” he said softly. Rasped and hushed. “We missed their jump. They got ahead of us. Had to … Had to hit their base and get the coordinates out of them. By the time we got here …”

He trailed off, and Luke pictured the devastation above. What he’d seen of it before they hit the tunnels. What he imagined must have happened since, with the Inquisitor merrily blasting his way down and through in blunt-force search of them. There was maybe nothing of his temple left, above. The thought filled him with sadness, but more than that, right now, was the wince of sympathy. Of shame. He remembered the moisture farm. Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru. The dreams the Dark Side sent him, the blackened, child-sized skeletons. How close that had come to being reality.

For more than just him. He’d taken Grogu away on that cruiser. Taken the man’s child from him. Sworn on his life that he’d keep him safe. And then the man had dropped out of hyperspace, and been greeted by that.

The wave of shame rolled over him again. Exhaustion. But the Mandalorian brought his hand to Luke’s shoulder. Squeezed it, to draw Luke’s attention.

“Thank you,” he rasped, when he had it. Thick and hoarse. Raw with aborted grief. “For keeping him … I thought we were too late. When we got here. I thought … Thank you. For buying time. For keeping him alive where I could not.”

And Luke felt … felt the truth of it. The raw, real weight of his gratitude. His desperation and his hope.

He felt Grogu on his chest. The simple peace of him, exhausted and pained but perfectly calm. Perfectly content. Now that his father had come for him. A promise he’d held onto with perfect faith, while even Luke’s own hope was failing from him.

Luke closed his eyes. Tipped his head back into the stone, smiling faintly. Exhaustedly.

“He knew you were coming,” he said softly. Honestly, to the glow of devotion in the Force at his side and at his chest. “Not even through the Force. He just knew that you were coming. That he was in trouble, and that meant you would be coming for him. He believed that. I didn’t … believe him. I knew Leia was coming, but I didn’t think you could. That you’d know where to come, or even know that you had to. But he … he was right, it seems. The whole time. He had faith from the first that his father would come for him. And he was right.”

No Force. No power. No call. Just a father who hadn’t laid down his duties just because his child had been taken from him. Just a man who’d kept watch, half a galaxy distant, to ensure that his child would be safe.

No Force. No Light Side or Dark. Just an honest love, and a father willing to die for his son.

When you were lost in the dark. Alone and in agony. Drowning. That was all you needed. All else could be forgiven, because that was all you needed. An honest love, and an honest attempt.

When Luke opened his eyes again, his father was standing above him. Looking down at him. He could feel Grogu on his chest. Looking up at the ghost too. This figure from his nightmares. This author, in many ways, of every other nightmare in Grogu’s life. The child wasn’t bothered. He had his hand wrapped around his father’s finger. He wasn’t worried at all.

The Mandalorian looked down at him too. Worried, Luke thought. Concerned. He raised the hand not caught in Grogu’s, very hesitantly, and rested it gently on Luke’s brow. Luke blinked at him. The man gently smoothed tacky hair back off his face.

“Looks like we might need the bacta sooner rather than later,” the woman said quietly. To one side. “He’s two minutes away from blinking out, looks like.”

“Mmm,” Fett agreed. Easy and thoughtful. “We should get him fixed up, yes. Especially if ‘Leia’ is coming. Trust me. We should find the children too, make sure they really are all right. If Organa-Solo lands down here to find the planet full of Mandalorians, bounty hunters, and Imperials, her children missing, and her brother half-dead … Well. It will be a very brief and very amusing fight. Put it that way.”

The woman hummed thoughtfully. “Know her, do you?” she asked. Fett barked a little laugh.

“Her, no, not really,” he said roughly. With amusement. “But her husband threw me into a Sarlacc pit once. For trying to take aim at this one here. And I’m pretty sure she was the one who strangled Jabba to death. He was done by chains, and she was the one chained to him. The timing lines up. So.”

The woman grinned. A dark, vulpine grin. “An impressive woman,” she noted mildly. Unperturbed. The Mandalorian had a different concern.

“Do you need to leave?” he asked Fett. In surprised, honest worry. “I didn’t mean to bring you into enemy hands. Do you need to go?”

Fett stared at him for a moment. Baffled, Luke thought. Bemused by the concern. And … something else. Something warm and strange and thin.

“… No,” the bounty hunter said finally. With gentle weight. “Not to worry, vod. I’ve known we were riding to Skywalker’s rescue since the cruiser, and I’m here anyway. Don’t worry about it. The Solos and I will settle our debts in our own time. Let’s worry about your ad and his covert first, yes?”

The Mandalorian still shifted guiltily. Worriedly. Luke found himself speaking. Instinctively trying to fix it. For Boba Fett.

“She won’t hurt you,” he mumbled. Waving a hand at them. Well, attempting to. “Leia. You helped … Her family. You helped her family. She won’t hurt you.”

They’d helped Ben. Also Luke, but mostly Ben. Not even Han would hold a grudge after that.

Well. Luke thought, anyway.

Fett possibly heard the thought. Or had his own opinions on the matter. He shook his head. “Don’t make promises for other people, jetii,” he warned, but gently. With amusement, even still. He gripped Luke’s ankle lightly. Squeezed. “Leave your sister to make her own decisions. You have a date with some bacta. And I think it’s time we get you to it.”

The woman beside him hummed. “I’ll go ahead,” she said easily. “Meet up with Cara, Kryze. Make sure they’ve finished with any … obstacles that might be in our way.” She smiled with all her teeth. “The way should be clear by now, but I’ll make sure. Take your time on your way up, your majesty. Your back’s not what it used to be anymore.”

Fett threw his hand sideways, cuffed her on the leg, but only gently. A huff of teasing annoyance, not any gesture of force. “Enough out of you,” he said. “Go finish off the rest of those troopers. We’ll meet you at the Slave.”

She saluted him mockingly, and faded back into the shadows. There was quiet, for a little moment. The silence of four people breathing gingerly on a battlefield. Grogu snored gently against Luke’s chest. Finally succumbed to his exhaustion. Luke blinked carefully, trying his very best not to follow the kid. It was … hard. His thoughts were slow and shadowed.

But not dark. Somehow, even in such company, never dark.

“It’s all right, Luke,” his father whispered. In the somewhat hushed and holy shadows. “Obi-wan says the others are still safe. Ben. He’s fine. You did it, Luke. You kept them safe. You can rest for a bit. These two won’t hurt you. They’ll keep you safe until Leia gets here. I can feel it.”

Luke hummed absently. “I know,” he said. Or maybe thought, he wasn’t sure. Grogu’s glow was soft and steady against his chest. That thread of faith still shining. “Father will protect us. I know.”

And mother, and brother, and sister, and friend. Every attachment born of honest love. Willing to die, and to let them go.

Grogu huffed against him. Snuffled and chirred. Luke smiled. He heard the other two moving. Heard their voices grow distant and sharpen in concern. Over him, probably. But he wasn’t worried. He was fading, he knew, but it didn’t worry him anymore.

The nightmare was over, now. The temple hadn’t fallen, not in any way that mattered. He’d bought enough time, and the rest was tomorrow’s business.

“Go to sleep, Luke,” his father said. “The chores are done. You can close your eyes.”

Luke hummed. That sounded like a good idea, suddenly. Very good. He smiled blindly to himself. Feeling his father’s ghostly hand on his cheek. He reached out to Grogu too. Nudged him gently in the Force. A whispered thanks, answered sleepily. A new and happy faith.

“Brr,” they said/thought in unison. Leaning into a pair of hands, one ghostly, one metal. “Brr.”

It was a good word, Luke thought. Maybe the best in the world.