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The moment he feels the child’s presence in the Force—a tiny, burbling light in the oppressive darkness of Vader’s star destroyer—Luke knows that he’s going to do something stupid.

It’s been a long time since he’s had anything resembling hope, but he remembers now, lying wide awake in the blue darkness of his quarters, why it’s so dangerous. Hope makes him want things he can’t have. Hope makes him think he might actually get them. It makes him think he can fight back, even though experience tells him the exact opposite. And when he feels Vader’s Force signature settle down to sleep in—oh, checking the chronometer built into the wall beside his bunk, less than an hour—it’s going to make him sneak down to the detention levels, knock out the two stormtroopers standing guard outside the child’s cell, and steal the only ship in the Imperial fleet that doesn’t have a tracking beacon on it: his father’s.

All things considered, it’s not one of Luke’s better plans. There are 200,000 men stationed on this star destroyer, and none of them are his friend. None of them are even particularly friendly. Fear will do that to people.

When he gets caught—and he will get caught, no question about it—Luke will be right back where he started, a hostage in everything but name, the Force-bright child confined to his own cell twenty-two decks down, except it’ll probably take him a week to remember his own name, after the ‘re-education’ sessions Vader puts him through. They never work, they never turn him, but they hurt like hell all the same. They will hurt like hell. And when they’re over, he won’t be able to stand up to use the ’fresher, let alone stage a rescue and a prison break.

Nevertheless.

That’s what hope does to you, Luke remembers now. It lingers at the back of your mind, whispering maybe, maybe, so that knowing a plan is stupid isn’t enough to keep you from trying it.

If that were all it did, he might be able to let it go. He might be able to roll over in his cold, clinical-smelling bunk and go to sleep and get up in the morning exhausted and half-dead and let Vader whale on him and call it ‘training’ and some day he might forget that twenty-two decks down was the warmest thing he’d felt in six years, but there’s something else about hope that he’d forgotten.

It feels really, really damn good.

~~~

There’s a part of Luke that’s been partitioned like a damaged section of a spaceship hull since he fell out the bottom of Cloud City and found Vader’s transport waiting for him. It’s the part of him that can get hurt. The part that loves, and fears, and suffers loss. The part of him he can’t let Vader know still exists, because if he did, the Sith might actually be able to break him. Luke does not cry. He does not smile. He’s found that that's the only way to survive.

So it’s strange, sitting in the cockpit of Vader’s stolen transport with the small, warm weight of the child in his arms, to discover that he suddenly wants to do both.

He lets himself have one: a slight, tentative smile. It’s been so long since he’s tried this expression that it feels stiff and foreign on his face, like he’s making the muscles do something they’re not supposed to.

The child latches onto his shirt with his three fingers, cooing, staring up at Luke with those enormous eyes.

Blueshifted stars streak past the viewscreen. No one followed them into hyperspace; as far as Luke can tell, no one even noticed them leaving.

It’s making Luke feel wobbly inside, and ashamed, to think that he might’ve tried something like this at any time in the last six years and gotten away with it, even though logically he knows that’s not necessarily true. He pushes it down. Shame, he figures, is something he can feel later, after he’s figured out what to do next. None of his plans ever got this far—he never had to decide where to go.

The child says, Aboo, as if he can sense what Luke’s struggling with. Maybe he can. His eyes slide half-closed, the stars reflecting in their inky blackness, and Luke is hit with a sudden vision of a planet. Cities protected in massive biodomes. A scorched, dusty landscape. A spindly, hallowed structure, and a man marching through the empty halls, his footsteps echoing, his face hidden behind a Mandalorian helmet.

Buir, the child thinks.

Luke might’ve been locked up on an Imperial star destroyer for the last six years of his life, but he hasn’t been cut off from the holonet. He’s read about the turmoil on Mandalore these past few days, the quiet, panicked activity that no one can quite determine the source or purpose of. Some have postulated there’s another civil war brewing. Others that the new Mand’alor, a man no one can identify, has been having problems enforcing his rule.

It seems neither theory is true. Instead the answer is sitting in Luke’s lap, trying to eat part of the control board. And the answer wants to go home.

“Okay then, buddy,” Luke mutters, punching in the coordinates for Mandalore. “Tell your dad not to shoot me, will you?”

Bleblebleble, the chid agrees, and goes to sleep.

~~~

Seventy-seven Mandalorian ships meet Luke in orbit, which he would say was a bit overkill—except, because of the ship he’s driving, they probably think he’s Darth Vader, so it’s actually very underkill. He manages to talk them out of shooting him out of the sky by holding the child up to the comm and letting him say bleblebleble some more, but by the time he sets the ship down on a landing pad—the only landing pad they’ll let him go anywhere near—and comes down the ramp with the child in his arms, he’s surrounded by at least a hundred heavily armed bloodthirsty mercenaries, and none of them have the safeties on their weapons.

Luke doesn’t use the child as a shield, per se, but he does make sure he’s visible as he walks out onto the landing pad. For the first time in a long time, out from under the crushing thumb of Vader’s darkside influence, he finds he’s not too keen on dying today.

“I mean you no harm,” he says, raising his voice even though there’s no sound up here, hardly a whisper of wind. “I only want to return what was taken from you.”

One of the Mandalorians breaks ranks and walks toward him. Slowly. One step at a time, hand hovering over his blaster, the viser of his helmet trained magnetically on the child in Luke’s arms.

Even if Luke didn’t recognize him from the child’s thoughts, he would know who he was from how the child reacts—like a flower turning happily towards the sun. He makes a soft baby noise and reaches out, straining against Luke’s hold.

Luke hands him over without a second thought.

The child’s father—the Mand’alor—tucks his son against his chest and takes three quick steps away from Luke.

Out of range, Luke realizes, an instant too late.

A stun round hits him square in the side of the head, and he goes down hard.

~~~

For all that Luke’s jedi teachers warned him of the dark side’s seductive nature, its power to corrupt and twist the mind, one thing they never told him was how cold it would be. Six years, Vader’s darksider energy hung over his flagship like a layer of hoarfrost that only he and Luke could feel. It was an insidious sort of misery, never being able to get warm at night, even curled up into the fetal position in his own bed, blasting scalding water in his shower and still feeling like he had a block of ice stuck inside him, in the center of his chest. Most of the daily discomforts, Luke had eventually gotten used to and stopped noticing—the bruises, the sharp nerve-damage pain of his prosthetic hand, the faint, seizing tremors that the Emperor’s Force lightning had left him with, the lack of love and sunlight and human interaction that wasn’t Vader’s constant assault on his defenses. But he never got used to the cold. Maybe it was the desert, still in him.

When he wakes up in Sundari, after the landing pad, the first thing he notices is that he’s warm.

The room he’s in is dark and silent, closed off from the rest of the city, but he knows immediately that he hasn’t been handed over, he’s not back on board his father’s ship. If he were he’d have woken up shivering, like every other day for more than half a decade.

Hot, involuntary tears sting his eyes, and he turns his face into the pillow to hide them. Hide them from who, he’s not sure, but there’s not really anyone he wouldn’t hide them from now. Except maybe the child. That bright, brilliant child.

After a while he sniffles, wipes his face, and gets up to try the door. Unsurprisingly, it’s locked.

That doesn’t bother him much. He didn’t really expect it to be open. There are no windows in here, and the ventilation system is a small, round hole no bigger than his fist up high near the ceiling, so he already knew he was in a cell. It’s a much nicer cell than the one he left behind—his quarters on the flagship might’ve been enormous and well-appointed in terms of fixtures, but there are no fists hammering against the walls of his mind, no evil stalking the halls. He’s never woken up screaming in this bed, poisonous nightmare snakes constricting the sinews of his psyche. His blood has never stained this floor.

So he lowers himself into an easy meditation, legs crossed, palms open on his knees. This is one of the few jedi practices he’s been able to keep. Vader might have been able to restrict his use of the Force, prevent him from getting his hands on a lightsaber except when Vader expressly wanted him to have one, but there was nothing he could do to keep Luke from meditating.

As he hovers, his mind wanders through Sundari.

There are Mandalorians walking the halls, men and women whose Force signatures are similar to stormtroopers in terms of order and discipline but closer to a rancor in terms of power. Luke supposes they feel sort of like Boba Fett, which makes sense. Further out, high in this enormous building which feels like it’s hanging upside-down from the interior of the biodome, the bright sunny light of the child’s signature burbles happily when he feels Luke brush up against him. Luke gives him the psychic equivalent of a pat on the head and moves on, past the exterior walls into the city, over the hundreds of thousands of Mandalorians walking and sleeping and talking and fighting, opening shops for the day and slaving over hot forges and guiding younglings carefully through katas that are almost like dances. Sundari runs swift and strong with the Living Force, and Luke lets himself be carried along on the city’s current, around and around, until he realizes what’s strange, what’s been nagging at him: he can’t feel anything past the boundary of the dome. Not a bug or an animal. Not those shipyards he saw on his way to the landing pad. Nothing.

“Huh,” he says to himself, setting back down on the floor.

Just as he’s trying to puzzle out what might be able to conceal a whole city from the Force—since he’s pretty sure that’s what’s happening here—the door opens, and the Mand’alor steps inside.

He looks tense, uncomfortable in the light from the hallway. Luke squints up at him, waiting for him to speak.

“You brought my kid home,” the Mand’alor says at last. Even his voice is tense and uncomfortable through his helmet’s modulator, like he’s as unused to human interaction as Luke is, now.

Luke doesn’t say anything, just nods.

After a minute the Mand’alor prods, “Why?”

Luke opens his mouth, then realizes he has no idea what to say. He shrugs, frowning a little, and tries, “He’s just a kid. I couldn’t stand by and let Vader do…whatever he was planning to do with him.”

The Mand’alor makes a soft, choked sound, half-turning away. “Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m Luke,” Luke answers. “Luke Skywalker.” Then, because he’s in a cell and in this instance he doesn’t think lying to the people with the keys is a great idea, he adds, “I’m Darth Vader’s son.”

The Mand’alor’s helmet turns sharply to look at him. “You’re…Darth Vader’s son?” he repeats.

Luke sets his jaw and nods, forcing himself to hold the Mand’alor’s gaze. “Yes. Are you going to kill me?”

The Mand’alor exhales fast, like a bag of flour that’s been dropped on the floor. “No,” he says, voice oddly tight. “I’m not going to kill you. You brought my kid home.”

“Oh,” Luke says softly. He’s surprised to feel tears pricking his eyes again. He has to blink rapidly to keep them at bay.

The Mand’alor comes back into the room and crouches in front of him. His cape pools on the floor around his feet. Luke is struck by a wild, unaccountable urge to cling to him, to hide his face in the man’s chest, but he refrains, even as the Mand’alor reaches out to put a hand tentatively on his shoulder. It’s only there for a second before the Mand’alor pulls back, but Luke feels the impression of his touch like a lingering mark.

“Some of my advisors think this is a trick,” the Mand’alor tells him, point-blank. “They think you took Grogu so you could bring him back and gain access to the city.”

“Oh,” Luke says again, with a sudden swoop of grief. Of loss.

“I don’t think it’s a trick,” the Mand’alor assures him. “The kid’s a pretty good judge of character, and he likes you. So if you need somewhere to…hide. Then you can stay in Sundari. With my protection.”

“Oh,” Luke says for a third time. Now he can’t keep the tears out of his eyes. “Thank you. That would be—thank you.”

~~~

Even in Sundari, Luke can feel the specter of his father’s ’saber buzzing at his throat. He feels like an inmate who’s been granted a stay of execution. Every moment is stolen. Every ray of sunlight. Every peaceful morning with a cup of caf. Every stroll through the ornate, abstract vegetation in Peace Park. Luke’s not sure if it makes him cherish it all more, or less, to carry on this delusion that it’s all temporary. That none of it really matters.

That sentiment in itself is false, though, he thinks. Even if the Imperial fleet were to appear in orbit around Mandalore tomorrow, if the king handed him over to his father this very afternoon, it would matter to Luke that he got to be here, that he got to put on his black jedi robes and walk the streets without an armed guard—and even weather the suspicious, hostile stares of Mandalorians. That he got to remember, even for these few days, what it was like to have agency. To be free.

But the Imperial fleet doesn’t appear.

The Mand’alor doesn’t hand him over to his father. Instead, he comes by Luke’s rooms—ones with a window and a door that only he can lock—and invites him to go on a walk.

It is, probably, a move inspired by the babbling gremlin in his arms, who brightens happily in the Force, reaches out and lurches toward Luke the second the door slides open, but Luke doesn’t mind.

He has a brief, image-flash argument with the child in the privacy of their minds and convinces him that if he doesn’t go back to his father he’s going to make this whole expedition a lot more awkward, then tips him back into the Mand’alor’s arms, feeling a rush of relief from the man as he does.

Capitulating, he walks close enough as they make their way through the government building that Grogu can hold on to one of the fingers on his flesh and blood left hand. It means he’s close enough that he keeps bumping the Mand’alor’s shoulder, too, but conversely, that only makes him want to get closer.

They walk up to the building’s cantilevered courtyard in companionable silence. Then, the moment they turn the corner towards the courtyard’s central fountain, the Mand’alor says, “Din Djarin.”

Luke’s steps falter. “Sorry?”

“My name,” the Mand’alor says, not looking at him. “I don’t—people mostly call me Mand’alor, when they don’t know it.”

“But you don’t like that,” Luke intuits.

The Mand’alor—Din shakes his head. “I didn’t become king on purpose,” he says.

Luke looks at him, standing there in full beskar armor with a tiny green child riding along in the crook of his elbow, and is hit with such a wave of affection that it nearly bowls him over. It doesn’t make any sense, because he’s only known this man, this child, for less than a week, but at the same time it makes all the sense in the world. The first two beings to treat him with anything like kindness in what feels like forever. Of course he would latch onto them.

Of course he would love them.

“Okay,” he says, fighting back a smile. “Din, then.”

“Din,” the king agrees, sounding satisfied, and they move on.

~~~

Grogu’s the one who brings them together. The first night Luke fights awake through a heavy fog of nightmares to find the child curled up against his side, he feels a lurch of panic and spirits him back up to Din’s rooms as fast as he can. He shouldn’t have worried; Din answers the door shuffling in bare feet with his helmet on over rumpled sleep clothes, takes his son back with some gentle chiding, and invites Luke in for a cup of tea. After that it becomes a sort of ritual—the child wanders down to Luke, Luke brings him back up, they have tea.

It’s a strange sort of semi-intimacy, sitting in the quiet orange light of the kitchen while Din tips his helmet back to sip tea at an oblique angle. Sometimes Grogu sits up with them, perched on a highchair and holding his teacup with both hands, but more often than not he’s out like a light before Luke even makes it to the door, which leaves Luke and Din to make stilted conversation that becomes less and less stilted as time goes on.

One night Luke’s taking the kettle off when he’s hit with a tremor so bad he spills boiling water all over the floor. “Kark,” he bites, face heating with shame so strong he barely feels the scalding burns on his feet.

Din’s there behind him before he can do much more than swear, hands on his shoulders guiding him away.

He settles Luke down in a chair. Luke’s arms are still shaking so badly they knock painfully into his knees when he tries to ball them into fists. He holds them out in the air in front of him, where they can’t do too much damage, but Din takes hold of his wrists to hold him steady.

“Luke,” he says, sounding concerned through the modulator. “What’s—?”

“I’m sorry,” Luke grits out, embarrassed at what’s happening and embarrassed at how stupidly grateful he is to have someone with him while it does, someone who’s being gentle with him and won’t hurt him. “Give it a minute, it’ll pass.”

Din stays kneeling at his feet, holding his wrists, until the last of the tremors fade away. Even then he keeps hold of him, moving to hold one of Luke’s elbows and one of his knees as his heartbeat settles.

“Luke,” he says again, questioning, like he’s not sure what to ask.

Luke blinks back tears. He feels…Din is such a good man, a kind man and a loving father and a capable, intelligent ruler, and Luke feels suddenly, miserably unequal to him. Who the hell is he kidding, he thinks. Maybe Vader really did break him after all, because Luke doesn’t know how to do this anymore. He remembers Aunt Beru putting bandages on his scrapes, remembers Leia hugging him and Han ruffling his hair and crying with the other pilots at funeral after funeral, but the part of him that experienced all that is the part he’s partitioned. It’s the soft fleshy part of his soul, the part that’s so damaged he’s worried if he lets it come back it will take the rest of him with it.

But here, right now, with Din’s palm pressed warm and protective to the side of his knee, he thinks that it’s coming back whether he wants it to or not.

He only hopes that, if Vader ever comes for him, he can manage to get it tucked away again quickly.

“Me and my father killed the Emperor,” he tells Din, the words rushing out of him like a dam breaking. “A year ago. He—that was the only reason Vader ever wanted me. To make him more powerful. The Emperor hit me with Force lightning.”

“Force lightning?” Din echoes.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Luke says, with a tiny smile. “Basically just weaponized electricity. It left me with..some nerve damage. And some scarring.”

Din’s hand tightens briefly on his elbow. “And your hand?” he asks. “Was that the Emperor, too?”

Luke shakes his head. “No. That was Vader.”

Din makes a hurt sound. “Your father did that to you?”

“It’s okay,” Luke says, not wanting him to worry. “It’s in the past. It was a long time ago.”

“It’s not okay,” Din says firmly. “None of this is okay, Luke, pfassk.”

It is, Luke wants to insist, it’s really okay. It was just me. The only one who got hurt was me. But all of a sudden he’s mute, because Din goes up on his knees between his legs and pulls him into a tight hug. Luke, when he recovers from the shock of it, grabs on hard to the back of Din’s shirt and clings to him like he wanted to do all those days ago in his cell, tucking his face desperately into the crook of Din’s neck. It’s the first time since Cloud City that someone’s touched him without wanting to hurt him, other than Grogu, and the sheer relief Luke feels is enough to clog his throat with tears. He manages to keep them down, but he doesn’t manage to keep from shaking in Din’s arms, overwhelmed by the texture of his shirt and the hard bottom edge of his helmet and the warmth of his skin and how he’s remembering all at once what it felt like to be a child asleep in bed, unafraid, totally assured of his own safety.

“I’ve got you,” Din murmurs. Luke almost imagines he can hear his real voice through the infinitesimal gap between his helmet and his chin. “No one’s gonna hurt you anymore, cyar’ika, I promise.”

“I can take care of myself,” Luke mumbles against his shoulder, bristling a little.

“I know.” Din’s fingers comb through his hair, settle possessively on the back of his skull. “Still.”

He puts Luke to sleep in his bed that night, Luke too tired to put up much of a fight when he doesn’t want to anyways, and when Luke blinks awake only a few minutes after dozing off to see the light still on in the kitchen and Din bustling about with the dishes, full of energy with nowhere to go, he gets up and finds a spare bandage to tie around his eyes. It seems to calm down the beast in Din’s chest, to lie next to Luke in the warm nest of the sheets and hold him. Luke tries not to think about it too hard, because he doesn’t want to start crying again.

In the morning Din pawns the child off on one of his advisors, a woman in regal reddish armor, and takes Luke to see a man about his hand. The man makes disapproving clucking noises as he buzzes around Luke in his basement workshop and pokes at him with a lot of instruments, and eventually asks, “Who did this? It’s awful.”

“Med-droids, mostly,” Luke answers.

The man makes an offended sound. Behind them, Luke feels Din’s Force signature darken unhappily. “Can you get him something better?” he asks the craftsman, voice tense.

“If you shoved a branch up his arm, it would be better than this,” the man answers roughly, but then says, softer, “I’ll get to work on a replacement right away. It hurts a lot, doesn’t it?”

Luke, still vaguely perplexed by the idea that it’s not supposed to hurt, nods.

“Yeah,” the crafstman agrees. “We’ll get it off you by the end of the week, don’t you worry.”

Luke blinks rapidly. “Thank you,” he says.

When they’re back up on the street, moving with the stream of people on the raised pedestrian walkways, Luke pulls Din into an alcove between two buildings and wraps him up in a hug. Din’s hands come to his waist, then slide around his back, holding him close.

“Thank you,” Luke repeats, voice muffled against his shoulder.

Din’s breath stutters, white noise through the modulator. “You don’t have to thank me,” he says.

“Yeah I do.” Luke pulls back to look at him. All that does is make it so he’s looking at his own eyes reflected in his visor, so he holds the helmet between his hands and tilts his forehead against it instead.

There’s that rush of static again.

“You didn’t have to do any of this,” Luke says, eyes closed. “You could’ve executed me the second I got here and no one would’ve said you did anything wrong.”

Luke,” Din says, pained. “I would never—not you. You have to know that.”

“I do,” Luke says. “I know that. Just, thank you.”

Din doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, but it’s okay. He tucks his chin over the top of Luke’s head, and they stay like that for a long time, standing hidden in that alcove as Sundari streams past around them.

~~~

The dome, Din tells Luke when he asks, is run through with silk from a taozin—an enormous, wormlike predator with the unique ability to make itself appear invisible in the Force. If Din hadn’t taken Grogu with him on a diplomatic mission to Hutt space, he confesses guiltily, then Vader never would have been able to sense him. He never would have gotten a hold of him.

It’s why Luke can’t feel past the boundaries of the city. Why Vader hasn’t found him yet, in spite of the fact that this is probably one of the first places he looked. He couldn’t do a more thorough survey without starting a war with Mandalor, and though that’s probably a fight the Empire would win, Vader’s smart enough to know that it would be a Pyrrhic victory, that the Empire would likely be crippled beyond repair when the fighting was over. There might not be many Mandalorians, compared to the ranks of stormtroopers, but they know how to kark people up like no other. Darth Vader has kept his distance.

So Luke’s safe. Luke allows himself to believe that he’s safe.

He’s in Peace Park, teaching Grogu to levitate pebbles, when they come for him.

All the warning he gets is a brief flash of a familiar Force signature at the edge of his awareness—Boba Fett, he thinks, numbly, smart—and then they’re surrounded.

Grogu makes a high, terrified noise. Luke gathers him close against his body, the child clinging to his shirt, and stands on wobbly legs. This is what he gets for pulling down the partition. He’s so scared he can barely think.

There are three dozen blasters pointed at them. This area of the park is deserted; it’s why Luke brings Grogu here, so they have quiet while they work. No one’s seen them. No one’s seen a squadron of stormtroopers in Mandalorian armor fall into formation and encircle them. Luke has no lightsaber, and Din is a long way away, in chambers with his Council.

“Leave the child,” Luke says to Boba Fett, raising his voice, “and I’ll go peacefully.”

Grogu’s Force signature roils in fear and worry, his claws digging past the fabric of Luke’s shirt to pierce his chest, but he doesn’t look down at him. He holds the bounty hunter’s gaze, not backing down.

At last, Fett says, “The child’s not part of my arrangement. I’ll accept those terms.”

Luke feels nauseous with relief. He turns and sets Grogu down in the wet grass, pulling Grogu’s claws out of his shirt one by one. “You’re gonna be okay,” he promises him, sending a wave of calm, safety, peace to him over their nascent training bond. “Someone will come find you and take you to your dad.”

Grogu wails plaintively and reaches for him again, but Luke stands up before he can grab on, even though it spears his heart to see the look on the child’s face. “You’ll be with your dad soon,” he tells him, trying to sound reassuring, and then there are rough hands tugging him back, someone hits him with a hypospray sed, and his muscles liquefy. The last thing he sees before he passes out is the child, alone in the grass, reaching for him.

~~~

The next time he wakes up, he’s freezing. No, he thinks, but doesn’t say, because the yawning pit of despair in his chest is so strong he can hardly open his eyes, let alone vocalize. No, no, please no.

That’s the danger of getting used to being protected, he supposes. When the assault on his mental shields comes, he’s wholly unprepared for it. It’s like getting hit by a star destroyer or a small moon, darkness screaming at him from every direction at once, Vader’s voice booming inside his skull, YOU THOUGHT THAT YOU COULD ESCAPE. YOU’RE FOOLISH, MY SON. Luke rolls over on the cold metal slab in the detention cell, hands pressed over his ears, struggling to find his bearings as the world spins out of control all around him, as Vader bombards him with images of Grogu screaming and Din covered in blood, his throat slicked with it under his helmet, grief scooping out Luke’s chest like clawed fingers.

He must pass out again, because the next thing he knows, he’s propped against the bulkhead in a hallway, blaster fire is streaking red all around him, and Din is saying, “—would be a good time to wake up.”

Luke struggles for consciousness, hands limp and weak against Din’s shoulders. He finds his cape and grabs handfuls of it, life slowly bleeding back into his fingers. “Din?” he says, dazed.

“Hi,” Din says. “My rescue kind of went off the rails.”

A squad of stormtroopers trots around the corner. Din swears and opens fire, but before the first one even falls, they’re swept back by a massive push of the Force, plastisteel armor clattering as they pile on top of each other.

Din looks down at Luke, alarmed. “Did you do that?”

Luke breathes hard, sick with dread. “No,” he says. “I did not.”

Din looks at him for a long moment, then puts his blaster away and takes out what looks like a lightsaber. When he ignites it, it hums with something that feels like the complete opposite of Force energy and sucks all the light from the space around it. The Darksaber, Luke realizes.

The air drops ten degrees. At the other end of the hall, he hears the low, mechanical breathing, the vibrating hum of an ignited ’saber. The lights in the hallway flicker out, plunging them into darkness. All that’s left is an eerie red glow.

“So,” Vader says. “My son sends a mercenary to fight in his stead. How…disappointing.”

Din steps into the center of the hallway. Luke strains and manages to get onto his hands and knees, still tucked out of sight where they’d taken cover. He wants to tell Din to run, to leave him, but all the air in his lungs is dedicated to trying to stand up. He can’t let Din take on his father alone. He can’t watch Din die.

Din seems to have no such compunction about his own health. “You’re a sorry excuse for a father,” he tells Vader.

Vader laughs. Din, unfazed, drops into a fighting stance. One foot back, knees bent, shoulders square to the enemy, Darksaber clutched like a broadsword in both hands.

Luke expects Vader to Force choke him, to send him flying into the ceiling and the floor and the ceiling again, leave him broken and wheezing on the ground, but the Sith must be in the mood to play with his food, because with a Force-quick step and a quiet phzzzm of his ’saber, he attacks.

Din raises his sword and—SHHNGK—catches Vader’s ’saber with a spray of sparks.

Swing, parry, swing, parry, they dance back down the hall, Din always on the defensive, Vader roaring at him like a force of nature, like darkside energy embodied. Luke manages to drag himself to his feet, clinging to the bulkhead, just as Din stumbles and Vader spins his blade out of his hands. It retracts in the air, hits the floor of the hall behind them, and skitters away.

Vader raises his ’saber like a scythe and brings it down hard.

Din!” Luke shouts.

Din goes down on one knee, raises his arms in an X, and catches Vader’s blade on his vambraces.

The ring of beskar reverberates down the hall, pure and singing.

Vader hesitates for a half second, recalculating, and it’s long enough for Din to turn and grab the blade of his ’saber in beskar-threaded gloves. He rips it out of the Sith’s hands, smashes a kick to Vader’s midsection for good measure, and steps back, holding the lightsaber by its dangerous end.

“Luke!” he calls, and turns to throw it—end over end, cartwheeling through the air, until Luke catches it by the hilt.

There’s a sharp jab of anger from Vader in the Force, but it passes through Luke like an arrow through water, refracting, coming out the other end as a screaming rush of hope.

He calls the Darksaber to his hand with the Force and throws it back to Din. Din catches it, ignites it. They fall into their stances side by side, and even though they’ve never fought together before it feels like they have. It feels familiar.

Vader straightens to face them, hunched under his cape. The darkside power that radiates from him in huge, humming waves is edged with something spiky and uncharacterstic: fear.

Before he can mount another assault, Luke pounces. And Din follows.

~~~

Grogu, when they make it back to him, bruised and battered but very much alive, is so happy to see them he can barely contain it in the Force. Luke laughs as he crouches to pick him up, Grogu’s hands pawing at his chin and his cheeks as he says a happy blebleblebleble over and over. “I know,” Luke tells him seriously, as those clawed fingers feel out the curve of his smile. “You’re right. Very right, buddy. You make a good point.”

When he straightens up with Grogu in his arms, he finds Din watching him with his helmet tilted. “What?” he asks.

Din shakes his head a little. “Nothing. I just don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Luke says, feeling like the wind’s been knocked out of him. “Well, I guess—I haven’t really laughed in a long time.”

Din makes a sound like he’s been stabbed, reaches up, and yanks his helmet off like he can’t stand to have it on for one more second.

Joy and recognition bubbles out of Grogu. Buir, he thinks happily, but Luke’s not really paying attention to him, because he’s too busy staring at Din with his mouth hanging open, more surprised by this than by anything else that’s happened today—which, given the day he’s had, is really saying something.

“Din,” he says, “what are you—?”

Before he can finish, Din takes his face between his hands and kisses him.

It’s a little messy, with Luke already gaping and the child between them, especially because Din’s proving to be the sort of man who kisses with his whole body, but they manage. Luke shifts Grogu over into his left arm and puts his other hand on the back of Din’s neck, holding him in place until they can get the positioning of their mouths right, and then they do, Din’s mustache—mustache, and those kind eyes, and his hair stuck down to his forehead in a way that turns Luke’s heart into a goddamn nebula—and the desperate press of his mouth aligning with Luke’s helpless smile. Aboo, Grogu protests between them, and Luke laughs again. Din steps even closer, hands that ripped a lightsaber out of Darth Vader’s hands now cupping Luke’s jaw, and murmurs, “That, cyar'ika. Do that again.”

“What?” Luke asks, still laughing.

“That,” Din says, kissing him again. And again. And again.

It feels really, really damn good.