Luke came round slowly, his ears still ringing, his skin smarting from a hundred tiny cuts and grazes.
He was laid on a clean, white floor, wearing clean white clothes, arms and feet bare, a scarlet smudge marking the spot where his bleeding face and arm had touched the ground. He rolled over onto his back, the motion lighting fireworks in his vision.
"You broke the agreement," Palpatine said simply, sense boiling with barely-controlled anger.
Luke glanced to the side, seeing the Emperor sitting on a solitary chair in the bright, curved-wall cell, no other features in the empty room. He considered trying to sit up, but instead stayed on his back and brought his hand up to shield sensitive eyes from the unyielding light, his head already pounding.
"The pact was over. I no longer owe you anything." His words misted before him in the cold air, chill enough to make him shiver against it.
"The pact will end at dawn today—exactly twelve weeks after your companions were freed."
"The pact came into effect at dusk the night before that, when we first shook hands. When you freed your hostages was irrelevant," Luke said dismissively, though he was well aware of the knife-edge he was walking.
The Emperor narrowed his eyes, his fury tempered by his pleasure at the boy's justification. Skywalker had not so much broken the rules as bent them to answer his needs—and that was why Palpatine would have him.
Rationalization of the methods necessary to achieve one's goals was the slow fall of many good men, his father included. He would be no different.
Already now he could see this new blade sharpening under the heat of pressure, see that edge forming, that heightening of his Jedi's mercurial temper, the hardening of his perceptions, the blurring of his precious principles.
That fascinating, gradual shift of perspective…
"I am not here to argue specifics with you," the Sith snapped finally.
Luke spoke the line he had waited twelve long weeks to say, knowing there would be a penalty, but knowing that a price would be paid one way or another tonight anyway. "Then shut up."
The reply was instant—no warnings, no threats, no second chances.
The Emperor lurched up, bolts of bright white energy surging from his hands like lightning, hitting with violent power, throwing Luke back against the curved wall like a ragdoll, knocking the air from his lungs with a resounding 'c-r-ack!'
For a second his vision whited out, then his chest was heaving as he struggled to take in breath, tasting blood in his throat.
Pulling in short gasps he rolled over onto his knees, shocked at the suddenness and the violence of the attack, bending double to try to ease his breathing. Pain exploded through his chest with each breath and he knew the 'crack' had been ribs breaking. He'd never even heard of such a corruption of the Force, let alone had any idea of how to counter it
"That was a very, very stupid thing to do," Palpatine growled, voice afire. "I can see I've been too lenient, allowed too much free thought, too much free will. I gave you every chance—every opportunity to step gracefully into your future role—but you refused them all. Surely you realized that it would come to this? My patience is not infinite."
Luke heaved a breath, mind still reeling at what Palpatine had just done.
"Nor is mine," he gasped without conscious thought, surprised at his own words, at the threat implicit within them.
The second bolt came immediately, slamming him back into the wall, his head hitting hard enough to knock reality into a slow loop momentarily as sound muffled and sight grew dim. Then the pain stabbing into his chest shocked him awake again as he crumpled forward, struggling for air in short sharp gasps.
He saw blood speckle the floor as he rasped a breath out, his winded lungs beginning to cramp with the effort, shocked muscles contradicting each other so that his chest froze.
Then another bolt, with no time to brace against it, no time to gather mental defenses.
Everything was pain; white light which seared his eyes, heat blazing through him so intensely that his muscles cramped, his lungs paralyzed. No time, no awareness—only torment so profound that everything else was scorched away.
Palpatine attacked without mercy, without restraint, wild fury at the boy's continued willful resistance driving him to a vindictive rage.
He drew every dark frustration to him and threw them at Skywalker with devastating strength, incensed rage given physical power, sharp arcs of light hurled at the boy, coursing over him to ground. Fury that lashed and slashed at him until he cried out but the Sith only watched him bleed. Bones pushed with incredible slow, deliberate, Dark power until they popped and splintered. Until his Jedi no longer made any noise at all, just the silent outrush of air as the relentless blows made contact, all strength and spirit beaten out of him.
In the long silence that followed, the sound of the boy's labored breathing reverberated around the empty room, the metallic smell of burned air and seared flesh hanging heavy.
"Never think to threaten me," Palpatine hissed with absolute finality. "Never."
He remained still for long minutes watching the boy drift in and out of consciousness before, finally satiated, he moved to crouch beside him, head tilted to one side as he studied with silent, detached fascination.
Slowly surfacing from this excruciating agony, the metallic tang of warm blood in his mouth, Luke opened burning eyes to see Palpatine stretching out a hand for him—gently, almost compassionately.
If he could have, Luke would have twisted away. As it was, he could barely stay conscious as the Sith took his head and turned it easily toward him, his voice calm and cold and deadly.
"I offered you everything and you turned it away. But I see now that the mistake was mine, in not clarifying the alternative. In not illustrating to you the consequences of defiance. I shall endeavor to correct that. You have spent your favor now, child. You have spent your choices. From now on, every decision you make will carry a consequence. Every word you utter. Choose them with care, as I will choose my redress."
Palpatine rose in a rustle of raven robes and walked to the door, arranging a veneer of self-restraint and civilized calm about himself as it cycled open. Pausing, he turned to the man huddled half-conscious in the corner of the empty cell. "No more games."
Han sat nursing his third drink of the morning, listening to the buzz of the Third Strike cantina and trying very hard to ignore the feeling in his gut.
Something was wrong.
Luke hadn't arrived yet. He should have been here this morning. He should have fixed the com on the Falcon. They should have landed somewhere back in the Capital so they could get out of there together.
He'd already been to see Karrick—twice. He'd wandered the docking bays on all three linked islands—not that they were actually islands, of course. In reality the Tyren Islands were a group of three massive habitation platforms atop a trio of towering industrial factories, originally given over to low-budget housing but as often happened in such areas, slowly taken over by less scrupulous tenants. It was here he'd sat in the Third Strike cantina and waited…and waited.
He ran through his memory again—he was sure he'd said the Third Strike—sure. And the kid was careful—he'd grown up on a pretty inhospitable planet where people didn't take chances. With no way to contact each-other, he'd follow the plan as agreed and he'd check in as soon as he got here—and if he couldn't…he'd sure as hell find a way to let Han know, if it was only in the amount of trouble he caused when they captured him, so that everyone was talking about it.
Something was wrong.
He'd sent out a short call on the emergency frequency late last night, leaving only a com sign of his own, knowing that the Alliance would contact him. It was standard Alliance operating procedure: no names, no places, just a contact reference and an active code number.
He'd figured by the time that Luke got here, they'd already have contacted him in reply. Figured he'd barter that flashy little skimmer he'd flown here in for parts for the Falcon, then they'd fix the old bird and blast off this high-class rock, not a moment too soon. In fact…
He interrupted his own thought, gut twisting again: skimmer. He'd barter the skimmer...
A stray memory had cut in, of Luke's words yesterday.
"Do you have your skimmer's call-sign? Actually, don't say that on the open com."
"Your skimmer's call-sign..."
Idiot! Han upbraided himself. Why didn't you spot it?
How could Luke know that? How did he know Han had stolen a skimmer? Han hadn't mentioned it—not once. There were all kinds of speeders and skiprays and shuttles in that hangar—how could the kid know he'd taken a skimmer if he hadn't still been watching on security images?
Which meant he'd still been in the ops room he claimed he'd abandoned—which meant he hadn't been anywhere near the docking bay or the Falcon or any chance of escape.
Han's mind raced now, pulling the pieces together, remembering other snippets of conversation—
"Do you remember that safe harbor… Meet there?"
Meet there how? Han had never given the actual co-ordinates of the Tyren Islands. He'd never given them.
He shook his head, sighing out frustration and dismay, realization of what the kid had done beginning to seep through.
"You should have gotten yourself out…" Han murmured quietly, knowing why the kid had played it that way, but desperately wishing he hadn't.
He was still staring blankly at the table when his comlink sounded.
For a split-second, he thought it was Luke—thought he'd been wrong about everything and the Falcon had just limped into port somewhere nearby, battered and broken and a little worse for wear, just like its pilot. But still in one piece—and here.
He wrenched it from his belt. "Yeah?!"
"Sir, we received a com on this line. Could you identify yourself, please?"
Han felt himself slump again, hope evaporating. "My ID's 77285. I'm with Unit one-oh-nine. I need a pickup and a channel through to Home One as soon as possible."
"Stand by, sir. We're confirming that ID."
Han waited, mind already beginning to work again…
This was okay—he could make this work. He'd get back to base, pick up a few commandos—he could be back here within a week or so. He knew the Palace layout, he had Luke's probable location...yeah, that would work. Even if the bigwigs thought it was unfeasible, which they probably would, then Han could rustle up a healthy contingent among Luke's friends to make a raiding party. Kid often piloted undercover missions for Madine's Special Ops and they didn't mess around. Luke was pretty popular; Han'd have a good choice of able bodies…
"Hang on, kid," he muttered, worried what reprisals the kid might be facing now. "Hang on."
"And how are you today, my friend?"
The easy, amicable words floated through a haze of vague awareness as Luke came round slowly, a shock of pain jolting through him as he tried to move his head towards the voice, aware that he was lying on the freezing floor where he'd collapsed yesterday.
He didn't bother trying to answer.
Instead, he forced his eyes into focus in the dim light of the room, unsure why it was so dark, his senses thrown off by the constant curve of the walls and ceiling, the cell a perfect half-sphere. Vaguely, looming over him, he could make out the towering form of Palpatine, dark, vermillion red robes whispering against Luke's face, so close did he stand.
All he knew—all he knew in the whole of creation—was that he had to close his eyes and rest. His left arm and his right ankle stabbed sharply with every heartbeat, arm broken near the wrist, fingers burning from the same. He blinked slowly, and when he opened his eyes again, the Sith was somehow several paces back, sitting on the chair, watching him.
Luke took in a sharp breath, which sent another jolt of pain through his tight chest, and tried to blink himself awake. How long had he closed his eyes? He had no idea—none at all.
"You have used a healing trance," the Emperor observed dispassionately, igniting foggy memories in Luke of waking in the darkness hours ago and summoning all his strength to guide his mind to meditation.
Master Yoda had always spent so much time drilling into Luke the ability to do this anywhere under any circumstances; he'd seen the vision of Cloud City whilst balanced upside down on his hands, arms aching and head pounding from maintaining the unnatural position for so long. Now, finally, he understood why; understood the importance of being able to summon that mindset without conscious effort, to forge that connection with the Force instinctively—a lesson he wished he'd not had to learn.
"This is unacceptable," the dark-clothed Sith stated levelly as if it were a statement of fact. "It will not happen again."
Palpatine had woken in the early hours of the morning, the strident, discordant timbre of the Light side of the Force grating against the Darkness which he had wrapped about himself for so long, knowing it could be no other than the boy, and it was immediately obvious to the Sith what he was doing. There was little premeditated awareness, but the control was accurate and precise—flawless. Perfect attunement even then.
Which was, of course, quite unacceptable—it slowed the course of Palpatine's intentions and such was to be dealt with ruthlessly.
"If you do it again then I will simply injure you further…and further, until you are no longer capable of healing."
The boy didn't react; didn't move at all, remaining laid on his back, broken arm cradled across his stomach, breathing so heavily that from his chair several feet away, Palpatine could see the beat of his heart against his ribs; hear it catching in his breath.
He had every intention of taking his Jedi down that shadowed, arduous route anyway, but it was important that the boy felt he had no control, particularly in his connection with the Force—and of course the drug which Palpatine had invested so much in having developed would now come into its own.
DNA-specific drugs were commonplace, as were self-replicating drugs, but this one, capable of maintaining a constant chemical level in the body even against a Jedi's midichlorian-laden blood, had been two years in the making. Ironically, Palpatine had first supplied his chemists with a sample of Vader's blood for the sole reason that he hadn't wished to supply his own and the blood of a Force-sensitive was necessary to learn how to deal with midichlorian content, but with the boy's identity came the realization that the samples his chemists had been working with would already be close to the required formula.
Such ironies always made life interesting—but it was challenges like this which made it compelling.
The drug would enable Palpatine to ensure that the boy had no access to his precious Force unless Palpatine allowed it, his mind too diffuse. It guaranteed specific, precise levels—enough to render him sedated beyond conscious thought if Palpatine were not here, or merely sluggish and listless before his persecutor, disoriented and passive, as he was now.
"Sit up," Palpatine ordered, and despite the drugs, he was unsurprised when the boy ignored him; pleased, even, in some self-indulgent way.
He set his head to one side, studying the still form before him. Already the featureless white tank vest the boy wore was stained by uneven smears of dry brown blood, his bare arms and shoulders scuffed, face grazed, nose bloody.
Now, today, the game began. The true game, mind against mind, will against will, nothing hidden, nothing held back, anything and everything justified.
How long would he last? Days? A week even?
How long before the fight was beaten out of him, leaving only that wonderfully stubborn, willful drive to endure—to survive—and Palpatine could reach within that stormy mind and twist it—watch it break.
The boy turned, perhaps sensing some shadow of that eager craving, and Palpatine allowed a thin, impious smile to his bloodless lips; let the game begin.
Yellow eyes came to pale blue as Luke turned, sensing some inverted twist of Darkness, and abruptly the Sith's full attention focused on him as a burst of confined energy sang out through the Force like a knife-edge, making Luke flinch in anticipation.
But it wasn't directed at him; was only some benign order aimed elsewhere, and he breathed again, though he didn't relax.
Mara, he realized—Mara's outside the cell.
The door cycled open, two guards entering in heavy, meaningful strides and it was only when he continued to stare at the door, waiting for Mara to enter, that Luke noticed that the corridor beyond was also dark...and it finally permeated through his tired mind that the dull shade was in his eyes and not the cell.
Strong hands grabbed him beneath his arms and hauled him upright, lighting a bright trail of pain through screaming muscles, making him gasp as his broken ankle grated nauseatingly, bone against bone, breath misting in the cold air.
He was dropped down onto a second chair, which was scraped across the blood-stained floor to be pushed up against a table opposite Palpatine, who watched with cold, intent eyes.
The guards marched from the cell, leaving the two alone again.
Luke slumped, head weaving slightly, bouts of shivering tensing tired muscles, wanting nothing more than to lay back on the cold, hard floor and sleep. He looked down to the table, to his bruised, bloody hand resting there, gazing for long seconds before realizing that his hands were bound together by a long, thin wire, looped around each wrist and re-fused back into itself.
He stared with faltering concentration at the wire, remembering seeing it before, though he couldn't begin to bring back the memory of when…
The Emperor sat in watchful silence, waiting for his Jedi to come round.
"You should realize," he said at last, "that what I did to you yesterday, I will do again today."
The boy looked up at that and Palpatine paused, giving him time to consider this before pressing forward. He expected neither reply nor acknowledgement, just understanding, and he saw that in those dull, wary eyes.
"As soon as you defy me, I will deliver retribution. Remember my warning—think very carefully about your actions. You know I will not hesitate."
Though the words spoken were calm and moderate, the threat contained within them clearly pushed a surge of adrenaline through the boy, who widened his eyes, visibly forcing himself awake.
Comfortable that he had the boy's attention now, Palpatine settled back again, eyes never leaving his Jedi.
"We should, I believe, clarify our positions. You see, you are not the first Jedi I have broken..." He grinned at this. "Though, all things considered, I think we can safely say you will be the last."
He let his smile fall away, leaving that cold, hard, pitiless stare. "But you should know I have broken others just as resolute and just as committed as you. I have never failed. I am very good at this—it is my forte, my fascination, my passion…an indulgence which I allow myself."
He paused for long seconds, ochre eyes shining in the low light, attention focused completely on his captive, sensing the twist of persecuted apprehension tingling down his Jedi's spine.
Slowly, contentedly, Palpatine let out a lingering breath, his eyes narrowing, his voice settling back into that calm detached state—though not one whit less dangerous.
"But because of your father—because he has served me well without this necessity, then I am willing to give you one final chance to do the same. His loyalty and nothing else has bought you this opportunity—but I want you to understand that this is your final chance—I want you to understand just exactly what is at stake. You can either remain here, like this, day on day, to be ground slowly away, broken down one beating after another until all that is left are these walls, my will and your failing, faltering resolve...or you can walk from here now, today. You can end this futile, ill-conceived, delusive opposition and answer the question I am about to ask of you. If you do this, that door will open and you will return to your quarters, obey my commands, explicit and implicit, build for yourself the future which you were destined for—and think yourself very, very fortunate. Those are your choices now—you will obey, or I will make you obey. Either way, you will yield. That is not open to interpretation. It will happen…… Do you understand?"
Staring at his own battered hands the boy said nothing, neither denial nor acceptance, head down, expression neutral.
Palpatine settled back again, giving him time to consider. Then… "I am looking for someone. And only you know where he is…"
Again, he allowed the silence to hang heavy between them, knowing that his Jedi already knew the question he would now ask.
It was the absolute test of allegiance—a choice that had to be made. There could be no vacillating, no ambiguity. The boy either answered, or chose not to answer—which was an answer in itself.
"Where is Master Yoda?"
Skywalker hesitated for a fraction of a second before he shook his head, slowly but very deliberately. But he hesitated, Palpatine saw.
"Are you very sure? Are you sure that this will be your answer? Think carefully—ask yourself why it matters to you. He betrayed you—he lied to you and he manipulated you. You are protecting a creature who intended to send you to fight a duel which would result in your unknowingly killing your own father—a creature who considered you tainted before you were even born. Why are you protecting him?"
The boy only stared at his own broken fingers, hooded eyes blinking slowly.
"I ask only for one word. A place—a planet—tell me this and you need do nothing more. Your involvement is done. No one will ever know outside of this room. I offer this without condition, without dishonor."
Palpatine reached forward to take the fine wire cable which bound his Jedi's hands, pulling it towards himself across the table and bringing the boy's hands with it, his shoulders falling forward without resistance as he pulled in a sharp breath, eyes on his broken wrist.
"I am offering you an opportunity, my friend—the possibility of walking from this cell whilst you are still capable. It will not be offered again, believe me. You are at the very brink of your physical limits and you know it. Don't sacrifice yourself out of stubbornness or blind, misplaced loyalty. Consider what you are about to do—consider what I am offering. Consider the alternative."
Still the boy did not move, body tensed against the offer.
"A single word will buy your freedom from this cell. From this sentence."
Finally Skywalker lifted his head to meet Palpatine's eyes. "And from you?"
The Sith smiled and released his hold on the binders, settling back, his face pale in the low light, dark shadows on sallow skin.
When he spoke, his voice was amused and indulgent. "A single word will buy you a great deal, my friend. But not that—not yet. But it will buy trust."
"I don't think you're capable of that."
Silence reigned as the seconds stretched. The Emperor stared at the boy who met his eyes evenly, though Palpatine could see the barely perceptible sway of his head as he fought the dull drag of drugs and injury.
Stubborn little creature that he was though, he would not blink under Palpatine's hard gaze.
Foolish—reckless to defy on such an unimportant thing, when he knew what the repercussions would be.
The Jedi shook his head, adamant against Palpatine's demanding stare. "I won't tell you where he is."
Palpatine's eyes narrowed as he reached out through the Force to read that headstrong mind, knowing that if Yoda was in his thoughts in this moment, then his location must be too. But the boy gathered what control he still had, head tilting slightly at the effort, the barrier effectively blocking entry, holding Palpatine at bay.
They remained locked in silent opposition for several seconds, the air charged in sympathetic resonance.
Abruptly, Palpatine rose, turning away to walk quickly into the shadows of the small room as the boy flinching slightly.
He spoke without turning, his face hidden by the hood of his heavy cloak, so that his disembodied voice came from the shadows within. "Do you truly believe that you can stop me?"
Luke hesitated, keenly aware of his fatigue and his injuries—but again, he just couldn't help but meet the confrontation head-on. "I believe that if you could take the information by force you would have done so by now."
It wasn't spoken as a challenge, but Palpatine could allow no perception of weakness, nor even equality.
"The time for games is over," the Sith warned.
Luke sensed the static build in the air, the inrush of power cold against his skin, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Adrenaline pumped his heart hard against his ribs, tensing his muscles against the invisible threat, fingers tightening about the wire which bound them, breath coming shorter. But he would not back down—not to this.
Lowering his face, looking straight ahead, he took several shallow breaths, aware that Palpatine was waiting…daring him. Knowing the consequences…
"I thought we were no longer playing gam..."
His words were lost against the bright burst of kinetic energy which drove the air from his lungs with more power than any physical blow could muster, throwing him bodily from the chair to land in a crumpled heap several feet away, gasping for breath, curled up defensively, for all the good it did him.
In the silence that followed, the chair toppled to its side, loud against the hard floor.
Palpatine watched, emotionless, as the boy struggled to breathe around the blow, unable to do more in that moment.
"Where is Master Yoda?" he said simply, his hands rising again toward the boy, who gasped against the pain, clutching at his ribs, eyes closed.
Without hesitation, Palpatine threw the Force lightening again, hurling him back, making him cry out.
"Where is Master Yoda?" he repeated, hands remaining pointed at the boy, infused with a blue-white corona of contained power.
He gave his Jedi several seconds to be sure that he had understood, then threw the lightening at him again, pitching him back against the far wall, abruptly ending his cry.
Calmly allowing his hands to drop, the Emperor walked slowly to the struggling youth, his breath rasping now, the thought of resisting, of defending himself in any way, completely beyond him.
Palpatine crouched down before the boy, lifting his head up as he heaved in breath, his nose bloody, the skin of his face grazed raw against the floor, old wounds made new again.
When he spoke, the Emperor's voice was mild and quiet and absolutely without pity. "Where is Master Yoda, child?"
The boy closed his eyes, looked away. Gently, Palpatine placed his hand against that heaving chest, using his other hand on the boy's jaw to hold his head up. "Where?"
The shock jolted the Jedi's muscles into spasm, throwing his head back in agony so that he cried out, the sharp actinic light momentarily creating bright daylight in the darkened cell, focused energy searing the frigid air with the metallic smell of raw power.
When he stopped, the boy slumped, barely conscious now, breathing heavily against the pain. Again Palpatine lifted his head. "Where is Master Yoda?"
He brought his hands to Skywalker's face, half-smiling as the boy gasped breathlessly, gratified at his obstinacy, amazed that he held fast against this. Clamping his palms over burnt, blood-streaked cheeks in preparation to deliver another strike, he rested his thumbs over the boy's eyes as they flickered shut, the corona about them brightening and strengthening.
"Nnn…" It wasn't quite an entreaty that Skywalker clamped down on, but one more shock would have rendered him unconscious anyway, so Palpatine paused, allowing the energy to dissipate with only the mildest shock, which the boy still flinched violently against, breath hitching in anticipation.
"No?…no? How weak you are, child. Does your resolve crack so easily?"
The truth was that the boy would not yet provide him with the information, so Palpatine chose not to ask again rather than allow him this victory. Chose instead to twist the moment to make his Jedi believe he had failed.
He leaned in close to whisper against the boy's grazed, bleeding skin, reaching out to wipe at the blood which was flowing over his split lips, his empty gesture unopposed.
"How fragile you are, Jedi. How easily you give over control. You have the power to stop this and you know it. It's within you...it howls like a wolf in the darkness. You say you want freedom, yet you refuse the one thing which can grant you the power to take it. I am not your enemy child—I am your savior...and I will do whatever it takes to drag you from their control, to drive you to enlightenment."
Luke heard the words only distantly, diffused by the cloud of intense, debilitating pain which dragged at his failing senses as he struggled to breathe through the ache in his ribs, demanding that he close his eyes and drift to inviting oblivion.
The heavy, grating double-retort of the opening door vibrated through the cold white floor into his body, igniting a new burst of pain which took his breath away.
Palpatine reached out momentarily to brush Luke's scoured cheek, nails against raw skin. "One day, you will thank me for this."
Vaguely, the world on its side, Luke saw the hazy image of Mara Jade enter the room, pausing to bow reverentially to the Emperor as he stood, the heavy folds of his blood-red cloak blocking out Luke's vision.
"Drug him," Palpatine said simply as he walked away, the scarlet cloak whispering as it trailed on the floor behind him.
Mara came closer, crouching into his field of vision, green eyes momentarily registering… what? His pain-wracked mind couldn't decipher anything in that moment. She turned to glance at the Emperor, but he was already at the door, blurring to nothing in Luke's dimming vision.
He felt her take his broken arm and roll him onto his side, an intense burst of agony whiting out his vision, coursing up from ankle and wrist again and again, though he was unable to cry out.
She lay his unresisting head against his arm so that he wouldn't choke, then opened the small case and loaded up the syringe. Any thought of resisting was already hazing into darkness as he felt the sharp jab in his vein, almost too small to register against greater injuries.
His muscles relaxed into heavy submission against the power of the drug and his last memory was of her face, eyes strangely intent on his own, her hand reaching hesitantly out to him…
Then the darkness enveloped him, his own ragged breathing loud in his failing awareness.
Palpatine walked away without looking back, content at the outcome of this encounter—that he had once again been able to establish his dominance over his Jedi, been able to push him a little closer to that edge. True, he had not gained the whereabouts of Master Yoda, but that was, like the diminutive Jedi Master himself, little more than a minor annoyance. More importantly, it had provided him with a context with which to exemplify his own resolve, to make clear to the boy what his life would be from now on, since he had chosen to continue along this foolhardy, obstinate path.
Everything held a price, and from now on the boy would learn this. Any refusal, any resistance would be met with absolute, unyielding force.
Whether Palpatine had gained Yoda's hiding place or not was immaterial—well, perhaps not quite that. Perhaps…
Palpatine smiled. Yes…yes, the final punishment for this particular defiance would be a while in coming, but would be all the more precious for it...
When he had brought the boy to Darkness, when he controlled this new Sith completely, the boy would willingly tell him—the Force had whispered of such. And the first task he would set his new Sith would be to return to Yoda's hiding place and destroy the Jedi Master himself.
Yes; in truth he already had the power to remove the troublesome Jedi Master—he lacked only the conviction. And Palpatine would provide that; his will, his word as law.
He laughed in gratified anticipation to no one but himself.
Standing in the brooding, opulent grandeur of Korriban Hall, the looming ante-chamber to the Emperor's grand, sprawling apartments in the South Tower, Vader was well aware that Jade, the Emperor's Hand, watched him with narrowed eyes as he awaited his Master's convenience. He had arrived back on Imperial Center only hours ago, and he knew well that his Master would find some other task which would send him far away from here. He didn't want Vader near when he was dealing with his son—didn't want that complication.
And Vader was only too willing to oblige—to be here now was…uncomfortable. If the boy would just relent. He knew his Master, knew what he intended. Knew what he would do to gain it.
Staring out across the teeming, impersonal darkness of the city-planet, Vader willed his own insular composure; a heavy, familiar indifference which was both calming and smothering…until his son had arrived, firing old ambitions with an unanticipated twist.
Mara seethed as she watched this hulking brute standing in silent meditation, unaffected by her scornful stare.
How could he be here now? How could he stand so calm and unmoved when he knew what was happening to his own son?
When she had been called down to the detention level just hours after the expiry of the twelve-week agreement which had held Skywalker to an uneasy truce, Mara had known that Palpatine would have been livid. Had known that his fury would have been directed at Skywalker.
Not because he had defied Palpatine—but because he had succeeded so effortlessly.
But she hadn't been prepared for his injuries. She should have been—knowing her master as she did, she should have been—but this...this had affected her in ways she hadn't anticipated. Ways she was finding it harder and harder to ignore.
She couldn't leave it alone—she had to speak. "Will you be visiting your son, Lord Vader?"
"No," he replied without turning.
"How convenient," Mara murmured, turning away.
Vader rounded on her, his venom laced voice taking her by surprise in its intensity. "You know nothing of what you speak!"
Shocked as she was, Mara wasn't intimidated—her position afforded her protection, even from Vader and though she didn't think she could take him in a fair fight, she had never fought fair in her life. Either physically, or with words...
"But I do know the Emperor, and I know what he'll do. As do you."
But if Mara wasn't above taking unfair advantage, then Vader was clearly all too ready to follow suit. "And why would you care?"
That held her to silence for long seconds, having no legitimate reply. Eventually Vader turned away, the conversation finished as far as he was concerned. As far as Mara was concerned, she was only just warming up.
"I doubt he would recognize you now, anyway."
Oh, that was a body-blow. She had the satisfaction of seeing him stiffen at her barbed words, so casually uttered.
For long seconds he stared at her, but just as she thought he might actually show some speck of human compassion for his son he turned away again, his voice stony.
"If he had done as I had said, I could have protected him. I would have brought him here a Sith, given him the power to face any enemy."
All her anger and frustration boiled over at that unaffected rebuff. "For you. To remove for you the last impediment to your rise to power. The only thing which you hadn't the strength or resolve to remove yourself."
"Have a care," Vader growled, turning to step close, towering over her. "You are not nearly as far beyond my reach as you believe."
"Nor you mine," Mara assured, willing herself to stand her ground in the face of that looming threat. "I know what you want—what you've always wanted."
"I serve my Master," he said, bass tones rumbling through her chest.
Mara raised her chin. "To what end?"
"To whatever end he desires."
The lie came easily, Mara knew—he had spoken it so many times perhaps he even believed it himself.
"And the life of your son doesn't factor into that?" She knew him too well—knew exactly how to provoke him, how to bring down his guard, just as she did now.
"You could not possibly understand. This is his destiny. He will become more powerful than any Jedi—any Sith. More powerful than the Emperor."
Mara tilted her head. "That's treason."
"It is destiny. Even the Emperor bows to that. Even Luke must, eventually. He could no more escape it than…"
"There's no such thing as destiny, we make our own. Don't try to validate your actions."
"Did he make this destiny? Is it by choice that he is here today?" Vader snapped, silencing her. "Do you think I wanted to see him hurt?"
That last threw Mara—the frustration in his voice, the unease. It tempered her own voice in reply, though she couldn't hide the challenge. "You brought him here, to the Emperor."
Vader turned away, all emotion reined in again. "If he does as he is ordered, then no harm will come to him."
"You know he won't do that." Mara stepped back into the Dark Lord's range of vision, demanding attention. "I know he won't do that and I'm only a bystander. How can you not!?"
"He will do as he is told eventually," Vader said dispassionately. And Mara knew he was right—but she knew the cost.
"Yes, he will. Whatever the Emperor molds him into he will be," she said, the words contained within a long sigh of absolute certainty. "But it won't be Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker will be long gone, driven out to make room for the Emperor's new Sith."
Vader turned incrementally at this, though Mara had no idea if he was looking at her or not behind that obsidian mask. No idea if he felt anything at all on hearing the truth in her words—neither guilt nor compassion nor loss.
No idea why she did.
The silence hung heavy, long minutes timed out by Vader's labored breathing…
"Destiny demands a price—from us all," he rumbled at last.
Mara slumped, her own voice dull now, laced with defeat at the realization. "You'll let Palpatine destroy him, won't you?"
"The Emperor will give him everything—power, influence, position." Vader's voice was a study of restrained logic.
"And the fact that he doesn't want those things doesn't figure at all, huh?"
"He should want them."
"Why? Because you do?"
That brought his head around. "Because it is his right."
"His right? Have you seen him?" Mara blurted out. "Do you have any concept of what he's going through—what rights he's had taken from him?"
Vader only turned away in dispassionate, willful denial.
"You have no idea what Palpatine…" She broke off, unable to accuse her master despite her knowledge, despite the fact that when she closed her eyes, it was Skywalker who she saw, battered and beaten. Skywalker for whom she felt a creeping empathy despite her every conscious rebuff; his sense in the Force that assaulted her dreams, fragmented and tormented, lost and alone.
"It is worth the price," Vader said evenly. "He will understand that one day. This is a necessary evil."
"That he may serve... become worthy in the Emperor's eyes. Inherit that which he deserves."
And there it was, Mara realized. Vader wanted for his son the one thing he knew he himself would never have: the Empire. And that ambition blinded him to all other concerns—even this.
Palpatine believed that Vader had already tried unsuccessfully to turn his son to his own cause, Mara knew. Failing that, he seemed to have a new goal—to attain through his son all the ambitions that he could not himself fulfill. It was hardly a new concept—Mara had seen many times the outrageous extremes which over-zealous parents pushed their children to in an effort to gain them eminence in her master's Court. But this was contemptible even by their standards.
How far is too far? He must feel something for his son in order to want this for him. If he saw him… A momentary spark of hope flared in her chest.
"You should see him," she murmured quietly.
Again the Dark Lord hesitated for a long time, then, "That is not necessary."
Coward. She was frustrated as much by her own spineless, impotent inability to act as she was by Vader's.
"I hope you realize how high that price is—for your son and yourself. Or do you seriously think you'll stay in favor now?" Vader turned at that, and Mara felt a cruel smile come unbidden to her lips, striking out again. "You're the old model, Lord Vader. Yesterday's vogue. Dispensable. Your son may well come to the throne, but you'll never see it."
The high double doors of Palpatine's private quarters swung open, a long row of scarlet Royal Guard lining the main hallway, Cordo, the Emperor's aide, gesturing expectantly.
Mara bowed with mock courtesy. "The Emperor will see you…for now."
She wasn't surprised to hear that Lord Vader left within the hour for his fleet in the Rim Worlds, immediately on taking his leave of the Emperor...
He didn't try to see his son.
Han sat on the poky little light freighter heading back to the Rebel fleet, mourning his loss of the Falcon, wondering where she was now and how he could get her back.
She was his first true love—well, maybe not his first, but she'd stayed with him the longest—and he sure as hell had spent the most credits on her.
And all his gear was on her… He sighed, rolling his eyes. Chewie's bowcasters were onboard—both of them. The Wook was gonna kill him. He pulled another face, realizing that his range rifle was onboard too—and his holdout.
"Man…" he moaned aloud in frustration.
The Iridonian pilot in the seat next to him glanced over, her eyebrows raised in question.
"Ah, I just realized that all my stuff's on the Falcon—my ship. The Empire've impounded it."
The woman dropped her head to one side, shaking it in consolation. "Say goodbye to that, friend."
She was young, maybe the same age as Luke or Leia, Han figured, with olive skin and dark eyes, her hair pulled back into a bound tail at the nape of her neck, the multiple short, blunt horns on her head still little more than bumps.
Han glanced out to the starfield before him, feeling strange not to be the one calculating the next jump—not to be in the Falcon. "No, not that old girl—she's a homing bird. I'll get her back. Besides, I've got to—my partner'll kill me."
"I'm sure you can take care of yourself," the girl said, amused.
"He's a Wookiee," Han said pointedly.
"Oh, well, maybe not." She grinned then, as if this confirmed her suspicion, added, "So I guess you are Han Solo then?"
Han had introduced himself just by his first name when they'd met in the docking bay, and the woman had done the same—Astrig.
She'd patched him through on a secure holo-channel to Home One almost as soon as they'd cleared the atmosphere, telling him she'd been instructed to do so then leaving him alone in the cockpit.
He'd spoken to Leia—just for a minute and she'd seemed kinda…strained—but they'd spoken and damn, it was good to see her again, even like this. She'd smiled and they'd gone through the pleasantries— 'you've lost weight,' 'yeah, prison food does that to you. You look good though,' 'Me? This old thing?' 'Chewie okay?' 'He's fine—he's been helping out the techs—or terrorizing them, depending on who you're listening to.'
Strangely, she'd not once mentioned Luke—not asked where he was or if Han had seen him; nothing. Then at the end of the conversation, she'd asked him not to speak about Luke to anyone…nothing at all. Seemed pretty insistent. He'd wondered what the hell was going on, but let it pass, said okay. Maybe they had something lined up to get him out. Yeah, that was it; they already had something in mind, which would be why she hadn't mentioned the kid.
Han had wracked his head trying to think how not mentioning Luke could possibly help to get him out, but came up a blank. Didn't matter though—clearly something was in the offing, which was good to hear.
And since no-one had said he couldn't blow his own trumpet, he looked at Astrig now, grinning. "Yeah, I'm Solo," he said easily. "My reputation precedes me."
She snorted her amusement. "Yeah, something like that." Then her face fell serious. "Sorry about Skywalker."
Han glanced away, uncertain what to say having just been asked to say nothing.
Clearly everybody hadn't had the same order, because the pilot continued freely, "My brother flew with him a few times—said he was a great pilot—great Flight Commander. Natural, he said—always kept his flight one step ahead, always looked for a different angle. Fast up here, you know?" She glanced up to Han as she said the last, grinning and tapping her forehead. "Makes all the difference. My brother's in a B-Wing—Heavy Assault?"
She made it a question and Han nodded. "Yeah I know 'em. Good ships."
B-Wings were big, heavy fighters bristling with armaments and shields and designed to bring down prey ten times their size, even freighters and small frigates. When Han first joined the Imperial Fleet as a pilot, still optimistically looking to walk the straight and narrow, everyone flying everything from shuttles to bulk freighters and corvettes had been terrified of the Rebellion's new heavy-fighter, but the TIE's soon found their weakness; they were faster and more maneuverable than their intended prey but way too slow to go up against a TIE or another snub-nose. The price you paid for carrying the kind of heavy armament that could pierce a corvette's hull. 'Target practice,' TIE pilots used to call them if they didn't have faster support fighters running interference for them. Probably still did.
The young pilot nodded, obviously proud. "Been in it for three years now. Me, I'm waiting for a transfer to Gold Wing. Got my hours, got my wings—I just need a commission."
Han nodded easily. "A-4 or S-3?"
"S-3. I like company when I fly."
Han nodded again, glad to be off the subject of Luke. "Yeah, I like a little bit more ship around me when I fly. Like to think they gotta shoot more bits off before they get to the pilot."
She shrugged easily, as sure of her own invulnerability as all fighter pilots were—you had to feel pretty confident to be willing to get into a small metal box and launch into space to let people take potshots at you.
"Thessy—my brother—said he went to the remembrance service after Hoth. Said a lot of people were pretty cut up about Commander Skywalker. Never met him myself, but…kinda wish I had, even once. Just to be able to say I met him, you know? The guy who took down the Death Star."
Han turned sharply to her, confused by how much her words sounded like a eulogy, but she didn't notice, the nav computer choosing that moment to pronounce its calculations complete.
"Jump's up," she announced, pulling the levers and launching the ship forward past the speed of light.
By the time they arrived at Home One Han was burning to ask what the hell was going on. But when he stepped down the ramp of the light freighter, Leia, Chewie and Lando were there and everything else was forgotten if only for a moment.
He took three big strides forward, gathering the princess up and planting a lingering kiss on those ruby lips. He'd promised himself he'd do that before anything else—figured it'd break the ice and anyway, if he didn't do it straight away, it may well be days before she'd let him near her again.
For a second, she leaned in to him, as eager as he was, then she pushed back, her hands to his chest, face flustered and embarrassed all at once, big brown eyes glancing about the crowded flight deck.
"Ah, don't worry, sweetheart—I'm kissin' the Wookiee next," Han assured with a grin, turning to Chewie but keeping his arm to the small of her back.
"Chewie! How the hell are ya, you big rug?"
The Wookiee howled a welcome, arms above his head in pleasure.
Han leaned back slightly in mock consideration as he looked up. "I swear you're gettin' bigger." He waited until the Wook paused in consideration, keening a query, before winking and adding, "No, I meant around the stomach, pal."
Chewie whuffed good-naturedly, enveloping Solo in a bear-hug which took his breath away.
Finally, because he knew he had to sooner or later, he turned to Calrissian. "Lando," he said simply, face straight now.
"Listen, Han…" Lando began, but Han cut him off, not ready to hear it.
"Don't even try yet, Lando. You dropped us all in big trouble. Serious trouble. I can't just forget it—not yet. Not when Luke's still on Coruscant. He got us out, not you. He's payin' for your mistakes." By the last, Han had raised his hand, finger pointing to Calrissian's chest.
Leia stepped in. "Han, Lando got us off Cloud City. He broke us out."
"Yeah, and that worked out real good, didn't it?" Han said, eyes not leaving Calrissian.
It was Chewie, with years of experience of the pair of them, who broke up the moment with a long-winded series of barks.
Han held Lando's eyes for a second longer before turning to Chewie, anger diffusing. "Me? What are you asking me for? You're the last one who flew her—don't'cha remember where you left her?"
Chewie keened a long reply to the fact that he remembered exactly where he left her—and that was the problem.
"Ah, we'll get her back, somehow. Me, you and Luke'll go get her. It'll be a nice weekend out—kinda like a family outing."
Everyone fell silent at this, looking away, bringing an uneasy frown to Han's face.
"You know I just…I don't even have an answer to that," Solo said, bewilderment and anger coloring his voice. "Has everyone gone crazy? Is there something in the water?"
"I'm sorry." It was all Leia could think to say in that moment—not least because it was true.
She'd taken him to her quarters to break the news, knowing how this would go.
"He's…" Han shook his head. "C'mon, Leia—you know he's not an Imperial. You've just seen what they went through to get hold of him."
"Intel think it was a show—that they were trying to keep his cover intact."
"That's copishit and you know it." Han's voice was hardening now.
Leia wasn't surprised—everyone who knew Luke went through the same run of emotions: surprise, denial, anger, frustration…but acceptance, eventually. The facts were too many and too damning to ignore.
Not that many people did know. It had been decided that the official line would remain that Commander Skywalker died in the battle of Hoth. The Imperial agent would remain unnamed—it didn't matter, he was gone now. Official line on that was that the Imperial agent—a tech—managed to pull out when they'd discovered his identity in the retreat from Hoth. To link the two together now accomplished nothing save to show that Alliance security could be breached to a Command level and they could do without that kind of morale-killer, both in personnel terms and in terms of their reputation.
"I know it's hard to…"
"Hard!? I know that kid—better than most, it seems. I've known him since… How do you explain Tatooine, huh? What the hell was going on there?"
Leia sighed. "They needed the location of the Rebel base at Yavin, Han. They couldn't get it out of me under standard interrogation on the Death Star so they sent Luke in with a nice, convincing back-story. He even managed to get hooked up with a trusted Clone Wars General and reel him in, too. The Imperials must have picked up Artoo straight off the Tantive then wiped his memory of the fact when they'd seen what he was carrying. I'd left everything they needed to set up that whole scenario in Artoo—Kenobi's name, his last known location. What better way to get me to trust an Imperial agent than have him turn up with General Kenobi? I led them to General Kenobi and then back to Yavin Four. Because of Luke. Think about it, Han—who's the one person who didn't make it off the Death Star? Don't you think it's convenient that this plan just happened to require General Kenobi to board the Death Star—that the one person they'd not want to let free again just happened to be the one who didn't get off?"
"Didn't seem very convenient at the time," Han growled. "No, I don't buy this."
"Han, it's Luke's voice, on Luke's comlink."
"Voices can be faked," Han said.
"And then loaded onto Luke's comlink? When? Luke's container was locked—three techs were there when they blew the combination. Two weeks later the Bothans ID'd Luke as an Imperial agent, without knowing where we'd gotten the voice fragment we asked them to trace from. They didn't ID it as Luke Skywalker because for the first time, we'd asked them to run the recording through their Imperial Agents database. We got duped, Han. We all just got…"
"Well then why the hell is he being held prisoner now?"
Leia shook her head. "I don't know. I don't know what they're doing. We have a few theories. I do know when I saw him, he wasn't being held anywhere."
"You saw him—on Coruscant?"
Leia nodded tiredly. "Yes, I saw him, the day after we arrived. He was still unconscious—I think he'd woken up briefly and asked to see me."
"Where was he?"
Leia frowned, remembering. "He was in private apartments in the South Tower. His presumably—they looked lived-in."
"The massive one with the long entrance hall—it opened out to a big domed glass atrium in the middle?"
Leia blinked, surprised. "Yes."
"That's where they were holding him. The whole time I was there, he was never allowed out of three rooms at the end of one of the corridors in that apartment. There were guards everywhere."
Leia shook her head, voice softening at Han's dogged determination. "There were no guards when I saw him, Han. Just Luke. All the doors were open. How often did you see him?"
Han frowned, knowing she'd call him on this. "Once a week—almost. I missed a few. No set days or times."
"For how long?"
"An hour maybe. Sometimes less."
Leia looked down, shaking her head. "It's not enough, Han. It's not enough to challenge all this." She indicated the still-bagged comlink she'd borrowed from Intelligence, the data-chips of the deciphered messages, the reams of hard-copy documents from the Bothans. "This is too…"
"Well then why the hell did he get me out?"
Leia looked up at him, deeply uncomfortable. "I need to scan you." She turned to take a battered plasteel medical box from just inside her door, taking out a hand-held scanner and charging it up, her voice level with a kind of forced calm. "Do you have any cuts, Han? Any injuries you can't account for?"
"You think they tagged me?"
She didn't speak, didn't meet his eyes, only stared at the scanner as she set its search perimeters.
"C'mon—there's no tag small enough to hide in a human body that has enough range to track me here."
"No—but one could transmit a shorter distance. If they wanted to find out if there was an Alliance safehouse on Coruscant, for instance."
Han frowned in silence, uneasy at her words.
Leia finally looked up. "Did you mention anything—any safe way to get off the Capital?"
"Not a safehouse—I didn't even know there was one on Coruscant. I said I knew a place we could hide 'till we got a pick-up from the emergency transmission, but it was a smuggler's place."
"The Tyren Islands." Leia nodded. "We've used them a few times. We can't anymore."
Han stared in silence as the Princess kept her eyes on the scanner she was setting up, avoiding his eye. In the long silence, Han's mind recalled fragments of conversations with Luke. He's never once mentioned the exact co-ordinates of the Tyrens…and when he'd escaped they'd magically given him a ship and a reason to fly to there. Their choice of ship…with any tracking devices they damn-well pleased aboard it so they could stay nice and close. Close enough for a short-range tag to work if there was a booster on the ship he'd flown there, so they could track him even if he left the skimmer.
In the hanger, hadn't Luke limited his choice of escape craft to two or three, though the hanger was full? He hadn't thought about it at the time—hadn't even considered it.
And where were all the stormtroopers? 'Cos they sure as hell weren't chasing Han when he was wandering through the Palace. He frowned, freshly uncertain…
"No," he said at last, shaking his head. "No, I know him. The kid's not that person."
"Take your jacket off."
"Okay, why wait twelve weeks?" Han asked, shrugging from his borrowed Rebel jacket—he didn't even have any of his own clothes anymore.
Leia sighed, starting a slow sweep with the scanner. "You and I had been alone for weeks before Bespin—maybe they figured they could pump you for any information I'd given you in that time. Keep you talking, keep you trusting."
"If they wanted information, why didn't they do all this with you?"
"Because I already knew who he was, Han. They'd made a mistake that second day in taking me up to his apartments—in letting me see him as he really was. I knew who he was."
Han set his head on one side emphasis in her words. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Leia sighed, stepping closer, pausing in her methodical sweep of Han's body with the sensor. "This is not common knowledge, and we intend to keep it that way. What I tell you is between you and me, understand?"
Han nodded, chest tensing, realizing he was waiting for the next blow.
"You know Luke…sometimes did things—unexplainable things. You know what his reflexes were like, how he played hunches…"
"I know he was…a Force-sensitive, a Jedi…" Han paused, still uncomfortable with saying these things out loud. "…Whatever. Like Kenobi."
"No," Leia said, voice solemn. "Not at all like Kenobi."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Han heard the belligerent tone in his own voice.
Looking into his eyes, seeing the outrage and offence and that dogged Corellian loyalty, Leia realized she had no idea how to say this—so she just said it. "He's Vader's son. We think Luke is Darth Vader's son."
Han didn't say anything—which was somehow worse than an explosion to Leia.
"We haven't verified it—but then I think it would be pretty hard to do. Since it isn't already common knowledge, they clearly don't want it to get out. The Bothans are trying to get a DNA key of Vader's blood—we already have one of Luke's from our own records, but getting hold of one from Vader is proving difficult. We do know without a doubt that he's the son of a member of the Emperor's personal entourage. That comes from a separate, reliable source…"
"Who the hell said Luke was Vader's son?" Han growled, voice low.
Leia swallowed against her dry mouth, guilt still welling up inside her at this. "Me. I found it out when we were being held on Coruscant. Someone let it slip—I wasn't supposed to hear."
Han looked at her, eyes dark and stormy. "So you came back here and you told them."
It was an accusation of betrayal and she knew it.
"Yes," Leia said, her own voice rising, determined not to feel guilty about this. Luke was a spy—an Imperial agent. She owed him nothing.
She resumed her scan, turning him to smooth it over his back, listening to his voice, rough with anger.
"You'd better be damn sure 'cos even if it's true, this is the biggest load of…"
The scanner squealed momentarily and Leia pulled it back to a point just below and between Han's shoulder blades. It shrilled again—a positive trace. Han fell silent.
"It's medium range. A new type we haven't seen before. Compact, short life. Maybe four or five weeks before the power cell runs out. Chewie, Lando and I had them taken out when we got here. The Empire was supposedly taking us to Kessel," Leia said neutrally into his questioning eyes. "We thought we'd broken free on Neimoidia and contacted the Alliance cell there to pull us out. Less than an hour after we'd left Neimoidia the Empire did a big sweep—took down two of our three bases in one co-ordinated attack. We lost about fifty people. They were the two bases that Chewie, Lando and I had passed through."
She didn't look to Han as she said this, unable to meet his eye. He raked his hand through his hair, shaking his head firmly.
"I can't do it—I'm not gonna do it... I'm not gonna turn on him. You're wrong."
"What would it take to convince you, Han?" Leia said, frustrated. "Look at the facts! You won't believe it until you have Luke standing in front of you, telling you."
"Damn straight I won't. You say that like it's a bad thing!"
"Han, he was selling us out—he was never one of us in the first place!" She knew her voice had risen in response to his own, neither giving ground.
"Believe what you want, Highness, but I know I'm right."
"Against all of this!?"
"Yeah, against that! You know why? 'Cos that's just extrapolation and after-the-fact guesswork and he's worth more that all your precious Intel reports and anything the Bothans just happen to unearth all of a sudden 'cos I know him. He's like a brother to…"
Han didn't finish, only swept his hand in a gesture of dismissal and stormed out.
Leia was left to stand alone in the room, lost in her own thoughts, until eventually there was a light knock at the door. Sighing, she lifted her hand to the wall panel and it slid open. Han still stood in the corridor, head on one side, expression a wry mix of chagrin and embarrassment.
"I don't have anywhere to go," he said quietly. "I don't have a ship anymore."
Leia smiled sadly and stepped aside, leading him back into her room. "We'll get you a bunk, flyboy."
"Not with Chewie," Han managed a lopsided smile as she stepped back inside. "He snores like an cranky swoop motor."
Leia sighed, her momentary smile melting away as she shook her head, unable to look Han in the eye. "What will we do with this?" she said, asking of the argument rather than the facts. She didn't want to lose what had only just begun over this difference, and she didn't think Han did either.
He sighed, looking to the floor. "I dunno, Leia. I really don't. I guess we'll just wait and see."
Palpatine watched the boy come round as Jade took her leave from the dimly-lit cell, bowing to her master, though he didn't bother to acknowledge it.
He was well aware of the conflicting emotions welling up in her, but confident that she would always do as he ordered. As such, it had become another minor entertainment, a diversion acted out for his own personal amusement. In the future, it would be twisted to serve his intentions, but for now it held little use other than to confirm that everything he wanted, even his most far-reaching goals, were attainable.
If he could make a Sith of his willful Jedi.
He watched dispassionately now, cold eyes appraising the boy as he struggled to wake against the drugs, broken arm clutched to him, splintered ankle bruised and swollen, face and body a mass of angry red welts and shallow cuts.
And yet he didn't yield. The boy was far better trained than Palpatine had expected—and certainly far more headstrong, tapping some as yet unbreached well of resolve, far too intractable to allow Palpatine a victory so easily, even with the drugs. But he was not yet beyond reach. And growing closer by the day.
Aware of Palpatine's eyes on him, Luke rolled over to his back, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in his ribs, the shooting shocks which still burned through bone and muscle alike, reminders of yesterday's confrontation.
Reminders that today's was yet to come. He slowly relaxed stiff, aching muscles, trying not to wince, though he knew it made no difference—Palpatine would know anyway.
Was this the way it would go now? Only ever woken to face his nemesis, so that from Luke's point of view, he faced his captor every waking hour, never any respite? Palpatine was looking to break him down, he knew—to chip at his resolve hour on hour, day on day, never any reprieve, never any time to gather his defenses.
Never any time to heal—you know how this works, what he'll do…
In his already-fragile state, realization made Luke's heart flutter and his stomach churn, the split-second fear of a grinding decline into defeat looming, crushing in its consequences.
No. You will not give him victory this easily. If he wants control he'll have to drag it from you. You know how this works—how much is in the mind. Don't relinquish control.
He knew the game Palpatine was playing and what was at stake…though he had no idea how to counter it—no idea if it was even possible to do so—Luke broke the thought off by force of will, unwilling to think of the battle as already lost.
Had his fa… had Vader faced exactly this choice once—this coercion? Ben had said he was a Jedi once.
Which begged the question—did he carry his father's weakness?
Or was Palpatine lying? If he was, then Luke couldn't detect the lie. But then the drugs kept his mind so still. Made it difficult to hold on to any thought.
He could call the Force to him and push them away, purge them from his system and clear his head momentarily, but he knew he couldn't sustain it, the self-replicating drug constantly pushing to regain the level it was designed to maintain, always persisting at the edge his consciousness, eager to crowd in. And every increment that it did, his hold on the Force was weakened, his concentration undermined; the precise, meticulous meditation required to heal himself shattered.
Luke focused his eyes again and dragged himself up to sitting, leaning against the wall, waiting for the room to stop spinning…and realized that he was still watching the Emperor—that the Emperor was still watching him. That he was listening, intruding on Luke's private thoughts as if it were his right.
"It is," said Palpatine with absolute authority. "I told you—you are mine now."
A momentary flare of stubbornness ignited within him at Palpatine's words, burning past the drugs and the exhaustion. It gave him the focus to pull the Force to him, to construct a mental shield around his mind.
The Emperor's eyes narrowed, baleful stare hardening as his voice took on an edge. "Think carefully before you challenge me. I will stop you—you haven't the strength left to fight me."
For a second Luke hesitated, but his innate obstinacy kicked in again and fuelled his focus, so that he pushed Palpatine's hissing, malevolent presence from his mind, momentarily surprised by how easy it was...
The bolt of Force-lightening impacted against his chest, an incredible flare of blazing energy throwing his head back against the wall, a sustained burst lancing through him, locking muscles, burning white-hot through body and mind alike.
When it finally stopped as suddenly as it had begun, he collapsed forward with a gasp, though he made no other sound, face resting against the already blood-scuffed floor, grateful for the freezing cool of the hard surface. Vaguely, distantly, he was aware of Palpatine's push at his mind. Weakly, he pulled his thoughts back together into a shield.
He was flung back to impact against the wall behind him, the breath knocked from his lungs in a gasp, incredible pressure pushing in against them now, holding them closed against his need to breathe so that his vision began to tunnel into darkness, his chest heaving against the invisible weight crushing in against it, locked into this desperate struggle, reality blurring to a distant haze…
Some muted whisper called him to pull the Force about him, to turn it inwards…
The moment he focused the Force, the pressure which bound his chest was gone, released by the Sith, and Luke lurched forward, dragging oxygen into burning lungs, unable to do anything more than breathe.
"I am uncertain what you expect to gain by this." Sitting casually ten foot away, Palpatine studied his Jedi, amused—energized even, by this fascinating war of wills. "Do you think you can indeed hold me out of your mind? You cannot and you never will. Do you think perhaps I will respect your defiant obstinacy? I desire nothing from you except obedience. Or perhaps you believe I will take pity on you and stop? Surely you know by now that I feel no such compassion. Tell me, Jedi, why do you fight when you know you can only lose?"
He smiled at the duality of his question, eyes intent on the boy; how weak this powerful creature could be, hobbled by the limiting rules inflicted upon it. He would show it power; he would break it free of them and bind it to him.
Terrified that he would turn as his father had, they had tried to keep the boy on too short a leash, but in doing so had bound him up so tightly with restrictions and rules that he could not fight back. The constraints they had sought to control him with would be the weaknesses which Palpatine would use to pry him from their paranoid grip.
How poetic. When he owned him body and mind, when he directed that wonderful, inflexible will, how his new Sith would appreciate the irony.
Eventually he stood and walked slowly towards the breathless, battered youth, driven to push him further, to goad a response from the boy simply so that he could retaliate again—re-establish his own dominance over this potentially dangerous creature.
Breathe. Just breathe. With monumental effort, Luke forced himself to hold a breath for a moment so that when he released it in a scarlet-speckled gasp, the muscles in his chest had coordinated and he finally forced air into his lungs, oxygen around his starved body, coughing against the pain.
The Emperor crouched before him, watching all of this with dispassionate eyes, the slightest of self-assured, indulgent smiles touching his pale lips. "Well?"
"Go to hell."
Palpatine laughed openly, voice scornful and provocative. "Is that the best you can do? Is that all the fight you have in you? Poor little Jedi, words are no defense against me. Do you understand yet? Do you understand that there is no defense against this power, save to take it and use it as your own? That to beat me you will have to become me, for only Darkness can fight Darkness, only fire can fight fire. Either you take this Darkness and master it, or it will crush you and destroy you, then reshape and rebuild you as I see fit."
"No," was all Luke could push past gritted teeth and gasping breaths.
Palpatine clamped his withered hand on Luke's neck, hauling him upright with surprising force, pushing Luke back to the wall behind him, his weight on one leg. Battered and winded, he didn't have the strength to pull free as Palpatine leaned in, inches away now.
"Then do your worst, Jedi. Stop me."
Luke froze mentally and physically, muscles locked against indecision. Palpatine's goading words ignited a burning anger, and with it the promise of power enough to destroy this evil being. Easy power, asking only to be used, with no conscience or consequence to limit it.
But he would not use Darkness to fight Darkness. Not because of Ben or Yoda, but because he knew…he knew in his heart that it was wrong.
Palpatine could strip away every other belief, every friend, every hope, until all that Luke had left was himself. But he still knew what was right and what was wrong.
"Well?" The Sith's breath whispered against Luke's skin, eyes burning with wicked glee.
He wouldn't use Darkness to fight Darkness. He would die first.
Then die. Just end this. Why are you prolonging it? How many more times do you want to wake in this room?
What are you waiting for? No one is coming for you, no one even cares anymore.
How easy it would be to provoke this twisted, bitter Sith beyond reason. Easier than living, easier than fighting the Darkness which crept unbidden into every reckless thought now and ignited them with addictive power.
A win by default.
A short laugh escaped him at that, which spattered Palpatine's pale skin with dark blood, so close was his face.
Luke met the Emperor's eyes, suddenly very sure, his expression hard and alive, never more so than in this moment—
Closing his eyes he brought this head down, bone connecting with bone.
Palpatine reeled back and in that moment, Luke felt a surge of elation at having caused injury to the one who had caused so much to him, at having drawn blood from the creature who had bled him dry for so long, knowing what it would cost...
Leia stepped onto the busy flight deck, eyes searching the familiar flight-suits, looking for the blue ones amongst the orange—for Han's flash of brown hair. He was leaning on his A-Wing, clearly having some heated disagreement with the technician, helmet held loose by the straps in his hand, making Leia fear he would swing it in a roundhouse at the tech's head any minute.
She stepped round the back of the tech, catching Han's eye. He glanced up, then back to the tech. "And I'm sayin' it's pulling. There's a fault in the shear."
He'd been informally flying with the A-Wings for several weeks now and had settled in without a hitch, re-acquainting himself with snub-fighters reassuringly quickly, Chewie joining the same flight group as a tech—they were, as always, inseparable.
Leia wasn't quite sure whether it was his close involvement in the day-to-day survival of the Alliance now that he had no Falcon to retreat to, or whether he just couldn't go more than a few days without flying something, but it was good to see him so committed, so involved. It was good to see that heart of gold.
The thought came instantly to mind that Luke had always had such faith in him, in his good heart. Just as quickly, she pushed it away.
"I checked the shear last time she came in," the tech maintained, holding his own. Tempers were always high with the flight crews—hours were long and staff were short. "There's nothing wrong with the shear."
"Well then it's the mix. Something's making her pull. I got the stick at two o'clock just to make her fly in a straight line."
"Fine," the tech said, exasperated. "I'll pull the assembly. You wanna take another ship?"
"No, I can handle her. Just do it when I get back." In a fit of guilt, he added, "Give me a shout when you're ready—I'll come help, okay?"
The tech nodded, mollified, and Han patted him on the arm, walking quickly up to Leia, winking.
"Hey, doll. Come to give me a goodbye kiss? I could get used to that."
"The Bothans have something," Leia said uneasily, as she always was when it came to Luke.
They'd pretty much learned that the only way to deal with this was agree to disagree and mention it as little as possible, which was becoming easier and easier now, the whole disturbing incident beginning to blow over.
Except not for Han. Or Chewie, she suspected, though he kept quiet.
Leia handed her reader over to Han, who glanced at it, jaw tightening. The information had come in from the Bothan spy network, which had a close working relationship with the Alliance. It listed that their own spies in the Imperial Palace had seen a document fragment to the fact that an Agent named The Wolf had been withdrawn from active service, requesting all files pertaining to that name to be deleted. It didn't list why, or give any clue as to who he was, only that he had been recalled.
Han read it without comment and handed it back to her. "Fine. Gotta go."
"Han." She reached out to take his sleeve. "Tell me you're not still going."
Han frowned, half-turning. "What?"
Leia set her head on one side. "To get him out. I know you're planning something."
Han pursed his lips, but said nothing. Leia sighed. "At least wait—wait a few more weeks. See if the Bothans can turn up a DNA key."
"I can't keep waiting, Leia—I can't just keep waiting. I waited because you asked me, because you said they'd find proof. But they haven't."
"What more do—"
"It's not proof, Leia. What if this is all just some game that Palpatine's playing, huh? What if you're wrong?" There was no challenge to his voice, just genuine, heartfelt concern.
"Why would they do that, Han?" Leia asked, and he glanced down, having no answer. She sighed. "What if we're right? What if we're right and you go back and face him?"
"Well then at least I'll know. Then I'll believe it."
"I don't think that will be much consolation when you're in an Imperial detention center. To you or to me."
His eyes lifted to her and Leia felt a flush on her cheeks at saying it out loud but held her ground, for his sake. She knew how much he wanted to go after Luke—knew that she was the only thing which had held him back again and again—believed absolutely that she was right to do so.
"Just a little longer. Please?"
He rolled his head to the side and she knew he'd wait—this time.
"I gotta go," he said, stepping up onto the footwell and swinging into the cramped cockpit without meeting her eyes.
Leia stepped back as the engines flared, Han's fighter the last to leave the hanger.
One of these times, Leia wondered… Would he just not come back?
Mara felt an unfamiliar twinge of emotion as she entered the dark, cold cell where Skywalker lay crumpled in a heap exactly where she had left him, his shallow breath misting in the frigid air. Laying the med-kit on the floor she gestured to the detention-center guard holding a bowl of water and a cloth to enter. He looked around the empty room in confusion before turning questioning eyes to Mara.
"Lay it there," she said simply, gesturing to the floor in front of Skywalker.
Keeping a wary distance from the unconscious man, the guard laid the bowl down in careful silence before pushing it a little closer at arms-length and walking quickly from the room.
Mara scowled at him as she took out an antidote ampule and loaded the syringe. Was he afraid of Skywalker? If he wanted someone to fear, he should look to the Emperor. Luke wouldn't... She paused mid-thought as the implications of this hit her.
Why was she defending him?
Why was this affecting her so much, despite her every barrier?
She had watched without emotion as her master had taken out his wrath like this on others. Many times. She had willingly hunted down and delivered his enemies to him, knowing that she took them, helpless and horrified, to a terrible death. The Emperor was hardly known for his mercy.
So what was different now? Why had this man crept under and around all her barriers?
Was it because he was a Jedi—because he was the first person beside the Emperor whom she could sense? Or because she could always feel those expressive blue eyes on her, always asking but never judging.
Perhaps it was empathy because he was so very alone.
Because she knew that in his position, with everything ripped away, every freedom, every hope, no one would come to her aid either.
As she had left the opulent drawing room in his quarters in the Palace many weeks previously, Mara remembered hearing the Emperor tell Skywalker that she felt no compassion. The assertion which had previously seemed her master's greatest praise, the creed by which she had lived her life, now made her burn with humiliation.
But if she felt no compassion, then what was this?
The medical equipment had been removed just over a week ago, Skywalker being returned unknowing to the cold cell floor, as her master had ordered.
It was eight days since her master had lashed out with such vindictive vengeance, driven to the act by his Jedi. Since Palpatine had summoned her into the cell, to a shocking revelation.
Her eyes had widened at the sight of her master, who stood quietly brooding, his face bloody. His blood. No one had ever drawn blood on her master before. No one could ever hope to threaten him. No one. The repercussions had twisted her stomach into a tight knot as she had scanned the room for Skywalker's body, sure that he would be dead. In the veiled shadows she made out his crumpled form, twisted awkwardly away from her, very still.
Mara remembered distinctly hearing her breath catch in her throat.
Lost in his thoughts, the Emperor had said nothing as she remained frozen to the spot, torn between who to go to first.
After long seconds of numb, paralyzing indecision she had started toward her master, who stirred from his reverie as she approached and gestured her away, pointing to the Jedi.
Her heart in her mouth, Mara had crouched beside Luke, realizing as she did so that he was still breathing, releasing in a rush of relief the breath she hadn't known that she was holding.
He was alive, but grievously wounded, his breath short and shallow, blood dripping in a viscous trail from his nose and mouth to pool in a dark stain on the cold white floor, though it was impossible to tell whether this was from internal injuries or the countless grisly lacerations hacked into bruised skin which bled profusely, appalling in their severity.
Mara couldn't imagine for a second what had been going through Skywalker's mind, that he would actually initiate an attack which he knew would be met with savage, merciless brutality.
He was lucky to be alive.
Realization had hit her at that thought; that he hadn't expected to be—had done this intentionally.
He'd wanted the ultimate response—and had done everything in his power to provoke it.
The Emperor had walked in silence to the door, lifting his hood to hide his face, pausing without turning, his grating voice remorseless, absolutely without pity. "Have a medic treat him. Not Hallin," he said quietly, before adding pointedly, "Mara—only what is life-threatening. Nothing else."
Mara had nodded wordlessly at her master's back, a strange, cold chill tightening about her heart and making her stomach twist. Tugging for the first time at the fringes of her own ambiguous, irresolute morals as she tried to turn away from the battered, mutilated man.
Eight days, just to treat the life-threatening injuries. Four days in bacta, unconscious, three more in high-dependency, one final day to get him off the machines... Then they'd brought him back here and laid him on the floor as if all that work to put him back together simply hadn't happened. Never once woken; never even knowing he'd left the cell. Brought him back here knowing full well that he wasn't ready; that he may well be back within the week anyway.
And when she'd crouched down beside him to give the antidote which would wake him to face his tormentor again, she'd felt... something. Felt some part of herself crumple inside at her part in this. At his knowledge of that.
At the fact that she would have to face him again. And again, and again...
If she felt no compassion, then what was this?
She paused beside Skywalker's still body, waiting a moment until the door was locked before she crouched next to him, trying not to see the bruises and the blood.
Her master had remained 'indisposed' following his explosive retribution on Skywalker, for the first time in fifteen weeks not visiting his prisoner. Whether this was because he was still too angry to return or whether it was simply to allow Skywalker the time to heal, Mara wasn't sure.
Perhaps he was contemplating his own unexpected loss of control, because he must surely have realized that the unintended intensity of his attack had been purposely incited by the Jedi, and in her master's closely controlled and manipulated world, any being who had the ability to overturn his carefully constructed plans would be deeply unsettling.
Because everything had changed from that day on. Everything intensified, all previous rules falling by the wayside. The frequency of his visits when her master finally returned were stepped up to several per day. Drugged between visits, given practically no food or water, Skywalker would have no real concept of how long he'd been here by now. No sense of day or night, of how long he was left between visits... If he was awake it was to face Palpatine...and the guards.
Her master had now taken to bringing a compliment of his Royal Guard to every meeting, each armed with a force pike, or similar.
The guards, in fatigues rather than their usual ceremonial dress, were left outside the cell to stare stony-faced at the regular Detention Center guards as the Emperor spoke to his captive. At the end of the discourse, sometimes before the Emperor left, sometimes after, they would be called in—more often than not when Skywalker was already lying bruised and battered senseless.
She didn't need to watch to know their purpose.
And always when the Emperor and his guards left, she was ordered to inject the SCA immediately, which would re-activate the drugs, giving them free reign in his system again.
She disliked intensely having to wait in the corridor as her master held his 'discussions' with the Jedi. Their voices were always quiet, barely audible often for an hour or more, until Skywalker finally dug his heels in and did something which called down the Emperor's wrath.
Then they all heard, she and the ever-present guards. Heard him cry out, heard the Emperor throw the Force against him; heard the sickening, never-to-be-mistaken crack of the lightening searching to ground.
And when the cries died down, the Red Guards would be called into the cell.
For the first few days, it hadn't bothered the dozen or so guards who were always stationed along the corridor outside the cell. They had all expected the Jedi to be killed quite quickly, Mara knew, as their Emperor tired of torturing him. But he never tired of it; seemed to relish it a little more every day.
Now when the Emperor arrived, everyone was silent, no one made eye contact, even with each other. Everyone listened in the cold silence of the long featureless corridor, knowing…waiting.
Pulling his arm straight, careful to avoid the now-old break at his wrist, Mara hesitated for several seconds, looking at the multiple fine needle scars where she'd injected him intravenously, trying to find undamaged skin. Her heart collapsed a little more as opposing emotions raced. Somewhere, in some crushed and hidden corner of her soul which she had thought long dead, did she actually feel this was wrong? Or was it more personal than that? Was it that which scared her? Every day that distant voice got a little clearer, a little more perceptible.
She'd never really had a conscience—a set of rules yes, but nothing more—it had never been of value to her master. So perhaps the voice was not hers at all. But she heard it nonetheless, whispering at the fringes of her consciousness, leaching into her dreams at night.
Not an actual voice. Not words; not like when Palpatine spoke through the Force, but there all the same. More basic, less attuned. Empathy.
She had to get away; this was becoming too confusing, too hard to control. She would ask Palpatine to give her another assignment.
But even as she thought it, Mara knew he wouldn't. If she'd had these thoughts, then her master knew; he always knew.
Hadn't he asked her before if she had heard Luke; sensed him in her limited Force-perceptions? Hadn't her answer been a half-truth? She didn't hear him in that moment that her master had asked the question, so her denial had been true—in the moment. But she had heard him before, and many times after. Sensed him at the fringes of her perception; warmth, like stepping into sunlight—a tingle of affinity, both mental and physical. It drew her in, much as she tried to hold back.
Had this become a test, she wondered? A test of her loyalty, her allegiance. Her master loved to test those around him.
But he had no reason to doubt her; her fealty was absolute, contact or not. She had always served him, as far back as she could remember. Resolute, she turned Skywalker's arm over, injecting instead into the vein on the back of his hand, sternly denying the urge to keep hold of it as he woke, to offer him this small comfort.
It would be unfair to give him false hope. Better he fall quickly; submit to Palpatine's will and have done. He was so close now anyway. The man she had…what—felt empathy toward perhaps; some kind of recognition as a peer, respect for, no matter who they served.
More than that, perhaps—
It didn't matter. That man was gone now, grated away day on day by her master, twisted and distorted into what he desired.
This—all of this—was so unnecessary; Mara could have taken him directly to the Emperor's long-denied 'Behavioral Modification Center' and they could have delivered Palpatine his completely subjugated Jedi, his mind wiped clear, a blank slate. Clean, surgical, risk-free.
But that wasn't what Palpatine wanted.
He wanted to break his Jedi, mind and body. He wanted to do this himself—to achieve absolute control over him. Nothing less would do; it was an obsession. She had never seen him quite like this before—so vindictive, so obsessed, so driven, so…
Mara's eyes widened at the realization; he was afraid. He was terrified of this Jedi.
Was Vader right? Was Skywalker a genuine threat to the Emperor? Were his powers equal to Palpatine's; was that why he couldn't control or predict him?
Was this what terrified and fascinated her master? It would be so like him to be unable to resist the pull of this much power, unable to bring himself to destroy it, even knowing that it could turn on him.
This was why he had to control Skywalker so completely. More than that even. The threat which had been held over his head for so long was now in his power and it was everything that they had predicted. Everything that he had feared. It wasn't enough for Palpatine to control it; he had to grind it under his heel—tear it apart. Dominate it.
Skywalker made a low noise as he came round, but didn't yet move or open his eyes.
New understanding made Mara's stomach twist as abruptly she felt such pity for him; Palpatine would stop at nothing to conquer his fear, she realized that now. He would break him…and if he couldn't break him, he would rip him to pieces trying.
Did Skywalker know this, too? Did Vader?
Had he been deserted a second time by his father?
She watched him struggling to consciousness, rolling over onto his back and drawing his knees up before immediately freezing…then slowly lowering his broken ankle, a worsening injury which they hadn't been allowed to treat. He stared straight ahead as he always did and she knew it was in an effort to stop the room in its lazy spin; knew that it was getting a little harder every time as his reserves were being ground away.
Remaining still for a long while on the hard floor, he watched his breath mist in the cold—it was always so cold here. Carefully calculated to sap at his reserves, slow him, drag him down.
Again he made the noise, half breath, half-groan, from the back of his own throat as he stilled, eyes closed again, wanting to hold the ordeal of reality at bay just a few moments longer.
Mara nudged him gently, knowing that her master would be on his way by now. "Sit up. It'll clear your head."
Slowly he uncurled, the cold floor and his injuries making his movements stiff and awkward, freshly-scarred arms wrapping about broken ribs. Mara backed up, avoiding his eyes, aware once again of that strange resonance, and for the first time not rejecting it. "There's water here. Wash your face."
The blood from his latest string of confrontations had dried around his wounds and Mara had assumed that her master would want him cleaned up—or perhaps it was simply because it bothered her; she was no longer sure.
She watched Skywalker turn stiffly to look at the jewel-bright, delicately enameled bowl before him, a work of art as everything in the Emperor's Palace was, an incongruous bolt of color in the faceless white this cold, hard, empty cell. She saw him run bruised, broken fingers along its gilded edge and knew that he was thinking the same. A slight smile brushed his features momentarily. Then he reached out and cupped his good hand into the water.
Mara suddenly realized that, not having been given drinking water for days now, he was going to take the opportunity given. "Don't drink it!" she pre-empted.
He paused momentarily then cupped his hand again.
"Don't, it has antiseptics in it."
He paused again, seemed to weigh this up, then clearly decided he really didn't care. How did she know all this, Mara wondered? Now that she had finally allowed contact could she really read him—hear him as completely as she could the Emperor?
"I'll get you some water to drink. Just wash with…"
He turned slightly. When?
Had he said that, or just thought it? His head was turned down, so she couldn't see his lips.
Mara pulled her comlink from her belt. "Get some water for him." She hesitated, then added, "I'll take responsibility."
She crouched before him to take the immaculate white cloth and hand it to him. This was the closest she had been to him for some time; she'd purposely avoided it. Now, face to face, she couldn't understand why she had so dreaded this.
His expression remained so open, as completely without judgment as it had always had been; he knew this was not of her doing. Still, she looked away from those searching blue eyes, rimmed now with dark bruises, and pushed the cloth into his grip. It looked impossibly pristine in his bruised and bloody hand.
He watched her for a few seconds longer, then passed the cloth to his artificial right hand and dipped it into the water, lifting it to his face. He made contact with an open, angry wound below his eye and pulled away, flinching. Pausing, he glanced momentarily at the dirt and blood which sullied the cloth before speaking without looking up. "Could I have a mirror?"
This close to him, Mara sensed…
She looked away, trying to break contact.
He was strangely, morbidly curious, she knew—not about the injuries, but about himself. With the pointed absence of a mirror even in his apartment, he hadn't seen his reflection in so long he couldn't quite remember what Luke Skywalker looked like. Couldn't quite remember what he felt like. Had the unnerving feeling that if he looked in a mirror, he would see a stranger.
Again her heart went out to him, so completely alone, knowing that there was no end to this…
"No," she said quickly, guilty at the refusal, but knowing that her master would never allow such a humanizing thing when he had worked so hard to objectify Luke; divorce him from his own sense of identity.
Leaning closer, she reached out and took the cloth from him, rinsing it again in the water before reaching out and wiping his face as gently as she could. He winced but didn't pull back. The feel of another human being reaching out to him, touching his face without intimidation or malice, was wonderful to him. She knew that absolutely.
"What am I going to do?" he asked in a low voice, his eyes closed as she worked.
Mara froze at the question. "What?"
"With the mirror—what am I going to do with it?"
She relaxed slightly, relieved, momentarily afraid that he had been asking a much bigger question.
His face didn't change, but she heard the momentary lightness in his voice. "How exactly am I going to make good my escape with a mirror, short of it having a lightsaber welded to it?"
Mara smiled, rinsing the cloth again to continue, the water shot through with red. "Well, it just so happens that the only one I have is just like that."
He smiled just slightly in return, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Thank you."
He didn't answer. He didn't need to; they both knew exactly what he was thanking her for.
Mara turned away, more confused than ever. She wouldn't do this; she wouldn't give him false hope. "It makes no difference. He'll still break you."
"I know." There was utter desolation in those words, spoken so quietly.
Hearing it, Mara almost offered that Palpatine was afraid, but bit it back; no false hope. "Then just give him what he wants. Do as he asks."
He shook his head. "That's not enough."
She knew it was true. Palpatine had to destroy him completely, take him to pieces and rebuild him as he saw fit. Nothing less would suffice.
They remained still in the blanketing silence of the freezing room, the mist of their breath intermingling. Mara had no idea what to say, but realized that this didn't matter; he didn't need her to speak—they both knew that any solace offered would be a lie anyway. She needed only to be there—that was comfort enough in this moment. She glanced up at him.
Hunched forward to ease the pain in his ribs, hooded, bruised eyes staring at the floor, blood on his skin, in his clothes, in his hair, he looked like he was already beaten.
Perhaps he was.
Her heart ached; burned in her chest. She couldn't do this—it was just too hard. She wanted to turn and run from the cell, never to come back, never to have to deal with this churning mass of emotions.
But she couldn't move. She was anchored to him somehow, hearing his pain and his despair as clearly as she heard the Emperor's confident superiority. But while that connection had always been sharp and invasive, the grate of steel against steel, this felt so comfortable and natural and sincere.
And soon it would be gone; the momentary whisper of a hint of a possibility ripped violently away from her.
It was too cruel. Palpatine would bask in its irony.
Would she know? Would she sense the moment when his soul shattered?
She couldn't do this; she couldn't stay and watch him fall, tumble away into Darkness. But she couldn't help him. She couldn't help him. She couldn't go against her master.
The conflict made her eyes well with tears and she blinked them away, angry at herself for being so torn.
"I can't," she managed to whisper, rising quickly, wishing to put some distance between them.
She walked hastily to the door without looking back, palming the comm for exit, wishing the guards were quicker, sensing his quiet, resigned acceptance.
Even now he didn't judge her.
Luke didn't look up, couldn't bring himself to watch as his last anchor to humanity fled, torn by conflicting emotions and loyalties.
Moved by compassion, he didn't have the heart to stop her.
Mara walked briskly down the corridor, eyes blurred with unshed tears; confusion, anxiety, disquiet... connection? Glancing up, she started in surprise to see Palpatine standing at the far end of the corridor, twelve Royal Guard standing to straight attention nearby. The dense black of his heavy robes stood in stark contrast to the featureless white walls.
Absolutely still, in an almost meditative state, he oozed power, dark and brooding.
Did he know? Did he know what had just happened? Had he waited here, using the Force to eavesdrop, to be sure that Mara wouldn't fail him?
That was a cruel test. She strode toward him, emboldened by indignation, taking a breath to speak—
He motioned slightly with his hand, a strangely distracting movement which broke Mara's train of thought, enabling him to speak first. "I have a task for your special talents, Mara. You should leave today. Go and make ready; I will speak with you later."
Then he was gone, his thoughts clearly on Skywalker, not looking back.
Mara was left alone in the empty corridor, wondering whether the test had truly been for her, or whether she had been a pawn in a larger game—a final twist of the knife in his captive Jedi; one further opportunity to clarify how utterly alone he was here.
A cold shiver ran down her spine, which she blamed on the frigid air of these levels, far below ground. It occurred to her momentarily to wonder whether, if she had been anywhere other than in the Emperor's Palace, she might have let Skywalker go back there; might have closed her eyes, turned away and whispered, 'Run!'.
She walked quickly down the corridor, eager to be gone. It made no difference if she stayed anymore; soon, perhaps today, the Jedi would be gone too; if not in body, then certainly in mind and soul. She should let him go—he was, in truth, already lost. He just wouldn't admit it. But her master would change that, as he changed everything else to suit his desires.
How had she ever thought anything could come of this? What had she thought could possibly happen?
Her master was right—compassion was a crippling weakness.
Luke sat quietly on the floor as the Emperor entered the gloomy room, his powerful presence in the Force in direct contrast to his wizened frame. As he passed Luke, his heavy black robes caught against Luke's face momentarily, enveloping him in their suffocating blackness, like being submerged in deep water. Lost in a darkness all his own, he didn't react.
Maybe he just didn't care anymore.
He ached so much that it had become impossible to separate out any individual injury—they blurred into one single pain so intense that simply to move induced a spasm which sliced through his whole body, so severe that it blotted out any reaction, freezing him to tense stillness as he waited out the blinding burst.
In a strange way, the beatings no longer hurt—or rather, they hurt like hell, but the pain was already so great that it could no longer be exceeded, save for the actual moment that it was inflicted. And he had learned—learned that pain could be, if not ignored, then in some way tolerated. That he could function to some level around it. And if not, then it was possible to simply exist, and wait.
Exist—the distant memory surfaced of his father telling him that sometimes this was the greatest victory of all; simply to exist. At the time he had dismissed it—now…he understood. Understood what a triumph it could be simply to keep sane for one more day.
His head ached from trying to concentrate, trying to keep track from hour to hour, simply trying to mark the passage of time.
Or was it the drugs, which kept him subdued but offered no rest? He vaguely remembered thinking that long ago; that Palpatine had a drug, that it was self-replicating, working despite Luke bringing the Force to bear on it. Was that right? He didn't care anymore. He didn't care what Palpatine thought of this fact.
Was that important?
He looked at the old man, at the goading, self-congratulating smile on his lips and in his spiteful yellow eyes, and knew that Palpatine was listening to his thoughts. Was that important?
He no longer cared.
He didn't care that he sat hunched on the floor, his back against the wall…how ironic…
It had been important once, he knew. It had seemed so important then that he held out. Now he couldn't remember why.
Now he just sat slumped on the floor because it didn't matter.
Then get up. Stand up. Fight back.
There was a mental pause as he pulled together the concentration to think about gathering aching, trembling, starving, battered muscles to stand. But he didn't—what was the point? He would only be knocked down again.
The thought of an eternity like this, in this cell, with only Palpatine's goading manipulations pushing him ever downward, grating away his faltering resolve…
He had expected a quick end; to say no and be killed. Not this—isolated and disarmed, Palpatine nipping and slicing away at him, barbed and bitter, ruthless and relentless, day after day after day.
Death of a thousand cuts.
The dull hiss of the heavy door releasing interrupted his train of thought as a guard entered the room. Surprised at the presence of the Emperor, the man bowed deeply—and Luke saw what was in his hand.
He glanced away immediately, eyes to the ground, though he knew it was probably too late—the Sith doubtless already knew. He knew everything else—why should this be any different?
It crossed Palpatine's mind to wonder why he had been disturbed by the guard—then a split-second burst of emotion from his Jedi, instantly quashed and hidden, brushed a thin, cruel smile of realization across his lips as he saw a new opportunity to test just how much control he could now exercise over the boy's waning resolve.
"Set it down here," Palpatine said easily, watching his Jedi, unable to keep the delight of anticipation from his voice.
The boy stared at the floor before him, making a conscious effort not to look up.
The guard crouched to set the glass down on the floor at Palpatine's foot, then lifted the stopper from the metal flask to pour water into it. A pure, clear note sounded as the water hit and swirled around.
The boy glanced momentarily, unable to stop himself, then looked quickly down again as the guard rose and turned, lifting the heavy metal water bowl from the floor nearby, bowing again before he left.
Palpatine said nothing for a long time, savoring the desperate desire which raged through the boy in sharp contrast to his calm, controlled mask. He had thought to underline Mara's abandonment, but this was far better This was an opportunity to see not only what resistance he still had left, but also how much he had begun to listen to his new Master. What he would accept without dispute and what he still had the presence of mind to question.
So he waited, watching, letting the silence hang heavy, giving his Jedi time to realize the game afoot. When he was quite sure that he knew, he began...
"Are you thirsty, Jedi?"
Left unconscious save in Palpatine's presence, without food or water for many days, Luke knew he was on the edge. Food he could do without, but water he needed desperately in his present state, his cramping muscles and spinning head a constant reminder of just how critical he was.
The Emperor let the silence stretch out as the boy stared resolutely at the floor, but Palpatine knew that every fiber of his being was focused on the glass of water as he rocked forwards and backwards a few times almost imperceptibly, his jaw clenched shut.
"If you are thirsty, then take the water," Palpatine offered, almost gently.
Luke tried so hard, but was unable to stop his gaze from pulling slowly, reluctantly, back to the water, though he didn't move. Instead he just watched in silence as condensation ran down the outside of the glass to pool at its base, shimmering in the harsh lights above. He watched silently as tiny reflections darted about the water's rippling surface and slowly stilled, magnifying refracted pools of light onto the floor about it. He watched as the last small bubbles of air clinging to the inside of the glass floated dizzily to the surface. He was absolutely, painfully aware of how parched his mouth was, of the cracks in his lips, of his throat so dry that it hurt simply to talk. His whole body was attuned to the water in that glass, crying out for the relief which was right there in front of him.
For several seconds he sat still, rocking slightly with indecision.
He had to drink; he had to have water. He was dizzy with dehydration, his muscles cramped, his head throbbed. He was long past thirst, and a life in the desert had taught him what that meant.
He needed water.
But he hesitated, knowing that there would be a cost, as there was with everything now, waiting to see what the Emperor wanted.
Slowly, deliberately, the glass slid towards him, singing with vibration over the scuffed, white floor.
Using the Force, Palpatine slid the glass to a halt at a central point between them and waited, relishing the struggle taking place before him.
Three times his Jedi's fingers twitched as he nearly reached out for the glass but stopped himself before finally, hesitantly, knowing he was being played but knowing also that he could not do otherwise, he reached forward. Palpatine smiled, gratified.
"But understand that if you do, there will be a price."
The boy paused without looking up, a weary, wary expression on his face.
"What price?" His hoarse voice was low and quiet and resigned.
The Emperor offered nothing more, but instead rose and walked slowly round to the back of his Jedi, immeasurably pleased that the boy was not outraged or angry or even surprised that Palpatine had stopped him. Nor did he even think to question the fact that he had stopped, or that there would be a price associated with this most basic human necessity. He wished only to know the cost.
Palpatine crouched down behind him, was rewarded by feeling the boy's body tense as he rested his pale hands on the grazed, open wounds on his shoulders and leaned in close to whisper, "Kneel."
So close to him, in direct physical contact, Palpatine felt the shock of outrage rip through him, a heady burst of rage and revulsion.
The boy made to turn, but Palpatine took his head from behind in both hands, forcing him to turn back to the glass. "Look! Don't lose sight of what you want—what you need to survive. What you want is everything; how you get it is nothing. I ask such a small thing. The only thing which is stopping you is your own arrogant pride. Such a—"
"NO!" Skywalker twisted free, pulling forward, so weak that he had to catch his weight with the flats of his bruised hands against the floor, wrenching his broken arm back as it made contact, making him yell out.
"Yes," Palpatine sneered, rising to walk away from the hunched man. "This is so much more dignified."
The boy stayed down, his head hung low, one hand to the floor, his injured arm clutched to him, chest heaving.
Palpatine sat again, his black cloak billowing out about him. "Look at yourself. You're no more than an empty shell. A few ragged memories of the man you were. You're nothing."
Still the boy did not raise his head, did not deny the words thrown against him. Palpatine leaned forward and bit out the accusation again with absolute malice, "You're nothing."
"Then kill me." The voice was very small, barbed by thirst, barely a whisper.
Palpatine laughed maliciously and sat back again, his composure reinstated. "I told you I will never do that. No matter what I do to you, I will always rebuild you and do it again...and again. You belong to me."
"Then give me the water."
"You may have it. You have only to kneel."
His Jedi looked again at the water; Palpatine reached out with the Force and made the glass shake just slightly, to clarify that he would simply overturn it if the boy reached for it without his permission, and his Jedi looked down again, to the side, to his battered hands, anywhere but at the glass. And Palpatine knew that he was completely lost.
"This fight is over, my friend." Palpatine reached out with the Force to brush the boy's mind so benignly. "You know it as well as I do. Let it go; do as I ask."
The boy shook his head slowly but didn't look up. He was so close now, so close to surrender. Palpatine could feel his despair, his desolation, his desperation. It drew him in, intoxicating, like a drug. "Why is this so hard? It's nothing; only you and I are here. Whether you sit or kneel, there is no difference; the only difference is in your own mind."
"No! No different! Only different in your mind." The voice of Luke's old Master saying those same words with such scorn floated into Luke's head. Had they really been spoken to him? It seemed so long ago…another lifetime. He struggled to remember his old Master's name...but it was gone, lost to him now.
As if reading his thoughts, Palpatine pushed on, his voice so benevolent. "The reluctance you feel is the relic from an old life…a life which is irrevocably gone now. Are you sure it was ever your own, or were you fighting someone else's battle? Fighting their battles when they have abandoned you to fight yours alone."
Luke let out a breath, more than a sigh but less than a moan, and from the shadows at the edge of his vision Palpatine leaned forward enraptured, grinning in anticipation.
Luke wavered at the very brink. Was it so terrible to kneel?
Oh but he wanted the water. He needed the water. Palpatine was right, nobody cared. Why was he fighting when nobody cared?
It was such a small thing, to kneel. It was nothing, not anymore. He was nothing. So how could it matter? Just kneel and take the water—what does it matter?
Because if you do this now, you hand control of your life over to him. Forever. If he knows he can beat you once, he'll do it again and again and again. You know that.
He licked dry lips with dry tongue.
But he needed the water.
The room was spinning now and he knew it wasn't just the drugs. He'd grown up in the desert; he knew what systematic dehydration was.
He needed the water.
And it was right there…right there!
If you do this, you've given him control. No matter what happens, no matter where you go, you will never truly leave this cell.
You will never leave this cell.
Luke was vaguely aware that he was rocking slightly, so torn by conflicting emotions was he, so desperate to act, to make a choice.
Take the water. It's right there. Right there!
Kneel and drink the water… what does it matter? You'll kneel eventually—you know that now—you know it's the truth.
Kneel—and you'll walk out of this cell tonight…
He glanced up at the Emperor and saw...
Saw the cold black soul behind those cruel yellow eyes. Saw his enjoyment, his gratification, his rapture at Luke's struggle, his anticipation of dominion.
Outrage and resentment and frustration crystallized into cold fury. With a suddenness that was startling, Luke reached out through the Force and launched the glass with fierce violence against the wall, shattering it to tiny shards which exploded back in an outburst of water and sharp crystal shards.
The Emperor half-rose, the blind fury of denial in his eyes and Luke was, for once, almost on his feet, incensed, as the lightning shocked toward him.
For the first time, he absorbed the blast, channeled it, pushed it back so that it crackled towards the Emperor, grounding on the lightning still being thrown towards him, tendrils sparking, burning through Palpatine's defenses to sear cloth and skin, both men pushed apart by the fury of opposing forces, feet sliding over smooth ground.
But his shock at doing this broke Luke's focus, so that when Palpatine drew more power to himself and threw it forward again, it hit with brutal intensity, lancing Luke backwards, searing away any thought of resistance.
He was unconscious before he hit the ground, which did nothing to stay Palpatine's wrath.
When his Red Guards finally opened the door, the Emperor was still fuming. He turned to the nearest, cold fury in his eyes. "My Jedi wants water. Douse him in it, then drug him."
Luke was shocked back to consciousness by freezing water hitting his face and body with a physical force like a blow, in sufficient quantity to push him backwards. He pulled a stunned breath in, too shocked to even cry out. Someone grabbed his arm from behind and a sharp pain pierced the muscle, making him jerk away, curling up in anticipation of another beating.
But as suddenly as it had begun, the assault ended and the guards were gone, the door locking with its familiar double-thud and hermetic hiss behind them.
For several seconds, Luke could only breathe, the intensity of the ice-cold water in the frigid cell freezing his mind, but slowly the throbbing pain in his arm began to take precedence and he brought his hand up to his shoulder. With a deep sting that made him jump, he touched metal, and gingerly teased out the needle which had broken in his arm, dropping the tip into the water pooled about him on the floor, his hand trembling with shock and cold.
Doused head to toe with freezing water, his body temperature dropping drastically, he was already beginning to shiver uncontrollably. He crawled from the water to the corner of the cell, arms about himself. It was only when he noticed the shards of glass that his numb mind realized Palpatine's sick irony...
He had wanted water.
It occurred to him in that bleak moment to wonder if there was a piece of glass large enough to inflict damage, but the knowledge that Palpatine would not allow his Jedi a self-inflicted escape turned his head away; he would only pay for the defiance.
Another shiver wracked his body and he huddled tighter, the grey mist of the drugs darkening, beginning to drag him down. He knew he was too cold, knew that he shouldn't sleep—to sleep now, like this, would sap what few resources his body had left. But the darkness closed in and he was too drained to fight.
The absolute white of the cell—walls, floor and ceiling—dragged his drugged mind back to the memory of Hoth, of the snow falling in blinding flurries, making his vision darken against it. His breath was beginning to mist in front of him as he shivered.
His mind began to drift, remembering Hoth, remembering Han giving him Corellian brandy to ward off the cold. He realized his eyes were closed and snapped them open.
He remembered Han saying that to him when he found him in the snow: 'Don't sleep, Luke. Fight it.'
His teeth were chattering…they were actually chattering! He laughed out loud, the noise turning to mist as it left his mouth.
Time slowed—his head lolled forward, trembling muscles dropping loose, limbs too heavy to support now. Two perfect circles of scarlet dropped to the floor before him as blood dripped from his face, seeming to appear from nowhere in his fading vision. He gazed, transfixed.
Another shiver wracked through him.
An image unfurled, intensity pushing back at the dim fog of the drugs, blossoming outwards in absolute silence, like a flower opening, smooth and graceful.
… … …
… … … … … … …
Two marks, perfect circles of deep scarlet…
Blood on snow. His blood—long ago… Wounds freezing long before they scabbed…
Frigid white changing to warm red, staining the crisp clean drifts.
His life…everything was fading
Hazing into the icy blue of snow in darkness.
Only those ruby red circles remained…
The snow flurried and turned to sand and dust; a whipwind in the desert, scarlet suns setting over the heat-rippled horizon.
Tatooine—dense, bone-deep warmth, the sand itself oozing heat in the balmy dusk.
Twin suns setting, blazing a waning trail through pallid skies, writhing in their own heat haze.
People, places—memories as warm as the pale sand…
Were they his at all? So long ago…
His past, his future, his whole life was fading with the setting suns…
Falling into Darkness…
… … … … … … …
… … … …
After failing to coerce Skywalker to kneel yesterday, Palpatine returned quite literally with a vengeance and brought him to his knees by force, no longer in the mood to play games.
On entering the cell, before his painfully weak Jedi had even begun struggling upright, he had thrown a lance of bright white power at him, making him shout out in shock, throwing him back.
Two Red Guards dragged him to the center of the cell, hauling him upright then kicking at the backs of his knees, forcing him to a kneeling position and holding him there with his arms twisted behind his back as Palpatine crouched before him, the boy shouting out in frustrated resentment and bare pain.
Palpatine took his blood-spiked hair and yanked his head up, holding him still against his weak struggle, looking into those wild, stormy ice-blue eyes, full of indignant outrage.
"You should kneel before your Master."
"You are not my Master!" he yelled, but the words were broken, made hoarse by frailty and his parched throat.
"Then get up," Palpatine goaded, and the boy let out an animal sound part fury, part frustration, and utterly lost.
"Let him go," Palpatine said at last, rising and turning away as his Jedi wrenched free of them, not looking back until they were gone, the door secured behind them.
Skywalker remained on his knees, collapsing back to sit on his bare heel, his broken ankle twisted awkwardly to the side to protect it, one hand clutched tightly to him, the other to the cold white floor, stained now with dark smears of long-dry blood.
For a moment, Palpatine thought he had learned his lesson, but the slump in the boy's shoulders and the fact that he used his hand to keep his swaying body upright hinted that he was simply incapable of doing anything more in this moment.
The Sith circled his Jedi, careful to remain out of his reach should he lash out like a wounded animal, aware now that he could do that, that he was balanced this close to the edge…
The revelation had shocked them both yesterday: Skywalker's ability to repel the lightening—to turn it back on its source. But the reminder of his power only drove Palpatine's vindictive, obsessive need to dominate.
He knew he was gambling with his very life; this was why he had to control his Jedi so completely. He pushed and goaded him towards the Darkness, knowing that in the moment he succumbed, the boy would hold unequalled power. Power which could so easily be turned on his new Master.
This was always the way with the Dark Side—personal experience taught Palpatine this, a lesson hard-learned by his own Master. But now, with Skywalker, the risk was tenfold, because his power would be absolute.
As his father should have been but never was; incredible potential dwindled and diminished by a debilitated body.
Not so his child—what power to hold, to direct and channel as Palpatine saw fit. The very thought made him dizzy with anticipation, the wild, enervating fear in his own black heart pushing him on to control completely, mind and soul.
Yes, fear; it was a long time since he had felt fear. But here, before this being which crackled and pulsed with power, he tasted the acid tang in the back of his throat again and it made him feel alive. And the more he feared, the more he felt the driving desire to own that which inspired it.
He could sense the power building like a pressure keg within his Jedi, screaming for release now.
Just a little further; push him just a little harder.
He crouched again to lift his Jedi's chin, face bloody and bruised, breath shallow and broken. "Where are your reserves, my friend? Where is that iron will now?"
The boy was silent, numb with exhaustion.
"Have you nothing left to give? Is this the sum of all your convictions? How easily your principles crumble."
Still the boy was silent, didn't even pull away when Palpatine released him to reach out and run pale fingers through his dark, blood-matted hair, head dropping forward.
He sensed the boy flounder in wretched despair for long seconds before that obstinate, intractable will lifted his sagging head, but Palpatine only smiled at him, yellow teeth against grey skin.
"The end is in sight. Just a little longer," he promised, very sure. Again he raked long fingers through his Jedi's hair, nails to scalp, fingers closing, holding him tight. "Do you sense it? Shall we move forward?"
He leaned in close to whisper against the boy's grazed, bleeding skin, "Now is the true test, my friend—because I have not even begun to break you. I have not even begun to tear you apart. Your worst nightmare that howls in the dead of night is nothing—what happens here, in this room, will make it pale; wither by comparison. And there is no waking—there is no respite. I have not shown you a fraction of the power which I will turn on you—what I am willing to do to set you free. Don't give in yet, Jedi—the fight is just begun."
He held against the boy's sagging head. "What do you fear, Jedi? What do you see in the dark when your demons come?"
The boy's chest heaved as he summoned the strength to speak. It took long seconds, but when he did, he was unmoved, raising a scuffed and scarred face, split lip curling into a snarl.
"Have you finished?" he spat out, resentment giving him voice, coloring words and thoughts alike.
Palpatine stared in malevolent silence, yellow eyes glowing.
Skywalker's own eyes narrowed, cold as ice, voice broken and weak but invested with a power and conviction which held Palpatine captive. "I know…I know what you'll do. And I know why.
"Because I see you too—I see you. I know what you see—your demon in the dark. It's hunted you and it's haunted you since you first gained power and it stalks you still. Everything that you've done has been to contain it and control it—everything. You've spent a lifetime building walls within walls to protect yourself from it. You've wasted decades raising those defenses to try to make yourself completely impregnable...but there's one tiny spark of doubt in your mind and it burns through your soul, and in the dead of night it howls in the darkness. Because nothing could stop it—nothing. Not even you. I know what you see in the darkness because it burns when you look in my eyes. I know what you see in the dark when your demon comes...
I know that it's me."
Palpatine walked down the empty corridors of this dedicated level of the Detention Center, designed specifically to hold his Jedi. The twelve Royal Guards who had left the cell with him followed at a discrete distance, their sense in the Force casually brutal, indifferent to the pain they inflicted on Palpatine's command.
He had remained with his Jedi for almost an hour, taunting and provoking, spurring and inciting him until the boy was too weary and too drained and too numb to even try to listen or retaliate any more. Then the guards had entered, as they always did, and beaten from him what little awareness he'd had left.
In a few hours, before the boy had been able to rest, Palpatine would return and begin again, with the guards awaiting their cue. Then perhaps once more tonight—or in the early hours of the morning.
Or perhaps he would simply tell the boy that he would return tonight and leave him hanging…
Skywalker's perceptive accusations, hurled out every day now with such vindictive, bitter malice against that which injured and tormented him, had left Palpatine both gratified and uneasy. As that began to sharpen, the boy's aggrieved, persecuted threats became ever more biting and barbed, aimed with cold precision and hostile animosity. No longer momentary outbursts, but genuine, serious threats.
Again, the Sith Master was aware that he must walk a fine line; he must control his Jedi without stifling this raging wrath, but he could not have it aimed at himself—he must remain forever beyond such notions. So with Vader gone, it had fallen to Palpatine's Royal Guard to become the unknowing brunt of the boy's frustration and feed all that outrage and passion and fire; to concentrate it on that single source.
Because soon now, it would boil over into fury…
Something was changing.
Within the Palace, all about him—he could sense it.
Sitting huddled in the freezing darkness of his cell, deep in the bowels of the huge, hulking Palace, removed from anything which was real or of any substance, he still sensed it.
Everything was becoming surreal; unreal. He wasn't sure when he was unconscious and when he was awake anymore. The only thing which separated reality from nightmares was that reality was hard to remember—twisted nightmares came to mind far too easily.
The Darkness which had been snapping in silence at his heels for so long, now howled like a wolf in the dead of night.
It warped perceptions and contorted the shadows about him, twisting his thoughts and his dreams, always close, always waiting…waiting for something to happen.
It clung close, firing his anger and feeding his outrage; fuelling his fear every time he heard the hiss of the cell door opening and the whispering drag of cloth against cold, hard floors as his tormentor returned.
Driven by something stronger than exhaustion and weakness and broken bones, he paced his cell like a captive animal, like a caged wolf in the dead of night—or was that a dream? Because something Dark and hard and terribly powerful stood at his shoulder in fevered nightmares, shrouded in his shadow just beyond awareness. Pushing down, pressing in, suffocating. Closing inexorably about him, waiting for its moment.
A pivotal moment—a fracture point.
He would not turn…or had he already?
He knew the power which coursed about him, the power which the Emperor goaded him into calling up. He knew that it was Darkness. And each time, as it came so easily to answer his anger and resentment, it left a shallow imprint on his soul, a mark which no light could burn away, a moment lost to Darkness. So many moments lost…
He pushed it away, denied it...but in those bleak, wild moments it felt so right—absolute clarity amid raging chaos.
And now he couldn't push it back. Too many moments—too many to register. They had fused into one, the Darkness blurring into a single, hulking mass in his shadow, calling him, howling in the oppressive silence of his prison.
Amid all his confusion, like the calm eye at the center of the darkest storm, it beckoned.
He'd stood so long against the tempest—one moment of calm was worth his mind. Worth his life. His soul. He would give them willingly, without hesitation, if the Darkness offered even one moment of peaceful oblivion.
Was he lost already?
Something was changing.
He was very much afraid that it was him.
Absolute bone-deep heat. It wrapped about Luke like a blanket, its comforting familiarity promising release and refuge, its reassuring warmth soothing taut, aching muscles into heavy, weary release.
He was lying on his back in the desert looking up at the stars, the familiar sounds of the homestead murmuring at the edges of his perception. Vaporators humming, the perimeter shields hissing quiet static. Someone crossed the courtyard below, clothes rustling, sand whispering as it was brushed aside.
He blinked slowly, completely at peace, staring serenely up to those scattered points of glistening light in the velvet darkness, distant suns heating distant worlds. The sand was still warm against his back, soft and yielding, surrendering the heat of the day. The air, baked dry by twin suns, was cooling now in the night's creeping embrace.
A door ground open, the grinding grate of plasteel against plasteel unfamiliar here, the whisper of heavy cloth against permacrete shivering through him, tearing into the warm memories, ripping away the heat of the desert and the comfort of home and leaving only cold, hard floor at his back, body aching, every breath a knife-stab in battered muscles and broken bones.
The weight of reality pressed in about him, pulling tired, gritty eyes open. He blinked several times, but blood-cast eyes couldn't focus on the dark shadow that crouched over him now, sense intent on his own.
But then, he didn't need sight to know…
"How are you this evening, my friend?" The Emperor's voice grated with empty, mocking compassion as he knelt beside Luke. "You look tired."
Luke didn't bother to answer, blinking slowly then letting his bruise-rimmed eyes fall closed, his awareness drifting in a haze of hunger and thirst and pain and exhaustion.
He felt Palpatine rest the flat of his palm against his chest in warning and tensed in anticipation of a violent shock.
"Answer me when I speak to you," Palpatine said without malice.
"You know the answer," Luke murmured, voice broken by his parched throat.
His tormentor smiled at that. "I wish to hear you say it."
Palpatine watched the boy's lips tighten in a momentary flare of stubbornness. He faltered at the very edge now, mentally and physically. Body a mass of bruised and grazed skin, dozens of cuts left to bleed dry unheeded. His eyes—those wonderful ice-blue eyes—were dull now, shot through with blood, one so badly that no white was visible at all. His ankle had been re-broken at some point, the massive bruise stretching down over the sole of his foot. Not that he could have stood anyway. He watched without feeling as the boy's eyes fluttered when he began to drift, prompting Palpatine to press the flat of his palm harder against his Jedi's chest, calling the Darkness to him.
The boy's eyes snapped open, muscles tensed against the implied threat.
"How are you this evening?" Palpatine repeated easily.
He tried to remain silent, Palpatine knew, but twelve long weeks had gone into establishing the precedent that no matter what, they spoke. So even now, in this dire, aggrieved situation, that ingrained practice held sway as his Jedi sighed lightly, turning away, all fight gone.
"I'm tired," he said at last, defeated. "Very tired." Unable to stop himself, he glanced to the door.
"Yes, they are there, waiting," Palpatine said, knowing what the boy was thinking, sensing his anxious apprehension in a scarlet spike of fear.
Luke's stomach twisted, his chest burning in despair as he closed his eyes against the knowledge, for all the good it did him. It wouldn't stop them—nothing did. His mind numbed against that knowledge, unable to deal with the reality of imminent torment.
"Shall I call them now… or shall we talk, my friend?" Palpatine asked.
Luke hesitated, wishing to delay the inevitable, knowing this was a pointless act, but unable to do otherwise.
"Talk," he finally conceded, the whispered word escaping him in a resigned sigh.
"And what shall we discuss?" Palpatine asked indulgently, hand still resting against Luke's chest.
Luke shook his head slightly against the hard floor, too tired to play these games any more.
"Answer me when I speak to you." There was a biting demand in the words, the voice dropping lower.
"I don't care," Luke whispered.
"Hmm. Perhaps they will come in now," Palpatine reproached. "Yes, that would be for the best."
Luke only curled up and turned away from the door. He was past arguing—it did no good.
He heard again the rustle of cloth against the hard floor, felt the cloak brush against his shoulder, even that a knife-sharp scrape against bruised and broken skin, making him jerk away, lighting a shock of pain in tense, burning muscles.
The door opened with its familiar double-grind of reinforced plasteel and he braced as they came forward in meaningful steps, force-pikes activating, their grating buzz cutting through the air...
They gathered about him…and attacked.
"Stop," Palpatine said quietly, and the world fell to silence, Luke letting out a gasp—the first noise he had made since the assault had begun—and he didn't shout out anymore.
"Leave," the Sith ordered, and they stalked from the room in a silent pack, no trace of guilt, no hint of compassion. Only blind obedience.
The hush lay heavy when the door finally ground closed, Palpatine remaining very still, so that all Luke could hear was his own heart pounding, slow and irregular, his breath ragged in his lungs as he lay still to wait for the blinding pain to subside, even a little.
Eventually that whisper of heavy cloth sounded, making Luke's breath hitch in his throat. But all he could do was remain curled up on the cold blood-stained floor, struggling to breathe, drifting somewhere between pain and unconsciousness.
Palpatine crouched beside him, taking Luke's shoulder and turning him about so that they were facing, breathtaking spasms of pain wracking his body at this.
"Shall we talk, my friend?" he asked again.
"What do you want?" Luke gasped, desperate and despairing. Whatever it was, in that bleak moment if he could have done it he would have.
Palpatine's voice was calm and reasonable, completely unmoved by the pain wrought at his command without any true provocation—he no longer bothered to wait for reasons or excuses, they were beyond that now.
"Nothing. I have everything I want," he said, a knowing echo of his words in their very first meeting. "What do you want?"
Hope. The word, the need, came desperately to mind, though he didn't say it out loud.
"I can give it to you—if only you'd stop fighting me," Palpatine said, and Luke knew he'd been listening to his thoughts—had expected no less.
Palpatine reached out to gently finger matted hair back from Luke's eyes, the action as near to genuine compassion as Luke had ever known from him. "You are lost, child…but I believe in you. In what you can be. You will be my greatest apprentice."
Luke didn't bother replying, remaining on his side, eyes half-closed. What was left to say?
Palpatine settled contentedly beside his Jedi, admiring again that willful stance, even as he sought to break it. He set his head to one side, unmoved by the boy's agony and exhaustion and desolate despair, radiating out into the Force unchecked. "I know what a hard thing I am asking of you."
The boy's gaze came up at that, his right eye cast through blood-red, where a blow had come too close, and Palpatine smiled indulgently. "I've told you—I understand you. You are so very much like your father."
His Jedi blinked slowly, beyond bothering to contradict.
"But this fight is long lost, my friend. You know that. It was lost the moment you came here. It was lost the moment you first touched the Force, the moment you left Tatooine, the moment you were born. The moment your father knelt before me, he condemned you too."
The boy let out a low sigh, eyes unfocused, but Palpatine knew he was listening.
"He made you everything that you are. Because of him, you will serve me—and you know it." Palpatine paused expectantly, though his Jedi only closed his eyes. "But I understand you—I know why you do this, even if you don't understand yourself."
The boy opened his eyes, and Palpatine gazed into them, so listless and grey now, dark bruises making them seem pale.
They would burn again, Palpatine knew, as bright and as cold as ever. But his Jedi was afraid now, afraid to touch the Force—afraid of the Darkness which answered when he did.
So close now…
"You're fighting because it's what you were born for, child. You're fighting because it's in your blood. You're fighting because you don't know how to stop." Palpatine shook his head gently, his tone indulgent. "But you have nothing left to fight for, my friend—so you're fighting against. Because that's all that is left to you."
He took the boy's chin, lifting that numb gaze up to his own. "Let me give you something worth fighting for. Something worth any price...worth any risk."
"What?" How weary and wary that voice.
"Power," the Sith whispered, eyes lighting at the mere word.
"I don't want that power," the boy refused, voice desperately weak.
"You already have it, child. It's already loose. You could no more choose not to use it than you could choose not to breathe."
"I could choose…to stop. To end this now,"
Palpatine only shook his head. "You know I would never let you, my friend. You're worth far too much to me."
With studied care, he wiped the blood from a deep, oozing split above the boy's eye with his sleeve; he didn't flinch, no longer seemed to notice at all. "You could never let yourself. I told you—you were born to fight, one way or another."
He smiled as he held his pallid, scarlet-stained hand before those lost blue eyes. "It's in your blood."
Luke didn't move as Palpatine let his hand fall away, didn't speak, all fight gone.
Yes, he felt it; baying, howling with raw, primal power greater than any storm, calling to be used, wrapping about him like a heavy cloak, empowering and stifling both.
All hope was gone in this forsaken place, his mind and his soul surrendering to the shadows. Deserted and desolate for too long, alone against the onslaught, it had simply become too hard to keep it alight within himself and slowly, gradually, in subtle, guileful increments or tearing, fury-driven outbursts, Palpatine had bled it away, until only the shadows remained.
It was his now, this Darkness which enclosed him. There by his making.
And the Emperor knew it.
They were all around her, Leia knew—all around her and closing in. The hunting bay of the pack in the darkness. She never saw them, only heard them, heard their breath as they ran to either side of her, animal grunts in the pitch black of the night, glints of eyes in the shadows.
And then she came to the canyon, as she had time and again, feet slipping, digging up gouges in the soft sand which sprayed over the precipice into the bottomless gulley beyond.
And the pack closed in, panting in the darkness, her heels to that terrifying drop…
Leia's body jerked from sleep so violently that Han scrambled upright, fumbling for the blaster he kept under the pillow, shouting out.
Leia let out a half-sob beside him.
"Hey, you alright?" Han murmured gently, reaching out to embrace her.
But Leia was already shrinking from his arms, sliding from the bed and folding her wrap about her against the chill of the ship's night-cycle.
"I'm fine. It was just…" She didn't finish—but then she didn't need to. He knew.
Every night now—every night they came...
Days passed in a blur of pain, never a moment's respite. And always the guards, minds blanketed with violence and hostility. Then the Emperor, cursing and cajoling, capricious and volatile, hard and spiteful and cruel.
Then the guards returned.
Then another day, exactly the same as the last.
Then another day.
The dreams were sharp and barbed now, like claws scratching at his sanity, like the Emperor's nails dragging across his scalp when he trailed those skeletal, bone-white fingers through matted hair.
Bright-white light bled into the sun-bleached memory of Beggar's Canyon on Tatooine, towering above the distant dunes.
A child again, no more than nine or ten, Luke sat at the very edge of the precipice, legs hanging over the sheer drop, heels kicking at the canyon walls, dislodging fine pebbles to fall from the light into distant darkness far below, a fractured fissure of cold, parched, lifeless rock which never saw the light of day.
A shadow fell over him, the baking heat momentarily chilled and he turned, squinting as the twin suns flared a corona behind the form of a boy of his own age, unfamiliar though his clothes were similar to Luke's own, dusted with desert sand, his mop of brown hair bleached pale by twin suns.
He didn't look at Luke, but instead stared beyond, intent on the depths of the chasm, fascinated…
Luke leaned forward to look over the steep precipice, morbid curiosity calling him on. He leaned further, trying to see what held the boy's attention so completely…
The deep canyon fell into eerie darkness, the wind lifting to whip the baked sand into dust-devils. He glanced back, but the child was gone and the summer sky had turned to night, familiar stars glinting through velvet black.
Far below he heard a howl, wild and primal, sending a shiver down his spine, dragging his eyes back to the canyon floor where a deep, fast-flowing river had replaced centuries-dry stone, stars reflected and distorted in its inky depths, foam whipping white waves up at its edges, a distant ribbon of black against the sheer rust red of the towering ravine walls.
The wind shrieked in a fury now, buffeting him, driving and dragging, the sand beneath Luke's hands giving no purchase as he tried to scrabble back.
He toppled from the ridge, tumbling forward in freefall, arms outstretched, crying out, desperate for someone—anyone—to hear.
He twisted as he fell, the night falling away, his world, his whole life, shrinking to a distant, narrow slit between the confining canyon, the roar of the river louder and louder…
It hit like a body-blow, the water freezing, shocking, black as ink, the sky immediately lost to its depths—
Hold your breath…
Still he was pulled deeper, whispers of air trailing away from him in pearl bubbles—
Hold your breath…
Down, the freezing, pitch water pressing in on him now as he struggled against its pull—
Hold your breath…
Down…reality long-gone, legs kicking against nothing, no hope of ever resurfacing—
Hold you breath...one second longer...
His lungs were burning now, no up, no down, no sky, no light, just pitch black—
One second longer…
His chest heaved, desperate to pull in air, fingers outstretched, searching for something…anything—
Just one second longer…
Lungs locked in contention—
His eyes closed, dizzy and tired…and he stopped struggling, stopped fighting, stopped hoping.
With a gasp, he drew in breath...and only the dark water answered, flooding into his lungs, dragging him down like a stone…and every last hope fell away with that breath, displaced by the inky, ice-cold water—
He closed his eyes and drowned…
Leia dragged herself upright, clawing at the sheets, pulling in huge gasps of air, desperate and blind and terrified.
"Ho! It's alright! It's alright Leia. It's alright…" Han had reached up, arms about her, pulling her back to reality as she gasped for air, his voice shocked and reassuring all at once.
"S'okay," he repeated, over and over. "It's okay, Leia. It's alright… It's alright. No one's gonna hurt you. No one can hurt you. You're safe… You're safe…
He was shaken awake, hoisted half-upright as his eyelids fluttered open, then dropped to the ground.
He curled defensively as he fell, knowing it wouldn't be enough, hearing the hissing buzz of the force-pikes.
The first jolt shocked through the small of his back as he fell, making already aching muscles contract violently.
The second jolt hit his shoulder, two more on his arm, cramping muscles, the pain driving the air from his lungs in a gasp.
Too many after that. Too many to register individually as they crowded in around him. Just pain, raw and sharp and hard, taking his breath away, piercing his mind.
"Stop." Palpatine's voice, quiet and calm and cold.
Stop. Luke's breath caught in his throat, muscles contracting involuntarily as if they were still being shocked.
Louder than a scream came the whisper of heavy cloth against the smooth white floor, ever closer.
Footsteps paused close to his head; silence reigned.
Then the rustle of cloth as it pooled against the floor beside him.
He couldn't speak.
"Jedi?" A hand brushed oh so gently against his cheek and into his hair, making him physically jump.
"Should they continue?"
The word wouldn't come, but his bloody lips mouthed it all the same: No.
"I think they should." The voice was hard now, disappointed.
No, Master, he mouthed in silence.
He sensed the smile, the gratification.
"Was that so very hard, my friend?"
Long silence, his heart beating hard against his chest.
"Was that so very hard?"
No. His lips barely moved now.
Another pause. He tried to breathe past the pain, to swallow the blood in his throat before it choked him.
"Should I leave, my friend? Do you wish me gone?"
"Then I will leave you. With them." The heavy raven cloak scratched against Luke's face as its wearer rose.
Palpatine walked on without hesitation—
The footsteps paused fractionally, then continued—
They halted; Luke pulled in breath, desperation giving him voice, hoarse and broken...
"No Master. Please…don't leave."
That smile again, searing into his mind. He didn't need to see it, he didn't need to hear it in the Sith's voice. It was burned into his soul.
"I will never truly leave you, my friend. Never again."
His Master turned and walked quietly back, the whisper of that midnight cloak sending shivers up his spine as the Sith crouched low to murmur beguilingly. "Do you wish them to stop? Do you hate them for what they do to you? How you must hate them. How you must fear them. How easily you give them control over you."
—How easily you could stop them— This last was for him alone. "This is my gift to you, my friend. One that I could not give to you any sooner than this moment. The gift of freedom."
Luke knew that this freedom was also slavery. He no longer cared.
"But I cannot give you this gift, my friend. You must take it. It is all around you, only waiting for you to call it into your control. But you must call it my friend. You alone."
His Master's voice was barely a whisper as he leaned in close, his finger raking a line through the blood on Luke's cheek.
"Call it to you. You alone can end this."
With a flurry of cloth, his Master stood and walked away, and he knew that nothing would stop him from leaving. And he knew that when he left…
The door ground shut and the lock fell home and the guards around him closed in again.
No…not again…no more.
Anger and fear welled up within him and the Darkness answered it, potent and familiar, tracing through fiery spoor burned into his mind through weeks and months of torment—
And he didn't push it away. He didn't hold back. No accident this, no momentary slip—
He opened himself to it, opened his mind and his soul, let it channel through him—
Infallible clarity; the knowledge of absolute, unconditional power. No restrictions, no consequences. Waiting to be used, asking for direction, screaming for release—
The air charged; like the moment before lightning strikes—
The force-pike thrust in toward him—so slowly; so very slowly, as if time itself bowed to the Darkness. Luke twisted and easily caught the blunt tip. It discharged into his hand, but the shock was contained within the Darkness; the pain was still there, but now it didn't matter anymore. His anger pushed past it, narrowed to absolute focus.
He channeled the Darkness toward the man holding the pike; threw it into him, ripped out in every direction at once. An organic sound like tearing silk, like water exploding—a deluge of scarlet rain.
And the man was gone.
Still the Darkness poured into him, savage and unshackled, and he gave it focus, head snapping up, eyes wild.
He rolled as they scattered, pulling his feet under him, the power coursing into him, unstoppable now, giving life to ripped muscles, pulling broken bones together. Power to slough off any injury, to burst through exhaustion and pain, to see past sight. He could sense their fear and it only fed his desire for revenge. He didn't look, didn't need to. The Darkness raced at the speed of thought, jumping from man to man, from corpse to corpse. The warm scarlet mist spread and spattered; on his skin, on his clothes, in his hair.
He ripped through them like a tornado, like wildfire, every last shred of control given up to the raging power.
Violent retribution, cold and hard and merciless. The air hazed with it, his lungs filled with it; copper taste as warm ruby rain settled out from the air.
When there was only one left alive, hammering the door for escape, he paused…
And turned slowly. In the bloody mask of his face, his eyes shone cold and blue, like ice in twilight.
With absolute calm he wrapped the Darkness about the guard, drawing his eyes to his own, holding him transfixed for several seconds, giving him time to realize.
Then his eyes hardened and the Darkness hardened and he closed it in so slowly, pressing on lungs and bone and fragile tissue, holding contact with those terrified eyes until the life within was crushed.
He turned and walked away, the multiple 'cr-ack' as he collapsed the Darkness completely in on itself pulling the slightest twitch of a satisfied smile to bloody lips.
He sat very still on the only chair, possessed of the distant calm of a trauma victim as he looked, strangely detached, at the carnage about him, the walls wet with staccato trails of deep scarlet, the metallic tang of raw blood still in the air.
Somewhere deep inside, his conscience shrieked in horror as he let out a trembling breath, momentary realization buzzing through him, horrific in its consequences.
But he called the Darkness to him and it soothed like a balm, smothering the scream within...
Oh, but it had felt so good.
Palpatine stood in the shadows of the corridor, transfixed with the relish of indulgent gratification, achievement of this final, long-anticipated goal. Such power; such tormented agony released. It was a transcendental moment, surpassing his every expectation, fluid and wild; savagely poetic, utterly enthralling.
It had taken his fallen Jedi less than a minute to slaughter them all.
Luke sat silently in the chair, tired and wired, surrounded by Darkness. Potent.
His Master entered the cell, his sense ecstatic, fiery with conquest, drunk on the raw power which swirled about them, intensity magnified and expanded as it ricocheted and recoiled between them.
Now; now he understood why.
His Master walked toward him through the carnage, laughing lightly. Bone-white fingers raked through Luke's hair, leaving caustic trails of Darkness behind them; power drawn to power.
"You were born for this moment, my friend. If you ever doubt, remember this. Remember what you are capable of. Nothing is beyond you now."
Strong fingers closed tightly and his head was yanked back. "Nothing except me. Understand that."
It was made as a statement of absolute fact. But the Darkness whispered his fear—whispered the truth.
Luke held eye contact with his Master for a moment, considering… Then he blinked, dropped his gaze in submission—for now. "I understand."
He felt abruptly indescribably tired; his body sagged. His pain, so easily willed away, now washed over him in waves. His vision split and blurred, his breath came ragged.
But he waited.
He wanted desperately to rest, to sleep. But he waited until his Master allowed it.
He would wait as long as was required of him.
—Rest now, Dark Jedi—
With absolute relief, absolute calm, Luke fell back into the Darkness, let it smother him completely, gave himself into its cold embrace.
Distantly, he felt his Master's hand on his cheek, sensed his laughter in his mind.
Then that too was gone, and only the Darkness remained.
Exhausted beyond all conscious denial or acceptance, Luke slipped willingly down into a state of merciful unconsciousness which freed him from cold, harsh reality, and so was unaware as others whispered into the room, hushed footsteps dragging scarlet smears across the blood-spattered floors.
In the still silence they gathered about him and with infinite care lifted his inert form to carry him in quiet reverence from the carnage.
Palpatine paused alone a moment longer, loathed to relinquish the rapture of the moment. The boy's father had killed many times with the Force, as he had himself, but this had been different. He had forgotten how inspiring it could be.
First blood was always an enthralling, enrapturing moment—total surrender of rational reason to raw emotion, powerful, empowering.
But this, the culmination of so long and desperate a struggle, the fracture point, the pivotal moment when all previous beliefs and convictions fell away, this had been…like art created—sublime.
Worth every second of denied fulfillment.
The boy was the realization of everything that his father should have been—raw potential ascended. Without compromise this time.
It was at once terrifying and exhilarating to bend such power to one's will. To control it and not have it control you—destroy you. Like taming a tornado—elemental, empowering.
Only now was he grounding after the high of his feral Jedi's spectacular fall from grace.
Finally he could move forward and train the boy in the ways of the Sith, make him everything his father should have been—would have been, had Kenobi not cut him down.
Palpatine sighed wistfully as he finally walked from the cell, the silent little entourage gone now. He walked slowly to the waiting turbolift, lost in considerations.
It would be interesting to try to keep them both, father and son. To hold them both and play them against each other until one of them finally snapped.
But Skywalker's power was too great, eclipsing all other considerations. It would require his full attention to control his Dark Jedi for some time yet, to ensure that he was brought fully to heel. Now was a dangerous time; Skywalker was more than a Jedi, but not yet a Sith, not yet deferring completely to his new Master's will.
It would, he knew, be better to break this final link; not risk emotional complications with one for whom this had always been a flaw.
And yet…it appealed to his twisted sense of possession…
The rule had been laid centuries past that there would be only two Sith—Master and apprentice. But Palpatine knew himself beyond such limiting restrictions. They were made to guide those less capable than he. He could achieve more… Had achieved so much already. And now there were no restrictions to hamper him, no Jedi to obstruct his plans, no 'Son of Suns' to hinder him, all prophetic predictions laid to rest by his own hand.
Palpatine entered his Jedi's apartments, cold from their long empty spell as he had shaped his Jedi into his Sith. He smiled at that—not quite a Sith yet, but no longer a Jedi; not for some time. Though he liked the designation—ironic now. His final revenge on those who had thought to contain him. He must, after all, call his new apprentice something, and why not this—his feral Jedi, tamed now. Bound and brought to heel.
He entered the dark room where his Jedi lay in the huge, high bed, the reflected flickering of the firelight casting writhing shadows over his still form. Pale, bloody, bruised skin against perfect white.
So still did he lay that the white linen seemed draped about him like a shroud, the opulent surroundings of carved wood and rich, dark, heavy fabrics not quite able to displace the disquieting atmosphere, as cold and silent and still as the tomb.
The Emperor's thin lips pulled back from yellowed teeth; yes, Lord Vader could be ordered to return soon. He had a very important task to provide for his Master, one only he could fulfill. He would enable Palpatine's new Jedi to cut this final tie himself, a conclusive test of absolute loyalty, of Palpatine's unconditional control, of his Jedi's mastery over his greatest weakness.
A trial as their kind had always tested themselves—their abilities, their allegiance, their convictions.
A duel. To the death? Perhaps. If only in intent…
He so wanted to loose this wild thing, this wolf. Wanted to see if he had tamed it enough that it would come to heel when he called.
Wanted to unleash it just to see it fight.
He would need to begin training the boy in the ways of the Sith immediately; equip him with the skills to match his power. Power alone was not enough; that was Vader's way, to push through with incredible brute strength, to get the job done effectively, but with neither finesse nor élan.
The blunt instrument. Incredibly powerful and infinitely more experienced than his son. A deadly combination, proving effective time and again.
Skywalker would need a great deal to counter it. But Palpatine had studied him from afar, as soon as he had learned the name of the pilot who had destroyed his Death Star with that single, impossible shot. Studied him without giving the name over to his father—first as a new enemy, then more recently, long before Vader had tried to hide his own gaping weaknesses and subtle treacheries behind his suggestion to turn the child, as a possible apprentice.
Watched Skywalker's progress through the ranks of the Rebellion long before he noted the boy's latent Force talents emerging; noted his fast mind, steady under fire, his focus, always keeping his eye on the end goal.
Attributes which could easily be applied to the art of the duel.
A great duelist fought like a chess master, always keeping his eye on the larger picture, on the move ten steps ahead from where he was now, driving his opponent from check to check, maintaining the impetus, always pro-active, compelling his opponent to be re-active, forcing a mistake. Speed in mind and body, refinement of technique. The fine blade.
Vader had commented that their duel on Bespin had revealed the boy to be far more experienced and capable than he had expected. Knowing now that Yoda had trained him, Palpatine could well understand why; the wily old Jedi Master had always excelled at training padawans in lightsaber technique.
But some things could not be taught. The boy must have some innate skills in order to have faced down and out-maneuvered a trained Jedi-turned-Sith of Vader's ability, turning what should have been a very short and decisive victory into a near-fiasco. Probably the same focus and composure, the same mental speed and agility which made him an exemplary fighter-pilot.
Since the boy obviously had natural ability and Master Yoda had already unwittingly aided the Emperor immensely in completing his basic training, it was left to Palpatine only to hone that skill, to teach him to find his strengths and utilize them, to read another's weaknesses and exploit them. To tutor and train and instill into the boy the subtleties and uncompromising precision of technique which would make him exceptional.
Lord Vader had few flaws in the duel and he disguised them well, but the Emperor was quietly confident. He did not wish to lose Vader—the idea of owning both Vader and Skywalker still held appeal. But if he must sacrifice one to control the other, then it was Vader he would surrender.
His new Empire could be built with Skywalker in a way that it never could with Vader. He would be harder to control than his father, but the gains would outweigh the risks.
And in the chess game of absolute dominion, one should willingly surrender even major pieces in pursuit of one's final goal.
He had time enough to prepare the boy, to lay in place the skills necessary to counter Vader. To hone his fine blade. After that, well then, the boy was on his own.
Yes—speed and technique against brute force and experience.
His two highest-value pieces; would he be forced to relinquish one in order to possess the other? Already he smiled in anticipation...
If he were to sacrifice Lord Vader to secure his son's loyalty, then he should at least be entertained by the spectacle. If Skywalker couldn't defeat Vader, Palpatine had lost nothing; he still had Lord Vader…and this moment. This realization of unrivalled dominion, the memory of his Jedi's magnificent, explosive, incomparable fall still fresh enough to instigate a burning burst of energized adrenaline.
And even in death, Skywalker could still serve a purpose...
As he had done when his Jedi had first arrived here, Palpatine reached out to rest his hand on its forehead, to feel again that locus of power, intoxicating, potent, addictive.
And there was something else there now, disconnected and distinct, like oil on water.
Darkness imbued his Jedi's contact with the Force. A razor-sharp focus, intensity magnified and expanded by it, bringing a gratified smile to Palpatine's thin lips, which vanished abruptly as another thought occurred, compulsive and compelling.
He should kill him; kill him now while he slept.
He was too powerful, too great a risk. He remembered again Skywalker's biting accusations in the cell—that it was he who prowled through Palpatine's darkest nightmare visions, he who had been the threat hanging over the Sith's head for so long. He who was Palpatine's demon in the darkness, the wolf who hunted in the shadows...and he knew it.
He should kill him. Destroy that nightmare vision once and for all.
His thoughts turned momentarily back to his own Master, Plagueis, killed in his sleep by an apprentice too powerful to contain. Palpatine rubbed a sharp nail over his thin lips as the memory turned into a cruel smile.
But his Master had been careless, to trust his apprentice so readily, to allow him so much free will. Overconfidence had made him blind to the possibility of betrayal. Palpatine would never make that mistake. His fallen Jedi would be closely watched, tightly controlled, any defiance ruthlessly dealt with.
Yes, he would keep the boy, let him live. The past months had been exhilarating, invigorating. His raw power, his obstinate, willful refusal to obey would always make him difficult to control, but the thrill of an apprentice who had the potential to turn on him in a way that Vader never had was in itself stimulating.
He had owned a trained attack dog for too long, Palpatine realized. It was powerful and it was pitiless, but it always came to heel.
Now he had a wolf—unbroken and unpredictable and craving to run.
Would it ever walk to heel as its father had?
Vader simply didn't have the will to challenge his Master directly; he never had. Palpatine's hold over him, instilled in childhood, had always been too great. He may covet total power, crave it, make subtle, veiled moves against his Master in pursuit of it, but his desire and his audacity were worlds apart. He had never challenged the Emperor directly, had never faced him down, had never drawn blood as his son had, both literally and figuratively.
Again Palpatine wavered, indecisive in the face of this genuine threat… But how could one destroy such compelling power, fascinating in its indomitable defiance?
Wildly volatile though—difficult to contain under pressure. And still in ascendancy, only just finding its way, the path being carefully meted out by Palpatine. Was he teaching his executioner, as Darth Plagueis had?
Would he always be able to curb and restrain it?
But it was so incredibly alive—provocative, mesmerizing.
Greater risk for greater gain.
And such gains; he had sensed that earlier, as his Jedi had called the stormy Darkness to him, had first truly used it and not allowed it to use him. The air itself had crackled with power, raw and raging. A new current in the Darkness, feral and unrestrained, opening a new portal. Power had come rushing through and Palpatine had bathed in its reflected glory, had felt himself renewed and invigorated by the dynamic inrush, felt his own barren soul nourished and gratified, his own lust for power momentarily satiated by proximity to this distinct new consciousness.
Power which would soon be equal to his own, backed by that driving, singular will.
Power which was a real threat.
Again Palpatine hesitated, indecisive…
But he did not want to destroy that which he had invested so much in creating. He was well aware that his desire to possess may be influencing his decision, but he was prepared to kill him if he had to. The boy was simply too powerful to risk any insubordination.
That, Palpatine had learned from his own Master's very costly mistake. It had, after all, been Palpatine who had taken a steel assassin's blade to the throat of Darth Plagueis.
Silent steel rather than a lightsaber, whose distinctive sound would have given its victim a moment's warning. He had identified the most suitable tool for the job, unbound by the ingrained tradition of a lifelong formal education in the Force.
The fact that Skywalker too had been trained only in adulthood rather than from birth had given him a similarly unexpected advantage in that he did not rely too completely on the Force, preferring to take a more balanced approach, applying that quick, adaptive mind to think his way around a situation rather than fall immediately back on the Force.
Yes, Skywalker too would use stealth rather than brute force, would use every weapon at his disposal, which gave him an unpredictable edge in any conflict. The Emperor smiled, almost affectionate; in this they were very much alike.
He stared down at the boy, who lay absolutely still mind and body, lost in the void between unconsciousness and exhaustion.
"Rest, Dark Jedi. Tomorrow is the start of a new life." Using the Force, he pushed the boy into deep sleep.
And this time, his Jedi did not fight back.
Taking his hand away only reluctantly, Palpatine's eye was drawn to two dark droplets of blood by the boy's head, perfect circles of scarlet against the snow white linen, drawing him in, hypnotic…
The vision took him, unfurling like a silent explosion, ripping reality aside...
… … …
… … … … … … …
He saw the wolf in the night, the feral creature which had haunted his visions for two long decades, whispering through the darkness, wild and capricious. In a flurry of shadows it was gone, as it always was, and he stared at the empty stillness…
He turned, uncertain, the silence profound.
Knelt before him in mute stillness was his fallen Jedi, eyes turned down in submissive defeat, a dark, heavy cloak of dense black fur draped about him, absorbing all light.
The wolf in the night… Pull the leash too tight and he will bite.
The Jedi stood, the confining sable cloak he wore slipping from his shoulders to reveal scarlet slices slashed deep into his arm, dripping dark drops from his fingers as he wordlessly held out his hand.
Palpatine's eyes were drawn inexorably down to the lightsaber in his Jedi's hand, smeared blood red, the color of anger and passion and betrayal…
Vader's saber—would the boy ultimately turn on his father?
Why did he give the saber to Palpatine?
-Take it- His feral Jedi said, though his lips did not move.
Palpatine looked again to the lightsaber, perfect scarlet droplets seeping over the inactive hilt, pooling on the floor at Palpatine's feet, soaking a stain into the trailing hem of his cloak...
Liquid life, rich and viscous.
Liquid death, weeping ruby tears.
… … … … … … …
… … …
The vision collapsed into itself, dragging the air from Palpatine's lungs, and he was standing again in the still silence of the shadowed room, staring at the twin droplets of blood.
He remained motionless for some time, contemplating the vision.
Would the boy kill his father then? Was that an unalterable, immutable event?
Why would he hand over Vader's saber? Had Palpatine asked him to do this? Was it proof that he had complied?
What had he seen—a possible future or a warning knell?
Either way, it was no vast surprise—the price of great power was greater risk, a greater effort to control it, greater vigilance. He was comfortable with this; he even looked forward to it. A game of high stakes—the only game worthy of his attention.
If it was a warning, it would become clear in time. Forewarned was forearmed, and gifted with the enlightenment of this vision, he now had the knowledge to shape its reality.
Luke dragged himself back from the void slowly, knowing absolutely that everything had changed. Not just himself—everything. Nothing could be the same ever again.
Reality seeped in, demanding attention, but he left it be and lay deathly still, eyes shut, muddy brown light filtering through closed lids.
All around him Darkness swirled, every surface composed of it, every object imbued with it. But this was no longer the wolf howling in the pitch of night—instead it cowered and whimpered, awaiting command.
He knew the power it wielded though, the power it had so readily relinquished. Knew what it was capable of…what he was capable of.
Was it this realization which had tilted everything?
No—something else brooded; something preordained pushed inexorably onward like the cogs of a lock falling into place. He listened within, attuned every fiber of his being to this deep stillness… He could sense it, ancient and primal, like the galaxy breathing—like life itself.
All things changed, evolved—this was the nature of life. To be alive was to be in a state of transformation. Mutation. This driving power dragged ever onward and he was powerless against its mass, inertia created at the dawn of time, like trying to stop the galaxy revolving.
Everything was changing. Nothing could escape. Nothing remained untouched. Not even the Force, neither Light nor Darkness.
The Darkness imbued him now. It was a part of him. He was part of it, attuned.
It buzzed in the air, like atoms colliding, potent, persuasive. Incredible, unlimited power searching to ground, desiring to be used, offering without judgment, without device.
It waited, expectant.
He neither summoned nor rejected it, but listened instead to the sound of his own breathing, light and shallow. To the wind which gusted a gale outside, hurling sheets of hail against the thick panes in the windows. Above that, he could hear a fire crackling in the hearth and above that, murmured whispers close by, perhaps in the room, perhaps not.
He remained absolutely still in body and soul, strangely detached in the face of his own downfall, all emotions gone. As if he had suffered so much torment for so long that there was simply nothing left to give—no regret, no shame, neither disappointment nor contrition.
Yes, he had turned on them, but… what had they expected? He couldn't say that they didn't deserve their fate. He'd hated them—hated his own weakness, conscience binding his hands when he knew he could have stopped them at any time. Palpatine had been right—it had been in his blood for so long, held in check. It was inevitable that he would have lashed out eventually; it was just a matter of when—and how.
He couldn't even feel guilt, his actions so far beyond such finite, limited emotions that they simply defied reaction—there was nothing of equal significance that he could possibly feel… so he felt nothing at all.
He recognized distantly that some vital part of himself had shut down, unable to deal with the enormity of his actions. Fallen silent leaving only a glacial emptiness in its place, possessed of a stillness like the pitch of night, the loss too deep to even begin to contemplate.
But even this knowledge did not concern him, viewed as it was from a detached perspective, as if he were standing outside of himself watching some surreal dream unfold, untouched by its events, wrapped about by an empty, resigned acceptance, distant and disconnected.
Should he feel bitter? Angry that all this had been taken, dissected with faultless surgical precision, slice by painful slice, flawless in its execution? It had been ruthless and pitiless, every rip and tear slashing deeper, mutilating, bleeding him dry until all that was left was the empty shell of a distant memory, dry as the desert dust.
Nothing was left. Nothing at all—he couldn't even bring himself to try to remember what he'd lost; to say—to even think—his own name, he realized.
He was at once appallingly empty and absolutely calm.
And in some strange way relieved; it was over now. It was finally over. The fact that he was still alive was… unexpected, unwanted. But it was over—he recognized that.
Was this acceptance... surrender? He had thought it would be bitter and grinding, barbed and biting, his soul ripped from his body. But in truth, he felt nothing at all. Absolutely nothing.
Only tiredness—a profound, bone-deep exhaustion from the bottom of his soul. The dull, cramping ache of a beaten body at the very edge of its endurance—and that strangely welcome now, his only constant, his only way to be sure that he was still alive at all.
The still air was warm against his skin, the surface he lay on soft and yielding. It was so long since he had lain on anything but the cold, hard floor that this felt unnatural and uncomfortable. He knew the thought should fill him with outrage, but it didn't. It was just a fact, insignificant in the greater scheme of things.
The warmth lulled him so that he wanted nothing more than to follow its lure into the empty comfort of sleep, but Darkness swirled like the sky before a storm, particles charging, a susurration of energy searching to ground and he knew what this was, though he had never sensed it as such before.
The whisper of heavy cloth on the hard floor still had the power to send a pang of trepidation through his body, jaw tightening, heart drumming against dark memories.
Light footsteps became silent over deep rugs as they drew nearer and he knew that he was being watched now, though he felt no particular need to open his eyes. He had all the information he needed without resorting to such crude senses.
So he remained as he was, allowing the Force to act about him, receiving the information passively without acting upon it or enhancing it further. For a long time, the figure remained beside him as he lay still, aware that it was studying him, that it knew he was awake.
Eventually, reluctantly obeying the knowledge that it was expected of him, he opened his eyes, dry and gritty, so that he had to blink several times against fatigue.
"Dress him." Palpatine's gravelly voice was harsh and hard, cold as the grave—exactly as he remembered.
The Emperor turned and walked from the room, his cloak dragging over heavy rugs which padded cold marble.
He lay for several seconds longer, still desperate to sleep, for the vacant void which numbed both mind and body. But it would only delay the inevitable, and bitter experience had taught him how pointless that was, so he rolled painfully onto his side and sat upright on the edge of the high bed, aching muscles mewling their objection as he glanced about the room for the first time, recognizing it now.
His bedroom. In his quarters, in the Imperial Palace. His own personal gulag.
At least before, his prison had been the size of this cavernous room. Now it wrapped itself tightly about his mind, stifling his thoughts, with space for neither absolution nor hope—but then he deserved no better.
It had been richly refurnished with sullen, dark fabrics and heavy, ornate furniture, huge paintings on the walls, the colors darkest grays and royal blues. Even this subdued pallet seemed incredibly intense after so long in that blank white cell, color the ultimate luxury.
A huge fire was set in the grate for the first time that he could remember, blacking the stone behind, blasting out heat against his bare skin, baking the air dry and lifeless.
He took all this in through distant, listless eyes—it was unimportant.
Three dark-robed acolytes had remained in the room, looking expectantly at him.
"Leave," he ordered simply, his voice low and broken, his throat too long without water.
They bowed and backed up several steps before turning away, pausing to bow again deferentially before closing the doors silently behind them, despite the Emperor's order.
He had expected no less, having seen their thoughts so easily; they feared that which they could not comprehend, seeking to appease and curry favor, serving darkness in any form, be it intimidation or oppression, power or persecution. Let the Emperor rail against them—they were of little consequence, below his consideration.
He rose to stand upright, the world swimming momentarily before he clutched at the Darkness to steady himself. It answered immediately, an inrush of strength to failing muscles, containing their knife-sharp spasms. The pain did not leave him, but it no longer mattered.
He limped awkwardly down the ornate mosaic corridor to the dark marble refresher and washed, fingers catching over raised scars, noting that his wounds had been sutured, broken bones knitted. Even this did not touch him, offering neither relief nor reassurance; they could be broken again.
He knew that from experience too.
The clothes in his dressing room were rich and heavy, opulent yet refined, midnight blue and raven black. By the time he had dressed, he had forgotten what they looked like.
There was no mirror here—but then he did not care to see his own reflection anymore; was uncertain that he would even recognize it.
He walked to the tall carved double-doors at the far side of the bedroom, which swung open without visible aid as he neared them. Through the cavernous withdrawing room without a single glance; through the echoing emptiness of the dark hall beyond, whose tall doors were open to him for the first time now, and out into the main corridor which he had only once before seen.
Without looking about himself, he walked its length to a receiving room close to the entrance, tall carved doors open in anticipation. Glancing briefly to the main entrance and the Palace beyond, he turned away and entered the room whose high, vaulted ceilings flickered as shadows danced in the fluid firelight.
The Emperor stood before a bank of tall, narrow windows, his back to the room, staring out into the implacable fury of the night storm beyond. He stirred, turned just slightly, expectant.
Walking the length of the hall toward the Emperor, Luke Skywalker stepped down onto one knee before his Master, head bent, eyes to the floor.
CLICK HERE TO GO TO PART FIVE