"Corlion, Massa." Han offered a native Corellian greeting as he came to a stop opposite Tag Massa, the Intel Chief, in the crowded Mess onboard Home One.
When he had to ask a favor of someone, he always liked to underline any connection, no matter how vague—and he had to admit that coming from the same planet and therefore sharing the same native language was about as vague a connection as you could get, but it was all he had. That and Massa's friendship with Leia, which was why he was here in the first place.
From the look in Tag Massa's eyes when she glanced warily up to him, she was clearly thinking the same. Mildly embarrassed before that calculating gaze, he switched back to Basic. "Uh...this seat taken?"
"Help yourself." She turned back to the automemo she was studying.
"Interesting?" Han asked, hoping to prompt a conversation.
Massa didn't look up. "Everything's interesting to an Intel officer."
"Yeah, so I hear," Han said, wondering how soon he could politely come to the point; this was as close to politics as he got—aside from when he got Leia in a clinch—and it was already too close for comfort.
Fortunately Tag made it easy—she had a habit of doing that, for the favored few. "I'm assuming this is going somewhere, Solo?"
"Well, you've just finished a ten-hour Duty Shift and you're not even out of your flightsuit yet but you want to pass the time with me. Plus you haven't got anything to eat and yet you're wandering around the Mess Hall. Plus your friend the Wookiee is sitting over there doing a bad job of trying to look casually disinterested. If you've hatched some plot up you always involve him, and if you haven't you always sit with him."
Han raised his eyebrows; well, 'make it easy' may be a bit of an overstatement. "Wow, you're good."
"Yes I am." She glanced up for a second, eyebrows lifting expectantly. "And you're procrastinating."
"Okay...see...here's the point."
"Care to make it a little sharper?"
"I'm gettin' there, don't rush me." Han tried his best hurt/offended look, which fazed the Intel Chief not one bit.
"Really, seriously; spit it out 'cos this is getting painful."
"I want in on the Patriot thing," Han blurted.
Great; he'd had this whole speech worked out—spent the last ten hours cramped up in that A-Wing cockpit staring at the back end of a freighter and cooking up a whole story about being interested in getting into the Intel field, all that stuff about changing career and looking for an opportunity to...
"What Patriot thing?" Massa held his eye for a few seconds, confused...then sighed ruefully, turning away. "Ah, hell, it's not worth even trying that one on you, is it?"
Intel had been watching the Patriot very closely since its inaugural flight, waiting to see where The Heir would point his new super-weapon, and there'd been a lot of nervous faces onboard Home One when the Destroyer had first disappeared into hyperspace. But so far it had been decidedly quiet for a ground-breaking weapon—which in many ways, was more worrying than if it had gone hunting.
So they'd called in a lot of favors and used up a lot of funds and gotten a few sets of fake ID's, and now they were engineering a little gap in the duty roster before they set it all in motion.
"C'mon, Tag, let me in on it—I can do this."
"Do you know how many experienced undercover ops I have just waiting for an opportunity like this?"
"Yeah? How many of them have experience as an Imperial Officer?"
"You were kicked out."
"Because I didn't like the routines, not because I didn't know 'em," Han defended gamely.
"You were kicked out for insubordination, Solo," Massa said, pointing to herself. "Intel Officer, remember?"
Han opened his arms, palms up. "Hey, I'm gonna stick with: 'Cos I didn't like the routines, not because I didn't know 'em."
She sighed, setting down her automemo. "Why do you want to go, Solo—really?"
He shrugged. "I think I'd be good at..."
"I said really." Sharp eyes met his own. "Don't lie to me."
Han paused for an instant beneath that calculating gaze. "You know why."
"Yes, I do, and that's why I can't let you. You'd endanger the mission. Do you know what it took to get those documents?"
"Well then don't waste them—give 'em to me. Tag, I can get results."
"For the Alliance—not for your own little crusade."
"C'mon Tag, give me this. I'm a good bet and you know it."
Tag Massa leaned her hard metal-mesh chair back on two legs to take a good long look at Solo whilst she played out her options in her own mind.
The fact was that he was right; he had the experience, he was cool under pressure and he knew his stuff. If she turned him down out of hand, then she did herself no favors. But she wasn't so stupid as to miss why exactly he wanted this mission—or that it could go so spectacularly wrong in so many ways for those very same reasons. So she took her time as she leaned back, considering, aware of his eyes on her but unfazed. If he thought staring at her was gonna psyche her out, then he was sorely mistaken.
Eventually she sighed though, not particularly wishing to alienate him; he was one of the mandates of her mission here and that alone was pause for consideration. Plus the Chief clearly had some kind of connection to him, though he'd never admit it out loud.
Which was why it wasn't her call to make; it needed to go to Command. Oh, to be there in person, Massa thought. To see the Chief's face when this is passed on.
No doubt it would amuse him greatly… Yes, she would need a few days to check how exactly she should proceed—but she would bet her last credit he'd say let Solo go. She absently let the edges of her lips curl up, amused at that thought, and Solo raised his brow in question, making Tag sit up straight, firmly wiping the smile from her face.
"I need time to consider—I won't be rushed into a decision."
Tag narrowed her eyes. "That wasn't an agreement, Solo—I'll think about it. That's all I can say."
"Fine—that's all I ask." He rose to leave, re-tying the sleeves of his baggy flight suit around his waist where he'd stripped the top half off to his undershirt below. "Maybe if I get something useful I can finally get Madine off my back."
Tag smiled dryly. "I think you'd need to actually come back with The Heir for that."
"I'll bet he'd find some excuse to lambast me even then. Probably bust my ass for being in the company of a known enemy—see, that must be proof I'm an Imperial spy."
Tag shrugged, unfazed by his sardonic wit. "Trust's a strange thing, Solo—sometimes even when the facts are right in front of you, it's hard to see them. At the end of the day, either you do or you don't. And even then if someone keeps on putting ideas in your head, it's a hard thing to hang on to."
Solo folded his arms, very sure. "No, it's not. It's the easiest thing in the world. Like you say, either you do or you don't. Doesn't matter what anybody says, you go with your gut."
"That what you do?"
"Every time. And don't tell me that you don't."
"Oh, I do," Tag admitted as she turned her attention back to her automemo. "More than you know."
Nathan stepped quickly into Luke's ready-room aboard the Patriot, aware that he wouldn't have much time. He made a polite bow from the neck as he entered, the bright, artificial light of the Koornacht Cluster Shipyards casting harsh shadows within.
They were due to get underway to the Rim again in less than a day, their third such trip in the last two months, Luke having already spent long hours poring over documentation relating to the 'project' at Endor, which had now been codenamed 'Redress'—for whom Nathan didn't know.
But he did know how much time had already been invested in making Project Redress amenable to Luke's less obvious aims, the ones shared with the trusted few. They all saw the potential, of course—now they were looking for the flaws: the traps and the pitfalls, the carefully hidden snares. When they'd cleared them all away, they could begin work.
So this wasn't exactly the ideal time to be adding to the problems, Nathan knew, and particularly not with one as delicate as this—but he would be remiss in his duties, both as an ally and a friend, if he chose not to report this simply because it was difficult.
He'd sent Luke a short message which was innocent enough at first glance but had one of several pre-arranged phrases within it which signaled him to empty his room, charging Mara, who was on bodyguard duty this morning, with a task elsewhere. Now he looked up from his wide desk as Nathan entered, eyes sharp and tense, the question unspoken.
Nathan stepped forward, coming straight to the point. "I overheard a couple of conversations when I was in the medi-center this morning—techs who were repeating rumors."
"Go on?" Luke's tight tone indicated that he'd already picked up in Nathan's tenseness.
"They were talking about Jade—Mara. Rumors are that she keeps a few vials of glitterstim in her quarters...recreational use, of course," Nathan said dryly of the popular drug, shaking his head. "I...put two and two together; she's not the type to take glitterstim but there is one drug she might still carry, though I'm sure she assures you otherwise."
Nathan reached into the pocket of his pale gray medical coat fingering the four small vials there, each about half the size of his little finger, with a narrow neck halfway down their length.
"I took the liberty of going to her quarters this morning, when I knew she was on duty."
Luke rested his elbows on his desk at hearing that, head in his hands. Nathan would probably have blundered through all kinds of subtle trips—espionage was hardly his forte—and worse, Mara was now who-knew-where onboard the Destroyer. If any of them were connected to her comlink, she'd already know she'd been broken into so they couldn't even try to repair the...
Nathan stepped forward and placed four small, familiar vials onto the desk before Luke, breaking his train of thought completely, his eyes following them as they rolled forward and came to a stop, clinking lightly against each other.
For a long time he remained silent, staring at the tiny vials, half-filled with a dirty brown liquid... Finally he reached out and took one, lifting it to hold it at eye level.
This was it, Luke knew.
This was the drug that Palpatine used against him so effectively; the tailor-made drug he had no counter to. The drug which, once in his system, could self-replicate at a rate faster than he could remove it with the Force. This debilitating drug enabled Palpatine to return Luke again and again to the cell beneath the Palace when he chose to discipline and chastise, punish or rebuke. This drug kept him there, in any state Palpatine chose from subdued and listless to paralyzing incapacity or unconsciousness every time he overstepped his mark.
The drug he'd tried so hard for so long to get a sample of.
The drug that Mara had said she no longer carried.
She'd looked him in the eye and promised him that she had none. Which meant she'd lied to him...which meant that she could lie to him.
Cold logic seeped quickly in over that first flare of anger. He shouldn't be surprised, he supposed. He had, after all, been the one who had taught her how to do it. He'd always known that in teaching her to be able to lie to Palpatine, he was also teaching her to lie to himself.
Luke glanced to Nathan momentarily as he looked nervously down, clearly uneasy at being the one who brought this to Luke, then turned his gaze back to the vial, though he was no longer really looking at it, thoughts on those greater implications as he shook his head infinitesimally just once, jaw tight…
Then he was back in the moment, turning the delicate vial over in his fingers, studying it.
"Is there any way to get a sample from this without breaking the cap—any way at all?"
Nathan shook his head. "No, not without destroying the vial. They're intended to be broken at the neck to release the contents into a pressure dart for delivery. It's a similar system to a standard hypo. All medical vials are designed to be impervious to any outside agent; completely tamper-proof."
Luke studied the vial as Nathan spoke, aware of his heart pounding, both at the opportunity and the betrayal.
He'd wanted this chance for so long. It had been the shadow hanging over him since he'd first arrived here—it was the one thing that scared him, because with it, anyone could stop him dead. Its distribution was tightly controlled by the Emperor, every single vial always accounted for; Luke had no idea where it came from, how much was out there or who had it. He turned the vial over in his hands again, considering...because as much as he wanted this, was the cost of gaining it right now, this way, too high?
It was a vulnerability and he didn't like having them, but was he blowing this one weakness all out of proportion? Palpatine meticulously controlled its distribution, attested to by the fact that Luke had spent so long trying to gain a sample, but the fact was that in order to use it, someone had to be close enough to fire a dart or use a hypo, and there were very few people who could disguise their intent sufficiently to get close…though it seemed he needed to add one more name to that list.
Still, Mara aside, was his unease at the existence of the drug a reasonable response to a genuine weakness, or simply his distaste of Palpatine's use of it?Had it ever actually stopped him doing anything—or had it simply made the consequences arduous? Which they would have been anyway, one way or another.
He tapped against the delicate vial, turning it over in his fingers and watching the dark liquid coat the inside of the glass...then reached out to press the comlink set into his desk, looking to Nathan as he did so. "Is Wez up yet?"
Nathan didn't bother to answer, since Luke was already pressing the comm and Wez' voice came back seconds later. "Reece."
"Wez, you need to get up here. And find out exactly where Jade is—comm me."
Luke didn't elucidate further but knew he didn't need to; Wez would already be on his way. He glanced back up to Nathan. "These are all the vials you found?"
"Yes. They were in a small metal case. I left the case where it was."
"Describe the case exactly."
"It was just...just a small metal case. There was a protective insert in it to hold the vials—"
"There were no empty slots?"
"Is there any way the insert could have been lifted out—that the antidote vials could have been hidden underneath it?"
Nathan's face lit, realizing that Luke was looking for the antidote. "No, I don't think so—the box was too slim."
"Do you have anything in your medical store which looks exactly like this—anything at all?"
"No, not that color."
"Do you have facilities to seal liquid into a vial this way?"
"No, that needs a specialist facility. The contents would have been loaded in a sterile environment."
"Doesn't matter—all you need to be able to do is seal a vial so the contents don't visibly condense."
Nathan squirmed slightly. "No. No, I can't."
Luke fell to silence again, considering his options.
"First, we need to get these back into Mara's room—exactly as you found them."
"You're not going to keep one? The antidote..."
"This isn't the antidote, which means that if we keep one to hand this one over to Karrde's chemist to hopefully create an antidote, then Mara will know that she's lost one and report it to Palpatine. Even if she can't account for where it's gone—and I'm pretty damn sure she'll make it her mission to find out—Palpatine will play this cautiously; it's been too useful for too long for him to even risk my having a sample. Which will mean that he'll have the drug changed slightly. Just enough that anything we make to counter it, assuming Karrde's chemist is capable enough to break its chemical code then create an antidote in a reasonable time, will no longer be effective. No matter what we do to hide the fact that we have it, if Mara can't account for all the vials, Palpatine will have the drug changed. If we can't get a sample and return the vial intact, she'll know that someone's been in her quarters and you're now on all the ship's standard security images as going close to and entering her apartment. That means I'd need a guarantee that every image was removed before she could view them or take a copy, because if she gets just one of them intact, even I can't protect you from Palpatine. Finally, all this aside, she'll also know that I know that she can lie to me. Presently, she doesn't and I need to keep it that way. I need to break whatever she's doing; I need to know when she's lying—that's as important as the drug."
"But the sample..." Nathan argued, knowing how Luke hated the drug.
He shook his head decisively. "We know she has it now. We can always go back and get the drug, Nathan—when we're better prepared. When we can disguise the loss, replace it with a duplicate—replace them all, even. This is bigger than my discomfort at being..."
Luke was interrupted by a knock at the door as Reece entered, eyes flashing around then coming to rest on the vial in Luke's hand, his realization immediate as he looked back to Luke. "Jade is in Navigation, checking the logs to be sure the system scrub is in effect, Commander. Apparently you sent her there."
"Did you speak to her?"
"No, Sir. But I know the second array tech there. I contacted him directly and asked him what she was doing."
Luke handed the vial over to Reece. "Damage control; these need to go back to her room, and I need any trace that Nathan was in there removed. On the security logs too."
Reece only nodded, knowing better than to ask questions right now, understanding instantly the tight schedule they were on.
Nathan reached out to gather up the other vials—they would have to remove his fingerprints anyway—and glanced to Reece as he turned to the door. "One second—just one second, please?"
Glancing back to Luke, who nodded slightly, Wez turned and left.
"Whatever it is, it can wait, Nathan."
"This is important."
Luke sighed and collapsed back slightly, knowing already what Nath would say and feeling his own defenses rise, despite the truth of it.
Nathan hesitated, then stepped forward, his voice quiet. "I wonder whether...in view of the fact that Mara is still carrying these vials and so must be prepared to use them if instructed to do so by the Emperor..."
"Get to the point," Luke cut in tersely.
"Whether..." Nathan was as dogged and un-derailable as ever, "it's perhaps time to...re-evaluate your relationship with Commander Jade."
Luke didn't speak, didn't meet Nathan's eyes, his temper slowly rising as the realization of Mara's actions hit home. Unknowing, Nathan pushed onward, voice calm but purposeful.
"She told you she no longer carried them and you believed her. Without looking for further proof, you believed her. I wonder if...perhaps this particular game has gone far enough. I think you'll find..."
Luke stood abruptly, hands banging against the desk as he did so. It wasn't Nathan's words—they were nothing he hadn't said before. Still, the warring emotions that snapped at Luke's heels from Mara's latest betrayal were surprising in their intensity—and Nathan was pushing too far in the wrong moment.
"Don't lecture me—don't stand behind the safe obscurity of your anonymous little life and lecture me on rational decisions, Nathan. When you've stood here—when you've lived this existence, always on the offensive, always under attack, you can..." He broke off in the face of Nathan's passive acceptance, the explosion over almost as quickly as it had begun, Luke's face falling to rueful regret.
"Forgive me," Nathan said with feeling, looking down, as understanding as ever of the knife-edge his friend had walked on for so long. "But...you are risking everything for something which at the end of the day, is quite impossible. And every single day that you continue, you place yourself at greater risk. You know that—you've told me so. She will never be what you want her to be, she will never be trustworthy. As long as the Emperor is alive, she'll put her loyalty to him first...and as long as she's willing to do that, she's a risk. To your plans, to your allies...and to you." Nathan opened his hand, the vials chinking apart. "This is the reality—this is the truth—the limits of her fidelity. I'm sorry, but..."
Nathan trailed to silence, tone and sense genuinely apologetic. His words, gently spoken, held the power to cut through all of Luke's denials, cold reality knocking the air from his lungs in a rush. Abruptly Luke comprehended what he was doing—what he was asking those around him to do. He was gambling everything, not just his own neck, but those who already risked so much to support him…for what?
Because he didn't know anymore; he didn't know where the lies stopped. His stormy relationship with Mara had always been little more than a brittle truce, an uneasy compromise whose borders were marked by his knowledge of her loyalties. Now it wasn't even that—now it was at best willful denial; at worst a dangerous lie, manipulation in its coldest form.
If she held these vials...if?... if!
She had the vials; she had lied—what was there left to trust? The real deception here was the one he had willingly created for himself, and if it had been only him at risk then perhaps he would have still closed his eyes...
"You should end this," Nathan stated quietly, and Luke knew that unlike his father, Nathan spoke only out of concern. "It's become too dangerous a game."
Nathan nodded once in silence, then turned and left.
Alone, Luke stood absolutely still for a long time, trying not to think...knowing the truth...
She would betray him.
The vials were nothing—nothing at all. Whatever she was going to do, it hadn't happened yet. It hung, hulking, like a dense, dark knot. Like a black hole in the Force, impenetrable, unstoppable, dragging everything in about it. Nothing escaped its influence—nothing. Not him, not her, no one. Its consequences radiated outwards changing everything...
How, he didn't yet know; past that single point, everything was darkness. There was nothing.
Oblivion...would that be so bad?
Because he felt helpless to stop himself; despite everything he still wanted to trust her—wanted her close.
Again his father's words, spoken so long ago, whispered in the face of this crushing truth. 'You cannot be close to another—you cannot allow another to be close to you. Failure is inevitable and the consequences will spiral from your control.'
"I am not you," Luke whispered, less sure by the day.
When Mara knocked quietly and entered Luke's quarters onboard the Patriot that night, he was still dressed despite the late hour. He'd sat at the polished circular table beneath the row of wide viewports for the last two hours, waiting, a pack of chipcards in his hand.
"Still up?" Mara asked, slipping in and closing the door.
"Waiting for you," Luke said simply without smiling, tapping the cards restlessly against the table.
Mara glanced at them then back to Luke, a small frown furrowing her brow, probably curious at his temperament. "Well that's handy, 'cos here I am."
She bent over, running her fingers through his long hair to push it back as she leant in to kiss him. Luke glanced down to the cards, part in avoidance and part because now, as she touched him, the knowledge that it would be the last time crushed in on him.
Mara barely hesitated, instead kissing him lightly on the forehead before flopping down on the chair opposite. "So I guess we can go to bed now."
Luke flexed his jaw and forced a brittle smile. "I'm not tired yet. Play sabacc with me."
"I'm way too tired to play sabacc—especially with you," Mara said easily. "Come to bed. If you're not tired we'll think of something."
Luke glanced up, momentarily amused, even now...but he didn't give. "A few games. We never play anymore."
Mara slouched forward to lean her chin on the table, grinning. "Yes, we do—just not sabacc."
But Luke was already dealing the cards. "What, afraid I'll beat you? Here—I'll give you a tell for free; one of my cards is the six of staves. How can I possibly make a winning hand with that?"
Her head still leant against the table, Mara sighed and lifted her cards as Luke reached out and hit the small pulse generator, sliding it into the middle of the table.
"You'd better not win, Skywalker," she growled unenthusiastically.
Which he did—ten games straight. But then it was hardly surprising, Luke knew; he was using the Force.
Mara was sitting up straight by now, infuriated at his winning streak—and Luke knew it.
By five games in she was shielding her thoughts, but by then she'd already provided the baseline for comparisons within the Force so he just kept on winning, pushing her to ever more suspicion and shields.
For ten games straight he either kept bidding until he knew he held the winning hand or bluffed so high as to make her back down the moment he thought she'd lost her hand. Always watching, always reading her, every time the field changed the face value of the cards, every time a card was drawn, every bet she made, every fold, every raise. Closely attuned, pinning down thought patterns and hidden intent, slowly sensing faint variations, the slightest disparity. Chasing down increments, cracks in her armor, chinks in her shields. Hundreds of decisions made in quick succession, always hidden but easy to compare, the results borne out when the chipcards were turned.
He'd taught her the system to use against Palpatine; how to use the Force to shield secrets—a way to screen her thoughts then hide the screens. It was his system...and if he created it, he could break it. But subtly; try after try, test after test, setting bars and standards and offsetting each change in the flow against existing knowledge. Every discreet flaw noted, every doubt, every bluff, every momentary triumph exploited, modifying his technique, tailoring his reading.
He had her at seven games; after that it was academic.
She scowled at him across the table, green eyes ablaze. "Are you using the Force?"
Luke sat back slightly in his seat. "I would never lie to you, Red."
Mara narrowed her eyes at his avoidance. "You lie all the time."
"I bluff," Luke corrected. "There's a difference."
"I'm not talking about sabacc."
"Neither am I," he said coolly, taking the opportunity to draw the conversation where he wished it, a test of new knowledge. "Ask me anything."
Mara leaned back, still frustrated enough to be drawn in. "Why are we playing sabacc at two in the morning?"
"Because I haven't played this game in a long time," he said. "Not with you."
Before she could speak again he straightened. "My turn—did you reposition the surveillance lenses in the corridor so you could get in and out of here easier?"
Nothing too contentious to begin with; something he already knew, but she didn't know that.
Now it was Mara's turn to straighten, freshly wary of this bizarre question-and-answer session. "I didn't agree this was a two-way offer."
"Your question next," Luke said, knowing she wouldn't be able to refuse the lure.
She hesitated—but only for a second... "Yes, I did. Why are you doing this?"
"Because I want the truth."
"That's not an answer, it's an avoidance."
"Because I want the truth—and I think the best way to gain it is to offer it in return." Again Luke pushed on before she could ask more. "My turn: do you still carry a firearm when you come here at night?"
"I always carry a firearm, you know that."
"Yes, I do—so why do you conceal it? What else do you conceal, Mara?"
"That's two questions."
Luke tilted his head in a half-shrug, conceding; it didn't matter whether she answered out loud— her thoughts were response enough.
She paused, more guarded now, realization creeping in that this conversation was going somewhere specific. "What do you want—with this?"
"I want to know whether you lie to me." He paused just long enough to clarify that he was posing his question. "Do you lie to me, Mara?"
"Do you lie to me?"
The slightest smile brushed his scarred lips. "You've already asked that."
"You didn't answer."
"Why do you lie to me, Mara?"
Mara shook her head, tensing, aware that the banter was taking a dangerous turn. "Why do you lie to me?"
Luke leaned back slightly, distancing himself mentally and physically, forcing himself to take the game at face value—and he knew how to play this game so very well. "Because you give me no option. If you could honestly say that you wouldn't repeat everything I say or do to Palpatine, then I wouldn't lie. If you would give your word that anything you see or hear in the time we spend together exists outside of your mandate then I wouldn't need to second-guess every moment with you. But you won't do that. So I lie to protect myself in the one situation that I really shouldn't have to, with the one person I really don't want to."
He paused, then repeated his question. "Why do you lie to me?"
Mara held to stunned silence for long seconds, taken aback by that burst of cutting truth, a whole minefield they had very pointedly never even tried to address before, carefully calculated to put her off-balance.
Luke's voice was sharper this time, an abrupt edge in his tone and his stance the demand unmistakable. "Why do you lie to me, Mara?"
He watched her struggle for long seconds as realization dawned as to where this was going. "Sometimes...I have to."
And much as Luke wanted to stay angry, he couldn't; not before that, not with all the history that lay behind them. He had what he needed from this—he knew now how to break her shields. Everything else was just to satiate his own frustrations and disappointment. He could probably validate it to himself as maintaining the conversation to hide his intent, or justifying to himself that what he was about to do was the right choice—but in truth it was procrastination, to make this easier. For him if not for her.
He sighed, glancing away, leaning back into the chair. There was, he knew, just one more thing he needed to lay to rest—and he should do it now, quickly, whilst he still had the anger to push it through.
"This is...this will never work, Mara. We were stupid to think it would. We should back out gracefully whilst it's still...at least reasonably straightforward." Mara shook her head but Luke continued, holding his nerve. "It will get too complicated, Mara. I'm amazed it hasn't already."
"Why? What would change?"
"What are you gonna do the next time Palpatine orders you to move against me—to make it possible to get me down to the detention center again? Because he will, eventually."
"Only if you make him."
"He will do it, Mara. He'll give that order eventually—and I think you'll carry it out." Luke was silent for a while, giving her time to consider that—to deny it. But she remained silent and he let out a resigned sigh. "...And where does that leave us right now—where does it leave me?"
"It leaves us where we are—nothing has changed."
"You want to know where we are? I don't trust you, Mara—I can't trust you." He bit back on what he so wanted to say: 'You're still carrying the drug that would get me back down into that cell...you!' "So you tell me, what am I supposed to do?"
"What...what is...what's brought this on?"
Luke raised his eyebrows, incredulous. "It doesn't matter! It doesn't make any of it untrue."
Luke stood and backed up a step, putting some distance between them. "Why you, Mara? Did you ever wonder... Why you to be here every day, always near? Why you at the beginning, when I was completely alone? You're an assassin, a deep-cover operative, not a bodyguard."
"Because I know how to deal with a Jedi," she said, as if it were obvious.
Luke shook his head, refusing the validation. "What about Vader?"
"Palpatine didn't trust Vader, you know that."
"He doesn't trust you."
"Of course he trusts me—he always has."
"Then why do you have a watcher, Mara?"
She only skipped by the question, not wishing to look too hard. "Vader would have worked to his own ends if he'd been there, Palpatine knew that."
"And what are you doing, in being here—like this?"
"He doesn't know that. You said he didn't know we were together—in the Palace, you said he didn't know."
"I was wrong. He knew—I think he's always known. He engineered this, Mara."
She stood, taking a step forward but halting as Luke backed up. "Luke, he doesn't know."
"He knows. Maybe, just maybe we could have gotten away with it when we were well away from Coruscant—maybe even for one night in the Palace—but when he was on the Patriot?! When Nath was there, panicking and fretting?"
Mara was already shaking her head, a hundred carefully created excuses lined up. Luke lifted one hand, chopping her words off with a gesture. "He turns a blind eye because it gains him so much."
"What would he possibly have to gain from you and I being together?"
"Everything. Everything he wants...needs."
" 'Everything' isn't an answer, Skywalker," Mara said, unwilling to let the avoidance pass now that so much was at stake. "It's an evasion."
"You want specifics? Fine. He needs a way to control me and he knows he can do that through you, because you'll always remain loyal to him at the end of the day, Mara. You'll never disobey a direct order, not from him—so he always has someone close who he can turn on me. Because no matter how much anyone tries to remain vigilant, familiarity lowers defenses."
He didn't stoop so low as to mention the other reason in his mind—that her closeness bought her information which she'd never otherwise have had access to. But they both knew he was thinking it, not least because it was true, much as he tried to maintain those defenses.
Still, Luke skipped past it, citing other reasons. "He uses you as a direct method of control, Mara—he's used you against me already."
"What does that even mean—used me against you how?"
"As a threat, Mara," Luke said quietly. " 'Do this...or they will pay the consequences.'"
"Did he say my name?"
"He didn't need to."
Mara shook her head, unwilling to believe Palpatine would use her in that way. "He doesn't know."
Luke held his ground, unyielding. "He allows this—he turns a blind eye because he knows he has everything to win and nothing to lose."
"What? Like what?"
Luke sighed, reluctant to hurt her but knowing this needed to be spoken out loud. "A child, Mara. A force-sensitive child, to continue his precious dynasty."
Mara stared…just stared at Luke as she felt her jaw drop, realization striking with an almost physical blow, making her feel sick. For a long time she remained silent, the implications of this slowly sinking in. A child…he would take it from them—from her. Hide it away and keep it; twist its mind and...
She stumbled back a step, needing space, dragging her fingers through her hair, thoughts in turmoil. Would he do this? Was all of this planned? It was true that her master wanted to instigate a Sith dynasty. He didn't need two Force-sensitives to do that, but she knew him well, knew how his mind worked; that he would want the extraordinary, the unique... Wouldn't it be just like him to...
She stopped abruptly, turning to Luke. "It wouldn't be his dynasty… It would be Vader's."
Luke looked away at that, some uneasy disquiet shading his face. "He wants a Sith Dynasty, Mara—he wants his precious Sith Dynasty and this is how he'd gain what he wants. That's all that matters to him; it's what this is all about, you know that. This is what he does—games within games, everything twisted to what he wants. There are no coincidences, not here; you know that. Everything is to his design. And when he realizes you're not gonna gain him what he wants, he'll wait for the very next time I push a little too far so he can blame it on me—then you'll be gone. You'll be gone because he knows that can hurt me." Luke shook his head. "I'm not doing this—I can't. I can't give him that kind of control—I won't."
"He only has control if you let him," Mara said. "Nothing's changed since the first night we were together—not really."
"No, it hasn't," Luke said without flinching. "I don't trust you, Mara. You're lying to me, so I'm lying to you…and I won't do this any more."
Mara raised her chin but the anger didn't come; it was pointless and they both knew it. "I'm not lying to you about anything that matters."
"It matters to me."
"It's just Palpa..."
"I know exactly what it is, Mara. What I don't understand is why you think that's okay. How you would think I would find the fact that you work for my enemy acceptable—how the hell you think this is a tolerable situation."
"He's not your enemy, Luke."
"No? The man who maintains a detention cell specifically to hold me isn't my enemy? The man who equips those around me with a drug designed solely to control me? He takes me to pieces down there, Mara, in case you hadn't noticed. In all the times I've been down there, I've never once walked out of that cell—because I've never once been capable. How can I think of the man who does that as anything but my enemy?"
Mara held her ground. "Those days are over now and you know it."
"How? How do I know it?"
"He told me."
He almost laughed out loud. "You can't trust him, Mara! You can't trust anything he says." His voice was raising now, laced with frustrated disbelief.
"I can trust him," Mara maintained firmly. "He doesn't lie to me."
"Then why..." Luke broke off, dragging his hands through his hair. He was silent for a long time, looking down as he shook his head, and Mara found herself bracing for the next round… When he finally spoke, his voice had a forced calm. "Why do you call him master?"
"What?" It was an obvious evasion as she backstepped, playing for time. But he wouldn't let her, that composed expression overlaying whatever he was truly thinking.
"He has you call him master but he won't teach you—except what benefits him."
Mara glanced away, unwilling to answer, but Luke remained silent, so finally she spoke.
"He's taught me all he can," she insisted, very sure. He'd told her many times: she had some connection with the Force, some affinity which made her able to hear his voice and respond in kind, but that was the limit of her sensitivity. She simply didn't have the connection to be capable of more. He'd told her that. "He can't teach me what I don't have the ability to learn."
"I taught you more—was that so difficult to learn? He's not teaching you at all—he's holding you back...and deep down I think you know it." He stepped forward. "Mara, it's not that he can't teach you more...it's that he won't. Right now you're easy to control and you'll never become a threat—why should he risk that by continuing to teach you?"
"Well then why has he taught you?"
"Because I..." Luke broke off, glancing away.
"Because I already knew too much. Because he sees power and he wants to control it. Because he believes...claims he has a vested interest."
Mara shook her head in confusion, knowing that he was holding out on her; that he had deeper reasons he seemed unwilling to share.
Luke sighed, uneasy. "Because he's convinced I'm different...my father's different. This line is different."
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do."
She studied him, trying to pull answers from the facts and he looked away, shaking his head, clamping his jaw.
"At least give me that," Mara pushed. "You want me to walk away...well then, I think I deserve that."
Luke held to reluctant silence for long moments, unwilling to be pulled in any further, but she remained still, waiting...
"I only know fragments," he said at last. "That there was a...a prophesy. Made a long time ago by the Jedi… Something...I don't know. This line is mixed up in it; twisted through with it—that's what he claims."
"What's the prophesy?"
"Look at us, this line...we're bad blood, Mara. Bad blood." There was something in his tone, angry and bewildered and desperate and completely convinced, and she knew he was trying to push her away but it only drew her in further. She moved forward, reached out to brush his hair from his eyes, but he stepped back, lifting his hand against her, refusing the intimacy.
"Don't," he said quietly. "We can't be together, Mara. I can't trust you and you absolutely cannot trust me. We were playing a game, that's all. It was just a game that got out of hand..."
She reached forward and took hold of him, though he tensed against the embrace, hands to her shoulders to push her away.
"Luke, it doesn't matter—none of that matters, don't you see? I don't care. I don't care about prophesies and Sith and Emperors and Heirs—I don't care. I care about us, about you. I want to be with you...and I'm pretty damn sure that you want to be with me. So nothing else matters—does it?"
He remained silent, hands still to her shoulders, though he'd stopped trying to push her away. She held still against him, arms wrapped tight, feeling the beat of his heart, the rise of his chest—and nothing else mattered.
"Say no and kiss me," she whispered, stretching up to him...
And he leaned in to her, fingers trailing across her outstretched neck—and kissed her.
But he didn't say 'no'...
Mara glanced up at the light knock on the door to her room, eyes narrowing with suspicion. She'd returned only a short while ago, having stayed overnight with Luke, and had come back only to change before she'd make her public return to Luke's quarters to begin her formal day's work as his bodyguard.
She walked slowly to the door and pressed the release. Nathan Hallin stood quietly in the corridor, glancing up as the door slid aside.
The fact that he was here at all was suspicious enough; the fact that he'd arrived here just minutes after she had was an obvious statement. He'd come with something to say Mara knew, so it seemed petty to make him say it here in the hallway.
She stepped aside to allow him entry as she gathered her thoughts and forcing herself to concentrate on the situation at hand. Despite his apparently easygoing manner, she'd come to realize that Hallin was astute and perceptive—a handful at the best of times. Mara palmed the door closed then walked past him into the room and he followed in silence, in no hurry to speak.
"If you have something to say then say it, Hallin."
He studied her for a long time in silence before finally stating in a casual, clipped voice, "The Heir is unaware that I'm here."
"Are you asking me not to tell him you came?"
"I'm making you aware of the facts, Commander. What you do with them is your choice." He looked her up and down quickly. "And choices are such...interesting things. Revealing."
Mara narrowed her eyes, wary. Hallin always spoke his mind and had never disguised his mistrust of Mara, but this wasn't a casual snipe in an empty corridor—he'd actually sought her out to say his piece. Of course, she should have realized; Luke's doubts yesterday had to have come from somewhere, and Hallin was the obvious choice. But this—to come to her quarters, to speak as he had done, the lines drawn already—this was unexpectedly direct, even for Hallin.
But if there was one thing Mara could do, it was straight-talking. "I find if I'm curious about something, the best approach is to simply ask."
Hallin only nodded slowly. "An interesting approach for someone who tells lies for a living."
Mara arched her eyebrows at that, stepping subtly closer, wondering if the slight medic realized she could break his neck long before he'd even begun to react to the move… Whether he knew that the only thing which stopped her was Luke.
"If all you're here to do is speak in riddles, Hallin, then you should go, because you're wasting both our times."
"Go? Where would I go?" Hallin purposely misunderstood her words. "This is my home, Commander. My obligations and loyalties lie here."
"And you're saying mine don't?"
It was a surprising question in that it was just that—a question.
"My interests lie here, Hallin," Mara assured acerbically.
"Interests…interests are such momentary things, I find. They wane….and when they do, someone must pick up the pieces."
Mara sighed, frustrated all over again at this ongoing grudge-match. "You know him so well, Hallin—I can't believe you think him so blind."
"In some things we are all blind, Commander. Then we must rely on those around us to protect us."
"I'd never hurt him."
"As you said before. Yet you're still here...and we both know why."
"Why don't you tell me?"
"You don't need me to tell you exactly where your loyalties do lie, I'm sure."
"I've never made any secret of my loyalties," Mara said, Luke's argument the previous night ringing in her ears.
"Nor I, Commander," Hallin replied. "And they are, I assure you, easily as passionate as your own."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Hallin shook his head, studying her, tone polite and genuinely curious. "I find it hard to understand how you've been so close to him for so long, yet you seem to have no concept—none at all—of who he really is. You cannot understand how close to the edge he operates every single day. How much pressure he exists under—"
"You think I don't see the cracks, Hallin, but I do."
"Then I can only assume that you test them on purpose—or ignore them for your own self-serving indulgence."
Mara's chin rose. "You have no idea how close to the line you are right now."
"And you have no idea of how much it's costing Luke to survive here, I think. No idea of how much it takes to rise above Palpatine's grasping control, his constant manipulations. Luke would do anything—anything to be free of him." Hallin's soft, serious brown eyes held on Mara, expression grave. "So much so that if he tears himself apart in the process, then that is the price he will pay."
"He won't do that," Mara said, unnerved by the sinister prediction.
"He doesn't need to," Hallin said without animosity. "You're doing it for him."
She shook her head in denial but the medic pushed on. "You do so every day, Commander, simply by remaining close to him—and you know it."
"I think he can take care of himself, Hallin."
"I'm sure he can. But that does not lessen the dedication of those around him—and I am, I assure you, not alone in my commitment to protect The Heir."
"What does that mean?"
The medic was very calm now, coolly assertive and self-possessed. "Do you think we don't watch you—do you think you operate with impunity?"
The first inkling of nerves rose in Mara at the self-possessed declaration within those words. "Who's 'we'?"
"We will not allow you to harm him," Hallin continued with a quiet, absolute commitment. "You think you're here by the Emperor's sanction and that's true. But whether you choose to believe it or not, you are also here by ours. And the first time you cross the line—the moment we see him falter because of your actions..."
He met her eyes and his tone was absolute. "We will remove you. Permanently. I will inform Luke myself...and I will deal with and answer for the consequences of my actions, secure in the knowledge that whatever happens, I have done the right thing."
Mara was both fascinated and moved by this unconditional commitment, this protective loyalty. The fact that it was being used to threaten her was in this moment unimportant. What mattered was that it was there—that Luke was safeguarded by this intense allegiance. That he inspired it.
Still, the confidence in Hallin's words spoke volumes, as did the fact that he would stand before her and say this. His veiled declaration that there were others loyal to Luke, his assertion that they could now deal with any threat, secure in the knowledge that he remained untouchable, his position as Luke's close ally giving Hallin equal standing to Mara's as the Emperor's Hand.
Again Luke's words of the previous night came to mind: "It will get very complicated, Mara..."
At the time they'd seemed nothing, a passing comment—now, in light of Hallin's attitude...
Everything was changing as Luke gained ground and stature, Mara knew. Right now his support was still subtle and secretive, but it was clearly gaining confidence every day—and it wouldn't do that without reason. For the first time, it occurred to her to wonder what would happen when Luke eventually took power… It had been Palpatine who had slowly pulled Luke in—forced him to play the games of Court and power and politics, to gather an entourage of trusted confidantes about him for his own protection. And for the first time, it occurred to her to wonder whether her position in that emerging elite was quite as stable as her present one as Palpatine's Hand—whether those whom Hallin claimed believed as he did would be able to subtly exclude and undermine her—distance her from Luke.
"I won't hurt him, Nathan—that isn't my intent." Mara realized in that moment just how much she meant it. How little everything else mattered by comparison.
Nathan Hallin remained silent at the change in Jade's voice, his expression set in stone, a single question overriding his awareness of the softening in her, the anxiety which seemed quite suddenly visible in her troubled eyes. Could she be trusted?
Did she care for him at all? Was she struggling between split loyalties, or playing a role for Nathan's benefit? If she truly wanted to play that role, then surely she would have declared total loyalty to Luke and disavowed the Emperor...yet she remained caught between the two.
"You're asking too much of him," Nathan said at last, searching her eyes.
Didn't she understand—couldn't she see why the fact that her loyalties were not Luke's was so significant? That trying to find a path between her companionship and his own intentions was tearing Luke apart. He had few vulnerabilities before Palpatine—his greatest the Emperor didn't know—but he didn't need it; Mara was enough.
"What you ask of him—it destroyed his father, and he knows it. I won't let it destroy him."
"Neither will I."
Nathan nodded slowly. "I'll hold you to that."
The warning was still in his eyes, though it hid something else, for Luke's sake alone: a willingness to withhold judgment...for now. So he turned and walked to the door, this conversation over—for now.
"Just to clarify…"
Nathan glanced back at Jade's voice, and she tilted her head, that fire creeping back into green eyes as Jade threw the words Nathan had murmured to her in the medi-center so long ago, back in his face. "I'm not doing it for you."
The Patriot was stocking up for its fifth trip to who-knew-where by the time Han finally made it onboard. He had a sneaky suspicion that there were three of them altogether who'd been given fake ID's and buried in the Duty Roster, but he wasn't sure—for obvious reasons, none of those sent knew about anyone else.
The fates had been with them though; there was a rash of inter-fleet personnel transfers every time the Patriot reappeared in the Core Systems, which had made it that much easier to get onboard with the crew rotations—and that much more worrying as to what was going on to cause them.
Still, that was the great thing about Super Star Destroyers Han reflected, as the crew shuttle set down in the Patriot's sprawling main hold: they were massive ships, extensively manned, and if you were going to smuggle a few short-term spies into the Fleet then this was where you did it. Which was just as well, because no one seemed to have a clue as to where the Patriot disappeared to for three weeks in every four, as she had done since her launch, and everyone was getting real jittery.
It had taken the best part of a week to persuade Massa to let him use one of the fake ID's, then almost the same to get Leia to okay it—sometimes having your other half be the leader of the Rebellion could seriously cramp your operating style. In the end, his questionable credentials as an ex-Imperial Officer—albeit dishonorably discharged—had given Han the edge in that he knew operating procedures onboard a Destroyer.
That was what he'd claimed anyway…it was a long time ago and he'd not really paid much attention at the time.
But surprisingly, it was all coming back to him with unnerving clarity now that he was here, making the nine-day wait at the Shipyards in the Farlax Sector and the trip up to the Patriot a breeze. Now all he had to do was stay undercover long enough to see Luke; watch him operate here, watch him interact. That wasn't his mission, of course—his remit was to lay a series of in-system bugs for information-gathering, but he figured anyone could do that. Han was the only one who could read the kid with any real sense of familiarity and prior knowledge to base his judgment on—and any genuinely impartial bias, as far as he was concerned.
And since the launch of the Patriot—hell, since the kid had let him go with the Falcon—he'd been desperate to know just what was going on in Luke's head. What was in his mind when he'd foiled an attempt on Palpatine's life then just turned straight around and saved Leia's?
He told himself that this was for the Alliance—that it was vital information, whether they knew it or not—but some niggling little voice kept on asking if the truth was that he just wanted to see Luke; wanted to look him in the eye and...what?
He had no idea. Maybe he just wanted to look the kid in the eye—maybe that was all he needed.
Or maybe that was the last thing he needed; admittedly their last meeting hadn't exactly been genial. The fact was, it had raised more questions than it answered, none of them good. But Han was more optimistic this time. Clearly the trick was not to get caught on the back foot with Luke; not to relinquish control or get backed into any kind of situation where that might happen. Stay out of direct contact, keep out of his way, keep hidden—just watch and learn and wait as long as it takes for the right chance to come along.
Yeah, that made sense. How hard could it be?
Han nodded firmly to himself as he stepped off the ramp of the crew shuttle and into the cavernous, echoing bluster of the Patriot's busy main hangar, troops and supplies being delivered and stored in equally impressive measure. He glanced about, feeling stiff and starched in his fitted Petty Officer's uniform. Stretching his neck as he ran his finger under the edge of his high collar, Han nodded reassuringly to himself; this was easy. All he had to do now was get through inauguration and he was laughing...
They all stood in a straight line in the crew hangar close to the Officer's quarters. Han had been assigned quarters—even had a viewport—given his clearance codes without so much as a hitch, and carried his own duffle bag containing the five long-range transmitters he was supposed to plant, straight past security, risking a wink at the slim blond who nodded him through. Having hidden them about as well as anyone could in a plain eight-by-eight room whose table and bed were bolted to the floor, he'd returned to the crew hangar as ordered, and was listening—kinda—to a Personnel Officer's chronically protracted explanation of the minutiae of the Destroyer's procedures, mealtimes and shift hours. Basically all the things that Han had been drummed out of the Fleet for ignoring first time around. That and the whole Chewie thing...
Han raised his eyebrows and effected a slight shrug; their loss, not his. He glanced back to the Officer, realizing that he hadn't listened to a word so far—
"...several rules above and beyond the norm, associated with the fact that The Heir is generally onboard."
Han pricked his ears up at this, finally interested, as the Officer droned on. "Although it's unlikely that any of you will meet him in your day-to-day duties, there are certain protocols established in case you do. You will stick to them as if your life depends on it, because if I find out that an officer under my command has breached them, then I will personally strip his ass back down to Private—are we all clear?"
Nice man—good social skills, Han reflected dryly, remembering afresh why he hated the military.
"These are the rules; take notes." The burly man walked slowly down the length of the line. "You will refer to the Commander at all times by the correct title. The Commander's own non-military Aides who are on-board refer to him by his civilian title, which is 'The Heir.' You will not. Onboard ship, or whenever you are wearing a Fleet uniform, you will refer to him by his military title, which is Commander-in-Chief. In the unlikely event that you find yourself in his presence, you will remember that he prefers simply 'Commander.' When you have referred to him once as such, you will subsequently acknowledge him as 'Sir.' You will do this every time you meet him: 'Commander' then 'Sir.' You will not try to engage him in small talk; he does not appreciate it. You will not go closer than four paces unless he looks to you and nods his head in permission. Even if you have to give him something you will stand and wait until he nods his head to allow you closer. If he enters a room in which you are present, you will bow smartly from the neck and bring your heels together military-style. You will practice this so that it is not sloppy when you finally have to do it. If you are in a room and the Commander is there, you may not leave without his order or his dismissal. If you need to walk away from him, you will bow and back up four paces, then bring your heels together before you turn away. If I see any one of you turn your back on him within four paces I will have you doing nightshifts on a garbage hauler for the rest of your career. You will not stand behind him closer that those magic four paces—if he turns his back on you, you will back up, as before. You will not sit in his presence unless explicitly invited to do so, which I very much doubt. You will not eat in his presence unless invited. You will not stare. You will not make conversation with civilian members of his entourage; you will remember that aside from Fleet issues, they outrank you and you will refer to them by their rank or title. You will learn their ranks and titles. You will not ask them for an introduction to the Commander-in-Chief—it will not further your career; they have invested many years in getting to where they are now and believe me, they'll be damned if they'll help any of you replace them."
Han was starting to tune out at this point, partly as a reflex action, but partly because it was beginning to occur to him for the first time just who he was trying to get close to. Up until now, he'd just been trying to get to Luke. Suddenly, in his world for the very first time, Han was realizing just how much had changed. He was no longer trying to steal a few minutes with that hyper kid from Tatooine, who happened to be onboard a Star Destroyer—he was trying to get to the Heir to the Imperial Throne. Someone who lived that life—this life—all bows and Sir's and entourages. Nobody stare, don't get too close, don't even think about trying to start a conversation...
It finally hit him that Luke Skywalker might not even exist anymore—not the Luke Skywalker Han knew. Five years...that was a hell of a long time to live this life, completely removed from everything normal and surrounded by people like this, who just kept on shoehorning you into it 'cos it was protocol.
It was also beginning to dawn that the kid wasn't a kid anymore; he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Core Fleet and next in line to rule an Empire, inaccessible and isolated.
Was it by choice or by influence?
The Personnel Officer paused to answer his comm and Han realized that once again he hadn't heard a word he'd been saying. Probably wasn't important...
Tugging his tunic straight, the man glanced up again, glowering at the row of new Officers. "...so look upon this as your one opportunity to shine—in front of me, not the Commander-in-Chief. I guarantee you that he doesn't even know you exist. As far as I'm concerned, what you do from now on reflects on me, and so decides what you do here for the next twelve months, which decides the rest of your career. Don't screw up."
Han raised his eyebrows without speaking; maybe it had been important...
Seconds later, the bay's pressure door slid open and a Petty Officer sounded a triple-tone on his whistle.
"Commander on deck!" the mouthy Officer shouted with military precision as he came to smart attention, everyone straightening, heels clicking in unison—
And Luke walked in, hands behind his back, a neutral, unreadable expression on his scarred face.
He looked...different to Han—older. Which was stupid 'cos he was older, but...somehow Han had never quite reconciled the shadow-shrouded man in the Fury's detention level with...well, with Luke—with the kid. He'd just, over time, mentally replaced that image from the Fury with the one of Luke that he already knew—the real Luke. And the holos which came in all the time from Intel, well, they weren't really Luke either—not really. They were some other guy—The Heir, the enemy—whatever. Not Luke.
And now here he was again, that strange shadow-Luke. But in the plain light of day.
Impeccably dressed in a smart, almost military uniform in dark blue-gray, he seemed taller, broader; all grown up. His hair was long and unruly though, falling in loose twists almost on his shoulders—and dark, making his skin seem paler...making that scar seem deeper.
From well above his eye it sliced in a broken line down his cheek, through both lips and onto his chin. That was one hell of a scar, Han reflected… Why did he keep it?
But then, who was Han to talk—he still had a scar on his chin from long ago. Had purposely kept it as a memory, a reminder of a lesson hard learned. Han looked afresh at the heavy scar...wondered what other scars the kid held.
Luke motioned with a gloved hand for the small group of senior Officers and Aides trailing behind him—none any closer than the regulation four paces, Han noticed wryly—to stop. Alone, he walked slowly down the long line, indifferently inspecting the new drafts...
Han's mind was racing as Luke drew ever closer; well this was a bolt from the blue—who'd have thought The Heir to the Empire routinely wandered below decks to check the new Petty Officers? He vaguely remembered confidently figuring that all he had to do was make sure he didn't get caught on the back foot again by Luke and everything would be fine—apparently that plan was already out the airlock.
If he was a smarter man, he'd probably be sweating by now.
Luke walked at a leisurely pace down the row of newcomers, already aware that Han was at the far end of the line-up, but taking his time. He'd developed a habit of coming down here on the pretext of a personal inspection each time that new intakes were brought onboard, so that when he finally needed to, it wouldn't seem out of place. Eventually Han would be among them, one of five spies to come onboard, four of which were already tagged. This fifth, Luke would look out for himself—private business.
He slowed to a stop before Han, who looked slightly green as Luke eyed him up and down in silence, though Han kept his eyes dead ahead.
"And you are?" Luke prompted finally.
"Lieutenant Solin, Sir." Han saluted smartly then hesitated, clearly uncertain whether he supposed to bow or not. The Officer behind Luke coughed sharply, at which Han belatedly realized he'd also used the wrong title. "Commander!" he corrected quickly.
Luke continued to stare as if he hadn't noticed, narrowing his eyes in contemplation, hesitating for what he knew damn well was an uncomfortably long time before he finally spoke. "Don't I know you?"
"No, Sir, I don't believe we've met."
"Oh, I'm sure we have," Luke corrected quickly. "Very sure."
Again he left a long silence as he stared at Han, who shifted uncomfortably, partly at the rocky situation, but partly in disquiet, Luke reflected, which wasn't generally Solo's style. Maybe he was realizing that the changes in his old friend were something more than skin deep. Luke narrowed his eyes, letting the moment hang...letting Solo sweat a little for being as reckless and as rash as to think he could get away with this...
Then he cut him a break. "It was...at the opening of a gallery on Coruscant. We spoke about a piece of art...'Night Battle' by Inego, I think it was."
Solo let out the breath he probably didn't even realize he was holding. "Yes, Sir, I think you're right. I still have...a copy."
"Really? I thought you'd have sold it by now."
"No, Sir. It has sentimental value."
"I think you overestimate it," Luke said with dismissive finality. "I find I've lost my taste for Inego's work as time has passed. He was always so naïve—trying to paint pictures which didn't exist in reality anymore."
"See, that's what I like about the picture—every time I see it, it's like visiting an old friend."
Luke smiled at that; Han hadn't lost his sharp mind—though it was wasted if he thought he could change anything here...or return to the past. "Perhaps it's time to move on. I have."
"Thank you, Sir, but I think I'll keep it... The, uh, the artist may not be in favor where I come from, but that doesn't change my own view of him."
"Perhaps popular opinion is right."
"Everybody's passing judgment on someone they never met," Han held firm. "They don't know him like I do."
"Did. Inego is dead, Petty Officer Solin."
"Maybe..." Han tried—but Luke cut him off, voice decisive.
"Oh, trust me, he's gone. One cannot come back from the dead."
Han paused, making one last effort. "That's a pity, Sir. I always thought we had a lot in common."
"You should take care it's not your demise, Petty Officer Solin."
He held Han's eye just a second longer before turning coolly about to walk back down the row of parade-straight officers without once looking back.
Han leaned out slightly to stare down the row of Officers at Luke's receding back as he strode away with a measured, self-possessed confidence. As he passed, every Petty Officer in the line-up turned just a fraction to stare at his back then, when the bay doors finally closed, turned about in unison to look at Han.
Han straightened up again, letting out a slow breath. Now he was sweating.
Wandering nonchalantly down the main corridor on the Navigation Level, Han was trying to look like he was sufficiently bored to be on official business, a borrowed automemo tucked under one arm—always handy to pull out and pretend to read when travelling in turbolifts and someone looked like they might try to engage him in conversation.
No more had been mentioned about the uneasy meeting two days ago, aside from the Personnel Officer, who'd given Han ten minutes of grief then suddenly changed his mind when he apparently decided that it might just be in his interest to suck up to the new Petty Officer who went to the same art galleries as The Heir, and had consequently given Han an easy ride for the next few days. Which never hurt.
They'd gone into hyperspace the first night and no one in the assorted messes or common rooms seemed to know where, so when the Patriot made a short drop into realspace, offering a chance to gain co-ordinates, Han had decided to go straight to the source and try a little trip to Navigation.
Now he just had to pick a room—there were about thirty so far in the Navigation section; way more than the last time he remembered being on a Star Destroyer. But then he'd never actually been on a Super Star Destroyer... He smiled a lopsided smirk at that—actually it wasn't true; he'd been taken to Coruscant onboard the SSD Executor with Luke...they just hadn't seen much of it.
And now the kid from Tatooine owned one of them...had been given it by Palpatine himself. Funny how the galaxy turned...
Han finally chose a room at random and wandered in, looking busily down at his automemo screen as the door slid shut behind him. He risked a quick glance up, but there were only four men in the long, deep room, none of whom were looking. The nearest was standing before a screen of what looked like might be useful info, so Han walked up casually, glancing back to the automemo as if reading it.
"Hey, I'm looking for Lieutenant Antilles?" Han picked the name of Rogue Group's Flight Commander at random.
"Antilles?" The non-com shook his head. "No, not here."
Han raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Doesn't work this shift?"
"Doesn't work any shift, Sir—not in here."
"Great." Han feigned frustration, glancing about. "Does anyone know him?"
The man finally turned away to the others, giving Han an unguarded look at that screen. "Anyone know a Lieutenant Antilles?"
As the non-coms spoke, the door behind Han whispered open and he heard light footsteps. Turning casually, he recognized the man immediately. He'd taken the time to shoehorn all the leading players in the Patriot into his head before he'd set off, but even without that, Commander Wez Reece was a well-known figure around Skywalker these days, having risen from something between a bodyguard and an Aide to Adjutant-General of The Heir's household.
Han glanced away immediately, looking back to his automemo, and the man walked by without a second glance, heading to the input console at the far side of the room, all the non-coms immediately trying to look busy.
Han stared at the automemo in his hand until the backlit screen burned into his vision, wondering how soon he could retreat without drawing attention to himself...
Finally he looked up to the man beside him. "Ya know what, I think I need to check that name. Don't worry about..."
Wez Reece glanced back, then away...then, as if changing his mind, he looked up again. "Can I help you, Lieutenant?"
Uh-oh. "No, thank you, sir. I'm just trying to track someone down—it's not a..."
"Oh..." Han stared again at his automemo; well, this wasn't going well... "Lieutenant Antilles. It's not a problem, I'll just..."
Reece stepped around the console, heading toward Han.
"Lieutenant Antilles is in System Analysis." He drew level, head set slightly to one side. "Let me take you—I'm passing right by it."
Han stared for long seconds… Up close, Wez Reece was a pretty big, bulky man...
"Thanks," he said at last, and fell into step behind him as he headed for the door—what else could he do?
They walked in silence down the long, gray corridor, Han wondering firstly what the hell was going on, secondly, who this Lieutenant Antilles was—what were the chances of there really being someone with that name onboard—and lastly, more realistically, if he could take Wez Reece down and get off the Destroyer before they caught up with him.
He slowed as they reached System Analysis, but the tall man kept walking as Han stopped, pointing at the door, which slid open. "Uuuhh?"
"This way please, Lieutenant." Reece turned away and continued, leaving Han to stare after him.
See, now this really isn't good. Han glanced momentarily inside System Analysis before stepping away and continuing behind Reece, eyes narrowing.
They walked in silence to the turbolifts and travelled in silence to who-knew-where. By now, Han fully expected to come out into a room full of stormtroopers—or maybe the Detention Level; just cut out all that chasing around and take him straight there then arrest him.
He leaned back against the wall, feeling the reassuring push of the small holdout blaster he wore concealed beneath his jacket at the small of his back. His expert eye had already clocked that Reece's expensive, carefully-tailored clothes couldn't quite conceal the blaster he wore in a shoulder-holster beneath his own jacket. And he was pretty sure the guy also wore a vibroblade or something at the small of his back. He stood like a soldier too, back straight, those wide shoulders just slightly tensed, expecting trouble. He turned to glance at Han, who tried an easy smile; it wasn't returned.
When the doors opened onto a quiet, wide corridor, Reece stepped out without another word leaving Han to stare at his back, the smile quickly falling from his face, then just as quickly reforming as the burly man turned slightly.
"This way please," Reece prompted, setting forward.
"And what exactly is that way?" Han said before stepping warily out, unable to keep the edge from his voice now.
But the man was already walking off, so after another brief pause Han followed, glancing up and down the spacious corridor, open to a long row of large viewpanes along one wall with an uninterrupted view of the Super Star Destroyer's impressive bulk laid out beneath it like a cityscape, the pale light of a distant star casting wan shadows across its bow. Han glanced again to the big man ahead of him, hand slipping to the small of his back as he walked, casually trying to ease the fitted Imperial uniform away from his blaster; he probably wouldn't get a better opportunity than this...
They stopped at a door, the only one in the deserted corridor aside from its opposite end.
"It's uhhh...pretty quiet round here," Han tried, mentally calculating that he was probably close enough now that if he swung for the big guy with the automemo he was carrying, he may buy enough time to get his damn blaster free...
"Yes." The tall man turned to him without emotion, making Han freeze.
He turned away again to knock lightly on the door then pressed the release, and Han glanced inside, bracing himself, hand going automatically to his concealed blaster—
But the room seemed empty. Living accommodation, large and dark, luxuriously appointed with heavy, tastefully refined furniture. He looked back at his guide, who gestured inside with a small motion of his head. After another quick check down the corridor Han entered the low-lit room, glancing about, his attention taken momentarily by that same spectacular view as the empty corridor. The door slid shut behind him and Han turned, realizing the tall man hadn't entered...
Standing to one side of the large room, his dark clothes making him melt into the shadows, was Luke.
He remained still for a long time, just looking at Han, leaving him uneasy beneath that intense gaze. When Luke finally spoke his tone was no less unsettling, a strange mix of wryly amused and completely emotionless, his real accent totally buried beneath perfectly modulated Coruscanti.
"You know, we always seem to meet onboard Star Destroyers."
It took long seconds for Han to find a comeback. "Yeah, but in my defense you seem to spend an awful lot of time onboard 'em these days."
"So do you, considering your allegiance," Luke countered easily. His voice remained light and non-confrontational, yet there was something indefinable in his manner that was anything but. Han tensed, freshly wary.
"Are you gonna...put me out again?"
"Are you intending to point that holdout blaster at me? The one against your back," Luke added, as Han took a breath to voice denial.
"Oh, that one—that's just for luck."
"It doesn't seem to be working very well."
"I dunno, it got me what I came here for...a chance to see you."
"You put your Alliance to an awful lot of expense just to speak to me."
"Well ya know, they wanted a few other stuff as well...like where you keep disappearing to. Wouldn't care to enlighten me, would you?"
Luke remained silent, still shrouded in the shadows, neither offended nor compliant.
"Operating parameters for the DEMP maybe?" Han said. "Upgraded shield system? ...No?"
Luke remained mute for long moments, impassive and unmoving. When he finally spoke, his voice was calmly resigned, all emotion hidden beneath that formal accent, strange coming from his mouth. "Is that what you came all this way to ask me?"
"No...well yeah, but I didn't think you'd answer that stuff."
"Then what did you come here for?"
"I guess...I came to see you—see if you're okay."
"You left it a long time to ask."
There was no trace of emotion in his neutral voice, neither accusation nor judgment, but Han felt a crushing pang of guilt all the same. He glanced away, deeply uneasy, feeling the need to fill the stifling silence. " 'Course, why wouldn't you be—I mean, you have your own Star Destroyer now. Super Star Destroyer. Two in fact...well, a fleet I guess, really. And, you know...that whole Heir to the Empire thing." He shrugged again uncomfortably. "But that's all just...stuff, isn't it?"
"Mostly. A few of them I need."
Luke stepped from the shadows, that unsettling aura still about him, everything locked up tight, nothing readable to Han despite their years of close friendship. Han shifted uneasily beneath that unsettling gaze—
Then leaned in, noticing for the first time the dark flash in the kid's right eye. He knew of course about the deep, twisted scar—knew where it had come from—but this wasn't described in any of the documents he'd seen. "What did you do to your eye?"
"Someone tried to blow me up," the kid said mildly. "I thought you might have heard, given your interest in my wellbeing."
Standing two paces and an impassable divide away, Luke watched Han's uneasy silence for several seconds before he relented, unable to stay angry at the Corellian, if he ever really had been in the first place. He shouldn't have come here but then Luke shouldn't have let him—could have stopped him long before now.
He turned away, stepping to the console to pour two drinks, more to break the moment than anything else. To give Han as well as himself a few seconds grace, not wishing to hold him responsible for others' actions.
He wouldn't let them come between himself and the last real friend Luke Skywalker had. The very last to remember who Luke Skywalker was—because he couldn't remember himself anymore. To know that there was someone out there who still saw that unrealistic, painfully naive idealist when they looked into his face was strangely reassuring.
"So where's Chewie?" Luke turned and walked forward to sit in a chair, his back to that impressive view. Han followed and sat opposite him, missing the fraction of a smile that touched Luke's lips before he hid it away. It was a long time since anyone had just sat down in his presence without express permission, and the casual informality of it felt reassuringly reminiscent of simpler times.
"I woulda' brought him, but strangely we couldn't make him look convincing in an Officer's uniform."
Luke smiled, allowing himself to fall easily into that mindset again, just for a moment. "You could've shaved him."
"Yeah, but I kinda like my arms attached to my body," Han dismissed glibly. "He molts enough anyway. I already find his hairs all over the Falcon..."
He stopped, clearly unsure whether he should mention this.
Luke only twitched his eyebrows in a casual shrug, looking away. "It was no good to me—and I believe you're the one who owns the registration documents."
"Actually Lando still has them—he could never quite bring himself to let 'em go. I have a bunch of others for it though—all legal of course."
The two stared for a long time, each taking the measure of the other. Han hadn't changed at all, Luke knew. He was still the brash, self-assured pilot who'd demanded ten thousand credits for the hop from Tatooine to Alderaan eight years ago...was it only that? It seemed another lifetime...another life.
"I'd like to thank you for that whole Bothawui thing," Han said at last. "With the Falcon and all—they thought I was a spy for a while."
"Yes, they're quick to point the finger," Luke said, then stopped himself. Instead he frowned. "The Bothawui thing?"
"I'd been trying to get Mon to move the venue of that meeting for weeks, then not only do you show up, but I get the Falcon back."
"Ah." Luke smiled irreverently. "I could contact them if you like—put a good word in for you."
"Would'ya?" Han deadpanned. " 'Cos I'm sure that would work."
They both smiled then looked down uneasily. Luke waited the subsequent silence out, knowing what the next question would be. It took Han a long time to say it, but he found the courage in the end, as Luke knew he would.
"What...happened to Mon?"
Luke met Han's eyes, determined not to be forced to feel guilty—more by himself than Han. "You know what happened—she was executed. She led a rebellion against the Empire. The penalty for insurrection is well publicized."
Han looked back down to his glass uneasily. Finally he murmured without looking up, struggling to find the words. "It's just...you knew her so well."
"Yes, I did—which was why it came as something of a surprise when she ordered my assassination." There was an edge to his voice now, the idealistic kid Han had known completely gone. "What was I supposed to do, let her keep on taking pot-shots at me until she succeeded?"
Han said nothing, and Luke relented slightly, his voice quieting.
"They didn't...she wasn't interrogated. I think Palpatine knew how..." He stopped; he'd been about to admit just how uneasy he'd been at Mothma's execution; that Palpatine clearly had felt that interrogating her—and having Luke know it—wasn't worth the alienation it would cause between himself and his precious Jedi. But he held to silence, refusing to be made to feel he should defend his actions against someone who had tried very hard to kill him.
Han studied Luke as he looked down, briefly uncertain, and in that moment...he still looked so young. Just a kid, trying to find a path through some serious poodoo and keep sane at the same time. Who was Han to judge that—he didn't exactly have an impeachable record himself.
But the truth was that Luke wasn't the same—and now, sitting before him and watching the kid's expression harden in self-censure, Han couldn't believe he'd been stubborn enough to try to convince himself otherwise. He could see it in Luke's eyes as they cooled once more to icy reserve, could feel it in the air, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Like hearing a noise in the dark; like feeling a storm front close in.
He looked again at the deep, jagged scar which marked the kid's cheek, from above his dark-cast eye clean down through his lips; noticed another on his neck half-hidden by the high collar of that impeccably-cut shirt. Injuries inflicted on the order of the woman Luke had more than once put his life on the line to protect.
Yes, the kid had changed—had to change to survive. Han had seen plenty like that in his profession, it was nothing new. People who'd had it bad and did what they had to just to survive, but somehow, somewhere along the way, gradually and without even realizing it, they lost some vital part of themselves. You could always tell them because they had that same detached, dispassionate look in their eye as Luke had right now. As if nothing touched them anymore—nothing even came close.
But he hadn't known any that made those hairs on the back of his neck prickle before.
"I dunno," Han murmured at last. "I just...don't know sometimes. It's all so..."
"Muddy," the kid finished knowingly into the protracted silence. "It was so much easier when it was black and white, wasn't it? They always say 'know your enemy,' but that's as much a hindrance as a help."
Again the silence stretched, but it was less tense now, neither man wishing the other any enmity. Eventually Han looked up. "What are you gonna do?"
"I'm going to rule an Empire," Luke said simply, no trace of doubt in his steady voice. "What are you going to do?"
"I dunno. Try to stop you I suppose."
"You don't sound very sure."
Han looked up at the young man before him, confident and composed before someone who had just declared their intentions to stop him, despite the fact that Han wore a sidearm and Luke, clearly, had nothing at all. But then that hadn't exactly been a flyaway success last time. He studied his old friend for long moments, but Luke held his eye, composed and unruffled—and completely without chagrin.
Han glanced back to the glass in his hand. "I once had a guy tell me—when I told him I was a smuggler, a mercenary—he said... 'You should be careful. The thing that you seek to claim has a way of reaching back and claiming you.' "
"Really?" The barest of ironic smiles touched the corners of the kid's scarred lips. "I once heard him say, 'Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?'. Last time it was to you…but I won't make the same mistake."
Han smiled lopsidedly at having been caught out, then the smile fell away. "Do you..."
"Forgive him? For lying to me...repeatedly? No, I don't think I do. But then I'm sure he wouldn't forgive me for...my decisions since."
"Do you...hold him responsible for all this?"
Luke's face remained absolutely neutral, whatever was going on behind that mask completely hidden. "As I said, they were my decisions."
Han pursed his lips and glanced away, suddenly embarrassed to say it aloud...but it was what he'd come here to ask, and the kid seemed neither surprised or offended when he finally said it. "Are you...Sith?"
"Would it change your view of me?"
When Han didn't answer, Luke frowned slightly, wrinkling the scar by his eye. "You once told me you didn't believe in the Jedi—one must assume by extension that you shouldn't believe Sith exist either."
"Things change. We all make mistakes."
Han frowned at the distant tone in the kid's voice, but Luke realized immediately and whatever regrets were playing across his mind in that moment were instantly quashed, sharp eyes hardening. "Do you even know what a Sith is?"
"Why don't you tell me?"
"Should I take that as a 'no'?"
"If I said yeah, would you answer the question?" Han said, aware now that the kid was neatly avoiding anything he didn't want to answer.
"Probably not," Luke replied easily, clearly amused that his bluff was being called. "Other than to say that a Sith would have no compunction about using a 'friend' to his own advantage."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Han realized even as he said it what the kid was getting at—because it was Han, not Luke, who was asking all the questions here. Luke hadn't asked one, not about the Alliance, what Han was really supposed to be doing here, nothing. His friendship with Han, quite clearly, lay outside of all other considerations.
Chagrined, Han frowned again, glancing at his drink. "Is this Corellian?" It was hardly a subtle change of direction, but then subtlety wasn't really his style.
"Of course," Luke said. "I'd never dare serve you anything else."
"It's good—good vintage. I...um..." A long silence followed before Han looked up, shaking his head. "I don't...I have no idea what to say."
Luke held his gaze, face unreadable, that slight smile still etched on his features without ever reaching his eyes. "Ask what you want to ask."
Han paused a few seconds more... "What the hell happened?"
Luke didn't change that cool, composed expression, the brittle silence stretching out; but his mismatched eyes became distant, lost in memories Han couldn't begin to comprehend.
"I thought he'd kill me... I thought if I made enough noise and mess getting you out, he'd just kill me and that would be it... Then I woke up in a cell, and I thought, I can still do this—if I say no enough times, if I make it difficult enough, he'll kill me. But he never would, quite..."
He blinked as if breaking a spell and turned to Han, neither accusation nor abandonment in his gaze, but Han felt the guilt burn through him all the same, the memories of the dozens of times he'd wanted to go after the kid and let himself be talked out of it still smarting. Luke continued, face emotionless though his voice almost cracked, his accent recognizable now as that familiar, provincial drawl. Not quite what it had been, but five years was a long time…especially here.
"I kept telling myself, 'One more day. Just make it through one more day.' And then another, and then another...and no one ever came." He shrugged, oddly resigned. "But then I never really thought they would... I was where I was supposed to be—what I wanted was immaterial."
Was that...regret? Han grabbed at it with both hands, some chink in that previously impervious armor. "You don't believe they're right..."
"I don't think you're right either—I don't think there is a right, not anymore."
"Then leave! Just leave—get out of here."
"And go where? There's no place Palpatine wouldn't find me, not now. There's nowhere left to hide. He'd raze a planet to track me down, burn through a whole system if he thought it would flush me from hiding—he's made that very clear and believe me, he never bluffs."
"Go to the outer systems, the Unknown Regions. Take the Falcon—you can have her."
"If I did I'd be signing your death warrant. And the Rebellion's. And anyone else who'd ever known me—anyone at all. He'd take you all down, first because he'd believe you'd helped me and second because he'd...he'd know that I'd sense it and eventually I'd have to come back just to stop it. And there are people here too now, people in the Palace who..." He stopped abruptly, as if realizing what he was saying, those shields dropping into place with practiced ease. "And anyway, I need to stay. I have plans in motion and as I've told you, most of them involve my ruling the Empire one day. Which would be difficult to do from the back of beyond."
Han shook his head, frustration fuelling his discontent, but Luke only smiled, as if amused at his friend's unease.
"I think," he said at last, "that one of the things I've learned being here is...not to take things so personally. Sometimes in the real world we have to accept that there are complications to every friendship. But that doesn't necessarily exclude them."
Han recognized the offer on the table...and why did the kid even have to check? He nodded, throwing out a casual jibe at his friend. "When the hell did you get so smart?"
The smile which had hovered on Luke's lips for so long finally touched his eyes. "Well you know, one of us had to grow up eventually."
They were silent for a moment, but it was less fraught this time, more comfortable. Han took a gulp from the brandy, still smiling into the glass...
Luke glanced sharply away then back to him, rising as he spoke, his voice clipped and formal again. "Well this has been interesting, but I think it's time for you to go."
Han frowned, thrown by the sudden change in the kid's demeanor. "What?"
"Mara Jade's on her way up here and she doesn't keep secrets well."
Han glanced to the doorway Luke had already reached, himself rising. He almost asked how Luke knew, but stopped himself in time.
"She's been around a long time," he observed instead. "Are you and she, uh...?"
Those mismatched eyes seemed to see clean through him. "She's still Palpatine's agent."
"Hey, I didn't ask if it was serious."
The kid just smiled enigmatically, leaving Han to frown at his friend, curious...
"You need to take a left," Luke said. "At the end of the corridor there's an emergency exit which has a deactivated alarm. Take the staircase up three levels—no further. When you come out onto the corridor you'll be under surveillance again but the lens is on your right hand side and doesn't cover the actual door. Turn to your left and don't look back and you won't be I.D.'d. Go straight to the nearest turbolift and don't get off until someone else is in the lift—and don't press the floor you need."
Han nodded, frustrated that their brief discussion was coming to an end all too quickly. "We should...do this again."
"No, we really shouldn't," the kid stated unequivocally, though there was amusement in his voice. "When you get back to your quarters, you should pack your bags and go. I assume you can get your own transport?"
Luke broke into a genuine smile, quickly quashed, and Han couldn't help but do the same. He had, he supposed, everything he'd come here for; let the others take care of the rest. He'd come to find an old friend—and much to his relief, he hadn't been disappointed.
"Good to see you again, kid. Take care of yourself."
Luke smiled just slightly, those strange mismatched eyes at once familiar and strange. Han nodded once then set off down the corridor, two steps away before Luke's quiet voice called out, "Solo—"
Han turned and Skywalker raised his eyebrows pointedly, though he was still smiling. "You sneak back onboard my ship again and I'll throw you in the brig."
Unexpectedly, still figuring out his escape route, Han was visited just a few hours later by the big, no-nonsense Wez Reece, who politely but firmly told him to gather his things, then led him in silence to one of the restricted Bays.
When the massive bay doors cycled open, Han's eyes skipped about, trying to take it all in. This was one of the 701st bays, he knew, out of bounds to all personnel except members of The Heir's own squadron. The Alliance had no information at all on the 701st, except that they were completely loyal to The Heir; no idea of numbers, vocations, units, nothing. General opinion in the Intel circuits was that this was because the Empire didn't either—you couldn't steal information that nobody had.
Less than half the soldiers present were in trooper's armor, the rest mostly in fatigues, a few even in civilian clothes. The ships too were a mix, mostly TIE's, plus a squadron of the new I-TIE's neatly stowed, several skiprays and blastboats to the rear of the bay, none with military markings. Han took special care to try to remember those—he may come face to face with them again when he was in the Falcon and if he did, he wanted to know about it. Nothing bigger here, but then there were nine bays in total dedicated to the 701st.
He was still glancing about, trying to remember specifics, when Reece slowed ahead of him, making Han turn. They'd stopped near the front of the bay, a sleek but not too new shuttle there. Luke stood close by, speaking to a tall, mustached man with sharp eyes and a casual, affected slouch. He wore civilian clothes and a time-worn gunbelt. The matte, oiled blaster in it was a newer model of Han's own Blastech.
Luke turned from the man, nodding at Han.
"Karrde, this is Solin; Solin, Karrde."
The two men glanced briefly, each giving the other a professional once-over.
"Karrde has agreed to give you passage to the nearest planet," Luke continued.
Han opened his mouth to object, but Luke kept on talking without acknowledging him, explaining away his change of heart at leaving Han to make his own arrangements to leave without giving too much away. "Unsurprisingly, we keep a close tab on the military ships assigned to the Patriot."
Han frowned, wondering if there was more to it than that, but clearly now, before Karrde, was not the time to talk.
Still, he couldn't help but make one last ditch try, uncomfortable at being cornered like this. "Ah, you'd never miss one ship on a Destroyer this size."
"Until it turned up trying to sneak back onboard with a hold full of explosives," Luke said mildly, tone neither accusing nor judgmental. "Besides, Karrde is heading your way."
"Which way's that?"
"Out," Luke said succinctly. "Quietly."
He took a step back, clearing Han's path up into the shuttle, and Han nodded once, setting forward.
"Incidentally, Solin, you forgot something."
A second man who had been standing unnoticed close by, short and slight with olive skin and sharp, watchful eyes, stepped forward to hand Han a small box. He took it warily, unsure what would be inside.
When he opened it, it contained the five transmitters that Han had spent the last few days placing in strategic points throughout the Destroyer.
"Thanks for that," he muttered dryly.
"No—thank you," Luke said with a tip of his head, but there was humor in his voice so Han rolled his eyes before hesitating, unsure what to say, aware that many eyes were on him—that so much had changed.
But some things remained the same, if only because Han willfully kept them so.
"Be careful," he warned the kid, a brotherly tone in his voice.
Luke smiled tightly, appreciative of the genuine concern, the slightest change in the tone of his voice hinting at the same for Han. "Keep doing what you're best at."
For a moment Han frowned, uncertain what he meant, then a stray memory connected: of long ago, in the Rebel base on Yavin, the Death Star closing in, when Han had told the kid he was leaving—leaving the Alliance, leaving that whole sorry mess behind. He'd told Luke if he had an ounce of sense he'd do the same.
"Well take care of yourself, Han," the kid had said, so fresh he probably still had Tatooine sand in his boots. "But then I guess that's what you're best at, isn't it?"
At the time it had been an insult, but they'd laughed it off within the day. Gotten themselves fall-down-drunk and put the galaxy to rights the same night. It was all so easy back then, black and white. Reality...that was all the grays in between.
The Corellian nodded, suddenly melancholy, briefly smiling that lopsided grin before turning to walk up the shuttle's ramp.
Luke watched in silence as Han disappeared into the ship, well aware of Karrde's curious eyes on him, and that the mercenary was smart enough to realize that there was more going on here than met the eye, if not what exactly. Still, this remained, to Luke's mind, the most controllable, and therefore probably least disruptive, way to get Han out. His change of heart had been prompted by a reconsideration of just how much trouble Solo was capable of generating even when doing something as simple as leaving the Destroyer. Something would happen and it would all go ballistic—it always did with Han.
And even if it didn't, Palpatine would never believe that someone had simply stolen onboard a Destroyer that Luke commanded and made off with a ship. Especially when he went after the other spies, as he intended to do just as soon as Karrde left—which once more made Han's return to the Rebels a little muddy.
He had no idea what story Han would give for his time onboard the Patriot—whether he would admit to having spoken to Luke or not—but the opportunity to add a little ambiguity to the plot was just too tempting to pass up. Those who thought Han was trustworthy would believe this just another attempt by The Heir to muddy Solo's reputation in the Rebellion, and those who thought him a double-agent would see it as proof for the very same reasons.
Plus it helped to alleviate the pressure from Argot, which was never something to be passed up on. Han would weather it unbothered, as he did most things, and it seemed that whilst their friendship remained intact, the occasional play wasn't out of the question—Solo hadn't come clean about the transmitters, after all.
Without turning, Luke waited until Han was entering the shuttle before saying quietly to Karrde, voice dry and distant, "Try not to shoot him—I know you'll be very tempted at times, but..."
"I'll endeavor to refrain," the mercenary said matter-of-factly. "Though with Corellians that can be hard."
"Yes," the mercenary drawled, eyes still on the vacant ramp. "One has to appreciate the paradox that is my life."
Luke glanced sideways at Karrde before looking back to the now-empty ramp.
"Perhaps I should have told him not to shoot you," he said wryly. "Just drop him somewhere neutral; he can look after himself from there."
"I can imagine."
"And don't tell him anything."
Karrde's dark eyes came back quickly at that. "I thought you said he was one of your operatives."
"He is—he just doesn't know it. I'll be in contact." Luke turned before Karrde could quiz him further, glancing back as he left to add, "You should check your passenger—he's probably on your bridge by now."
Mara woke in the early hours of the morning and for long, sleepy moments couldn't work out why. They'd arrived at Endor two days earlier and Luke had spent the whole time on the new battle station, only returning a few hours ago to collapse into bed, exhausted. She'd curled up beside him, body hugging his, skin to skin, and listened to his breathing in the darkness until he'd fallen into a broken, restless sleep, twisting and turning as he always did but never quite escaping his dreams.
She'd laid awake in the darkness watching him, wondering what a Sith dreamed—terrible things? Nightmares and visions, barbed and biting, and twisted through with Darkness? Fractured foresight and future revelations perhaps...or simply dreams: moments and memories, hopes and fears all jumbled together, like everyone else.
He'd jolted awake with a gasp, jerking upright, arms held protectively before him, fingers splayed. For long seconds he stared breathless into the darkness, wide-eyed, his chest heaving...then slowly tense muscles loosed, as realization of where he was crept in and his breathing gradually returned to normal, and eventually he'd laid down on his back as his eyes closed, drifting again.
"Stop watching me," he'd murmured quietly without opening his eyes.
Mara had loosed a smile into the darkness. "I'm not," she'd said. "I'm looking in your general direction."
"Well then look in some other general direction."
"I like this one," she'd maintained gamely.
He'd remained silent for long seconds so that she'd begun to wonder if he'd fallen asleep, before he'd rolled from his back onto his side, draping his arm over her and pulling her closely to him so that she faced away, body laid within the curve of his.
"Go to sleep," he'd breathed against the back of her neck, and she'd settled, closing her eyes, lost in his warmth and his touch...
Which was what was absent now. Slowly it percolated into her drowsy mind that she was alone—Skywalker was gone.
But the pale greeny-blue glow of an automemo light traced a soft line around the partly open door, so Mara rolled quietly from the bed and catwalked lightly towards the diffuse glow in the room beyond. Luke was sitting with his back to her, leaning back to balance on the rear legs of the chair at his desk on the far side of the room, his bare shoulders highlighted by the dim light of the automemo.
Frowning, Mara took a half-step forward in absolute silence.
Immediately, Luke hit a key on the automemo and the screen fell dark, throwing the room into hazy star-shadows from the viewport.
Mara frowned, pausing instantly. "What's going on?"
"Well then, why did you just turn it off?"
His head turned slightly, muscles tensing. Just visible in the wan light, five years of lessons hard-learned were spelled out in old scars across his back and arms. "Is that what you came in here to find out?"
Mara paused for long seconds; she'd been on the very edge of shouting at him, indignant at the accusation…but wasn't it true?
Luke sighed, voice tired and quiet. "What the hell are we doing? Who do we think we're fooling?"
"Not each other, apparently." Still smarting from the near-break-up just a few weeks ago, Mara wasn't looking for a fight. "Actually I was just reflecting that your answer was good enough for me."
He turned, words and tone indulgent, laced with mock belief. "Really? 'Cos now I'm completely persuaded of your good intentions."
Mara smiled, draping her arms about him where he sat. "Come to bed, pushover."
Luke dropped back onto the bed, body craving the sleep which eluded his mind. He felt jaded, drained and weary after days of plotting and planning, hiding men and equipment and intentions. Already they'd begun drafting and reassigning officers to the Death Star, intending to use it to disseminate those Luke could trust equally through the Core and Rim Fleet whilst slowly, in increments, appointing those he didn't trust to some aspect of the new Death Star's construction, with the intention of reassigning them furthest from the Core when their task was done. His thoughts still rushed with transfers and turnover, caught between the distaste of all this deceit and the knowledge of its necessity to move his own plans forward.
Mara settled against him, her arm across his chest, hair falling in a fiery tumble against his skin as she laid her head on his shoulder, the pale glow of distant stars their only light. He heard her sigh, felt her breath against his skin, felt her warmth, mental and physical…
A sudden regret washed over him—at what he didn't know; realization of what this had become perhaps? Fear that it wouldn't be enough when it came to the moment, as it hadn't been for his father.
'Darkness wouldn't care.' His father's words echoed in Luke's thoughts, a lifeline to cling to, a promise that he wasn't yet lost. But then his father had clearly cared a great deal for his mother…he still did. And yet he'd still turned on her in that fateful moment.
The words came from his mouth in a whisper before he'd even thought them. "Don't ever cross me, Mara."
She tensed against him. "What?"
"Don't cross me."
"Is that a threat?" Her voice hardened slightly, but Luke couldn't muster the same, rueful.
"No; I don't threaten—not you."
She leaned back slightly. "Well then, what the hell was it?"
"Just...don't. Don't cross me."
"...I..." The truth was like a body-blow and it burned him to say it out loud. "...I don't know what I'd do."
Unsettled as she was, Mara didn't back down. "Hey, I can look after myself."
"Not against me."
There was no trace of doubt in his voice—and they both knew why. Mara leaned up on her elbow, and turned to face him, but he couldn't look at her, staring instead at his left hand as he turned his mother's blue-stoned ring about his little finger, lost in thought. "You'll… That moment will come, Mara—my fate in your hands."
She shook her head, about to deny, to offer reassurance…
"Don't," he cut in, refusing her automatic response as he finally met her eyes. "I just...I don't know what I would do if you crossed me..."
Mara remained still but he looked quickly away. Eventually she reached out to touch his cheek but Luke shied back in silence, unwilling to be comforted. Instead she glanced down to where his own gaze was held, reaching out slim fingers to touch the pale blue stone of the ring.
"Where is this from?" she asked at last. "You always wear it."
He shook his head; even this he couldn't tell her, for fear that his lies concealing surreptitious meetings with his own father would be uncovered. How could he live like this—but how could he leave her?
His eyes remained on the ring his mother had worn, the memory of his father's words on the day he had given it to Luke searing through his thoughts: "You cannot be close to another—you cannot allow another to be close to you. Failure is inevitable and the consequences will spiral from your control."
"I am not you," Luke murmured in quiet denial, as he had done that night.
"What?" Mara squeezed his hand reassuringly.
"Someone once told me that I could only destroy that which I loved."
Mara froze, green eyes wide, and the burst of shocked elation which radiated out from her brought Luke's own eyes up in surprise as she repeated his word...
Luke frowned... Value—his father had said value. It was he who had said...
Should he be elated or terrified? Or both?
She lifted his chin gently to look into his eyes. "You know I..."
"Don't say it," he whispered quickly. "Don't ever say it."
"...What if I've cursed us both already?"
Leia settled into bed, tired to the bone, pulling up close to Han who murmured sleepily, arm settling about her. She closed her eyes and sighed, lulled by his warmth and his presence, even in sleep.
It had been a hard meeting tonight; Han had arrived back a few days ago and been debriefed, telling the Chiefs of Staff exactly what had happened: about Luke, the meeting—everything. There had been the usual questions about why exactly Lu...The Heir had let him go again, but they'd been less strenuous than before, more curious and confused than accusing.
Then word had come in about the others. Tag, the Intel Chief, had announced that all agents onboard the Patriot had failed to report in at their regular contact times. Everyone had waited on tenterhooks, hoping for the best, fearing the worst...
They waited forty-eight hours before closing the files, marking them MPD. What was worse was that it placed all information they'd sent since their arrival on the Patriot into question—months of preparation and covert surveillance all wasted, because now they had no idea when the agents had been discovered and therefore how much information had been falsely fed to them.
The fact that all four had been silenced at the same time was particularly damning, since it inferred that it wasn't a mistake on the agents' parts. None had made contact with or known the identity of each other, so the speed of their combined removal meant they were already being watched...all of them.
Which brought up another old issue, and the reason for tonight's meeting. Tag strongly maintained that the leak had to have been internal: from Home One.
Despite the Intel Chief's rejection of it based on the fact that it was glaringly obvious and the Wolf just didn't work that way, all thoughts had turned to one person—the only one who had once again walked from a compromised mission unscathed: Han Solo.
Leia sighed, mind racing despite her physical exhaustion. Why had Han been exempt—more than that, actively removed. Han's description of his departure meant it was clearly in a way which had been calculated to keep his presence there from the Emperor. And hadn't she received the same protection, when she'd been aboard the Patriot? No one else in her team had—she'd been singled out, she knew that. Again a cold tingle ran down her spine at the memory of his warning cutting across every other thought in her mind, sharp as a blade: 'Run!'
She jolted, resisting the automatic impulse to do just that even now, a rush of adrenaline surging through her.
Why—why had he helped her? Because he knew her? But that made no sense. Surely he knew her role in his exposure as an Imperial agent...
And if he was an Imperial, if he was the Emperor's Wolf, then why feel anything at all for her—for the friendship they'd had—because if he was a spy then it surely hadn't existed at all, above the role of agent and assignment.
Why let his arch-enemy, leader of the Alliance and the one who'd exposed him as a spy, go?
None of it made sense.
She drifted slowly to sleep, distant memories rolling through her mind, tangled through with regret and betrayal and loss...
When she woke four hours later with a jolt, all those memories had seeped away into the cold dark of night, leaving only an eerie emptiness, a silence profound as the depths of space and for an instant—just a fragment of a second—she thought she had heard it even here… The howl of the wolf from her dreams.
She jerked upright, arms out to steady herself, head spinning...
For a split-second she thought that the massive Corvette had lost power—that this was the reason that she'd snapped awake, arms stretched before her to steady herself against the stomach-turning shift which felt like gravity realigning. But Han only vaguely started, lifting his head, sleepy and surprised in the same moment. "Wha?"
Leia remained stock-still, waiting for the disconcerting motion to level out, aware from his expression that Han felt nothing at all.
"What is it?" he murmured, dragging himself awake.
She opened her mouth to reply but realized she had no idea what to say...
All she was left with was one overriding feeling, one absolute truth...
"Something's about to happen."
Luke woke at dawn with a start, gasping a breath in as Mara moved just slightly in her sleep beside him. He glanced about the room, the distant glow of the never-sleeping Coruscanti metropolis casting hazy shadows in the filtered gloom—
Then...like the galaxy realigning, like reality ripping and shifting, there was a stretched second of altered perceptions which pulled his senses wire-taut. He tensed against the wave of nausea and disorientation which ripped through him, until the chaotic upheaval slowly ebbed and reality seeped back in, stabilizing like ripples calming as equilibrium restored… And nothing and everything had changed.
It took a second for him to acclimatize to the shift, remaining perfectly still and holding feather-light contact with the Force but somehow skipping off its presence as he tried to chase down the nebulous feeling...
But the moment passed, nothing left but the hollow trace of formless imprints which melted to nothing, insubstantial as ghosts in the night.
Uneasy, he turned over, hand to Mara's shoulder. "Up. Get up."
She stirred again, eyes not yet open. "Mmm?"
This time she opened her eyes, voice and sense instantly awake, remembering where she was, of the danger they were both in simply by being together here. "What's wrong?"
"Something just happened—did you sense it?"
"Sense it? No." She sounded confused more than anything, that he would even ask her such a thing.
"You did," Luke said tightly. "You have your hand to your head."
"I have a headache, that's all."
Luke rose, padding over cold fossilstone floors to the tall windows to key the photovoltaic blackout down and let the glow of early dawn seep through, pale and diffuse.
"Get dressed." There was an urgency to his voice, a tenseness to his body as he turned without looking back. "Quickly."
"What did you sense?"
"I don't know. Nothing specific. It's…hidden." Luke paused at his choice of word, then shook his head, walking quickly to his dressing room. " Something happened…something's happening right now, right here. You need to leave."
Mara nodded once as she slid from the bed, knowing better than to waste time with questions now; Luke wasn't the type to get spooked easily...and despite his outward calm, this was the most nervous she'd seen him in years.
She left moments after Luke, he leaving his private rooms to walk the long way round through the rambling hallways of his sprawling apartment to the Morning Room, his surprised bodyguards in tow, affording Mara a hasty, unnoticed exit by carefully making her way to the Music Room, avoiding the main corridor as much as possible.
She'd admitted to Luke long ago that there was a concealed stairwell in the large storeroom attached to the Music Room and they'd fallen back on it several times since then—enough that it had developed its own name in their coded shorthand: the Reserve.
Luke stood alone in the Morning Room amid tall paneled walls of ornate relief-carved wood, gazing out across the crowded cityscape without really seeing. His shirt was untucked and loosely buttoned, his feet bare, mind still completely lost in examining that ambiguous shift in the Force, the magnitude and the extent of it exceptional.
He was wrong; something hadn't happened. It was about to happen; was happening right now, events tumbling forward like an avalanche gathering momentum, the mere fact that it was coming sufficient to send that shockwave sheeting through the Force.
Something...some elusive twist within it, originated here in the Palace, radiating outwards and trailing sweeping tendrils of cause and effect, some already in motion, others yet to fulfill.
He sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, frustrated and tired, the hour so early it was almost still night. Every time he grasped some sense of heightened perception it scattered and he was left with nothing; vague impressions and hidden traces, like trying to follow the course of a single droplet in a gushing river...
His thoughts went instantly to Master Yoda, some distant memory triggered with acute intensity—but even as the notion came to mind it was lost, comprehension lying just beyond his reach, strangely reluctant to come, the path to that memory broken from moment to moment...somehow...withheld rather than forgotten. Luke closed his eyes, searching within for an answer that he knew was bigger than himself.
Alternately goaded and coerced by Palpatine, his attunement to the Force had increased exponentially in the last few years until it ran like oxygen with the blood through his veins, affording him a connection and clarity like never before. It was a fact that he kept carefully hidden from his Master, reluctant to offer further reasons for Palpatine to invoke claims of Force-induced inception or vague prophesies which bound Luke to some preordained destiny just as it had his father.
But it was still there, the connection which he had once strived so hard to achieve now as natural as breathing. And every single fiber of his being told him that knowledge was being barred; that the Force itself withheld acuity…
But it didn't work like that—not for Luke, not anymore. He crouched to a huddle, balancing on the balls of his bare feet with his knees to his chest, arms out before him and resting loosely against his knees, hands hanging, head down… He stilled physically and mentally, breath softening, heart slowing; his shoulders dropped as he relaxed into widened awareness…of the room, the tower, the palace, the city, the planet…beyond. Light and subtle, drifting into precise, flawless alignment with the Force; lost in the current, slipping through the flow like a fish in a river…
Jaw loose, breathing shallow, eyes open but unfocused, he pressed on, tracing tiny embers with pinpoint focus, stealing through the barrier, searching for that denied perception, for that hair's-breadth sliver of access which remained always exposed at the very verge of the shadows and the light—
Yoda's words, long ago, coalesced with ominous portent in Luke's mind: 'Like the flow of a river, some say the path of the Force is; that an individual—a Jedi—may alter the course occasionally, like a stone in water, but ultimately it still flows to the sea.'
Why that—why now? Luke struggled to find the connection, to resolve muted intuition, diffuse and scattered, almost intentionally evasive. As if simply by searching he was pushing against the will of the Force; a path not meant to be challenged, secrets never disclosed.
And within it was a sense of...convergence, a defining moment reached; a breach being resolved—
A fracture restored...
And then it was gone, the momentary empathy rebuffed, cold reality snapping in about him: the planet, the city, the palace, the room, the gray dawn light whose sharp chill made him shiver.
He lifted his head slowly, trying to make sense of that splintered fracture… It occurred to Luke to contact his father; surely he too had sensed the disturbance. Vader had already been in the Palace when Luke had arrived three days earlier, his father having returned to Coruscant to await the first stage of the Executor's DEMP-refit.
But to contact his father now, so soon after the Force-shift, would raise the Emperor's suspicion when Luke had worked so hard to successfully mollify Palpatine over the past months.
He closed his eyes, head lowering in concentration, trying again to see the path—but the Force twisted in on itself, shadows within shadows.
All he knew for sure was one fact:
"Something's happening," he whispered to the dawn...
Luke had returned to his three private rooms as soon as he'd sensed Mara safely gone, contacting Reece immediately, much to do before she returned for her shift almost an hour later. By the time she arrived, they were deep in discussion in his drawing room, going over the details of the day. Tipped off by a single click of Luke's fingers, Reece tempered his words just before the tall double-doors opened, continuing without pause as he glanced up from the automemo in his hand to hold her eye for just a moment in acknowledgement before he turned back to Luke. "…documents which require your attention, though they can wait until your return if you'd prefer?"
Luke too turned about to glance briefly over to Mara as she entered, before turned back to Reece, both men used to editing conversations this way to pass information with only the subtlest revision of words. "No, put the documents on my 'reader, I'll deal with them on the flight over then transmit them back to you. I need to get moving as soon as possible."
Reece nodded, marking his own notes as such. "If so they can be in place by the time you return. It should only take three days to have all the reassignment details operative. Core-Fleet personnel will be assembled onboard the Patriot to be transferred to Project Redress when it next returns. Rim-Fleet personnel will board at Sullust."
"Also Flight Con contacted your office. Your shuttle and escorts are prepped as per your request; they requested a departure time—at your convenience."
"Did you contact Lord Vader's Aide?"
Luke knew he had to be in Mosiin Province, two hours' south, by midday on another minor errand for the Emperor which any number of people here could have attended to. But Palpatine's petty taunt in sending him had turned out to be a useful opportunity for Luke to pick up a little new technology; Ghent, Karrde's prodigy slicer, was now waiting at Mosiin to load a new cipher code onto Luke's automemo, ready to download into various systems, downlinks, uplinks and comlinks in his offices here on Coruscant.
Aware that his existing ciphers must be the sole interest of a good many slicers under many masters, not just the Emperor, Luke had long held the habit of employing several codes, both official and unofficial, as well as the judicious habit of replacing them at random intervals rather than when he felt his security may be compromised. One thing his stint with the Rebels had taught him was that if you even suspected it, then it was probably too late.
But he also wanted to discuss the Force-disturbance with his father before he left. Luke was due to remain at Mosiin only two days, but something at the back of his mind told him even that would be far too late. Again he turned his focus to the Force, trying to see what had caused the rift...but it twisted and collapsed in on itself, looping back in a continuous coil of cause and effect, its consequences stretching as far as he could see, though right now it was still so small as to be insignificant, so mundane as to be overlooked, forgotten... He could so nearly see it...almost touch it. The fingers of his left hand twitched closed involuntarily, aware that it was right there in front of him, almost close enough to touch!
Luke opened his eyes to stare at Reece without seeing him. His gaze skipped away, trailing restlessly across the room, seeking the source. He paused momentarily on the tall double-doors of his bedroom before moving on, searching that origin. It tingled at the back of his mind now, barely a whisper, everything settled, everything right…so why did it itch like pepper beneath his skin?
He had to get his mind back to the moment, to what he needed to achieve here and now. Vader was in the Tingarn Imperial Barracks less than two hours away to the North, but Luke couldn't be seen to hold off going to Mosiin Province to speak with him. And anyway, he wanted to be away from the Palace as quickly as possible, knowing that the longer he remained the more likely it was that Palpatine would call for him to discuss the strange disturbance, and somehow he felt deeply unwilling to do so.
It occurred to him that if Vader made some excuse to remain at Tingarn Barracks overnight then Luke could fly to Mosiin as ordered and slip away around midnight after he had supposedly retired. If he took an Interat-TIE, he could effortlessly reduce the four-hour journey to less than three, enabling them to speak in far more safety than they ever could here in the Palace, and still be back at Mosiin by dawn...
There was only one flaw in that plan: Mara. It was she and not Reece who was assigned to accompany Luke to Mosiin. If he tried to slip away under cover of night then one way or another she would know.
Wez was looking expectantly at him, and Luke blinked. "Say that again?"
"I said, Lord Vader's offices informed me he is scheduled to return to the Palace tonight," Reece repeated, already aware that Luke needed to speak to his father urgently, which would necessitate an editing of plans, so he was braced for a tense day.
"Fine. In that case we'll set off now." Luke turned to Mara. "Are you ready to go?"
She blinked, surprised. "Right now?" Luke remained still and silent, eyes expectant, and Mara stood quickly. "Yes—I'll just need to return to my apartments..."
"Do it now." Luke glanced to Reece as he rose. "Inform Flight that we'll depart immediately."
The moment Mara had left Luke turned back to Reece. "Contact Lord Vader on a secure channel. Tell him to find a reason to stay at Tingarn Barracks tonight; I'll meet him there. He needs to arrange for clearance for an Interat-TIE with a non-military ID to land and give me the permission code—I'll fly in alone around three hours after midnight. When you get the code, transmit it to me in with a few documents—anything will do. Also tell him I'll bring the key to a new cipher code which'll be in effect from midnight tomorrow."
Reece nodded, committing it to memory—there were many things he never wrote down. "What will you do about Jade?"
Luke pursed his lips. "I don't know yet. Ideally leave her here, but that's impossible. I'll think of something—I have 'till nightfall."
"Perhaps it would be better for Lord Vader to return to the Palace tonight then..."
"NO!" Luke interrupted, more forcibly than he had intended...why? He calmed, aware that his chest and shoulders had tensed. "No—tell him to stay at the Barracks; it's important."
Reece nodded but, seeing Luke's eyes turn expectantly to the door, he paused.
Nathan walked in, performing his customary neat bow before looking up to glance from man to man, as yet blissfully unaware of the morning's events. "What—have I missed something?"
Within the hour Luke was heading down from the West Tower to the restricted landing platform set to the rear of the Main Palace roof where his detachment was waiting to launch, having contacted the Emperor's Offices and received permission to depart.
He'd contacted the Emperor's Offices rather than the Emperor himself as early as possible that morning, hoping that his permissions would be pre-approved. Since the trip was on the Emperor's command, he'd gambled that all authorizations were already in place, and sure enough the relevant permissions had been transmitted. Now he had every intention of leaving before his Master changed his mind.
It occurred to Luke belatedly to wonder whether Reece would check that there was a squadron from the 701st in his escort—without them his chance of getting a TIE off base without it being queried at Mosiin Barracks was slim. The 701st answered only to Luke, so provided he supplied advance clearance, their movements and more importantly, pilot IDs wouldn't be queried by the Commanding Officer there. Plus their fighters had the necessary stealth equipment onboard to ensure a covert flight beneath general radar, provided he didn't fly too close to the Palace.
He frowned, not breaking pace; he could ask Reece on an open comlink to check that his escort was 701st without raising suspicion, and Reece would undoubtedly realize the rest. Turning to Mara at his side, he held out his hand. "Comlink, please?"
Mara nodded, hand going to her belt, used to Luke using her or anybody else's comlink if they were close—he never carried his own...
Luke turned round sharply, sensing Mara's panic as she fumbled at her belt—
Mara moved a half-step closer so that she couldn't be overheard. "I left it in your apartment."
"Where?" Did he really need to ask?
"It must have been when I left in a hurry."
Luke walked on for several steps, silently cursing. It would be easy to reassure himself that no one would see it in the bedroom of his private quarters, but there were any number of Palace servants who entered there legitimately and despite their being in his own personal house staff, not all of them could be trusted—some quite the opposite.
It would also be all too easy to convince himself that they would naturally assume it his, but everyone knew he never carried one, his own choice in an effort to make himself a little harder to track or spy on. He briefly considered contacting Hallin or Reece via another comlink, both of whom were still in his apartments waiting to carry out his orders, but to do so would simply reinforce their opinions as to the recklessness of the risks he took. Which left one choice:
"Go and get it. Quickly."
Mara turned without another word and set off through the Palace at as near to a run as she dare, aware of how damning it could be if found—to both of them.
Instead of taking the main entrance to Skywalker's apartments, Mara stopped three stories below at the level which provided standard quarters as well as kitchens and house service facilities for servants who staffed the sprawling Perlemian Apartments—Luke's apartments. Two stories above and below his apartment had always been closed off, crammed with fortification and reinforcements originally designed to hold the Emperor's Jedi, and surveillance intended to confirm and ensure his obedience once Palpatine had gained him.
To one side of the large, heavily staffed kitchens was a direct access which had since been cut through the security measures—an access staircase and automated dumb-waiter which led directly up into the Grand Hall and the State Dining Hall beyond. But there was also a second, concealed entrance hidden behind a blank wall at the end of a little-used corridor in the refrigerated stores—the Reserve.
It was this unmonitored covert entrance which Mara used, intending to keep her return below the radar. She came out in the walk-in store in the Music Room of Luke's apartment, then slipped through the West Drawing Room, across the main corridor and into the massive, opulent but little-used Stateroom, whose opposite doors gave access to the corridor which led to Luke's private rooms.
It was the route with least surveillance, though in truth it wasn't particularly the lenses Mara wished to avoid—she had every right to be in Luke's apartments and could easily have been picking up anything for him, particularly since the last three rooms she would enter had all surveillance routinely nullified by Luke to ensure his own privacy. But the fact was she didn't want to be caught by Reece, Skywalker's other 'watcher,' the eyes and ears of Palpatine in Luke's private rooms—and the reason why the Emperor was confident enough to allow Luke the occasional dissent in disconnecting security lenses.
Nor did she want to face Hallin particularly, whom she knew would just take the opportunity to get high and mighty with her, particularly if he found out why she was here.
But luck and standard procedure were on her side, it seemed. Staff and security routinely moved to the entrance to the apartment—either to the Staff Wing or to the Guard's Rooms—when Luke wasn't in residence, and she'd made it without encountering anybody. She was halfway down the last hallway, congratulating herself at having made it so easily, when the door to Luke's private rooms began to open—
Glancing to her left, Mara slipped quickly through the door there and into Luke's office, the only other room which had nullified surveillance, hoping to avoid whoever it was, thinking she recognized Reece's voice as she did so.
She backed across the large office, suddenly fearing he would use this common short-cut to the Staff Wing—
Her eyes were drawn momentarily to the bulk of the massive desk and she took three steps toward it, intending to hide beneath, before changing her mind at the last moment and heading for the second exit opposite the one she had entered. She was halfway there when the door release sounded behind her—
Knowing she wouldn't get out and manage to close the automatic door in time, she ducked into the small fresher close to her, this door opened by hand. She'd barely had time to pull it closed, carefully holding the handle to silence the latch sliding home, before whoever it was entered the room, their voice muffled but audible.
"...wish he wouldn't. It's an unnecessary risk, to go so far out of his way. It'll mean he's gone around six hours—that's a hell of a long time for something to go wrong."
It was Reece's voice; Mara listened in silence, ear to the door, willing him to walk straight through the office and out again at the other exit.
"He must feel it's important enough to warrant it. You know he wouldn't take the risk otherwise."
Hallin's voice—he must be with Reece; Mara heaved a silent sigh of relief at having avoided them both.
"…and in a fighter!" Reece continued, unmollified. "He needs to get a ship out of Mosiin Barracks, fly it dangerously close to Palace surveillance and get it into Tingarn Barracks where his father is, all under the radar."
'His father...at Tingarn Barracks'—they were talking about Luke!
"I thought an Interat-TIE had a low..." Hallin hesitated, instantly out of his depth, "radar...silhouette or something?"
"Radar profile, and they do, but the stormtroopers in both Barracks have eyes in their heads—and ears. It doesn't matter how radar-reflective the I-TIE is or how many release orders he issues at Mosiin, he's still got to land it at Tingarn."
Mara frowned now, her curiosity peaked. If Luke was intending to go to Tingarn Barracks then it was clearly without the Emperor's permission...
"Which reminds me—I should probably check that it's one of the Echo flights from the 701st who accompany The Heir to Mosiin—theirs are the only fighters which have been modified to have their call-signs adaptable. He can't very well broadcast a 701st military ID heading into Tingarn."
They hadn't moved from the office, but now Mara's original reason for hiding was forgotten in this rush of information—
"Oh!" Hallin said quickly, as if remembering. "He told me to tell you that if it was fast enough, he'd take Karrde's slicer's ship instead—it'll be somewhere very close to Mosiin Barracks when he gets there, he said, because their slicer's dropping off a code or something... Did I not mention this? He said he'd likely still take a TIE though."
"Where was I when this little chat was going on?"
"You were on the comm and Jade had come back into the room—he only had a moment; he whispered it to me."
"Is there anything else, before I go and arrange a meeting The Heir's already changed his mind about?"
Mara felt her head buzz as the implications of all this suddenly sank in: Reece knew already...he knew. And the only way that could happen was if he was already...already working for Luke... Wez Reece was working for Luke!
Her mind went again to the Emperor's decision to appoint Reece as Skywalker's Aide, recruited by Pestage on Palpatine's order; he'd maintained that Reece's usefulness was in his capacity to unknowingly blunt his thoughts. Nothing intentional or preconceived, he simply had what Palpatine referred to as a 'quiet mind.' It was this which had earned him his coveted position as Luke's Aide—the fact that his status as Palpatine's agent wouldn't be detected. And sure enough, Luke seemed not to have realized, eventually accepting Reece after a long, wary period of distrust...
Only it wasn't acceptance at all, Mara realized—it was recruitment; Reece had spent so long in Skywalker's company and Luke always took such care to remain for the most part out of surveillance, even here. He'd had all that time—years—to unravel Reece. And who would know? Reece was deep cover, only reporting to Pestage and intentionally given no direct contact with Palpatine. At a distance that naturally 'quiet mind' had clearly bought Reece immunity from the Emperor's scrutiny.
Had Skywalker known this—was that why he'd recruited him?
How long….how long had Reece been working for Luke? Mara's racing mind trawled back through old memories for anything—any hint, any clue. A moment came to mind, lit by new knowledge. Long ago—the very first night that she'd secretly stayed in Luke's apartments in the Palace—the following morning when Hallin had come racing into the bedroom with a warning that Amedda was on his way there. That was the day that she'd realized then just how trusted Hallin was, that he already knew about Luke and Mara's affair... But Luke, half-awake as he was, had mentioned someone else too—he'd told Hallin to arrange for Wez to get her uniform.
At the time, in the panic of the moment, it had slipped past Mara simply because Luke had referred to Reece by his first name—Wez. He never normally did so in front of her; it must have been a slip under pressure. Now, she wanted to slap her forehead in frustration.
Why hadn't she spotted it!
Luke could feed Palpatine anything—any information at all under the guise of reliable information diligently logged and reported to Pestage by Reece, always third-party because he was a trusted, deep-cover agent; no direct contact which may have compromised his cover.
Now, Mara realized just how much freedom Luke really had. Aside from herself, Reece had been the other constant undercover source which Palpatine had relied on to know Luke's movements when he was beyond automated surveillance...and here he was helping Luke sneak out under the Emperor's nose—in the Capital no less—to see his father!
His father! Mara hitched in a breath at that, her hand raising to cover her open mouth in disbelief; because this clearly wasn't some incredible, one-off event—this was routine. Luke had been holding secret meetings with Vader... The two people whom Palpatine absolutely would not allow any amity between had been meeting in secret for how long? Years, possibly—
Reece was speaking again, though Mara barely heard the first few words: "...immediately—command protocol; group three-nine-nine-six."
"Acknowledged; wait." The voice was unidentifiable, filtered as it was through a comlink. Mara waited in silence, part of her reluctant to know more, uncertain now what she should do.
How could Luke do this—to her, to Palpatine. How could he jeopardize everything he had built here for...for what? She wasn't even—
"Commander Reece." Vader's bass tones were unmistakable, even on a comlink.
"Lord Vader—you are in a secure location?"
"I'm charged to pass on a message from The Heir, my Lord; he asks that you remain at Tingarn Barracks tonight. He will make his way..."
"I am scheduled to return to the Palace—to remain would be problematic."
"I appreciate that, my Lord, but The Heir was insistent that this was imperative. He wishes to speak to you in person about this morning's...event. I believe he feels it to be time-sensitive."
"Where is he now?"
"On his way to Mosiin Barracks. He intends to fly from there to Tingarn tonight using—"
"Out of the question. The risks are too great."
"Indeed, my Lord; however, he would not be dissuaded." There was a world-weary tone to Reece's voice, as if this was far too regular an occurrence in his own opinion as well as Vader's.
Somewhere in the back of her head, the professional agent in Mara silently noted the familiarity to the exchange, the sense of prolonged association which indicated a long-standing situation.
"...Very well, I will remain at Tingarn. Inform him to contact me on a secure channel when he departs Mosiin and again when he nears Tingarn Barracks. I will arrange for a secure landing site outside the Barracks and meet him there."
"Thank you, Lord Vader; I'll inform The Heir shortly."
There was the slightest pip as the channel closed, then a moment's silence, Mara still hidden bundled against the door in shock, her hand to her mouth.
"I need to find out which 701st unit is accompanying The Heir." Reece's voice grew fainter as he approached the office's far door. "If I need to tag on one of the Echo flights I need to do it now before it looks inappropriate."
"Wouldn't it be better to do it from here?" Hallin's voice too quieted.
"No, if I do it, it needs to be through official channels—I need to be in the Staff Wing for that."
The far door slid open, Reece's voice cut off as it closed noiselessly behind him.
Mara stood for a long time in the dark of the tiny room, bewildered, wounded and outraged in the same moment, thoughts buzzing, hands shaking against the adrenaline of conflicting emotions and loyalties...
Waiting on the wide expanse of the black-tiled landing platform, hair whipped about by the high wind on top of the Main Palace, Luke gazed dispassionately out over the distant, haze-obscured spires of the city, thoughts still on the impenetrable Force disturbance that morning.
He glanced easily over to the distant guards just visible at the Tower entrances, all blue-clothed Palace Guards here on the open roof. They stood to smart attention, partly obscured by the utilitarian lines of the Lambda-class shuttle, wings folded up though its engines were active, awaiting Luke's permission to take off. To the far side of the platform, adding their own noise to the boom of the shuttle's engines, were six Interat-TIEs from the 701st, his close escort, though he knew that two squadrons were active and ready to launch from the Palace Barracks below when the shuttle was finally airborne, which would be as soon as Mara returned.
Interats—so Wez had thought to assign them to Luke's detachment anyway: he needn't have bothered to contact him. Still, his wishing to check had made Mara realize her mistake in leaving her communicator in Luke's apartments, so it had been fortunate anyway. He glanced again across the rooftop, eyes scanning the fighters and the pilots and the guards, unable to shake that same twisted sense that something was building…
His thoughts went to Reece's question earlier: how would he sneak leaving the Barracks overnight past Mara? What he needed was a reason to keep her busy overnight at the Barracks, away from his empty quarters...or better still, not to have her go—to leave her here somehow.
He frowned, looking again to the flight-ready I-TIEs. If he just left now... No; she'd just get in an I-TIE and follow—and be fuming into the bargain when she landed. Which might not be such a bad thing...an argument might—
Mara practically burst out onto the massive granite landing platform seconds later and Luke turned to face her, knowing instantly that something was very wrong.
She stormed over, eyes ablaze, shouting over the thrum of the engines, so furious that for a few seconds she couldn't string her words together. "What...just...what the hell did you think you were doing!? How long did you think you could get away with it here of all..."
Luke strode quickly out to grab her by the top of her arm, yanking Mara in with enough force to shock her into momentary silence as he hauled her roughly back behind the shuttle, where he knew the all-pervasive surveillance wouldn't have a clear line of sight.
She tried to pull free of him, fuming, but he kept a tight hold as he spun her about to face him, his tone low and quiet and very serious. "You'd better get a grip right now because you don't want me to shut you up."
His tone gave Mara a split-second's pause, but she wouldn't back down, head shaking. "You've crossed the line. I know all about your little clique—about Reece and Hallin...and Vader. I know you're going to see Vader tonight."
Luke remained silent for long seconds, eyes locked on hers, jaw clenched, thoughts buzzing—
When he finally spoke, his voice was muted—hard and resigned in the same moment. "Well congratulations, Mara. Welcome to my life...have you told him yet?"
She knew exactly who Luke meant. "No I haven't told him! Stars, he'll rip you to pieces, you realize that?!"
Luke set his head on one side, tone sarcastic. "No, that hadn't occurred."
"Don't—don't even start..."
"Don't what? What the hell am I supposed to do, Mara—you tell me? I can't stay like this forever; I can't keep doing whatever he orders...I won't."
"He gave you one inflexible order—would it have been so hard to keep?"
Momentary confusion shadowed Luke's eyes and thoughts alike as he ran quickly back over her words in his mind—'I know about Reece and Hallin...I know you're going to see Vader tonight.'
That was it! That was what she knew—all she knew! He'd thought she'd uncovered the insurrection when all she knew was that he secretly met with his father, and Reece and Hallin were aware of it.
The momentary burst of relief evaporated in a second at the realization; she may not think him capable of more—didn't want to think it—but if she told Palpatine even this much...
He'd know...he'd know what Luke was doing. Or rather he'd suspect and for Palpatine that would be enough. He wouldn't care if it was true, or why.
Mara tried again to twist free but he held on to her, aware that even though they were hidden from the security lenses, the noise of the multiple engines drowning out their voices, he was still in deep trouble. He had to calm her down—talk her down.
Should he lie? It would be so much easier—she'd want to believe him, she always had.
As if hearing his thoughts she bit out, still livid, "You lied to me."
And he had, so many times. It had been so easy...and he knew why. "You lied to yourself, Mara. I only let you."
She stilled, fiery temper shocked into momentary consideration and he shook his head. Could he trust her? Should he? The Force was like a wind at his back, pushing him on...
So why did he hesitate?
"You keep on telling me you want me to trust you, you want me to let you in...well, now you're in."
"This isn't what I meant."
"No. You wanted a convenient, comfortable trouble-free truth. You wanted your truth, your way. But it's not mine and it never was—I never made any secret of that, Mara. You want me, you want me to trust you? You want to step forward through that barrier? Well this is it, Mara...it's now or never."
"Is that an ultimatum?"
"No, it's just a fact. You always knew it would come to this—that one day you'd have to decide between him and me."
"Don't, Luke; I won't be held to ransom by anyone—not even you."
"I'm not trying to force your hand, Mara. I would have left this forever, you know that. I would never have asked..."
"You'd have kept me in the dark! Kept lying to me!"
"...from ever having to be in this position," Luke said, his voice hardening now. "Don't play the injured innocent, Mara—it doesn't suit you. We both knew we were playing with fire..."
"Me!? I've done nothing wrong!"
"No? Where were you last night?" Luke asked, pulling no punches. "How close have we been this last year? You saw the signs, Mara, you must have, you just chose not to read them. Your loyalties have been divided for a long time—you started this, not me. You've been holding me to ransom since I first met you... I've lived with your double standards for a..."
"I have double standards!? You're disobeying a direct order from the Emperor—a fundamental command: No unauthorized contact with Vader—none! He's always made that clear. What you're doing is a premeditated defiance bordering on treason and you know it!"
"Yes, I'm disobeying; it's an unreasonable command. He's my father, Mara. What's your excuse, with us?" His words were clipped now, his own fast temper rising to match hers. "You saw something you wanted and whatever the hell irresolute morals you still had just became...what? An inconvenience?"
She twisted free and took a fast step back, and when she swung her arm up it was in a fist.
Luke stepped in quickly and caught her closed fist in his hand, reflexes like quicksilver. For a second she struggled to free herself but he was stronger and merely held her hand until she stopped, her eyes full of fire.
"I won't let you do this, Luke—I can't let you. It has to stop, do you understand?"
He shook his head slowly, eyes locked on hers.
"Don't make me stop you, Luke—because I only know of one way to do that, and I don't want to see you hurt."
"That's your decision to make, Mara. Either you tell him, or you let this go... But this is all or nothing, understand that—I won't be held to ransom any more and I'm not gonna have this argument with you again and again." He shook his head, voice very sure. "And I won't go down to that cell again. The only way he'll get me down there is in pieces."
"You know he'll do that. Without a second's hesitation."
"Yes...and so do you. Which makes it your call, Mara. Not Palpatine's; yours. Whatever happens, it's on your head—no more easy excuses."
They remained locked in silent battle for long seconds, neither willing to give a fraction of an inch. Finally Luke straightened and took a step back, releasing her, though his eyes never left hers.
"But let's lay all the cards on the table, just so you understand; I'm flying to Mosiin Barracks now as ordered. To continue my duties and responsibilities, as ordered. This is one dissent…and we all have one lapse, Mara, even you. Remember that. And if I'm under arrest when I land, you'd better make damn sure there's a hell of a lot of them waiting because the moment I think you've betrayed me I'm turning around and walking out of there forever...and you'd better tell them all to shoot to kill, because there is nothing they can do short of that which will hold me. Not anymore."
He turned to walk around the shuttle to the nose ramp, back very straight, chin high, completely self-possessed.
"Don't," Mara said simply.
The word, part warning, part appeal, stopped him at the ramp.
"Your choice, Mara," Luke said without turning. "My fate's in your hands—didn't I always tell you it would be?"
Mara stood statue-still on the massive Palace landing platform and watched Luke leave, shoulders sagging, completely lost.
What should she do? She had no idea—none at all. His last words rang again and again in her head, so much so that she wondered whether he'd used the Force to instill the thought.
Fate. Him and his stupid, stubborn, irresponsible, dangerous Fate. Was that what this was—just another test, another of his bizarre opportunities for Fate to even the score if it was meant to be, or whatever the hell reason he took these reckless, unreasonable risks?
Had he pushed his luck to the limit again just to see how far he could go before it all fell down about him?
He could have lied to her and she would have believed him. And even if she didn't, he could have charmed and cajoled her as he always did. Why this? Why admit the truth when he knew it could damn him—and to Mara, who had never hesitated to make her allegiance known.
Him and his precious, intractable, uncheatable Fate. Damn them both, Mara thought. And damn Vader for colluding; for putting his own son at such risk, knowing the consequences.
He knew—Luke knew what she would do and she wouldn't be made to feel guilty for doing her duty.
She set forward from the roof, jaw jutting in determination...and slowed to a stop, shaking her head.
Because he really was telling the truth. He wouldn't yield to Palpatine again—not now; not anymore. Forewarned, he'd never let them get close enough to use the drugs; he wouldn't be taken and he wouldn't be brought back to the Palace...and what would Palpatine do, when his Jedi wouldn't back down this time?
He would rip Luke to pieces—completely, as he had done when he'd had first arrived here. Worse, because Luke would be that much less willing to capitulate. The last time had nearly killed him—had changed him completely at some fundamental level, even she could see that.
But Palpatine would do whatever was necessary to take his Jedi apart and rebuild him again, just as he had before. Luke was simply worth too much to him.
And what would be left when he had finished? Not the man she...loved.
What little was left would despise her for being the one who did this to him—who knowingly turned him over to his persecutor.
Persecutor? Mara frowned at the concept...at the belief. At the consequences...
For a brief moment she wavered, indecisive, lightheaded, weightless, as if the galaxy itself held its breath...
Then she shook her head, suddenly utterly sure.
She couldn't do it. If she did this—if she took this to Palpatine—she condemned Luke. And she couldn't do that. At the end of the day, it all came down to that one fact.
She couldn't do it.
Was this what he had really wanted—to give her the chance to come to this decision on her own?
No tricks, no deceptions...just the truth.
Funny; she'd always been terrified of this moment. He was right, she'd always known it would come and dreaded it. When she'd have to make the choice: Luke or the Emperor. Now, finally brought to this moment, it seemed incredibly easy.
She walked slowly from the platform, head down, lost in thought...unbelievably easy...
The summons to the Emperor's presence came three hours later—enough of a gap that Mara was unsure whether it was connected or not. Enough that she hoped...
She walked slowly down long, lofty corridors to his sprawling apartments, arranging layer after layer of shields about her thoughts as Luke had taught her, aware of the distinction this time; of the gravity of her situation. Before it had been a minor dissent, if there was such a thing in her master's eyes, tinged with Luke's insistence that Palpatine already knew the truth about herself and Luke even if he chose not to openly acknowledge it.
This—this was different; this was treason. A heavy iron band tightened across her chest, heart hammering at that thought: treason.
No matter how Luke validated his actions, rightly or wrongly it was still the premeditated, repeated disobedience of a fundamental rule; a primary order which had been intentionally breached. And knowing that, she became accessory to the fact—which was tantamount to committing it in her master's eyes.
This was more than an impassioned lie; more than the insignificant steps she'd taken to hide their harmless trysts. Never, in her whole life, had Mara disobeyed a direct command from her master; never.
She didn't want to this time; she didn't want to betray him now either...
She only wanted to protect Luke. If she could have done that without lying to her master then she would, but Palpatine was forcing the lie...because Mara knew what he would do if he found out.
Still, the guilt twisted her stomach and seemed to steal the air from her lungs, making every breath labored. She wished Luke was here, if only in the Palace—some support; reassurance, no matter how muted. But this was her decision, hers alone. And that was how she needed to achieve it—alone.
She'd made her choice, now all she needed to do was follow through.
She walked, breathless, beneath the high arch which marked the Emperor's private apartments; past the row of eight Royal Guards who stood to still attention, a scarlet streak against the dark ebony walls. Into the vast, circular central hall, three stories high, a sweeping double-staircase hugging the curved walls, carved from mirror-polished black stone with subtle, fiery veins of deep blood red tracing, its imposing scale dwarfing the few who were allowed access even this far…
She paused momentarily then walked on beneath the first landing of the immense stairwell, feet leaden, instantly lost in the shadows and the columns of the dark, echoing space, knowing where her master would be.
Knowing what she had to do.
Was this how Luke faced the Emperor; every summons, every meeting, heart pumping, hands trembling, anxious and fearful that somehow Palpatine imagined, he suspected, he knew.
How had he held out against this? How could she? Because even now, committed as she was...without even facing her master, without looking into those sharp, perceptive eyes—
Already she feared that she would slip, she'd crack, concede...
Already she feared she'd crumble.
Palpatine stood at the far side of the cavernous three-story Receiving Room, the light from the long banks of tall windows dimmed by photovoltaic glass, reducing the massive hall to darkness and shadows. This was not a room for daylight—like all of the Emperor's chambers it thrived in darkness. The tall stretch of multi-story walls were inset by two columned walkways which further sheltered the shadows, stucco plaster pigmented a rich, radiant claret red, the arched and vaulted ceilings above rendered in relief-carved tracery of glowing golds. Its commanding, stately grandeur engulfed all who entered, and it was not without consideration that Palpatine had chosen it.
The substantial carved doors slid aside and Mara Jade whispered into the hall, her footfalls inaudible though her sense in the Force sounded a heavy tone of profound unease.
His back still to her, gazing out through the muted windows, Palpatine's thin lips pulled to a pitiless smile at the game ahead. He waited until she was close, neither turning nor acknowledging her reverential bow, but leaving her to stand in uneasy attendance...
When he finally spoke he turned his head just slightly, his face still hidden within the heavy cowl of his raven cloak, his gravelly voice cool but neutral. "I am...confused. Chancellor Amedda tells me that my Jedi has left for Mosiin...yet you are still here."
The tension was palpable in Jade's voice. "The Heir...forbade me to attend."
"Forbade you? You act under my decree, lest you forget, Emperor's Hand. I commanded you to attend him. He is now without a bodyguard...or a watcher."
Jade hesitated long seconds, and he knew she was gathering her nerve where normally she would have spoken without pause. "I apologize, master...but he wouldn't allow me to board—my rank isn't equal to his..."
She wavered, unsure. "...Master?"
"Why would he not allow you to board the shuttle—what had you done?"
"We...argued. He told me I was to stay here to consider m..."
Mara paused, uncertain; had Palpatine already spoken to Luke? Oh, she could so easily destroy everything without whispering a word about his defiance.
No; Luke had surely played this game too often with the Emperor. If he'd already been quizzed and been forced to give an account, then Luke would have made damn sure Mara knew every point. She'd seen him do it with scrupulous attention to detail so often over the most minor matters in the past—and that must be a fraction of the truth, if he had hidden his meetings with his father for so long. No, this was something else...
The Emperor turned his head a little more, his tone a shade more indulgent. "A...personal quarrel, perhaps?"
The breath went from Mara's lungs in a silent rush.
Sensing his opening, Palpatine turned, the slightest of smiles on bloodless lips. "Or did you think that I was unaware?"
He set forward, one arm out beside him to usher Jade along as he walked the length of the massive, imposing room. "I'm disappointed, my child; I thought you knew me better than that."
Head in a spin, she allowed herself to be guided forward, no words coming to her lips, no thoughts to her mind, such was her alarm.
He shepherded her from the soulless magnificence of the cavernous space to a small waiting room beneath towering columns, its proportions of a more comforting scale, fitting to his line of attack, decided now. From what little they had spoken—from the lack of readable information through the Force when he had asked her directly about the argument—he knew she was hiding something. He could force her to tell him as he had originally intended, could terrorize and intimidate her or simply break the barriers she had placed and take the information by dint of relative strength...but this was so much better.
He owned his Wolf—and nobody else. Skywalker had learned his lessons and trusted very few, so the opportunities to clarify this fact were far between these days, but occasionally it was still possible to expose for Skywalker the limits of supposed fidelity in those about him, to underline that fact.
Mara Jade was his player; she would ultimately do whatever the Emperor demanded of her... He had held her too long for Skywalker to even think he might be able to change that. He had allowed his Jedi this indiscretion with Jade, but it was on the Emperor's terms, not Skywalker's—and it was time to remind him of that.
He looked to Jade, the finest veneer of a smile over cold coercion. "Everything that transpires here is according to my will. My intent. You know that. You are with my Jedi by my consent...and you will remain so by my good grace."
He paused, then reached out one pale hand to lift her chin. "But don't fret, child; I have every faith in you—you would never disappoint."
Jade looked to her master, emerald-green eyes anxious and apprehensive, and he smiled into that panicked face, arranging an expression of gracious indulgence about his own features, knowing that she would realize it only skin-deep. She knew her master well; there was no need for open threats—they were implicit here.
He had already seen their argument on the landing platform of course; had taken the trouble to have the images sent to him following a report by one of the Palace Guards. It was a tiny fragment, Skywalker shrewd enough to quickly pull Jade to a point behind the shuttle where they were hidden from the lens, their words inaudible above multiple engines.
Normally Palpatine would have ignored it; dismissed it out of hand as two fiery temperaments squaring off, as they had so often in the past...but today, so soon after the unsettling disturbance in the Force so clearly centered here in the Palace, everything was of interest.
Everything demanded further scrutiny.
This was not what it seemed—that much had been clear the moment she entered the Stateroom, written in her wary eyes and her sealed thoughts. There was only one person who could have taught her to bar her thoughts, and though he had the power and precision to scatter and veil such things himself, no one else could muster such capabilities—not against Palpatine. So though Jade could close her mind, she couldn't hide the fact as meticulously as Skywalker could…and a shield revealed so much in its mere presence.
Yes, something had changed...and now everything else was shifting about it...
What exactly had changed the Force would not reveal, defying any scrutiny. But in Palpatine's experience events often became more difficult to see or predict according to their proximity to a trained Force-sensitive...
There were only three of those left in existence. If Palpatine were changing the Fates by his own actions then he would surely know...which left two others, both of whom had done something unexpected today, Vader in trying to delay his intended return to the Palace and Skywalker in leaving Jade behind when he set out to Mosiin.
Of the two, Palpatine knew who was capable of inflicting the most damage; like Jade, he held Vader completely...which left just one.
Skywalker himself would be a closed book even if he were here, but Jade... Well, Palpatine had always told the boy that she was his weakness.
So he smiled at the woman now, dressing his question to hide its intent and play to her insecurity. "We do not speak enough of your new role, my dear. Perhaps we should remedy that."
"I..." She stumbled over her reply, wordless before the one person who could reduce her to such, lost as to how to react.
Not that it mattered; the Emperor spoke on regardless. "You of course appreciate how important such a role is—how strategically significant. You were among the very first I considered. Only those in whom I held absolute faith could be contemplated for such a role."
Among the first—she was sharp enough to hear the threat.
He bared ruined teeth in an empty smile. "And I know that you would never withhold information from me—cause me to question that faith. Make me re-evaluate your privileged position."
She lifted her eyes to him, and he smiled indulgently, as if explaining the obvious. "You are consort to The Heir, child—a position of great...responsibility. This is the first time that I have ever asked you to prove your suitability—your loyalty. Don't make me doubt you now."
Again that grin, like a garral stalking prey, all cold eyes and sharp teeth. "You, my dear, understand the potential offered in such a station—and the terms inherent. I give him everything—more than any, ever...he has simply to take it. To reach out his hand and take it. And I expect you to aid him in that, in explaining to him the opportunity he has... And in illustrating to him the futility—and the danger—of defiance."
She shook her head fervently. "He's not..."
"Think very carefully before you answer, child," he interrupted, clipped voice silencing her instantly. "As I said, yours is a privileged position."
She hesitated momentarily. "He's not at fault."
Her first slip; he wasn't at fault—not he'd done nothing wrong. Palpatine smiled benignly, head to one side. "I believe you."
She fell to subdued silence, still reluctant to betray him directly, and Palpatine considered, caught up in the game now... Perhaps he could offer her a pretext, a way to tell the truth but pass the burden.
"I...worry for him, child. I am concerned that he is...at risk from outside influences—that another has found a vulnerability and seeks to lead him astray. I hoped your closeness would give you the opportunity to identify such lapses before they became contentious."
She glanced down too quickly, eyes anywhere but at her master's, and Palpatine smiled into that guilt-ridden evasion. Before anyone else she was unassailable, indomitable, unshakably cool under fire. Before Palpatine and a lifetime of grooming, each manipulation carefully constructed one upon the other, she was tractable and compliant—though her fear was for another rather than herself, that much was clear. Which was what made it so wonderfully easy to exploit.
"I am not blind, child; I know the games he plays—in fact I expect no less from him, you know that. On the contrary, it is his strength of spirit which I value. But there are times when that resolve is...misdirected. And then I rely on the counsel of those whom I have placed about him for clarification."
The slightest of frowns crossed her smooth brow, uncertainty played out in her face as Palpatine continued his subtly insistent coercion. "I know that you wish only to protect him—that is why I allow you close to him."
She glanced up at that, fresh insecurity worrying her thoughts, and he softened his voice to gracious persuasion.
"This need go no further, Mara. I have no intention of punishing him for something if I do not believe he is at fault. It is enough to know. By knowing, I may disperse this problem before it requires stronger action. To tell me now can only help him..."
"...He trusts me..."
"And he is correct to do so, because you will do what is right for him," Palpatine underlined, knowing how close to the edge she was, savoring the game, already looking forward to the moment when he could reveal to Skywalker that his greatest weakness had betrayed him with no more encouragement than a few honeyed words.
"It will be our secret, Mara; nobody else need know—what you say here will never go beyond these walls. You will be helping him, as you will be helping me. You will be fulfilling your obligations to both—that is surely what you want?" He paused, taking the chance, pushing the probability. "I already know that there is something wrong. I don't wish to take him to the cells; don't make me do that."
Mara glanced up at this, aware of the gravity of that threat, remembering Luke's words; that he absolutely wouldn't be taken again. And Palpatine already knew—he already knew something was wrong. Would it be so terrible to tell him the facts? Surely she would be helping Luke, dispersing the situation before it reached critical.
Luke wouldn't back down again; she'd seen that in his eyes, heard it in his tone. He was no longer the tentative innocent at odds with his own conscience. This could so easily escalate...
Palpatine leaned closer, knowing from long familiarity exactly what she needed to hear, encouraging her hopes and voicing her fears in persuasive, compelling tones. "I don't believe he is at fault...but until I know otherwise, there is no other way to deal with this problem, you know that. I don't wish to hurt him but it would become that battle of wills as it always does...one which he can only lose. Don't make me put him through that again."
Mara shook her head, no longer even trying to conceal her anxiety. "He won't yield."
Of course he will yield; Palpatine consciously kept his features from hardening, kept the cold amusement from his voice at the knowledge that he would simply break the boy apart a piece at a time until he did. But he nodded just once, tone grave, tinged with reluctant concern. "I know. But you know what I will do—what I will have to do. Once we are on that path, I cannot back down."
He hesitated; just one more push. "You have the power to stop all that now, Mara, before it's begun. You have the power to save him."
"It's not his fault..."
The Emperor nodded benignly, the touch of impatient steel beneath his quiet words unnoticed by Mara. "If there is something you think I should know then you should tell me now..."
She held to hesitant silence, at the very brink...
Perhaps it was time to replace her after all; Skywalker's hold was becoming too great.
"The Force whispers..." He trailed to silence, intending to allow her own fears to fill the pause but, sensing her apprehension spike and realizing that Skywalker must have mentioned the disturbance, he arranged a contemplative tone to his voice and about his ravaged features. "I sense...a shift, a change—and I do not wish it to be between myself and my Jedi. I have invested five onerous years in establishing our collaboration—in ensuring that his commitment is here. Left to his own devices he would have deserted us long ago... Returned to his precious rebellion—or simply disappeared. My methods seem harsh but it is I who have held him here; my will, nothing else. Remember that."
He stepped forward, grating voice lowered to a wheedling tone. "You must trust my judgment, child..."
"I do, master—I always have."
"I fear that without intervention this situation may escalate beyond any retrieval—I fear we may both lose him..."
Panic lit her eyes...and he knew that he had her—
"...Vader," she said, voice a breathless whisper.
"He's been speaking with Vader; meeting with him. Vader's manipulating him, trying to use Luke to accomplish what he can't; pushing him to disobey..." She absolutely believed the words she spoke. "Luke just...wanted to speak to his father. He didn't intend any greater defiance."
"No...he wouldn't..." Palpatine shook his head, tone darkening; wouldn't dare.
After all he had done, surely the boy knew there were some laws never to be disobeyed—and why would he choose to? He hated his father. Palpatine had invested long hours of scheming to guarantee that, to be sure that from the very first time he first faced his father as a Sith, the boy would want only to kill him.
And he had; Skywalker had almost killed Vader when they dueled—in fact Palpatine had thought he would, had been sure that the boy had entered into that duel with his own agenda regardless of Palpatine's command. That had been the test; the ultimate confirmation of Palpatine's control over the boy even in the most dire of circumstances; the ability to make him pull back in the heat of battle.
"...The duel—he tried to kill Vader—"
Mara's eyes turned down, words almost lost in shallow breaths. "But he couldn't."
"He couldn't..." And finally Palpatine understood; saw with crystal clarity all that had transpired... That the boy had intended to disobey—to kill Vader anyway...but in the moment, he couldn't.
And if, in the event, he couldn't do it...then the choice had been his, not Palpatine's.
But he'd allowed Palpatine to believe that he had controlled him—used Palpatine's confidence to his own advantage.
As, apparently, had his father.
The tie that Palpatine had thought irrevocably broken was evidently still intact. They hadn't moved against him, so the boy was still wary of his father, the bond tattered and torn—but there nonetheless.
And that was too much to tolerate.
Everything that Palpatine had built since had been dependent on that one fact: on his ability to control the boy in the heat of unreserved rage or cold, calculating fury. Control was everything—and Palpatine had been certain that he had held it unconditionally...but he'd been deceived. Intentionally deceived time and again by the boy. Which meant that he had lied...lied to Palpatine's face. Deliberately and repeatedly, in order to conceal his treachery and maintain his deception.
Outrage burned through Palpatine at the boy's brazen treachery. Indignation that he had believed he could disguise such a damning deceit, fury at the extent and duration that he had done so.
"Insolent, intractable, scheming creature..." There could only be one punishment for this—for putting another before his Master. He had always told his Jedi that if he did not resolve his own weaknesses, then it would be done for him.
Mara hesitated. "You said..."
Palpatine tensed as he turned on her and she flinched back instantly... He paused—
Yes, he had intended to lash out at her—but then this link would be lost.
"That was your argument on the landing platform today," he observed, grating voice hard and calculating now, bitter fury already cooling to reserved, hostile vehemence.
"I told him to stop," she said, voice earnest—pleading almost.
So he had known within hours of Jade finding out. A valuable arrangement then, one that should perhaps be maintained—for now. Her replacement was not yet entirely established, and Palpatine had not gained all that he wanted from their association yet.
He turned cold eyes to her, voice dismissive. "You may go, Jade."
She hesitated, terrified at the change that had overcome her master but needing to know, driven by something greater than fear. "You won't..."
"I said you are dismissed."
There was a power to the command which bore no refusal, and she turned and walked mechanically from the room, her eyes glassy.
A Lambda-class shuttle with Palace markings came to a slow descent on the roof below as Mara watched blankly from the window of her apartments to the rear of the North Tower. For long seconds she stared without really seeing, fretful thoughts elsewhere, then the escort flew by overhead and she realized the shuttle designation and leaned forward, heart in her throat...
Vader strode smoothly forward from the shuttle toward the South Tower entrance, unaware of her eyes on him, and Mara felt her heart skip, eyes widening.
Vader! Palpatine had summoned Vader to the Palace... Her mind raced, searching to fill in the blanks; Vader had agreed to Reece that he would remain at Tingarn tonight, which meant that he must have been summoned back here by Palpatine personally. Only the Emperor's summons would have changed his plans.
Would he hold Vader accountable—make him answer all accusations? He knew that he had far greater control over Vader than Luke; expected more of him—would that be enough to stay his hand?
She saw again the look in her master's eyes when she'd told him the truth and shook her head imperceptibly; no. Not this time. She glanced again at the comlink on the table nearby. She'd picked it up intending to contact Luke a dozen times now—more—but she always replaced it unused. She turned, resisting the urge to pace up and down, aware that she had committed an irreversible act, hoping desperately that she had done the right thing.
She had potentially betrayed Luke to the Emperor—if he chose to act on her information.
Court had been deferred and its members dismissed—for days, the Emperor had indicated, rumors already circulating. Hardly the act of someone intending to disperse the situation.
Mara shook her head, hand to her mouth; of course he'd act on it, why had she believed otherwise? What had she been thinking—how could she have been so easily led?
Because she was trying to help him! Trying to diffuse the mounting disaster.
How could it have gotten this far... How could the absence of one stupid, insignificant comlink have escalated this fast? And there was no way to hide her part in this; if Palpatine punished Vader… Whilst Mara didn't give a damn for the man who had dragged his own son to near-destruction to feed his personal political ambitions, she doubted that Luke would share her low opinion, considering what he was risking simply to speak to him.
How could he have thought to cross Palpatine?! How could...
"Don't cross me..." Where had she heard that before?
Her mind was drawn to that night on the Patriot, horrified at the realization...when they'd been curled about each other in the safe cloak of a distant night: "Don't cross me..." Luke had whispered those words to her with such feeling. She'd opened her mouth but Luke had stopped her automatic denial.
He'd known even then; known that he was laid beside his eventual betrayer.
She felt physically sick—she was trembling.
The situation could cascade so easily; escalate out of all control—she knew that. Luke had said that to her!
He wouldn't back down this time...
But how could she blame the Emperor for acting on the information she herself had given him? What alternative did he have? He had to act on it, she knew that. She'd known that all along; she'd held her silence at Luke's revelation about the duel with his father for so long because she knew that if she told Palpatine, it would destroy everything—
Palpatine said he wouldn't—he'd said this would be their secret, that to know was enough. He'd promised he wouldn't act. He'd promised her... Yet already Court was dismissed, the levels about the Throne Room empty, and Mara's stomach was tightening into an icy knot which left her cold and breathless, arms wrapped about herself.
One impulsive moment of blind trust... It had always been so easy before to trust him. Perhaps before she'd never had anything she feared to lose.
Palpatine stood in silence in the receiving chamber of his Cabinet offices for a long time considering, sulfur-yellow eyes narrowed, lips clenched to a thin line.
How credulous he'd been to trust his Wolf—how gullible.
How lenient for so long that the boy thought he could get away with this. How remiss.
He knew what the boy was; what he was capable of... Hadn't he sworn that he would always watch his Wolf closely—that any dissent would be swiftly and mercilessly dealt with?
But he had—he always had.
The Sith narrowed his eyes, remembering again the vision which had haunted him for two long decades: of the wolf in the darkness, the warning within; pull the leash too tight and it will bite.
He'd seen the vision again, at dawn, when the raw, all-encompassing power of the Force had dragged reality askew. Seen the feral wolf; seen the man stand as the dark sable cloak fell away. He closed his eyes and brought a pallid hand to cover them, replaying the vision with perfect clarity, searching for knowledge...
... ... ...
... ... ... ... ...
The black wolf in the twilight; the feral creature which whispered through the darkness, at one with the night, wild and capricious—then in a flurry of shadows it was gone and he stared at the empty stillness, waiting...
He turned, uncertain, the silence profound.
Knelt before him in mute stillness was his Jedi, eyes turned down, 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.
His Jedi stood, the confining sable cloak he wore slipping from his shoulders as he wordlessly held out his hand, and once again Palpatine's eyes were drawn inexorably down to the lightsaber there, smeared scarlet red, the color of anger and passion and betrayal...
Take it. His Jedi said, though his lips did not move.
Palpatine looked again to the lightsaber, perfect scarlet streams seeping over the inactive hilt, running in ruby rivulets, dripping in dark drops from his Jedi's fingers to pool on the floor at Palpatine's feet, soaking a stain into the trailing hem of his cloak...
He looked back to the boy's eyes, the perfect blue of ice in darkness...
His Wolf remained silent and impassive but something...something had changed in those eyes—and for a broken heartbeat that perfect glacial blue glowed with the finest sliver of red-tinged ochre.
Something tugged at Palpatine's mind as never before, making his heart skip a beat in trepidation—in...fear.
His Wolf blinked slowly and the momentary shift was gone, cool blue eyes leading Palpatine's gaze back to the saber he still held out.
Take it...or it will kill you.
Palpatine looked back to the saber hilt.
His Wolf said nothing, merely held out the blood-wet saber, the pool of dripping scarlet beneath it spreading unevenly, fed by a trailing, glutinous trickle of blood which still oozed unevenly down the metal hilt.
Liquid life, rich and viscous.
Liquid death, weeping ruby tears.
The lightsaber was not activated, but he could hear the bass hum of non-existent blades, the hiss of superheated light.
... ... ... ... ...
... ... ...
Palpatine's eyes flashed open in denial, in fury, a snarl of frustration curling his lip. Would he yet have to kill the boy? Would that alone break the vision?
Or was Vader the threat—had he always been the threat?
He remembered again his Wolf's claim as that brief burst of blood red and sulfur yellow flashed a fiery glow for a fraction of a second across ice-blue eyes, Vader's saber held out before him: Take it...or it will kill you.
Vader? Surely not; his had been a slow conversion, a gradual attrition from youth to adulthood. Years of investment, time-consuming but predictable—guaranteed; a fixed, clear-cut path.
After five long years, why was the boy so different? What reserve did he tap into that his father could not, what had reduced and what had redoubled—and how? His father belonged to Palpatine; in some basic, elemental way he had done so from the first moment their eyes had met. What had changed in the space of one generation...
Abruptly Palpatine remembered the ring Skywalker wore; his mother's ring... His mother...the one uncontrolled variable in Palpatine's plans, still reaching out from the grave to harry him, it seemed.
And another thought occurred at that, as he remembered just how quickly Skywalker had come after the ring, the moment Palpatine had taken it... Because of course, he'd needed to disperse any suspicion before Palpatine had thought too long on where he'd gotten the ring—why his father would possibly have given such a thing up...
So again Skywalker had lied to him. Looked him in the eye and lied, every answer calculated to shift attention and distance any perceived connection...to protect his father. Not himself, Palpatine realized; if he'd wanted to do that, he wouldn't have come, wouldn't have faced his Master…wouldn't have lied.
His father... Palpatine thought again of the vision, of the warning inherent within. Of a way to change the vision without losing his Wolf.
Perhaps he had been using the wrong chastisement...
Yes—he knew now what to do. His first instinct had been correct; there was only one punishment for this, for placing another before his Master's wishes. Palpatine had warned the boy time and again that if he did not resolve his own weaknesses then his Master would surely do it for him...
It was time to deliver on those words.
Luke received the comm late afternoon, the Communications Officer at Mosiin Barracks handing his own comlink over to The Heir. Luke took two quick paces back, pausing as the officers about him politely did the same to give him some privacy. "Yes?"
"Good afternoon, Sir. Forgive the intrusion."
Luke frowned at Reece's voice; those last words were a coded request as to whether it was safe to speak openly.
He took a further two paces back, but was well aware that the comlink wasn't encoded and the room could easily be bugged. "No, that's all right." 'No' was the message.
Reece hesitated, mind clearly racing to supply enough facts that Luke understood his message without it causing suspicion. "I received the ordnance and personnel authorizations you sent—they're being dealt with now. Fortunately Lord Vader is now at the Palace, so I may present the personnel reassignments to him in person if you wish, which will mean they may well be in effect sooner. I...wished to keep you abreast of the schedule change this will incur."
Luke hesitated; his father had returned to the Palace—why? Reece had also covertly offered to go and see Vader to chase down the change in plans...
No; his father had a secure, coded channel frequency to speak with Luke, and Karrde's protégé slicer Ghent was already here at Mosiin Barracks, waiting to install a new cipher onto Luke's automemo. Whilst here, Ghent could easily arrange for a little scrambling of the barracks standard surveillance, guaranteeing Luke a clean room for a conversation with his father to find out what had happened to make him return to the Palace.
"I'll be free in an hour—I'll contact you then to go over the details."
As he spoke, Luke reached out into the Force for his father's presence—
And the comlink fell from his hand, Reece's reply unheeded.
Luke turned and ran, taking the stairs within the base four at a time as he powered up the three flights to the landing field, startled officers staring after him in surprise.
He reached the ships at a dead-run. All of the 701st I-TIEs were routinely kept on standby ready for liftoff, and he jumped from six paces away, landing in the open cockpit of the nearest and locking down the canopy without helmet or flightsuit as he brought the engines to full.
The call from Flight Control crackled into the cockpit speakers, pilots and ground crew coming out from the ready-rooms to see what the commotion was about. "Echo zero-three, you're attempting an unauthorized takeoff. Power down your engines and identify yourself and your clearance details..."
"Release the ship!" Luke yelled into the pickup as the I-TIE bobbed unevenly, held down by a hefty docking clamp locked over one landing strut, its engines screaming.
"Echo Zero-three, I repeat, you are..."
Luke batted the comm closed and reached out with the Force at the same instant, and the heavy bulk of the organic steel docking clamp dragged back, splitting across its width with a rending shriek as it unfurled from the I-TIE's landing gear like a living thing, a wide, blinding splash of sparks thrown about it as the nearing ground crew backed up, hands out before them.
In the same second the engines powered up to full, the fighter righting itself for a split second before batting forward, careening wildly side to side as it burst skyward, a speck in the distance before anybody had even thought to react.
Vader strode evenly through the Palace to the Council Chambers, summoned there by his Master.
Here in the Palace the sense of portent which had distorted and warped the Force this morning was more defined, more potent. He'd sensed it immediately upon arrival, so hadn't been surprised by the summons, knowing that Palpatine would wish to discuss the disturbance. Did his Master know that its locus was here, in the Palace? Surely so. Perhaps he had greater insight as to its cause, for Vader saw nothing save the vague sense of a juncture—a convergence...a defining moment.
He knew now why Luke had urged him to stay away...could sense the power which crackled down the shadowed halls like a charge in the air, like the heavy, static stillness before a storm. Yet he'd returned the moment his Master had summoned him—had made no attempt to circumvent the command despite Luke's warning.
He gave his son too little credit, even when he knew the truth. The boy hid it well, particularly in the presence of their Master, but Vader had a closer connection than Palpatine could ever achieve. He knew the truth, the extent of his son's power—even if he didn't understand why the boy held it in check—what stayed his hand before the Emperor's patent manipulations, Luke alternating without apparent reason between impassive, accepting indifference and stubborn, confrontational antagonism whenever the mood took him.
Because something did hold him in check. If the power had been Vader's he would have turned it on Palpatine long ago, whatever the perceived collateral damage.
No hesitation, no doubts.
But then the power had been his...once. For all the good it had done him—or Padmé. He'd searched for the knowledge to save her, had surrendered everything for the opportunity to gain it—
No; somehow being here, today, in the midst of this impenetrable power...this was the moment for absolute truth, even to himself. He had hidden behind easy justifications for too long.
Because even this, at its most basic level, was a lie.
He'd learnt the harshest lesson of all—and he'd learned it at Padmé's cost. Ultimately, she'd paid the price for his ambitions and his impatience.
He'd wanted power—to save Padmé, yes, but for its own sake too. Power to rise above his peers; easy, quick power, because he thought he deserved it. So he'd taken what Palpatine had offered, knowing full well what he was doing.
That fateful moment on Coruscant—the decision made in haste to save Palpatine at the cost of Master Windu's life—yes, it had been in the heat of the moment, with so many forces in play...but he could have backed down so many times in the following days. Could have admitted the truth, aided his fellow Jedi; acknowledged his momentary fall and faced the consequences. It was not, after all, he who had killed Master Windu.
Or he could have confessed to Padmé—could have renounced the Jedi Order and hidden away among the nameless masses on some anonymous Rim planet. A quiet, humble life with his wife and son.
He could have refused to lead the clones into the Jedi Temple...could have warned those he'd trained beside and fought beside, no matter however covertly.
Could have listened to Obi-Wan on Mustafar.
But he'd wanted power...and he'd gained it; incredible, enervating, immense power. And foolishly, he'd thought the power was real, that it would give him the strength he craved, the connection and the capability he needed to bring destiny beneath his heel—Padmé's and his own.
But every increment it gave in those dark days, it had taken something in return, and he'd been too wrapped up to see it; to realize the truth about this empty power. How it twisted and tainted all that it touched. If he'd had the strength—the integrity—to look beyond the obvious, perhaps Padmé would still...
Because he hadn't understood—hadn't realized that power and strength were two very different things. True power—true strength—would have been the strength to step back.
And in that moment, it had failed him...he had failed himself.
Not Obi-Wan, or Padmé or the Jedi Council. He had failed. Had damned himself by his own actions.
The fault was his...
Vader frowned beneath his mask, slowing to a stop in the still silence of the empty hallway, the enormity of that fact crackling through the portent-laden corridors which waited, expectant.
And now—now his son gave him the chance of redemption, if only in some small part, for all that he had done... But he was throwing that away too, just as he had done with Padmé. He wasn't blind to the fact that he was using his own son—using Luke to accomplish what he could not: the deposing of Palpatine.
Had he learned nothing? Was he once again prepared to exchange everything for the opportunity to exceed. Was he still prepared to pay any price to gain power?
But the power was no longer for himself, so surely this was different...
Or was it at all? The boy didn't want this; he had made that abundantly clear. Yet still Vader pushed onwards, satisfying his own desires and ambitions at the cost of those he valued most.
And every time he was rebuffed or refused he still let loose that explosive, uncontrollable temper—the same fury that made him turn on the Tuskens so long ago; the same blind rage that made him turn on Padmé. The same temper that now made him turn on his son at the slightest provocation, argument after argument, unable to back down despite everything he claimed to comprehend.
And now he saw it in Luke; when he held firm before those outbursts, undaunted. When he stood unyielding against Palpatine just as he did with his father... Tempered though; contained and directed in a way that Anakin never could. But then as Vader had once said to his son, Luke was equal parts Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Naberrie.
Padmé… What would she have said had she been here now; seen what was happening to her son. What Vader had allowed to happen...what he had instigated. A wave of guilt washed through him at that—at what he was doing to his son...what he was making him become—the path he was knowingly locking the boy into.
And yet...his son's destiny needn't be his own bleak existence. The boy still embodied the power Vader had long since lost. And because of that he had a chance to step beyond his father's fate...if only he would reach out and take it.
If only he would challenge Palpatine.
How could he not want such power—complete dominion; over the Force, the Empire...everything. The galaxy turning on his decree. Vader had come so close, so close to that power. But the Fates had stolen it away and twisted the knife by leaving him alive to serve the one who gained it.
But his son—his son could take that power and make it his own.
If only he would challenge Palpatine.
Yet he remained in the Emperor's shadow, as discontented and as disillusioned and resentful as Vader was, poisoned by Palpatine's manipulations when he could so easily step beyond them.
If Vader but knew the reason he held back... Whatever it was, he would correct it. Give Luke the chance at dominion that he had never had; ascendancy. He owed the boy that. He had placed him on this path, had locked him into this fate. The responsibility was his alone.
If he could only discover what held him in check he would eradicate it. Whatever the cost, he would remove it.
He owed the boy that...for himself and for Padmé.
Palpatine stood to the far side of the long, empty Reception Hall in his Council Chambers, waiting...considering...
Was this the right path?
He remembered again the vision—he had seen it so many times now that it was etched into his mind. Every nuance, every detail. For two decades he had seen the wolf in the darkness; fleeting glimpses, hidden in the shadows; pale, feral eyes in cold moonlight...
Then eight years ago the vision had shifted. The Death Star had been destroyed and for the first time the shadow in the darkness had come closer...closer every year as the facts fell so perfectly at his feet, until when he turned it was there beside him, kneeling silent and still. Only it was no longer the wolf; it was the boy whose very existence he had been unaware of: Skywalker. Palpatine's wolf.
And then the vision changed; subtly every time, the smallest element, the finest increments, some points fluid, others fixed.
Always, his wolf stood and held out his hand—and always the same thing was in it: Vader's lightsaber.
And here subtle variations whispered—for years the boy had said just two words to his Master: "Take it."
But as time passed he had said more... "Take it—or it will kill you."
Undoubtedly the vision had changed as events did likewise.
Mara's revelation that Vader had been in contact with Skywalker was unexpected...and unwelcome. Vader had always held the ambition to rule, Palpatine knew that. But his duel with Kenobi on Mustafar had ensured that he never had the power to back that desire up, and Palpatine's complete control, instilled in childhood, had guaranteed that he never had the resolve.
Unlike his son. Skywalker had the ability and the audacity to challenge Palpatine, yet not the desire to rule. The boy despised the Empire and all it stood for, Palpatine knew that. He remained only because Palpatine had ensured that he detested the Rebellion with equal zeal, and because Palpatine had invested great time and effort in taming his wolf, instilling in it the knowledge that to leave would bring down his Master's wrath on all about him...and of course, by ensuring that his wolf had quite simply nowhere else to go.
But combine those two spirits, one with the desire but not the ability and one with the ability but not the desire...and together they could form a real threat—
And that was unacceptable.
He simply couldn't afford to keep them both any longer—particularly with the boy's burgeoning power.
Of course, Palpatine knew that his work with Skywalker wasn't finished yet, though he had already devoted long years to creating his perfect Sith advocate—as he had done with the boy's father until Kenobi had robbed him of his apprentice. Or rather, of the apprentice Palpatine had anticipated...by limiting Anakin's contact with the Force.
Strange, that Palpatine hadn't seen that, when he had poured those years of careful manipulation into Anakin—hadn't predicted Kenobi.
But then, one's ability to read the future was often clouded by the presence of even a single Jedi. They were, by their very nature, facilitators of change...and sometimes the Force flowed to its own ends...
Yet in the final analysis it had been for the best, though Palpatine hadn't believed it at the time—so perhaps the loss of Anakin had indeed been guided by the Force. Palpatine still had his Empire—and now he had Anakin's son, who was all that Anakin would have been and more, because he was a greater challenge to control; to bring to heel.
And therein lay the attraction.
Like a piece of art, the joy was equal parts creation, appreciation and ownership.
And in the meantime, Skywalker was now stable enough to take his rightful place. He knew the boy now; felt confident that he could accurately predict his reaction, which would be extreme, but manageable. As with all his apprentices, the art was part knowing when to make the decisive moves, and part perceiving what those moves should be.
"Take it," his Wolf had said time and again of Vader's saber. "Take it or it will kill you."
As Amedda opened the tall doors at the far side of the expansive room to announce Lord Vader's arrival, Palpatine searched his soul for any trace of regret, but found none. Nor did he derive any excitement from the satisfaction of being able to move so decisively against one who had betrayed him...
Instead, he found his whole mind given over to eager anticipation of the manipulations required to contain his new Sith on his return...
Vader strode confidently forward as the heavy door swung closed behind him, the Emperor awaiting him at the far side of the somber hall, his back to the room, not turning to acknowledge his acolyte as Vader stepped down into a low bow. Resolutely setting aside all personal thoughts and sentiments to focus his attention on the present situation, Vader paused on bended knee for long seconds...
And felt something in that moment—a susurration that buzzed through his senses in the charged atmosphere; something unsettling in the Emperor's stillness.
"Have you spoken with your son today?" Palpatine asked absently without turning away from the tall windows.
Vader frowned slightly, the reaction concealed by the mask he had hidden behind for so long. It was a strange question...for so many reasons. Palpatine never referred to Luke as Vader's son—not to his face. Nor had he ever asked this directly before... And why ask at all, if he believed he knew Vader's every move?
"No, Master," Vader stated simply, rising as he did so. It was, strictly speaking, true.
The Emperor only nodded, his back still to Vader. "He is...difficult to read. To predict. To control."
Vader remained still, uncertain what his Master expected of him.
The Emperor turned slowly, hands tucked into the voluminous sleeves of his gown. "But I think that the error is partly mine. You see, he cannot be controlled too closely; pull the leash too tight and he begins to resist. Of course some things can only be learned with hindsight, but I now believe...I believe in order to control him one must instead control his surroundings; his connections. My error was in not realizing that sooner—but knowing it now, I will correct it."
Vader was still, the uneasy twist of menace that had coiled about him now shivering up his spine into tensed muscles.
Silence hung expectant in the still air as the Emperor paused, pale, ochre eyes lost in consideration.
"Do you remember the Prophesy, my friend—The Son of Suns?" Palpatine set his head to one side in contemplation. "Prophesies and visions are such vague things; they have so many interpretations."
He finally turned to Vader, yellow eyes aglow. "Do you feel you have balanced the Force? You certainly evened the score; created symmetry—in retrospect only four of us remained for a long time: two Jedi and two Sith..."
"The Force was in balance—it had not been so for many decades," Vader said neutrally, uncertain of his Master's itinerary.
Palpatine smiled thinly, and Vader knew that once again he was being judged and found wanting, his Master's gravelly tones patronizing. "You were always so literal, Lord Vader—so content never to look beyond the obvious. For so long that was an asset… I always believed the Prophesy was something more—it stood for so long; surely it could not be as simple as that."
Palpatine paused, eyes hooded beneath that heavy, disfigured brow as he considered. "It is shadows whose edge define the light, at the brink of the dawn and the Darkness," he quoted from the prophesy. "Light and darkness... One cannot exist without the other. Light, by its very existence, creates shadows, and it is darkness which defines the existence of light. And yet we separate them so completely...believe them incompatible...irreconcilable. Perhaps they were..."
The realization of what Palpatine was suggesting came to Vader in a burst of comprehension—of Luke, of how much remained carefully hidden. Of his nebulous, indefinable sense within the Force. Of the moment long ago in the Medi-center when, racked with pain from appalling injuries, his son had reached unthinkingly into the Force for healing—and accomplished it.
But Darkness did not heal. Darkness could not heal.
He remembered sensing that fleeting glimpse beneath the boy's shields, that particular mindset; the willingness to merge without loss of self, to surrender without submission into the Force. Darkness never surrendered...so it was not this that the boy had touched, yet... He recalled again searching to categorize that momentary contact as it had slipped away, diffuse and veiled.
It was not Light, nor was it Darkness—it was...both and neither, defying classification.
Palpatine had always told Vader that he was created by the Force—brought into existence by it...by Palpatine's will and the power of Darkness, his Master claimed... So how could Vader's connection be anything more? Intense as it was, how could it be more?
But hadn't Vader said... He'd told the boy so often, yet never listened to his own words—that Luke was the sum of both himself...and Padmé.
And Padmé was nothing but Light...
Could their son contain both aspects of the Force? Was it possible for one being to hold the two in balance?
Had Vader created that which fulfilled the Prophesy—the balance of Light and Darkness...
Vader stared at his Master, thoughts reeling, as Palpatine turned slowly away to stare out across the metropolis once more, that tense stillness cloaking him, true intent hidden beneath darkness and shadows.
"You have served me well, Lord Vader..." Palpatine said at last, thin, bloodless lips pulled back into an empty smile. "But I should have recognized that your work was done the day that your son arrived here. Your usefulness at an end. I should have realized that the balance of Light and Darkness which you brought to me is the fulfillment of the Prophesy—ultimate power—because whoever controls it truly commands all aspects of the Force."
The Emperor nodded, seeming to speak as much to himself as to his acolyte, voicing aloud his conclusions, tone low and emotionless. "Whoever controls the boy commands everything—elemental power in all its aspects… But I can never truly do that whilst you are alive. He will always look to you, I see that now. And I will correct it."
Vader saw the glint, the slightest reflection of sunlight on metal as Palpatine unfolded his arms, and knew what was in his Master's hand.
But then, hadn't he always known that it would come to this? Only not quite like this. He'd always thought it would be the culmination of some bitter, incensed fury—some mindless frenzy of rage and wrath which would bring him to this point. Not this...this peerless honor, this ultimate accolade—proof undeniable that his son looked to him, respected him...valued him. He himself, not his ability; that was nothing to the boy. And to know this, to know it absolutely, to hear it spoken by one who would never give such recognition lightly, finally gifted Vader the realization of what that connection meant to him...
Not the awareness of what Luke was—his power or his potential—nor the fulfillment of the Prophesy which Vader had dragged like chains about him his whole life... But realization that his son loved him—that this bond was so deep that nothing Palpatine ever did would eradicate it; nothing. Because it was a part of Luke...as it was a part of Vader.
The knowledge...was like sunlight on bare skin, warming him through to the depths of his soul. And he hadn't felt that for a lifetime.
Now, finally he knew what had always held Luke in check...knew why the boy would never take that final step. It wasn't himself his son was protecting—it was Vader. Luke had even said as much when he'd been injured, the very first time he'd spoken to his father about ousting Palpatine. Had realized even then that if he came to power, it would put him in direct contention with his father.
And his actions with Palpatine; always wavering between uneasy capitulation and stubborn defiance regardless of the consequences, erratically unstable, randomly unpredictable. Just enough that Palpatine wouldn't yet risk removing Vader.
Did he know—did the Emperor comprehend just how much sway he held over the boy in Vader?
Because here, here was the answer—to everything. Vader's hand, edging to his own saber hilt, stopped.
Palpatine had no concept of just how deep the connection between father and son ran—how could he? He knew only lies and manipulation; the concept of sacrifice was beyond him. Selflessness; a true connection, commitment, not control. For all his reliance on soulless technology to keep him alive, Vader felt in that moment that he had more humanity within him than his Master could ever hope to perceive.
Which was why Palpatine would never realize...
Relaxing his empty hand, Vader felt some pang of guilt at taking this decision from his son; in knowing that his actions now would force Luke's hand. But whilst he was alive his son will always seek to protect him; by Luke's own choice, he would never come to power whilst Vader was alive.
Any price, Vader recalled; any price to free his son's hands...they weren't empty words.
This was his chance at reprieve; to atone for his own blind ambition, which had dragged his son center-stage. It had been Vader's choice to set him on this path...or perhaps it had been Obi-Wan's, for he surely knew that if he trained the boy, then Luke would be instrumental in the turning of the Fates one way or another.
No—it would be so easy to lay the blame elsewhere, as he had done so often in the past. No.
He had chosen this path, for himself and then his son. And it would stop...now.
Beneath his hated mask, within the prison of his own making, Vader smiled—truly smiled—testing old scars which had held him from this for long, dry years.
But today they could not restrain, they could not confine. Today they were nothing at all. Today he smiled, knowing the Emperor could not see.
He sensed a momentary connection brushing against his heightened awareness—a silent question from his son, a brief seeking of reassurance, the distance extreme...and for the last time he reached out to the complex interplay of light and darkness that his son embodied. He sent his own assurance, a solace, a tranquil serenity that this was the right thing to do; an apology that even in this, he was taking free choice from his son's hands... Then he allowed the peaceful, composed calm to flood the boy's panicked realization from his mind, distancing him. Now was not the time for regrets; he was done with them. He'd given them reign for too long and he wouldn't give them this moment. This moment was one of pride; of triumph, of ascendency.
Padmé would be proud of him—
He looked to his Master, and the words came easily. He wouldn't understand, Vader knew, but it didn't matter; he knew of what he spoke... Because now, finally, Vader comprehended what Obi-Wan had said to him so long ago—
And now, without once lifting his own saber, he offered the same to his own blind aggressor, in neither defense nor intimidation, but with the same dignified, assured composure; that pacific calm within the Force which gifted absolute knowledge of what his sacrifice would accomplish—
"If you cut me down...you will make me more powerful than you could possibly imagine."
Lightsaber igniting, Palpatine turned on him, yellow eyes ablaze, hissing like the serpent he was...
Vader was dead.
Palpatine was unavailable and Court already cancelled, the Council Chambers above and below the Throne Room eerily empty when Mara arrived in the South Tower, deeply disquieted, walking empty halls in hushed apprehension.
Vader was dead—and Mara was inescapably implicated in the death of Luke's father.
Everything was spiraling out of control with terrifying speed.
She'd returned to her quarters, uncertain what to do, when the comm had come in from Reece—that Luke had sprinted off, taken an I-TIE, answering no hails, his course directly toward the Palace...
Mara broke the tip from the small glass vial and loaded the single dose into the dart, twisting the dart into the gun, little more than a gas-powered, rifled tube. When she pushed the safety on, her hand was trembling. She tucked the compact gun into her back pocket, telling herself that she was doing this for Luke—that if he came back to face the Emperor now, both parties would be livid. Palpatine would turn on Luke with a vengeance and Luke would goad him on, outraged. Neither would even attempt to contain or restrain themselves.
It could only end one way.
And for what? Vader was dead. Nothing Luke did would change that.
But she could stop it escalating—if she stopped Luke before he reached the Emperor.
But to do that she'd have to incapacitate him...and there was only one reliable way to do that. Her hand moved again to the loaded dart gun and she pulled it free, checking compulsively that the drug was loaded, that the dart was in the chamber, that the chamber was charged with gas. Aware that ultimately this would leave Luke prey to the Emperor's fury for his part in the deceit, aware that he'd hold her to blame...but better that than an all-out confrontation when both were this volatile.
She was dong this for Luke. If she did this, he'd live to fight another day...even if he hated her for it.
She was doing this for Luke.
The I-TIE came in hot, batting down like a banshee as it slewed across the landing platform, forward thrusters battling with the antigrav. The canopy blew clear as it skittered to a grating halt and Luke lurched out.
Mara set forward across the landing platform, arms before her, palms up, hoping to calm him, to interject.
Luke shouted from ten steps away, striding forward. "Where is he!"
Mara shook her head as she walked towards him, unable to do anything but answer, such was the tone in his voice. "He's in the Throne Room. But—"
"Not Palpatine, my father. Where?"
She was shaking her head, distraught. "Luke, listen to me..."
Mara shook her head again in mute appeal, reaching out for him as she neared him, but he twisted by without pausing, without even looking, rage rolling from him like a stormfront.
She reached out to grab for his arm as he passed and he turned, knocking her hand free. For a second she thought he would turn away and keep walking; perhaps that was what he'd intended. But his fury burst through and he reached out, hand snatching her throat, dragging her about and powering her backwards until she hit the Tower wall hard enough to see stars.
Still he held tight against her neck, leaning in, eyes wild and furious and desolate, a glowing rim of ochre at the edge of glacial-blue. He pressed in, eyes hardening, Mara's vision tunneling as she fought for breath.
One hand to his, still tight about her throat, Mara fumbled her free hand to her back pocket, pulling out the small dart gun and pressing it to his neck and just for an instant he froze—then his eyes iced over and he shook his head fractionally, furious at her for this and himself for allowing it, for forgetting one last time where her loyalties lay.
Mara dragged a breath in about his hand, still tight to her throat, remembering when he had made her blaster misfire. "You can't beat it every time, Luke. You said yourself if there's sufficient gas in the chamber to ignite..."
She left the rest unsaid, the apology and guilt audible in her broken voice, another breath dragged past his unyielding hand.
"Go ahead, Mara—press the trigger," he hissed. "I'd expect no less, not from you."
When she didn't move, remaining stock-still, he leaned in further, the hostile resentment at his betrayal clear. "I won't try to stop it. Take a side—make a choice. You seemed to find it pretty easy when you didn't have to look me in the eye."
His free hand shot up, snaking about her wrist...but he didn't twist the gun aside, didn't pull it away. Wouldn't make that choice for her.
"Press the trigger," he goaded in a whisper, eyes afire. "What have you got to lose, Mara? You couldn't wound me any more today—you couldn't possibly bring me any lower."
They remained frozen, green eyes locked on fiery blue...and Mara felt her eyes well up with tears, felt them burn down her cheeks—
Her hand fell loose as the dart gun clattered onto the polished stone, and for brief seconds his hand closed about her neck, jaw tense, eyes hard...
Then he wrenched away without a word, leaving her alone on the platform, not once looking back as she slid slowly down the wall at her back, gasping for breath.
The walls of the Throne Room were many feet thick, the only natural light in the cavernous four-story space entering through narrow floor-to-ceiling slits, barely windows, to either side of the dais. Now, with the fiery light of the setting sun, they cast long, blood-red blades across the polished floor to either side of the throne, tracing broken lines across the first of the massive fluted columns set the length of the long hall. Far above, almost at the level of the gilded mosaics in the vaulted ceiling, a small, circular window cast a hazy pool of golden-red light to one side of the throne, already in darkness.
Standing to the rear of the raised dais, Palpatine had watched, transfixed, the slow progress of this scarlet disk across the dais as the sun had set, its course almost intersecting now with the pale polished marble of the wide circle set into the floor of the Throne Room, half on the raised dais beneath the throne, the other half set into the Throne Room floor beyond, together describing a perfect circle.
As the two converged, his focus changed from the ruby reflection to the complex marble inlay of the circle, a dark, dull scarlet at its edges. It had once graced the floor of the Jedi Council Chamber; it never failed to amuse him that it was now here, beneath his throne, all who approached him kneeling on it...
When he heard the commotion in the wide hall outside the Throne Room the Emperor didn't look, instead turning away to gaze out through narrow slit-windows and across the metropolis.
There were eight Royal Guards at the door and he'd given orders that he wasn't to be disturbed. The only way Skywalker could enter was by going through them and furious as he was, Palpatine doubted that he would choose to take them down. Or if he did, it would place him already in the wrong. So the game began—
There was a single burst of blaster fire, the ricochet loud against the reinforced doors—then silence...
The massive double doors to the Throne Room burst open, rebounding on their hinges to slam shut with a resounding boom which made the heavy inlaid metal screens about the walls tremor on their slides.
Palpatine remained still, to the rear of the dais in the deserted, shadowed hall as the bass sound reverberated about the grand space before the room fell back to heavy, hushed stillness.
Skywalker paced forward in grim silence, striding onto the dais without bowing or speaking, his breath already heavy from the clash with the Red Guards.
Still Palpatine did not move from the window or turn to face the boy as he came to a stop, giving no reprimand at the breach of protocol inherent in simply stepping onto the dais; to do so without the express permission of the Emperor was strictly forbidden. But then the boy knew this well so it had been a conscious decision on his part.
"What do you want?" Palpatine eventually said, voice curt and hard.
"To end this."
"Go back to your quarters," the Sith grated, dismissive voice broaching no argument. "I will deal with this breach of trust tomorrow."
Something clattered to a halt on the dais floor beside him, catching the fading light in a bright flash. Palpatine turned just slightly, the movement slow and studied...to look at Skywalker's lightsaber, thrown to the floor at his feet...
He turned slowly away again without comment.
"Pick it up," Skywalker growled, stepping closer.
Palpatine finally looked to his Jedi. A flush of blood from his brief clash with the guards widening about a rip in the gray vinesilk of his shirt sleeve and darkening to an ever-larger stain, the polished band to the center of the lightsaber he held smeared with a scarlet slick—Vader's lightsaber.
The vision! The vision which had plagued Palpatine burst through his thoughts...of his Jedi holding Vader's lightsaber, hand and saber dripping with blood which seeped into the hem of Palpatine's cloak.
He looked slowly down... As the boy had thrown his own saber at Palpatine's feet, the deep wound on his forearm had flicked out a long trail of blood-red spots which spattered the edge of Palpatine's crimson gown, blooming out almost black in the low light. A slow drip fell from the unlit tip of Vader's lightsaber to the floor at the boy's foot, unheeded.
Long seconds passed, in which Palpatine recognized the threat that he was facing—just how incensed his Jedi truly was... And for the first time he questioned whether he could control the wolf he had created, considered what it was capable of in this state—
Still, he would not concede the advantage so easily; he could yet force the boy to back down—had done so many times in the past.
"Did I teach you nothing?" he dismissed, turning away with studied confidence. "Never fight with an unfamiliar weapon. It's a glaring disadvantage."
"Then you should take the opportunity," Skywalker invited.
Without turning, Palpatine fell back on the ultimate threat, rasping voice deadly quiet. "If you fight me now, I will destroy you. Do you understand?"
But his Jedi laughed, actually laughed, tone derisive, both of Palpatine's words and the worth of his own life. "I'm nothing, Master—how many times have you told me that? I'm nothing—worthless, so how does my death matter? Who would care? I'm willing to die today if I can take you with me. I'd think that a fair exchange."
"Are you sure?" Palpatine countered calmly, though the first trails of alarm worried at his thoughts. "You must trust my judgment, child..."
"I'm very sure," his Wolf said simply, and meant it. But he wasn't beyond the detached logic which enabled him to turn his Master's manipulations back on him. He'd learned his lessons too well. "You once told me that I should choose my battles, Master—only fight that which I was completely committed to winning. Well, this is it—the one fight that I would pay any price to win. I just never knew quite what that was—until now."
He loosed a feral grin, the hand which held his father's lightsaber disappearing behind his back as he turned slightly, changing his weight to a combat-ready stance as he moved subtly forward. "And you, Master—are you willing to die today?"
"No," Palpatine said, aware that his Jedi was closing the space between them to striking distance. "I have told you before, I am a hard man to kill."
"And I told you the first time we met that I was not my father—you'd never control me as you did him. I told you then I'd kill you given the chance."
"And you think this is it?" Palpatine grated derisively. "You're gravely mistaken."
"Pick it up," Skywalker countered, unmoved.
"Look at you—you're injured already." Palpatine put all his confidence and control into his next words, to instill doubt, force the boy to back down. "You haven't the power to stand against me—not yet."
But he had lived too long in the Emperor's shadow now. He knew the mindgames and powerplays, knew how they worked, how to stand against them—and how to make them his own. So he only smiled wickedly against Palpatine's words, countering conviction with conviction.
"Yes, I have—and you know it."
"You have no idea what I am capable of. Don't make the mistake of judging me by what you have seen," Palpatine warned. "I am not your father—I will not hold back."
"No, you're not my father...so I'd caution you the same," Skywalker countered, unfazed.
Palpatine wavered just a fraction at the insinuation; had the boy been holding back—hiding his abilities?
Skywalker turned his father's lightsaber to a better grip, sense expectant and committed and wild.
"How does it feel...Master?" he taunted into the Sith's wary silence, head dropping down and to the side, twists of unruly hair falling against old scars, mismatched eyes never leaving Palpatine's. "Nervous? Or are you simply appreciating the irony of the situation...because you did this. Every time you tightened the noose around my neck you tightened it around your own."
Palpatine tried again, the threat which had held the boy for so long uttered from sneering lips. "If you lift that blade against me, Mara Jade's life is forfeit. No second chance."
But the boy only shook his head slowly, amused. "Is that all you have left, Master? She's a poor bargaining chip—I know it's she who told you."
Intending to bring this confrontation to a decisive stop, Palpatine slowly moved his hand behind his back as Skywalker spoke, reaching subtly out into the Force to summon the Darkness, feeling it tingling at the tips of his fingers...
"Don't dare..." his Wolf growled, head dropping, body tensing. "Don't even think that I will let you."
Palpatine glanced down as Skywalker threw his father's saber from his left hand to his right, voice low, the threat absolute in his hissed whisper. "Call it to you now and I'll rip you to pieces..."
The Emperor paused—actually hesitated beneath the assertion in that vow, issued with absolute malice through tight jaw. It froze his blue-tinged hand behind his back as his eyes went to Skywalker's left hand, out of sight as he had twisted his body side on, wondering if his Jedi could do this. If he had the ability, the knowledge, the will to summon Force-lightening. Knowing that if he did, he wouldn't hesitate—not now, when all control he'd held was lost.
Was it a bluff, or was the threat real?
Slowly, Palpatine allowed the radiant blue-white corona to dissipate unused...
Skywalker circled, committed past fear, mind crystal clear, watching every minute move Palpatine made, waiting for the subtle shift which would betray his intent.
"Do you remember the vision, Master?" he said when Palpatine remained still. "The wolf hunting in the dead of night, black against black. We've both seen it, in nightmares and visions... That's why you gave me the name, isn't it?"
"What of it?" Denial was pointless; they both knew the truth.
"All these years, ever since I was a child, I had that dream... The black wolf...always there—sometimes so close it was in my shadow. And every time I heard its breath, when I heard the scratch of its claws against stone as it set forward...I turned and ran." He tilted his head, eyes barely visible as twists of hair fell forward, a cold smile curving the deep scar through his lips. "I was wrong. All this time, all these years...I always ran from the wolf."
"You could never run from the wolf, it was in you, part of you. You are the wolf."
"No, I'm not the wolf. But you're right—it is part of me. Because I doubted. I doubted my own ability, my judgment, my motives, my intent...and no matter how fast you run, those doubts always stay with you—just in your shadow. I think it's time to turn and face the wolf."
"You're wrong," Palpatine grated, instilling years of ingrained confidence and control into his words, willing the boy down. "The wolf is Darkness and destiny. You are the wolf."
"Perhaps I'm your wolf, Master. But then you always knew that, didn't you?" Skywalker held his ground, unmoved, darkly menacing, coldly amused. "Perhaps we both turn and face our wolves tonight."
Palpatine's eyes narrowed, knowing now that this fight could not be avoided, that the boy would not back down, adrenaline and regret entwined at the realization that he would have to destroy that which he had invested so much in creating.
A work of art, glorious and vicious and deadly, honed to perfection. Too volatile though; too assertive now, too hostile to leave alive. The next generation would be easier to control, more pliant, owned and indoctrinated from birth.
But it would never be the same. Not as this wild thing, this feral twist of lost hope and bitter pain and raw power. It would never be this.
He had never truly owned it—not as he would have wanted—to do that would have destroyed it. But what glorious destruction, a trail of fire and desire to burn all other considerations to ash. Perhaps he should have done so anyway, just to know the rapture of possession, because now it was lost to him forever.
His eyes flicked momentarily to the lightsaber at his feet and Skywalker didn't miss the action. "Pick it up—or so help me I'll cut you to pieces unarmed."
"No, you won't," Palpatine said, "because you're weak. You always were. I never did quite wring that last shred of compassion from you. You will always be a disappointment to me—just like your father."
With a feral yell part fury part grief, Skywalker launched forward and Palpatine dropped his own lightsaber from his sleeve, igniting the blade with the Force as it fell, swinging it up to lash out a quick strike into his Jedi's face.
It was a perfect blow flawlessly delivered and it should have taken Skywalker's head from his shoulders...
The boy dodged the unexpected blade at the last second, twisting to the side as he buckled his knees and igniting his father's saber as he dropped down onto one hand, blade whipping out as he did so to force Palpatine back.
He turned the move into a fast, one-handed backflip and came up quickly, twisting about as he stood, one hand outstretched against the heavy stone plinth which Palpatine had launched towards him from the base of the dais, his countering Force smashing it to fine debris which exploded out about them, stinging bare flesh as Skywalker turned full circle, saber raised to counter the incoming blow.
Palpatine lunged forward with a series of short, fast, measured blows, looking for flaws, testing for weakness. The boy had recovered from major injuries less than a year ago, his arm and shoulders shattered by a massive, close-range blast and while he was well-enough healed, their skill levels were so close that even the smallest flaw should be sought out and exploited: a fraction of a second, a degree less flexion—at this level, they were the difference between victory and death.
The brunt of his first attack was to Skywalker's right side, seeking that advantage, but he held fast against the onslaught with only a single sidestep, deflecting every blow, repelling any advance, eventually taking the initiative to push Palpatine back three hasty paces before he disengaged and stepped beyond the boy's reach, freshly wary.
Despite furthering Skywalker's lightsaber skills in his early years here, Palpatine had always avoided dueling against the boy, even in practice, always loathed to hand out any evidence as to his own ability whilst taking the opportunity to study and dictate his advocate's form. So the boy knew little of Palpatine's skill, whilst he knew his Wolf's in detail, physical and mental—always an advantage.
He knew the boy was volatile and fearless; that when he fought, it was because he was at the end of his patience and thus he could be goaded into mistakes. Knew that after that first burst of aggression Skywalker would calm and calculate; look for weaknesses in his opponent, for opportunities in the terrain, for the unexpected strike and the unorthodox tactic. And he knew the boy would be committed to the fight once started; that he'd push every chance, leave no option untried. That he was agile and dexterous in mind and body, and that the duel had always been his lasting interest. Those endless hours of practice had ensured his technique had few flaws and many strengths to draw on.
But there were other weaknesses to exploit. As he had with his father, Skywalker was clearly looking for a fair fight. He didn't want—or more importantly he didn't feel the need—to use the Force in any other way than to augment his existing skill with the lightsaber, and Palpatine was well aware that in an ethical fight he would struggle to bring the boy down. But then in all his dealings with the boy, the Sith had never once held to a fair fight—it wasn't in his nature. The question was, had he taught that lesson by example too? It hardly shook his confidence, but it certainly concentrated his mind. The boy was deceitful and disloyal. Such betrayals deserved only one response.
He came quickly forward to bat Skywalker's blade aside and at the same time threw out a Force-blow which landed to the boy's midsection, knocking the air from his lungs with enough force to send him staggering back a step, winded. Seeing the opportunity, Palpatine stepped quickly inside the boy's defenses...
And saw just how fast his opponent really was—
Rather than try to bring his own blade up to hook the incoming blade away, Skywalker arched backwards. He'd already released his blade into his right hand as Palpatine had swept it aside so that now as he arched back, he dropped onto his left hand, springing away from Palpatine in a tight backflip, his blade arcing round behind him to hold his opponent at bay, a solid wall of light so fast was the motion.
Palpatine paused, momentarily uncertain whether the boy realized how close to the edge of the raised dais he was, but Skywalker combined the nimble, unexpected flip with a half-twist which took him safely over the drop to land soundly on both feet, dropping into a crouch to absorb the impact.
The half-twist had left him facing away from Palpatine and the Sith hurried forward with a long step-and-jump to push the seeming advantage home. But as Skywalker landed he'd used the momentum of the high flip to spin himself about on the balls of his feet, half-crouching to avoid the incoming blade, his own saber brought in tight to his body then whipped up in a massively powerful roundhouse blow as he stood.
Ironically it was Palpatine's relative slowness to react and step into the feint which saved his life, leaving him that vital half-step away when Skywalker's blade came up in a slice which would have cleaved him from hip to shoulder. As it was, it sizzled through the cloth of his cloak as he backpedalled wildly, a vivid revelation of their relative dexterity.
Skywalker wasted no time lamenting the missed blow, already coming forward again, less than a single beat between the strike and his advance.
Palpatine sidestepped, the high dais at his back, giving ground before a hail of fast blows, and was only able to stop the offensive by reaching out through the Force to seize at the massive bulk of the heavy sunburst throne, its mass grating forward as Palpatine prepared to launch it to the boy's unprotected side, as he had done moments earlier with the stone pillar—
But Skywalker was unwilling to make the same mistake twice and this time glanced to the side, dividing his attention without even reaching out his hand against the throne though Palpatine sensed a massive counter-weight thrown against it, forcing it back against his pull. As he released it, the weighty precious-metal throne toppled back where it stood with a dense, resounding thud, the massive beaten sun which formed its backrest gouging fine lines at the edge of the pale disk of inset marble which had once graced the Jedi Council Chamber.
Still, it afforded Palpatine two further steps back and put sufficient space in between them so that when the boy spun back round his opponent was beyond reach and they once more stared each at the other—and in the seconds that followed, whilst each man stood poised, ready to renew the fight at the slightest sign, Palpatine reassessed his view.
He'd never been blind to his young advocate's speed and strength, and Skywalker was no novice any more, his reflexes polished, his execution precise. Diligently training, the one thing he had always been willing to learn without hesitation form his Master had been the art of the blade, heeding everything his exacting Master would teach him when Palpatine had prepared him for the duel with his father... And afterwards, he'd devoted still more time to refining that ability, compulsively obsessively building on it day on day, all in preparation for...
Palpatine's eyes narrowed and his chest heaved as he stared at the boy... All those hours invested in practice—he had always thought them an avoidance of Court and its corruptions, or a strategy to deal with Vader, when Palpatine finally allowed his Wolf permission to finish the duel he had curtailed by force years earlier. But in light of Mara's revelation, that had never been the case. Now the truth was enacted with cold confidence; now all of those invested hours were meted out without qualm against...
Realization filled Palpatine with cold fury—
This had been in Skywalker's head: this moment. Every drill, every kata, every advancement and refinement. It had all been leading to this; all focusing down to this moment.
This goal, this objective...this betrayal.
"YOU!" Palpatine spat out the accusation, sulfurous yellow eyes aglow. "You always wanted my Empire—wanted my power for yourself. That's why you conspired with Vader!"
"Then why not kill me?" Skywalker almost shouted the words, fury and guilt barbed and bound within them. "Why him? I disobeyed...I challenged you—not him!"
"You are more useful to me—despite your ambitions."
"And that's it?" the boy yelled, incredulous. "That's the limit of your compassion—your connection? You told me you created Anakin. You used the Force to create life and he was the result. You created him! He was part of you...your son."
"He was flawed," Palpatine dismissed without a shade of regret. "His connection to the Force had been weakened."
"He was still yours! A part of you! You can't disown that connection, that bond."
"I've told you before—one must be prepared to relinquish the past to own the future."
For long seconds Skywalker stared, just stared at the Sith, completely beyond words...
Finally he nodded slowly, a veil of cool detachment dropping before those outraged eyes, features bathed blood-red by the saber's glow, voice low and ragged and charged with derision.
"You're right—you're right, Master. I shouldn't allow the past to influence present decisions—I shouldn't tolerate any such hold on me...none at all. You want me to learn at my glorious Master's feet? Then I do—I renounce you. I disown any link to you. Your claims of connection and heredity are nothing. They're immaterial. You have no heir—you have no dynasty. Your reign ends today and by your own choice you'll die alone and abandoned."
Palpatine was outraged before the torrent of accusations and rejections. "If only your power were equal to your ambitions. Perhaps then you'd have the potential to take my Empire from me..."
"I don't want your precious..."
"Then what is this?" he hissed. "You brought this fight to me—what is this if not ambition?"
The boy shook his head in disbelief, grief making him spit out the words before he'd even thought to censure them before his ever-perceptive Master. "This is retribution."
Palpatine found some part of his own composure at that obvious rush of emotion from the boy, the desolate despair that drove those words igniting a wide, goading grin. He saw a better weapon now to force a mistake and bring his charge down—Skywalker's all-too-obvious guilt at his father's death.
"You blame me so completely but you surely knew that you were your father's replacement, child. The instant you cowed your father in a duel you sealed his fate. You proved you were stronger...you knew that the moment I could control you as I controlled him he would become redundant."
"But you don't," Skywalker contested, wild, wounded eyes shadowed behind dark hair in the low light. "You don't control me, not completely... You never did, you know that—so why kill him?"
"...Then you did understand." The revelation set Palpatine's head to one side in cruel amusement at the boy's pitiful weakness. "Is that why you struggled so? Always so unpredictable and erratic, year after year. Willfully insubordinate. Every time I thought I could trust you, every time I said as much...you went out of your way to disprove it, didn't you? Did you believe you could buy his life for as long as you were disobedient—keep your father safe? Nothing could do that, child. I work to my own agenda, not yours."
"Your agenda has signed your death warrant," the boy vowed. "You set this in motion—you untied my hands!"
And there, with that incensed accusation, came to Palpatine the abrupt comprehension of what he had truly done. The act which he thought would be so containable—a punishment for disobeying his command, the guarantee that it could never be breached again...
In removing Vader, he had unwittingly removed every restraint.
But then Palpatine had never looked for other motives, sure that his possession of the boy was absolute. He'd believed that it was his influence alone that had held sway—and perhaps for a time, when he'd first converted the boy, it had been. But the truth was that underlying Palpatine's control, limiting the boy's responses and shaping his actions, was that one fact: that his father was alive—and what was necessary to keep him so.
All control which the Emperor had held over Skywalker had been unknowingly dependant on that single fact...and now, he'd effectively removed that one overriding constraint.
"If you cut me down, you will make me more powerful than you could possibly imagine..."
Abruptly Palpatine realized Vader's cryptic words when he'd acknowledged his own fate earlier that day; that he'd known—had chosen to die. To give his son this freedom, this impetus, this driving need to finally act.
The need to act—to bring down Palpatine, as Palpatine had once brought his own Master down. Still panting from the last burst of exertion, the Sith gritted wasted teeth against the injustice of this situation—that Vader had finally out-maneuvered his Master; had ultimately found the strength to break the bonds which had held him to grudging servitude for decades—and in doing so poisoned Palpatine's protégé against him.
The dog which had cringed so long at its Master's feet had finally found its teeth—and now the wolf smelled blood.
"You're running out of time," Skywalker stated, dropping his blade low in an invitation to attack, goading his opponent on.
Palpatine narrowed yellow eyes, unsure what the boy meant, and Skywalker smiled, the tip of his ruby blade weaving as he set in a slow circle about his old Master, remaining just out of range.
"Minutes—that's what you taught, Master; experience versus endurance—a veteran duelist has just minutes to bring a duel with a younger opponent to an end, because if he can't bring his challenger down quickly, his advantage becomes his weakness. All those years of experience simply become all those years... You're tiring and your opponent hasn't even broken a sweat yet." Luke grinned in open provocation. "Isn't that what you said—the strongest wolf will lead the pack."
"I said experience overcomes strength," he corrected.
But the boy wouldn't be intimidated. "And yet I'm still here—and you're getting tired. So what do you need to beat experience and strength, Master? Because you have one minute left to find it."
Palpatine gritted his teeth against the outrageous incitement, aware on some level that it was the truth; he knew he no longer had the boy's speed or dexterity, so that after that first flurry of blows, a large portion of his attack had been aimed at avoiding a direct confrontation, looking instead for alternative means to bring the duel to a decisive end.
Again the boy stopped, spinning his saber hilt back one-handed so that the cowl was against the heel of his hand, the scarlet blade upright behind his body in an open invitation to attack. Palpatine hesitated, knowing the boy's reflexes now; that he was not nearly as vulnerable as he appeared, his feet carefully placed, his shoulders already turned to give power to the imminent underhand strike. This was one of his favorite moves, to lure in and then lash out, his reflexes and dexterity equal to the task.
So Palpatine remained still, no counter to the invitation...and the boy grinned in provocation, his empty hand out before him, palm up, raising his eyebrows in unspoken question: afraid?
Palpatine bridled at that; almost set forward—almost walked in to the trap anyway, so incensed was he at the inference. But he caught himself. Experience held him back, despite the blatant incitement.
Oh, he saw so much of himself in the boy...
And the boy had allowed it, he realized; encouraged it because it served his own ends—convinced Palpatine to see that connection with himself to the exclusion of any others...even Vader.
"You manipulative little creature," he growled, incensed.
Skywalker only smiled, unoffended. "I learned from the best."
The twist of cold amusement at his Master's indignation curled Luke's lip in satisfaction. Now, here, with the outrage and the anger at his father's death still burning within him, it was so easy to manipulate the man who had ripped from him what little Luke had left as a punishment...as a lesson. Well now it was Luke's turn to teach by example...and there was so much his Master didn't know, so much that had become clear in the last hour.
"Rested enough?" Luke asked, dryly derisive. "Or do you need a little longer?"
The Emperor came forward at that, blade high, and Luke caught the blow, his blade travelling downward to his opponent's hands. At the last second, Palpatine stepped forward, twisting his blade up and to the side as he did so, robbing Luke's counter of any momentum and forcing him to backstep and disengage or allow the Sith inside his defenses.
Palpatine pulled back grey lips in a half-sneer. "The wise Master never teaches all that he knows."
Luke grinned, unimpressed. "True. But the wise pupil knows he should look further afield to complete his knowledge."
"It won't be enough to save you, child, not now; not from me. It never was. You don't have the power to stand against a Sith Master. I brought down a thousand Jedi at the height of their supremacy—do you think one more will test me? Or do you believe that all those Jedi Masters who came before were lesser men than you, with lesser resolve? Do you truly think yourself above them all? What could you possibly have that they—"
"Don't waste your breath," Luke bit out contemptuously. "These are old lessons long since learned. You've used them too often already, Master. Half the fight is in the head, isn't that what you taught? If I'm committed to winning—if I believe I will bring you down—then I'm half way there already. I know what I want and I know what I'm capable of. What you say—what you think—is immaterial; my wolves are gone, Master. The only thing that stands in my shadow now is you. Your wolf is right here—what did you call it?—darkness and destiny."
"Oh, I know what you're capable of," Palpatine hissed. "Betrayal and lies. I know what you want—my power, my title...my Empire."
Luke shook his head, setting subtly forward again, hiding the advance behind a slow circling of his opponent. "You're wrong—I don't want your Empire, Master; only you. But I'll take it, because that's the only thing you ever valued so that's what will hurt you most. I really don't care about your precious Empire...I simply want to hurt you. If you'd left me alone, I'd probably still be farming dust on that dried-up desolate little planet, but you couldn't bear the thought that there might be someone out there with the potential to stop you. You came after me."
"Vader pursued you—" Palpatine started, but Luke wasn't willing to listen—to allow his convictions to be divided.
"You did this. You created me, not my father—You! You created your wolf—you fulfilled the vision. You made your own killer."
"Liar! You want power."
"No—I just want to take it from you. And when I do, when I hold your power and your position, I'll dedicate it to one thing, Master. Because it's not enough just to kill you. You destroyed my life—you cut it away slice after pitiless slice until Luke Skywalker was dead and gone—and I'm what's left. I'm everything that you made me. Luke Skywalker would have killed you, but that's not enough for me, not anymore—you taught me that. So when I take your power I'm going to dedicate it to removing every single trace that you ever existed. Every record, every image, every document, every statue. Everything. Within a decade you'll be gone, like you never existed. And then I'll take your ashes and I'll scatter them to the winds... All that work, all your ambitions, your power, your precious Sith dynasty—all reduced to nothing. Dust in the wind. That's what I want..." He loosed a feral grin, mismatched eyes like ice and fire. "Stop me if you can."
Outraged, Palpatine threw out his hand and Luke sensed the pull in the Force, the danger running a cold warning down his spine, Palpatine's fury imbuing incredible focus and power—
There was a grinding, wrenching 'c-rack!' high behind Luke: stone shearing from stone.
He didn't turn—instead he focused on the substantial bulk of the incoming missile, one of the massive carved pillar heads which lined the hall, then reached out and took a solid Force-grip of his own, adding his own velocity, catapulting the substantial carved block onward with only the slightest change in its trajectory. It surged past overhead so close that its leading edge rustled through his hair as he crouched.
Palpatine realized, of course, but the combined momentum of two powerful wills was an incredible power to stop in the space of two strides, so that even as he threw out his hands to stop it, the massive section of marble pillar cannoned into hastily created shields, shattering outward as Luke maintained that relentless momentum. Bracing, Palpatine was thrown back by the sheer force of the blow as the fighter-sized block of stone impacted his shields, skidding across the smooth floor in a flurry of red and raven robes.
Luke set grimly forward as the column beneath the missing pillar head collapsed with ground-wrenching force behind him, the dust sheeting out about him in a wide cloud.
Mara walked with forced calm down the grand, deserted hallways toward the Throne Room, the Force buzzing all about her, grating through the air, slicing through her mind, setting her teeth on edge. This was no argument, no spirited clash or heated dispute. This was Darkness and it rolled through the cavernous hallways like a tidal wave, so that it took all that Mara was to simply walk; to hold her poise and composure, chest tight, muscles taut as she neared the rising storm. And every step closer made her heart beat faster, made her breath burn with adrenaline at the back of her throat.
If Luke had challenged Palpatine outright, there could be only one reaction: it wouldn't be a return to the cells, it wouldn't be chastisement or punishing reprisal—it would be a death sentence.
Her walk quickened pace to a jog, then an open run as desperation took over, feet slipping on the polished marble floors, footfalls echoing in the empty halls.
When she rounded the final stairwell, taking the wide steps three at a time, the massive concourse was empty—no guards, nothing. She raced forward through the deserted Attendants Hall to the massive arched entryway...and her heart sank, feet skidding to a halt of their own accord. Her eyes locked on the crumpled forms of the eight Red Guard lying before the closed doors, their bodies slumped against the walls where they had fallen—and she knew it was Luke. Knew what he intended.
Had he challenged Palpatine already? Was that what this was, a duel between Sith?
But she'd sensed no such upheaval at Vader's death—not like this. Just a single burst, a flare of intense radiance, a release like the shock-wave of a detonation; a momentary rush, then nothing.
Not like this.
She glanced about, afraid that someone had seen the guards and the alarm had been raised. But Palpatine had cancelled Court and the corridors were deserted, these levels out of bounds when Court was not in session.
Heart pounding, Mara set forward again at an unsteady walk, her legs trembling as the upheaval hammered at her mind, almost overwhelming at this proximity. The security lenses high above the massive closed doors had been crushed, almost certainly by Luke just before he'd turned on the guards, to buy himself time.
Mara brought her hands to her face as she closed her eyes, Luke's remembered words holding the cut of a knife: "My fate in your hands—didn't I always tell you it would be?"
"...I have every faith in you—you would never disappoint." Palpatine's words to her, just this morning, issued as much as a threat as any reassurance. "This need go no further, Mara...It is enough to know." His promise to her, probably already knowing what he would do. His word. "It will be our secret; nobody else need know—what you say here will never go beyond these walls. You will be helping him, as you will be helping me. You will be fulfilling your obligations to both—that is surely what you want?"
"You should be careful, Mara." Luke's words, bitter with experience. "It's a hard thing to keep a foot in two camps. Take it from me, it's an impossible balancing act—all you can do is fall."
"You must trust my judgment, child..." Palpatine's wheedling tones, when he'd promised that he would do nothing—that he wanted only to know.
"You couldn't wound me any more today." Luke, outraged and desolate. "You couldn't possibly bring me any lower."
"You claim genuine concern." Nathan's words, perceptive as ever. "But when you're asked to relinquish, suddenly it's no longer convenient... You'll destroy him, and deep down I think you know it—because he does."
"My fate in your hands—didn't I always tell you it would be?"
"You can't trust him, Mara!" Luke's voice, laced with frustrated disbelief. "You can't trust anything he says."
"I can trust him." She'd been so sure, then. "He doesn't lie to me."
Breathless, shaking, Mara lifted her comlink to contact Palace Security.
"This need go no further, Mara... It will be our secret." His word…
She hesitated, heart pounding, hand trembling, the weight of indecision unbearable. Mara stared at the closed doors, at the comlink in her hand. She could stop this now… Except she couldn't—she couldn't be the one who put Luke back in that cell…
"My fate in your hands—didn't I always tell you it would be?"
The memory of that moment on the platform, of her absolute knowledge that she couldn't turn him over to Palpatine again, burned in Mara's chest as she pressed the comlink.
"Commander Jade? What's happening?" The tight voice of Palace Security was fast to reply, but the fact that they even asked let Mara know that the guards here must have been dead before they even fell; no time to sound the alarm. All Security knew was that they hadn't checked in. Now the only thing which was stopping them from sounding a general alert was her own status and security clearance.
"Take a side—make a choice." Luke's words just hours ago. "It's your call, Mara…my fate in your hands."
She couldn't do it.
"It's an impromptu security assessment at the Emperor's command; that's why the Court was cancelled today. Reaction times are being monitored and units tracked. You're not one of those under scrutiny; you need to stand down and not influence the results."
"We have two lenses down in your location..."
"That's for the assessment—you needn't do anything. They'll be back up when we're through. Clearance code is override Jade nine-three-five-nine, terra actual."
It was so easy; so easy to use her reputation and her rank... She was beyond suspicion, absolutely loyal.
Stand down, she'd assured, using override codes the Emperor himself had supplied. Was this treason? Probably. She didn't care; if Palpatine lived to accuse her, it would be because Luke was dead...
There was a colossal spike in the Force making her flinch back, then a foreboding rumble of tremendous noise, the floor beneath her feet shuddering ominously.
Mara rushed forward, her hand reaching for the locked release at the center of the door...and froze, unable to move, torn all over again, loyalties split between her master and her lover.
The outpouring of energy into the Force was a whirlwind now, incredible intensity, power drawn to power, wild and furious and dangerous and determined, all twisted through and bound up so closely that the individual sense of the two combatants within couldn't be separated, lost in the surge.
And it terrified Mara.
She desperately wanted to enter, to run into the room...but then what—when she was inside, then what? Who would she help and who would she fail? Who would she protect when the blade went to their throat? She was terrified that at the last, despite everything, she would go to the aid of her master—how could she do otherwise? But she didn't want to...that was the truth. She didn't want to...
"My fate in your hands—didn't I always tell you it would be?"
A second rumble vibrated through her hands resting on the heavy doors, and Mara felt her legs buckle, collapsing to her knees, her arms up about her head as if she could shut out the roiling turmoil, shut out the pain and the fear and the chaos in her head.
Just visible to Palpatine through the settling dust, Luke set forward over the scattered remnants of the immense pillar head, the boulder-sized fragments slowing him as he climbed and jumped over them, intending to push home his advantage whilst it still remained, knowing that even this wouldn't keep the Sith Master down for long.
Palpatine had deflected the massive chunk of stone at the last moment, its weight as it impacted against his shields compressing the air about him, pushing it from his lungs with brutal intensity, leaving him gasping as he fell, winded.
And the boy came forward without hesitation, without conscience; everything that Palpatine had desired of him, everything that he had worked so hard to create—the wolf, smelling blood on the air.
But he'd find no quick victory here—no easy prey; all he did was concentrate Palpatine's resolve. The Sith staggered, trying to stand upright but falling again as Skywalker jumped onto a hip-high chunk of fallen masonry to come forward, saber lit—
Without hesitation Palpatine reached out with the Force twisting the boulder beneath his attacker, taking any foothold he had. Skywalker lurched back without losing his balance, leaping clear to land solidly on the marble floor, steadying himself in seconds, already moving forward again.
Palpatine glanced down, hands to the ground as the boy came forward—
Skywalker braced, muscles tensing, knowing the Sith wasn't nearly as vulnerable as he'd have him believe, searching for the snare—
Without warning, the weighty marble floor beneath his feet erupted up into rubble, the fissure throwing up razor-sharp fragments, following Skywalker's footsteps as he stumbled back, Palpatine's hand outstretched on the floor.
Unable to recover as the floor bucked wherever he placed his feet, Skywalker fell to one knee, saber held beside him, its tip hissing through the stone floor. With a raw yell, he sent out a single massive Force-pulse in every direction, the heavy rubble about him wrenched outward in a jolt of kinetic energy. Palpatine shied back, twisting away from the surge, his arm before his face as fine debris was launched out on the shockwave.
Skywalker lurched up and forward, covering the distance in seconds as Palpatine ignited his blade, staggering back at the fury of the first few blows. Their sabers locked, each man leaning into the live blades, their faces lit by the sparking, incandescent glow, bright scarlet set with sparks of vivid orange where the blades met.
Abruptly the boy stepped forward and to the side, taking the risk of dropping his blade as he did so, and the sudden release of counter-pressure on his blade sent Palpatine staggering forward a shocked step, open and vulnerable. Skywalker twisted about, saber in his right hand to affect a swift backhand swipe as he came around, forcing Palpatine to half-stumble clear to avoid the unexpected blow, furious.
Twisting about to bring the fight home, Skywalker stepped in as Palpatine hauled his blade into an infinity loop to hold him at bay—and the boy simply paused coolly beyond its range, neither provoked nor hesitant, allowing Palpatine the move, knowing he couldn't sustain it.
And he was right; Palpatine brought his blade down and to the side and Skywalker set immediately forward. He was controlling the fight, Palpatine knew, as he once had with Vader. Always pressing in, closing distance and reaction time with quick, close blows, making Palpatine fight at close range where speed was everything; forcing the fight on his terms.
Too close, too agile, too fast to fight a fair fight.
Palpatine glanced about the vast chamber seeking other means, though the empty room held little to use against his rival.
No words now, no goading or validation. The fight had fallen to focused silence, all energy and attention given over to the duel, both combatants aware on some level that the end was near, one way or the other.
The boy came in with blade high, a massive blow with all the power of his arms and shoulders behind it, forcing Palpatine to draw on the Force to absorb the impact as Skywalker used the counter-strength of the block to spin about and bring his blade in low. Palpatine caught the low blade, dragging it around in a wide arc. Both men spun about to break the hold, each coming back to face the other a half-step back. Yet again the boy set forward, looking to close that gap—but it was all the space Palpatine needed.
He reached out with the Force to the tall pillar behind himself, wise enough now to know better than to launch such an object from a direction the boy could use against him. A man-sized hunk of twisted, cable-reinforced stone pillar grated free at the top of the fluted column and launched past the Sith toward Skywalker.
All his momentum moving forward, Skywalker had no time to counter the substantial bulk of the incoming missile, and in that second Palpatine thought he had him! But the boy planted his forward foot down, letting his rear knee buckle, one hand to the ground behind him as he arched back, barely beneath the immense chunk of masonry, before kicking off into a tight backflip as it whistled by overhead, his knees lifting behind its rear edge as it skimmed past. He tucked neatly in to land a second after it passed and came back up so quickly that his hair brushed the pillar's trailing edge as he stood upright, jerking his lightsaber up against the fast roundhouse blow which Palpatine swung at stomach height.
Both men staggered back as the heavy pillar impacted behind them, dragging gouges into the marble floor and throwing up fine debris and dust as it ground to a halt with a reverberating resound which trembled through the building, neither noticing in the heat of the duel.
Already Palpatine was coming forward to push his advantage, but the boy was moving too, not a moment's hesitation or protest. Unlike his duel with his father years earlier, he let out no yells of outrage or frustration at his opponent's reluctance to fight fairly, conveying only a grim determination, a fire in his eyes that Palpatine had never seen before—
Bringing his blade up and back in a one-handed defense, Luke powered forward to meet Palpatine's incoming blade, whipping his own about it and pushing it aside as he launched a heavy Force-blow to his Master's side, the impact twisting Palpatine about in a staggering misstep, Luke's bright ruby blade droning past Palpatine's shoulder with unerring aim as he twitched away, the fabric of his gown momentarily lighting in a curl of smoke.
Palpatine broke off and to the side as Luke snapped his blade round for one more sniping blow at head-height, his Master heaving deep breaths in as Luke stalked slowly to the side, saber still in one hand, sidestepping, searching for that opening...
He saw the momentary shadow which crossed his Master's face at his use of a Force-blow, and knew why, but if Palpatine chose not to fight honorably then Luke certainly felt no guilt at matching his Master—not any more. His mood tumbled and twisted in raw frustration, both at Palpatine's actions and at his own part in initiating them.
Because his Master was right about one thing: Luke had caused this fight. His own weaknesses, his compassion, the human frailties which Palpatine had tried so hard to cull from him and Luke had fought so long to hold onto as if they were some kind of asset. The truth was that it was these self-indulgent flaws which had brought him here today.
Luke's fault in allowing Mara even a fraction of the truth; in wanting her to do the right thing, in giving her the opportunity, the choice—in believing she would do it. His weakness. His craving for some kind of closeness, despite Palpatine's warning.
His wish for a deeper kinship with his father, a commonality, despite all the risks. It was he who had allowed his father in, seeking some bond, he who had allowed Mara close because despite everything he wanted to trust her... Yet another excuse; a way to abdicate responsibility. And he wouldn't allow himself them anymore.
It was his weakness and not Mara's which had caused his father's death.
His weakness that had set all of this in motion. Had cost him so much and brought him to this.
His Master was right; such compassion was a debilitating flaw yet he'd held to it like a prized possession when the truth was that it was a curse, nothing less. A weakness to be mastered.
Just like Palpatine himself—he too was a flaw Luke had allowed to fester; a drain on his energy and intentions. Another impediment he'd allowed himself to tolerate rather than remove. Well, no more...
No more weaknesses.
He reached out into the Force for the power he knew dwelled there, howling for recognition, baying to be used, eager to be summoned...
And took it.
Palpatine hesitated at the change that came over his Wolf as he stalked forward, scarred face etched now with grim intent, lightsaber low and to his side, eyes afire, glowing golden at their brink...
His left hand rose, outstretched, the action strangely familiar to Palpatine...
Bright actinic lightening flared for a moment about Skywalker's hand then launched forward in a razor-barbed burst, lancing towards Palpatine, dazzling energy slicing into him in a fury of unrestrained power, seizing muscles, freezing lungs.
For a moment Palpatine caught the bolts, countered them—but they only intensified, breaking through barriers and overrunning defenses as he wilted beneath the onslaught.
A massive, potent burst, then Skywalker's hand jerked open, twisting as his amber-edged eyes turned down. The Force ripped Palpatine's feet from under him, throwing him hard to the ground as strikes of brilliant, Force-powered energy still stabbed into muscles with white-hot pain—
He could do it, Luke knew. He could kill him now; just maintain this for a little longer—sear flesh from muscle, burn muscle from bone, char bone to black, crumble it to ash. The Sith deserved no more. Let him know what this felt like! Luke had been on the receiving end of Palpatine's fury often enough, had collapsed beneath it, craving unconsciousness as a respite from the pulsing, blistering, burning pain...
Abruptly, he broke off the attack, vivid memories lighting a lucid flare of horrified self-reproach.
No—not like this.
He took two staggering steps back as Palpatine gasped for breath, smoke curling from his singed clothes. Luke wavered, resolve faltering...
Still breathless, Palpatine glanced up, expecting to see the incoming blade... But the boy staggered back, pale blue eyes appalled as he curled his hand to a fist, lost in some inner battle.
Seeing him hesitate and realizing his opportunity, the Sith lurched up, reaching out with the Force, searching for any weapon—
The move was lightening-fast, the boy still lost in thought, and Palpatine finally scored the blow he'd sought; the heavy, carved footrest which lay at the foot of his toppled throne yanked forward with incredible speed and power, impacting with a rewarding crack on the back of his opponent's head—
Luke didn't know what hit him; he only saw a bright flash then stars exploded in his vision as his legs collapsed beneath him and he dropped to his knees, some distant voice within him chiding his own inattention beneath that burst of undeserved compassion. Sight and sound faded to the encroaching blackness...
Don't pass out... Don't pass out!
His hand went to the floor to steady himself as he sensed Palpatine rise to step grimly forward, reality reduced to a slow loop of nauseating gravity which dragged awareness ever slower—
Don't pass out...
Luke drew the Force to him, giving him the power to lurch unsteadily up and back as Palpatine rushed in. Still staggering from the blow, Luke brought his saber up in weak defense, head spinning, vision blurred.
The Emperor's pale hand rose, spindly fingers splayed, and the hasty Force-strike came as a body-blow to the center of Luke's chest, making him stumble back, breath knocked from his lungs in a scarlet-spattered gasp.
Palpatine brought his saber up and forward in a lunging stab and Luke barely batted it aside with no retaliation, no reciprocating blow; he only staggered further back, tripping unsteadily over unseen debris, arm out to steady himself as he struggled to recover, the Emperor sidestepping and disappearing from his still-narrowed vision as his blade rose high to deliver another blow.
Luke backed up, still dazed, struggling for breath, heart pounding loud in his ears—
The back of his hip bumped against something and he realized he'd backstepped all the way to the raised dais, automatically putting it to his side, aware on some level that to do so would reduce Palpatine's field of play, keep him trapped in Luke's limited line of sight. It cut down his own maneuverability but at this point that wasn't even a concern—his main consideration was simply staying upright.
Don't pass out—not now, after all this—after all these years... Don't pass your one chance up...
Anger and frustration welled up inside him at that and the Darkness answered, pumping fresh power to trembling limbs, sending blood and oxygen rushing round his body, and he clung to it—to the power it gave.
He wouldn't let him win; he wouldn't let the black-hearted Sith steal this. He'd stop him; no matter what the cost—if it was his own life, he'd stop him.
He swayed uneasily, chest heaving, giving ground as Palpatine came forward along the side of the dais, aware that he was being backed into one of the tall, heavy, metalwork screens which divided the cavernous space. Using the Force, Luke reached out behind him and yanked one of the massive paired screens aside against its mechanism with a screeching wrench, giving him the clearance to stumble backwards into the room beyond.
As Palpatine closed Luke slammed the massive screen shut, forcing the Sith to take a hasty step back to avoid being hit by the heavy slab of floor-to-ceiling metal. On impulse Luke lunged blindly forward, saber before him. The blade cut effortlessly through the precious-metal screen until the tip of its hilt hit the white-hot surface, and he was rewarded with a half-yell from the other side of the screen.
Knowing better than to remain where he was, Luke dropped down, one hand to the ground, pulling his saber back and rolling away as he did so, mind and vision clearing. An instant later Palpatine's saber blazed through the screen above Luke exactly where he had stood, the scarlet blade cutting a horizontal slash through the screen as Palpatine Force-yanked it back a half-second later and lunged forward into the ante-room.
Luke's mind raced, adrenaline giving incredible clarity, the brief moment's respite offering realization—a plan...and it had to be now—
Muscles bunching, he powered up, staggering back to the second screen and reaching out with the Force to get a solid grip. Dragging it open, Luke rushed back through into the main chamber, slamming it shut as Palpatine stalked through the first screen and into the small ante-room, giving Luke valuable seconds unseen in the main chamber.
He set forward to the dais at a half-run, eyes glancing about it as he reached out his hand...
Palpatine dragged the second screen aside with a yell, setting purposely forward, his limp pronounced, ochre eyes scanning the massive, debris-littered Throne Room. Skywalker turned about from his run toward the dais, seeking room to maneuver as he backstepped across the cream marble of the inset floor from the old Jedi Council Chamber. The shattered, toppled remnants of Palpatine's precious Sunburst Throne were scattered about the dais, the dying embers of the day bleeding over the beaten golden sun of its backrest as it lay on the pale cream of the wide circular marble inlay, like twin suns setting...
The Sith launched forward at a broken run, Skywalker giving ground against the onslaught. A flurry of bright scarlet blades, a wall of incandescent light weaving through the air, each looking for the advantage, completely focused, unyielding, each blow laid with flawless precision, each counter leading to an attack, the pace implacable now, the intensity decisive, each pushing the attack home, forcing a mistake—
It was Skywalker who faltered. He stumbled, the momentary lapse bringing his father's blade up a fraction too late, giving Palpatine the impetus to catch the one-handed blow rather than block it and enabling him to hook Vader's lightsaber away from the boy's grip and send it clattering back across the Throne Room floor, Skywalker's empty hand still reaching after it as he turned side-on, eyes wide, to face his foe empty-handed—
"Where are your reflexes now, boy..." Palpatine grinned, voice triumphant as he brought his own blade back one-handed in a wide, open arc to deliver the killing blow—
"Where's your experience...Master?" the boy hissed derisively.
The moment—the instant the words left Skywalker's mouth, Palpatine knew what he'd done, recognized his error; that he'd been played, encouraged by his opponent's helplessness to make a grand gesture in his final blow, leaving himself open a fraction too long—
Palpatine twisted his wrist in an effort to slow his saber's wide arc and bring its scarlet blade about—
But he wasn't nearly fast enough; Skywalker's arm came from behind his back—
In it was his own lightsaber, recovered from the dais where he had abandoned it at the duel's start, the blade still activating as he brought it up single-handed with the speed of a whiplash, already inside Palpatine's defenses—
The perfect deception, flawlessly executed, any chance of a hasty defense squandered by Palpatine in the belief that his foe was unarmed.
No fair fight here after all—only the desire to win. Perhaps they were more similar than either realized...
Skywalker's saber closed on Palpatine's throat, his father's lost blade returning in that same moment to his outstretched hand, the two blades meeting in a scissor action—
"STOP!!" Palpatine poured five long years of merciless control into that single word.
Stupidly—stupidly—Luke hesitated as Palpatine cried out, unable to withstand the intensity in his Master's command. He faltered, the moment's dark clarity lost, intent wavering...and the Sith saw it.
"You always hesitated, Jedi. You always doubted yourself," Palpatine wheedled, voice hypnotic. Those yellow eyes shifted from genuine fear to a self-assured composure as the blades held an inch from his throat. He shook his head in mock pity, grating voice dismissive and amused. "I didn't make you—you made yourself with your own insecurities and fears. I warned you to hold them in check or your enemies would use them against you..."
A small wisp of smoke curled up past the edge of Luke's vision, daunting in its implications—
Realizing, he glanced down... Below the bright radiance of the two scarlet sabers in his hands was the incandescent glow of a third—
And Luke heard the goading triumph in his Master's voice: "How much do you want me dead, my little Sith?"
His hesitation at his Master's words had created the opportunity for Palpatine to slowly bring his own blade about, level with Luke's stomach, the tip now inches away from his skin, burning a fine hole in the fabric of his shirt—
Palpatine kept those sulfurous yellow eyes steady on Luke. "...Enough to kill yourself for the opportunity?" The slightest of deprecating grins pulled thin, bloodless lips back from spoiled yellow teeth at the knowledge that his opponent had hesitated too long...he'd won again. The Sith shook his head slowly, voice malicious and mocking. "I think not."
Luke remained frozen, seeing exactly every nuance of emotion as it passed over his Master's decrepit features, mismatched blue eyes remaining locked on spiteful yellow-flecked ochre...
This was the price... This was the price to end his Master's reign—because if he truly wanted to end it then to kill Palpatine wasn't enough. His precious Sith Dynasty would continue, he had already ensured that...
Luke blinked slowly, a detached calm flowing through him, buzzing in his ears.
Time slowed about him, his heartbeat dragging...
Abruptly he remembered Bespin—remembered this same pacific peace settling so benignly about him as he'd stood, resolute, at the edge of the instrument vane, nowhere left to go...
Nowhere left to go.
This was the price...and he was willing to pay.
He held his eye on the end goal, unflinching and composed, committed to the action.
The tranquil stillness which bled through him was like a deep breath of warm air, gifting acceptance and serenity, the ability to move forward, the roll of emotions taking his mind back once more to Cloud City—to his decision to step from the reactor shaft's narrow gantry. The slightest of smiles twitched at the corners of his scarred lips as Luke stared at his Master for long seconds...but he would not blink—
Mismatched blue eyes hardened, defiant...and he watched that heinous grin fall from his Master's face—
In that last second, Palpatine saw the commitment in those wild eyes—
He stumbled back a step, saber out before him at his Jedi's stomach—
…The stubbornness which was a strength...
Death...the grating drone of the blades—scarlet red, the color of blood and betrayal...
...the hiss of superheated light...
Luke lunged forward into Palpatine's blade, embedding it front to back through his own body to reach him, jerking at the bite, pulling the crossed sabers in his hands open as he did so, the scissored blades slicing effortlessly through flesh and bone—
The Sith's decapitated body fell away before him and Luke remained upright for a few seconds more as Palpatine's scarlet blade tugged free from his stomach, bringing him crumpling to his knees.
In the next instant, a backwash of power exploded out from the dead Sith's corpse—Darkness and fury and fear released, the energy impacting on Luke as he gasped against it, wrenched backwards by its force, unable to do more in that moment than simply endure it.
When he opened his eyes, aware again, he was crumpled against the far wall, still somehow upright but knelt down awkwardly, sitting on his heels, arms wrapped about his stomach against the fire which burned deep there.
In the absolute silence, he listened to his own labored breathing for a long time...
He wondered if he could stand, realized that he couldn't, that he was sagging down now, falling deeper into the utter silence, reality becoming an ever more distant whisper as his body began to fail.
Momentarily he panicked, looking about him... Holding out his hand, he called his father's lightsaber to him across the dust and debris-strewn floor and tried unsuccessfully to pick it up, hands incredibly weak.
Unable, he rested his palm on it as the searing fire in his stomach expanded outwards, weakness toppling him over onto his side whilst the shattered room twisted dizzily about him. His eyes fluttered, lungs burning against labored gasps, simply breathing becoming an impossible task as his chest fought to heave air in short, shallow breaths, no oxygen left, like suffocating—like drowning in deep water.
He let out a gasping sigh and whispered her name—in that moment nothing else mattered; neither betrayal nor blame. All he wanted was to touch her sense again, to touch that radiant red hair, soft as silk and bright as glowing embers... "Mara..."
And the world faded away...
Knelt outside the doors, slumped on the floor, Mara buried her head in her hands until the roaring tornado of power drawn from the Force fell to ominous stillness, leaving her sure they were both dead.
She sat and sobbed into the void, the silence absolute...
His voice speaking her name issued from nowhere and everywhere, no more than a broken whisper, his sense fading to darkness.
She dragged herself upright, tears blurring her vision so that she clawed blindly at the lock, rushing in, desperate hope thrown out against all belief, convinced they were both dead.
Palpatine's decapitated body lay in the center of the pale cream marble, a burst of grimy destruction radiating out about it in the devastated room, his precious, prophetic throne toppled beside him. She walked no closer, searching the dust-laden gloom, desperate and desolate, afraid to see—
Little more than a crumpled shadow in the all-pervading darkness, Luke lay slumped on his side, ashen white and deathly still.
Mara stumbled forward, blinking back tears, breath frozen in her lungs, caught in a lockjam at the back of her throat...then she was on her knees beside him, reaching out tentatively to touch his face...
The relief was a physical release so intense she felt the blood drain from her head, leaving her dizzy and faint.
He's alive...he's alive!!
She stroked his hair and cried all over again, the emotion spilling out of her, unstoppable, fear and hope and disbelief and loss and longing, too much to possibly process. All she could do was stroke his hair and whisper to that distant sense, growing ever paler.
He wouldn't die—he wouldn't. She wouldn't let him. He was everything she needed—everything this whole sad, lost, battered galaxy needed...
He couldn't die. Not after all this...
She swiped the tears away with the heel of her hand as years of indoctrination cut through the shock and the absolute calm of a trained soldier kicked in once again. Pulling herself together with a long, trembling sigh, she lifted her comlink from the floor where it had fallen unheeded.
Her voice back under complete control, she commed Reece. "The Heir requires your presence immediately, Reece—and that of Hallin. In the Throne Room."
"The Throne Room?" She could hear his nervousness—how much did he already know? "Court isn't in session today, Commander Jade—and I was under the impression that The Heir had not yet returned from Mosiin Barracks."
"He arrived a short time ago...for a critical meeting regarding command structure." Would he understand?
There was a long pause... "Will the Emperor be attending?"
Mara sighed just slightly, understanding the question. "The Emperor is...no longer here."
Again Reece paused, clearly as unwilling to speak on an open channel as Mara, but recognizing the necessity. "Hallin's attendance is..."
"Crucial," Mara said.
She switched off the comm, knowing Reece would already be on his way. She had an Empire to secure.
In the event, Mara had very little to do. Everything was apparently already in place, and it was Reece in the Palace and Admiral Joss onboard the Patriot who moved everything forward with the kind of planning and precision which had clearly been months if not years in the making.
She was in fact, politely but firmly excluded; sidelined—advised that she would be of most value staying with The Heir and keeping Reece updated on his condition—and even that tentative, since by the time they arrived by back corridors and covert passageways at Hallin's dedicated medi-center, a group of ten plain-clothes men, all obviously military but none of whom Mara recognized, were waiting outside the surgery by Reece's command, appointed as The Heir's new bodyguards.
So it came as no surprise to Mara when Reece was already waiting in the recovery room by the time Luke left surgery; thoughts only on Luke, she hadn't contacted Reece yet, but there were clearly several others who had.
Members of the 701st, easily recognized by the dark blue pauldrons on the shoulders of their white armor, were scattered about the area now, concealed just inside the medi-center doors out of sight of casual passers-by, the ten plain-clothes bodyguards in the corridor beyond doing their best to look inconspicuous.
How many more were in the Palace, Mara wondered, already smuggled down from the Patriot in orbit? How many more were alerted, ready to move at a moment's notice; how many had already responded to coded messages?
She stepped quickly forward as Luke was moved from the gurney onto a high-dependency bed, eyes and thoughts only on him. Deathly pale, covered with cuts and bruises, still connected up to life-support following surgery, he looked terrifyingly fragile.
"Well?" Reece asked tightly as Hallin activated the scanning monitors over the bed.
"Well, he's just had five hours of surgery," the medic said distractedly, eyes locked on the readouts. "There is, not surprisingly, very little information available on how to treat lightsaber wounds."
"Surely they're similar to any laser wounds," Mara prompted, making Hallin glance up at her momentarily.
"You'd think, wouldn't you?" he said, voice dripping with patronizing sarcasm. He wasn't a shy man at the best of times, and had great faith in his own medical abilities—fortunately he was right. "The wound left a sloping exit high enough to puncture his left lung, introducing air into the chest cavity every time he drew breath. Air was filling the cavity into which the lungs normally expanded and restricting lung capacity; he was suffocating with every breath."
"Nathan," Reece cut through the irrelevant explanation, greater things on his mind. "I need to know whether to send the transmission out."
Hallin sighed, turning back to the unconscious man. "I really can't tell you at this point."
Mara frowned. "What transmission?"
Both men ignored her. "That's not good enough. I need an answer."
"I can't give you one. He has severe abdominal trauma—I've just packed a hole through his stomach which ran front to back, patched his lung back together and directed three surgical droids tying up the loose ends for the last two hours. I have no models for this kind of surgery—the only remaining information is kept by the Emperor's medical staff and I think they'd be understandably reluctant to part with it, don't you?"
"So there is information available? If I sent a team over there now…"
Hallin shook his head. "And tell them what? You'd never contain that kind of information request—they wouldn't release it without Palpatine's express permission and even if they were willing, I'd bet it's code-restricted to Palpatine, Pestage, Amedda and a few others, and when you couldn't get that code people would start asking questions. You may as well announce to the whole galaxy that the Emperor is dead and The Heir—the only person capable of standing against him—is seriously wounded. It's hardly a stretch to put that information together and come up with the logical conclusion, Wez."
Mara glanced at Reece. "Is that so important? You'll have to announce the Emperor's death anyway."
"But it's hardly the time to let slip that his Heir is seriously injured," Reece said in agreement with Hallin. "The information would be unstoppable; it would be out of the Palace within minutes—we'll be lucky to contain it as it is."
"We can protect him," Mara stated, very sure.
"No," Reece said decisively, looking to Hallin. "We stick to the plan. Nothing changes until we have two loyal Super Star Destroyers and four Destroyers in orbit and at least two thirds of the 701st in position—as well as all key supporters. The codes have gone out—the Patriot's presently in orbit and the Dauntless, the Executor, the Peerless and the Avenger have already responded—I need nineteen hours to implement everything. We put out the announcements based on that schedule and we ease this in as planned. Which means I have to know his prognosis—I can't very well start disseminating images of The Heir assuring that everything is under control only to have everyone find out that he died two hours previously."
Mara frowned. "What images?"
Reece ignored her, his attention on Hallin. "So I need assurance."
"I can't give it!" Hallin hissed. "You're asking me to give guarantees which I'm not in a position to know."
Mara took a step back, outraged by the surreal image of Luke's two most trusted advisors arguing over his unconscious body about whether or not he was going to make it through the next few hours—not out of concern, but on the grounds that they needed to manage the HoloNet.
"What the hell are you doing?! Listen to yourselves—listen to what you're saying!"
Both men turned, but it was Reece who found his voice first.
"I'm doing what The Heir charged me to do, Commander Jade—I'm stabilizing an Empire which could very well descend into anarchy and civil war if there's the slightest indication of vulnerability." Reece paused pointedly before stating frostily, "The Heir had a rare clarity of vision in such things; he placed the greater good before himself."
Hallin narrowed his own eyes at what sounded a little too close to a eulogy. "He's not dead yet."
Reece brought his face back to the medic, eyebrows raised expectantly. Hallin glanced back down to his patient, then pursed his lips determinedly. "He'll survive. He's young and he's fit and he's made it through far worse than this."
"Thank-you, Nathan," Reece said emphatically, and Mara felt everyone's temper calm a little at the medic's assurance, the burst of adrenaline-laced tension which had been building since Luke had arrived here finally burned away in the brief dispute.
"If you'll excuse me, I have a very long day ahead." Reece paused at the door. "And incidentally, I spoke in error—he's no longer The Heir."
Lightyears away, the Rebel Flagship Home One maintained a synchronous orbit around Yaga Minor, just clearing the dark side of the planet's shadow, the sharp light of a new dawn creeping in through the viewport and dusting the surfaces with soft shadows.
Leia abruptly surged bolt-upright in bed, eyes wide. "No!" She shouted out into the night, arms out before her to…what? Protect…something—someone. Pull them back from…
Han turned, his voice muffled by the pillow he still clung to. "Hmmm?"
"What?" she asked in reply, blinking awake, the chilling nightmare already fading from reach.
"What d'ya say, sweetheart?" he murmured; it took a herd of banthas stampeding through the room to wake Han.
Leia froze in the cold starlight, a sheen of sweat on her body, making her shiver in the chilly room; dreams…broken fragments of intense memories burst into waking thoughts, more emotions than images, but terrifyingly real. Danger and violence and reckless, abandoned fury. Like a stormfront, wild and tempestuous, unstoppable, relentless…
And somehow…inevitable. The storm had been so long coming, she realized, a dark, roiling shadow on the horizon. Gathering momentum, drawing ever closer, like a change in air pressure, like ions charging. Ever more volatile, immense and momentous…
She frowned, heart still beating staccato against her ribs, arms wrapped about the burning prickle in her stomach, her mind racing to chase down that nebulous feeling. Knowing only one thing but knowing it absolutely…
"Something's happened," she murmured; she'd never been more sure of anything in her entire life.
Mara stepped out onto the wide balcony, taking in huge gulps of fresh air, sharp with the first frost of the turning season. The sun rose slowly over the city, freezing mist caught in the avenues between the tall buildings, not yet burned off by the wan warmth of daylight—a new day dawning.
A new day dawning on a new Empire—though nobody knew it yet. The first shards of light stretched to touch the highest towers of the Palace, their edges given clarity by the mist.
A new Empire…one without the Emperor. Only there was an Emperor.
And he was struggling for his life in the medi-center behind Mara.
She should have known…she had known. She'd just never been able to admit it even to herself. She'd known that first time, when he'd destroyed the transparisteel-reinforced windows in the opulent prison that had been designed by the Emperor specifically to hold his new Jedi. Because that prison had been built to hold someone whose powers were equal to Palpatine's…
And he'd still destroyed it—shattered it to dust and rubble.
Not only that, but he'd done so for his own reasons. Reasons that he'd hidden completely—not just from Mara and Vader but most importantly, from Palpatine. She should have known then that her master never hold his precious Wolf. At the very best, he'd keep it at bay for a while.
Abruptly, like a veil falling away, recognition of why Palpatine had given Luke that name burst into Mara's memory—the vision! The vision from the night Luke had shattered the reinforced window flooded back into her mind—the first night she'd seen him use the Force.
The vision of the twin suns, of the blood-red moon…of the black wolf running through the shadows, claws to stone, breath misting in the moonlight, hunting…
Her master had asked her what it hunted and in that instant the vision had left her, not a single impression remaining, melting to nothing like the wolf in the shadows… But Palpatine had seen it too, the vision of the wolf; she knew from the look in his eyes when she'd said it, from the tone in his voice—he'd seen the vision many times.
But he couldn't see the wolf for what it was—or willfully refused to. He saw only power and potential and thought he could hold it; thought he could bind it and dictate and possess. So he'd hunted down the wolf. He'd claimed it and named it…but the truth was he'd never tamed it—it remained always the same feral creature, wild and ungovernable, and the more he pulled at the leash the more it bared its teeth…
It was fitting really, Mara reflected numbly; that Palpatine had lost his Empire in very much the same way that he had created it—by force, in a blaze of passionate fury, all twisted through with Vader and Skywalker's line and her master's precious prophesies, Sith and Jedi both.
And now the sun was dawning on a new Empire…and a new Emperor…
And as much as she liked to think that she knew him, Mara realized now that she had absolutely no idea—none whatsoever—what this new Empire would be.
As she considered this, she heard quiet footsteps close behind her and turned to see Hallin approaching.
"I haven't had a chance to thank you."
"You could have walked away…instead of contacting Reece, you could have simply turned around and walked away. Or you could have stood and watched him die, for what he did to the Emperor. He had just minutes."
Mara turned back to the waking city. "I couldn't walk away. I told you that a long time ago."
"You did," he said simply. "But thank you all the same. I also wanted to apologize for our behavior earlier. We're all a little…stressed right now. You're not really seeing us at our best."
"On the contrary," Mara observed, "I think I'm finally seeing just that. And a lot more besides."
She glanced sideways at the slender medic as he stepped forward to lean on the heavy stone balustrade beside her, rubbing at eyes made tired by hours of close surgery. "So how long has all this been in the cards?" she asked, never one to prevaricate.
Hallin frowned, glancing down to pick at the stone, so it was left to Mara to fill the uneasy silence. "I'm not blind, Hallin; everything was already in place—there were codes, lines of contact, pre-ordained procedures. Reece already has something to put out over the HoloNet, for crying out loud." Despite her words, her voice was subdued and calm—surprisingly so, even to herself.
"You have to understand, Mara, he would have never acted unless he felt that it was in the greater good."
Mara remained silent, and eventually Hallin sighed, squinting into the dawn sun, the autumnal air still cold enough to mist his breath.
"It was to have been a staged take-over," the medic allowed at last. "The military first, though he'd begun making headways into Court and the Royal Houses. He has the tacit support of over half of the Moffs and Fleet Admirals, plus Destroyer and Frigate Captains—another year and he would have held the military; they would have followed him, even over Palpatine's direct order."
Mara shook her head. "No—the Emp…" she floundered, suddenly unsure of what to say. "Palpatine deliberately split up the fleet. Neither Commander-in-Chief had access to the other fleet—it gave Palpatine the edge if even a large percentage of either fleet became mutinous."
"But he made the mistake of interchanging high-ranking officers among the two fleets in order to place those he trusted in key positions…"
"Those he trusted," Mara underlined, but Hallin was shaking his head gently.
"They may well have been loyal, but their old station had to be filled and with so many of the rank-and-file officers loyal to Luke, never having even met the Emperor, in actuality all it did was to spread the dissent. Remember, Luke has traveled with the Fleet almost constantly; he's very much thought of as a military leader. Most of the recruiting which Luke did was among mid-class officers which he would then quietly contrive to maneuver into higher ranks. By the time they came to command, they were already loyal to him."
Mara nodded, remembering the number of younger officers in the Core Fleet, remembering noting the gradual change in attitude it had seemed to usher in—she'd been looking right at it! "And they came to power quite quickly, didn't they?"
"He never removed an officer simply because they weren't loyal to him, if that's what you're saying, though he moved them around to ensure an even spread of loyal officers" Even at her accusation, the ever-loyal Hallin was muted in his tone, quietly insistent rather than his usual argumentative self, clearly feeling the need to explain but not wishing to argue. "Those whom he eliminated were spies. Palpatine knew when he placed them within The Heir's staff that they would be found and removed."
"So the fault was the Emperor's, is that what you're saying?"
"No, Commander. I suppose I'm saying that we all do what we feel we must."
"Apparently he was right to place them," Mara sniped, though there was no real heart in it, and they both fell to contemplative silence, watching the new day creep into being. Eventually Mara shook her head. "He shouldn't have given Luke free passage into the Outer Rim."
"No," Hallin agreed quietly. "It advanced his plans so much; had made them ready where otherwise they may have floundered this soon."
Mara still scowled at the sunrise. "But I watched him so carefully… I know that the incoming officers and personnel on Project Redress weren't particularly known to him."
"He knew you were watching," Hallin said simply.
Now, with all the risks and duplicity done and Luke still here, there was, it seemed to Mara, something very close to compassion in his gentle voice. Perhaps it was sympathy: the realization that she was as trapped as he was on this gyrocoaster ride. Perhaps it was comprehension of the torn loyalties which had ripped into her with such savage fury and left her reeling, caught between torn loyalties and values, struggling to come to terms with the changes she had both desperately desired and dreaded. What ever it was, it softened his voice, old enmities forgotten beneath greater events. Perhaps he just felt she deserved some kind of explanation.
"But he was still using the project to hide the movement of officers and units of the 701st around between the two Fleets, and to advance those mid-level officers into positions of power when their seniors were required on Project Redress. He was also breaking up perceived hot-spots of entrenched officers loyal to the Emperor, splitting them up and moving them around ostensibly to cover the vacant posts. Everyone was looking at who he brought in, so he always brought the right specialists for the job… But no one checked who replaced them in the Fleet, or where they were returned to when their work was done. And it was possible to hide a percentage of loyal mid-level Core Fleet officers in the turnover and have them bled back out into both fleets, Core and Rim. Then he need only supply his father with the names of those who he wished to see advance in the Rim Fleet. The turnover of personnel was expected to be massive in order to complete a project of that size, especially when he was supposedly ramping up construction."
"All the while he was routing loyal personnel into positions of power—building his own private little army." Right under her nose. She'd been charged to watch who he tried to make contact with, where he went, when he spoke to the high-ranking staff he appointed to the station, courting their loyalty—it had never even occurred to her to look too closely at where they came from or who replaced them.
But of course he never showed the slightest interest in the station—never went much further than the management offices when he was there, dividing his time between them and his office on the Patriot. They always seemed a hive of activity based on the figures and the charts, personnel and ordnance streaming through… And he spent so long with the Ops officers when he was there—mid-level officers he'd placed, people he trusted to carry out his orders to the letter—having reams of information sent up to his office on the Patriot, reading through and correcting and reassigning and checking… She'd actually been in the room when he'd done it! Watched him sign off whole groups of personnel, splitting them up to re-integrate them back into the Fleets—using the whole massive project as a glorified staging house to disseminate pre-existing militia.
She'd been watching the shadows and he'd been working in the plain light of day.
"And Project Redress?" she finally asked, sure now that Luke wouldn't have handed it back over to the Emperor as completely as it would seem.
"He had someone in mind," Hallin allowed. "From the Rim fleet. But he'd not set that in motion yet. We…thought we had time—another year at least. This is all rather premature."
An empty laugh came to Mara's lips. "You even had a deadline."
She should be angry, outraged, as she had been yesterday morning…was it only yesterday? But the passion was spent, only a numb weariness remaining, relief blunting her guilt… And the realization that if it had to happen, the truth was that this was the outcome she would have wanted.
"Not so much a deadline as a direction," Hallin admitted. "We have, I think, a very interesting year ahead of us."
Mara turned sharply. "You know what he's going to do?"
Hallin shrugged. "I don't think anybody quite knows what Luke's going to do, as yesterday evidenced. But I have a good idea…and faith."
She turned slowly away to watch the dawn light over a new Empire.
"And you, Commander—what will you do now?" Hallin asked quietly, his words carrying far greater import than he realized, Mara knew.
"I guess that depends on Luke," she said neutrally, aware that her access to him may be quickly curtailed if they knew the truth. Luke hadn't yet regained consciousness so no one knew all the facts—that her actions had instigated this, her betrayal.
Only yesterday, he had stood on the landing platform and told her that his fate was in her hands… In the turn of one day, Mara was intensely aware that the opposite was now true.
She sighed, pushing the thought away, unable to even consider it yet. "What will you do?"
Hallin shrugged, picking at the balustrade again. "I suppose we have a coronation to organize." He laughed disbelievingly. "Is it called a coronation with an Emperor? I have no idea."
"You'd better learn, Hallin," Mara said, wondering if he realized just how much everything was about to change. "Because that man back there is about to step center-stage…and you know as well as I do that it's not where he wants to be. I can guarantee that 'very interesting year' of yours will start the moment he wakes up."
From the outside, everything went smooth as glass, the carefully arranged annexing surprising Mara in its orderly execution…and its extent. In a calculated act of assured standing, the military were the first to officially know, emphasis being placed on securing and stabilizing the Empire when the news was made public, and of the military's reassuringly significant role in this.
As such, the subtle insinuation of continued status assured that there was the barest ripple in the military, such was Skywalker's support, and though there was an uneasy murmur through Court and the Royal Houses, those who had supported him now came quickly to the fore, knowing their day had come and that they had a vested interest in making the turnover as smooth—and as permanent—as possible.
One of the major houses supporting the new Emperor with applied zeal, Mara noted, was the D'Arcas, Lady Kiria's standing bolstered significantly by her whispered association with Luke. They'd already requested a private audience, and based on the quick glance Mara had glimpsed of the notes on Reece's automemo before he'd blanked the screen, it seemed that they were high in line when such things became possible again.
All members of the Red Guard were quietly reassigned in small groups to outlying barracks within ten hours of the Emperor's death, to be replaced by members of the 701st and the 501st, shipped down from the orbiting Patriot and Executor, Reece wishing to take no chances though there had pointedly been no allusion that Palpatine's death was anything other than natural when it was finally confirmed.
Regular announcements were released over the HoloNet for the next two weeks, accompanied by three short pre-recorded pieces from the new Emperor assuring that everything was in hand.
No one knew, of course, that the images were pre-recorded, and every effort was made to keep it that way. They'd been shot against a plain, dark backdrop with no clue as to where it was, carefully chosen words always spoken in the present tense, just vague enough to cover any circumstance, referring to the need for calm during this transition—for solidarity. But hinting at more: a new age, an opportunity to be grasped, the potential for reform.
The inauguration was planned in minute detail, the date set for fifteen days after the announcement of Palpatine's death—purportedly to give dignitaries a chance to get to Coruscant. In actual fact it was to give Luke a chance to recover—and for extensive repairs to the Throne Room in preparation, Reece insisting that the ceremony should be there.
Seven days before the ceremony, Luke flew to the Emperor's hunting estates on the Issig peninsula. What remained of his father's body was cremated there. It was little, but then that wasn't the point, Mara knew; it was a way to say goodbye—to lay his father to rest with some dignity, something which he knew would not have happened without his involvement.
He was the only one to attend, the funeral not announced. Even those close to Luke were not encouraged, so that in the event his final moments with his father were much the same way that they had always conducted their association—privately, whatever words spoken remaining between them alone. As much a mystery to Mara as the whole of his ambiguous, explosive relationship with the man he both loved and hated.
Still too weak to stand for more than a few minutes—a fact that was being very carefully hidden from prying eyes—he sat in somber silence and watched the pyre burn, face neutral, gaze lost in the flames.
Mara and Hallin stood at a discreet distance, knowing they should go no closer but somehow wishing to be there, aware of his grief without understanding or sharing it.
"He used him," Mara murmured at last of the limits of Vader's relationship to his own son, unable to hide her disgust, incensed at the injustice of it all.
"He knows that," Hallin said of Luke, bringing Mara's eyes to him. The medic shrugged, his attention remaining on the lonely, melancholy, scene. "Some ties are deeper," he murmured simply, offering no more.
Mara turned back to the solitary figure. "I couldn't forgive," she said, very sure.
"It's a rare thing, the willful determination to look beyond the obvious," Hallin said, turning to leave his friend in peace. Before he did so he paused to look pointedly back at Mara, though his voice held no censure when he spoke. "I would have thought you of all people would appreciate his ability to do that."
Mara stared at his back as he walked calmly away, her mind racing—did he know?
She'd tried several times to explain to Luke her unwilling part in the events which had led up to the death of his father and his own fateful duel with his Master, hoping to apologize; to be, if not forgiven then at least understood. But always Luke had made it crystal clear that he didn't wish her to elaborate; didn't want to discuss it in any way, avoiding or curtailing it without ever allowing her to continue.
She told herself that perhaps he wasn't ready yet, the events too fresh to talk about. She told herself that he'd always known that it was inevitable. That those events had been destined to happen one way or another from the first moment Luke had stood before the Emperor, dragged there by his own father, three very different wills and intentions in play, all of them stubbornly intractable and uniquely, incomparably gifted. She told herself that he knew firsthand what Palpatine was like; how manipulative and calculating. Told herself that he knew only too well how quickly events rushed beyond your control when he turned on you. That he knew he too had to take his share of the blame in what had happened. She told herself that he just needed some time.
She told herself everything except the one thing she truly feared…
That he didn't want to know how deep her involvement had truly been. Because if he did, how could he forgive her…ever.
Reece walked the corridors of power like he belonged—but then he had always believed that he did.
His attentions at the moment were concentrated on the security updates he was reading on his automemo. With just days to the inauguration, they were still sifting through the staff here at the Palace, particularly guards and Intel operatives, trying to sort out who was reliable and who needed to be removed. It was a monumental task and despite it being given priority, it would in all likelihood take several months to process them all—and there would always be a few who slipped through the net; that was what the new Internal Intelligence department had been set up for. The existing Intelligence network would eventually be absorbed into the new, more trustworthy one—when all relevant checks had been completed of course.
And in the meantime, with his father's reliable 501st and Skywalker's own 701st spread so thin, a few who had the means to be genuine threats in the future had already dropped beneath the radar, some within hours of the Emperor's death.
Saté Pestage was nowhere to be seen, four Grand Moffs were gone, though their ships remained in the fleet, and Dangor had been sighted three times on Bilbringi. Sloppy; he'd be picked up inside the month.
Several members of the Ruling Council had gone to ground too, but Karrde's people had already tracked three down and were watching them. They'd give them a few weeks to see what they did; they should condemn themselves by their own actions, Skywalker had said. Personally Reece would have been happier simply to remove them and several others, but Luke had maintained that members of the Ruling Council were presently responsible for the day to day running of the Empire, still its de-facto legislators, and he needed that stability…for now.
It was, of course, the right thing to do under the circumstances, though as far as Reece was concerned, those who had fled had already illustrated their doubtful loyalty by abandoning their posts, taking whatever they had amassed with them. But Palpatine had been diligent in maintaining files on everyone, and those files from the old regime's Intel divisions were in the hands of the new Emperor's agents within hours of the takeover. They wouldn't run far. The Empire still remained, and now as then, disloyalty would not be tolerated.
Those who had proved faithful would be accepted, those who had aided the transition would be rewarded. Those with existing ties would finally reap the benefit. Reece firmly believed himself to fall into the latter of the three categories, though his loyalty to The Heir had never contested or opposed his loyalty to the Empire; they were one and the same.
Since his early induction into the ranks of the Imperial Armed Forces and his recruitment to the Red Guard, he was intensely loyal to the Empire, had always believed in it; believed in it still. It was only with assignment to the Emperor's entourage that his convictions had begun to falter—and not even that in truth. He still upheld the principles of the Empire; the ideal if not the reality. If Skywalker hadn't come along, he would still serve the Emperor and the Empire, still loyal to both, if no longer approving of the former in the flesh—what had been left of it.
They always said you should worship your heroes from afar—nearness withered them. It was this which had slowly brought Wez to the realization that his beloved Emperor may have lost his way in gratuitous self-indulgence. Every person who came to the Palace did so with such high aspirations…but all too soon they felt as sullied and hopeless as everyone else, tainted by association.
And just as such thoughts had begun to percolate in Wez's mind, Skywalker had come along.
Still a serving officer, Wez had been recruited by Saté Pestage, the Emperor's personal Aide. Amedda, like Dangor, was the public face of Palpatine's offices; Pestage was known as the Emperor's private voice; to have him approach one on the Emperor's behalf was tantamount to a personal command, as well as individual recognition; a solid foundation in the upper echelons of the Imperial Court. Wez had taken the assignment of course; it wasn't exactly a choice, in truth—if he'd turned it down it would have ended his career, certainly within the Palace and probably within the military. And something nudged him on: curiosity, ambition, vanity even, that he'd been singled out.
And after almost two years of serving Skywalker whilst reporting to the Emperor through Pestage, of seeing his own distaste at the petty machinations of Palace life reflected in Skywalker's and watching him try to steer a fine path between personal ethics and the need to interact with this offensive state of affairs, it was hardly surprising that Wez had begun to listen.
He'd been warned, of course, that the man he was being assigned to was a Sith. That because he could read thoughts, he would know exactly the tack to take with Wez when he came to try to recruit him—which he would, they assured. Though having said that, for a long time Skywalker had, if not ignored Reece, then certainly discounted him, clearly viewing him as nothing more than another spy in his midst. It was only when Reece began to build some kind of relationship with Nathan Hallin that Luke had begun to accept Reece…and pull him in.
He had simply seemed…the better choice. Everything that the Emperor was, just as decisive and resolute and uncompromising, as was required to lead so massive and sprawling and diverse an Empire, but with some sense of moral code. Some vision other than the pursuit of personal power and indulgences.
The Empire that Reece so venerated would be better served in Skywalker's hands; it was as simple as that.
He didn't regard himself as a dissident or a Rebel. Though like Skywalker, he was willing to use such factions, he would never support them; he believed absolutely in the sanctity of the Empire. And he truly believed that Skywalker could maintain and further that. So he was not disloyal, he had simply chosen his loyalties with care—and thus far, had never found reason to question that choice.
Now, in the face of consummation of those expectations, Skywalker was keeping to himself leading up to the inauguration, remaining in his apartments, quiet and insular. Though unlike the ever-cautious Nathan or the unusually nervous Jade, Reece could hardly fault him; it was better that he kept a low profile since his injuries were still apparent and anyway, it was time he began creating some sense of detachment.
Public ceremony notwithstanding, he was Emperor now, and some degree of decorum must be maintained.
It was the night before the inauguration when Mara received the comm she had been dreading and yet somehow, on some level, expecting.
"Mara, is Luke with you?" It was Hallin, the raw nerves audible in his voice making her sit up in her bed, hand slapping at the light panel nearby.
"No, where are you?"
"I'm in his apartments…he's not here."
Her heart skipped—it actually skipped; she felt it pause then drum against her chest. "Wait there, I'm on my way."
She ran all the way; the entrance to the Perlemian Apartments was calm and composed from the outside, the lights turned low for the night and the main doors closed, guards in ever-present attendance.
It was very different inside; when Mara passed through it was into pandemonium, every room lit, about a dozen of the more trusted guards clustered in the security office which was opposite the main staff offices just inside the doorway, everyone checking security footage to trace Luke's last known movements.
"Have you done a life-sign check?" Mara asked, pushing through; Hallin was nowhere to be seen but Reece was at the front of the throng. They'd disconnected practically all of the security lenses in the apartments at Luke's order a week ago, only those at the main entrance remaining.
"No, we're just calling everyone out of the rooms to get a clear reading. We've done a visual check—in fact we've done about three."
"If he doesn't want to be seen by people, he won't be," Mara reminded.
Call-ins were being monitored by the redoubtable Clem, a long-standing member of Luke's security staff who had made the transition from Palpatine to his Heir without so much as a blink. Now he turned to Reece, voice tight. "We have all eyes reported in again—still negative."
Reece shook his head, not really needing the life-sign check. "He's not in the apartments."
"How did he get past ten guards?" Mara asked, feeling some uneasy deja-vu creep over her, realizing just how much this reminded her of the time long ago when Luke had first broken out of these apartments to buy Han Solo's freedom.
That time, he'd intended staying in the Palace—this time…
Reece took her arm, pulling her away from the crowds. "We have less than nine hours before the official public inauguration starts; we'll look pretty stupid without an Emperor in attendance."
Mara twisted free. "Then you should have been watching him—don't tell me you didn't see this coming."
"You're supposed to be stabilizing him."
"Don't worry, Reece, he'll be at your precious investiture." She set off out of the security rooms, knowing that it would do them no good to keep looking—if he wanted to be found, he'd be found. The question was, did he want to be—ever?
She was three steps down the hall when Hallin caught up with her on his way back in, though his worried tone at least held genuine concern. "No luck yet?"
"He's not there." Mara shook her head, pausing as she strode down the corridor in realization of the fact that she had no idea where to go next.
"We just need to think this through," Hallin said obviously, bringing Mara's disparaging eyes round to him, though he continued gamely, ignoring the look—or missing it in his anxiety, "Where would he go…? Did you two ever meet anywhere—anywhere private?"
"Nathan, if he wanted to leave, he'll be long gone by now, believe me."
"Why are we assuming he wants to leave?" Hallin asked, frowning, though he didn't actually dispute the fact, Mara noted.
She set off down the corridor, keeping her voice low. "Come on, you've seen how he's been. He doesn't want this, he never did. His father wanted it and now he's locked on that course. Maybe he finally decided to get off."
Hallin was unperturbed, strangely calm in the crisis, as he always was when it actually came down to it. "If that's true, he won't stay on Coruscant; his face is all over the HoloNet—somebody would stop him. He'd want to get further afield."
Mara frowned, pulled into the discussion. "Who's that smuggler he deals with—the one with the moustache?"
"Karrde?" Hallin considered. "His network does actually reach this far into the Core Systems…"
"Where's his nearest base?"
"I know he has bases at Velusia and Abregado-Rae…"
"Nothing reachable with a short-range transport then. He'd need a hyperdrive."
Hallin shook his head, uncertain. "Actually I think he may have a few safe-houses on Coruscant, near the Poles. You'd have to check with Wez…"
Mara had already pulled her comlink free, another thought occurring. "Control? This is Jade. Are there any ships due to leave from the secure bays in the West Tower?"
"No, Ma'am. All Tower bays are closed down until after the inauguration."
Mara frowned, not willing to let the hunch go yet. "Anything cleared but not actioned—high priority clearance?"
There was a pause… "Yes, Ma'am; two Echo Group fighters are due to relieve perimeter guards at oh-five-hundred—they're from bay three… and a long-range scout in bay nine. No assignment listed but it's an Echo designation; registered to the 701st."
She shut off the comlink, setting off at a run. "Got him!"
Mara glanced behind her, shouting to Hallin as she repeatedly pressed the turbolift call, resisting the urge to head for the stairs. "Get everyone out of Bay 9-W. Quietly; don't spook him—and don't let anybody up there!"
The turbolift doors slid open and Mara stepped in, Hallin's hand reaching out to hold against the closing door for a moment. "And how am I supposed to do that!?"
"Hallin, you're not a medic anymore, you're an Adjutant—a Primary Aide," Mara reminded of his new status. "You can order pretty much everyone now, believe me."
She pushed his hand free, snapping off one last order between the closing doors. "And don't let anyone try to lock that ship down or he'll cut it free and leave anyway!"
By the time she got there Bay 9-W was empty. Security was in the corridor outside, looking confused and jumpy, but Hallin had gotten everyone else well away.
Mara walked through the darkened silence of the small bay inset into the West Tower, its exit open to the night. Several advanced scoutships were arranged across one wall, their noses pointing to the exit, and she walked nervously to the second, easy to spot amongst the others because it was the only one with no landing clamps engaged. The door release wasn't locked, so she lifted her hand to it, pausing mid-action as she realized that she hadn't the slightest idea what to say if Luke was actually inside. If he wouldn't come back…what then?
Squaring her jaw, Mara pressed the release and stepped in, wondering as she turned to walk the short length to the cockpit why she was being quiet; he was a Sith—he probably knew she was on her way here about the same time she did—
"Will you come?" His voice, steady and even, made Mara jump as she neared the shadowed cockpit.
"What?" She was completely thrown, once by his presence and again by the resolute tone of his voice.
Luke didn't turn, eyes and spirit never leaving the dark expanse of space visible beyond the inset bay doors. "I'm leaving," he said simply. "Are you coming…or am I going alone?"
Mara hesitated before the resolute determination of his voice. She'd come here to talk him down, and already she was involved in a very different conversation. She paused at the open cockpit door, voice quiet. "Where are you going?"
He shrugged slightly, eyes still on that sliver of open space. "Away. Anywhere."
"To do what?"
"I don't know…does it matter?"
Mara stepped tentatively forward. Luke sat tensely, hand resting on the toggles which initiated the pre-flight sequence. How long had he sat like this, she wondered? The landing clamps had been released over an hour ago, according to the bay logs. Interestingly, Luke had arranged permission direct with Palace Control a whole three days earlier.
"Why are you leaving?" A stupid question really, but it would get him talking.
She heard his foot tap quickly against the ship's pitch pedals like he was itching to go, yet he seemed strangely calm. That particular wired, kinetic stillness he had sometimes, like the silence in the eye of the storm. Without the Emperor or his father there to focus him, he seemed more and more to be splitting up—polarizing into two separate people: one the confident, driving, self-possessed Sith that her master had created, the other the self-effacing, unassuming, idealistic pilot who had been brought here so unwillingly five years ago. But always with an edge; he never lost that now—Palpatine had ground it into him too deeply to ever step back from.
He remained still, eyes fixed on that sliver of freedom, his whole sense attuned to it, as if it were calling him. "Why should I stay?"
"It's what your father would have wanted." Mara immediately regretted it. His foot stopped tapping and it seemed that the temperature dropped several degrees, though he didn't turn or acknowledge her words.
"I'm sorry, that was unfair," she backtracked. His foot began tapping again, more restless than ever…and still he stared out into the open night.
"My father wanted power," he said at last, acknowledging the truth.
"For you. He wanted it for you. You've achieved everything he wanted, all you intended. Now's the time to reap the rewards."
Luke shook his head, voice cynical and very sure. "There are no rewards, Mara."
She was silent for long seconds, at a loss as to what he even meant by that. "You're the Emperor!"
Again he shook his head, dismissive.
"Yes, you are! Tomorrow is just a ceremony, Luke, that's all. You're already Emperor. You were the moment Palpatine died."
He finally looked to her, that ingrained, perfectly modulated intonation giving way to a loose Rim accent. "I'm not an Emperor, Mara—I'm a nobody from Tatooine."
"Who changed the course of a galaxy!"
He looked away, unmoved. "I'm not an Emperor."
"You are now."
Luke only shook his head, wrapping his arms about himself as if locking her out, unwilling to be dragged into a discussion. And still his eyes remained on that dark sliver of freedom just beyond the bay doors.
Mara stared, struggling to understand—why wouldn't he want this? "After…after all these years and all this struggle…you're just going to walk away?"
"Yeah." The reply was instant.
"But this is what you wanted, it's what you fought for."
Luke turned just briefly, and in his eyes she saw surprise that she could be so close and understand him so little, even now. "I was fighting Palpatine, Mara. I wanted him, not his position. Vader wanted this, not me…and I don't owe him anything. I don't want this power. I don't want it."
She reached out to squeeze his arm. "Don't you see—that's why you should have it."
"No." He shrugged away, not wishing this closeness if he would have to leave it behind. "No one should have this much power. No one… Let the vultures fight amongst themselves. I've no reason to stay."
"What about me?"
He turned, mismatched eyes locking on her, drawing Mara in as completely as the night sky called him. "Come with me."
In that moment, she almost would have—would have followed him anywhere. But something held her back: loyalty to her old master, the desire to see Luke rule, to be with him…she didn't know. She blinked, looking down, caught between conflicting desires. To run—to tell him to fire up the ship and just run with him, wherever he wanted to go—or to stay, a lifetime's investment and familiarity here, her knowledge of what Luke was capable of, her image of him as that person.
She wanted to be with him here, as that person; as Emperor. "My life is here, Luke…and so is yours. This is my home—"
"This is the place where I was imprisoned, beaten, spied on and manipulated for five years," Luke said tersely, a dry edge returning to his voice along with the formal accent, the change capricious as ever. "It's the place where my father died."
The place where I died. He didn't say it out loud, knowing she wouldn't understand—how could she?
"But that's all done now—it's done, it's all in the past. This is your future, your life is here now."
"No. I've done all I intended."
"So you'll just leave?"
He remained silent, aware that they were talking in circles, so unfathomable was his decision to her.
Mara only stared, dumbfounded. How could he not want this? How could he not see that it was right, that he was right—why he was right? Try another tack. "What about all your plans?"
His eyes dropped momentarily, jaw clenching, then he looked back up, eyes to the stars. "That was them; they're all done."
Mara frowned—because he had planned. In the last two weeks, Hallin had slowly let slip fragments and groundwork, objectives and intentions, and...
Realization hit her hard; that Luke hadn't expected to live, not really. He'd made plans, nudged events to what he believed would be beneficial, hinted at strategies and potential policies, but as an exercise, nothing more. Something to keep him moving, to give others faith. He never thought he'd be here; not now.
But he was, and she would hold him to them, to the possibilities he'd earned; drag him forward if necessary. "I know everything you planned with Hallin and Reece. Are you just going to let all that go now? Those opportunities…"
He turned sharply to her, and she saw some spark of the Emperor's Sith return, heard it as an edge in his voice as he let out an annoyed, derisive laugh, the familiarity of it setting a warm twist in Mara's stomach. "Hallin; how the hell he kept his mouth shut for five years I'll never know."
"He told me because he's proud; because he believes in you. Because he trusts you."
Luke sighed, rubbing at his temples. "Then he's a fool."
"No, he's not. Much as I'd like to agree, the truth is he's one of the smartest men I know—and he has faith in you."
Luke shook his head slowly, eyes returning to that promise of freedom beyond the Palace walls, sharp edge and sharp accent instantly eaten away again by doubt. "I'm not an Emperor, Mara—I'm not."
"You're not the Emperor," she corrected. "But then you didn't want to be. You didn't ever intend to be. What you did, you didn't do for yourself…that's why Hallin trusts you. That's why they all trust you; look to you now. You can hold all this together and still change its direction—you can do that. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
And it had been—once. But she was wrong; Hallin was wrong—because in the end, Luke knew he'd faced Palpatine for his own reasons. The truth was that Palpatine had hurt him and he'd wanted retribution. Even when he'd told Palpatine that he intended to tear down the Empire the Sith had built, that he would scour any trace of its creator from history, it had been for his own reasons…hadn't it?
He couldn't quite remember any more—couldn't trace where the desire for revenge ended and the desire to create a better order began. They merged and muddied, and in truth…he didn't remember anymore whether that mattered.
"Use your feelings, boy; bend the power they contain to your own will. They make you invincible." His Master's teachings rang in his head and how could that make him anything but Sith? How could that make him a better choice? He'd fought too hard for too long and somewhere along the way he'd lost some vital part of himself: ethics, principles, integrity—conscience? He didn't quite know. He just knew there was a gaping hole inside of him and it would be so easy to fill that void with power and ambition…and was that wrong?
He couldn't remember; couldn't remember what he'd once wanted—what he'd once been. And that scared him. Far more than ancient prophesies and Sith Masters, the realization of that scared him.
Luke shifted in his seat, hand going to his side, the wound still fresh enough to make him wince. He'd been holding everything together under incredible pressure for so long that it had become normal, but now…now he didn't need to. Now the constraints were gone and there was nothing hanging over his head…and he didn't know how to live like this anymore—he didn't even know how. "I'm so tired, Mara; I'm so tired. They want me to be something I can't be—not anymore. They're all looking to me to be something I cannot be."
"They want you to be exactly who you are, Luke. That's who they have faith in."
He pursed his scarred lips, fingers brushing lightly over the startup toggles, playing out the sequence that would flare the engines into life. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely—have you heard that before?" he asked at last without looking up.
"That's just an old saying. Real life's more complicated than—"
"What if it's not?" he said immediately. "What if it really is that simple? If I try, and fail…who'll stop me? I don't want to be the next Palpatine."
"Then don't be."
"How do I know? How do I know when I've stepped over the line?"
"You'll know," she assured. "Just be yourself."
He brought his hand to his temples, eyes closed, voice deathly tired. "I don't know who that is anymore."
"This is you," Mara put all her own faith into those words. "You're the man who's sat for the last hour in this cockpit and tried to leave, but couldn't quite summon the selfish indifference that'd make you able to do so. You think I don't know you at all, but I know that; you can't quite bring yourself to abandon these people or their faith in you. You'll stay because it's the right thing to do and you know it. You won't let them down." She reached out to rest her arm lightly on his, letting its weight ease his hand gently away from the startup toggles—and felt it give, just slightly. "And they won't let you down. No one's asking you to do this alone. We're all here…we'll get through it, we'll make a difference. Isn't that what you always wanted—to make a difference?"
He was silent for a long time, wrestling with private demons, his foot still tapping restlessly against the pitch pedals, and Mara remained still, giving him time, knowing to push no further…
Finally the restive tapping slowed to silence and he seemed to relax, body losing tension, tired eyes falling away from that narrow strip of starlit night.
When he eventually turned, it was with a sharp glint in those mismatched eyes, no trace of regret or doubt in his voice or his straightening stance, the change as total and as mercurial as ever. "If I'd left…would you have come with me?"
It was a searching challenge rather than tentative concern. Still, Mara squeezed his arm in reassurance. "I'd have followed you to the end of the galaxy."
"And then what?"
She smiled. "Then I would have brought you back here and told you never to scare me like that ever again, Skywalker."
Wez Reece, the new major-domo to the new Emperor, walked calmly out into the anteroom, turning to the first figure waiting there, one of many summoned to the Emperor's presence in the days following his formal investiture, nervous tension holding their backs straight, everyone waiting to see how the next Emperor would choose to stamp his identity onto his new Office in those first weeks. To date he had been disturbingly quiet; restrained even, though there was a sense that a great deal was going on behind the scenes, away from the public eye.
"The Emperor will see you now." The Emperor's deputy was, it seemed, settling into his role with more noticeable ease.
Mas Amedda rose and set forward, leaving Chancellor Cordo to gaze dolefully after him.
He walked into the office, large and elegantly proportioned but simply furnished; hand-made, aesthetic pieces of effortless integrity, none of them familiar to Amedda—hardly to Emperor Palpatine's sumptuous standards.
The man who looked up from the auto-reader at the far side of the wide, mirror-polished macassar-ebony desk, however, embodied every bit as much presence as the old Emperor had—and every bit as much menace in his mismatched eyes. Hope at the whispered rumors that the Emperor was less than comfortable in his new role dissolved for Amedda, burned away by the self-assured poise in that intensely analytical gaze. Amedda slowed to a halt, bowing deeply, aware of the precariousness of his situation.
Chancellor Reece closed the doors as he entered the room, then walked unhurriedly to stand beside the Emperor, who had steepled his fingers in thought, letting the silence hang heavy.
"Chancellor Amedda..." The Sith Emperor paused again, impassive, as if considering his words. "We have had a…less than ideal relationship to date. Would you say that's a fair appraisal?"
It briefly crossed Amedda's mind to feign wounded surprise at the new Emperor's words but, familiar with Sith abilities and remembering to whom he spoke, he instead nodded just once, aware that his nervousness was darkening his pale blue skin to indigo but unable to stop it.
The Emperor glanced only briefly, just to clarify that he hadn't missed the fact, then caught Amedda's eyes once more. "However, in the interests of smoothing this transition, I am prepared to accept you back into the Cabinet… Unless of course you feel your loyalties would be split?"
Amedda took a half step forward in his eagerness to seize this opportunity. "No, Excellency, not at all. I would be honored to serve."
The Emperor didn't move, didn't react in the slightest, just remained still, fingers steepled, staring at Amedda… Until the Chadrian felt his skin flush hot again, the need to fill the uncomfortable silence with meaningless murmurs irresistible. "I would be…"
"There is, of course, a price for this privilege," the Emperor cut across his words. "If you want my confidence, you must earn it—I trust you are prepared to do that?"
"Of course. Name any…"
The Emperor let his hands drop to the arms of the chair, relaxed stance speaking of casual confidence; so much like his predecessor. "Palpatine had a drug—a tailor-made drug created specifically for use against me. You can imagine how…undesirable it would be for such a thing to fall into the wrong hands."
Amedda nodded rapidly, understanding. "Of course, Excellency, of course."
"Considering your position, I would assume that you know where such a product was being synthesized and stored. I would also presume that you have the names of everyone involved in the project, from researchers and technicians to manufacturers of storage and delivery systems?"
"I have all the details, Excellency—everyone involved," Amedda assured readily, eager to buy back favor. "Every unit: research, manufacture and storage."
"Good. Then I would like you to accompany Chancellor Reece to your offices and supply him with all relevant details. Including a list of every guard in the Palace who held a supply or a method of delivering it."
Amedda, along with all of Palpatine's personal staff, had been excluded from all Cabinet and Council chambers, including his own offices, since the announcement of the old Emperor's demise, all the guards with whom he had held sway already removed. A great deal of sensitive and very useful information was securely stored there. Too securely, as it turned out. But then who would have thought that Palpatine's protégé would have found his feet—and his nerve—so soon? Certainly not Palpatine. And while loyalty to one's Emperor was tantamount in Amedda's position, the prerequisite to maintain that status required a certain flexibility as to exactly who that Emperor was.
The new Emperor paused, leaning forward slightly to emphasize the next. "Let me be clear on this, Chancellor—this is your one opportunity to impress me. I do not give second chances and I do not tolerate failure or transgression. Loyalty, however, will not go unnoticed or unrewarded."
Amedda bowed several times in appreciation; yes, very little had changed. "Of course, Excellency, of course."
The Emperor nodded, having felt that he had made his desires clear. "We will speak when you return, Chancellor."
He said no more, clearly feeling nothing more needing to be said at this time. He had made his wishes clear; it was up to Amedda to prove his usefulness now.
The Chadrian bowed and backstepped before bowing again and turning to leave, the Emperor not once looking up to acknowledge this show of respect. Chancellor Reece paused a few moments, closing the door between himself and Amedda, who waited outside. If he was anything like the old Emperor, then he would expect his wished carried out immediately—one did not keep a man of his authority waiting. And certainly Amedda was eager to return to his offices; he would take the opportunity to surreptitiously retrieve other information whilst he was there—for his personal use.
Reece closed the door behind Amedda before turning back to the Emperor. "Well?"
"He'll help us exactly as long as it's to his advantage to do so," Skywalker stated without doubt, gaze turning to look at the point beyond the office wall where Amedda stood waiting, as if for him, the barrier simply did not exist.
Reece was hardly surprised at the assessment, but then, that was not the reason for Amedda's summons. "What do you want me to do?"
"Keep him waiting outside. Have the techs go in and plant a ghost in his system then link it to a remote site and install any covert surveillance equipment you need, then go back to his offices with him; take a few sets of eyes. When he unlocks it, have the techs take a copy of everything on his system. Make sure they get his codes and passwords, and all the information about the drug, including anybody who worked on it, past and present."
"Take a team—close them down. Destroy everything. But I want every single vial accounted for without exception—every copy of the formula and process. No traces."
Reece nodded. "And those who worked on it?"
Skywalker leaned back, considering. "They're under arrest; state security. Put them in the Palace Detention Center—no one's to know they're there."
Reece nodded without comment; it was a lighter sentence that he'd expected, but then the Emperor may simply wish to be sure before he wiped the slate clean. "And Amedda?"
The Emperor turned mismatched eyes to Reece. "He's a liability," he said simply, knowing nothing more was needed.
Reece bowed then backstepped, turning to walk from the room.
Luke sat in silence for a few moments, considering. Eventually Mara stepped out of the side room she'd been listening from, her eyes following his, still set on the door that Reece had exited through.
"Go after him—quietly," Luke said without hesitation. "Make sure he does exactly as he was told. I want a separate copy of all the information that's on Amedda's system. An independent record directly from the techs, not a dupe of Reece's. And I want proof that all the vials are accounted for."
Trust was an idealistic luxury Luke could no longer afford; his Master would have been proud of him, he reflected dryly.
Mara nodded without hesitation, stepping fluidly away, heading for the door.
She turned, forest green eyes regarding him as he spoke again, the slightest of smiles on his scarred lips. "That includes the two that you hold."
We all watched, of course, even us—even the most fervent Rebels drew to a halt to watch from holo-screens in ready-rooms and messes, and impromptu setups on the flight-decks. There wasn't much else to do; most of the Rebel Alliance is hidden away at the edge of the Rim Systems on tenterhooks, waiting to see if he'll send his Fleet after us.
So even we watched—how could we not? It was history in the making…good or bad. The whole galaxy ground to a halt to watch the investiture of a new Emperor. Everyone from the most ardent Imperialist to the most zealous Rebel…we all fell silent when the images were sent out on every channel across the HoloNet.
Here, we all seemed to drift in and gather round in the mess hall of Home One, pilots and soldiers and officers and techs, all caught up in that strange, morbid fascination—the desire to get a look at the new Emperor.
And we did; carefully chosen and edited images, always from a distance...which is, I suppose, how most people will see him now.
There was just one image from the inaugural ceremony itself, in a huge hall with incredible vaulted ceilings, hundreds of dignitaries in attendance: the military, the Royal Houses, planetary Governors and representatives. Our new Emperor sat on a simple, carved chair as luminaries read out the Rites. He wasn't looking at them.
It's interesting; gone was the massive throne which had been in every single image of the Throne Room from Palpatine's reign, gold on gold, a blazing sunburst at its back, carvings of planets and moons set into the heavy gilded footrest. This new Emperor had no taste for ungainly allegory or pointless grandeur; he sat on a plain, heavy chair with nothing to prove, his feet firmly on the ground.
The language was Old Coruscanti. Court Language, they call it; no one else speaks it anymore outside of that most privileged of elite circles. The official paused and everybody in the hall stood and I remember distinctly someone from Intel standing close behind me saying:
"That's it—he's Emperor."
Someone asked how she knew and she murmured without turning from the screen, "No one sits in the Emperor's presence."
He glanced up but he didn't speak; just looked kinda detached and distant. But he filled that chair like he was meant to be there—like he belonged. And everyone saw that their new Emperor wore a lightsaber. There'd always been whispers about Palpatine—that he was Sith. Now, with the new Emperor, there was no doubt. No room for misinterpretation.
Everyone here knows the rumors, of course. Intel had them a few days after the announcement of Palpatine's death, though nothing was ever confirmed: that he fought with Palpatine for the Throne, a duel to the death between Sith. That's why they put off the inauguration—not so dignitaries could arrive for some formal ceremony, it was just an excuse to give him time to recover.
The official image was released an hour or so later, probably very carefully chosen. Our new Emperor, standing before an incredible set of screens inlaid with gold strapwork and precious stones, etched and enameled in a luminous, minutely detailed rendition of a galactic map. Someone said it was the Rim Systems: from Bothan Space all the way to the Sluiss Sector and everything in between. There's a whole set of them in the Throne Room, they said. The whole galaxy laid out before him, to remind him what he owns. It just…glowed—it was incredible.
He wore a dark, somber suit with a high stand collar and a long, regal cloak tied over one shoulder, carefully arranged about him and dripping down the steps before him, intense midnight blue against that glowing gold. He didn't…carry anything; no scepter, no—I don't know, no crown or anything, but…
He looked like an Emperor—everything I thought he should.
Solo—Han Solo, who always says he knew him—Solo said that on the screen behind him, on the map, was his home planet. I don't know whether to believe him. Why would an Emperor be brought up in the Rim Systems?
He wouldn't say which planet it was, or how he knew him.
Later there were a few images released from the public celebrations on Coruscant—the largest impromptu fireworks display ever, we're told. Our new Emperor stepped out onto the Pageant Balcony in the Main Palace to watch, his limited entourage following him. It was small, but I guess it's early days yet.
Forget the fireworks—the massed spectators drowned them out completely when they saw him. The NewsNet said about sixteen million visitors went to Coruscant for the inauguration. They all think everything will change now. They don't even know him—most of the galaxy had never even seen an image of him three weeks ago. They have no idea what he's going to do, they just love him because he's not Palpatine. Because he's young and he's enigmatic and new. Already the NewsNet are starting to mention an Empress. Already everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who claims they met him once—even here!
No one out there's talking about what he'll do, to the constitution or the military or the courts. Whether his views are progressive and enlightened or totalitarian and oppressive. They just want to know who's standing beside him and if it's serious. No one wants to scratch the surface of their shiny new hope. They don't want the truth.
He glanced down only once to the vast, sprawling crowds, lifting his hand in acknowledgement. They went wild—absolutely wild—the noise topped off the sound systems on the autolenses that were recording it. He didn't smile, didn't wave again; just stepped back a few paces into his entourage, like he was uneasy, embarrassed by it.
Nice touch, we all thought; he plays the crowds well.
He didn't stay out there much longer. I guess you don't have to when you're the Emperor. You pretty much do what you want—who's gonna stop you?
He's already announced a one-month period of official mourning for Palpatine, in which time Court will be suspended. Ample time for our new Emperor to install his own supporters, Intel says. Not that he needs them—his will is absolute, his word is law now.
The question is…what will it be?
At the Brink of the Dawn and the Darkness
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Jedi-2B again for beta-ing my considerably less than perfect grammar and grasp of American English. She's written endless great stuff herself and always encourages me no end to get my ass in gear and post!
My gratitude, always.
Disclaimer: As per usual, I should point out that I own no part of Star Wars, nor do I profit from it. It's all owned and run by the guy in the plaid shirt...