... Onboard the Star Destroyer, the Pit Officer lifted his hand in acknowledgement, searching for confirmation. "We have a lock. Admiral?"
"Engage," Piett ordered, not taking his eyes from the tiny freighter as it accelerated away from them…
Silence stretched for long seconds, the atmosphere tense and expectant.
"Positive lock, sir. Establishing back-up..."
Caught in the invisible beam which held it stationary as the Destroyer powered toward it, a moment's optical illusion occurred as the Rebel ship seemed to Piett to reverse course, speeding backwards to them whilst they remained stationary.
"Confirming secondary lock. Taking it into forward bay nine."
The words were spoken automatically now, everything in hand, procedure being followed.
Still, Piett waited until the Pit Officer confirmed that the ship was aboard before he dared turn away...
"We have acknowledgement that the ship is in F-nine, Sir. Full lock-down. Boarding parties are on the deck."
Piett turned and hurried after Lord Vader, relieved; his job was done now. Anything which happened from here on in was on General Veers' head.
"Son of a…"
Luke had watched, helpless, as the Destroyer loomed about them, the Falcon pulled inexorably closer.
A lurching jolt had yanked them all from their seats and brought reality snapping in about him, harsh and unyielding. And seconds--just seconds too late--the hyperdrive functions came back online as the staus lights momentarily illiminated green before they flashed back to red, unable to operate against hte pull of the tractor beam.
Adrenaline pumping, galvanized into action, Luke spun round and set off from the cockpit at full tilt, his wounded arm still clutched to his chest. He was halfway down the corridor, Chewie rushing towards him from the opposite direction, when the pain exploded up his spine, dropping his legs beneath him as he fell to the ground with a yelp.
Chewie dashed forward, howling as Luke doubled up on the deck, beyond words. Distantly, he heard Leia call his name but in that moment he didn't even have the strength to turn his head against the wracking waves of pain which burst through him.
Chewie gathered him up, the burning agony which knifed into Luke's spine unbearable at this, making him call out before blackness narrowed his vision to nothing.
The last thing he felt was the touch of Vader's mind as the darkness closed in…
"Luke…Luke, can…hear me?"
He opened his eyes slowly, not daring to move. Leia crouched over him in the med-bay, hand to his cheek, and Chewie whuffed in the background, leaning in past the dark stranger who…
It occured belatedly to Luke that Han was still not there. Previously, he'd simply assumed he was elsewhere on the Falcon, but realization burst through his thoughts now as he automatically reached out with the Force, searching fro his friend.
"Han?" he managed, "Where's…?"
Leia looked away, avoiding his eyes, and he turned to Chewie, who threw his head back and keened a long cry. It needed no further explanation.
Taking hold of the edge of the bunk Luke hauled himself upright, gasping against the pain lancing down his back. Leia pushed against him. "No, Luke. The fall's injured your spine, you have to rest; stay…"
The heavy double-clang of the Falcon's landing gear setting roughly down was all the further encouragement he needed.
"Like hell." He was already on the edge of the bunk, biting back the fireworks which burst at his movement. "Chewie, I need a blaster."
Chewie turned without argument, almost throwing the stranger aside in his haste.
From the main hold, the sound of cutters engaging whistled a low note, turning everyone's head.
"Three minutes. Probably less," the stranger guessed, sharp, dark eyes searching the corridor. He turned the other way, shouting loudly, "Chewie, make it two!"
"Three!" Leia finished, voice like steel.
She turned as Luke stood, shaky and nauseous, his maimed arm still pressed to him, burning now, throbbing in time to his heartbeat at the effort of standing.
"Vader," she murmured, then turned searching eyes to Luke. "What does he want?"
"Where's Han?" Luke avoided.
"Vader…tested Cloud City's industrial carbon-freeze unit on him. To use on you."
"He's alive?" Somehow, that one thought displaced so much misery in that moment. The crafty old Corellian was alive—he'd live to fight another day.
Leia nodded, though her voice was small. "Vader gave him to a bounty hunter—to take to Jabba the Hutt."
The Hutt; Han owed him, Luke knew. He'd kept threatening to leave to pay the dept, but there was always one more repair to make on the Falcon.
Luke glanced again at the well-dressed stranger as Chewie rushed back in, bowcaster over his shoulder, an armful of blasters weighing him down.
The first sparks lit the bay behind them in an actinic glow. Threepio came barreling through, heading in the opposite direction, not even slowing in that moment.
Luke took the blaster, steadying himself against the bulkhead just out of the entry's direct line of fire. He felt desperately weak, his head spinning just from the strain of standing. Tiny floating spots lit his vision and he wasn't sure whether they came from the cutter in the bay or his own frail state. He hoped the former, but suspected the latter. His body was screaming out to rest now, so much so that he feared he might simply keel over at any moment.
Ignore it—there'll be time to rest when this is over.
He was dimly aware somewhere in the back of his mind that this would not be over for a long time…
Movement caught his eye, pulling him back into the moment, a stray thought occurring. "Chewie—deactivate the droids. They'll leave them in the ship."
As if all this was a momentary complication—as if they'd be back in an hour or so, when they'd dealt with it. As if.
Still, Chewie whuffed assent as he turned and headed after Artoo and Threepio.
Leia took the far wall, her gaze tight and pinched as she glanced up to Luke. "What does he want?" she repeated.
"Me," Luke said simply.
The door exploded inwards in a shower of sparks, the pressure popping Luke's ears as he ducked back from the shrapnel. They must have used charges.
He glanced to Leia to make sure she was all right, back to the others…
Then he turned and opened fire.
Vader stood in the bay, General Veers beside him, as stormtroopers poured into the freighter.
Blaster fire ensued, intensified…
Their forward progress thwarted, the stormtroopers faltered, unwilling to risk the path through the bottleneck of the ship's narrow entry ramp when it was so effectively defended.
Vader scowled, turning slightly to Veers, who pressed the headset to his ear, frowning against the cacophony of noise.
"Lieutenant—fall back. Use shock grenades… No, no, set them to stun."
"Send them in," Vader said simply, causing Veers to glance up sharply.
"Send them in. I want to see what he does." Vader turned back to the ship, feeling no need to validate his order further.
He could sense Luke now, feel his resentment, his frustration, his betrayal. Could it be pushed over into fury?
His own anger was simmering too—frustration at the boy's stubborn refusal on Cloud City, at his defiance here. He had offered the boy everything—everything—and he had turned it down, turned away. Had made his choice very clear. Foolish—to give up so much for simple sentiment.
Vader frowned at that consideration… Had it been a refusal of his offer—or of him? That thought hurt; that the boy had acted out of repulsion. It stung as it had never done before, that someone would judge him and find him wanting. It bit deep.
And fury rose against it—that his own son would do this; his own blood.
How dare he judge…
Vader strode forward, stormtroopers falling instantly back to give him room.
The noise within the Falcon's hold was incredible, a low cloud of acrid smoke billowing at roof-level, burning the back of Luke's throat.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Luke recognized the futility of his action—they all did—it gained them nothing save to exercise their defiance; the status-quo remained exactly as before. Several white-clad troopers had fallen just inside the hold, slowing others who tried to make their way through, the bulkhead about Luke and Leia pockmarked with smoldering blast-holes.
Luke's blaster was running hot in his hand now, probably close to exhausting its charge. Stupidly, he reflected that it couldn't possibly get any worse-
Then the troopers fell back in a flurry and a huge, dark form strode purposefully into the ship, the dense black smoke swirling in perfect eddies about him.
Leia backstepped as Chewie threw out a howling challenge.
For long seconds all the blasters stopped, the silence ringing in Luke's ears…
Loud and heavy, Vader's rasping breath dragged through the air... Then Luke took two long steps forward and fired.
And again…and again…and again.
He knew of course that it wouldn't stop Vader. It didn't even slow him, as he lifted his black-gloved hand to deflect the bolts—simply batted them aside to burst into showers of incandescent sparks against the walls.
But it didn't stop Luke firing.
And it didn't stop Vader stalking forward.
Leia watched the surreal vision unfold, swirled about with heavy smoke and bright, flaring flashes as Vader stepped closer, unstoppable, and Luke kept on firing. Just…kept on firing, like a man possessed.
Finally Vader stood level with Luke, towering over him, Luke's blaster held at arm's length with his one good arm and pointed squarely at the Dark Lord, the tip of the barrel almost resting against his chestplate.
For long moments they remained frozen like that, silence screaming in her ears after the battery of noise.
"Shoot," Vader rumbled deeply, his voice laced with barely-controlled anger.
Leia could see Luke's arm trembling, his whole body tensed against the need to act.
Yet he stood—he just stood stock still.
She wanted to yell, to shout out to shoot. Kill him. He won't be able to deflect a point-blank shot. Shoot! Pull the trigger! And yet Luke hesitated, though he must know this, somehow unable in that moment to act though she couldn't conceive of why. Luke had fought against this nemesis for all the time she had known him—against Vader; his father's murderer, the Emperor's henchman.
Pull the trigger!
They remained still, Luke's finger on the trigger, Vader staring down in still silence, the moment stretching for aeons…
The movement, when it came, was shocking in its speed.
Vader's hand whipped around, violently knocking the blaster from Luke's grip to clatter away to the deck, though he didn't respond at all, his eyes remaining locked on that dark mask, as if he could somehow see past to the man hidden within.
Still they stood, frozen, immersed in some private battle.
With the speed of a viper, Vader brought his arm back in a massively powerful swing, the backhand blow connecting with Luke's face, snapping his head to the side, the strike so strong as to throw him backward into the bulkhead though he remained somehow upright as Leia cried out in shock.
"Never point a weapon at me again," Vader hissed, cold fury in his voice.
Slowly, very slowly, Luke pulled his wits about him then turned, taking a single step to stand in exactly the same spot, arms down, eyes unyielding.
Without hesitation Vader landed a second blow, no punch pulled, the motion combining all the strength of his shoulder and arm to power Luke back into the bulkhead.
Leia cried out his name, stepping forward only to be caught by Lando's grip tight on her arm, everyone's eyes locked on the bizarre scene playing out before them. Luke remained leaning against the bulkhead, head lowered for long seconds, breathing heavily. Several drops of deep, viscous scarlet dripped to the deck plates at his feet, the silence dragging like a bowstring across Leia's fraught nerves, taut with anticipation and shock.
Finally, Luke hauled himself straight again, pausing, wavering dangerously, his hand to the bulkhead. Then he turned to face Vader, his chin lifted in resolute defiance, the blood from a deep cut which split his lip trailing a crimson line down his chin to bloom in a spreading stain on his tattered jacket.
They faced each other, the stillness brittle, stretched to breaking…
Vader's arm wheeled back again.
Luke tensed for the blow—but he would not blink.
Vader's hand stopped inches from his face, the blow stayed, though Leia couldn't imagine why; the Sith Lord was not known for his mercy—nor his compassion.
For several seconds they remained like this, that same private battle of wills being fought out…
Slowly Vader's hand lowered, Luke's shoulders slumping just slightly. Leia stared in shocked silence, unable to even begin to reason what was taking place, knowing only what this must be costing Luke.
Knowing he couldn't maintain it…but knowing he wouldn't back down.
Finally, with a shallow sigh, Luke's head rolled slightly…then he pitched forward, unconscious.
Vader stepped in, arms stretching out—for what, Leia couldn't guess…
Then he caught Luke gently, one hand to his chest, the other about his arm, to lowered him softly to the ground, taking his weight as he fell and crouching to one knee beside him, one huge black-gloved hand beneath Luke's head.
"Luke…" he said quietly, his voice wracked with feeling in that moment—genuine, human emotion.
Leia could only watch in bewildered confusion as Darth Vader twisted back to the officer at the Falcon's hatch, voice tight with warring emotions.
"Where are the medics?" he hissed harshly, the officer paling and turning to shout out onto the deck.
They were there in an instant, three of them crowding about Luke as Vader stepped back. In an instant… Had they been waiting? If so, for whom…for Luke? Why would Vader bother to summon medics to tend to a Rebel?
Everything was happening too fast, spinning away from Leia's comprehension with dizzying speed. Stormtroopers came rushing in now, crowding about Leia, Chewie and Lando, binding their hands and pushing them forwards past the medics in the hold, still gathered about Luke's unconscious form.
"Luke!" Leia finally found her voice at the realization that they would be separated.
Vader looked up, faceless mask swiveling to her.
She yanked at the trooper who was holding her, dragging him to a momentary halt. "Where are you taking him?!"
"Away from you," Vader rumbled, turning back dismissively.
The trooper wrenched at Leia, hauling her forward again, shocked into silence by the accusing venom in Vader's voice.
The prisoner lay very still on the medi-bay scanner, his breathing slow and shallow, his face covered in innumerable grazes and fine cuts, others slicing deeper into the fabric of his ragged jacket and the flesh of his shoulder and arm. His eyes were closed and his mouth slightly open, jaw relaxed in unconsciousness.
"Well?" Vader prompted curtly.
The medic, Hallin, glanced up at Lord Vader nervously, unsure of why the unconscious man was here anyway, and not in the limited medi-bay in the detention level, where all the others had been taken. He'd been summoned with a small trauma team to the docking bay as a dilapidated freighter had been taken aboard and forcibly grounded, given no further explanation as a deafening firefight blazed about him then, after agonizing moments of absolute silence, called into the ship to treat what was clearly a Rebel, judging from his ragged uniform.
Hallin had been on Vader's personal staff for less than a season, chosen by Vader to replace an existing member whose skills he exceeded, and wasn't yet well-versed with the finer points of his promotion. But he was a fast learner.
"Aside from…the obvious—" Hallin hesitated, then said it anyway, "the loss of his hand—he has contusions, several deeper lacerations and concussion. More seriously, some acute nerve damage to his upper spine, compression and displacement of discs and vertebrae consistent with an impact or a fall. Nothing irreparable if it's treated immediately."
"He collapsed because of?" Vader prompted curtly.
"The nerve damage. It's significant enough to bring anyone down. I understand he'd just received several…severe blows to the head, which probably aggravated the upper spinal injury—his system probably just couldn't process any more damage and simply shut down." Intensely aware of the brooding silence from the huge figure to his side, the slim, slight medic began to back-pedal. "To be honest, I'm surprised he was standing anyway, considering the damage. Plus, he is concussed. Taking into account all of his…injuries…"
Hallin trailed off, aware that he was simply digging a deeper and deeper hole.
Finally, unable to stand the silence any longer, he added, "We should…begin treatment to relieve pressure on the nerves along T-four to T-eight on his spine. That's a time-critical injury, my Lord. The hand, less so—though the sooner we wet-wire AR nerves into biological ones the easier it is to integrate them, and for the patient to adapt."
It occurred belatedly to Hallin that, judging from the amount of troopers staged in and about his medi-bay, the patient was clearly a prisoner, and so neither of these procedures may be an option. It would be far more in keeping with Hallin's still-limited experience with Lord Vader for him to simply wish to know what was wrong, rather than what could be done to repair it. If the young man was a Rebel as Hallin guessed, then he was facing the death penalty anyway, which made it rather a waste of everyone's time and of Hallin's considerable ability…
"Treat him," Vader said, bringing Hallin's head round in surprise. "Whatever is necessary."
"Yes, my Lord," Hallin acknowledged, trying to hide his shock.
Vader almost made to leave before a further thought occurred. "Are any complications possible?"
"Complications?" Hallin hesitated, unsure what Vader was getting at; it surely wasn't concern. He turned back to the prisoner, considering. "The neural procedures to the spine carry a risk in terms of possible secondary nerve damage and the length of time under anaesthetic, but the droids who perform the procedure are very competent. The limb replacement is only a local anaesthetic and so carries no risks, though it's a long procedure. If we use a more basic replacement..."
"No. Use the best available. Do you have everything necessary here?"
A thought occurred to Hallin now—a reason for the man's being here rather than in the Detention Level, as well as Lord Vader's apparent concern—perhaps this was an Imperial spy? A trooper from the 501st even, Lord Vader's own battalion. Would that warrant this level of concern? If so, then Hallin would be expected to display the same.
"Of course, my Lord. Should I use…" Hallin stumbled, uncertain how to ask, "standard medical staff?"
"Are there those more competent?"
"There are several specialists in your own team who are presently onboard, if you wish to ensure an exemplary job."
"Use them. Whatever you need." Vader turned his wide bulk to Hallin, stepping in to tower over the slender medic. "I assign his health to you, Hallin. I expect no mistakes—I shall be displeased with any misstep."
"Yes, Lord Vader." Unlike everything else, that was crystal clear. "Should I…does he have a name? How would you like him referred to in the medical log?" Hallin felt certain now that the badly-injured man was some kind of agent in Vader's employ, which made discretion all the more advisable left him unsure what Vader would wish entered in the ship's log.
Vader paused for a long time, considering, his gaze on the unconscious man. "His name is Luke. He is my son."
Hallin's eyes widened in shock though he remained perfectly still, his expression set in stone as his mind raced to work this incredible fact through. With nothing equal to the revelation, he found he simply fell back on a level tone, stating the exact opposite of his thoughts. "I understand, Lord Vader. I understand completely."
Lord Vader stood for long seconds, holding Hallin's eye…then, clearly feeling that he had now made the repercussions of failure very clear, he turned and left the medic to his work.
Striding from the medi-bay, Admiral Piett in tow, Vader considered his actions. It had been a momentous act to him, to acknowledge his son as his son. He felt…what? Uneasy emotions conflicted, long-lost whispers at the edge of his thoughts; at his son's rejection of him, at dim memories of a distant past. Awareness of his Master's plans, of the boy's inevitable part in them. Of what it would demand of his son—what it would take from him.
Some deeper feeling welled, fed by the boy's presence…
He had of course known of his son for almost a year now, as soon as the Emperor's spies had tracked down the name of the pilot who had destroyed the Death Star. The rarity of the name, the nebulous feelings Vader had sensed when chasing down that X-Wing above the Death Star—the simple fact that the anonymous pilot had made that impossible shot—it hadn't been hard to come to the obvious conclusion.
Over the past year, Vader had alternately felt so sure that this was somehow the son he had believed lost with his mother on her death, then wracked with doubt that it could possibly be true, that such things were occasionally allowed by fate.
Terrified, both that it would be a lie or that it would be the truth.
And then Luke had come to Cloud City, his presence in the Force shining out, and Vader had known, in a way deeper than any facts his spies could bring him.
This was his son. His child--his legacy.
And to say that—to speak it out loud—felt…good.
Though it did nothing to interpret deeper, wildly warring feelings on the matter.
What it did clarify however, beyond question for all those around him, was the level of commitment he expected of them in this. That had been his intention in saying it, he reasoned, stepping easily back from the momentary burst of rare sentiment. That, and nothing else. And if it turned out that it was not the Emperor's wish to have this information disseminated—well then, nobody was indispensable.
It was early in the morning when the man began to come round from the anaesthetic, the scanners registering changes in brain activity and sounding out a tone.
Hallin stepped quickly into the room—he was deathly tired but hadn't slept yet, waiting for the man to come round, wishing to make sure that all was well before he dare retire. Now he checked the IV feeds, glancing nervously at the condition readouts above the scanner, which remained worryingly erratic after the protracted surgery time, and reaching out a hand to one of the 4-OneBee droid which approached with a small hand-held scanner as a second droid removed the oxygen feed.
Surprisingly, as Hallin was resting the scanner to the man's temples he brought his left arm up and wrapped his hand weakly about the medic's, attempting to push it away.
"Luke, can you hear me? My name is Hallin, I'm a medic. You've just had a surgical procedure and you need to try to remain very still. Do you understand?"
The man's eyes fluttered open briefly as he pawed clumsily at the IV feed in his arm, but he gave no other sign of genuine awareness. Hallin turned to the medical droid. "Do you have an EM scanner?"
"No, sir. I'll go and…"
"No, I have one in my office. I'll just be a moment."
When Hallin returned only a minute later, it was to a scene of mystifying confusion, though for a moment he didn't realize, his tired brain struggling to register the unthinkable.
The 4-OneBee stood exactly where he had left it, inactive, the lights in its eyes now dark, head bent in regard of its patient…who was no longer there. Panicking, Hallin rushed up to the scanner bed whose white cloth was stained by several drops of blood surrounding the removed IV feeds. For long seconds Hallin just stared, eyes moving repeatedly between the deactivated droid and the empty bed…
Two blaster shots from the corridor beyond made his heart skip a beat and finally brought movement to immobile limbs. Dashing headlong into the brightly-lit corridor, Hallin saw his patient leaning heavily against the wall to his left, barely upright, as stormtroopers in the corridor beyond backed up, raising their blasters.
"No!" he shouted, running forward. "Don't shoot!"
By the time he reached him, the half-awake man had taken several faltering steps down the corridor, the troopers forming a wide semi-circle round him, blasters ready.
"Don't hurt him! He's coming round from surgery. He's just…"
"You have one minute to get him back in the bay, medic. Then we bring him down our way." The commanding stormtrooper's voice was clipped through his mask comm, but lost none of its threat.
"Fine… Fine—just stay back." Hallin stepped forward, another three medics appearing from the medi-bay now.
"Sir, three of the medical droids are…" one of them began, before finally realizing what was going on around him and trailing to silence.
"Fetch me a hypo—load it with a dose of Sinorin. Quickly!" Hallin hissed into the shocked medic's face.
Hallin hesitated at his next order…but stormtroopers were a law unto themselves and this was turning very quickly into a situation he knew he couldn't control—and Lord Vader had made him directly responsible for the man. He turned to the second medic, his voice tinged with urgency.
"Contact Lord Vader directly. Use the comlink in my office. Tell him what's happening."
The white-faced man nodded, backing up and dashing into the medi-bay.
The patient had taken several more faltering steps down the hallway now, ignoring the troopers who kept a constant, set distance around him. His bare feet dragged slightly and he paused, leaning his shoulder against the wall to leave a scarlet smear as he started forward again, his bruised and battered torso bare, a pair of white drawstring sleep-trousers his only clothing.
How was he doing this!
Uncertain, having never seen anyone recover this quickly from a full anaesthetic, Hallin stepped toward him, his eyes drawn uneasily to the long, fresh scar running down the man's bare back just above his shoulder blades. This type of surgery was very delicate, not meant to have any stress put on it so soon.
How was the man standing—how was he awake at all?
Level with him now, terrified that he would collapse at any moment and cause further damage, Hallin placed his hand gently on the man's shoulder. "Please stop. You're injuring yourself—you have to stop."
The man slowed though he didn't turn, still resting his weight on his shoulder against the wall, his injured, bandaged arm clutched to his heaving chest, his shoulders dropping.
The troops all closed in slightly at this, and his head snapped up again, eyes focused dangerously on them. The stormtroopers all brought their guns to bear, incredibly wary considering the state of the man they surrounded.
Glancing at them, open hand out to restrain them, Hallin realized for the first time that there were four troopers on the floor against the far wall, blasters scattered about them. Had this man done that? Surely not—how could he possibly..? Memory of the blaster-shots whirled back into Hallin's thoughts…
The medic came running from the bay behind him, holding out the hypo. Finally! Hallin grabbed it and turned quickly back to the man, thumb on the release…
And something inexplicable happened.
Somehow…somehow as he turned, he…his arm twisted back as if pushed, so that he ended up with the hypo pressed against his own body—and released the tranquilizer's full dose. He managed to turn to the other medic and whisper, "Antidote…" before his knees gave way.
When he came to, Hallin was leaning up with his back against the wall, the two medics knelt about him, one repeating his name as the other gently tapped at his face.
"I'm…give me…" he managed, still struggling against the effects of the Sinorin, though the antidote was beginning to work through his system now.
He dragged his head around to see the stormtroopers still gathered at a wary distance about the injured man, who had pushed away from the wall, swaying, unable to go any further.
"Don't let them fire… Keep them…" He managed to half-lift a hand to point, one of the medics realizing and setting forward.
"Don't let him fall…" Hallin's voice was small and breathless and he tried again, struggling to stand. "Don't let him…"
Then the turbolift door at the edge of his vision slid open and a huge black form emerged to step into the bright white of the Star Destroyer's corridor. Lord Vader took everything in with a single glance, and in that moment was completely in control.
"Stop!" His voice was loud and low and gave no room for misunderstanding. Everyone in the corridor was immediately reduced to a frozen silence.
"Move back!" he barked, the stormtroopers immediately withdrawing, lowering their guns.
Hallin turned at the sound of a low sigh, half exhaustion, half frustration. Four paces away, the injured man collapsed to his knees in the still silence, slumping back to sit on his heels, head low, swaying unsteadily.
Vader strode down the corridor, passing the downed troopers without a sideways glance, passing Hallin as he finally struggled to his feet, passing the silent medics and the armed stormtroopers who shied away from their imposing superior. When he reached the hunched man he crouched to one knee before him, studying him in silence for a long time, his huge, wide bulk dwarfing the smaller man. Chest and feet bare, battered and bruised and sutured, he seemed incredibly vulnerable before the black-armoured austerity of his antagonist.
"Where are you going?" Vader finally asked, his quiet reproach strangely tempered yet completely emotionless in the face of the willfully struggling man's obvious pain.
The man lifted his head uneasily, the effort of staying even this upright clearly draining him, his frailty becoming more and more obvious, every reserve now spent.
Strangely, though Hallin didn't hear him speak, Vader replied as if he had. "They are unharmed. You would do better to worry about yourself."
This time Hallin heard a word, little more than a sigh.
Again Vader was silent for a long time, head slightly to one side. Then, the tone of his voice indicating some concession being made, he allowed, "I will retrieve him."
He reached forward to the slumped man whose breathing was becoming ever-more ragged. "And you will rest."
It wasn't so much the offer of a deal as a statement of the way things would be.
Luke's head was sagging, his whole body trembling with fatigue.
Still, he leaned back, trying without success to lift his arm against the overbearing ebony shadow which stretched out to him, though all consideration of resistance was gone now, all strength sapped. The lights split in his vision and everything began a slow, deliberate turn, as if gravity were momentarily disengaged. His head spun, the walls spun, everything twisted every direction at once.
Focus! Stop this! He called to himself the one thing he could always trust.
The Force was a cool burst of fleeting clarity, but he sensed the Darkness at its edges, pressing in, reaching out.
He tried to lift his head to focus on the dark, hulking figure before him but even that was beyond him now. His breathing shallowed as he became aware that he was struggling for air, then he toppled forward, unable to stop himself, reality spiraling about him, the floor rushing up toward him.
Strong arms caught him then lifted him from the floor as if he were a child, the action lighting a trail of fire down his spine, though in that moment he was past caring. Everything swam, churning in his hazy vision, no up, no down, waves of awareness between blank, black voids.
Voices raised in concern, though he couldn't seem to process the words, nothing reaching through the thick, dull haze which enveloped him, pressing down on him, stealing any thought save that of simply breathing, and even that faltering. All sound reduced to a single tone which sang in his head, his pounding heart shaking his whole body with every labored beat. Too hard to breathe now, too hard to try, the exertion of lifting his chest unthinkable.
Each gasp came a little shallower until he could do nothing but descend into the still, crimson-tinged darkness, unwilling to fight anymore.
Hallin leaned in to support the man's head as Vader lowered him onto the scanner-bed, adrenaline forcing the medic wide awake as medi-droids closed in, activating readout fields so that the information began to appear as a streaming display at the end of the bed. He glanced up, all business, checking the readouts, taking the offered IV from the droid and inserting the needle.
Vader ignored him completely, his hand resting on the unconscious man's chest.
Hallin turned back to the medical readouts as a warning sounded. "He's going into shock."
The IV feed filled with fluid and Luke's eyelids fluttered momentarily-
"No!" Vader reached out and folded the tube closed. "Take it out!!"
Hallin physically jumped at the ferocity of his outburst. "What?"
"Take it out. No drugs—it will interfere with his connection to the Force."
Hallin's eyes widened as he shrank back, but afraid as he was, some basic commitment cut in and he spoke out against Vader. "He… the surgery, my Lord; he shouldn't have moved—he's going into shock. His condition is very serious…"
As if to back him up, the medi-bay began again to sound its low alarm tone. Hallin glanced back at the display, then at Vader's gloved hand still holding the IV tube folded. He spoke the hard truth. "His blood pressure's dropping dangerously low. The drugs will stabilize him until his body can…."
"No. He's a Jedi. He will drop into a trance, heal himself—if you don't interfere."
Hallin frowned; he was a medical man and simply didn't have time for this-
"Do as I say," Vader rumbled, the threat evident in his tone.
The medic hesitated; as far as he was concerned, the Force was a myth, an entertainment for those too gullible to see the truth. He knew, of course, what people who were close to them said of Vader and of the Emperor, but he had seen nothing in the two months that he'd been on Lord Vader's staff to merit any re-evaluation of his own beliefs.
But then, he was a military medic and Lord Vader's subordinate. If Vader wished to test some theory, then it was within his rights to do so—certainly nobody here was about to stop him.
So why did Hallin remain frozen in place?
The medical alarm rose a pitch, demanding resolution. Wasn't this Vader's son? Why would he risk this? How could he?
That black mask turned on him, the voice from within broaching no argument. "Take it out."
"Of course," Hallin finally acknowledged, his voice flat, laced with defeat. "You understand… he will go deeper into shock—probably cardiac arrest without some form of intervention and stabilization…"
As he spoke, he slid out the IV, keeping his eyes on the readouts, awaiting the inevitable.
Vader didn't turn, didn't look to the display at all. He simply stared at the failing man.
They didn't have to wait long… The scanner changed to a constant tone and readouts began to flash red.
"He's gone below prescribed levels…" Hallin said flatly, his own heart beating fast in his chest. It was against everything he had been taught, everything he had ever believed, to stand by and simply watch when he could so easily prevent this.
"…His heart's going into fibrillation…" Seconds away now…
Vader's voice was low and quiet, barely a whisper, but Hallin heard it anyway, the raw emotion hidden by the mask all too audible in the hoarse whisper, drawing Hallin's eyes to Vader as he stared down at the dying man. "Fight!"
Still the scanners registered the failing vital signs of the youth, and Hallin felt his own head shake as he looked back to the man. Unable to help himself, he reached out his hand to place it lightly on his patient's forehead, knowing it would offer no help but somehow needing, in those final moments, to offer some kind of succor.
Finally Vader relented, stepping back, turning quickly to Hallin. "Help him!"
Hallin didn't need telling twice. Galvanized into action he stepped forward, arm out to the medi-droid. "Adrenaline—240 in a DR needle! Now!!"
He stretched his hand out over the man's chest, automatically feeling for the spot between his ribs, hoping it wasn't too late, fearing it was. As he took the needle, a change in the scanner tone made him turn…
Two of the readouts had risen from critical back toward normal limits. Frowning, he stared at the display in blank confusion… How..?
A third climbed back within limits as the man's vital signs began to stabilize.
Vader reached his arm out, gently pushing Hallin back from the patient, whose irregular breathing was beginning to even. The medic frowned, speechless, looking back down to the man on the bed, whose blue lips were beginning to redden, color returning to waxen skin.
What the hell was happening?
It took less than a minute for the readouts to stabilize—not even nearly to normal; the man remained in a serious condition—but to climb from critical, to step back, quite miraculously, from the edge.
Some signs remained incredibly elevated though—brain activity and oxygen levels were exceptionally high…
Was this… Hallin hardly dare even consider it.
Vader turned to the medic, his bass voice perfectly even now, distant and emotionless. "Learn and adapt if you are to serve him. He is a Jedi—all previous knowledge and boundaries are gone. You were right to contact me, however—do so earlier next time."
With that he turned and left. Hallin watched him, a dark silhouette against the bright light of the corridor beyond. Then he was left alone, to look back down in mute wonderment at the Jedi.
Luke was woken from a fitful, disturbed sleep by the realization of who was near.
He'd spent the night in a detention cell, pretty much dragged there by Vader when he'd made his second attempt to leave the medi-center only a day after the first.
By the time Vader had arrived he'd already been forced to stop, stormtroopers ahead of and behind him, but this time he'd gotten much further into the ship. Still slow and breathless, still frail, but awake this time; aware enough to find his bearings, clarify where exactly he was in relation to where he needed to get to—and more importantly how to get there. Next time.
Vader had arrived seething, simply striding up to Luke as he leaned weakly against the wall for support, grabbing him by the arm, turning him about and dragging him down the corridor. Luke hadn't even the strength left to fight; to shout out or struggle as he was half-dragged, half-marched through the Destroyer, Vader's grip unyielding, the sound of many stormtroopers' boots behind them. All his energy went into simply staying upright.
Still in medi-center whites, feet bare, he was deposited—practically thrown—into a small, empty cell whose only notable feature was a huge thick pillar which ran floor to ceiling in the centre of the room. Half-collapsing in exhaustion at the forced march, vision tunneling, chest heaving, he'd been only vaguely aware of the techs who gathered about him as he'd collapsed against the pillar, struggling to find the strength to stand again.
"If you act like you are a prisoner here, you will be treated as one," Vader had finally accused, frustration and irritation clipping his words.
Cryptically as far as Luke was concerned- what did Vader think he was?
He was a Rebel soldier being held captive by the Empire and he would take any opportunity presented to escape—or at the very least cause havoc.
A sting of pain drew Luke's eyes to his ankle, where the techs were using some kind of hand-held device to seal two fine metallic cables about each, the other ends of which were already looped around the thick pillar.
"They are unbreakable," Vader said needlessly. "You could, of course, use the Force to bring down the pillar, but since the roof rests upon it, I would not advise it."
He stared in silence for a long time at Luke—waiting for what Luke didn't know. Unable to summon the strength to even speak yet, he could only stare back, open animosity in his eyes, his chest heaving as he still struggled for breath.
Finally Vader turned and left, the heavy door pulling closed, the hiss of a hermetic seal engaging to be followed seconds later by the sound of a second outer door doing the same with a heavy, impenetrable finality.
Vader—nothing else; no connection—not his…
Luke still couldn't even begin to think of him in those terms—and it was becoming easier to just ignore it now. He knew who Vader was; what he was. And he knew exactly his relationship to him; enemy to soldier, Imperial to Rebel. He neither wanted nor needed those perceptions altering.
So now, as he recognized the grudgingly familiar sense approaching outside his cell, his eyes opened then narrowed though he didn't move otherwise, remaining on the hard floor where he had slept, laid on his side to favor the sutures down his back, facing away from the entrance.
The outer door grated open, followed a few seconds later by the inner one. Heavy footsteps walked forward then halted.
Silence, in which Luke forced his breathing to even, jaw tightening.
"I know that you are awake," Vader said at last, his tone quiet and calm—but still blunt and unyielding.
"Leave," Luke said, not even turning.
"I wish to speak with you," Vader rumbled, as if that were reason enough to comply.
"I don't wish to speak with you."
"Then you will listen," Vader said curtly.
With little real choice, Luke pushed himself painfully up to lean a shoulder against the thick post, the cables twisting about his ankles as he did so. The scathing, derisive fury in his voice when he spoke surprised even himself. "Fine—go ahead."
Luke had the momentary gratification of seeing Vader pause, uncertain. "Go ahead," he invited again through tight lips. "You want me to listen—I'm listening."
"You are not listening," Vader said, shaking his head slightly. "You do not intend to listen to anything I say."
"Have you finished?"
Vader said nothing, merely looked at Luke.
"Good. Then leave."
"You are judging me without knowing the facts."
"No, I'm judging you on the facts," Luke bit out. "I'm in a detention cell being taken against my will to Imperial Center. The person who put me here has injured my friends for no other reason than to get my attention, and is now intending to deliver me and them to a man who will surely kill us all when I won't do as he asks. The person who put me here knows this as well as I do, and yet still that door remains locked. That is the man I'm judging."
"You are so stubborn," Vader said at last, shaking his head in frustration rather than opposition.
"And you're blind," Luke accused angrily. "Willfully so. Because I don't believe you can't see what will happen."
"The choice of what will happen is yours."
"I've made my choices. I made them years ago. None of this…" even now, he couldn't bring himself to say it, "changes them."
"Your choices were made without the facts."
Luke only looked away, shaking his head. "I had the ones that mattered."
"Only to them."
"And I suppose you'll give me the truth?" The words were caustic, laced with disbelief.
"Why do you believe me any less capable of that than Obi-Wan?"
"Because I'm here," Luke replied, incredulous that Vader could even ask. "Like this. Because my friends are here…"
"You would do well to forget them. They are an unnecessary weakness."
Luke stared outraged at the callous dismissal of those close to him, but if Vader realized, then it did nothing to curb his words.
"The Emperor will use them to control you. That is why they are here."
"Then let them go." It was half-request, half-challenge. It was the first time he looked to his father's eyes.
Luke turned away, unsurprised. "Do you do everything he tells you?"
"You do not know him." The tone of Vader's voice revealed little but for a moment—just an instant—Luke's eyes softened to something more compassionate. Then he blinked and turned away, rubbing tiredly at his temples.
"Well, I'm about to," he said, exhausted, the frustrated implication in his words clear.
"It does not have to be this way. The offer I made on Bespin remains—will always remain. I can teach you, show you a power that will make you invulnerable. Luke, you have the capacity to destroy him."
"How would you possibly know?" Luke's voice was tired and dismissive.
"Because I know who you are. I know what you are—the truth. They have shown you a fragment of that which you are capable of—by their own choice. I know your aptitude… your ability. They could only ever teach you competence, because that is all they know. I can show you mastery."
"To do what? Fulfill your ambitions?" Luke challenged.
"Fulfill your own potential," Vader countered.
"As it suits you."
Vader fell silent again, his frustration burning. If the boy would relent, just a little—if he would just open his mind to the possibility that Kenobi was wrong and Vader right. How could he explain, how could he make the boy understand?
"Luke… you are not like them. We are not like them." The boy remained unmoved, face stubbornly turned away. "Understand what you are—know what you are capable of. Your lineage; your bloodline. I can give you that knowledge—make you realize your inherent potential."
That one word, spoken so quietly and without any trace of animosity, stopped Vader dead.
"Do you not wish to know who you are?" Vader was incredulous, genuinely confused.
This was, surely, what the boy wanted. Having been confronted with a glimpse of reality after years of lies, how could he not want it all? Every truth that had been so deliberately kept from him, every fact. But the boy shook his head in resigned refusal.
"I've lived this long without your 'truth.' I'll be dead soon anyway. What does it matter?" Luke was genuinely dismissive, anger waning now to be replaced with an empty bitterness, a weary acceptance that he would never know the real truth—not as long as those about him sought to control him. The truth was too hard anyway, too damning. Especially now, from this source. He didn't want any more—couldn't take any more. He was tired and battered, body and soul both.
Still, Vader pressed on—as if he were offering some kind of gift, not condemning Luke to Darkness. "You should know who you are. Your heritage—your birthright."
Vader held his son's searching gaze as Luke turned to him, pale blue eyes so much like his own. Haunted and lost, deeply dispirited. So much like his own… Was this the price of power? Was this the true legacy of the Skywalkers—were they all cursed to a life of misery and grief?
"I really don't care," Luke whispered, his quiet, defeated tone more damning than any previous anger. "Please leave."
And that was it—against that resolute, determined denial, what more was there to be said? Vader turned to go, pausing at the heavy door.
Turning back, he dropped a small palm-held holo-projector to the ground at his feet. It clattered across the hard floor, rolling to a halt.
Neither looked at it.
"Your mother," Vader said simply, then turned and left without further comment.
Alone, Luke stared at the small device laid on its side on the floor. Seconds turned to minutes as he gazed at it, until its dark color against the white walls had burned its imprint into his mind so that it remained even when he closed his eyes.
From the main observation console in the ops room, Vader watched the image of the cell as Luke stared mutely at the device for a long, long time.
Willing him to pick it up…
Finally, Luke stretched out his left hand and the projector skittered momentarily over the bare floor then launched across the cell to land neatly in his palm. Again he stared for long seconds, struggling against inner demons—the longing, the need; craving to know despite his words, the resentment and bitterness which had driven him to rebuff even this.
Vader could sense the tangle of conflicting emotions which pulled the boy every direction at once. Loyalty to his friends, his cause. Fear that his hidden past would be a weakness, a method of control.
The desperate desire to see his mother's face… Just once…
Luke gazed at the device in his hand, aware that he was being watched, but uncaring, the relevance of this moment too great to disregard.
His mother. His past. Twenty-one years of forsaken abandonment compressed into this instant… a lifetime of hope, of yearning, of searching for any connection, no matter how faint…
And now, finally, the truth was being offered—at a price… Acceptance.
Of what he was… of what he could become.
Sighing deeply, he held onto this possibility—the potential to see her—for just a few seconds more…
But the price was just too high.
He twisted it onto its side in his palm, so that the three fine veins which projected the image faced his thumb. Without visible emotion he broke each of them off, rendering the projector useless… then let it fall from his hand.
Luke knew. Long before the heavy double-door to his cell opened, he knew.
Even though the cell was soundproof, he knew the commotion going on in the corridor outside…
The inner door rasped open…
"…and your mother!" Han shouted, as he was practically thrown inside.
"Luke! Kid!" Han shouted his name, turning toward him, blinking repeatedly as if trying to bring the world into focus. He set forward, arms open wide, embracing Luke as they met.
Luke winced, pulling in a sharp breath as Han pressed against the sutures in his back, but the moment was too precious to spoil. They pulled back, Luke studying Han. He looked tired and drawn, with a fresh cut over his left eye and a long open graze down his chin, already darkening into a bruise.
Still, Luke smiled. "You don't look so bad to me."
Han grinned. "Ah, you should see the other guy."
"Why, what does he look like?" Luke laughed.
"I have no idea—can't see a damn thing," Han replied glibly, though Luke could sense the subtle panic beneath his words.
"Well, I can see light and dark… vague shapes." He squinted at Luke, head on one side as if it would make a difference. "But you just look like a big thumb."
"You know, I have been told that before," Luke conceded lightly, nodding. Even in this, they joked—what else could they do?
"Where're the others?" Han asked.
"They're okay," Luke rushed to reassure. "I think they're a couple of levels above us. Definitely way forward and on the other side of the ship."
"Why aren't they with you?" Han frowned.
Luke shrugged. "I'm guessing they know we wouldn't leave without each other. That means if by some miracle we get out of here, we still have to make our way through the length of a Star Destroyer before we can even think about getting off. Gives them plenty of time to get ready for us and organize any number of surprises."
"Wow, they're good," Han said.
"I think it's Vader."
"Yeah, we already met today—when they thawed me out. He grabbed me by the neck and told me if I gave him any trouble he'd turn my face inside-out. I'm guessing he's not a morning person." Han was leaning in to Luke now, eyes wide. "You know, you actually look like a thumb with two black eyes. I guess you've already given him trouble, huh?"
Luke looked away, uncomfortable. "I think we both scored a few hits."
Han paused, momentarily serious. "Listen, thanks for coming after us."
"For all the good it did."
Han remained stubbornly optimistic. "Yeah, but we're together now. We can start work on getting outta here. And we gotta get out and get to Chewie and the Princess before they get to us, or else I'll never hear the last of it from the Wook. Or Her Highness."
Luke could only smile in the face of such confidence—he hadn't realized how much he missed it. "Hey, who's the other guy with them? Dark, well-dressed…"
"Lando's here?" Han's hackles rose at that news. "He's the one who got us all into this. He handed us over to Vader."
Luke frowned. "Well, he wasn't working for Vader last time I saw him. And he's in a cell with the others now."
"Yeah, probably hittin' on Leia," Han growled.
"What happened?" Luke asked, realizing belatedly that he had no idea.
"Ah, we had to land on Bespin for repairs. Took us weeks to limp there from Hoth and then Lando's all sweetness and light, saying absolutely he'll fix the Falcon up, but we gotta wait 'till he can ship the parts in. We spend weeks an' weeks waiting—admittedly in the lap of luxury—with Lando always sayin' 'Oh, they'll be on the next transport for sure.' Then her Highnessness starts gettin' all cagey and decides to contact Ackbar and ask for a pickup instead. Next thing we know, Vader appears, we're in the detention level, I'm strapped to an interrogation rack and they're firing up the carbon-freeze. Not my best day." A thought suddenly occurred, bringing Han's head up. "I thought he was after the Princess, but Lando said he was looking for you—we were just bait. What does he want you so bad for?"
Luke sighed, not wanting to get into this now, turning to walk back and settle gingerly against the pillar, making sure he kept his sutures clear of it. "I'll tell you later," he dismissed, hiding the avoidance behind another question. "What was wrong with the Falcon?"
"Hyperdrive. We didn't even make it to the rendezvous; stayed well and truly stuck in the Hoth System. Plus we had half the Imperial fleet on our tail…" Another thought occurred, finally putting a puzzle to rest. "They must've thought we had you on-board!"
"A Destroyer took out the hyperdrive?"
"Nah, Hoth did that. We tried to hotwire it and managed to blow out the long-range comm system too. You know, there's not one damn thing about that planet I liked." Han flopped back onto a hard bunk.
Luke shrugged. "It kept the Empire off our backs."
"Yeah, that worked out great," Han deadpanned, looking about him meaningfully. "Where the hell are we anyway?"
"Vader's Super Star Destroyer, I think."
"Great. So that's twice as far to run to get to Chewie an' Leia," Han said dryly. "How long have you been here?"
"We're in a detention cell, in hyperspace. How would I know?"
"How many meals?" Han reasoned.
"Not nearly enough. Feels like one a day, which means I've been here three days. Two days elsewhere. But I was out cold before that, and I have no idea how long for."
"Out?" Han frowned.
"In a medi-center. They put me in here when I tried to go walkabout."
"Medi-center? What happened?"
Luke shrugged. "Vader."
Han didn't fail to note the discomfort in the kid's voice. "You okay?"
"I'll live," Luke assured dismissively. But there was something else—something in the kid's voice…
Han frowned, frustrated, leaning in closer to the hunched form of the kid where he had retreated to, on the floor by a huge pillar which dominated the small cell. "Luke?"
He vaguely saw the kid raise his head, blurred and indistinct, saw him hold his arm out in silence, and Han squinted at it, the white bandage against the white walls making it difficult to see just what…
The air left him in a rush of compassion as he shook his head and looked away, uncertain what to say.
"It's not so bad," Luke said quietly. "It doesn't hurt so much now."
"What the hell happened?"
"Vader," Luke repeated, voice strangely neutral as he said the name.
Luke shrugged. "I… got a blow in with my lightsaber."
Han was silent for long seconds. "You hit him… with a lightsaber?"
Clearly the kid didn't want to give up any more information on this. Solo considered for long seconds before finally nodding and saying quietly, "I'm impressed."
Strangely, the kid didn't reply; just looked away in silence.
Slowly, over the next few hours, interspersed by long, reticent lulls, Han coaxed the carefully-edited highlights out of Luke. The fight, the fall. The tractor beam, the medi-center.
Nothing more though, and deliberately so.
Luke knew he'd eventually have to tell more; that Han knew he was keeping something back. But he couldn't—not yet. Some things were still too hard to say out loud, to even begin to consider. He looked down at the bandaged stub which had been his hand; some wounds kept on bleeding.
"I think my eyes are getting better," Han maintained from the bunk he lay on, hand waving before his eyes.
He'd been there two meals now, which definitely equated to two very long days, the way his stomach was growling.
Luke glanced up from where he generally sat on the floor, leaning back against the post in the centre of the cell.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
Han glanced over, squinting. "… I want to say… three…?"
"I don't actually have my hand up," Luke said, deadpan.
"Oh, that's low," Han said dryly.
"You're not ready," Luke said easily, shifting uncomfortably against the scar on his back—maybe he wasn't ready either.
"Yeah, but if we go now…"
"If we go now, not only will I be dragging you along, whilst trying to fire a blaster one-handed and having to stop every time we hit steps to say, 'Down one—and another…', but when I finally give you a blaster because you've nagged me relentlessly about how much better you can see now, you'll probably shoot me in the back," Luke reasoned good-naturedly.
"Hey, there's nothin' wrong with my aim, junior."
"How many fingers am I holding up?" Luke repeated back.
"Man, you're worse than Chewie," Han grumbled.
Luke smiled tiredly. "We'll go when we get the chance. Whenever."
"That's all I wanted to hear." Han grinned.
"And you aren't quite as bad as Chewie."
"And you can fly better than him. But don't tell him that."
"And you don't smell like a tauntaun when you're wet, which Chewie definitely does."
"Always nice to know."
"Except for that one time when I covered you in tauntaun innards."
"Yeah, thanks for that," Luke deadpanned, a smile touching the corners of his lips.
"Hey, you weren't complaining at the time, pal. I'm the one who had to spend the night in a very small snow-shelter with you."
"Revenge is sweet."
"Ah, it wasn't so bad. Try being stuck in a small freighter with a wet Wookiee."
Silence… the kid was awful quiet these days.
"See, I can see how many fingers I have up this close," Han said, waving his own hand before him.
"I hope so—that's your hand," Luke pointed out mildly.
"C'mon. I bet you five hundred credits I can tell you this time."
"You already owe me the Falcon twice over." Luke sighed, but he still rose, tired, leaning against the thick post for support.
"Care to double it?"
"Do you have four Falcons?" Luke asked dryly.
"Hey, there's only one Falcon. And we're taking her with us when we leave."
Luke leaned closer, holding his hand out, always seeming to stand awkwardly to Han when he stepped from the center of the room, his bandaged arm still clutched to his chest.
"How many?" he invited.
"Congratulations—you can see." Luke said, voice even.
"Now can we leave?" Han asked impatiently, as if this had been the only obstruction.
"Absolutely. You open the door and we're out of here," Luke agreed, turning to head back to his spot.
"Are you…" Han leaned in, frowning, as Luke walked away. "Are you tied to that post?"
"A little bit," Luke allowed dryly.
"And you didn't think to mention that earlier?" Han said, rising and stepping forward to grab clumsily for the fine organic steel cables and lift them into his still-limited range of focus.
"All things considered, I thought it was the least of our problems. Would you quit pulling that? I'm attached to the other end!" Luke yanked back with his ankle as he slid down the pillar to sitting again.
"Wow, they really want you to stay put, don't they?" Undeterred, Han crouched down before Luke to study the cable. "This is military high-grade. Pretty hefty stuff—four of these'd lift the Falcon." He glanced up, that big-brother mix of concern and reproach in his tone, part patronizing, part kidding, making Luke shift uncomfortably. "What'd you do this time?"
Luke sighed, considering, realizing that he had absolutely no idea of how to break the news of his training to everybody, especially Han. Of everyone, he suspected that the cynical smuggler would take this the least well. But he'd better get used to explaining it—there were a lot of people who simply didn't believe that the Jedi ever existed; the Empire had put a lot of effort into reinventing them as fakers and opportunists obsessed with their own political power. Some bought into the lie, some didn't. Some never believed in the first place—which took Luke squarely back to Han, who remained crouched before him. Luke lifted his head to look his friend in the eye, his manner very serious.
"You know all that… Force stuff you don't believe in?" It wasn't his best opening line, he had to admit…
"Yeah, I know it…" Han said slowly, realizing where this was going, "Please don't tell me you got it into your head that all that stuff the old guy spouted is real."
"It is real."
"See, it's not…"
"Han…" Luke interrupted.
Han wouldn't be swayed, "No, listen—telling people it's real and wearing lightsabers is gonna make people do this to you." He lifted the cable to illustrate his point, Luke seeming to hunch down slightly in his still-blurred line of vision at that.
"Luke, Kenobi was just…" he hesitated to say it, knowing how the kid worshiped the old man, but this was important. "He was just some crazy…"
"Han, look down."
Han frowned, glancing down. "Ho! Hey!! Whoa!"
He floated gently about a foot off the ground, neither boot touching the floor, still in a perfect crouch. He stretched forward quickly, hands out to catch himself… but didn't fall. "What the hell?"
"If you struggle, it's very hard to keep you level," Luke said mildly.
"Seriously?… You're doing this…seriously?" Han was practically babbling, arms out stiffly as if to balance himself now. "How the hell are…"
"It's all real, Han," Luke said quietly.
"Get me down, then!"
Luke lowered Han gently to the ground, releasing him slowly so he took his own weight back. He crouched in silence for long seconds, staring at Luke.
Finally, when Luke could stand it no more he opened his mouth to speak, to be met by Han's hand before his face, one finger held up to silence him. "Okay, supposing—just supposing—that I accept that it's real for the minute…" He raised his eyebrows meaningfully at the last. "Which I'm not sayin' that I do…can you do anything else?"
Luke shrugged unassumingly. "I can speed up my reflexes, accelerate healing, increase my physical abilities, read intent, see…"
Han sat back, yanking his boot off and dropping it to the ground. "Lift that up."
"Han, I just lifted you up. What…"
"I wanna see you do it on something else. Somethin' I name."
Sighing, Luke lifted the boot with the Force, turning it gently in the air at eye level. Even this small act felt good—he'd not maintained anything more than passive contact with the Force since arriving here, uncomfortable to do so this close to Vader, knowing that he would sense any contact.
Inexplicably, Han felt the need to check for forcefields, waving his hand over and about the boot. How exactly Han thought that Luke would be creating or manipulating them in an Imperial detention centre, Luke didn't know.
"It's not a trick," Luke said, giving his friend time to come to terms with this as Han tapped suspiciously at the boot.
It didn't take him too long, opportunist that he was.
"Can you open the door?"
"No. I could open a normal cell door—just blow it out—but this is different and I've been trying to figure out how. I've gone over the door repeatedly, but there's no mechanical lock at all, only an automated hinge mechanism to open the door when it's free-moving. I think there's a vacuum between the two doors—around this whole chamber. I think we're in a room within a room. That's why there are two doors; they're both pulled inwards by a vacuum that exists between these two rooms, one door from the corridor, one from this cell. I'm pretty sure I could force the seal, but I think it'd open the cell to a vacuum. I think it was made specifically to hold a Jedi."
Hold a Jedi… "That's why they want you, isn't it?"
In Han's limited vision, the kid nodded slowly.
"That's why Vader was sent after you."
"Vader has his own reasons," Luke said cryptically, making Han frown at the kid.
He was different somehow; had been since Han had arrived here. He'd put it down to their less-than-favorable circumstances, but now…
Han looked closer—he seemed older… more prepossessed.
Luke was about to speak when his face changed quite suddenly, a wary mask falling as he looked aside. "Vader," he whispered.
Han frowned, glancing at the blank wall where the kid was looking, confused. "What?"
A distant, muffled hiss of displaced air was followed by the grind of the heavy outer door opening. Han pushed up and back, Luke rising beside him as the inner door grated open and Vader stalked in, striding up to Luke without even glancing at Han, stormtroopers crowding in at the door.
"What were you doing?" Vader growled without preamble.
The kid was incredibly guarded now, but strangely unafraid. More than that even; antagonistic. Han could see it quite clearly.
"Why?" Luke challenged.
Even his voice was different; had an uncharacteristic edge to it.
Vader took one step closer, hand held out, finger up in warning. "Don't play games with me. What were you doing?"
Still Luke wouldn't back down. Han glanced at the troopers by the now-closed door. Was the kid suicidal?
"Why don't you check your security footage? Or ask your troopers in the ops room. That's their job, isn't it—to watch us?"
Han glanced up, squinting about the cell for a security lens, though he could see nothing.
"I am asking you," Vader snapped, denying none of Luke's accusations.
Luke remained silent, the air fairly buzzing between them. Han had never seen the kid like this before—he was almost unrecognizable.
"Check the wires," Vader ordered, the troopers rushing forward to comply, inspecting the cables which bound Luke to the thick central pillar.
"They're good, Lord Vader. No marks," came the filtered reply.
"The door," Vader said, without looking away.
The troopers pushed past Han, hustling him aside. "Hey, watch it!"
Vader lifted his head to study the post which Luke was tied to, then scanned the room slowly before turning back to a still-silent Luke, who fairly seethed animosity, eyes hooded, stance taut.
"If you do anything—anything at all—he will suffer," Vader growled, pointing to Han. "As will the others. They are all expendable. Remember that."
He turned, his cloak swirling about him, and was almost to the door before Luke spoke, voice tight and low. "I will."
There was something in it—something that spoke far more of a threat than of compliance.
Han tensed, turning to Vader.
He paused, twisting slowly back to stare at Luke for long moments and Han felt his own muscles tighten, sure Vader would lunge at Luke, sure the kid would throw himself at Vader if he did, uncertain what to do; whether to grab for the kid to restrain him or launch forward to try to help him.
Then Vader simply turned and stalked out, the door falling home behind him, the hiss of the hermetic seal engaging the only sound for long seconds.
"Man, you sure know how to pick your enemies," Han wheezed, letting the words out in a long gasp.
Luke relaxed only slowly, muscles gradually loosing, breathing softening. Still, he stared for a long time at the doorway, an intensity about him which Han had never seen before, a wildness in his eyes.
He eventually sat, hunching in silence for a long time, lost in his thoughts, Han not daring to ask what the hell had just happened.
No one entered the cell for the next three days. Food came sporadically through a narrow hatch which opened in the wall, Luke always knowing a minute or so before, gazing at the wall as if it were a window, announcing the arrival of new guards or the changing of the existing ones, any breaks in the routine.
Han didn't ask the kid how he knew this stuff, but he was beginning to accept that he just might, no matter how uneasy it made him feel. Luke was always right about when the food arrived—to the minute, in fact.
They'd studied the walls for a long time too, trying to gauge how big the chamber was that their cell was set inside based on brief glances at the depth of the food hatch; how much of a space the vacuum filled—whether their lungs could take the decompression if Luke forced the door.
Han had been willing to give it a try, but the kid had reasonably pointed out that if they'd gone to this much trouble, they would have calculated the size of outer chamber needed to at the very least render its occupants unconscious. Han had to admit it would have been a pretty glaring oversight not to, given the amount of work which had gone into this. Though based on the Death Star design, he was still almost willing to give it a go.
A fair amount of their ample time was also put into trying to judge how long before they arrived at Imperial Center.
After some heated debate as to how many days it took to travel from Bespin to Coruscant down the Corellian Trade Spine, Luke had won the argument by default when he pointed out the fact that both of them had been unconscious for the start of the journey, which meant that they had no idea how long they had been traveling in the first place—something of a hindrance in working out how far they still had to go. And that was assuming they made no stops—and that they were traveling at a constant point-five beyond lightspeed, both of which were pretty major assumptions.
Too many variables and not enough information, and time was ticking down.
The sound of the pressure cycling before the outer door opened dragged Han back awake. He felt groggy, like it was the middle of the night, though they never lowered the lights here. But he'd had to wake quickly too many times over too many years for it to bother him now, so by the time the inner door grated back he was wide awake and scrabbling upright.
Stormtroopers poured in, too many to count.
Han realized peripherally that Luke had already been awake, standing up before the thick pillar he was tethered to, though he hadn't woken Han. It crossed his mind in that moment to wonder why, but the troopers were jostling Han back now, a blaster in his face.
"Hey, easy pal," Han said, adrenaline pumping.
For a few seconds, there remained a tense standoff as several troopers lined up a way back from the kid, blasters trained on him as Luke held them in a level gaze. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and emotionless.
"Do it," he said simply.
Han frowned uneasily...
The three troopers directly in front of the kid fired, the suddenness of the action making Han cry out, the combined shots throwing the kid back to glance off the pillar and hit the ground like dead-weight.
"Luke!" Han was dragged back roughly by many hands, a blaster jabbed into his stomach, winding him, so that when he looked up, it was to stare down the barrel.
"This one's not set on stun," the trooper said pointedly.
"Leia? Leia!" Han shouted out as he was hustled down the ramp of the transport, seeing Leia being dragged from a second shuttle onto the wide, troop-lined platform, lit up in the dark of the planet's night.
"Han!" She struggled pointlessly against her guards, but that didn't stop her trying. "Let me go! You stupid…"
Her voice was drowned out by Chewie's deafening howl as he saw Han from the ramp.
"Chewie!" Han yelled, elated now, "Hey, ya big…"
The stormtrooper beside him buried his blaster into Han's ribs. "Shut your mouth, pirate, or I'll shut it for you."
Han didn't care—he didn't care in that moment. They were alive, they were okay. Talk about a gyro-coaster ride!
They were dragged up alongside him to stand in the center of an impressive group of troopers, all of whom they completely ignored in their relief to see that each of the others were okay. Lando joined them, hands bound, and though he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the man, in that moment, Han didn't even care that he was there.
"Were you on-board too?" Leia was beaming from ear to ear, looking decidedly un-regal, but pretty damn good for it, to Han's mind. "For how long?"
"You know me, sweetheart—just can't keep away from a pretty face." He grinned, bobbing his eyebrows.
Leia rolled her eyes as Chewie chuntered his concern, Han brushing it off easily. "Best night's sleep I ever had!"
The stormtrooper in charge of the prisoners turned on them. "If you don't all shut up..."
He never finished his threat—a far greater one than he could ever issue stalked down the ramp of the transport, black cloak swirling about him in the night winds, the impressive phalanxes of troops coming smartly to attention.
In the silence, Han glanced around, orienting himself.
They were on a huge landing platform high on the roof of a massive, monolithic building, open to the elements and surrounded by four towering spires continuing up in perfect proportion from the monumental mass off the main structure, the night illuminated by thousands of lights from the city below, the reflected glow great enough to obscure the stars. Not that Han needed them to recognize Coruscant—and it would always be Coruscant to him, no matter how many times the Imperials claimed and renamed it.
And he knew the Towers too—had seen them hundreds of times from a distance. A safe distance. Never once expected to see them up close. Then again, who did?
Even here, the legendary magnificence of the Imperial Palace was on display, immersing the viewer in its casual opulence, a tremendous statement of Imperial wealth and resources on a planet where overt displays of outrageous luxury were the norm.
As vast as it was, the platform was only a fraction of the roof space of the monumental main Palace, the four lofty Habitation Towers rising up about them from the corners of the building below, each surrounded with gardens lit up in the night, full-height trees swaying in the wind, dwarfed by the imposing bulk of the massive Towers. The polished floor was obsidian slab delicately inlaid with finely scrolled metals, the design radiating out in a complex pattern hidden by the polished boots of many stormtroopers. The Towers' intricately-carved stonework, floor upon floor, was thrown into sharp relief by bright lights aimed from the lush gardens at the bases of the Towers, hissing and steaming as drizzle landed on the magnified heat of huge refracting lenses.
Vader strode forward across the landing platform, completely at ease surrounded by this display of Imperial might, a group of somber-faced officers trailing behind him.
Halfway across the platform he paused as rows of scarlet-clad Royal Guard—the Emperor's own regiment—marched out to line the white of the rows of stormtroopers with a double line of blood red.
"The Emperor," Leia murmured, drawing back slightly as Han craned his neck to see.
Before him, Darth Vader walked several paces forward from the Imperial Commanders and dropped to one knee, head low, disappearing below rows of attention-still troopers.
Anticipation made Han's heart beat faster; he was about to see the Emperor—the Emperor! Nobody saw Emperor Palpatine—not in the flesh. Admittedly he probably wasn't going to live to tell anyone, and even if he did who would believe him, but still…
An expectant stillness fell about the scene, its imposing gravity lost on no one, even Han.
The man who walked slowly out from the high double doors of the South Tower, a heavy, hooded cloak hiding his form, seemed at once small and frail, yet absolutely in command; aware of his status and expecting recognition of such.
A small entourage followed at a respectful distance, four elderly men in dark, rich vermillion robes, a striking, porcelain-skinned red-haired woman in a black one-piece—clearly military from the way she held herself—and two Royal Guards.
Oddly, above the wind and despite the distance, Han thought he could hear the 'click—click' of the gnarled black cane the Emperor used to walk with as he stepped forward. Watching, Han felt reduced to unsettled silence by the hooded man's disquieting presence.
Walking across the windswept platform, Emperor Palpatine forced himself to slow his pace, but when he finally reached Lord Vader he was unable to keep the fervent anticipation from his voice. "Rise—rise, my friend. Your mission was successful."
It was not a question.
"Yes, my Master."
Palpatine could sense some sliver of reluctance, a carefully concealed unease, and it brought a slow, subtle smile to his thin, cracked lips. Not that Vader felt this, but that he felt it yet did nothing about it. Control on any level was rewarding—control of someone of Vader's abilities was endlessly gratifying.
"Good. Very good. You've done well," Palpatine rewarded easily, eyes turning now to the transport.
An open medical repulsor-sled was being guided down the ramp, its occupant unconscious, hooked up to the inbuilt specialist IV system which was capable of keeping him that way.
Palpatine waited, eyes locked on the sled. As it approached he sensed something, some blast of intense concern, and glanced momentarily at the spot several rows back into the stormtroopers.
"His companions," Vader said simply, clearly having sensed the same.
Palpatine frowned… there was something—some distant familiarity…
"Leia Organa," he said, smiling, remembering the woman from her infrequent attendance to Court; her father was always so protective.
As well he should be, traitor that she was. She held his attention for only a moment though, his sallow ochre eyes turning back greedily to the sled. He'd once thought to bring her before him in chains to answer for her crimes—now she was almost beneath his notice, useful for one thing only. But very useful in that, he hoped. Yes, he had plans for his little Rebel Princess.
He smiled wickedly, eyes remaining locked on the greater prize. He had waited a long time for this moment once he realized Skywalker's existence. Prepared for it, anticipated and carefully schemed, plans within plans, waiting to be set in motion. It had been a long time coming, but then so had most momentous things in his life. As with all of them, he was a patient man. And as with all of them, he knew that this too would come, despite the best efforts of the Jedi.
He took three fast steps forward as the sled neared, in that moment completely forgetting his cane, leaning over the unconscious man who had been the bane of his life for so long, the omen of the Jedi's precious prophesy hanging like chains about his neck.
The only real threat to his reign…
Palpatine stared for long, still seconds, head to one side, yellow eyes taking in the boy's features as his closed eyelids flickered, perhaps at some distant realization.
"He's barely grown—little more than a Padawan." Palpatine's tone was mocking, scornful in its amusement as he glanced up to Vader. "How did he elude you for so long?"
He reached out, ashen skin pale against the boy's dark bruises, almost but not quite touching his temple; noted him flinch more violently away. "But what a power…" Palpatine turned taunting eyes to Vader, sharp voice reduced to a private, goading whisper. "Everything you once were."
Palpatine turned away, amused by Vader's willful silence, knowing that his servant would try to use the boy against him—probably already had. But Vader had always been too impatient, too impetuous, far too abrupt to achieve anything in as delicate a situation as this. Except to serve Palpatine's ends of course, as he always did—whether he intended to or not.
As his son would. He studied the boy again, more closely now… and paused, grating voice lowered in displeasure. "You have damaged my Jedi, Lord Vader."
Vader's chin lifted slightly. "He was…difficult to contain."
"He is a Jedi." Palpatine's tone was dismissive.
"He is more than that," Vader maintained, careful to keep any challenge from his voice.
Palpatine's eyes lifted to Vader as he held his eye for several long seconds, then turned away, disgusted. "Take him to his quarters," he said at last, glancing to his companions. "And take them to the detention level—if you're capable of that."
He turned and walked away, not bothering to acknowledge Vader's deep bow.
Palpatine walked impatiently into the room where his new Jedi had been ensconced, the fiery, red-haired Mara Jade two steps behind him, her displeasure at being twisted up in her master's new 'project' blaring out through the Force. Which was of course exactly why he had brought her. Her job was to do his bidding—what she wanted or preferred was immaterial. It always had been.
He had intended not to return to it today, instead to leave it in uneasy solitude whilst he enjoyed the satisfaction of ownership at last—in body if not yet in spirit. But the pull to come here had been just too great, so he had made his way down here on the pretext of checking the unprepared-for medical arrangements, knowing that in truth he had wanted nothing more than to be here, watching it. Like a child with a new toy that it was not yet allowed to touch.
The comparison brought a smile to pale, thin lips at the realization—he had not felt this way in a long time.
His Jedi's carefully fortified quarters were spread over several rooms within an immense, elegantly proportioned apartment. Tall, ornately-carved panels concealed massively-reinforced blast doors and the dark, macassar-polished walls hid trussed, perennium-strung plasteel slab, with brace-strung military-grade filament set within the solid, refraction-free bulk of explosion-rated windows. A prison to hold a Jedi.
Beautifully dressed and luxuriously appointed, but a prison nonetheless. Doubtless his Jedi would see it as such too. But there was a game being played here, subliminal messages being communicated—that open defiance was unnecessary in such a context; every effort was being made to make this a civilized encounter.
How long it remained that way was up to his new Jedi.
At the end of three large rooms, the bedroom already looked like a full-facility medi-center, groaning with scanners and support equipment; no one would take any chances here—the risks for failure were just too high. Palpatine had gone to great lengths to make that very clear.
The Jedi's unconscious form lay on the high bed, wires and readers connected up to medical displays, the several human medics crowded about them all turning and bowing reverentially as the Emperor entered.
There were no sentient droids here; unreadable in the Force, Palpatine did not trust them, never allowing them beyond the main Palace and into the Habitation Towers.
"Leave," he ordered the medics as he walked forward.
Accustomed to their Emperor's curtness, they filed out in silence. The last to leave was noticeably younger and sporting a fleet uniform, with dark hair and olive skin.
"You are Hallin," Palpatine said simply, having made a point to remember his name.
The man stammered to a halt, bowing uncertainly. "Yes, Excellency."
Palpatine nodded slightly, never taking his eyes from the man. "Lord Vader has told me that you are an exemplary medic."
The medic hesitated, obviously disconcerted. "He's very kind, Excellency."
The Emperor smiled at that. "No, he is not. He is, however, trustworthy." At this, Palpatine leaned forward just slightly, pressing his message home. "It is that which I value more than anything else."
The slight young medic nodded his understanding, unable to resist backstepping before the Emperor; always a pleasing reaction.
"Of course, Excellency."
Palpatine held silent for long seconds, eyes burrowing into the nervous man, judging him...
Having, as ever, more in play here than the obvious, Palpatine glanced back to Jade, who had remained at the door. Stepping in closer to the medic before he spoke, he kept his voice low, consciously dampened in the massive, echoing room. "You have done well thus far—you are to be rewarded. Skywalker is… of great value to me. You are now Chief Physician to Lord Vader's son—his retinue must, after all, be reinstated after his prolonged absence. You will be assigned quarters in the Palace, for living and for working. You will be assigned an aide, but may choose your own staff."
This time the medic did not retreat, elated at the distinction bestowed on him, finally managing, "Th—Thank you, Excellency."
The Emperor narrowed his eyes slightly as he stepped back. "You understand the heavy responsibilities of your post? I do this because I have great faith in you."
"I… shall endeavor not to disappoint, Excellency."
"Do so," Palpatine grated in dismissal. "As if your life depended on it."
The medic bowed low as Palpatine turned away, pleased. He had, of course, already studied the man's file closely before making this decision, though the fact that Lord Vader had trusted him enough to assign him first to his own staff and then to treat his son had held greater weight.
For the Emperor to hand out the honor of such a post was one thing—to do so in such a way as to be in itself of use was another; personal recognition and a few gracious words on the part of the monarch could create a loyal servant for life. Especially when offset with a subtle threat to clarify. Which was what Palpatine needed around his new Jedi; loyal vassals—loyal to Palpatine, and unshakably so—the boy would test them all, sooner or later.
Consideration of this fact brought Palpatine's eyes back to Mara, remaining where she was by the door as the medic left, her flash of russet hair bright against the muted tones of the room.
"Not you, child," Palpatine ordered as she too turned to leave.
A slight tightening of her jaw was her only visible sign of frustration, though she obeyed without question—she always had.
Palpatine walked up the step to the raised level on which the bed stood, dark, rich covers making the boy's grazed and bruised skin appear pale. It had indeed taken a great deal for Vader to subdue his son. He tilted his head to look at the boy as Mara drew near.
"He looks not at all like his mother—only his father," he said at last, considering this a good thing, knowing she would not understand.
She didn't know who he was, of course, only that he was a Jedi. As much as Palpatine trusted his favored assassin, he was not in the habit of handing out significant information. Only what was necessary to her job, which this was not—not yet. Knowledge was power, and Palpatine never gave power unnecessarily. Particularly when it could hamper—the timing of this particular nugget of information was most sensitive; he needed her to reach certain conclusions without it. Too soon would color her opinion of him—and their subsequent interactions.
Mara remained silent, glancing with vague disinterest at the unconscious man, unsure of why he was here anyway and not in the detention levels with his companions.
She knew of course that he was a Jedi; had noted her master's obsessive attention to planning every detail of his confinement, his growing excitement at the Jedi's impending arrival. And she well remembered the maltreatment of other such treacherous, focused individuals in the past. Dangerous—though not to her master, of course.
They lasted a day, sometimes two or three—until her master grew bored with tormenting them—then he would turn Vader on them. For practice, he claimed—for sport, she often suspected. Though it was hardly a fair fight.
She had seen him bring down Jedi himself several times under the same justification, with or without the aid of a lightsaber. Had been taught by her master how to do the same, though she had nothing approaching his abilities in the Force. But certain things could be learned, and in the beginning there had never been a shortage to hone her skills on, though in recent years Lord Vader's applied zeal had finally begun to show as they became fewer and farther between, none in the last several years. In a strange sort of way, she missed it.
The concept of guilt was long since lost on her—it did not serve her master's needs.
Which did nothing to explain the Emperor's treatment of this particular enemy. Presumably the Jedi had something he needed—or perhaps it was part of some greater game. She glanced at her master who remained lost in thought, fascinated by the unconscious man, all his attentions focused there. What was he scheming—what did he want with him?
Aware of her intense curiosity, Palpatine glanced momentarily up to her and she lowered her eyes, turning away deferentially. That battle was long since won. Satisfied, he turned again to his new acquisition. It had been the threat which hung over all that he had accomplished, the Jedi Order's last great caveat; fulfillment of their precious prophesy—destruction of his own.
The Son of Suns.
They had thought it Lord Vader, but with a wonderful, twisted irony, Palpatine had proved to them how very wrong they were—so they had apparently hung their hopes for retribution on his son.
How they'd lied to hold sway over it. How they'd manipulated. How they'd bent and warped their precious Jedi ethics to suit their needs in the name of necessity... and what power they'd handed to Palpatine in doing so. Because now—now that he finally had this threat restrained and contained, now that he finally had the opportunity—he found he could not destroy it.
He knew he should—he should kill it now. Knew that absolutely, having come face to face with it at last.
But he couldn't quite bring himself to do so, not without making some effort to possess it. As with Vader, the temptation of controlling this much power was just too great. And in truth, wasn't this what Palpatine had always intended? To own this power?
Whether in the hands of Vader or his son was immaterial. What mattered was that he possessed it. This—this boy, hardly yet full-grown, their precious 'Son of Suns'—could just as effortlessly fulfill the Sith prophesies as he could theirs, just as his father had.
All of Palpatine's far-reaching plans—this was the missing link without which all else fell to dust. The opportunity which Kenobi had so long since denied him by his duel with Anakin was now possible again—by Kenobi's hand. How wonderfully ironic. It made possession that much sweeter.
But how to possess? How to make it yield to a new Master?
Had he held it ten years earlier, as he had its father, there would have been no question as to its loyalties now. But that opportunity was gone, stolen away by the Jedi, bane of all his careful plans. So how to go about twisting this mind to his own ends now? That he didn't know yet; that would take time—to learn, to exploit. To create the chains with which he would bind it.
It wouldn't be awed by his abilities or his position, and careful study of his spies' reports over the last three years suggested that the more pressure he brought to bear, the more the willful little creature would push back. If he needed further proof of that, then Lord Vader's encounter at Cloud City was a prime example.
He could offer it power—more power even than its father now held—was that a possible incitement? Position, perhaps; recognition—unequalled status? Assets and wealth? Though if it wanted those, it could have taken them in abundance long before now.
And pain alone wouldn't sway it; if that were the case, then Vader would have already triumphed. It was, after all, his forte. No, the boy wouldn't submit under duress of pain. Outrage would only feed his resolve at the moment.
And Vader had tried, presumably. Palpatine wasn't blind to his ambition, though he knew it was not a true threat—not without this boy. Vader's weakness had always been his lust for power: the power to excel, to change events to suit his own desires, to rise beyond his humble origins. It blinded him to all other considerations. But he lacked the resolve to carry those ambitions through with Palpatine, the chains which bound him too old and too deep-set. That was why he needed the boy—to accomplish what he knew he could not, mentally as well as physically.
Still, Vader would surely have offered more than Palpatine ever could at Bespin and it hadn't abandoned its principles, its companions. Perhaps that was his son's weakness… a Jedi's compassion; it cared too much. Always a terrible, hobbling flaw. Compassion was always the weak underbelly of the Jedi. Had it realized this?
Probably not; the boy's every act had illustrated its loyalty to its cause, its need to protect that with which it felt empathy. Its Rebellion, its comrades, even the Jedi tenets which had so bound and constricted it. Yes; compassion had made it trust, and trust had dragged it down to weakness.
Once he clarified the extent of Kenobi's deceptions—the depths he'd stooped to—the devious, hypocritical cruelty he'd committed in the name of his precious Jedi Order…would it turn away? Surely. Surely the boy would abandon any thought of allegiance—in its position, Palpatine would aid Kenobi's enemies out of spite. Revenge on those who had so callously used it.
And Palpatine would take that—it wasn't loyalty, but it was a start, a fracture point, a means in. He took one step closer, drawn in by this locus of power. Trained power—the boy was accomplished to some degree—not what he had expected. Vader had first encountered the boy three years ago above both Alderaan and Yavin, and had claimed that Obi-Wan had only begun his training, but this was not the awkward, unpolished potential he had anticipated. This was, to all intents and purposes, a Jedi.
He allowed a thin, gratified smile; it had been so long since he had sensed another Jedi. Far, far longer since he had sensed an adept of this power. He cackled knowingly at that; the boy's lifetime, in fact.
An even longer stretch since he'd had the opportunity to truly challenge his own abilities in this way; those without knowledge of the Force were so easy to manipulate and mold, broadcasting their every emotion but sensing nothing, floundering in the dark. But this—this would be a meeting of minds. A Jedi would read his intent as clearly as he read theirs.
With his father, Palpatine had held the luxury of time, investing years of subtle manipulation in the boy from early childhood. Forming a connection, dependence, an unbreakable bond. Now he had no such convenience; Vader's son was practically grown, with his own beliefs no matter how shaken, and his own will. He would never trust as his father had.
But trust wasn't necessary. Only obedience.
The unanticipated fact that he was trained was a curiosity, but of no lasting importance. He had turned Jedi before. Count Dooku had been gloriously, wilfully defiant in the face of Darkness… but everyone had a weakness. Once isolated—once the flaw was found and compounded—that iron resolve had crumbled so wonderfully.
Skywalker, like Dooku, would of course know what Palpatine was doing; that was always the challenge with Jedi. Which was why it had been so advantageous to loose Vader on him. He had needed to brutally dissect his life before he brought the boy before him. And to provide Skywalker with someone to rail against, of course—an enemy to concentrate that willful obstinacy on whilst removing it from himself, so that he remained always the principal authority, all his Jedi's attention and energies and anger carefully directed elsewhere.
A challenge was all well and good, but Palpatine had never believed in starting from a level playing field; it was not in his nature.
He again became aware of Jade's eyes on him and let his face settle into a neutral expression as he pulled his thoughts to more immediate concerns.
"Tell them to repair this," he said to her, indicating the bandaged remains of his Jedi's arm.
"Tonight?" Mara asked.
"Of course tonight," Palpatine snapped.
"The hand—is it…temporary?"
He knew what she was really asking, and why. So he smiled at her discreetness, rewarding her with a direct answer. "No, my dear, it is permanent—like my guest. Have them fit the very best. Nothing less will do for my new Jedi."
He looked again at the still-frail creature, resisting the urge to shake it awake. No doubt it would make its presence known from the moment it was.
"Mara; put a second detachment of my Royal Guards outside its door with the Palace Guards; it's more powerful than I thought. There are to be no mistakes."
"Yes, Master," she acknowledged. "But the lock's unbreachable. The room is a prison; he won't…"
He only needed to turn slightly towards her, not even bother to catch her eye. She was instantly silent.
"You will stay here at the Palace for the foreseeable future," he continued, as if she had not spoken. "You are now responsible for its imprisonment until I'm satisfied that it will stay where I put it."
It was a gamble, to place Mara in charge when only Vader could really control the boy, but she was capable and loyal, and whilst Vader's involvement was very much a part of his greater plan, Palpatine had no desire to have him anywhere near the Jedi until he himself had a far greater understanding of the situation. And Mara Jade herself had a part to play, eventually.
Jade scowled, eyes narrowing, and Palpatine smiled at her obvious distaste at being directed to waste her time on what she clearly believed a waste of her time. "Not this one," he assured darkly. "This one will carry my Empire forward. He will be all that his father should have been."
She frowned, her eyes rising to her master, and Palpatine leaned in, his tone half challenge and half disappointment. "Do you not sense it?"
"I know he's a Jedi."
He laughed, amused at her dismissive air. "No, child, he's more than that. All things bow to the power of the Force."
She waited, intensely curious now.
"His line is to the Jedi as yours is to an ape, my dear. They are the next evolutionary leap, compelled into being by direct intervention of the Force—connection beyond all that the Jedi envisioned. I'm surprised Kenobi taught him—he must truly have been desperate."
Mara glanced at the slight man, bruised and bloody, reassessing her view of him, cool green eyes narrowing in consideration.
Palpatine smiled, eager anticipation tingeing his words with dark intent. "I have a formidable task before me, I feel."
He had forgotten the thrill of facing a worthy adversary; a genuine, unpredictable threat. The command of his Empire paled by comparison. Unable to resist, he reached out intending to rest trembling fingers against the boy's temples, the action bringing a stray memory unbidden to his mind—of the boy's father; of finding him burned and mutilated on Mustafar.
He had reached out then to check that his new apprentice would live—in more ways than one. If Anakin's connection to the Force had been too badly diminished by his injuries… well then, what use would he have been to Palpatine? He would have simply walked away; left the boy to burn. He had clearly failed to defeat the Jedi who had gone after him—if his connection to the Force had also been substantially severed, as was oftentimes the case in such extreme injuries, then his usefulness would have been at an end.
But it had not been the case. Much had been lost, but Anakin's connection had always been intense, so that he still held more power than any Jedi. And now he had a reason to hate—now Anakin and Palpatine's aims were the same, though for different reasons; the destruction of the Jedi. Kenobi's act had bound Anakin to him more finally than anything Palpatine could have done; his inability to finish what he had begun, whether from the compassionate weakness of a friend or some instant of vindictive hatred fuelled by betrayal, had given Palpatine the greatest tool he had ever possessed. And he had used it without compunction.
And now, incredibly, Kenobi's actions had brought an even greater instrument to Palpatine's attention. A line he had thought irrevocably broken was reinstated. An opportunity long-lost suddenly within his grasp again.
Palpatine hesitated, a new consideration presenting itself: did Vader know? Did he see his successor in his son?
Did he realize that in his need to reclaim that which he saw as his, Vader had created the potential for Palpatine to reach it—the weakness which would enable him to breach those resolute defenses? Did he recognize that Palpatine would sacrifice Vader to gain Skywalker just as willingly as he had once sacrificed Dooku to gain Vader?
If so, then he said nothing, obedient to the end. Would his son be as tractable—as malleable?
Hand resting on the boy's forehead, Palpatine reached out with the Force to touch this locus of power…
—and was thrown back, mentally and physically, as if touching a live wire, the unconscious boy wrenching away from him.
Mara stepped quickly forward, though Palpatine did not lose his footing, gesturing her away, grinning as he stepped back, resting his hand again on his Jedi's forehead, this time leaning all of his mental abilities into subduing the boy.
Eyelids flickering, it resisted momentarily, but in its drugged state this was no cognitive defense, only subconscious instinct—opposing aspects of the Force too dissimilar to maintain contact, like oil on water—and under Palpatine's concerted effort, this was subdued and the boy slowed and stilled again.
But how wonderful that it would fight him even now, without hope of victory, like a reflex action. Would it struggle when he came to break it? Would it rail against him? Did it understand how pointless that would be?
Did it know that it would lose that battle too?
Had they told it that the more it fought, the closer to the Darkness it would edge, because it could only fight fire with fire, and the fire that gave heat would also burn?
When the boy finally settled slack, Palpatine released his hold, long fingers trailing across the grazed skin of its cheek.
Would he yet have to kill it?
What a waste… if he did, he would ensure that it had a worthy death. A blaze of glory; a fitting end for the last Jedi.
The slightest touch of a smile lifted the corners of his thin lips at some realization—remembrance of earlier musings—yes; and something could be salvaged, even then.
The door to the detention cell slid open, Leia scrabbling upright in reaction, face already composed into a meaty scowl for whoever entered.
Two Imperial officers did so, completely unimpressed. "Up. You're to come with us," the older man said, already turning away again.
"Where are my friends?" Leia said, remaining where she was.
"I have no idea—I wasn't sent for them," he said, cold, disinterested expression changing not a whit.
"I'm not going anywhere until I know where they are." She kept her voice firm, resolute in this; if they wanted her to move, they were going to have to carry her. And just let them get close enough to do that…
The officer sighed, glanced momentarily at his companion. "The Commander said you'd be awkward. He said you'd change your tune if we were to tell you where you were going."
Leia arched her eyebrows in doubting query.
"He said to clarify; the injured man who arrived on the shuttle—you're being taken to see him."
Injured?…did they mean…
"Luke?" Leia stood at this, anxious hope replacing stubbornness. "Where is he?"
"In his apartments. I'm ordered to take you there."
In the anticipation of the moment this passed by unnoticed, Leia setting forward, willing to comply for the opportunity to see Luke.
Stormtroopers and guards eyed her with cold disinterest as she exited from the turbolift to be walked the short distance to a second checkpoint between the Detention Centre and Palace above, permissions closely checked and confirmed before she was released.
Then she was up in the Palace, four stormtroopers accompanying the two officers, walked along separate, empty walkways obviously restricted to military personnel but open to the Palace beyond, everything there exactly as she remembered from her infrequent visits with her father. Level upon level of bureaucracy, bustling with its own overblown sense of importance, blind to the anguish it caused to the daily lives of ordinary people—or worse, uncaring, imbued with the power to overwhelm any resistance, great or small.
She had always hated it here, in this house of mirrors and manipulations—long before she knew anything of the resistance or Palpatine or her father's covert political views—she had always hated it here.
She passed through all this self-serving wealth and outrageous opulence without a sideways glance, feeling gratefully out of place.
They traveled for a long time, reaching the apex of the Main Palace, which housed the vast six-level hall with its grand marble and wrought-metal staircases sweeping graciously, curve upon curve, to the heavily-guarded bottleneck of the Tower entry and the cavernous space of the high, pillared and vaulted Crossways which linked the Towers above, guards changing at this point from the white of general stormtroopers to the royal blue of Palace livery, then finally the deep scarlet of the Royal Guard.
They were now further into the Habitation Towers than Leia had ever been, traveling through restricted levels, security checks more and more frequent. Despite her unease, Leia hadn't failed to note that permission for her entry to the Towers had been given by a Level Two security clearance; that meant a high-ranking member of the Emperor's personal entourage. As they continued to walk, she was running through the list in her head—it was barely more than a dozen—beginning to doubt very much that she was really being taken to see Luke at all, judging from the opulent surroundings.
They finally stopped outside the grand double-doors of a huge private apartment high in the… West Tower, she thought, trying to maintain her sense of direction.
It was lavish and luxurious, the pale, marble-lined hallway within practically big enough to fly Han's precious Falcon down without a scratch. Incredibly well-appointed, notably placed… she held her breath, uncertain who would command such a privileged position within the Emperor's retinue.
A slim, lithe redhead stepped smoothly towards her from what looked like a staff wing just within the apartment, her smooth, gliding stride radiating confidence. She had striking russet hair and flawless porcelain skin, set off by brilliant emerald green eyes—but there was a coldness to them, a sense of guarded detachment so common to so many here, her icy gaze taking Leia in and summing her up in a glance
Leia gave the same look back, neither impressed by what they saw.
"And this is?" the redhead prompted, turning to Leia's guard.
"Leia Organa—the Commander asked to see her," the older officer replied smartly—though the woman wore no uniform, she was obviously very much in charge here.
"When?" the redhead asked, frowning.
"An hour ago."
"Then you're late," the redhead replied, turning about on her heel and entering that long, tall central corridor of the apartment, Leia being ushered forward by a none-too-gentle push from behind.
She glanced down the wide hallway which opened up to a circular crossroad within the apartment, its high ceiling set with a huge glass domed atrium, different cuts and facets forming a complex pattern which reflected and refracted onto matching geometric tiles of pale marble on the floor beneath. This opened up to four long corridors, stretching so far as to make Leia realize that the apartment must cover the entire floor of the Tower. She was marched quickly past room after room which led off from either side, open doors revealing cavernous spaces with long banks of high windows, sharp daylight streaming in from the bright spring morning beyond.
Past grand reception rooms and dark-walled studies, a vast, barrel-ceilinged library, old-fashioned hard-copy books lining floor-to-ceiling shelves, a more contemporary storage system taking an entire wall in its span, pale blue light ridging the edges of hundreds of data cards, art and historic artifacts casually placed about the surfaces.
Conference rooms, social rooms, a substantial, imposing formal dining room to her right beyond the circular crossroads, dark, patinated bird's-eye iroko wood paneling the walls, wide slabs of polished burr-elm on the floor, interspersed with inky darrick banding.
And then into a series of private rooms beyond the public face of the apartment. The first was also wood-paneled, the dark, carved walls of Macassar ebony reaching well above head-height, scagliola-polished plaster of deepest damson-red continuing up to the towering vaulted ceiling, the inlaid marble floor glossy black veined with cream and bound with sweeping, fluid lines of copper inlay.
Incredible, luxuriant wealth, displayed with no real desire to impress in these personal spaces, but simply because this was what the inhabitant was accustomed to. Casual affluence, comfortable and effortless, hinting at the privileged life lived within; a polished, tooled-silver autoreader and several memory chips left casually to one end of a grand table in the private dining hall, the heavy, carved chair pushed back.
Then she was through into a lofty, arched-ceilinged withdrawing room, immense in scale, one wall a bank of heavily-reinforced windows, a deep stone-balustraded balcony enjoying an uninterrupted view of the Palace roof gardens far below and the distant city beyond. This room too had a tall, all-glass bookcase with hard-copy books inside, all the furniture here scaled up to the imposing proportions of the room, walls hung with a sumptuously embossed, dark taupe vinesilk, heavy fur rugs on the marble floor, a fire set in the massive hearth against the chill of the spring morning.
And on, into the next room, the officers stopping respectfully as she continued forward with the slim woman into a bedroom, split onto two levels, the lower one where she stood now close to the long, curving bank of tall windows and those breathtaking views beyond. To the back of the huge room the higher level was thickly carpeted, whilst nearer to her, the floor was a dark chocolate and sand polished fossil-stone which extended into an open corridor at the far side, the walls within a fine mosaic of rich browns and inky black terrazzo.
The furniture here was aesthetic and timeless and unmistakably masculine; sizable, heavy, burred wood pieces on sturdy polished copper feet, all suited, all faultless, casually scattered with trinkets from various planets; clearly a very private, personal room.
Frowning, Leia glanced to the huge bed which rested in the center of the raised area, white linen sheets perfectly arranged about its occupant, the surrounding technology of angular metal medical equipment arrayed about the bed's head at odds with the organic nature of the room.
Unwilling to go any further, Leia craned her neck slightly… and realized who it was, her feet setting forward of their own volition, her voice broken in recognition, "L—Luke?"
Leia was by his side in an instant, hand reaching out to rest lightly on his shoulder, hoping to wake him, knowing deep down that it was a futile gesture. She gently brushed his fringe from his eyes, his eyelids fluttering just slightly in response.
"What have you done to him?" Leia glanced up accusingly.
"Spare me the indignant outrage," the redhead countered, unmoved. "You'd change your tune soon enough if you knew..."
As if realizing she had spoken out of turn, the woman searched for a rationalization of her words, adding a faltering explanation. "that…we were…..taking care of him. He came out of his second surgery last night—his third, apparently, since Bespin…"
Leia stared, uncertain what the woman had sought to conceal.
A slight, dark-haired medic walked into the room carrying a tech reader and frowning at the redhead as he glanced to the doors on passing through them. "What's going on, where are all the… who are you talking to?" He glanced to the bed and noticed Leia, then started forward, hands out. "No, no. I'm sorry, no visitors—not yet."
Leia needed long seconds to place him as the medic who had first rushed forward when Luke had collapsed onboard the Millennium Falcon, after… after Vader...
He set forward, clearly familiar with this whole strange scenario.
"The Commander authorized it," the curt redhead said, her words stopping the medic in his tracks as his confused eyes turned from her to Luke.
"The Commander? When?"
"About an hour ago, apparently. Said he wanted to see her—I have no idea why," she added dryly.
"No, he didn't," the medic countered, turning back to Luke. "He hasn't woken yet."
Leia frowned, confused, glancing back to the redhead. Who was the Commander? Why would he allow her to see Luke?
The redhead narrowed those green eyes, glancing to the door. "Wait here. Watch her."
She strode meaningfully out, expression like thunder, leaving Leia with the distinct feeling that she was about to be marched back down to her cell again absolutely none the wiser. She looked quickly back down, whispering Luke's name again, hand to his cheek. No response. Aware of his eyes on her, she turned sharply back up to the medic, who grinned and stepped forward, unabashed.
"Please forgive me; protocol isn't my strong suit—a malady shared by most medics, I'm afraid. I'm Hallin, the Commander's physician." He took another step forward, still smiling genuinely, expression expectant.
It occurred to Leia that he hadn't recognized her—there were no guards here and she still wore her own civilian clothes—he didn't remember who she was. Leia glanced mutely back down; as well as the mysterious Commander's, was this man also Luke's physician—was that why he was here? But why assign a medic to him, let alone one of this status? More importantly, why was Luke here at all, and not in the Detention Center?
She stepped forward graciously, intending to find out. "Leia. I'm a friend of Luke's—a close friend."
"Ah," the medic acknowledged. "From the Palace?"
Leia had to fight to hide her frown; how could the man possibly believe that Luke had friends within the Palace? "Do you…you do know who you're treating here?"
The medic raised his eyebrows in surprised response, leaning in as if sharing some secret. "Yes… do you?"
Leia hesitated, unsure what to make of that, though her tone remained indignant, giving away none of her confusion. "Of course I do—I just told you, we're old friends."
The medic backed down completely at this. "Of course—forgive me, I'm afraid I'm new to Palace life; protocol and such. Who does and doesn't know."
Bringing her most regal, authoritarian air to bear, Leia smiled graciously as she spoke. If there was one thing she could do, it was stately formality. "I quite understand. How is he?"
Patently unsure as to who she was, but recognizing and responding to a well-bred upper-class accent and attitude, the medic seemed to settle, looking to his charge. "He's um… he's stable now. Comfortable."
Leia glanced down to hide her frown; Comfortable..? Why would the Empire want their number one Most Wanted enemy comfortable? Why would they put him in lavish, extensive private apartments in the Imperial Palace, completely unguarded, doors wide open? She stared at the man for several long seconds, trying unsuccessfully to pull the pieces together.
"I'm sorry—why is he here?" she finally blurted, unable to hide her confusion.
Fortunately, Hallin completely misunderstood, turning to check the medical readouts. "Oh, the Emperor commanded that he be brought back to his own quarters to recover—I'm sure you know that he's been on an extended mission, away from the Palace for some time apparently. He quite rightly thought it would be best for the Commander to recuperate in more familiar surroundings, now that the last of his surgeries is complete."
He glanced meaningfully down at Luke's right side and Leia, still thrown from the medic's referral to Luke by rank, only now noticed the perfect prosthetic replacement for his severed hand, a clean white medi-strip wrapped about the point where artificial skin was grafted onto real flesh. She reached tentatively out to touch it; it felt warm beneath her fingers, skin on skin.
"It's the very latest prosthesis—almost as many nerves as the real thing—and the skin is lab-matched. Quite amazing," the medic enthused, completely missing the one real point: He shouldn't have needed it, Leia thought.
"Why did you do this?" she said, frowning at last.
"Oh, I'm so sorry—the Commander lost his hand in… a recent… action. Didn't you know?"
The medic was right; diplomacy wasn't his strong suit.
"Yes, I did know—and I know who did it. I know everything." Leia couldn't keep the anger from her voice at the medic's carefully modulated reply, as if the Empire had nothing to do with Luke's injuries.
"You know?" he hedged, obviously uncertain how to react.
"Vader's many things but moderate isn't one of them," Leia said.
"…Yes." He seemed deeply uncomfortable at Leia's direct mention of Vader, half-glancing behind him as his voice softened, as if worried that they'd be overheard. "The Commander's relationship with his father is rather…volatile…"
Leia blinked. "I'm sorry?"
A towering, blue-skinned Chagrian chose that moment to come bursting into the room with a second uniformed man and the two Imperial Officers. Leia narrowed her eyes as they entered, recognizing only Mas Amedda, Chancellor of the Emperor's Court, well known to the Alliance's Intelligence Agency. The unknown man was already speaking as he entered.
"Hallin, you're sure that the Commander couldn't have woken this morning?" Amedda walked briskly forward, all business, eyes pausing only briefly on Leia.
"Quite sure." Seeming as surprised as Leia was at this sudden flurry of action, the medic turned again to his medical readouts, activating a projection screen to check his facts. "Yes—quite sure."
Leia had turned back to stare at Luke, mind swimming in a sea of confusion, still trying to fathom the meaning of the medic's previous words, so casually spoken, the whole morning strangely surreal. The obvious conclusion to draw was that Luke and Vader… But that was wrong, of course—he was wrong or she'd misunderstood. Yes, misunderstood. The conversation carried on about her, distant to her ears.
"I'm telling you, Chancellor Cordo said that he'd been in here this morning, speaking to him," the older officer said, his tone that of someone being asked to validate the same question over and over.
Amedda frowned at that. "The Emperor's aide?"
"Yes. He said the Commander was awake and had ordered Leia Organa to be brought up here. I'm just doing as I was told."
Strangely, this seemed to make the Chancellor hesitate for long seconds, eyes turning to Luke again. Finally, he made up his mind. "Well, now I'm telling you to take her back down. If the Commander wakes and asks to see her again, which I seriously doubt, I'll have her brought up again."
Finally, it permeated through Leia's shocked thoughts… the Commander… the Commander that everyone was speaking about was Luke! There was no second Commander who had issued the order to bring her here; they were speaking about Luke as if he could give out orders…as if they knew him!
The officer bowed his head and clicked his heels together in military acknowledgement, starting toward Leia. Her eyes remained on Luke in shocked silence until the officer took her arm and hauled her away, .
Bewildered, Nathan Hallin turned to watch in confused alarm as the unknown woman was practically dragged from the room. He turned to Mas Amedda as he made to leave. "I'm sorry—is she not a friend of the Commander?"
The Chagrian turned icy eyes on him. "She was—she's not anymore," he said simply, not bothering to wait for a reply.
As ordered, Mara had waited outside the apartments for Amedda before returning to the Op's Suite two stories up, the Emperor still staring at the virtual screens showing Skywalker's quarters from various viewpoints, Hallin now tending to his patient, oblivious.
"Your timing was impeccable as ever, Amedda," Palpatine rewarded as they entered, bowing to his back.
"It remains to be seen whether she'll believe it, Excellency. She only has the medic's word for it—and that obscurely," he replied, studying the images.
Ignored where she stood slightly to one side, Mara narrowed her eyes, sure that something was being kept from her—why bother making Amedda curtail the Rebel woman's visit when Mara could so easily have returned and broken up the discussion at the relevant moment?
"She'll piece it together—she was always an intelligent young woman." Palpatine smiled, scrolling through images on another virtual screen until he found her whereabouts, being marched down corridors towards the Main Palace and the Detention Center below, scowling in confusion, rare white-armoured stormtroopers before and behind her. One of the officers reached out to grab her arm as she walked too far ahead and she jerked free, turning to deliver some unheard diatribe at her captors.
"I thought we would have to wait forever for the medic to tell her," Palpatine murmured at last, amused.
Mara turned again from the screen. Tell her what? Hadn't this been to persuade the Rebel Princess that her precious Jedi was actually an Imperial agent, sent by Palpatine to infiltrate the Rebellion—though why exactly that was important escaped Mara.
"What needed to be said?" Mara asked at last, still uncomfortable that she had been ordered to hide all the guards and unlock all the doors to his apartments, presenting them as genuine quarters rather than a heavily-fortified prison.
What if he had woken? It would have been her who would have been responsible for containing an irate Jedi rampaging through the Palace Towers. Hallin said he had woken twice onboard the Executor when he was supposedly drugged with custom-developed sedatives.
"You worry too much, child," Palpatine said, not hiding the fact that he was listening to her thoughts, as he always did.
She never hid them, not from him—which was why he trusted her. Not that she could anyway; he had taught her everything she knew about the Force, taught her to put up shields about her mind, to hide knowledge and intent even from Lord Vader. But he had not taught her one fraction of what he knew—which was also why he trusted her.
"This way was better," Palpatine said. "A little spontaneity goes a long way. She'll find no artifice in the medic's actions because there was none. You had your task and Amedda had his—and I'm sure neither of you would ever disappoint me."
He didn't look to her as he issued the last, confidence and demand both, as subtle yet as crystal clear as ever. Mara didn't react; she'd heard the same abstruse threats since childhood, when she'd first been brought to the Palace, her rare abilities making her an ideal candidate for her master's exacting requirements.
"But is it enough to make her believe that he's an Imperial agent?" Mara said. Intelligence suggested that Organa knew Skywalker well; had for years—she wouldn't be easily swayed.
"Will she tell the Alliance leadership everything?" Amedda added at last, bringing Mara's inquisitive gaze to him. Everything?
The Emperor smiled confidently, his answer vague enough to reply to both Amedda and Mara's questions equally. "Oh, I'm sure she'll find countless reasons not to at first. But I'll give her equal reasons to question that view. She'll believe eventually, and tell her precious Rebellion—she's too loyal not to. And the truth has a way of outing—Skywalker is proof of that."
Mara nodded, confident that her master's plans—whatever they really were—would come to fruition at his designated pace. They always did.
Palpatine walked purposefully down the wide, high corridors in the palatial West Tower to Skywalker's quarters, guards becoming more and more in evidence as he grew closer, his pulse quickening, senses heightening in anticipation of the task ahead.
Today more than ever he bristled with dark intent. Today he faced his Jedi. Today the battle lines would be drawn. Subtly though—he knew the boy from long study. Always from afar; information from agents and spies and second-hand accounts, but he had a good sense of how this battle would need to be fought. Nothing too overt—the boy would bridle at that—this would be a subtler game, a slow subversion. Death of a thousand cuts, plans hidden within plans; some distant, some immediate.
Some underway already—if his acerbic little Princess would be so good as to carry the information Palpatine had provided her with back to her Rebellion. He had carefully scattered clues and traces to be found by them, both in their precious little Rebellion and further afield, when they began to look eventually. There would be no going back for his new Jedi. He would make sure of that.
His thoughts went momentarily back to the Princess—to her vague attenuation within the Force, very much like Mara, his wonderful, cruel, pitiless assassin. His 'Hand' when she fulfilled his orders far from the Core Systems, in delicate situations which required a certain… distance.
He had trained many Hands over the years—people of exceptional ability with an affinity to the Force—agents who would travel the Empire carrying out his will, hearing his voice, replying in kind. Though he took care only to give enough knowledge to serve—never sufficient to represent even a passing complication.
Leia Organa could be taught, if he had the inclination. Not too much—just enough to be useful.
But not now—now, she would fulfill his plans far better by running back to her Rebellion and spreading suspicions. She was high enough in the hierarchy there to be trusted, even over their precious hero—their vaunted 'Destroyer of the Death Star.' It would necessitate someone of her status to override their reluctance; someone who actually knew him, who clearly had her doubts, even as she betrayed him.
Yes; one must be prepared to surrender a few pawns in the greater game, and Palpatine was certainly willing to give up the opportunity to train another Hand in order to cut his Jedi's connections with the Rebellion. He had Jade,and that was enough for now. She too had a specific role in his future plans. Which was why he needed her here, with his Jedi. She would doubtless object privately, but she would never voice her frustrations.
Meanwhile, Palpatine could concentrate on Skywalker. On the subtle war of words and wills which would begin today. On the web he would weave about him, pulling him in ever further with contradictions and insinuations—though in this instance they were hardly needed. Skywalker's own twisted, shattered life was desolate enough; realization of his coldly calculating betrayal by the Jedi he had so willingly trusted would surely be feeling like a knife in his heart right now.
Because that was the truth, the actual, wonderful, glorious, ironic truth. Palpatine had been given this Jedi. He had been handed it on a plate, the key to opening the path down into its own dark shadows so considerately provided by Kenobi. Because Kenobi had lied to it; had committed the greatest sin possible in depriving a stolen child of its father and then compounded that sin by lying not only about the boy's lineage, but just as importantly about his own involvement, in his efforts to control the boy.
Did he really believe he could keep a truth like that hidden?
Oh, the boy would still resist; he would still fight, Palpatine knew. But it would be a reflex action, the final fragments of a shattered life. A pale shadow of the unassailable conviction which would have built his resistance had he not sustained this gaping wound of Kenobi's making, this soul-deep weakness which now overwrote every other consideration.
Because now, when they finally faced each other, his Jedi would carry within him a terrible, destructive flaw, too great to even begin to process yet. And Palpatine would give him no time to do so, no moment's grace to come to terms with the chaos of confusion. In this moment he would be desperately lost. Loss of faith in those he trusted, loss of identity in the face of cold reality, loss of certitude, questioning his belief in his own ability to withstand the Darkness.
This was Palpatine's task when they finally faced; to use what Kenobi had so considerately provided. To search out further weakness, any flaw which could be exploited. To gently, infinitesimally, begin to nudge his Jedi's perspective away from where it stood now, towards Darkness. To take away the final fragments of hope; now, whilst the boy was still willing to listen. To shatter his belief that Palpatine's will was escapable, then to rip away by any means his last vestiges of control and see what the boy would do; whether he truly had his father's blood in his veins.
And that was the gamble; to push too hard too soon would only alienate when Palpatine needed to maintain an open dialogue between them; establish a precedent of such which would remain no matter what.
But he also had to fix the rules of their future relationship from the outset: that he was the Master, invincible and unassailable, and any divergence from his rules, no matter how small, would be swiftly and violently curtailed.
No warnings, no degrees of response.
He was the Master and his word was absolute.
Such complex contradictions to weave into these first meetings of minds, a careful line to be tread. But this had always been Palpatine's forte, to subjugate and dominate, to manipulate to his advantage, to break those around him to his will, instinctively knowing what would be required to dissect the mind within.
Breaking a mind was easy, of course, and so amusing, to push another to the brink again and again, physically and mentally. To see just how many times one could do that before the mind within snapped. The challenge now, however, was to do so in such a way that it could be rebuilt. Reshaped to Palpatine's purpose.
He had never had the opportunity to do this with its father—not like this, all plays out in the open, intent and counter, consequences clear, nothing hidden.
This was the art of the game. And this he would enjoy.
He entered its quarters, heavily-guarded again now, glancing about, aware of its presence just two locked rooms away, knowing in that same instant that it was aware of his.
It was slow though; still tired, still recovering from surgery and drugs, woken only a short time earlier and not yet having been allowed to leave that single room. But it hadn't reacted at this—hadn't struggled or objected—perhaps because it knew it wasn't capable yet. Maybe it realized that Palpatine was near—or was this in recognition of its surroundings, which were hardly contentious?
Perhaps it simply acknowledged the inevitable.
His awareness of it dimmed now as it raised mental barriers in defense, and he smiled, amused; as if they would make a difference. But let it feel safe—for now.
Sitting quietly in a chair by the inches-thick window, dressed in the only clothes they had given him, Luke gazed out watching the evening light wane into the night, lost in thought, his left hand rubbing absently at his forehead to ease the pressure there.
He was dressed in black, a color he seldom wore. A fitted, stand-collared shirt of smooth, refined cortal linen, with tiny, hand-woven vinesilk knots forming buttons which ran halfway down the center front, the braided loops which fastened them made of the same, their decorative cord looping in finely-stitched, intricate patterns about the front of the shirt. He'd left them all open, hot and claustrophobic despite the grand proportions of the room, the intricately topstitched, high collar hanging loose, the fine fabric cool against his skin. The trousers too were black, flawlessly tailored, the fabric heavier and closely woven. Even the boots, of a soft, supple hide he didn't recognize, were perfectly fitted, handmade to the highest quality, subtly stitched, black-on-black.
He felt deeply, uncomfortably out of place in them, awkward and self-conscious, aware that the shirt alone probably cost more than Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen would have earned in a year on Tatooine. Lost in their darkness, a pale shadow smothered and swallowed up by their casual opulence. Was this too mind games, as the room doubtless was? Designed to set him ill-at-ease, make him feel out of his depth. Or was it simply to illustrate what was on offer?
What would the Sith do when Luke refused, he wondered.
He knew Palpatine was Sith—knew it without doubt now. It had always been whispered within Intelligence circles; had been an open secret for years. And now, here, aware in a way he had never been before—he knew.
He could sense that something…resided here. It brooded in the dead of night and the bright light of day, its intensity overriding all else. Not like Vader though—that was a massive locus in the Force, a hulking knot of Dark intent too great to ignore. This shadow writhed and twisted, defying quantification, at once massive and intangible and infinitely dangerous. It enclosed and enveloped, like a pressure change, like the still before the storm.
What should he do? What could he do?
He had no idea…absolutely no idea.
Luke reached out with his senses, but only Darkness answered, smug and self-satisfied, completely confident. Completely alien—he had no experience of this, no idea how to combat it. And it was everywhere here, blanketing everything in that dense, impenetrable fog, isolating and limiting, subtly hindering. To withstand it—just that, just to hold it at bay—took every ounce of applied concentration. His abilities seemed strangely muted here, contact with the Force hard to maintain, swirling away from him, lost in the sea of Darkness which pushed inwards, a perpetual pressure looking for any weakness, any ingress.
Consideration of this constant, grinding weight made him rub at his temples again, though it did nothing to ease the pressure, his focus pulled taut as he strained to hold his concentration against it. And still the storm grew nearer…
—What do I do?—
Luke pulled his hand away, still trembling with weakness. What should I do?
More than anything else, his thoughts were with his friends now. Realization of Vader's warning that they were a weakness, hammered home. His heart burned in his chest at that fear. Fear that the Emperor would use them—fear that it would work.
How could it not?
The sound of the heavy double doors releasing dragged him from his reverie and he turned to see the red-haired woman, hard eyes glaring at him.
"The Emperor commands your presence." She lifted an arm pointedly, indicating the door.
Swallowing once against his dry throat, gathering what weary wits he had about him, Luke rose and walked forward, aware of the towering, silent Royal Guards who flanked him one step back as he crossed the threshold.
He walked through a second cavernous room, cold and unwelcoming despite lavish furnishings, and a second set of tall doors grated open, far too heavy to be the carved wooden panels they appeared.
Into a third room with his silent, imposing escort, this one very much inhabited, its occupant blaring out through the Force, a locus of power so great that Luke flinched involuntarily.
Darkness, thick and roiling, almost a physical thing this close to its wielder, obscuring everything. The expansive room in no way diminished the Sith's crooked frame as he stood to one side close to the fireplace, at ease in the shadows: kindred spirits.
A huge fire was lit in the hearth; bone-white wood cracked and popped, made brittle by the flame. Heat roared as it buffeted and baked the air in the grand hearth, easily high enough that Luke could have stepped beneath the lintel without bending, its amber flicker overriding the low lights of the huge room to make the shadows dance in darkness.
Strangely, the long table to the centre of the chamber was set for dinner, two chairs placed at opposite ends, footmen waiting nervously.
The Emperor—the Sith—turned as Luke entered…to smile benignly, though the shadows of the fire played cruel tricks on his ravaged features, giving the expression a dangerous edge. Still, he bowed his head just slightly…and Luke, at a complete loss for words and uncertain what else to do, did the same.
"Jedi," the Sith acknowledged, his voice thin and reedy; rasping.
He wore long, richly decorated robes in darkest crewel-worked ruby, and a heavy mantle of raven black. A high collar pushed at the pale, waxen flesh of his neck, bone-white hand gripping a polished, twisted cane which clicked on the stone floor as he used it for support—though like Master Yoda, Luke suspected it was more for effect than necessity.
The Sith took a halting step forward, a flurry of heavy cloth whispering against the polished marble floor, then paused, staring intently at his captive.
Ashen and frail, aware that the exertion of the short walk had reduced him to trembling uncontrollably, his heart pounding so loud he could hear it catch in his breaths, Luke wondered at the insignificant image he projected.
"You should sit," the Emperor said obligingly, bringing Luke's gaze up in surprise.
Palpatine walked to settle into the far chair, nodding at the woman, who bowed and left, affording Luke a brief glimpse of the brightly-lit corridor beyond. His mind sharpened a little, dragging itself awake at the opportunity.
Six. Six guards against the far wall of the corridor, weapons held ready at the open door—but he was sure he sensed far more than that. They must be on either side of the door too.
"Did you hear me?" It wasn't quite a challenge, but it brought Luke's eyes back to the Emperor.
"I heard you."
Had he said that, so casually? His first words, given boldness by the fact that his mind was elsewhere. Still he didn't move.
Palpatine tilted his head, unimpressed; amused even. "Then stand. We'll see which one of us falls first."
Luke remained still for several seconds, his head swimming. How had he managed to get into a war of wills already? Don't do it—don't get into a fight you can't win over nothing.
Palpatine noted how the boy tried to disguise the extent of his own fragility as he walked shakily to the chair, left hand extended to steady himself before he reached it. His Jedi sat, collapsing back in exhaustion, looking out from heavily-hooded eyes, dwarfed by the towering guards who stepped to either side.
He smiled, content. "There are twelve."
At the momentary frown which brushed the boy's wary features, he clarified. "Twelve guards—a full complement. There is also a garrison in the room at the end of the hallway: a further twenty-four guards. They hold to nine-hour shifts in the corridors outside. They know what you are and what you're capable of. None will hesitate."
He continued, quite happy to volunteer this information as his first reward in acknowledgment of the fact that the boy had done as he'd been commanded. It was of little use other than to spell out how unlikely his escape was and anyway, the contest was between himself and his Jedi; lesser beings were of little importance—they served only to clarify Palpatine's own resolve. "There are a further eighteen battalions assigned to this Habitation Tower—the same to each of the others. These rooms have been designed specifically for you—a prison to hold a Jedi. My Jedi. Specifically where I want him."
Ignoring the obvious taunt, Luke leaned back, resting his aching right hand on the carved arm of the chair, feeling deathly tired. For long seconds neither spoke, Palpatine simply watching him. The still silence stretched and Luke blinked slowly, feeling no need to break it.
Time trickled in silent anticipation…
Luke lifted a heavy, trembling hand to his temple, to…
A shock of pain ran the length of his arm and lit fireworks in his mind, the memory pulling his eyes to his right hand.
He'd woken to the shooting pain of fresh surgery, a clinical white dressing about his forearm, the same slight, olive-skinned medic from the Star Destroyer telling him to take care as he'd struggled to hold it out before him, clumsy and trembling, turning his arm about to study the perfect replica. In seconds, he'd had to drop the arm, cradling it in his left hand against the incredible dull heaviness. It had felt warm in his real hand, though he had no sensation from it beside needle-fine stabs of pain where he touched it.
He tried again now to move his fingers; they tingled like pins and needles, every nerve white hot yet strangely numb, as if he were wearing a thick, heavy glove which dulled senses and restricted movement. Awkward, jerky movement flexed the fingers, at once completely familiar yet disturbingly alien.
Palpatine's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Feeling will return over the next few weeks as nerves heal and your mind learns how to control it. I'm sure you're a quick study." There was the amusement of double meaning in his voice at this last comment.
Luke glanced up, unsure how to react, and the Emperor arranged a benign smile on those ravaged features.
"Lord Vader is…effective, but hardly subtle. Akin to using a blunt instrument. I gave him only the command to bring you here."
Did he expect gratitude? Luke bristled at this, the scowl pulling fine lines about his eyes.
His mind was clearing now, that first rush of blind panic subsiding, his anger at Palpatine's remark and his own stubborn refusal to be intimidated affording him a burst of adrenaline. Still, a little of Yoda's teaching had rubbed off: where previously Luke would have immediately gone on the offensive, now, he had the good grace to find his center, relax tense muscles and wait this out.
Watching closely, Palpatine narrowed his eyes in consideration, and Luke did likewise, wary, aware that he was being studied.
"Eat," the Emperor prompted at last, one hand casually extended, palm up.
"I'm not hungry," Luke said simply without even looking to the table.
Which seemed to amuse Palpatine immensely—as if some private joke were being played out before his eyes. "Of course you are. I thought you served as a soldier in your petty little Rebellion. Did they teach you nothing? A soldier always eats when given the opportunity—he never knows when the next meal will come."
Luke only blinked without moving, refusing to be drawn.
"Very well. The choice is yours," Palpatine dismissed, turning to nod at the servant who stepped forward to fill the goblet before him with wine, his counterpart doing the same beside Luke.
When they had stepped back, Palpatine glanced at them and the Red Guards who had remained behind Luke.
"Leave," he commanded simply, turning his eyes on Luke as the guards walked from the room, followed by the bowing servers.
The moment hung for a long time, expectant…
It had of course occurred to Luke that there were now no guards to stop him either turning and making an escape attempt or launching himself across the table at his captor. Preferably both.
But the fact that Palpatine had allowed this meant that he had also planned for it. One didn't rise to rule an Empire by failing to consider consequences, and whatever else he thought the Emperor, Luke didn't for a moment think him stupid. And the truth was that at the moment he doubted very much whether he could reach the door at the far side of the cavernous room—even without intervention.
So he remained still.
Finally, when the Emperor had seen that Luke had worked this moment through, he settled back, content. "Apparently you have learned something."
Luke remained impassive, allowing the conversation to be led. Palpatine had presumably brought him here to say something, and he believed he knew what. Still, the silence stretched for a long time until Luke finally felt he had to speak.
As was his nature, he came straight to the point. "What do you want?"
Palpatine smiled pointedly. "Want? I already have everything that I want."
Luke recoiled slightly at the inference, but held his peace, surprising himself at his calm.
"Then I presume there's something you have to say to me?" He wished this over—wanted Palpatine to ask the question so that he could refuse. No plays, no delaying of the inevitable. He would rather deal with the reality of his situation than play these mocking games.
"No," Palpatine said simply, without further elaboration, leaving Luke to frown, uncertain now.
"Then why am I here?" he asked across the divide.
Palpatine watched closely, aware that the boy's only reaction to date, quickly quashed, had been on this: "I simply wished to meet Lord Vader's son,"
The boy tensed at the designation, his hackles rising automatically. Palpatine noted the subtle changes in his stance, the more obvious play of emotions through the Force. There—there it is!
"I understand that you were unaware of your lineage?" he pushed, searching for further confirmation. Aside from tightening his jaw, the boy offered none visibly this time, though his sense in the Force boiled. "It would seem a rather…glaring omission on the part of your previous Master, Kenobi. You did know he was your father's former Master."
Again, the boy didn't react, but then Palpatine's words had held the tone of a statement rather than a question.
Palpatine smiled in mocking derision. "One must begin to wonder whether he had ever intended to tell you your pedigree. Perhaps…perhaps after you had unwittingly committed patricide for him."
The boy's eyes hooded now, voice tightening. "You know nothing about it—they wouldn't…"
"He used you," Palpatine dismissed, cutting him off. "Don't be naïve. It's unfitting to your station."
Luke had stopped dead, but not for the reason Palpatine presumed. He had made an error, and now was terrified that the Sith would spot it, chiding his own impulsive outburst.
He forced his mind to work, to cover the mistake, to reinforce Palpatine's assumption. "I'm not naïve. I understand what he did—and why he did it."
"Then since you defend him, one must assume you think him right?" Palpatine pushed.
And for the first time, Luke smiled too—in realization. Subtly, and it was gone in an instant. But the awareness that Palpatine wasn't infallible—that he wasn't all-knowing or all-seeing—gave Luke some flicker of confidence, even here. He leaned back just slightly, relaxed almost imperceptibly.
"You may assume what you wish," he said—no reply at all.
Palpatine remained still, noting the change in the boy, aware that something, some perception, had subtly shifted. His Jedi had reassessed. He stared in silence for a long time, the fire crackling in the grate, releasing a high-pitched hiss as moisture burned from the logs. Watching him, Palpatine sensed that stubborn will coming into play. The boy didn't speak further this time; felt no need to fill the silence or substantiate his vague words.
Chose not to speak further.
He paused, mentally reassessing his own strategies accordingly. "And failing any information to the contrary, I shall, Jedi."
"You're mistaken—I'm not a Jedi."
Palpatine raised his eyebrows, setting his head to one side. "Did he teach you nothing at all, your pitiful Master? You are a Jedi when you are acknowledged as such by your peers." He paused in mocking consideration. "Though it is amusing—that your cognizance should be acknowledged by a Sith. Fitting, I think."
"You'll forgive me, but I don't consider your opinion particularly relevant in this." The boy clearly didn't know whether Palpatine had lied or not, but seemed resolute in his offhand dismissal.
"Then whose blessing do you seek, Jedi?" Palpatine asked, grinning knowingly. "Kenobi's? Because I can promise you that you are already more powerful than he ever was."
"Power isn't everything."
"No?" Palpatine said. "It keeps you here."
"I haven't tried to leave yet."
Palpatine laughed out loud, appreciating the boy's spirit despite the gravity of his situation; perhaps he was more like his father than he realized.
"What am I to do with you, my friend?" he finally asked, at the boy's wary expression, keeping his voice amiable, as if indulging an old acquaintance who had committed some minor misdemeanor. "What should I do with a known insurrectionist who makes open war against me, who challenges my rule and destroys my armies?"
"I believe the penalty for sedition is death." Sitting straight and holding those ochre eyes without flinching, Luke was surprised by how little emotion sounded in his steady voice.
Palpatine only leaned back, amused, almost laughing. "Yes…but what a waste!"
Luke held silent, so Palpatine leaned in again, still smiling. "What a waste on both our parts."
"That would depend on what you have to lose."
"And what you have to gain."
Luke paused, eyes tightening. "What are you offering?"
The Emperor almost, almost spoke out…then paused, eyes narrowing dangerously, the change instantaneous, mercurial. "Don't ever think to lie to me."
The threat implied in his words was chilling despite the heat of the fire.
Still, Luke would not blink. "I thought that was the nature of the game."
"You should not be so eager to play games when your life hangs in the balance, my friend."
"I'm not your friend."
The Emperor stared for several seconds then sighed, the slightest of smiles tugging again at bloodless lips but never reaching his eyes. "You do make it so very difficult for yourself, child."
"To do what?"
"I am offering you everything. Everything you've ever desired. Things you do not even realize you want yet."
"You have nothing I want," Luke said simply, very sure.
"I have the truth—who you really are. It was not I who lied or betrayed. Believe me, it is as much Kenobi's fault that you are here now as your father's."
Palpatine settled, self-righteous and indulgent, casting out the lure one more time. "And there are deeper reasons, greater truths. Ask any question and I will answer honestly."
Seconds passed, in which neither broke the gaze of the other, eye to eye, reading intent…… Finally the boy half-smiled, warily shaking his head.
"I don't believe you," he said, refusing to be drawn in.
"Why would I need to lie? I assure you, the truth is far more damning than any pretense I could conjure. The past whispers of the future. Your destiny runs with the blood in your veins."
"I don't believe you," the boy's tone was more clipped this time, more sure.
But only in voice—in intent rather than belief, Palpatine recognized. Though he hid it well, that had cut deep. He filed it away with other flaws, to be exploited at leisure, and responded instead to the boy's insolence.
"You are unwise. Unwise to question my word, and more so to try to bait me. Do you know what I am capable of?"
"I believe you capable of anything in pursuit of your goals."
"Yes…I am." Palpatine let the threat hang for long seconds… "But I will never lie to you," he repeated firmly, underlining this enticement before taking the conversation back to what had so clearly disturbed the boy moments before; the inference of preordained destiny—that his father's fate would be his own. "As I do not lie now when I say that there can be only one outcome to this."
Luke felt the crushing pressure of Palpatine's words, spoken with such knowing certainty. So much so that it took him several seconds to gather his wits around the mass of rising insecurities which froze his thoughts. This was his weakness, and he knew it; the knowledge Vader had forced upon him had left him paralyzed with doubts. He pushed himself past them though, an exercise in discipline—Master Yoda would have been proud of him. "Really? Because I see three."
the Emperor smiled, shaking his head indulgently like a teacher explaining the way of the universe to a confused child. "You will kneel before me."
"Or I will not yield and you'll kill me." Luke raised his eyebrows slightly, offering his third alternative. "Or you'll drop your guard, and I'll kill you."
Palpatine laughed out loud at this, genuinely amused. "I think not."
"And that's why I will."
"No, my friend. I am a hard man to kill."
Luke nodded somberly. "I'll remember that."
"I hope you have a very long memory."
"For that, I do."
Palpatine smiled, amused. The smile of a bantha cautioned by a flea. "Hardly fitting words for a typical Jedi Knight. But then you are hardly typical… Did Kenobi tell you what, as well as who you really are, Jedi? Or did he omit that information, too?"
Luke paused, freshly confused, trying to ignore pressing fatigue, willing himself to concentrate though his body was slumping now, his head beginning to drop in exhaustion from even this short exertion, intense as it was. He remembered Vader's words to him onboard the Star Destroyer—of his heritage, his bloodline. The weakness inherent within.
Palpatine watched the barest frown line the boy's features for an instant before that neutral mask fell again. But his curiosity was evident in the Force, a morbid fascination, both desiring to know and reluctant to hear.
A perfect beginning.
"But you are tired, my friend. You should rest—we will speak again tomorrow." Palpatine smiled indulgently, yellow eyes lit by flickering firelight, knowing what it would mean to the boy to leave this conversation here, how it would eat into his thoughts. For himself, Palpatine already had all that he required out of this meeting; to leave it here could only be to his advantage.
Knowledge was power—and power always held a price. If his Jedi wanted more information, then he would have to sit at this table again. And he would come back—willingly. Only Palpatine and Vader held the truth, and judging from the boy's reactions tonight, Palpatine knew now that he would never go to Vader. In fact, he was counting on it.
Here, at his table, was his only possibility of ever laying to rest a hidden, haunted past.
How could he not take it?