CHAPTER SIX



 


The substantial double-doors cycled through their release, grinding open on hidden sliders.

That's one very heavy door, Luke thought dryly as he turned from the chair by the thick bulk of the reinforced window.

He'd been left alone to his thoughts all day- only not quite alone- two Red Guard had stayed in the room, standing by the door throughout the day, visited occasionally by the hard-eyed redhead. At first, he'd been uncomfortable beneath their constant, silent scrutiny, but had eventually rationalized that they didn't seem inclined to interact or interfere at all. Finally, he'd decided to simply ignore them, wandering round the massive, split-level bedroom, walking down the wide, intricately mosaic-tiled corridor which led to a dressing room and a 'fresher suite, all windowless.

Hung neatly in the dressing room to one side of the corridor were five complete sets of clothing, all of which were in dark hues of midnight blue, somber slate gray and black- and all of which, disturbingly, looked like they'd fit him perfectly.

He'd left, not wishing to think about it for the moment.

Back into the cavernous bedroom, the rooms beyond still locked to him, the guards at the door. He'd studied the tall transparisteel sheets in the windows, threaded through with two woven layers of fine filament, tough enough as to be visible to the naked eye- you didn't see that even in military vessels.

He'd wandered again round the substantial room, hands dragging casually against the walls, wondering how thick they were. He'd stood as close as his wary guards would allow him to the huge carved wooden doors, knowing they wouldn't be wood, remembering their thickness from the night before, pondering how the locks worked.

He'd wondered whether anyone would feed him.

He'd sat cross-legged on the floor before the window, meditating, trying to locate the others through the Force. Finding Leia had brought an unexpected smile to his face and he'd almost, almost, reached out to her, to try to make contact as he had done at Bespin. But fear of discovery had held him back; that they would realize that he could contact her, even if she couldn't reply, and so move her further away.

But he'd followed that trail… down… a long way down. Many, many levels below him and off to one side. Still, he'd found her, and so presumably the others. He made his first mental map of his surroundings; his position in relation to her, a vague idea of distance…

Then he'd broken the contact, already worrying that his transgression would be discovered. He'd concentrated on trying to raise mental barriers, pushing out the grating buzz which pressed against his thoughts, forced by necessity to begin to develop this skill beyond what Yoda had taught him.

He'd gazed out again at the monolithic Towers and the distant city beyond, forehead resting against the inches-thick transparisteel. A million lives being lived- ordinary, normal lives… he craved that now with easily as much ardor as he had once craved the excitement of adventure far from Tatooine.

He'd watched a fiery sunset, the huge moon stained red by the dying embers of the day.

He'd wondered again if someone would feed him; realized just how unlikely that was, since he'd refused to eat at Palpatine's table last night. His jaw tightened at that, knowing that this was now a little war of wills. A stupid war of wills with only one realistic outcome.

He'd had the sense to sit last night rather than enter into that one. What logic had deserted him when he'd refused to eat? Stupid; stupid thing to do. All the more so because he knew— he knew— that if he went back to that table, he'd still refuse to eat. Stupid, stubborn, ornery…

He shook his head slowly, chastising himself when Master Yoda was no longer around to do it for him. Chiding himself again at his negative frame of mind.


So when the door began its cycle to the sound of multiple bolts releasing in sequence, he'd been thankful for the interruption. The tight-lipped redhead had catwalked into the room on the balls of her feet, turning to him before the door was fully open.

Too soon; she knew where I was already. They have surveillance in here.

Cold green eyes fixed on him as she said simply, "The Emperor commands your presence."

He remained sitting in the chair for long seconds, wondering what she'd do if he said no… Wondering why he was even thinking that; he already had one pointless little battle going on right now, the last thing he needed was another.

He was learning—but to whose benefit, he wondered.

Aware that his gaze was still on her, the woman's intense green eyes turned momentarily wary. Luke watched her for several more seconds, taking in the cool, reserved look in his jailor's expression, wondering whether it was defensive reflex or real emotion.

Which left the burning question, what was really going on behind that glacial stare. "What was your name?"

She looked away again, didn't reply. Luke dropped his head back down, massaging at his temples again. "Nice name. A little short." She'd relax eventually, relent a little. Push too hard and she'd only back off further.

Besides, he had a feeling he'd have the time to invest— and for some reason, he felt it should be in her. She was, after all, quite clearly responsible for security; for keeping him here. If nothing else, it would give him something other than the Emperor's meticulous little manipulations to think about— and that was a good thing.

He rose and walked loosely forward, the redhead stepping back warily so she remained outside his reach.

"Jumpy little thing, aren't you?" he murmured lightly.

She set her head to one side, those cold eyes remaining pointedly unamused as he passed by.



He walked again beneath the stretching, arched ceiling of the lounge, his two guards falling into pace behind him, past huge, heavy furniture to equal the scale of the room, six Royal Guard at the door he passed through, six more at the door he walked toward. Into the huge hall, exactly as before, dim shadows lit by scarlet flames, the long table set and laden with food.

And the Emperor, hooded yellow eyes burning into him, cold amusement written clear on his face.

Luke felt his hackles rise; forced himself calm again by strength of will. Still, he couldn't stop his jaw clenching and his eyes narrowing, which only brought a wide smile to the old man's thin, bloodless lips.



Palpatine smiled at the boy's instant reaction as he entered the room; how he advertised every emotion on his face, how he blared it out through the Force.

Did he not realize?

How refreshingly naïve he was, how wonderfully unaffected and artless. It was a pity that this would be lost— sacrificed to Darkness. But how useful it was here and now, all that passion and zeal. How easy it was to twist and use… once one had a strategy.

Because any intense emotion was a weakness— especially when it came to the boy's father. He had sensed it in their first meeting last night, all that anger, that confusion, that wonderfully impassioned denial— not necessarily to believe; he knew it was true— but certainly to accept.

That was what drove him now. Loyalty too, of course; to his friends and his cause, but that was of no use to Palpatine. It could be made to serve his ends, but only in the most limited sense. He had needed something greater, something deeper. Loyalty was a strength— he had needed a flaw. And now he had found one, so considerately provided by Kenobi.

Because the boy was afraid. Not of Palpatine, although he should be. But that lesson could and would be taught, in a manner which he would never forget.

No, this fear was very different— and wonderfully destructive.

This was fear that his father's fate was his own, because the same weakness ran in his veins. That had glared out in their short discussion last night; fear that his fall, like his father's, was inevitable. All twisted through with resentment, true, bitter hatred of Vader because of it. And betrayal— by Kenobi, to have lied so easily, by the father he never knew he had, found and lost in a single beat of a bruised heart.

Wonderful, primal emotions. Powerful and undeniable.

Given time of course, the boy would have come to terms with his heritage; time and distance always afforded perspective. But Palpatine had no intention of giving either. He had gained Skywalker at just the right moment— and he fully intended to exploit it. He would push forward whilst the boy was still reeling, underline that connection, that perceived weakness. Convince him of its reality, the inevitability of his fate, the weakness in his blood. Keep them close, father and son; keep them in opposition. Always pushing, always goading, never the time to come to terms, to deal with this vulnerability. Stir up all the crippling fears and doubts which fed that resentment and then release the boy on his father.

Yes, a wonderful, gaping weakness.

There were others, of course, and he would use them all, but nothing like this. This had already delivered his new Jedi to him. With careful manipulation, it would give him his Sith.

And that thought brought a smile to his face, which unsettled his Jedi even further.

Palpatine turned to hide his amusement, walking slowly to his own chair and sitting before finally looking up to his Jedi indulgently.

"Sit."


Even at this, so simple an invitation handed out with such subtle, hidden agenda, Luke felt his momentary stubbornness kick in. But he walked to the chair and he sat; he too had an agenda tonight.

The Emperor nodded to the laden table. "Eat."

The worst thing was Luke knew Palpatine was right— he should eat. Every soldier knew that; you eat when you can, you sleep when you can, because you never know when either will be taken away. Two days without food and already frail from his injuries, he could feel himself weakening physically if not mentally. He should eat. If the opportunity came to make an escape, he would be too weak to take it in another day. He should eat.

Don't be stubborn. Eat.

"No." He wilted at his own obstinate will.


Palpatine glanced to the servers, who stepped forward to fill the smoky glass goblets with dark, ruby wine. He watched his Jedi glance momentarily at the food on the table then look resolutely away toward the fire in the hearth . He must be hungry by now, Palpatine knew. Vader had been instructed to feed him little, and the boy had not eaten at all since he arrived here. Nor would he; he wanted his Jedi to be left hungry, save at this table— wanted this wild thing to learn to eat from its new Master's hand.

The boy had picked the wrong thing to fight over and he knew it, Palpatine could sense that much, but still he fought— couldn't help but do so. Strong-willed, like his father; stubborn. The strength which could be a weakness, with a little careful direction. The weakness which could be a strength, if he didn't hold it in check. Still, if all went to plan, this particular battle would be concluded tonight— or at least rendered worthless.

He nodded, and the servers and Luke's shadow-guards bowed and walked in silence from the room.



Luke caught again the tantalizing glimpse of freedom from the corridor beyond, guards against the far wall, weapons drawn.

Palpatine settled, drawing Luke's eyes and his mind back to the moment. "I'd like to know where my companions are," he said, voice steady.

The Emperor only gazed back in silence.

"I know that they're here, in the main Palace below," Luke said firmly. "I'd like to see them."

Palpatine remained still and this time Luke let the silence hang, prepared to wait it out.

Finally, the Emperor spoke. "Do you have any other glaring weaknesses you'd like to declare?"

His Jedi only tilted his head, refusing to be drawn. "I'd like to see them."

Palpatine smiled just slightly at the battle lines being drawn— if the boy thought he could direct the conversation, then he was wrong. "They are traitors, which makes them your father's jurisdiction," he said, taking the discussion instantly back to where he intended.

"And who commands Vader?" Luke parried.

Palpatine ignored the challenge. "I am curious— you seem… uncomfortable acknowledging your father as such, child."

Luke held his silence for long seconds, gritting his teeth against the reply he wished to make, keeping his mind on the goal.

Palpatine's expression changed not a whit, but inside he leered at the boy's grinding jaw. Already this flaw tormented Skywalker, and Palpatine would lose no opportunity to twist that knife now, to work that wound wider. Still, the boy held focus admirably.

"I would like to see my companions."

"Why?"

"To know that they're alright."

"You have the ability to do that without seeing them. It runs in your blood."

The boy's eyes hardened just slightly at that.

"You are… uncomfortable that they are here." Palpatine made this a statement rather than a question, leaving the boy to wonder whether the Emperor had read his mind, or simply stated the obvious. Either way, he said nothing. Palpatine paused, taking the goblet of wine in his hand then, as if he felt that this was a patent fact that he should nevertheless clarify, he added, "Their freedom is for sale, of course. For a price."

"I very much doubt that— unless it serves your own ends."

Palpatine smiled. "Heh. You judge me too harshly, Jedi."

"I don't think that's possible."

Palpatine only laughed, as if sharing a joke with an old friend. "I have found over the years that everything has a price."


Luke didn't miss the inference, but chose to ignore it. Instead he let the silence hang heavy for a long time, Palpatine gazing steadily at him…

Finally, with a low sigh of reluctant resignation, but knowing he could do nothing else, Luke asked, "The price is?"

"Well done, Jedi." The Emperor set down the goblet and leaned forward slightly, as if the game were finally afoot. "The price is… what…?"

He hesitated theatrically, mocking yellow eyes fixed on Luke, thin lips pulled back from stained teeth, as if this were a question he had only now given any thought to, though even knowing him as little as he did, Luke knew that wouldn't be the case. He leaned back in distaste; at having to deal so civilly with this creature— at being here at all.

In his excitement, the Sith didn't seem to notice. "What is… what is your little Princess worth?" He seemed to consider this for a moment, then, "Ah, but she is my exception. I think nothing will keep her from the executioner's block."

Luke felt his heart skip a beat at that. "You need them alive."

Palpatine smiled a death's-head grin. "I need only one of them to hold you, Jedi. And Leia Organa has been a thorn in my side for too long. Now that I have her, an example must be made— one that my enemies will remember."

Luke's chest constricted at Palpatine's words, so casually uttered, as if her life was some insignificant part of a much larger game.

"The Wookiee will go to the Kessel mines. He has some strength— he may well last the year out. Calrissian will go with him, though I doubt he will do the same. The Corellian will stay here for now. Your father believes he will be enough to hold you."

"Vader knows nothing about me."

"He said you asked after the Corellian when you were injured," Palpatine said, easily implicating Vader in his plotting.

"Because I knew he was the only one who wasn't there."

"Still, you wanted him extricated from the Hutt gangster."

"I would have asked the same of any of them."

"Which is reason enough to believe the Corellian of worth to you." Palpatine shrugged elaborately. "If he is not, then you should say so now and I will have him executed tonight— he's of no value to me. Perhaps then I would have to fall back on your little Princess. Solo's death may just keep her head from the block. For now."

Luke lifted his hand, rubbing at the center of his temple against this provocation. What did he say? Did he say no, Han was worth nothing to him, and risk the Emperor carrying through his threat simply to call Luke's bluff? He knew he'd still have Leia and Chewie to control Luke…

With the stakes too high to feint, he said nothing at all. Palpatine steepled his fingers expectantly, his air one of assured amusement, and Luke could only grit his teeth in the face of these continual provocations and manipulations.

Still the Emperor gazed expectantly for long seconds. "So then— what is the Corellian's freedom worth to you?"

"Leia's first," Luke said, making the Emperor's eyes narrow.

"No—no, I have plans for your little Princess," Palpatine said deliberately, setting shields to hide his intent from the boy, though not too many or too deliberate; a direct lie could often be detected by the simple fact that it would be notably shielded. But then Palpatine seldom fell back on such vulgarities. In that moment, he very much longed to carry out the threat he was issuing; the girl was nothing but a malicious agitator, and would be a constant spur to Skywalker to keep on resisting Palpatine's will.

It was this that Palpatine relied on now, along with his very genuine intention to remove her, one way or another; he allowed the boy to sense that much.

"You said all things could be bought." The boy knew of course that he was being led, but he also knew that the threat to Leia was very, very real.

Palpatine couldn't help but allow the smallest smile to turn the corners of his pale lips. How vulnerable they made him— and he knew this, yet still he defended them. "For a price. You cannot afford hers."



"So you have one." If he could gain her only a stay from execution, Luke hoped it would give him time to work out some plan to get out of here. Or buy her and Han the chance to do the same.

Palpatine's eyes turned to the huge fire in the grate as he considered and Luke found himself holding his breath in anticipation.



The Emperor stood and took a few steps toward the fire, his casual manner belying the importance he attached to this conversation. All future plans were decided by it, whichever way it went.

When he spoke, it was in quiet, considered tones. "Twelve weeks… yes, I think that is fair. Twelve weeks of your undivided attention. I would take no less— not for her."

He turned to his Jedi, who frowned for long seconds as he deciphered the offer— then his eyes opened wide, and Palpatine knew he understood. The boy almost refused outright… but he hesitated a fraction of a second— and Palpatine knew he had him.

"Twelve weeks of your compliance, Jedi. At the end of that time, I will let her go."

The boy tilted his head before laughing doubtfully, unable to believe he was even discussing this. Seeing that, Palpatine pushed on, wanting the deal done before his Jedi thought too long on it. If he gave him time to consider, he knew the boy would simply decide that a better option would be to begin his own escape attempts, and though Palpatine wasn't afraid the boy would escape, he didn't wish to be put into direct contention with him just yet.

He had to curtail such thoughts now; ensure that Skywalker would remain reasonably amenable in the coming weeks. Already he could see the first traces of resistance and resentment settling into the boy's features; another day or so and they would poison his mind, making him unreachable, and he would dig his heels in and force a confrontation out of nothing more than his own innate stubbornness. That would come eventually anyway, Palpatine knew, but he didn't want it yet, with so many precedents and practices still to lay in place, compulsions to be hidden within conventions, influence within routine.

Some mutually binding contract had to be established, a way to tie Skywalker down with openly agreed terms on both sides. An obligation that his new Jedi, still bound by those high moral principles, would hold to once he had agreed.

Much as he would like to execute the troublesome ex-senator and so lop off one of the Rebellion's heads, this would gain him far more in the long run. But if the boy didn't yield, then yes, he would carry through on his present threat— having made it he couldn't afford not to— and there were other alternatives.

Though this was the most advantageous, if all went to plan.

But for that, he needed the boy to agree to this now. And to do that, he needed to stop him looking at the greater picture and instead become mired in the details.

"I will let her go. Anywhere she chooses, with my guarantee of safe passage."
"Your guarantee is worth nothing," the Jedi countered. But he didn't refuse the deal.

"My word— as a Sith."

"That's worth even less." The boy straightened, clearly believing he had issued some great insult, but Palpatine smiled, unoffended.

"Then what do you suggest, Jedi?"

Would he ask the obvious? It had to seem like the agreement was of the boy's choosing as much as Palpatine's. If it was Skywalker who placed the deal on the table now, then he would only have himself to blame later…

Luke paused, aware on some level that he was being railroaded, but willing to talk at this point, curious as to what he could achieve. If the deal was good enough, then perhaps he should consider it. Years of trading in the deep desert had taught him to start high and be bartered down.

Aware of this, of the outrageous nature of what he was about to ask— and of the fact that he had nothing to lose at this point— he spoke out. "Let them go now— all of them. Let them go… and I'll stay. For twelve weeks."

Palpatine laughed out loud at this— but he kept the negotiation going. "Out of the question. Do I look like a fool?"

Luke kept his expression solemn. "I give you my word— as a Jedi."

"And I should take that?" Palpatine said, incredulous. "When you allow me no such recognition?"

"My word," Luke repeated against this.

Palpatine's eyes narrowed and he turned away, his back to Luke now. After long seconds, he spoke out. "I will not give you all four. One must stay."

"Not Leia." Luke's voice was firm.

"The Corellian," Palpatine said with equal resolve.

Luke paused; it still gave Palpatine a lever to control him… but to have the others gone, now— he hadn't hoped to gain even close to this much. "How will I know they're safe?"

Palpatine smiled as if amused. "You are a Jedi; of course you will know."

Luke remained silent, eyes wary, and Palpatine shrugged, dismissive. "I am sure you would have no compunction about dissolving the agreement if you believed it broken."

"What exactly is the agreement?" Luke said, drawn in further in spite of himself, with so much now in the pot.

"I would simply like to continue our talks." The Emperor was casually dismissive, as if he were asking for nothing at all. "And I would like your word— not as a Jedi, not as a soldier, but your word— that you will do the same. That you will remain here for twelve weeks without contention. Willingly— no attempts to escape, no premeditated disobedience. No obstruction or insubordination. A civilized dialogue— by both parties."

"Just that," Luke said dryly.

"Just that."

 

Palpatine watched as the boy fell to silence, and forced himself to do the same, to act as if this were unimportant to him.

"Twelve weeks is a long time."

He could sense the boy considering, weighing up the advantages against the drawbacks.

"To buy three lives? I think it very cheap."

"But clearly you don't, or you would have asked for more," Skywalker said in a moment of wary clarity.

Uneasy at this, Palpatine only shrugged, unwilling to be forced to validate his offer. "How is it any different than what we are doing right now, Jedi? I have told you, I merely wish to maintain a dialogue. In order to do that, I am willing to offer this truce— a gesture of goodwill."

The boy raised his eyebrows at that. "I don't believe you'd do anything that wasn't to your advantage. The deal is more than biased in your favor."

"But then I hold all the cards."

"Except the one that matters," Skywalker said pointedly.

"Even that is in my hands."

"But you don't control it."

Palpatine laughed aloud at that. "No one will control you, Jedi, unless you choose to allow it. I am buying your attention, not your will. And even that only for twelve weeks."

Still the boy hesitated; Palpatine pushed just a little further. "Have you so little faith in your own resolve, that you think you could be so easily swayed?"

He chose not to answer that. "At the end of that time?"

Palpatine smiled inwardly, knowing he had him! "The agreement is fulfilled; we owe each other nothing more."

Twelve weeks would be more than enough. More than enough to bind the boy to him, to prize open all those weaknesses and exploit them. To gain a Sith.

He stepped close for the first time, towering over the seated youth. "Are you afraid?"

The boy held his gaze, unflinching. "Not of you." He stared up into sulphurous yellow eyes and would not blink, though they both knew the lie; he would be stupid not to be.

Palpatine leered, wondering if Skywalker realized the depth of his slip in revealing just where his true fear lay, his gaze never leaving the boy's.

In silence, he held out his hand…


The pressure bearing down on Luke in that moment felt like it was crushing the air from his lungs. Should he do this? It bought him so much— but was the price too high?

Had Master Yoda known they would be a weakness? He had told him, warned him even before he left Dagobah to let his friends go. Had actually asked that he sacrifice them to the greater cause.

Did he know Luke so little? Luke shook his head slightly in consideration— because he couldn't abandon them then and he couldn't do it now. Was incapable of it; it was against his very nature to do so. He had lost so much, had so much ripped away from him, had willingly given so much more… but he couldn't do this. He couldn't desert those he held so close.

He knew— knew that this would cost him dear…

The Emperor held out his hand, pallid, deathly-white, long, ridged nails curved like claws— and all Luke could see was that hand about Leia's neck, tightening…

And he couldn't hold out against that.

His heart beat hard against his ribs, but he knew he was committed; had been from the moment he left Dagobah, in truth.

Still, when he took the old man's hand in silent agreement he felt an involuntary shiver slice down his spine and he jolted just slightly against the turmoil which shocked through the Force— as if everything had forcibly inverted, twisting about and within itself in a convulsive spasm. Reflex jerked his hand back but the Sith kept a solid, unyielding hold, his relentless grip cold as the grave.

"We have a pact, Jedi," he said gravely, holding Luke firm for long seconds, releasing him only grudgingly.

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN


 

 



Luke paced his opulent prison uneasily, hardly aware of the guard at the door anymore, waiting the arrival of his visitor with equal parts trepidation and enthusiasm.

The bad-tempered redhead had spent the morning guarding him today, sitting on one of the chairs at the windows rather than standing by the door, her hard eyes fixing on him every time he so much as moved. Finally, she'd ordered a replacement at midday when summoned by the Emperor, returning briefly to tell him that his request of the previous evening—to see his companion—had been allowed by the Emperor.

And Luke had again sensed that crosscurrent, that whisper in the Force, hidden completely when she was with the Emperor, smothered by that all-encompassing shroud of Darkness.

But here, alone… some barely discernable focus traced the edge of his awareness, so light as to be almost imperceptible.

"What are you?" he'd asked at last, knowing that she'd understand the question.

"Huh wouldn't you like to know," she'd huffed, lifting her chin.

Luke had set his head on one side, expression open. "Yes. You're not a Jedi… or Sith."

"You think that puts me beneath you?" she'd challenged, green eyes ablaze.

"You appear to be the one holding the gun."

"That's right—and don't you forget it."

He'd held her gaze steadily, the slight smile staying on his lips, and she'd glanced away, seeming suddenly embarrassed at the needless threat.

"I'll get your visitor," she'd muttered, leaving Luke to stare at the door as it cycled closed, no longer noticing the stony-faced guards who stood beside it.





It was now mid-afternoon and no one else had been back to the room. And patience wasn't exactly one of Luke's strong suits.

He sat on the arm of the chair gazing out into the distant city, rubbing his temples against the constant headache he'd had for the last three days. At first, he'd tried to dismiss it as Coruscant—that it was simply something about the planet that was causing it, some barometric pressure—but slowly he'd come to recognize that it intensified with proximity to Palpatine, or with his own use of the Force, when it closed in about him like a wavefront, constricting about his mind with massive, focused pressure.

Focused—as a conscious act. A pointed discouragement from the Emperor against using the Force. Or perhaps simply a method of knowing when he did? Though he'd felt no such disturbance from his fath… Vader.

The truth was he had absolutely no idea—and that was the real problem; neither Ben nor Yoda had ever mentioned it, or very little else of real substance about the Dark side, save to avoid it at all costs, which seemed pretty academic here, Luke reflected wryly.

And that left him guessing, in a place where guesswork was a dangerous thing. Left him uncertain, in a situation where he knew that confidence in one's convictions was everything.

He sighed, rubbing his closed eyes so hard he saw sparks in his vision—anything to alleviate the pressure. He felt tired and drawn, having shocked awake in the early hours just before dawn, absolutely sure in that moment that someone had shouted out his name.

Wide awake, he'd glanced about the dark shadows of the cavernous, unfamiliar room searching for the source. But of course there'd been nothing there, only the lingering shadows of some intense nightmare, lost to him now.

Unable to settle again, he'd risen and dressed, standing alone in the room for once before the tall, thick transparisteel windows to watch the sun rise, desperately hungry.

Meditation was becoming difficult, the jarring pressure weighing down on him dulling mind and senses both and leaving him uneasy and frustrated. Eventually he'd stopped trying, instead laying back onto the cold marble floor, its cool against the healing scar on his back comforting through the fine silk of his slate gray shirt, his knees pulled up as he gazed at the distant, heavily carved and coffered ceiling, contemplating how many places there were to hide surveillance lenses up there and wondering if there were any dead-spots in the room. Wondering what his observers were thinking of his bizarre behavior right now.

Wondering how he was going to explain the deal he'd made to his friends. How he was going to explain to Han that he had to remain. Questioning whether he should back out now while he still could, knowing that was what they would tell him to do.

Were they right?

Eventually the doors had cycled open and the redhead strode in, watching him with raised eyebrows where he lay on the cool floor, clearly thinking him completely insane.

Luke scrabbled up quickly. "I was… ah, your opinion of me can't get any worse, anyway," he'd reasoned aloud, bringing the slightest hint of an amused smile to her lips a she turned away to sit on the chair before the windows.





It was late afternoon when the doors finally grated open with the release of multiple bolts. Eight stormtroopers lock-stepped into the room, the first Luke had seen since arriving here. They about-turned smartly and marched out to leave a bound and wary Han Solo standing alone before the closing doors.

"Han!" Luke launched forward, in that moment so pleased to see his friend that all his guilty misgivings were forgotten.

"Luke—Kid!" Han too rushed forward, the two stopping uneasily a step apart, Han's bound hands before him.

The reality of their situation quickly and effectively reminded.

Instead, Han glanced around the room. "Wow. Wanna swap? I think my room's about as big as that bed and my bunk consists of a solid ridge coming out of the wall with a 'fresher built into the end of it."

"Nice," Luke said, falling easily back into this familiar mindset. "Classy."

"And convenient," Han quipped. "Don't need to go too far in the middle of the night."

Luke nodded, grinning. "Again, a good point."

Seeing the kid again, Haan felt long weeks of tension drain from his body in relief--though they were hardly out of touble yet   "I thought so. Could do with… hey, your hand!" Han belatedly realized that Luke was resting his right hand in his left, cradling it subconsciously. The kid looked down now, his voice distant.

"Yeah, they… replaced it." Luke held it up for inspection, moving his fingers awkwardly as Solo studied the prosthetic.

Han held back from asking the obvious—why had they fixed it—and if the kid knew, he didn't offer. "Feel weird?" he prompted instead, still staring at the hand; it was a perfect replica, minutely detailed—a very expensive piece of kit.

Luke only shrugged uneasily, clearly not wanting to talk about this now.

Taking the hint, Han glanced around again. "I thought I was coming to see Palpatine, considering the setting. Didn't expect to see you here."

The unspoken question made Luke's smile drop. "Maybe he thinks he can buy me…"

Han nodded, glancing about; seemed reasonable—it would probably explain the hand, too. And the kid's clothes, which made even Lando seem poverty-stricken by comparison.

His next question shocked Luke, though he hadn't meant it to. "Can he?"

"No!" Luke upheld, hurt at Han's words.

"Just…" Han paused, not sure why he'd even bothered to ask, aware of how much he'd just hurt the kid. "Sorry. I dunno…"

Luke stared at the floor and Han shifted uneasily a moment, then, "Have you seen Chewie and Leia?"

"No, haven't you?" There was instant concern in Luke's voice.

"No, they split us up. Different cells. Hollered myself hoarse but I think the cells are soundproof."

"They're here somewhere. But I…" He paused, suddenly guilty.

Han scowled. "Luke?"

Luke hesitated; may as well get it over with. "I… made a deal. With Palpatine. That in return…"

That was as far as he got.

"You made a deal? With Palpatine!? What…" Words failed Han for a second—but just for a second. "Kid, he's not gonna stick to any deal."

Luke shook his head, rushing to explain. "He has to fulfill his part of the deal first, or it's null and void. Han, I had to."

"Had to? What the hell does that mean? You just told me he couldn't buy you, and now you're saying…"

"Han, listen... please-" Luke was very much aware that he was arguing not just with Han, but with his own doubts. If he could convince Han then somehow it vindicated his own actions to himself. "Palpatine agreed to release everyone except one person in exchange for my staying."

"Staying?" Some of the fire went out of Han's eyes at the realization of what Luke had done, but Luke could tell he was still seething.

"For twelve weeks. I stay here for twelve weeks."

"And then what? He's just gonna let you go?"

"No. But he wasn't going to do that anyway," Luke said wryly.

Han softened a little at that, maybe realising that Luke had no real choice; that he'd tried to make the best out of a raw deal in a bad situation. Gain something out of nothing. "I dunno. Twelve weeks is a long time, Luke."

Luke remained silent for long moments. Only now, when someone else voiced that fear, was he becoming aware of just how long it really was. 

"Who stays?"

Luke didn't look up, unable in that moment to meet Han's eye, ashamed of the fact that the decision had been made, that Luke had agreed. Wishing—hoping that his friend would…

"I'll stay," Han said firmly, meaning it.

The relief escaped Luke in a quiet sigh and he blinked slowly, thankful for Han's good heart. He nodded gently, still wracked with guilt, unable to speak in that moment.

Realizing he'd made an impossible decision for his friend, Han reached out to put a reassuring hand on Luke's shoulder, his other having to follow somewhat comically because of the binders.

"Hey, it'll be just like old times, huh? Remember that crappy dead-end planet we had to hang around on? The one where we had the cook-outs every night 'cos your stupid friend was five days late with that detonator shipment?"

The kid could only laugh at that. "You make it sound so rosy," he said dryly.

"Well, y'know…it wouldn't have been. But we made it okay. Me and you. We're a good team." Suddenly very embarrassed at his momentary camaraderie, Han made light again. "And besides, I'm charging the Rebellion for this. Hourly rate. And after the first ten hours, I'm on overtime. Plus danger money."

Luke smiled. "You can bill me."

"Yeah, like you got that kinda currency," Han dismissed easily, glancing around again. "But see that painting there? If we take that with us when we leave, I'll call it even."

 

Luke glanced at the huge painting of a night battle under moons and stars, realizing that he too vaguely recognized it—which meant it really must be incredibly well known.

"Fine," he said, judging the size of the massive canvas, about twice his height and four times that length. "But you're carrying it."







"We need a comlink," Leia said, breathless from running, mind still swimming at the outrageous events of the day.

"We need a ship," Lando corrected, glancing meaningfully back to the spaceport as they huddled back into the shadows of the side street.

"If you get me a comlink, I can get us a ship," Leia said.

Lando turned back to her. "Hard as I find it to refuse those big brown eyes, I'd like to point out that in order to get us a comlink, I'm gonna have to steal it, and if I'm going to steal a comlink to get us a ride, I may as well just steal a ship, right?"

He glanced up at Chewie for support and the Wookiee keened a positive; made perfect sense to him.

"Stealing a comlink and stealing a ship are not the same thing," Leia said.

"I beg to differ. If someone's fool enough to leave a factory-standard locking system on a valuable item…" Lando began, but Leia cut him off.

"Just get a comlink, okay?"

Lando looked at her for long seconds, clearly sure he was right…

"Fine," he said at last. "Chewie?"

They disappeared from sight and Leia was left to draw back into the shadows of the busy Cat Dato Spaceport, glancing around nervously, expecting to see that familiar white armor any second.

Worrying where Han and Luke were…


She, Lando and Chewie had been taken from their cells and grouped together into a prison transport at some point in the early hours of the morning. Each relieved to see the other, their excited whispers had ceased as they tried to listen to the stormtroopers speaking to the pilots outside.

It had become obvious pretty quickly that they were heading on a long trip-

"Twenty-four days," Leia had whispered.

"Twenty-four days?! That can't be right," Lando murmured, frowning. "Maybe that's the round trip?"

Chewie whuffed a reply—the first time Leia ever remembered his doing anything quietly—and Lando nodded knowingly.

"Kessel's about that from here, in this small transport," he translated, voice tight with trepidation.

Leia frowned at the mention of the Emperor's favored gulag, eyes searching the stormtroopers at the bottom of the ship's ramp. Why? Why take them to Kessel? She'd expected a very public execution, just to clarify for all that there was no escaping Imperial justice. Why this? Disappearing off the face of the galaxy to a prison planet in the back of beyond?

Any further discussion had been cut short by the arrival of eight stormtroopers in the hold, all of whom appeared about as happy to be making this trip as Leia was.

Twelve hours later they made a stop off in what turned out to be Cat Dato Spaceport on Neimoidia, the stormtroopers walking down the ramp to speak to another two who were waiting, a Bothan prisoner in tow—and Leia decided it was all the opportunity she needed.

"Chewie-"

Although they were the only prisoners there, several empty rows of hard seats in front of and behind them, they had been sat in line on a single row, an unbelievable opportunity. Leia was in the center, the binders on everyone's wrists held by a tether through which was threaded a long bar which ran along locked holders in the arms of their row of seats, effectively tying their hands and holding them seated at the same time.

There was no way Leia could have broken her own binders, nor Chewie his—which were considerably thicker—but Leia had spent the last four hours wondering whether Chewie could break the metal cord on her human-scaled binders and trying to communicate that fact to him with elbow nudges and meaningful glances.

He reached over now, able to slide his own binders along the continuous bar to the edge of his seat as she did the same with hers. Taking her binder cable in his huge hands, he'd heaved it apart, bulky muscles knotting to massive lumps in his powerful arms…

It took four attempts before it sheared away, Chewie yanking his own binders noisily against the bar as Leia's broke. Everyone froze, glancing nervously at the ramp…

Hands now free to lift above her head, Leia had been able to shimmy like a limbo dancer beneath the bar and down her own seat, struggling to squeeze her shoulders past, turning her head to one side as she nimbly slipped free.

She headed immediately for the cockpit, knowing the two pilots were armed but preferring her chances against them rather than against the stormtroopers at the bottom of the ramp.

Lando was left alone to glance up to Chewie… "D'you think she'd do that shimmy thing again if I asked her nicely?" he said at last, making the Wookiee grin.

It was only seconds later when the catches which held the long bar in place released on some automated system, Lando and Chewie stepping free and sliding their own binders off as quietly as possible.

Lando had headed to the cockpit to give the Princess a quick prompt, meeting her again as she rushed back through the ship, two blasters in her hands, the second of which she threw at Chewie.

"Hey, don't I get one?" Lando asked.

"Sure, there's ten of them with the stormtroopers at the base of the ramp—help yourself," Leia had whispered, edging forward.

It had been no contest at all. No one was expecting them to be free, let alone armed, and by the time they'd stood back up from crouching down on the ramp, the only one left standing was the Bothan prisoner.

Lando had fumbled on one of the stormtroopers for the keycard to the binders, sliding it over his own before throwing it to Leia, who had released the broken remains of her binders before turning to Chewie.

"Quickly," Leia ordered. "There'll be reinforcements on the way." They'd been pretty fast, but hardly quiet.

Lando had bobbed down again to help himself to a blaster, rising to meet the eyes of the shocked Bothan prisoner, its fur rippling every which way as proof of its confusion.

"Your lucky day, pal," Lando said with a wink, making Leia roll her eyes as she handed the keycard to the Bothan.

"Lando, we're leaving," Leia prompted as they set off out of the bay to lose themselves in the bustle of the spaceport, leaving the Bothan staring after them, open-mouthed, still holding the keycard.




Now Lando stepped silently up behind Leia, making her jump. "One comlink, sweetheart."

"Don't call me that," she scalded, thoughts instantly turning to Han as she tried to concentrate on re-tuning the comlink. "This is nine-nine-two-zero-five, I need immediate evac, repeat, immediate evac. Contact me on this channel as soon as possible."

She shut down the channel and turned to Lando's expectant eyes.

"What do we do now?" he asked.

"We wait," she replied simply.

Lando frowned. "For how long?"

The com buzzed in Leia's hand and she arched perfect eyebrows at him. "Not too long."




So now Leia was sitting quietly in the smoky dive nursing a drink which Lando had bought her, powerful enough that it actually seemed to be evaporating in the glass, thus saving her the trouble of explaining why she wasn't drinking it. Early evening was giving way to night in the Lucky Dug Cantina in Cat Dato. It was hot and it was gritty, which was very much what she felt like herself right now, waiting for their ride to turn up, hesitantly contemplating voicing her worries.

The band started up with relentless gusto and she glanced over before turning back to the sabacc game unfolding before her. Lando was playing—where he'd gotten the credits from she didn't want to ask; probably the same reluctant donor as their comlink.

Leia hunched over to rest her chin on her fist, watching Lando bet high, prompting everyone to throw in their cards in frustrated response, two of the players rising to leave the table despite Lando's protestations.

He should have played Luke some time; everyone said Luke was a natural at sabacc. Even Han wouldn't play him anymore

"Touched by 'The Lady'," they said—Lady Luck.

She laughed sourly into her warm drink…but apparently not—not when it mattered.

"Did you ever… talk to Luke, Lando?" she asked as casually as she was able.

Lando glanced up from rearranging the new chip-cards in his hand. "Luke? No, didn't really get a chance. Seemed a nice kid, though."

"He is." She nodded slowly. "He is…"

"Sure chooses his enemies though," Lando added distantly, stacking his credits one-handed.

Leia nodded, lost in thought… "Did… Vader ever mention him to you?"

"Vader?" That turned Lando's head, his voice uneasy now, uncomfortable with the subject. "No, not really. Just to say that he wanted him back—and that Skywalker'd come to Bespin if you three were there."

Leia set her head on one side, aware that Chewie had turned to follow this conversation. "That he wanted him back?" she emphasized, wishing to be sure.

Aware of her seriousness, Lando considered, searching his memory. "That it was time for him to come back," he corrected, uncertain what she was getting at. "Why?"

Leia shook her head quickly, turning away. "Nothing. No reason."

Chewie howled a long sentence, turning Lando's head.

"He wants to know, are we… heading back for them?" Lando translated, clearly not sure he'd like the answer either way.

"As soon as we can," Leia confirmed, looking to Chewie now. "But we need backup first—and a plan."

"Not wanting to put a damper on your fun, but… remember you said the nice Imperial pilot said Han'd be out soon enough anyway."

"And you always believe what stormtroopers tell you," Leia scorned. "And anyway, what about Luke?"

Whilst in the cockpit, the first pilot's blaster a reassuring weight in her hands, Leia had risked a few moments to quiz the second as he released the restraints in the main hold. "The two men who came in with us, why aren't they on the transport?"

"Who?"

"The Corellian—where is he?"

The man glanced up nervously. "He's in the Palace—the Commander kept him there, I think."

"Why?"

"I don't know." He'd leaned back as Leia jammed the blaster forward in silent encouragement. "I don't! They wanted… they needed him for something, I don't know what. They were gonna release him I think—they were gonna release him pretty soon."

"And the other, what about the other prisoner?"

"Other?" The pilot frowned, unsure. "There's no… there was no other."

"Luke Skywalker!" Leia had said through gritted teeth.

The man only shook his head, eyes on the snout of the blaster.

"He came in on the shuttle with us! He was on a medi-sled."

"There was no…" The man looked up, confusion replaced by realization. "Oh. Yeah, I bet you'd like to get your hands on him."

There was something in the way he said it—some kind of wry amusement, some realization, though he'd obviously misunderstood her intent.

"Chalk that one up to experience," he said at last, making her frown.

Then Lando had opened the cockpit door, leaning warily in. "Leia, time to move. Chewie's getting kinda antsy out here."

When she still didn't move, staring at the pilot, Lando had taken her arm, pulling her gently back as he prompted, "…We're kinda in a rush here…?"



Leia's comlink buzzed, pulling her back to the moment and the dubious surroundings of the Lucky Dug as she snatched for it. "Nine-nine-two-oh-five," she said simply; open comm channels weren't for names.

"Your transport's at docking bay forty-two, South Pitch," came the reply.

"On our way," Leia said, glancing to the others. "Let's move."

She rose, finally sure what she would say when she got back to Alliance Command, which was, quite simply, nothing.

It was all a lie of course. It had to be—she wasn't stupid. It was all a lie to undermine Luke and she wouldn't say a word. She wouldn't play their games, whether she understood them or not. They had wasted their time, and when she got Luke out of there, she'd tell him all about it and they'd laugh at the outrageous claims. They'd chosen the wrong dolt if they were hoping she'd even consider selling Luke out just on their word.


 


 

CHAPTER EIGHT


 

 

 



It was amazing how quickly routines were established. By nightfall, Luke was sitting patiently, waiting for Palpatine to arrive. Waiting for the redhead to come in and announce it.

Like clockwork she did, the doors cycling through their staged lock release, Luke counting how many bolts there were for the first time.

She walked in with a face like thunder, and he smiled into those cold eyes. "Hey, Red."

"The…" She floundered momentarily, taken off-guard by that, but quickly found her stride again. "The Emperor commands your presence."

"Pretty much figured that," Luke said, setting forward, unsure why he was doing this but enjoying setting her off-balance all the same, his mood still light from seeing Han.

"And don't call me Red," she clipped, dropping into pace as he passed her, two Royal Guard falling in behind them.

"How about Rusty?" he teased quietly. "I gotta call you something and you won't tell me your name, so take your pick."

"I'm Commander Jade," she said haughtily, eyes straight ahead.

Luke waited until he was almost at the far door to preclude any comeback from her. "Nah… I think I like Red better."

Then he was through and she dropped back, remaining near the door, and Luke cautioned himself to concentrate—this was no longer a game.



Palpatine's eyes were dangerously narrowed as Luke entered the room and turned to him, his stare cold and ominous. Directed not at Luke but at Jade, who had bowed deeply, some undercurrent of apprehension in her sense now.

Palpatine remained staring at the woman as she straightened, her eyes to the floor, so that Luke, aware that he had caused this and feeling suddenly protective even of her, spoke out.

"Excellency," he acknowledged as he'd heard others do, bringing the Emperor's baleful yellow eyes to him.

The Sith Emperor stared, and for the first time, Luke recognized his individual accent in the Force, as if he had neglected in that moment to hide it completely. It roiled in fury at the woman, some sense of possessive ownership being infringed. Then it was gone, hidden away completely as he too brought his attention to the moment.

Palpatine turned and walked slowly to his chair, taking the time to regain equilibrium before sitting and looking to the boy.

"Sit," he commanded simply. And the boy did—as easily as that. Perhaps it would be no struggle after all, to gain his obedience.

"You spoke with your companion today?" Palpatine said.

"Yes…" the boy replied. Then, because he was uncertain what else to say, "Thank you."

Palpatine kept his eyes steady on the Jedi, but was pleased.



"I would... like to see the others, if I may?" Luke was wary, unsure if Palpatine would want something in return.

"Others?"

Luke frowned. "Leia and Chewie."

"They are gone, Jedi." There was a self-congratulatory note mixed in with the Emperor's politely feigned confusion.

"Gone?" Luke prompted, alarm giving his voice volume.

"Of course—that was the agreement. That you would stay for twelve weeks if they were let free. They set out to Neimoidia before dawn this morning and chose to leave the transport at Cat Dato Spaceport. They were not followed, as we agreed, so I have no information as to where they are now, but I'm sure your little Princess is already…"

"This morning?" It was a stupid thing to say in the face of this torrent of information, but Luke was genuinely surprised that they were gone—that he hadn't realized that they had been taken.

He reached out now with the Force, his urgency slicing so easily now through the murky susurration which clouded about him, but was unable to find any trace of Leia. A memory hit him in that instant—of waking in the early hours of the morning, sure that someone had called out his name. Not in fear, just… realization. It must have been Leia; she must have recognized they were being separated and thought of him in that moment.

Luke chided himself for not recognizing it was her at the time, not realizing they were gone, angry at his own lack of vigilance, determined that it wouldn't happen again. He'd allowed this static fog of Darkness to hold his own abilities in check, permitted it free reign when he should have been aware.

Not again—that lesson was learnt.

Palpatine's words broke into this rush of thoughts.

"We had an agreement, Jedi. I have fulfilled my part of the bargain willingly, without delay and to the letter. I expect no less from you."

And suddenly Luke realized what Palpatine had done—that he had pushed the deal through, bringing it into immediate existence, effectively tying Luke in before he'd really had time to consider its implications.

Now he was committed—he had given his word.



Palpatine watched these thoughts and emotions cross the boy's face; watched him search for some way out and realize that there was none. Before his reactions had time to spill over into anger the Sith spoke out, gravelly voice neutral and calm. "Eat."

This brought the boy's eyes up to his own and again Palpatine watched the run of considerations play across his face as he took everything into account—the agreement to stay without contention, his own hunger, the fact that he was trapped here by his own hand now…

Whether to honor the agreement at all…

All these considerations shifted through his mind, the moment stretching…

Finally Skywalker reached out, took a single small flatbread from the warm serving dish and put it on his plate.

Palpatine allowed his own expression to change not a whit. Instead, he nodded to the servers, who filled the goblets with wine, bowed and left, the Royal Guards who had flanked Luke doing the same.
He let the silence hang for a long time, wondering if his Jedi would feel compelled to speak.

Skywalker remained silent though, staring steadfastly at the table ahead of him, eyes and thoughts distant.

The stillness stretched into minutes, in which neither moved.

Finally, Palpatine spoke out. "Placing food on your plate does not constitute eating, Jedi."

The boy looked up as if startled from private thoughts. He looked back down at his plate for several seconds… then broke off a corner of the flatbread and ate it, neither reluctant nor resigned.

Palpatine smiled, settling; that fight was broken now. Whether his Jedi ate further after this point was irrelevant and they both knew it. There was a war to be fought, a battle at a time.

And Palpatine had scored a resounding victory within minutes of meeting today.

"It's perhaps better that they are gone," he offered at last, keeping any trace of triumph from his voice. "They were a leash about your neck, tying you down, holding you back. Your pretty little Princess was using you. Using you to fight battles she could not."

"You don't know anything about her," the boy said, offended.

"On the contrary, I know her very well. Long before she was forced to fall back on her blindly devoted Rebel band to protect her, she was a Senator here on Imperial Center. She was aggressively self-serving even then. Know your enemies, Jedi," he lectured.

"And your friends?"

Palpatine only smiled, dismissive. "You have no friends, Jedi. It is time you learned that. Only those who would use you, in some way or another. Only your peers can be trusted—only they do not need your abilities."

"Leia needed nothing from me."

"Of course she did," the Sith said easily. "Her petty little Rebellion was nothing before you arrived. What little it was would have been wiped out at Yavin. They were less threat to my Empire than a flea on a bantha. But give them a Jedi—someone who could pose a real threat, someone whom the disaffected of the whole galaxy could rally around—and they became a force to be reckoned with. That is why she held you there."

"I stayed by choice."

"Yes I'm sure you did," Palpatine smiled indulgently. "The question is, why? I'm sure she went out of her way to encourage you to do so. Princesses do not generally consort with pilots, my friend. Or did you not notice that? How many other pilots did she know by name? She needed you and she knew it. She needed control of you, just as Kenobi did."

"She didn't even know about my abilities."

"Are you sure? You traveled with Master Kenobi, you wore a lightsaber. I'm sure you must have provided all kinds of subtle signs. What conclusions was she supposed to draw? Give her some credit, Jedi. Enough to see what you were—and what you could be worth to her."

"You're wrong." the boy's voice dropped low with anger at the accusation.

"It is the truth," Palpatine said in a tone that broached no argument. "All beings seek only to control you, the power that you hold. Your Jedi teachers, your precious Rebellion… and your little Princess whom you so wanted to save." Palpatine bent his head to one side, his manner gentle but his eyes hard. "Only they clothe their control in compassion and friendship and lies."

Skywalker shook his head, but couldn't find his voice.

"I tell you this, Jedi, and it is a truth; your trusted allies, your precious Princess… they will all turn on you. She will hold a gun to your head and long to pull the trigger."

"No."

"She will plot your destruction with every bit as much mercenary zeal as she now plots mine. You were nothing to her save an opportunity to be used, fodder to her cause. The moment she realizes that she no longer controls her tame Jedi, she will want to destroy it."

"You're lying!"

"And your 'teacher'," Palpatine spat the last with mocking derision, "didn't he leave you to rot in the desert until he realized I would find you, then drag you into his conspiracies with lies and half-truths, only ever enough information to control and manipulate?"

"And you?" the boy challenged.

The Emperor sat back, paused a moment, giving his Jedi mental and physical space, that it could better separate Palpatine from his accusations of betrayal by others. "I offer you understanding. As I understand your father. You and he are not so very different."

The boy balked at this, denial shaping his features.

Palpatine pushed on regardless, his grating voice absolute, broaching no argument, beginning to bind Skywalker to him. "Yes; you are the same line. I understand that as no one else can. No one. What it requires of you every moment to contain the power you have finally begun to unleash. What it has already cost you—the demands you know will come."

"We are nothing alike," Skywalker hissed passionately. "Nothing!"

"Then why are you alive, Jedi? Why are you not dead, like so many before you? Why would I bother to be here now, speaking these words? If you were any other Jedi I assure you I would have killed you already... but I see what you willfully refuse to acknowledge. I see what you are…"

He let this moment hang for long seconds, his eyes locking his Jedi's, holding him in uneasy anticipation…

"Darkness recognizes its own."

He saw the boy recoil at this, eyes widening, and knew he had scored a blow.
"I am not my father," he managed at last, voice almost lost in the emotion.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm very sure," the boy's words cut across the Emperor's, his voice steel, but Palpatine sensed him waver in the Force, the flicker of doubt that could not be so easily hidden.

So he remained still in mock consideration for a long time to give the boy time to think on his reply, frowning as he stared at Skywalker, who held his searching gaze without flinching… visibly.

"Do you truly hate him?" Palpatine asked at last. "Or do you hate what you know you will become, because of his blood?"

"He hasn't made me become anything."

"But the realization of what you are…"

"I'm the sum of my own life. Vader doesn't feature in that."

"Oh, but he does. Whether by his presence or his absence."

"Not nearly as much as you believe," Skywalker maintained.

"But far more than you think." Again Palpatine paused. "Do you believe in destiny, Jedi?"

"No," the boy said firmly.

"And yet you acknowledge precognition—you are yourself capable of this."

"The future is undecided. It changes constantly according to the actions of the present. I see that."

"Some things are fluid," Palpatine allowed. "But some are locked in. Inescapable."

"Nothing is inevitable."

"Is that what you believe—or what you hope?"

"It's what I was taught."

"And of course, you believe everything that you were taught," Palpatine mocked derisively. "Have you learned nothing here?"

"I have learned a great deal," the boy said pointedly.

Palpatine only smiled, shaking his head in amusement. "You are so adamant. I can teach you more than Kenobi ever could have. He was a fool and he was willfully blind. And you were naïve to listen to him."

Skywalker's expression was guarded, but Palpatine could sense his affront, so he pushed the provocation.

"You have heard one person's point of view and now hold it as canon. Yet he was an old man who had sat and rotted alone in the desert for two decades, completely removed from the affairs of his kind. The Jedi were killed in their hundreds and he did nothing to help them—children and younglings, Padawans and Masters. Never once did he return to aide in the fight. Are you sure he spoke for the Jedi at all? You accept his word as absolute but you can never truly know. At best, your teaching is flawed in its narrowness… at worst, everything he taught you was nothing more than the petty ranting of a senile fool."


Luke shook his head,  incensed at the defamation and desecration Palpatine rained down on Kenobi. "He stayed to help me, to protect me."

The Sith lifted his eyebrows. "And yet when it finally mattered, he left you alone."

"Not alone. Master Y…" Luke stopped—but it was far too late.

Palpatine rose in surprise. "Master Yoda?"

Luke's heart skipped and his stomach knotted at this involuntary betrayal, a momentary slip, a lesson hard learned.

"Master Yoda," the Sith repeated more slowly, staring at Luke as if everything was finally falling into place. "There is your teacher when Kenobi was gone. That is why your father couldn't sway you."

Palpatine stepped forward beside the long table as he spoke, and Luke stared straight ahead, appalled at his error. But he made himself think, acknowledge the error, examine the damage; the Emperor had a name but not a place. He buried that knowledge deep, locked it away.

Still, he was furious at his own lapse in concentration, at how easily he'd allowed himself to be goaded into giving Palpatine so much.

Stopping beside him, Palpatine reached out to take the boy's chin in his hand and lift his resisting head as he leaned down, completely focused now, expression deadly.

"Where is he?" His voice was low, dripping with Dark intent.

The boy only shook his head, tried to turn away—but Palpatine held him, nails to flesh.

"Where?" Palpatine repeated, but the boy only held his gaze in wary silence, wall after wall of mental defenses in place.

"You cannot protect him. You have already failed him once, you will do so again. It is..…"

He paused, and Skywalker too sensed it-

The momentary shift in the Force tilted everything, as if gravity had shifted, as if the universe had tilted incrementally on its axis, reality resettling about it as the Sith's eyes glazed…

Palpatine refocused on the boy, euphoric, almost ecstatic, voice reduced to an elated whisper. "One day, you will tell me—voluntarily. You will seek me out in your eagerness to betray him. Do you see it?"

The muscles about the boy's eyes tightened in horrified realization, much as he tried to hide it… but it was enough.

Enough for Palpatine to know that Skywalker recognized the momentary truth afforded by the Force—and its implications.

Seeing this emotion flicker across his Jedi's face, Palpatine smiled, his voice very sure, gratified now. Gentle though, at the boy's sudden comprehension, played out by the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the confused denial in his eyes as he struggled against shifting perceptions.

He straightened, releasing his hold on the boy, hand to his shoulder in empty consolation, pushing forward on the tide of this unexpected revelation, nails pressing into skin through the fine silk of the boy's dark shirt.

"Was he reluctant to teach you, my friend? Did he tell you why? Did he tell you that he had foreseen your future, as I have. Your destiny is at my side, not his. It is written in every fiber of your being, it is in the blood which gives you life — inevitable, inescapable."



Luke remained silent, eyes down, lost in the realization of what was to come—would he betray Yoda? It had seemed so real; a moment of irrefutable clarity, knowledge summoned up and twisted through with the Force. No vision as such, no elucidation, just that one fact, absolutely unassailable, driven home like a blow to the gut.

And still Palpatine pushed, so many questions, never pausing for an answer, voicing Luke's deepest, darkest fears. Ashen, bone-thin fingers brushed his cheek in mock compassion as the Sith slowly drew his hand away. In that moment, faltering in a sea of doubt, Luke didn't even notice.



The Emperor smiled lopsidedly, pale lips pulled back over yellowed teeth as he brushed the back of his hand against skin blushed in shock, that moment of intense clarity giving him confidence even as it stripped it from the boy's resolve. "Did he forbid you to go to Vader? Try to keep you by his side, where he could control you and contain, subdue you and restrain? Never to reach your full power, because that would be greater than his, and he would never allow that."

The boy's head dropped lower, eyes lost in bewildered distraction. Palpatine reached out to gently take his Jedi's chin in his hand again, whispering as he turned Skywalker's unresisting head toward him. "How easily you gave him control, Jedi. How foolish you must feel now, to have offered your allegiance so completely to one who sought only to control you through lies and limitations."



Confusion and doubt ripped at Luke's mind as conflicting emotions raged, fuelled by that flash of knowledge in the Force, that future echo. Adrenaline pushed him to act, to shout, to defend those accused—but deeper fears whispered betrayal and suspicion, chaos paralyzing his muscles.

"They didn't seek control," he finally whispered, as much to himself as to Palpatine. "They didn't..."

The Emperor only nodded, quietly but with chilling surety. "You know that they did. No matter what words pass your lips, my friend, I know what is in your heart."

As he spoke, the Sith walked slowly behind Luke's seat, pale hands trailing over the fine silk on his shoulders. Luke wrenched away, jaw clamping in stubborn denial against the empty sophistries offered by the Emperor, who only smiled in reply.

"I can understand your discomfort, child. It is a hard thing, to admit that one was deceived, one's loyalty misplaced. And yet so easily correctable… if one has the strength."

"There's nothing to correct," Luke said, unable to stop himself from replying. He tried so hard to hold silent, to remain detached from Palpatine's accusations, but he knew he had been drawn in again despite his best efforts. He could see it happening, yet was completely unable to stop himself.

"You have been given a rare gift, child, that of clarity. It is given to so few; do not waste it."

Luke remained silent, still trying to process that moment of cruel veracity within the Force, the absolute certainty that he would one day volunteer Master Yoda's hiding place to the loathsome, manipulative Sith who stood beside him now. Truly volunteer, of his own volition—not under duress or coercion. He knew this now—knew it. Master Yoda had maintained that the future remained in flux, difficult to resolve except by proximity, yet that burst of Force-induced realization seemed chillingly undeniable.

A fixed event, just as Palpatine had claimed. Were there others? Was his fate just as inevitable?



Seeing that doubt play across is Jedi's face Palpatine pushed on, giving no time for deliberation, hand brushing against the boy's on the table, nails dragging delicately across his skin, subtly breaking his train of thought. "How wonderful to see one's own future, if only for a fraction of a second. It has clarified for you in one instant what I could have wasted a thousand words trying to explain."

"I will not betray him."

"You know that's not true; you know you will betray him. You heard the truth, whispered in the Force. Yes… retribution. How good it will feel, to repay those who used you so callously."

Palpatine slowed to a stop, gazing into the raging fire, his voice quiet and sure. "It is inevitable; you have stayed destiny's hand long enough, child; now it wants payment for the power it has given you—the power it has given your bloodline. And the price is invariably the same. Your father's fate is your own, it always was. Destiny, my friend, will not be cheated."

"I don't…believe…"

Oh, but how uncertain that voice was now. How precarious that previously unshakable faith.

The vision, that wonderful instant of absolute clarity, had gifted Palpatine with an incredibly persuasive coercion. Both for the boy and for himself. He had never doubted, of course, had always believed he could control Skywalker— should control him. But despite his claims, this was the first confirmation that he would, sounding in a clear note which reverberated through the Force, perception beyond sight, conviction beyond doubt.

And everything that it gave to Palpatine, it took from the boy.

Skywalker shook his head slowly, torn by uncertainties, desperately fearful. He opened his lips to speak but could drag nothing from the turmoil of confusion which screamed within. "I…"

So close, so close to this intoxicating frenzy of raging emotions, Palpatine could only whisper, his voice hoarse. "There are no words left, my friend. Only the truth… and the Darkness."




 

Jade was waiting patiently for her master in the wide hallway outside Skywalker's quarters, bowing low as he emerged. He passed her without a sideways glance, still immersed in his triumph, in the boy's loss of faith— not in his allies, but in something far more important; himself.

As she fell into silent pace a step beside him, he slowed, sensing… something. Some crosscurrent of emotion…

She was in some way affected by this, he could sense that much from her. By the task she had been given. But then she was always frustrated when she had to remain in the Palace; he had trained her to be a creature of action, to travel throughout his Empire and carry out his bidding, able to hear and communicate with him through the Force, his eyes, his ears, his will…

He frowned slightly; was that it—was it within her ability to sense Skywalker within the Force? He had taught her to hear his voice, but she had never heard Lord Vader— though she had never tried, the two remaining wary adversaries, just as Palpatine liked it. But could she now 'hear' the Jedi? And if she did- why?

--Do you hear him, my servant?--

She frowned at her Master. "Hear him?"

--The Jedi- As you hear me now--

She looked at her master for long seconds… "No master. I hear nothing."

Wary, he looked into her soul, searching for a lie. But at this proximity all he could sense was his Jedi, that burst of raw power obsessively hypnotic even in the misery of despair, burning all lesser lights away so that Jade was instantly forgotten.

It was irrelevant anyway—she would play her part obediently. She always had.

Palpatine walked on, Jade resuming pace beside him, her vague, dim sense in the Force only making him desire the power that Skywalker embodied all the more. It should be he who walked obediently one step behind his Master now, not Jade. Not even Vader, not anymore. The boy's resistance only fired Palpatine's desire to defeat, to subdue—to own.

Yes, the boy was far better trained than he had anticipated, but he was certainly not yet beyond reach; the Force had assured him of that.

Though that did not mean that Palpatine had an easy task ahead. Skywalker would somehow come to terms with the unexpected vision, would likely try to rationalize it away somehow— he was nothing if not obstinate. Even if he couldn't, even if he knew it to be the truth, he would still fight. That too was in his blood. He would resist because he believed he was right, and he still foolishly believed that bought him some kind of immunity from the reach of Darkness.

He would resist because he believed it was necessary—because Kenobi and Master Yoda would have drilled into him the importance of even the smallest slip.

He would resist because of his friends, believing their pious, insignificant opinions to be his own.

He would resist simply because he knew this was what Palpatine wanted, and he resented being caged here, being manipulated by him.

The challenge would be to turn him despite these beliefs; more than that, to turn them against him. To engineer a situation in which, aware that he was walking into the Darkness, the Jedi would keep walking.

He could not, in that final instant, be pushed to Darkness; he had to receive it willingly, to open his mind and his soul in acceptance.

But he could be pushed to that very brink. Harried and provoked and manipulated to that critical, pivotal moment… when he would take the Darkness and use it as his own.




Luke sat locked again in the still gloom of his unlit room, his feet pulled up on the edge of the chair, hand to his head against the incessant pressure there, trying to reason through the vision which had turned his perceptions upside down.

Not even that; no vision as such, just knowledge, bone-deep and undeniable, that he would betray Master Yoda. A truth, as absolute as death.

He gazed out into the bright, distant lights of the city, their glow casting vague shadows about the cavernous bedroom, its overwhelming scale reminding him how desperately alone he was here.

How could he move forward now? How could he hold against this? Because he had to find a way. He wouldn't let it swallow him up in its self-fulfilling portent.

If he could just…

He paused, aware of a disturbance which rolled through the Darkness about him, trying to lock it down…

He knew before he heard his voice in the room outside, low and bass, passing out orders as if it were some divine right.

Not now… Luke thought. For all the difference it made; even if Vader had heard him, it wouldn't have slowed his footsteps.

He knew he should stand, but instead he simply drew his legs up tighter, wrapping his arms about them in an uncommonly childlike gesture.

The lights in the room came on— even that was beyond his control here— and the bolts cycled open in heavy, leaden tones.

Vader entered alone, waiting for the door to grate closed with its weighty grind.

Silence drew out as Luke refused to turn, though he was unable to ignore the heavy, rasping breaths of his fathe… of Vader's mask.

"Your companions are free." Vader said at last.

Luke remained still, gazing out into the night, torn by frustrations, by his own inability to act. He wanted to shout, to scream at this… thing to leave him alone, to go and never return. Yet when he finally spoke, all he could do was to ask quietly, without turning round, "What do you want from me? I have no idea why you come here."

"Neither do I," Vader admitted without rancor, voice eerily lost in that moment.

"Then go. Just…leave. Leave me alone." Why could he not do that? Why did he keep coming back to remind Luke of the weakness he too carried.

"You are already alone. By your own choice," Vader rumbled.

Luke whirled at that.

"My choice? Choice! My choice is to walk out of here and never look back. My choice is for you to…" He broke off, rubbing at his aching head, tired to the grave—what was the point?

"There are still choices," Vader reminded him.

"I'll rot before I'll help you." Luke's voice was tired and hollow, but his commitment shone through.

"Then he's won. You'll serve him before the year is out."

"Because you did?"

"Because this is what he does. He defeated the Senate and the massed ranks of the Jedi at their height. He brought down a Republic. Do you think you can stand alone against him?"

Vader's voice was quiet, defeated. Regretful almost, to Luke's ears... or perhaps he was just tired.

"Do you see the future?" Luke asked at last, without turning.

"I saw the vision tonight," Vader confirmed his son's unspoken question.

"Do you think Master Yoda sensed it?" Luke was aware that this question was testing the distance that he sought to maintain between himself and Vader, but in that moment was unable to stop himself, desperate for reassurance that Yoda had been forewarned.

Watching his son, withdrawn and subdued, Vader was silent for a long time, which was perhaps all the answer the boy needed. When he eventually spoke, Vader tried hard to soften his tone.

"No." Sensing the boy's desolation at that, Vader added, "But you are not to blame."

The boy turned slightly, though it was in disbelief, not hope.

"You once said to me that you had made your decisions," Vader said. "You must accept then, that Master Yoda made his. When he took you from me. When he lied to you. When he.."

"Don't," Luke said quietly, the word broken by regret, and Vader sensed his tiredness; that he couldn't do this again. Not tonight.

He fell silent, unable to maintain his anger against that. Finally he had to speak out— perhaps this was why he had come here, to say this: "I did not give you up, you were stolen from me. Remember that."

The boy shook his head, not wanting this softening, this blurring of the line between them. "Did you even try to find me?"

"I thought you lost when your mother died. I thought I had lost you both."

"But you didn't know."

"Do you think I would have deserted my own son?" Vader asked, appalled at the accusation. "If I had known you were still alive, nothing could have stopped me from finding you. They could not have hidden you from me."

The boy turned away, unable to hear this now. Unwilling. It was easier to be angry, to have Vader angry, to reinstate those boundaries and not have to deal with any of this. "And what would you have done…brought me here?"

Vader paused at that, knowing it would have been his intent.

His son's voice fell to a bitter, accusing whisper when he spoke. "What father would do that to his own son? Ever."

"You would have been where you belonged— with your father."

"What protection is that?" Luke asked bleakly, the rebuke obviously cutting deep, though the truth in his accusation made his victory a hollow one. "I'm very tired," Luke said at last, turning away in dismissal, still rubbing at the hazy pressure in his head.

"It is a constant here," Vader said. "But it can be pushed back. You will find that there are spaces between and about it. It is there that you learn to exist."

Luke glanced back, knowing that Vader wasn't speaking of tiredness. "To exist isn't enough."

"There are times when to exist, simply to survive, is the greatest victory of all."

Luke shook his head, chilled by the warning. "It's no victory, just a rationalization of failure."

"Is that what you believe when you look at me?" The timbre in Vader's voice carried unmistakable menace, and Luke knew he was suddenly skating very close to the edge.

But it was where he wanted to be— at least with Vader. He desired no understanding, no commonality. There were no shades of gray. "Yes, it is."

"I command an army in its millions— I stand second only to the Emperor himself. My will dictates the fate of peoples and planets and systems alike. For two decades my word has been law."

"And you wasted it," Luke accused. "Because you knelt, spineless, willing to further the ambitions of a ruthless, vindictive old man..."

Before he realized what he was doing, Vader had taken two fast steps forward, grabbing at Luke's arm and yanking him up and about... then he froze as his mind caught up with his actions and he realized what he was about to do.

"Your word is not law here," his son said, venom in his voice, undisguised hatred in his eyes. "You don't command me."

Vader released him with a half-throw. "You are a foolish child. You know nothing of what you speak."

"If you dislike what I'm saying then leave," Luke hissed.

Unwilling to continue this tirade Vader turned and strode to the door. In the long seconds it took for the lock to cycle open his anger calmed, leaving him unsure how it had come again to this between them.

"Why do you always try to provoke?" Vader asked into the silence.

"To remind us both of what you really are," Luke replied, not bothering to turn.


Eventually the door thudded closed and Luke was left again to silent darkness. He considered for a long time, but couldn't find it in himself to regret a single word that he had said.


 

 

 

CHAPTER NINE


 

 

"Leia!" Mon smiled warmly, arms out in welcome as Leia rushed from the transport onto the deck of Home-One, the Alliance's main Mon-Cal cruiser, Lando and Chewie in tow.

"Mon." She smiled, embracing the older woman genuinely- it had been so long since she had seen her, had felt safe.

Mon Mothma held on to Leia for long seconds, pleased to have her back safely. They'd always been close, practically family, Mon having known Leia since she was a child, knowing her adoptive parents well. They were all the family each had left now.

Mon had already read Leia's report, written on her week-long journey back to the fleet, and spoken with her several times, when both their ships had happened to be in realspace between jumps at the same time- though she'd chosen not to mention the spy. Some things were best done face to face.

"Lieutenant Grade will see that your friends are settled in quarters…we have something we need to speak about," she said gravely, leading Leia away.





"Please!" Leia said dryly as she held the clear bag which contained the comlink, disbelieving eyes turning from Mon to Crix Madine, his face hidden in the low light of Home-One's carefully emptied Communications suite.

"We're not assigning blame- yet," Madine said neutrally. He too knew Luke, and was alternatively having real trouble accepting what appeared to be right in front of him, then brief bursts of resentment as facts mounted up, though strangely, being forced to validate it now to a disbelieving Leia was consolidating his own opinion. "What we do know for certain is that this is the comlink which was sending out coded messages. We can track them specifically to this unit."

"Everybody sends out unauthorized transmissions," Leia argued, unconvinced.

"These are encoded," Mon said softly. "Once we had the comlink to work with, we traced over forty transmissions on its bandwidth over the last year, all encoded. It's a standard com, Leia-it shouldn't even be able to transmit on that kind of compressed frequency."

"You don't even know it's his," Leia said, unwilling to give in so easily, that little voice whispering at the back of her mind.

"It was in his crate," Madine said levelly.

"We're not saying it was his," Mon cut across him, wishing to give Leia time to come to terms with this. "We're just looking for answers."

"If I were an Imperial agent, I don't think I'd keep my doctored comlink in my own crate," Leia said of the large, plasteel chests which every member of Alliance personnel had, each with their name stenciled on the side, always moved from ship to ship as they were reassigned. They held all of that crew member's personal belongings--in Luke's case pitifully little: his uniforms and fatigues, a few pieces of civilian clothing, a reader and a mass of work-related data chips…and this.

"We're not blind to that either," Mon assured gently, quieting Leia's anger. "Leia, we knew we had a spy- we knew almost a year ago."

"Luke has been with us for three, Mon," Leia interjected.

Madine shook his head. "We knew we had a spy a year ago- he was probably operating long before we realized."

"He?" Leia said pointedly. Of everyone here, she had thought Madine would be the least likely to accuse, having himself been an Imperial defector, and therefore being under suspicion when he first arrived. But then, maybe his Imperial history was beginning to show through.

"The last coded transmission from this com went out less than two hours before the Imperial blockade on Hoth," Madine said gravely. "The one before that was three weeks previously- when the last of the main units transferred planet-side. The one before that was sent the day that the first advance units arrived there to set up camp- Rogue Group included. We don't know what they say yet- we can't crack the code- but I think the dates pretty much say it all."

"Yes. I don't doubt that this is the unit that the spy was using to send out information- I just question the owner's identity," Leia said, hearing her own voice raise a notch, causing the Com Chief to turn slightly, nervous. It was, after all, he who had put all the pieces together when the standard-issue comlink had been returned to him for reassignment.

Slowly, it all came out…it all came out and Leia felt physically sick.

Madine was right, of course; they'd known they had a spy passing on information, had been trying to catch him for almost a year. But he always avoided every subtle trap and every carefully-laid snare, worked out to the smallest detail by the Command staff- of whom Luke was a member.

Had he betrayed them? Had he sat in those meetings with that earnest smile, always full of suggestions, always frustrated at their failure…had he sat there and quietly laughed at them all, knowing that they were so close to their infiltrator and yet light-years away?

She shook her head as the facts were carefully read out, biting her nail to the quick until it bled, the pain strangely comforting, a distraction from cold reality.

It wasn't Luke- it wasn't Luke they were talking about- was it?

But there were so many incidents and slowly they added up.

It was his unit- always his unit which seemed to be involved. First of all the Rogues, who always seemed in the thick of it, always stumbling from one situation to another. Then, when he'd been made Unit Commander, it was always his unit who had the close shaves, always his unit under close pursuit, bugging out just a hair's breadth in front of the Empire as they had done on Hoth. Han had said it more than once; that Luke was a trouble-magnet.

Han. Leia felt a burning in her throat at the realization. What was happening to him now? Because if Luke really was an Imperial operative then…

She frowned, uncertain all over again- no, he wasn't. He wasn't. Whatever was going on, it wasn't what it seemed. Luke would never betray them. He would never betray her. She knew him too well.

"…had the slicers working on it for three weeks, but it's a rolling code," the Rodian Chief of Communications was explaining apologetically in heavily-accented Basic. "It re-writes itself every time it sends. The key to the changing algorithm is somewhere in the previous communication, but without the key to that one, we have no way to reference it."

"How long?" Leia said simply, not in the mood for excuses.

"I'm sorry, we just don't know. If we could break one key- just one key- then we could eventually decipher everything after it, but we have no point of reference and the comms are very short- there's so little to go on. And it was sending within existing messages- routine communications between the fleet. There could be dozens more that we simply didn't pick up- ones that weren't auto-archived. Any break in the order would break the key sequence and put us straight back to square one."

"Thank you, Chief," Mothma acknowledged. "Please keep trying- I'm sure we don't need to emphasize the importance of this."

"Or the importance of keeping it classified for now," Leia added, not wishing word of the fact that Luke was even implicated to leak out.

She handed the bagged comlink back over to the apologetic Rodian, a thought turning her on Madine. "And just why were you rifling through Luke's possessions anyway?"

"We've…" Mon hesitated, and Leia braced herself for some new blow. "Commander Skywalker was listed among the dead, Leia. After the Battle of Hoth."

Leia blanched. "What?!"

Madine made to speak, but Mon held up a hand to silence him, wanting this to come from her. "He was Missing in Action, presumed dead. That's why his container was being emptied- that's how we found the comlink. It was passed back on to the Communications Chief for reassignment. He was running refurb tests on it when he spotted something."

Leia just gazed at Mon, unable to take anything more in.

"When did Luke first get in contact with you after Hoth?" Mon finally prompted, voice gentle.

Leia struggled to remember- it seemed a lifetime ago. "We…the Falcon's hyperdrive failed whilst we were still in the Hoth System. We limped to the Anoat System on main drive, but it took weeks. Then we were waiting for parts and I didn't trust Lando enough to risk contacting you beyond that one message. I think…maybe…five weeks, seven perhaps?"

"He didn't come back, Leia," Mon said gently. "He never rejoined the fleet."

"…Where was he?…" It was all she could think to say.

"That's what we'd like to know," Madine murmured ominously.

"Did he say anything to you about where he'd been?" Mon pushed. "Anything at all?"

"No, I assumed he'd come because of the message I sent you…" Leia trailed off… How had he known if he hadn't been here to hear her message? "Why would he come at all if he were an Imperial agent? Why like that?"

"We think…we think he may have had a specific mission," Madine said.

"Like what?"

Mon paused, glancing at Madine, then, "We think it may have been you, Leia. Or all of us- the Chiefs of Staff."

"Me?" Her heart skipped a beat in persecution at that- in true betrayal.

Madine stepped forward. "Think- if he could pass over one of the ringleaders of the Alliance to his superiors, then still appear to break your companions out, he could return to us with his cover intact. Maybe even pick up a second- certainly keep on passing information."

Leia shook her head. "They already had me."

"But they didn't have a method of his returning to the Alliance," Madine said.
"Why did he need one? He could have just come back straight after Hoth."

"Not if he'd been shadowing the Falcon in his X-wing. He was one of the very last ships to leave- very close to the time you did. And coincidentally the Imperial fleet abandoned the blockade to come after you- after the Falcon. Solo had already sent a com transmission saying he'd get you out on the Falcon- it was on a coded frequency, but anyone with Alliance command codes could have picked that up, known where you were and passed it to the Imperial Fleet, Skywalker included."

Leia struggled to think it through; point out the flaws. "If he'd been shadowing the damaged Falcon he could have reported our position at any time- the Empire could have picked us up weeks before."

"We don't have all the answers, Leia," Madine admitted. "We think he may have docked with one of the Star Destroyers which gave chase then lost you somehow. He could have made the decision to stay with the Fleet, using his knowledge of Captain Solo as a starting point to hunt you down, knowing you couldn't get back to the Alliance quickly. You said yourself that Cloud City belonged to a friend of Solo's; we think Skywalker might have known that too. Given your position when the fleet lost you and the fact that you had no hyperdrive, he could have easily worked it out." Madine tilted his head just slightly. "Or do you have a better explanation of how he just found you again after seven weeks?"

"They injured him- badly," Leia said. "On Bespin. Vader… cut off his hand. Do you do that to one of your own?"

Mon turned in silence to Madine, but his expression softened not a whit. "Did you see the injury?"

"Yes I saw it - I treated it onboard the Falcon."

Madine considered a moment, "Was it bleeding?"

"What?" Leia scowled.

"Was it new- how badly was it bleeding?"

Leia was speechless for long seconds, then, "It...it wasn't. It was… burnt."

"Cauterized?" Madine prompted.

"What are you getting at?"

"I'm asking if it was a fresh wound, or simply an old injury made to look new. Believe me, a severed limb hemorrhages- badly. If you simply removed the prosthesis from an old wound..."

"It wasn't an old wound! It didn't bleed because Vader used a lightsaber."

"I think that very convenient," Madine countered.

"You think, we think…" Leia countered, set on edge by his behavior. "We seem to be thinking a lot of things. But until you can prove he was using that comlink and until you can prove that he was the agent, I think I'm within my rights to question- don't you?"

"Leia, please…" Mon started forward, always the voice of reason.

Leia turned and stormed out, tired and irritable and defensive. Pursued every step of the way by her own unspoken doubts.


 

 





Luke stared at Commander Jade over the top of his hard-copy book, reflecting that he needed to get to know his jailor. Needed to know how she thought, how she'd react under pressure, what she'd call him on and what she'd let pass.

He was, very pointedly, never left alone anymore except when he slept. There was always someone 'in attendance' as they described it, despite the hidden surveillance lenses. Sometimes a guard or two, occasionally a man of Han's age named Commander Reece, another plain-clothes agent like Jade, but mostly the Commander herself, much to her obvious frustration. The only time he was left alone was when he retired for the night, at which point the huge reinforced double-doors to the bedroom were locked and the dozen or so guards took up residence in the drawing room outside. But the lenses kept watching- of that much he was sure.

And always in the morning, Red would return early, fazing up the privacy blackout in the monofilament-threaded windows whether he was awake or not, settling on the seat to gaze out in silence over the distant city as he rose and dressed.

Always there- never armed anymore, but always carrying an open comlink to the guards outside, any reports restricted to her earpiece.

But it was obvious from the one-way conversations that she was in charge. Which meant that it would be her thought processes which governed both his incarceration and any attempt to retrieve him if he escaped.

Despite Palpatine's scheming, Luke didn't intend staying here forever. The moment the agreement was up, he would take action- and when he did, the first person he would have to get past would be Jade.

After three weeks of pacing his prison, the huge rooms were beginning to feel decidedly smaller. He was allowed beyond his bedroom into the cavernous 'withdrawing room' which linked the bedroom suite with what he now knew was the 'private dining room' where he met the Emperor every night across that perfectly-set dinner table, sometimes for an hour, sometimes three or four. Every night food was laid out and every night neither ate. Luke wondered wryly whether the kitchens bothered to actually make a main course anymore.

But at least he was now fed during the day- having conceded that battle he was now brought breakfast and lunch, and had simply learned to live without an evening meal. And he'd gained something even from this failure; to pick his fights with more care, to think before he opened his mouth. He was learning that Palpatine allowed no weakness or mistakes, that he had to give over his full attention to every meeting, to every single word spoken.

And he did, Luke's whole day now shaped by the knowledge that Palpatine would arrive at dusk and he'd damn-well better be ready, because there were no off-days, no allowances made. Occasionally, just occasionally, he'd get a verbal strike in himself and when he did he'd learned not to dwell on it or allow himself a few moment's grace; Palpatine always came back with a vengeance.

But between these times, long days stretched into mind-numbing stillness with nothing to do in his opulent cage but stew over the brief interludes of intense pressure, so that despite his knife-edge situation, boredom set in, grinding each day out ever-longer, leaving him desperate for something- anything- to occupy his mind.

Eventually, he'd turned to the huge glass bookcase in the drawing room. He'd asked for an auto-reader days before, but Jade had point-blank refused- though how she thought he would foil the massed forces of the Royal Guard, the Palace Guard and the stormtrooper battalions, then make good his escape with a five-bit auto-reader he didn't know. Still, with nothing else to do, he'd resorted to the hard-copy books…and felt his heart sink-

'Staged Study of Fleet Hierarchy and Command Structures'

'Cultural Analogies in Disparate Societies'

'Etiquette and Protocol in Contemporary Court'


The list went on…He twisted his face, turning to Red. "Any chance of some real books?"

"Those are real books," she said evenly, not looking up from her own silver-plated auto-reader.

"I meant books I'd actually want to read," Luke said, turning back to the bookcase.

"Those are useful books. Relevant."

" 'The Psychology of Mass Perception'?" Luke asked, incredulous. "Have you read it?"

"The Emperor chose them," Jade countered, ignoring his question. "When you've read them all, I'm instructed to allow you more."

"All?! There's about forty books here." A momentary flare of stubbornness cut in, making Luke step back from the massed books, but the fact that it was Jade and not Palpatine saying this softened the blow, and in truth, what else did he have to do here?

He pulled out a book at random- it turned out to be, 'Qualitative Tactical Data for Planetary and Inter-System Offensives.'

He put it back.

"Then you should probably get started," Mara said vaguely, looking back down to her 'reader.

"What, are you gonna test me?" he teased, turning to her, digging for some response more from boredom than anything else.

"No, I'm going to watch you," she replied, unmoved, not looking up.

"Fantastic," he nodded, dryly amused. "The only thing worse than being bored to tears reading these things has to be watching someone else being bored to tears reading these things. You have my sympathy."

She glanced up at him without lifting her head, the slightest hint of shared amusement visible in her eyes.

"So…what shall we start with? Your choice, Red."


So now, a week and four books later, he was staring at his jailor, mind numb from reading three straight hours of the excruciatingly dry tome, 'Political, Social and Economic Structure in the Core Systems,' wondering how to get inside her head.

"How about a deck of cards?" Luke slammed the book shut. "Am I allowed a deck of cards- or are they deadly weapons in the right hands?"

Looking up from her own reader, Mara Jade arched her eyebrows. "I guess that depends how good you are with them."

"I'm terrible with them- can I have a pack now?"

"Who you gonna play, flyboy?" Mara asked easily, knowing the answer.

He grinned. "You're telling me you never play?"

"Play what?" She had a hunch…

"Sabacc."

"I knew you were a sabacc player." If ever you needed to find a pilot, walk into any cantina within spitting distance of a spaceport and look around- the five guys sitting round the sabacc table would be pilots. Pilots always played sabacc- it was in their blood, like flying.

Skywalker shrugged. "Hurry up and wait," he said cryptically.

"What?"

"Hurry up and wait- a pilot's life. You're either out on a sortie and someone's trying real hard to kill you, or you're in the docking bay waiting to go on a sortie thinking about the fact that soon someone's gonna try real hard to kill you. Not a fantastic thing to be sitting thinking about- so you get a deck of cards out."

"Or you could actually go off and do some other work," Mara said.

Skywalker shook his head. "Not allowed to leave the flight deck when you're on active call. We help out the techs and the mechs sometimes, but they have this system going- I think we really just get in their way. They look nervous if we go near their ships."

"Fascinating," Mara said derisively, turning away. "You can't have a sabacc table in here."

"Why?"

"Too much technology. Wouldn't want you to start dismantling it, now would we?"

"Why- what can I make if I dismantle a sabacc table?"

"I guess you'll never know," she replied, still without looking up.

"Deck rules then."

Mara sighed; deck rules were a method of playing sabacc without the electronic pulse which changed the chip-cards, called this because pilots often played it on flight-decks whilst waiting to fly, where considering the concentration of technological ordnance, much of it live, pulse-generating technology was sensibly banned.

"I don't play deck rules," she dismissed.

"Yes, you do," he said, very sure.

She glanced up at him, wondering if he'd read her mind. It occurred to her that playing may well give her a few insights into his mind…and consequently to wonder if that was why he was trying to get her to play.

Skywalker folded his arms. "What, afraid I'd beat you?"

She narrowed emerald eyes. "Are you any good?"

"I'm a pilot," he said simply, as if the two were synonymous.

 

 





"Finally- someone to play sabacc with!" Luke declared with a grin as Han walked forward.

He'd arrived just minutes earlier on his regular, once-weekly visit, taking the time as usual to pace out distances, note bottlenecks and security, guard numbers and surveillance.

Slowly, very slowly, they were working out a code system, since they were banned from anything but the most inane small talk, usually by the bad-tempered redhead who always seemed to loiter, Han had noticed. Luke had mentioned that he was never left alone anymore- again in the most vague, broad terms- but they were learning to get around even that. They'd developed a customary bear-hug as Han entered the room, slapping each other heartily on the back, knowing that in those few seconds they were close enough to whisper, the sound of their slaps drowning out the words from surveillance mic's in the ceiling.

"Guards in the Tower," Han whispered today's topic in confirmation of Luke's previous request, given as they'd bear-hugged at the end of last week's visit.

Which had been a lot easier to spot than the previous week's request for surveillance lenses. It was amazing how hard they were to spot in the lofty grandeur of the Imperial Palace without either standing and gazing at the ceilings like an idiot or walking along with your eyes straight up and constantly tripping. Han had forgone the former in favor of the latter and was now pretty sure that the guards thought him incapable of walking in a straight line without assistance.

He had a hunch that this week's request, communicated in the bear-hug as he left- the only other time they were close enough to whisper- would be security stops and checkpoints. He also worried that maybe the guards thought they were hugging way too much…

Now, Han was walking casually over to the bank of ridiculously reinforced windows, glancing at the book on the table Luke had been sitting at, lifting it up to check the title when he was close enough.

'Instituting Change: Shaping the Sociological Architecture of a New Empire' was the somber title, raising Han's eyebrows. He looked doubtfully to Luke.

"Are they making you read this?" he asked, as he often did on checking the kid's reading choice.

Luke shrugged, evasive as ever. As ever; Han hadn't failed to note that the kid kept a lot to himself these days, everything battened down beneath a mask of distant disinterest. But then, what else could he do here? Five weeks of being locked up in this strange, opulent prison, never alone, constantly chipped away at by Palpatine and Vader- it wasn't surprising that he'd developed a few idiosyncratic defenses. The sooner they got out of here the better.

"Actually it's quite interesting, if you can get past the grinding tedium," Luke said, taking the book from him. "And I learned something."

Han jerked his chin up in question as Luke placed it back down on the table, careful to keep his page.

"If you're bored enough anything can become interesting."

Han did a double-take, thrown by the dry, detached tone in Luke's voice, parsecs from the sand-dusted kid from Tatooine- both literally and figuratively. He turned away to the huge, heavy glass bookcase. The kid seemed to have set himself the monumental task of reading every book in there, despite their weighty topics- maybe he wanted a challenge.

"Where're you up to?" he prompted, setting forward toward the bookcase on the far wall, aware of Jade's disapproving eyes on him- she didn't like him and she liked him being here with the kid even less, Han knew.

"Halfway across the fourth shelf down," Luke said, squinting over. The cavernous size of the room meant it was far enough away that all of the traditional hard-copy books merged into long stripes of somber-colored bindings.

Han opened the glass doors, stretching up. "So you actually read 'Command Substructures and Established Military Foundations Deconstructed'?" he quoted.

"Unfortunately yes," Luke replied easily.

"How about…What the hell is 'Blood Royal- Genealogical Justification for Autocracy'?"

"Very, very long," the kid said with feeling. "And utter rubbish."

The last seemed aimed far more toward Jade and the surveillance than himself, Han realized. But if she was at all offended, she hid it well.

"Want something to take away with you?" Luke asked. "I can recommend…well, none of those actually. Maybe the fleet command structures one. Might come in useful one day."

"Thanks," Han said dryly, shaking his head. "Knowing who's tellin' 'em to shoot at me doesn't really help that much if they're still shooting."

"At least you'd know who to curse."

"Ah, I don't need to know a rank for that- I curse freestyle." Han grinned lopsidedly, heading back to the table and pulling out a chair. "You gonna deal those cards or what?"

The kid settled down opposite, shuffling the old-fashioned cards. "Sabacc or aster?"

"Aster first- then I'll show you how to really play sabacc."

Luke smiled wickedly. "You said that last week."

"I was lulling you into a false sense of security," Han said, taking the elaborate perennium-inlaid ivory chips from the small, refined, ebony-inlaid box so considerately provided with the deck of antique cards. He was hoping to take these with him when they left too.



Lifting his eyebrows doubtfully, Luke dealt- and the game commenced. Only it wasn't a game at all- or at least, not one which actually required cards.

"Okay then…immediately, I'm gonna put twenty on this," Han said easily, pushing two of the exquisite chips forward from his stacked pile after studying and rearranging the eight cards in his hand.

Luke glanced up; immediately meant right outside the door- chips were guards.

Han grinned. "See, you thought I was gonna bet a round dozen, didn't you?"

"That's the usual amount."

"Well let me tell ya, pal, I'm just gonna be throwin' chips all over today- like I'm made of 'em. I'm bettin' on staves- red suit."

Red; all Royal Guard then- no blue-suited Palace Guards- also unusual. Luke slid four five-denomination chips of his own out into the pot, then turned one card from the central deck face up, studying his own hand before taking it and laying a random card of his own down in its place, thoughts on guard numbers.

"See, that's no good to me- what'd you put that down for?" Han frowned, then, "No wait- I'll take it."

"I dunno- I think that counts as a refusal," Luke said, but Han was already taking the card.

"No, no- see- I got a ranked card." Han placed the Master face-card down, which meant he was talking about the central stairwell in the Main Palace. Gradually, painstakingly, each of the face cards had been assigned a place within the Palace so that questions could be asked and answered surreptitiously, and tonight the chips were guards, counted by Han on the way up. Han slid three ten-denomination chips into the pot, the total of thirty making Luke's eyebrows rise.

"Seriously?" he asked.

"Hey, I think I can count cards," Han said, offended.

"Tell me you're not still betting on staves."

"Nah, flasks," Han replied easily; Palace Guards.

"That's a big bet," Luke said thoughtfully.

"Yeah," Han agreed. "I guess sometimes that's the way it goes- you pay your credits, you take your chance."

"So you're gonna bet big all day?"

" 'Fraid so. Wait till I get an ace."

Ace was the main Tower entrance, always well-guarded. Luke raised his eyebrows, uneasy.

"I'll double that, easy," Han warned, glancing back at the pot of stacked chips.

"Any particular reason why you're betting big today?" Luke said casually, doubting that Han would know the reason for the increased guards, but asking anyway.

Han shook his head. "Like I said- just betting on what's in front of me. Maybe it's to keep you on your toes."

"Believe me, I am on my toes."

"Ah, c'mon, this is a stroll," Han said, cutting short his preferred term for ridiculous odds- 'A stroll through the Death Star.'

"Have you seen the pot?" Luke glared meaningfully at the pile of intricately-tooled chips on the table, representing just a fraction of the number of guards they'd need to get through to get out of the Palace.

"That's just 'cos you're looking at the whole pot," Han dismissed.

"We don't have enough chips to look at the whole pot," Luke replied pointedly.

"Hey, fifty percent of any game is the cards you get dealt on the day."

"I don't believe in luck," Luke said. "We make our own luck."

"Damn straight," Han agreed. "I'll take a stacked deck over luck any day."

"And if you can't stack the deck?"

"There's always some way to stack the deck," Han said. Reaching out, he lifted the top card from the deck, holding it with its back facing Luke as he looked at its face. "What's this card- seriously?"

Luke glanced at Han- all the information he needed. If nothing else, enforced closeness to Vader and Palpatine was honing his senses. "Eight of Staves."

Han dropped the card face up on the table- the eight of Staves. "See? Now that's what I call stacking the deck."

Luke looked meaningfully back at Han. "Which is great- if you're the only one at the table who can do that trick."

"Hey, even if you're not, it's one hell of an advantage." Han tapped at the cards, aware that the conversation was becoming a little too specific. "Are you playing or not?"

"I'm playing," Luke said, mind still on the bigger picture. "I'm just waiting for the right cards. They'll come."

"But not this week?"

"Too many chips on the table," Luke declared, throwing his hand down.

"A wise choice, pal. Couldn't've put it better myself." Han grinned, dragging the chips over to himself. "Besides- I think I'm gonna need these today."

"Great." Luke frowned, staring at the pile of chips as Han dealt out the next hand in this non-existent card game. "I think I really need to start stacking that deck."



"So- they've given you a little more space to pace in," Solo said, gesturing with a flick of his head to the drawing room door behind him, open now into the dining room beyond. That made three rooms in all that the kid had access to.

"Yep," Luke answered vaguely, rearranging his cards into no particular order with considered care. They'd played for an hour now, most information passed on, one way or another. "Not quite made it as far as including a landing platform yet though."

"Hardly, you'd need to stretch another fourteen floors down for that," Han said casually without looking up.

Both remained silent for long seconds, waiting to be interrupted by Jade, but if she'd noticed, she let it pass without comment.

Finally Luke glanced up and Han gestured again with a nonchalant flick of his head whilst still arranging his cards- the platform was on the east side of the tower.

"Hmm," Luke said simply, sliding ten ornate chips into the center of the table, eyebrows up in question.

Han snorted. "You wish. Let's try doubling that, shall we?"

He slid twenty chips forward, causing Luke to frown. "Is that…thirty, or is it twenty on my ten?"

Now Han was frowning. "That's thirty. Altogether."

"You need to turn a card," Luke said casually.

Han reached out and turned the top card from the deck and Luke glanced up. "Did you see the deck?"

"What?"

"The deck," Luke prompted meaningfully. "Did you see the deck?"

"That deck?" Han frowned, looking uncertainly at the deck of cards.

Luke just remained still, staring at Han, willing him to understand. "The deck you just bet on."

"See, now I don't know what you're talking about," Han said, leaning in.

"How can you not know what I'm talking about?"

"Are you asking me if I cheated?", he asked, clearly at a loss as to how he could cheat at a non-existent game.

Luke counted to ten, reaching out his hand to place it on the chips… "I'm saying…you just bid thirty- did you see the deck?"

Red glanced over, becoming curious.

Han stared for a few seconds more…then realization hit- that Luke was asking about the flight deck- the landing platform. "Oh, the… no, no." He paused, playing the part again. "No, I didn't see the deck, I just bet on what was in front of me."

Luke shook his head without meeting Han's eye, amused. "Man, we have got to stop playing this game."

"Or get way better at it," Han said, smothering a grin.

Neither looked at the other for a while, afraid that if they did, they'd start laughing, wondering if anyone watching the security footage was trying to follow this nonsensical game of high stakes.



 

 

 

 




Leia stood alone in the dark of her quarters, her hand to her mouth. She just stood there, very still.

Time passed- a long, long time, the stars trailing by in the viewscreen as she stared out. Eventually she sighed, a long, low, tired sigh.

Very calmly, she walked from the room, heading for Mon's office.

"I have something to tell you," she said simply when she entered, and Mon frowned, knowing from the tremble in her voice that it was important.

She turned to her Aide, Harlin. "Could we have a few moments, please?"

He nodded diplomatically and retreated, leaving them alone.

Leia paused for a long time, struggling to find a way to do this, aware that Mon was giving her the space, not rushing her.

"I…was thinking about the comms... and Luke." Leia didn't need to elaborate further, she knew.



Last night, just as her shift was finishing, Mon had called Leia to the Communications Suite again and her heart had beaten a little faster in her chest as she arrived.

"Leia- please come through." Mon had gestured her into a small room to the rear, where the Com Chief and two slicers had spent the last four weeks working on old, automatically archived comms traced back to the comlink found in Luke's belongings.

The Com Chief looked down now as she came in, taking a half-step back.

Madine was in there of course, and Ackbar, his raspy breathing loud in the confined space.

Leia braced; this didn't look good.

"Lieutenant Leemarit- please?" Mon prompted, and the Rodian Com Chief nodded silently, turning to Leia.

"I'm… sorry, Ma'am."

He reached out his long, blunt fingers to rest on the console controls and a message played out, clipped by distortion, compression audible in the broken hiss… but clearly recognizable:

"…every chance that we will be relocating shortly. Scouts, myself included, have been sent to systems on the Corellian Trade Spine, as far out as the Outer Rim. This will be a semi-permanent base, so should provide a good strike opportunity when it's settled. Co-ordinates will follow when I have confirmation."

It was, in some strange, twisted way, good to hear Luke's voice again- even like this. He continued, leaving only the shortest pause, as if considering, searching for anything he'd missed.

"As far as I'm aware, Mon Mothma will not be at this base. Nor will Madine or Ackbar. Leia Organa will be present, backed up by General Rieekan. No more information at present. Contact within three weeks."

That was it. Probably less than a second when it had been compressed and encoded. It had taken less than a second to damn the man Leia had spent three years trusting absolutely.

Mon spoke into the silence, her tone that of someone not wishing to continue, but knowing that they must lay this to rest.

"We now have four messages deciphered. We gave a fragment of one of them to the Bothans without telling them who it was and asked them to check Imperial and Independent field-agent databases. They ran it through their equipment." She paused again, then pressed on, firing the last bolt home, "They have this voice down as an Imperial Agent named The Wolf- they have no visual ID, but apparently he's the one who re-forged broken links between Black Sun and the Empire following the Falleen massacre, recruiting Xizor to work for the Emperor. They have practically nothing on him, except that he's the son of someone very highly placed in the Emperor's personal retinue. They thought for a while that he may be Aurus Cordo's son- his only son is listed as a Royal Guard, and he's about the right age- four years older than Skywalker claimed to be. But Bothan spies in the Palace claim Cordo's son is still there. Whoever he is, the Bothan's contact within Black Sun claims that this agent- The Wolf- left and fell below their radar about three years ago, following the success of the Black Sun mission. The only description they have is that he was a human, average height, athletic, in his early twenties with fair skin, white hair and blue eyes."

Leia didn't bother to argue over the finer points of the description- it was petty and she knew it.

"I'm sorry, Leia," Mon said, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"If it's any consolation, he fooled us all for a long time," Madine added.

Leia turned stony eyes on him. "No. No, it's not."

"The matter seems… laid to rest now," Ackbar said into the silence. "Damage control would seem our new priority. We should look to change any codes and contact protocols as quickly as possible. Did he have access to our own agents' names and locations?"

"Some," Madine admitted. "He also piloted for my Special Ops unit occasionally. We'd already begun recalling some field agents- as a precaution, of course." He glanced at Leia as he added the last, though she had no scorn left.

"Is it likely to impact our own intelligence-gathering?" Mon asked, all business now.

"To a degree- recalled agents will have to be replaced, which will take time, though we rely on the Bothans a great deal nowadays. They keep to their own networks as you know- since we have no details of their particulars, he had none either." Madine said. "We've alerted them though- any which he had contact with are being reassigned."

And so the conversation went on around Leia, and everything was decided, everything resolved. Everyone rolling over the one vital fact… that one of the closest people in her life- someone whom she'd trusted implicitly, whom she would have given her life to protect- was a lie.

He had broken faith, had beguiled and misled. He'd sold her out; had befriended her specifically intending to do that.

The words of the Imperial pilot at Cat Dato floated into her mind- she'd asked him where Luke was and though he hadn't recognized him as a prisoner, he'd clearly realized who she was speaking of. Now, in hindsight, the emphasis in his words - as if believing she'd sought an enemy - made perfect sense. "Yeah, I bet you'd like to get your hands on him."

He'd known- he'd known Luke was an Imperial operative. He'd known!

Was it all true? The Commander, the apartments… his lineage! The Bothans had said he was the son of someone highly placed in the Emperor's personal retinue- and she knew… they all knew what he could do!

Leia remained silent, eyes wide, completely lost as to what to do now.

"I think we should wrap this up for the time being- perhaps we could have a meeting of the senior members of the staff to agree on a course of action," Mon said into the silence.

"I would…question the advisability of making this common knowledge," Ackbar murmured uneasily. "The resultant fallout would be highly destructive both in terms of morale and our reputation."

"Of course. Perhaps we should bring our suggestions to the meeting tonight?"

There was a murmur of agreement, no one wishing to dwell on the moment right now. No one wishing to meet Leia's eyes, she realized. The room emptied in silence, leaving only Leia and the Com Chief behind.

"We'll still go through them, ma'am, every one," the Rodian offered at last, voice thin and reedy. "This might not be what it seems- we may all be jumping to conclusions."

"Thank you, Leemarit." What else could she say? She'd never really liked the Com Chief, he'd always just… put her on edge before. Now, he seemed like her only ally.

Did she need one at this point, Leia considered- or was it all academic, in the face of facts?

Still, the Com Chief paused, not wishing to leave it there. "I… I don't think… well, I knew the Commander- by reputation mostly but… he was a good man- good pilot. Good C.O. He cared about his people- his command. I can't believe he'd do this, Ma'am. It's not who he was."

Leia looked at the wiry Rodian, wanting to believe him.

He shook his head, huge eyes blinking quickly. "This is just one thing, Ma'am, it's just one thing. I know it seems pretty damning, I'm not blind. But…it's only one thing. I just…I'd want something else. To believe it was him, I'd need to know something else. Big as this is, it's not enough alone."

He looked away, looked back to her, then walked quietly out.

Leia walked in silence back to her quarters, the buzz of activity onboard ship a distant ghost. When she arrived, she stood for a long time in the darkness just staring out at the stars, hand to her mouth.

Because she knew…she knew it wasn't just one thing.



It took over four hours of gut-wrenching uncertainty before she decided…

Eventually she sighed, a long, low, tired sigh. Very calmly, she walked from the room, heading for Mon's office, knowing she had to tell the truth. Much as it tore at her to do so.

This was too big and too important not to, and she was too close to it to make a rational decision.

Because even now- even with every damning piece of proof…she still wondered…

 


 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

 

 

Days floated seamlessly into each other for Luke, hours marked out by the pages of the endless books he read, days by the grinding repetitive monotony within them.

Every single day, around midday, the medic Hallin came to check him, only staying a short time but always friendly, strangely open and conversational given their association, quite willing to make inane small talk though less eager to be drawn any further, seeming genuinely sociable in a professional, polite manner. Aside from Han's weekly visits, it was the only other non-confrontational conversation Luke had, and he couldn't help but try to get some sense of the bigger picture from the medic every single visit.

"And how is my charge today?" Hallin asked genially, lifting his handheld general scanner from his bag and stepping towards Skywalker.

"Pretty much the same as the last seven weeks," Luke said easily, taking the time to study the slight, diminutive man as he stepped forward, the medical scanner held out before him.

"And how's life in the fast lane?" Hallin queried, eyes on the readout.

"Oh, you know, not a minute to myself," Luke said dryly then, searching to tap the medic for information without seeming too obvious. "How's life in the real world?"

"I wouldn't know," the medic said distantly, still studying the readout. "They don't really let us out much."

Luke raised his eyebrows. "Really? I can't imagine how that must feel."

"How's the reading going?" Hallin asked, glancing to the book left open, face-down on the marquentry-inlaid table beside them, neatly ignoring the underlying meaning of Luke's quip.

"Well, I finished the last book in the bookcase yesterday and when I got up this morning, there was a whole new set there. It's like a kind of magic."

"Perhaps the 'book fairy' came," Hallin said lightly.

"It could've left me a couple of credits," Luke replied in kind. "Or maybe just a note saying 'well done'."

The medic glanced up in mock-seriousness, the slightest of laconic smiles on his face. "Well done."

"Thank you," Luke said somberly. "Unfortunately the new books are, if possible, even less interesting than the old set. See, I'm relying on you to tell me anything at all that's even vaguely entertaining happening beyond these doors."

Hallin turned back to his scanner, running it over the join between the artificial flesh of the prosthesis and his patient's real skin, a genuine smile coming to his lips. "Oh, you know I'm not supposed to talk about that. It really wouldn't help you, apparently."

"If it wouldn't help me, where's the harm in telling me?"

Hallin glanced up, voice firm but open. "We are trying to help you Luke—you understand that?"

Luke was unable to keep an edge of challenge from his voice in answer. "I understand that you're keeping me locked in these three rooms all day every day."

"Well if it makes you feel any better, they're very large rooms," the medic said lightly, glancing about the incredibly grand proportions of the cavernous chamber.


As ever, Nathan Hallin was looking to dispel the dark tone in his charge's voice, aware that the man was reluctant to be here, although it was, of course, for his own good, at present.

In fact, this room alone was close to the size of Hallin's whole apartment—if one included the extensive, capacious refresher suite with its neat dressing room, then it was probably well over, and the medic's newly provided apartment in the North Tower was hardly undersized. Sudden inclusion into this most exclusive world of grandeur and excess left even Hallin, who had enjoyed an affluent upbringing on the Capital Planet, slightly overawed and intimidated.

Still, as Vader's son his new charge must surely be very used to life on this grand scale, familiar on some basic, subconscious level with the Palace and its lavish, luxuriant standards even if he didn't remember the specifics, so his dismissal now of the sumptuous, opulent room was no real shock to Hallin.

"Not surprisingly it doesn't make me feel better, no," the man, Luke,  said without hesitation.

"And it doesn't seem familiar?" Hallin ventured.

"Being locked up? Pretty damn familiar now."

"No, I mean the room," Nathan corrected. "Though Commander Reece thinks you may well not remember—your previous apartments were in the North Tower; he said you've been here less than a year—or you had been before you went away."

The man stared at the Nathan, lost. "See, now I'm confused."

"Yes, so am I in this place," Nathan said glibly without looking up. "But if it makes you feel any better it seems to be the natural state of affairs—anybody who claims to know anything around here is either lying or spying and either way it's best to avoid them, in my experience… but then I'm sure you already know that."

His charged backstepped slightly, clearly feeling the conversation had abruptly gone off the map. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would I know that?"

Nathan glanced up. ""Well, I'm not the one who lives here. Well, I do now, but it's a relatively new…"

"Wait, I don't live here—why do you think I live here?"

"Well… these are your apartments; that's generally…"

Luke shook his head emphatically. "No they're not—I've never been here in my life before. Who told you they were?"

"Your Aide," Nathan said defensively. "And I thought he should know."

"My what?!"

"Your Aide—or adjutant or whatever he is—Lieutenant Commander Reece. The man in the main office to the front of your apartments?" Nathan prompted.

"This isn't my apartment and he isn't my Aide and I have no idea what you're talking about."

Nathan searched the man's pale blue eyes for a lie, but could see only bemused confusion—but then Commander Reece had explained very early on that Lord Vader's son, an Imperial agent, had been sold out and taken prisoner whilst undercover among a group of rebels. He'd disappeared for almost a year before a lead was found, at which point Vader had pursued it, but on tracking his son down, it had become obvious that he had been brainwashed by the rebels and indoctrinated, probably over a period of many months.

It was, Nathan had been assured, being dealt with in the form of exit counseling, a type of controlled deprogramming; no input from the medic was required on this point—none at all, the Aide had emphasized. Indeed, his interference may well be harmful.

After explaining the facts, Commander Reece had also taken the time and trouble to underline very pointedly how classified this obviously sensitive information was, restricted only to the very highest echelons of rank within the Palace, and then only to those who had direct contact. The Emperor himself had made the decision that the medic should be in possession of all the facts, Reece explained.

The Commander hadn't said it of course, but Nathan hadn't gotten this far in the Imperial military without the ability to read between the lines; it had been the Emperor who had commissioned him as Skywalker's personal medic and the Emperor who had deemed him worthy to be trusted with this information—and it would therefore be the Emperor to whom he answered for any transgressions—a sobering thought.

What he should do right now then, was just swallow his questions as he had every other day, nod vaguely in agreement, then politely excuse himself and walk away. Return to his ridiculously lush apartment in the Habitation Tower of the Imperial Palace on Imperial Center, settle down, pour himself a drink and congratulate his outrageous good fortune in being here…

And yet… he couldn't help but be pulled in by the young man who stared at him so expectantly now, looking for some kind of response… just waiting, as if he knew that given all the facts, the medic would do the right thing. Assumed that just because he had the nerve to contradict the Emperor and stare down Darth Vader, of course everyone else would do it too. Nathanstared into those searching eyes… Don't do it—don't get pulled in—turn around and walk away. They're dealing with this, they told you so. It's nothing to do with you.

But if they were dealing with it, they didn't appear to be getting very far—and who exactly were 'they' anyway? In all the times Nathan had visited these apartments, aside from Commander Jade he'd seen no one else actually in here—ever.

He glanced down, lowering his voice. "What were you doing this time last year—can you remember?"


"Not exactly." Sensing the seriousness concern in the medic's voice, Luke frowned, thrown by the question, his own voice muting in unconscious response. "I guess I was… I was in the Seswenna Sector about now. Why?"

"With whom?"

"With Rogue Group—I'm a combat pilot." Luke shrugged away further explanation. Something told him he could trust the medic, but he knew that all his rooms were bugged, and he wasn't about to share any further details.

"Under cover?"

Luke hesitated, unsure what Hallin was getting at. "You know, strangely we find if we admit that we're part of the Rebel Alliance, Imperials show up and start shooting at us. So yes, we were undercover."

"I mean, undercover as an Imperial spy in the Rebellion."

Luke balked. "What?!"

Hallin kept his voice very level, very composed. "Luke, a year ago your cover was blown and the Rebels took you prisoner. They indoctrinated you—re-educated you, they claimed. We believe they-"

"Wait...what?" It was all Luke could find to say in the moment.

The medic frowned, genuinely confused. "Has no one… explained this to you?"

"Is that what you think? Who told you this?" Luke didn't know in that moment whether to be outraged, insulted or just simply laugh. It didn't even occur to him to bother denying it, so absurd were the claims.

"It's immaterial. What's important is that we try to move forward from-"

"It's not immaterial to me," Luke said doggedly. "I want to know who's concocting this crock."

Hallin sighed patiently. "Why do you think your movements are being restricted?"

"Why do I think I'm being imprisoned here?" Luke corrected. "Because I'm part of the Rebel Alliance—because.. I'm a Jedi."

"I see," Hallin said levelly, pausing just slightly before issuing his next question, aware that Luke was becoming more irate, though he felt under no threat. "May I ask, are you… aware of your lineage—of who your father is?"

"I'm aware, yes," Luke said, unable to bring himself to say it out loud. "I'm also aware that the door you just came through is about a foot thick and has a staged release lock, the walls have some kind of cabled reinforcement running through them, the transparisteel in the windows is military-grade and there are at least four security lenses in this room. Does that seem normal to you?"

Nathan sighed; Skywalker certainly had the Rim acccent and attitude down pat. Still, he didn't feel at all under threat. Despite his charge's obvious irritation, the young man befor ehim didn't seem so very much like his father. "No, but as I said, your judgment is thought to be… compromised at the moment. My point is, given your lineage, how likely do you really think it to be that you were a member of the Rebel Alliance?"

"My lineage, as you put it, is the only reason that I'm not in the cells right now with Solo, or more to the point, that we're not both dead already."

As he spoke, the door locks began to cycle open and Skywalker leaned in to add urgently, "That's it; we crossed the line—got too close to the truth. They're gonna take you outside and they're gonna tell you to say nothing, Hallin. They're gonna tell you I'm wrong and they're right because that's the story they want circulated—to just stick to the script and keep your mouth shut. Do you really believe them?"

Hallin glanced to the doors then back to Luke, whose sharp blue eyes held his in that open, compelling gaze.

Was it true? Was he all that he claimed? After less than a few months here, Hallin already recognized that the Palace was a hotbed of power plays and deception.

Was it true?

Seeing the uncertainty play across the medic's face, Luke felt a sudden pang of guilt at telling him so much, knowing that it would endanger him. He should have kept quiet—what did he care what the medic thought of him anyway? If it didn't matter then he shouldn't have argued the point, and even if it did…. then he shouldn't have spoken out anyway; it changed nothing other than to put the medic in danger, which Luke was doing simply by speaking the truth to him.

That was the trouble here; if he didn't play Palpatine's little games then people got hurt—not him but those around him. Those who had nothing to do with this; they just got pulled in as collateral by the opportunistic Sith.

Very much like the slight, dark-eyed man who stood before him, face tense with uncertainty, either Luke played the game on Palpatine's terms or he accepted the consequences—and if the upshot had been to his own cost, then Luke would have taken the hit, but it never was. It was always a third party—the same game Palpatine had been playing since the first day Luke had arrived here, and why not; it worked so well for him… it was about to do so again.

Both men paused to look as six Red Guard stepped into the room on either side of the door, weapons ready, and Luke leaned in, letting out a frustrated sigh. "Just… agree—agree with them if you want to see tomorrow. But believe me when I tell you that they're lying. And trust me when I tell you that if they think for one moment that you believe me, you won't see tomorrow anyway."

A tall, wide-shouldered, pristinely uniformed man stepped in between the watchful guards without quite entering the room, making a polite, expectant gesture. "Thank you, medic; this way, please."

The medic frowned, glancing to the man. For a moment Luke thought he would leave without further comment, then the medic turned quickly back to Luke, freshly unsure as to what was really going on. "Who are you?"

"This way, please," The man at the door repeated, his tone civil and courteous but hard as durasteel.

The medic nodded obediently but as he walked between the tall, scarlet-robed guards, his slight frame dwarfed by their looming bulk, he spared a single glance back to Luke.

Luke turned away as the door ground closed and the staged locks engaged, reaching out to fling the book he had been reading off the table and across the room in frustration.







Early evening gloom was sending dusky shadows creeping slowly across the cavernous room as Luke sat quietly awaiting Jade's return, attention split between appearing casually bored for the benefit of the guard standing by the door and concentrating on a carefully hidden sliver of Force connection.

He was dressed impeccably in a darkest blue shirt and trousers, the elegant, fitted cut and feel of the bespoke clothing now very familiar, the refined fabrics quite customary, so that they no longer wore him but he wore them, confident and comfortable enough in this that he left cuffs and neck casually unfastened.

He was in the drawing room, the doors to the dining hall locked whilst the servants set the table for a dinner which neither diner ever touched. Servants; no droids here, Luke had noted. His mind went briefly to Artoo and Threepio, wondering whether they were still on the Falcon. Wondering if he would ever see them again.

He rose and walked to the tall, thick windows, free of any refractions despite their substantial bulk, gazing out over the city, so close and yet so very distant; so much so as to be unreal to him now, Tatooine the vague memory of a half-remembered dream.

Reflected in the flawless transparisteel panes was the ghostly image of the huge, soulless room in which he stood, its high, arched ceiling and massive scale customary to him now, though the cramped, comfortable, intimate scale of all previous quarters on so many different ships and worlds remained achingly missed.

He was now generally allowed access to the three heavily-fortified rooms in what he knew, from vague suggestions and hints dropped in a casual, conspiratorial manner by the medic Hallin, were the private chambers of a much larger suite, complete with servants' and aides' quarters, audience chambers, exercise halls, lounges, libraries, meeting rooms, offices and countless other pointless rooms which contrived to complete the massive, sprawling residence.

Whether the medic believed Luke following their short, stolen discussion several days ago or whether he was simply humoring him in his frustration at being confined, Luke didn't know. He wouldn't put it past them to have told him to do that to keep Luke quiet, but Hallin seemed genuine in his desire to make this a little easier for Luke, though there were clearly limits.

Knowing the Emperor a little now, Luke also wouldn't put it past the manipulative Sith to place close to him someone whom Luke felt he may be able to trust, offering the illusion of some kind of connection when it was in truth nothing of the sort, because whilst Hallin seemed willing now to offer tidbits of the world outside Luke's opulent prison, he also clearly believed that this was where Luke should be and where he would be staying.

Jade also seemed to be upholding this charade of carefully created identity of a past history and ongoing future here, though she too obviously knew at least part of the truth. Still, she resolutely referred to this as 'your apartments,' bringing him books from his library, food from his kitchens, carried by members of his staff, who bowed politely and never asked questions, which was probably why they were here. If he were appointed as someone's personal aide, the first question Luke would ask would be, 'Why is there a staged-release lock on that door capable of holding back an army?'.

But nobody did. They just brought him impeccably laundered clothes and ornately presented meal trays and smiled blankly when he asked their name, glancing nervously at Jade if she was in the room, which she generally was—or if not her, someone else.

Strangely, he'd become used to that quite quickly—it made no difference anyway; he was obviously being watched at all times by a pretty extensive surveillance system. He'd had various little trials of this when Jade left the room for a moment, walking casually out of sight of the door and watching her eye line when she returned.

She always knew where he was, turning immediately to him. So far he'd found just one blind-spot. It worked for two days, but when he tried it again a week later, it was no longer blind. He could, of course, easily disable the lenses by using the Force to pull wires or crush circuitry, but there seemed little point as yet; they'd only be fixed within hours, and once he'd done it they would know he was capable.

No, that was a one-time surprise to be kept in reserve for a more crucial moment.

He and Jade had started to play Sabacc on and off for a few weeks now, both presumably playing for the same covert reason. Jade was good, but she clearly didn't get much practice, whereas up until recently, stuck on Hoth, Luke had played a couple of hours every other day. Not much else to do there.

At first he'd staggered the wins and losses with her, then as a test he'd tried hard to beat her three solid days running, which had resulted in her refusing to play for several days, so he'd sat playing single draw or reading for long stretches until she'd been unable to resist the pull, desperate to beat him again. And he'd let her—just to see what she'd do.

Of course it didn't always go to plan. The cards didn't take sides and she seemed reasonably capable of blocking him when he tried to read her, but he learned about her either way; learned how to burrow subtly past those blocks, with the cards confirming when he did.

And she learnt about him—because she was watching him too, he saw that. Always looking for any tells, any reliable signs to help read him, clearly figuring that they'd come in useful sooner or later. She was nothing if not thorough, his jailor.

Which was what he liked about her.

He followed her distant sense in the Force now as she made her way down through the levels of the West Tower. Nine levels—always the same. Here, in what was obviously a very well-known location, she was a creature of routine—her first real weakness. Aside from her incredibly abrasive manner of course, but that wasn't so much a weakness as a…phenomenon.
Still, he found it easy to single her out in the jostling crowd of minds here, her vague attenuation with the Force discernable even at a distance now that he was so familiar with her. And he was familiar with her, seven weeks into his enforced imprisonment.

Seven weeks in, five weeks to go. The agreement was for twelve weeks of compliance.

Three weeks in, he'd begun plotting Han's escape.

And Mara was his key, though she didn't know it. He spent long hours each day quietly tracing her steps and her characteristic presence up and down corridors and floors, whenever she left his prison.

Her sense of concentration in certain areas, of command or scrutiny in others. Of deference when she was near the Emperor. Creating a mental map of the Tower about him—of exactly where he needed to go. Pulling that information together into a plan.

Then hiding it behind defensive shields of his own in preparation-

Because every evening, the Emperor came. Every evening the same discussions, the same denials, grinding him down, provoking and challenging and inciting, disputing every answer, testing every limit.

And every evening Luke felt his patience fray a little further, his frustration twist a little tighter. Felt his anger burn closer to boiling as he tried to remain detached in the face of spiraling provocations.

Tonight would be no different…






Palpatine settled in the chair and studied his Jedi, who sat mildly opposite him, layer upon layer of defensive walls up in preparation for tonight's assault. He'd learned how to do this very quickly; how to lock Palpatine out of certain parts of his mind, how to hide in the shadows or the plain light of day—but then necessity was a great teacher.

And Palpatine didn't need any great knowledge to know what his Jedi would be plotting; it was inevitable that he would make an escape attempt. In fact, Palpatine would be disappointed if he didn't.

But the boy was learning—he wouldn't simply make some blind, unprepared dash for freedom. He knew he would probably only get one chance, so he would likely be making careful plans. Especially since the life of his friend was at stake.

In his position, Palpatine would have made his bid already despite the agreement, and left the Corellian to rot, but he knew the boy wouldn't do that. He would slow himself down and risk predictability because he simply couldn't desert him. Because he still held true to the values which Palpatine hadn't quite managed to strip from him yet, though the strain was beginning to show as he struggled against ingrained, constrictive restrictions which only hampered him here and he knew it.

All this strength—all this intensity of spirit, all this resolve—wasted on some pious, stunted aspect of the Force which made one beg for all that one received and even then allowed only a fraction of what one was capable of controlling. How his Jedi would thank him once he understood that.

As Mara left, the boy glanced again at the momentarily open door, at the perceived freedom beyond.

"You are mistaken if you believe it is me who holds you captive," Palpatine fired as his opening volley.

"Then unlock the door," the boy said simply.

Palpatine smiled at that. "Where would you go, Jedi?"

"Away from here."

"Running back to your precious Jedi Master?"

His chin rose at that, but the boy said nothing. He seldom rose to the bait these days—he was learning when to argue and when to let the provocation go. Palpatine smiled; valuable lessons for his future position.

"He would not take you, Jedi. He would not take you back. You are tainted now—that thread is cut."

Still the boy said nothing, so Palpatine continued, delivering the blow he had waited weeks for the evidence to land—there were no lies here. "To your little Princess? That tie is cut too, Jedi. She will not take you either."

The boy's eyes sharpened, the slightest of frowns lining his brow, though he said nothing.

"I told you once she would plot your destruction—did you not believe me? She has run back to her Rebellion with tales of parentage and pedigree, my spies tell me. Did you truly think you could return to that life?"

"And how did she know?" he challenged, his voice tight.

The Emperor loosed a broad smile, showing dark, spoiled teeth. "Don't judge me too harshly, Jedi. I am giving you a gift—I clarify for you just how limited the friendship of those around you really was. They held you back, held you down. Because they were afraid of you they forced you to act like them, to hide your power as if you were ashamed of it; to limit and confine it. But when they needed your abilities, they expected your complete co-operation, didn't they? They bound you and caged you with supposed responsibilities and projected expectations. They demanded blind loyalty, yet this is what they give you in return. This is what your friendship means to her—she has betrayed you, Jedi, not I. She alone knew the information—the choice of whether to protect or abandon you was hers alone. She has ensured that no one will come for you, that no one will give you safe harbor now. She has left you to rot when you gave up your own freedom to buy hers."

The boy had turned away to stare into the fire as Palpatine spoke, the play of flickering shadows over his face highlighting the hardening of his features, the tightening of his jaw.

Palpatine waited a long time in silence, giving his Jedi time to digest this betrayal; branded a pariah among those it would have so willingly given its life to protect—how that must burn.

Yet he held to his temper, silent and still, eyes not moving from the flames.

"There are no answers there, child," the Sith said at last, though the boy remained unresponsive. "Did you truly think they would help you, the son of their enemy? They judge you by your father's actions. You are as guilty as he in their eyes—just as you were in the eyes of the Jedi."

The boy's frown grew deeper, his expression dark and stormy…and in that face, the Emperor saw for the first time his father's hard edge; that cold, driving potential for devastating destruction. Palpatine licked thin lips in pleasure—finally, hours of carefully invested manipulation were beginning to bear fruit.

"They were not for you, Jedi. They only held you back."

"They taught me everything which you now seem to consider of value."

"I value the ability which runs with the blood through your veins. I value you for what you are. All they did was try to change you—your fundamental nature. Now it is left to me to unravel the ties they placed about you; to give you the clarity of vision to see the chains they shackled and confined you with."

He shook his head slowly. "It's you who is deluded."

"And your father? Do you not wonder what he can see with such absolute clarity that you cannot? They did not trust him either, though he served them faithfully for many years. Their only reward was to force him to spy on those he respected. They do not trust any in your bloodline, child—you have a connection to the Force and a tenacity of will which makes them uncomfortable. They prefer compliant menials."

"I'm not like him, no matter what you think," the boy denied, anger beginning to clip his voice.

"I gave him the freedom and the power he deserved. They only held him back; stifled him."

"He was Sith," Skywalker hissed, goaded by the implied association.

Shaking his head, Palpatine pushed on whilst his Jedi still wallowed in Dark intent. "He was a prodigy, endowed with an aptitude and a connection which they could not understand, so they tried to limit and confine him as they now try to limit and confine you. Petty laws designed to control those too weak-minded to think for themselves. Rules to govern the majority; to stifle the exceptional and offer the succor of equality to the weak. They try to hold you back to their lowly level, but those laws are not for you. They tried to tie you and hobble you and keep you close, to put a leash about your neck… but they could not do it."

Skywalker shook his head, but Palpatine continued over his faltering objection, voice low and insistent and completely sure, hypnotic in its zeal.

"You were too willful and wild, too powerful for them to command. How could they control that which they could not comprehend? And they could never understand you…You knew that much, though you didn't know why. Didn't know why you heard its howl, baying like a wolf in the night. It calls you back to the pack and you feel its primal pull in every fiber of your body. It is instinctive, ingrained into every cell of your being. That is why it answers your slightest call. That is why you are here. I told you—if you were simply another Jedi I would have killed you long ago, but Darkness recognizes its own. I understand you as no one else could."

The boy closed his eyes against words which burned irredeemable doubts into his soul. But he didn't refute—for the first time, he didn't turn away.

"Look within and see the truth—feel it. You were born for the Dark Side, created of it. Destiny calls you on and you are ripping yourself apart trying to deny it. You cling so desperately to the light, but you are living a lie and the denial destroys everything and everyone around you."

"Liar…" the boy whispered, more desolate hope than knowing accusation.

"Then where are they now, my friend, all those who sought to use you? They are all gone. They have seen their chance slip away and they fall over themselves to desert and decry you when you have done nothing to them. If you do not hate them now for what they are, then you are willfully blind. If you do not want redress, then you are lying—to me and to yourself."

His Jedi looked away, his expression softening not a whit, torn by doubts and denials.

"What do you desire—truly—in this moment?" the Sith pushed.

The boy looked to him, eyes hooded by the flickering firelight. They blazed with a flame all their own in that instant, wild and feral, plagued to distraction—and it fed Palpatine's soul with gratifying satisfaction.

"What do you feel, Jedi? What do you truly feel in your heart? Tell me that you forgive, that you absolve them. Tell me their betrayal doesn't burn. Tell me your lies…though we both know the truth."



Luke remained still and withdrawn, trying not to listen, logic and emotion colliding under Palpatine's accusing tirade, fed by fear—real fear. Because what if he was right; even unintentionally, seeking only to goad Luke, what if he was right? Had they betrayed him? Had they used him? Had destiny placed him here—exactly where he should be?

In those first moments after he'd been rescued by Leia from Cloud City, he'd naïvely thought that this was the lowest point in his life—that it just couldn't get any worse. And now... now, fate had stepped in to prove just how wrong he was. It had taken everything—friends, beliefs, identity, freedom—everything had been stripped away and he stood alone—truly alone.

But it had left him his father—just to clarify what he actually was.

And it had left Palpatine—its voice. As cruel and as callous and as relentless as ever.

Luke looked into those rancorous yellow eyes and words failed him.

All that he could do in that moment was to stand and walk shakily back to the room from which he'd come, knowing—feeling—the Sith's gratified, self-satisfied grin at his back.





 



Mara started, glancing over to Skywalker as he stood quickly, the book he had stared at all morning without once turning a page forgotten as he twisted about to stare at the doors. A run of disparate emotions ran across his face fast as quicksilver, beginning with apprehension and ending closer to resentment, his eyes narrowing, jaw clenching—in reaction to what, Mara didn't know…

The comlink at her belt sounded a tone, making her jump as she fumbled to retrieve it, Skywalker's gaze remaining fixed on the doors.

"Jade," she said.

"Lord Vader's on his way in." The muted response in her earpiece answered all her questions save one; why Skywalker reacted this way. Why he hated Vader so very much more than Palpatine.

"Acknowledged," she replied, eyes still on Skywalker, cutting off the comlink as the muffled clang of releasing bolts signaled Vader's arrival in the outer room.

Lord Vader was the only person besides her master who had free access to Skywalker, though Mara had strict instructions to inform Palpatine immediately, checking of course that all security images were being recorded, as they always were anyway, every hour, every day.

Seconds later the reinforced doors cycled open, Mara setting towards them, the familiar sound of Vader's regulated breathing hissing as the heavy doors swung open.

"Lord Vader." She bowed her head just slightly, though her eyes never left his.

"Commander," he said simply without bothering to look to her, stepping aside expectantly to indicate that she should leave.

Mara set forward-

"No Red—stay," Skywalker said quickly to Mara, eyes remaining on Vader.

Mara paused, uncertain, causing Vader to turn his gaze on her. "She is leaving," he said pointedly in bass tones, making Mara start forward again.

"No. Stay." The clipped, intense tone of Skywalker's voice brought her to an uneasy stop, though when Mara turned to him his eyes remained on Vader. "There's nothing my father has to say that can't be said in front of you, I'm sure."

Father! Mara shocked rigid at his words, her astonishment too great to disguise, pulling Skywalker's eyes to her as he frowned.

Vader turned slowly, that blank, faceless mask daring her to make comment.

But he didn't deny it.

Mara looked back to Skywalker, suddenly understanding so much more—about this…about him, about everything that was going on here, the larger game her master was playing.

But as many questions as it answered, it opened up more—if he was Vader's son then where had he been?

And what about his history, his links with the Alliance, with the Jedi? Was it real, any of it?

Of course it was; she'd seen hundreds of data chips containing information from a team dedicated specifically to tracking him—his past and present activities. He'd been top of the Empire's Most Wanted list for over a year, since the day they had his name. At the time of his capture at Bespin, Mara knew of seventeen independent operations to capture him which were being financed by the Empire—aside from their own concerted efforts, headed up by Vader…by his …

She turned to him now, mind racing to piece everything together. Hundreds of data chips, endless man-hours being dedicated to finding the pilot who'd destroyed the Emperor's pet project… Then finally, they'd had a name—and everything had changed.

The Intelligence team who dealt with him was quadrupled in size overnight then isolated in a separate, dedicated unit, no longer anything to do with the Rebellion or anti-insurgency units. Vader was assigned to head up the search…

They hadn't known—they hadn't known he existed!

She remembered again Palpatine's words when he had first visited his new Jedi—his fascination, his anticipation; "He looks not at all like his mother—only his father."

His mother…who was she? Where was she? He'd grown up alone on some backwater dustball of a planet right on the Rim—or had he at all? Everything was under question again now.

But one thing had become crystal clear; why Skywalker was here. Why Palpatine had wanted him so very much from the moment he had discovered his existence.

"Have I spoken out of turn?" Skywalker said coolly, eyes on his father, pushing for a response.

"No," Vader replied simply.

The two remained still, each refusing to yield, the air fairly crackling between them. Finally, Mara found her voice. "I should leave."

"No—STAY," Skywalker repeated forcefully, the unexpected demand in his voice making Mara stumble to an uneasy stop.

"She is ordered to leave," Vader said, leaden tones inviting no argument, though it didn't appear to faze Skywalker in the least. But now—now Mara understood why.

"By who?" he challenged.

"The Emperor," Vader said.

Skywalker looked quickly to Mara, expression shifting rapidly from authoritative demand to a flash of bitter regret, as if reminded of what she was. She looked away, avoiding his gaze, deeply uncomfortable.

"Of course," he said quietly, eyes still on her, though she didn't look up. "And you all do just as Palpatine orders."

"You think yourself beyond that?" Vader said, bringing Skywalker's eyes back to him. "Then why are you here?"

Skywalker laughed humorlessly, turning away, genuinely dismissive.

"You should leave, Commander Jade," he said at last to Mara, voice dry and emotionless. "But then you would have anyway, I'm sure."

The rebuke stung, when it shouldn't have, Mara knew. She had no loyalty to him—she really shouldn't care what he thought of her. Didn't care, she corrected—didn't.

She walked quickly between them, head down, jaw clamped. Angry and flustered and wounded all at once, mind still spinning from the revelation as the heavy doors ground shut behind her. In the long, grand hallway beyond she slowed to a halt, heedless of the eyes of numerous guards scattered about it; of the security lenses recording her every move.

Vader's son…Darth Vader's son. She had sat in a room with him, had spoken to him, had watched him and listened to him. Had played sabacc with him—with Vader's son. And hadn't realized.

Hadn't realized who she was sitting with.

And she was supposed to be the best, trained from childhood to catch every nuance and notice even the smallest detail…yet she hadn't had a clue. But they were so different… or were they at all—the absolute demand in Skywalker's tone had stopped her dead just moments ago.

Why hadn't the Emperor told her? Why hadn't he clarified that one incredible fact when it brought everything else so clearly into focus? Why had he given her the task of guarding him when he knew how she felt about Vader—how little she liked him, how much she distrusted him.

Why had he given her this chance to know Skywalker before this bombshell dropped on her?

Because he must have realized this moment would come—that she would find out one way or another. It may be a little earlier than he had intended, but the effect was much the same.

And he did love his little games. It would be so like him to play this little amusement out for his own entertainment.

She slowly resumed her march down the corridor to check that her master knew Vader was here. In truth, it made no difference who the prisoner was—he would be lost anyway, one way or another. Because sooner or later, her master's patience would fracture and he would turn on Skywalker with a vengeance-

And he would take him to pieces.

Somewhere along the line, she'd forgotten that; forgotten that Palpatine had an ulterior motive which would not be swayed. And learning Skywalker's identity had only underlined the hard facts. Palpatine would break him or kill him trying—and anyone connected with him, anyone drawn in by him, no matter how reluctantly, would be pulled in and dragged down; collateral damage.

And it shouldn't be her. It wouldn't be her. Perhaps that was the lesson her master wanted to re-teach—because clearly she'd forgotten.

She quickened her pace to a military march, angry at herself for letting her guard slip, even a little. Angry at Skywalker for stealing past her defenses—and thankful to her master for clarifying the weakness inherent in any human emotion—especially this.





They stood in silence for long moments when Jade left, Skywalker's eyes on his father, expression unreadable, sense guarded and veiled, something he was becoming exceptionally good at. Finally he turned and walked quietly toward the tall windows, remaining there, his back to the room, saying nothing.

Vader could only stand and watch, knowing that this had already escalated into conflict, having no idea how to diffuse it. No idea why he came here again and again.

Because something brought him back which was stronger than any walls the boy could build. Some need more addictive than any hostile rejection. Even though he had no idea how to express it or even name it, it brought him back here again and again-

"Luke…" The boy remained silent. "Who gave you that name?" Vader asked at last, turning the boy's head just slightly.

"I…don't know. I never asked."

Silence stretched out again…

Uncertain how to continue, uncomfortable in the protracted silence, Vader turned to leave. As he did so, he heard his son's voice, very quiet.

"What…was your name?"

"What?" He'd heard the question, but was so unsure in that moment what to make of it that it had stopped him dead.

Remaining before the tall window, staring out into the encroaching dusk, his son spoke again. "Your name?"

Vader was silent for long seconds. "Anakin—Anakin Skywalker." It was a lifetime since he had spoken it out loud, since he had even thought it—his son's lifetime.

It felt deeply uncomfortable to say it, somehow clumsy and unnatural. And something else, some deeper regret…

To have to say it like this, to his son. As an admission that he was no longer the man he had been. The man his son would have been proud of.

Though Luke was half-turned away, Vader saw him mouth his surname, and realized that until this moment, his son hadn't even known whether even this was truly his or just another lie, one of many.

"Were you…serving the Emperor when I was born?" Again his voice was quiet, betraying none of the emotion which Vader could so clearly read in the Force.

The desperate desire to know, tempered by unsettled reluctance…and fear. Fear that this knowledge would pull him in and drag him down, take him where he did not wish to go. And all twisted through with strictly-contained devastation, the wound still raw and bleeding.

"Yes." What more could he say.

The wave of remorse which burned through his son took Vader's breath away, though all Luke did in the moment was to nod very slowly, his back still to his father.

"I had…" The boy didn't say it, but then he didn't have to; hoped. He had hoped...for what?

That Anakin had been alive, however briefly, when he was born, Vader realized. Hoped that the man whose memory he had cherished all these years had still been alive. His real father.

The realization came over Vader quite slowly, but still held the strength to twist his stomach;  that Vader was not his father—Anakin Skywalker was.

And Vader had crushed that man—betrayed him, destroyed him. Had willingly sacrificed Anakin to gain the power Darth Vader now wielded without compunction.

"I did what I believed to be right," he said, voice a bass rumble.

His son turned just slightly, though he wouldn't meet Vader's eyes. "And do you still?"

It was an offer of truce, he knew. Not understanding or acceptance—certainly not reconciliation. But an offer to try to find some middle ground from which to begin. Until now—until his son had actually said this—he had been unaware of how desperately he had wanted it. Now, spoken freely, it was like rain in the deep desert.

He wanted so very much to say yes—to offer anything to maintain this. To say everything his son wanted to hear.

Instead, unwilling to lie, he skirted the question. "Why are you so sure that I am wrong?"

His son finally turned to him, blue eyes dull with dispirited defeat. "How can you even ask."

It was not a question, and he heard in his son's voice the bitter, heartfelt recognition of the depth of the void between them.

"You will change," Vader said. "Come to a greater comprehension—of your place in the galaxy, your entitlement."

"As you did? " Luke asked bitterly.

"As I did," Vader acknowledged, unrepentant. "Understanding will come with time."

The boy shook his head. "I already understand you—that's what scares me most of all."

Vader took a half-step forward, angry that his son should feel this way—have been made to feel this way by the Jedi who had stolen him away, seeking only to control him. "You should not be afraid of what you are—you should be proud."

"Of what?" Luke spurned, genuinely dismissive.

Vader scowled, unable to begin to understand this rejection, "Your power—your abilities. Acknowledge what you are. "

"I don't know anymore…" his son whispered, backstepping to maintain the distance between them, desolate, hopelessly confused.

This was a good thing, Vader told himself—that the boy was beginning to question what the Jedi had told him he should be—this was his chance; their chance. Everything Vader wanted could be accomplished. And yet…something in him couldn't help but react to his son's plea.

"You are my son. You will always be that," he said at last, voice strong and steadfast.

"I'm lost," Luke lifted his eyes to his father in reluctant realization, "and you only wish to drag me further from the light."

"I drive you to true understanding."

"I understand," Luke said again. "I just can't agree."

"Then you do not understand. The Emperor will show you the truth—he will make you comprehend."



Luke lowered his head, for the first time conceding the concept of defeat, if only in part. "He will make me obey, perhaps."

Was it a monumental admission, or a momentary slip? Luke didn't know anymore. So much that he had once been sure of, so many of the truths he had built his life around, were turning to smoke and shadows here. But there was one thing he still knew—knew it in his heart and in his soul.

"But I'll never believe that Palpatine's right—I'll never believe he does anything more noble than advance his own conceited, self-serving ends. Nothing can make me do that—not him, not you. Nothing."

"You only.."

"No—I'll not do this again," Luke said, voice firm now, the momentary glimpse of fragile doubt completely subdued. "I'll not cover the same ground over and over whilst you nurse your conscience or validate your reasons for my being here."

Vader was left to an uneasy silence, uncertain what to say against the boy's  piercing observation, not wishing to reduce this to another argument.

"You should go—please leave." Luke turned away, disheartened and dismissive.

Fired with frustration, Vader held his ground—he would not be spurned out of hand. "No. I will not walk away—I will not leave."

The boy didn't turn back. "You already did—twenty-two years ago."

"You were taken from me—I did not leave," Vader insisted forcibly.

"I wasn't talking physically," Luke parried, the wound cutting deep, his sense and temperament changing rapidly now.

"I made my choices. I swore I wouldn't regret them."

"Then why are you here?" Luke murmured, another sharp observation cast out so casually, face completely composed.

"Losing you was never my choice."

"But bringing me here was."

One more blow landed with cold, cutting precision. Effortlessly, leaving Vader to contemplate whether the boy was learning too much at Palpatine's hand. "I have told you—I do not regret my choices."



Luke searched the inhuman mask which hid his father's eyes, but saw only his own reflection, dark and distorted. "I regret them," he whispered at last, voice wistful again and in that moment plainly heartfelt, knowing that he was utterly confusing Vader with these intense, mercurial changes yet unable to stop himself, too tired and drawn to care.

"I had hoped…" Luke laughed briefly, no hint of amusement in it, expression unguarded and laced with defeated regret, having moved in a heartbeat from curt and dismissive to unconditionally open, all barriers instantly dropped. "..foolish things—naïve, blind, reckless things. And every time you come back, some tiny part of me hopes all over again. Stupidly—because everything I've ever hoped, I've lost."

He looked away, unable to believe he had made this admission to his father—but he was exhausted, weary of playing the same games, each circling the other, perception and intent always hidden. Something spurred him on to truth in this moment, aware that this had to be a final opportunity offered.

"And every time you come back, you just remind me of that." He shook his head, eyes haunted and defeated, resigned at last. "And I can't do it anymore."

He searched for some reaction from his father, some acknowledgement—anything at all. Something to let Luke see that he was viewed by his father as anything more than simply an opportunity to be used, as he had been to so many.

"Do you really give a damn about me?" he asked at last, doubt reducing his words to an uncertain whisper.

"You are my son," Vader said simply.

Luke laughed again, that mirthless laugh at his father's inability to say anything more.

He looked back to that death's-head mask, tried to see past it, to see the man within... perhaps he saw nothing because there was nothing left to see?

"Then don't come back," he said, the simple, sincere tone giving his request a solemn gravity.



Vader foundered at this, aware that some far-reaching decision had been made, the weight of his son's words dragging all hope from him in that moment, though he made no move to betray his unease, too proud to show weakness even now. His son held his eyes for long seconds before turning away and, unable to conceive of anything more to say which could bridge that gap, Vader turned in silence and walked from the room.



Luke stood unmoving, back tense, shoulders taut, watching his father's reflection in the plexiglass of the window; watching him stare in silence for long, drawn moments before finally turning and walking from the room.

His stance finally relaxed, shoulders slumping, though he didn't turn, knowing from long experience where the surveillance lenses were hidden in this room, unwilling to share this intensely private moment.

He stood like this a long time, gazing out into darkness.




Vader strode away, a turmoil of suppressed emotions, fired by the numb declaration of irreconcilable beliefs in his son's voice.

Even knowing him as little as he did, Vader was finally realizing how much Luke must have cherished the memory he held of his perceived father, the virtuous Jedi who fought for the same justice and freedoms Luke now held so dear. How he must have admired him, respected him, loved him.

How he must now hate him. Loathe him, despise him.

Only now could Vader comprehend how much the words he had spoken on Cloud City must have devastated his son. That Vader had obliterated every support, every belief in that single moment; had ripped his son's foundations away and left an open, bleeding wound that could never heal.

How had he assumed that he could now counter that merciless, damning, life-changing act with simple words?

That he could win back the son whose soul he had shattered, whose hope he had so completely crushed.

But he would not take this blame alone; Obi-Wan had caused this. It was not enough that he had deceived and converted his wife, hypnotized and beguiled her, stolen her from him with his high, unrealistic ideals and his pious, self-righteous accusations. Not enough that he had brought her to Mustafar to underline Anakin's loss—that he had then turned on Anakin and destroyed him, had left him to burn in the fires of Mustafar. He had also exacted one final, merciless revenge; he had stolen Anakin's son, not just physically but mentally. Had hidden him away and filled his head with lies, just as he had Padmé's. Had deliberately made it impossible for Vader to reach him, even now.

His final vindictive retribution on Anakin for defying the Jedi.

It had been a long time coming, but how he must have savored the wait, knowing that it would burn through Vader with all the caustic fury of the flames on Mustafar. That it would continue to burn every time he saw his son, because there was nothing he could do to change it.

The fury blistered through Vader now, searing away any guilt or remorse, any acceptance of his own part in this. It was Obi-Wan; all Obi-Wan.

He had never forgiven Anakin for coming between himself and Qui-Gon. He had never accepted that Anakin was more powerful than he. Had always held him back, constrained him, sought to control, just as Palpatine had said. And when Anakin had broken free, he had taken from him everything of meaning in his life.

And now this, his ultimate, sadistic reprisal. His last, vindictive stab straight at Vader's heart. One final, ruthless blow landed with cold, cruel precision.
How desperately he hated him in that moment…

Vader paused, his raven cloak whipping in a flurry about him as he froze stock-still in the richly opulent hallway, a dark figure shrouded in shadows…

In that moment—how he hated himself. 
 

 

 

CLICK HERE TO GO TO PART THREE