Mara Jade returned late into the night, landing on the polished black platform on the expansive Palace roof, close to the South Tower. It immediately reminded her of him —of the night he'd broken out. A small smile touched her lips at the memory of how easily he'd run riot through all the carefully-laid Palace defenses.
Her smile faded at the memory of what it had cost him. How she had simply walked away—don't think about that.
Don't think… But that was all she seemed to be doing recently; thinking about him. It had been easy to dismiss though, her just-completed mission having been so intrinsically linked to Skywalker, the second time she had performed the same exercise this year. That, of course, was why she was thinking of him now—that and no other reason.
Filling her mind with a hundred pointless thoughts rather than acknowledging the single one that was in her mind, Mara entered the Tower, still buzzing with life even at this hour. The Imperial Palace never slept—like the Empire, it existed around the clock, a strange, heightened reality completely isolated from the true one which existed outside of these impregnable walls. One could live one's whole life here, never once venturing beyond the sprawling, monolithic bulk of the Main Palace if one so desired. Many lesser civil servants and Palace staff did just that, required by mandate to remain within the Palace grounds as long as they served the Emperor, whole communities and infrastructures building up, level on level, within the Main Palace below.
The Towers themselves provided exclusively strictly for the elite of the Emperor's staff, providing select accommodation for the privileged few. Workspace, ceremonial halls and assembly chambers, both official and informal, were carefully allotted on a preferential basis to military and planetary leaders, diplomats, system representatives and of course, the Royal Houses, nothing escaping the Emperor's scrutiny and judgment.
Despite the late hour, Mara knew absolutely that Court would still be in session, and that her master would expect her immediate attendance.
She made her way smoothly through the Tower, pausing at all the usual checkpoints, caught unawares by a few new ones. But then she'd been away nearly four months—almost as long as Lord Vader—so it was no real surprise that security changes were in effect as her master was never less than vigilant in such things.
It was their type and placing that was of interest to Mara; not the usual, obvious sites—entrances and purpose-built guardrooms—but natural bottlenecks and blind curves, easily defendable points. And plain-clothes guards—Mara's trained eye could spot them easily, milling about with Palace staff, watching rather than checking ID's, and always a second bottleneck around the next corner after a checkpoint, a crossfire between which one would be caught with no cover and fired on without danger from either checkpoint. Less military-training and more like guerrilla warfare, Mara reflected.
Definitely a new security officer in the Palace. She narrowed her eyes at that, mentally running through the most recent collection of the Imperial officers clambering for promotion. She could name at least a dozen off-pat, though none would have created this kind of security profile.
Lost in thought, considering who her new rival would be—her master always liked to keep his high-ranking staff in opposition one way or another—Mara continued up to the tenth level, where Court would be in effect.
She passed through three new security stops before entering the Attendant's Hall, full of noise and color, her own plain black one-piece drab by comparison. But not without a reference as to her own standing, which ensured her a few curious glances as she made her way through the gathered throngs.
People spent years of their lives whispering promises and secrets in this Hall, making pacts and alliances, without once gaining entry to the coveted Throne Room beyond. Mara too had spent years of her life in countless disguises wandering this room, listening for her master. Automated personal jamming and counter-jamming devices were rife in this hall of whispers, so that the only reliable way to actually gain information was to walk among those who were all too eager to barter it for the slightest chance of recognition in Court.
She walked quickly through them now, recognizing many, recognized by only a few, and they too shrewd to pass such information on.
At the tall double doors which hung floor to ceiling she paused, nodding at the Royal Guards who kept a constant vigil here, whether the Emperor was 'En Court' or not. She didn't bother to do anything more; her presence would have been noted as she came down the high-security corridors, permission sought as she entered the Attendant's Hall. If her master required her, she would be admitted. If not, then she would wait.
The tall doors swung open, many heads turning back to view the new entry to Court, squinting at the light which streamed into the oppressive, darkened room, the rich gold walls glowing, incandescent beneath this burst of light.
Mara set smoothly forward into the gloom, walking towards the raised dais at the head of the cavernous hall on which was placed her master's throne, set upon an inlaid half-circle of pale terassotti marble, its mirror-half set into the floor before the dais to form a completed circle. A remnant of the destroyed Jedi Temple, it had always reminded Mara of a pale moon, a circle of deep cadmium red in its centre. Here her master would be holding Court from his precious Sunburst Throne, another centuries-old artifact appropriated from the decimated Jedi Temple.
The throne—his prized possession and the Jedi's much revered Seat of Prophesy—was a substantial, imposing piece, its backrest beaten and etched from a single piece of gold into the form of a massive beaten sun whose edges flared out in faceted sunbursts from the ground behind him to well above Palpatine's head. Even here, the richly-worked opulence of the precious metal caught the faintest light to glow sublimely, rendered in exquisite detail at the Emperor's back.
Beneath his feet was the heavy iconic footrest he always used here; his feet never touched the floor but rested instead on the substantial form carved with a complex representation of the galaxy he ruled, the inference hardly subtle.
Mara walked forwards without a sideways glance, her eyes and her attention only for her master.
She was five steps from the dais when her stride faltered…
Standing tall and straight just behind and to the side of the throne, expression passive, hooded eyes intent on her, was Skywalker.
He wore a dark, plain suit fastened to the side in military style with neither rank nor insignia, the fabric and cut flawless, perfectly fitted, lending an air of indifferent affluence, of casual, confident association.
Palace Livery was rich, phthalo blue for the Guard, scarlet for the Royal Guard. Members of the Emperor's personal entourage—and only they—were allowed to wear dark vermillion red, black as Mara often wore, or darkest cobalt blue, and it was this which Skywalker wore now, the relentless block of midnight blue broken only by the narrowest of white lines at his high, straight collar, even his hands covered with fine leather gloves.
He watched her for several seconds longer as she recovered her pace and continued forward, then his pale blue eyes flicked away to stare blankly into the assembled crowd.
When she reached the dais Mara dipped gracefully down onto one knee on the pale cream semi-circle before her master, taking long seconds as she stared down at the ivory marble to regain her composure before looking up, well aware of how amused he was at her uneasy confusion.
She acknowledged that her mission had been a success—all that she knew her master would want aired in public—and took her place, standing to one side of the hall, close to and facing the dais.
No one sat in Court save the Emperor. No one approached the dais except by personal invitation and no one ever stood upon it or behind the Emperor—save herself, Lord Vader, a few favored, hand-picked guards... and now Skywalker, apparently.
She stood for the next two hours staring at Skywalker and wondering…what? Everything, she supposed. Why was he here, what had her master told those around him? How long had he been free from the Detention Center? His scars were faded now, but still easily visible—to her at least.
Did this mean Palpatine had broken his Jedi at last? Of course it must; he would never be allowed in Court otherwise…
How much was lost, Mara wondered. For her master to trust him so close… How much of Luke Skywalker actually remained?
An image rushed to her mind of the last time she saw him, months ago, hunched over against broken bones, blood dried onto bruised skin… She remembered his battered face as he'd turned to her, lost and alone, already having endured so much and so very aware of what was to come, sky blue eyes so expressive, so completely open, even then…
Tonight he never once acknowledged her fascinated stare, though he must have been aware of it.
Or maybe it was lost in the crowd—Skywalker would have appeared in Court from nowhere, instantly in a position of obvious power and favor, clearly placed on show by the Emperor for all to see. Everyone must be whispering, desperate to know who this new stranger was, what he was, why he was here.
Everything—every single aspect of his arrival—would have been closely controlled by her master, she knew. From the choice of day and the Courtiers in attendance to his clothes, his comportment, his position on the dais.
There must be a feeding frenzy of gossip and guesses traveling through the Palace. Nobody appeared from nowhere to gain this kind of instant prominence and favor. She regretted now walking so quickly through the Attendant's Hall. Many a tale was whispered there, more often than not instigated by the Emperor, wishing to reinvent the truth to better serve his purpose.
She watched and listened as the night wore on, Skywalker standing to straight attention, though he looked gaunt and tired. This close, she could see the fading sutures and scars. What reason had her master given for them—if any? Sometimes ten whispered theories were far more powerful than one lie—or one truth.
Court rolled on; petitions for aid, for relief from exorbitant taxes, for permission to mine or to till. For right of proxy over neighboring planets, empty or inhabited, for military contracts, for commercial restrictions lifted or levied, all carefully logged for consideration, permissions and warrants handed out only if the incentives were sufficient and it ultimately served Palpatine's interests.
Skywalker remained statue-still, eyes on the middle-distance, face impassive. If he had the slightest interest in what was happening then he hid it very well. But then he'd always done that, she reflected, and it never once meant anything—that she was learning.
Eventually Court retired, the Emperor rising to walk with insincere graciousness through the bowing Courtiers, pausing once to acknowledge someone specific, as he often did.
Skywalker walked closely behind him, hands to his back, eyes straight ahead. As was her right, Mara fell in with the entourage behind Cordo, the Emperor's Majordomo, and Amedda, his Chancellor. The assembly passed through the high doors opening onto the vast Attendant's Hall, its numbers bowing low in hushed reverence as the regal procession passed, Royal Guards falling in behind.
Finally free and in the wide, grand corridor beyond, Mara hoped to catch Skywalker's eye, but the Emperor turned to her immediately as she set forward.
"You've done well, Mara. Go to my offices with Cordo and make out a full report. I will read it tonight."
And that was it. She'd been none-too-subtly dismissed, Palpatine turning away to continue down the corridor to the long staircase which led to the restricted habitation levels, Skywalker not once looking back.
It was well after midnight when she made her way as casually as possible through the privileged habitation levels of the South Tower to the sprawling Perlemian Apartments which were once Skywalker's prison, now listed as his official quarters.
When she reached them there were four Red Guard—the Emperor's personal regiment—on the main doors. All senior apartments were guarded of course—for the occupants' safety, it was assured, though why exactly it was necessary in the elite enclave of a fortified Palace no one chose to ask. And if, in keeping others out, the guards also incidentally kept the apartments' inhabitants in, well then that was pure coincidence.
The Red Guard were conspicuous in their presence rather than the more familiar blue-liveried Palace Guards, and Mara was left to wonder, as she suspected everyone else did, whether it was a compliment or a containment that kept the Emperor's own regiment at Skywalker's door. The tall double doors themselves were open though, as was customary here, low light pooling in the wide main corridor beyond.
Taking the completely irrelevant card copy of her report from her pocket and tapping her nails across it whilst trying to look officious and annoyed, Mara walked directly up to the door, nodding at the guards there, relying on her position and her familiarity to the guards to get her through unchallenged.
No one stopped her as she moved quickly into the entrance hall, hesitating as a regular Palace servant walked casually from a door at the far end of the corridor.
A voice from the staff offices to her immediate left just inside the entrance turned her head.
"May I help you, Commander?" It was a tall, wide-set and dark-haired senior aide Mara recognized as Wez Reece.
Glancing towards him Mara saw a second aide she didn't know leaning back in his chair to peer out at her. To the far end of the corridor the servant peered back from his walk between rooms, squinting curiously.
Everything seemed oddly settled, as if creating the pretence that it had been in existence here for a long time, though there was a fragility to it, a nervousness.
There were no lights in any of the rooms off the main corridor, but she knew he was in here somewhere; that he was still awake, brooding…
Reece had managed to insert himself between Mara and the apartment beyond by this time, arm politely out to guide her to the waiting room opposite without ever being so impolitic as to touch her. Senior as he was, he had nowhere near her status within the Emperor's retinue.
"No," Mara said simply, taking a step to the side, feeling no necessity to explain herself further considering their difference in rank.
Still, it was interesting that he was here. He was, she knew, ex-military; Special Ops-turned-bodyguard-turned-Aide, his senior rank in the Emperor's household reflected his unique mix of skills. And now he was here, clearly assigned to Skywalker.
Not your average Personal Aide for not your average Personal Aide position, Mara reflected wryly. She thought momentarily of Mauwel, Lord Vader's Majordomo, also an ex-military man. But the difference was that Mauwel's loyalties lay strictly with Vader, who had found and recruited him, just as Reece's loyalties lay very much with the man who had recruited him—and that wasn't Skywalker.
"Are you here on official business? I have no appointment logged," he said doggedly now, subtly matching her sideways move to remain between Mara and the apartment's main corridor.
Mara frowned, her annoyance beginning to sound in her voice. "No."
She took another step forward and to the side, Reece again matching her, their dance having slowly proceeded into the apartment's wide main corridor.
"My apologies, Commander Jade, but the Commander is receiving no informal visitors at this time. I shall, of course, inform him that you—"
This time, Mara simply walked into him, and to give him his due, Reece still held firm, undaunted. But Mara had subtly tangled her foot between his ankles, so that her forward pressure sent him stumbling backwards as she feigned a stagger, reaching out for him as if to steady herself and overbalancing him in the process. He made a credible grab at her arm, intending to take her with him, but this was no longer his full-time profession and Mara had been intensively trained and in active service all her adult life.
It was a subtle ballet of hidden combat and good as he was, Mara was past him in seconds, her ingenuous apology quickly muttered as she walked backward down the main corridor and deeper into the apartment, Reece shouting out to her, the second aide setting belatedly forward.
Mara was already halfway down the hallway, intending to turn into the private dining room which had always been the entrance to Skywalker's three-room prison, when something made her turn to her left to the slightly-open study door, the room beyond dark, though she knew Skywalker was in there. She paused, suddenly uncertain—should she knock? He surely knew she was outside, even without the commotion…
Finally, seeing Reece gathering himself to his feet, she stepped into the dark room, whispering his name.
Strangely, considering the disturbance, he stood with his back to the door gazing out onto the distant lights of the endless city, not moving as she took another hesitant step forward into the gloom. The dark, fitted jacket was gone, his spotless, high-collared white shirt seeming to glow in the low light.
He half-turned, a slight metallic glint at his hip catching Mara's eye. She glanced down, the thought occurring and being almost instantly dismissed, but no—at his hip…was a lightsaber!
It was dark and matte—brushed perennium, she guessed from the gunmetal color—its smooth, etched surface inset with polished, finely inlaid white and yellow gold banding, the finish already marked from use, though Mara was sure that it would have been new when given him. Like everything else Palpatine gifted his Jedi, there were subtle messages even here—a new beginning, a new life.
She wondered how much was lost for her master to trust him with such a weapon…
And finally, realization slammed into her—of what he was, that he had it. Because there could only be one justification.
Her eyes were still fixed on it when Skywalker finally spoke.
"Yes?" His clipped tone was even, his shadowed expression betraying neither pleasure nor annoyance at her intrusion.
Mara glanced up, suddenly having no idea, none whatsoever, what to say. She wasn't even sure why she was here—only that she had to come.
She took another halting step forward, looking for some kind of recognition, some acknowledgement. In all the time she had known him, he had always made it easy for her, always open, always amicable, even under the harshest conditions. Now she looked for something—anything—which was still recognizably him…but he gave nothing away.
Mara searched his eyes, uncertain. "I…wanted to…make sure you were okay."
He knew the truth… He must.
He remained still and withdrawn, his face completely without emotion, blue eyes dark in the low light, voice detached and even. "I'm fine, thank you, Commander Jade."
Commander Jade. Only once, in the entire time that she had known him, in all of the long hours and slow days they had spent in enforced company, in all the terrible, relentless trials she had watched him endure when he had been dragged to that cell, had he ever called her by title.
When she didn't move, remaining rooted to the spot, searching for some way forward, some way in, he turned away, eyes flicking to the distant city once more, and Mara was left staring at his back, completely lost. "You…seem…"
He didn't turn, didn't acknowledge her stilted words. She wanted him to shout, to accuse—even that would be better than this, devoid of involvement, of any interest at all in her unexpected arrival. If he would denounce her then she could at least defend, explain, hold out some hope of forgiveness—of acceptance. She reached out mentally across the silent void, searching for that undeniable, intuitive link. For something—some hidden shadow, some hint of emotion, of empathy—something recognizably Luke.
Impenetrable shields barred her way, wrapped tightly about him like armor.
"I'm fine, thank you," he reiterated evenly without turning, voice and sense blunt with tempered restraint.
"...I…thought…" What? Realistically—what?
Now, here, standing before him, aware of what he had become, she was reduced to stammering numbly, no idea anymore of what she hoped or felt or intended.
Before she could even begin to pull any kind of coherent sentence together Reece practically burst into the room, two guards behind him.
"Sir..." he said, breathless.
"Ah, Reece," Skywalker said evenly without turning, as if this were the normal way to enter a room. "Commander Jade was just leaving. Perhaps you could manage to show her out?"
Bewildered, Mara turned back to Luke, opened her mouth to speak—
"Good night, Commander Jade," he said with impeccable timing, still staring out into the darkness, the finality of his words stinging.
Frustrated and unsettled, Mara turned to leave, any opportunity to speak further effectively removed by Reece's presence, wondering whether the Aide would dutifully report to the Emperor even this small indiscretion.
Wondering if this conversation defined the extent of her relationship with Skywalker now.
He was, as it turned out, a very difficult man to see—impossible to see alone, Palpatine guarding his new prodigy with jealous attention, making sure no one spoke to him and he spoke to no one.
She saw him occasionally in the Emperor's private apartments when she was summoned there, or in Court of course, when he entered with the Emperor's entourage, looking neither left nor right, walking behind his Master to the dais, waiting at its base to be invited to stand beside the throne, as he always was.
Never wearing his lightsaber there, she'd noticed—though she often saw him wearing it in the Emperor's presence in more private circumstances, and knew that Palpatine supervised his constant unrelenting training with it in the cavernous Practice Hall, so it wasn't from lack of trust. It was, very clearly, a conscious decision on the part of the Emperor, for which she was sure he'd have his reasons, even if she couldn't fathom them.
Certainly everyone in Court was whispering, everyone trying to place him. Nobody did of course—Palpatine had seen to that. No one even had a name.
Nor would they—Mara herself had been given the task of removing every reference to him from every census; had spent the last few months touring outlying regions and dustball planets ensuring that every record, no matter how small or how fragmented, had been destroyed beyond repair, pixel or physical. Finally she'd joined the several already-activated teams to infiltrate Bothawui's closely guarded private Intel system, the only reliable source of genuinely independent information in the Empire, checking that the details fed to them by Black Sun months earlier were in place and that any remaining independent intelligence, aside from a few non-matching references to the name Luke Skywalker, were gone.
There should have been none anyway—she'd been tasked with slicing into or traveling to every independent information source months earlier at her master's command, long before Skywalker's arrival at the Palace. Most information regarding his identity had been removed then, leaving only small threads which never quite added up if traced back.
Now even that was hearsay. And Palpatine's carefully-created gossip was so easy to spread, when whispered into the right ears—so easy to turn into paranoia.
Only the fanatically loyal Royal Guard who had secured him in the cell beneath the Palace and a few high-ranking individuals knew the truth—and her master would have been very careful to underline his desire for silence, of that she was sure.
He had become a cipher, an enigma—a shadow.
Just like her.
It was mid-morning, grey winter light streaming in through the tall panes of the Practice Hall, a vast, wooden-floored space which Mara herself had used for lightsaber drills in the past. It was, of course, permanently off-limits now; had been so for almost four months Mara had heard whispered, Skywalker occupying it every day from dawn to dusk, alone unless Palpatine was there. Practicing—always practicing.
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Dedication bordering on obsession.
Mara walked past the six Red Guard who stood to attention outside, not sure if they were there to keep Skywalker in or keep others out. Probably the latter, she decided—there wasn't much that even six Red Guard could do to stop an armed Sith if he decided to leave.
Sith—despite what the Emperor called him in public. But even this fact was becoming familiar now so that, much as she was aware that there was something different about the now-insular Skywalker, something in his mercurial manner and bearing which hinted at a volatile, explosive edge, she'd come to terms with his new status and standpoint. Maybe even found it intriguing… in a strictly professional, uninvolved way of course.
She found herself fascinated to see what he would do next, waiting to see when that quicksilver temperament would erupt. But in the two weeks she'd been back, despite his apparent knife-edge disposition, he'd remained coolly detached from everything around him, herself included, so that she had no better idea of him now than the moment she'd been ushered from his quarters that first night.
And she really wanted to know.
So today was a welcome opportunity; Palpatine had ordered her to deliver a message. Yes, she could have done it by com to his apartments or his Aides, but she now had official justification to speak to Skywalker—and she wasn't going to waste it.
With no idea what to expect she entered the hall, eyes drawn to the far side of the massive hangar-sized room.
There, surrounded by six specialist dueling droids, was Skywalker, dressed in fitted pants and a athletic shirt, both immaculate white.
"Stop program," he said quietly, deactivating his lightsaber, all the droids freezing in place at the order.
Mara stepped forward, not surprised at the droids—they were generally banned in the Palace Towers, but no human could offer fast enough reflexes to challenge a Force-adept, so her master kept these here for his own use. Mara too utilized them from time to time—one at a time though, their reaction times slowed to that of a normal human. Lord Vader used them at their maximum capacity, fighting several at once. She'd seen her master do the same, but…
She frowned uneasily, burning with curiosity, frustrated that he had instantly stopped as she entered the room.
He turned... Now, at this distance, breathing heavily, his growing hair in disarray, he looked very much like the man who had first arrived here long months ago, and without even realizing it, Mara smiled easily at him—
He only frowned slightly in reply, clearly wary of her unexpected presence. Her smile fell away, but the tingle in her ribcage was not so easily removed.
"The Emperor commands your presence in the State Room at five," she said simply, still walking forward, her voice echoing in the cavernous hall.
"Fine," he replied tersely, already turning away, back to the stationary droids.
Mara kept walking forward though, only stopping when she was within a few feet of him.
He didn't turn back and she didn't leave, the status quo remaining for long moments, in which Mara noted the deep, heavy scars on his arms and back, still new enough to show angry red.
Just as she was about to speak he turned, cutting her off. "Was there something else?"
She bit down on the desire to issue a challenge, knowing that was what he wanted—that the curt interruption was intended to push her away—and instead took a less obvious route. "Are they any good?"
He frowned again, pulling the fine scars on his face, only visible as she neared him. "What?"
"The droids—are they any good?"
He took a breath in, as if counting to ten, voice level and restrained, "They suffice."
He glanced back, annoyed, his expression quite unassuming and very Luke. "That's all there left, are right now."
Mara smiled, realizing that he hadn't recognized her sarcasm.
"How about a human opponent?" She unfastened her short fitted jacket, shrugging it off without waiting for an answer.
He looked at her for long seconds, and again she had the distinct feeling that he was counting to ten before speaking.
"I'd say no, but clearly that's not an option," he said dryly as she turned and walked to the armaments store at the side wall. She didn't miss his fast glance up to the lofty ceiling though—to the exact spot where the surveillance lens was hidden.
"Do you know how to use a lightsaber?" His flat voice was neither interested nor indifferent.
"I know a lot of things," Mara said without looking back.
Reaching the store, she noticed that all six practice sabers were still there, glancing back to look at the saber in Skywalker's hand; it was his own, a live blade.
She took two practice sabers, capable of delivering a fair jolt but nothing more, solid when impacting against another blade, but passing through any other object. "But I don't play games with live blades," she said, walking back towards him.
"I don't play games," he replied simply, though his tone was not threatening.
She reached him, the plain practice hilt held out in silence.
"I won't hit you," he assured.
"You might change your mind when I get a few good blows in," Mara teased easily, growing more comfortable in his presence again.
He raised an eyebrow to indicate just how unlikely he thought that was, and Mara allowed herself a subtle smile; he was in for a surprise. She was privately confident, having trained with her master since her early teens, intensively enough to hold her own against a Jedi—he had made sure of that.
Finally, reluctant and clearly operating against his better judgment but too curious to turn this down, Skywalker threw the dark, matte hilt of his own saber to the side without looking. It didn't arc, but launched smoothly away towards the wall, eventually coming to a gentle, controlled rest on the floor near the corner.
He took the practice hilt, following her to the center of the room, where she turned about to face him, lifting her hilt up to ready position and igniting the pure white blade.
He did the same, his manner very relaxed and casual.
Mara raised an eyebrow. "And no Force stuff—that includes flips, jumps, accelerated speed, enhancing reflexes and messing with my perceptions."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"You tell me," Mara countered. "On one?"
"You need a countdown?"
Mara narrowed her eyes; oh, she was going to enjoy the look in his eye when she landed a blow. "Three, two, o—"
That was as far as she got. He twisted her blade up in his own, powering it to one side and making a half-lunge forward which ended with the tip of his saber an inch from her throat, her own blade batted uselessly away to one side.
"You could have let me say 'one,' " she said, mildly embarrassed but determined not to show it.
"You said 'on one'—not after it," he countered evenly, stepping back to ready position. "Again?"
Grinding her jaw, Mara gathered her concentration up and set her stance ready.
"Do you want to count down?" he invited dryly.
"Are you gonna do that move again?"
"No, I'll do something else this time."
"Fine," she said tartly. "Three, two, o—"
She had a slightly tighter hold on her saber to stop him twisting it away this time, pressing her blade to his as the countdown started. None of which helped her as he dropped the tip of his blade, using her increased pressure to allow it to slide partway down hers, pulling it free and up in a horizontal line with his shoulders as he stepped in. The end result was Mara staring at his lightsaber sideways on and inside her guard, an inch off her chest.
Instead of submitting when she knew he could have easily pushed it home, she back-pedaled wildly, knocking his blade aside.
He was fast—he let her knock his blade back, looped it in a wide arc to gain some power and took three short, rapid steps forward, swinging in low from the same side she'd just struck, knowing that all of Mara's force to that side was already spent. The massive blow simply plowed through her defenses, taking her own blade with it, so that although he stopped before he landed the blow to her side, the tip of her own saber caught her leg, giving her a jolt.
"Son of a…" She walked in a quick circle on the spot, shaking her trembling leg, much to Skywalker's amusement though he was trying not to let it show on his face.
Mara narrowed her eyes as she came back round to face him. "You know, the idea of saber practice is to actually practice—as in more than just one blow."
"The idea of lightsaber practice is to learn the most efficient way to duel. The point of a duel is to remove your opponent as quickly as possible, before they remove you." There was a touch of humor in his voice, though he was trying hard to repress it.
"Fine," Mara growled through pursed lips. "This time…"
"Maybe you should try without counting."
"Maybe I should."
"Just a suggestion."
"I don't need your suggestions."
"Then maybe you should stop talking and start fighting."
"Maybe you should…" She back-pedaled as he came forward in a burst of speed, five quick blows, nothing too taxing she noticed; easing her in this time, giving her a chance. Which was actually worse than simply being beaten.
Finally seeing her first opportunity, she swung her blade in a high arc to intercept with his chin—
He jerked easily back and to the side, surprising her by grabbing her wrist and yanking it down as he pulled her towards him, her saber pushed to the side by the action. She collided with his shoulder, her body stopped dead by his mass—
"Don't take obvious opportunities," he whispered, holding her there. "They're probably feints."
With an indignant yell she wrenched free and brought her saber round in a wide sweep which forced Skywalker to jump back in order to bring his blade round fast enough to counter.
The thrill of having swung a blow swift enough to make him think brought a grin to her face as Mara stepped back, moving slowly around him.
"You're half a step too close," he said, grinning now, completely caught up in the game.
"Not for m—"
He launched forward, saber held high for a heavy downward blow, but when Mara moved to counter he changed the angle of the swing, swiveling his hilt in the heel of his hand to bring it in almost horizontally at neck height. It took every bit of Mara's skill to move fast enough to counter—and even as she did so, she saw her error.
Unable to do otherwise, she caught his blade at the base of her own, pushing out and down. Skywalker nimbly stepped back, his weight on the same foot as he twisted three-sixty and roundhoused his own blade down to her ankles, the blow given momentum by Mara's own defense.
She made a jump back but wasn't nearly fast enough to counter, all her weight too firmly planted against his first attack.
He stopped an inch before her ankle, the blade tip-down, hilt-up. She glanced up as he tilted his head in a 'told you so' gesture, rare laugh-lines forming at the corners of his eyes.
Letting out another infuriated yell she drove forward, landing several fast, light blows, sidestepping to find the advantage, Skywalker matching her move for move.
Finally he twisted swiftly to the side of a heavy downward blow, stepping in towards her rather than away and grabbing at the top of her arm to haul her bodily to him again.
"And don't be goaded into letting your emotions rule your actions," he whispered lightly, close enough that his breath rustled her russet hair. "Don't lash out blindly just because you're angry."
"You're Sith—isn't that what you do?!" She instantly regretted it.
His face changed immediately, all humor gone, replaced by that distant calm. The withdrawn, emotionless shield that she saw whenever Palpatine was near.
Releasing her, he stepped back and deactivated the saber.
"Skywalker…" she began—
"Congratulations, Mara...you landed a blow." He turned and walked away without looking back.
Luke stood in the still silence of the empty Throne Room, the cavernous space devoid of its usual chaotic throngs, the hour too early for Court to commence. What had drawn him here he couldn't say, only that it had been just that—a draw; a whisper at the edges of his thoughts that had built steadily in the months since his release from the cell, scratching at the back of his mind with ever-growing need.
He'd crossed the assembly halls of Outer Court without a sideways glance, the crowds subtly parting before him, whispers and curiosity from questing beings with envious minds. He didn't slow, didn't look—they merged to a dirty stain in his awareness, not worth the effort of unraveling.
The crimson-clad guards who barred the way to all simply stepped aside as he neared the lofty double-doors, pikes pulled upright as they stood to straight attention. He walked through unchallenged—not that they could have stopped him anyway. But the fight would have been satisfying—a burst of energy after too long in the stagnant torpor of this cloying place. Like a crypt to house those whose morals were dead; a monument to self-serving greed.
The doors closed with hushed whispers behind him, the bustle of the power-hungry and the deceitful and the scheming reduced again to a background murmur which fed the shadows and the darkness.
And then there was this—this single tone, this faded whisper. His eyes traced the yawning space, ashen lines of reedy light tracing out from high, thin slits set into the far wall, barely reaching past the end of the dais.
He walked the length of the vast hall without a sound, immersed in the silence which infused and enthralled, willing to be led, searching for the source of that singular pitch—
and stopped as his feet touched the outer ring of the stone half-circle set into the floor before the dais.
He'd never sensed it before—but then the room had never been empty before, his senses attuned. The stone was old, a complete circle whose one half lay embedded into the throne room floor and other half embedded into the raised dais, the Emperor's throne resting upon it. Pale buff cream with indigo blue scrolled inlays and a dark russet red centre, it was set apart from the rest of the opulent chamber by its quiet grace, clearly older, reclaimed from a hidden past and rebuilt here, presumable at his Master's command. He stared, transfixed, turning to the Force for guidance…
A flash-image, inverted and insubstantial, of a circular room with lofty views across a Coruscant cityscape; of a ring of chairs, equally spaced, all facing inwards. The stone was a complete circle here, not split and divided, light infusing the room, reflected back off the pale marble...
The same pale marble… Luke frowned, searching to re-induce the image, but it was gone—and still that tone at the edge of his thoughts, in some way linked to but separate from the inlaid floor.
His eyes were drawn to the faceted magnificence of the Sunburst Throne on the dais before him, reminded in some distant way of Tatooine's twin suns. It had always been connected to Palpatine; had always been the seat from which he had ruled. Luke had seen holos of it in school as a boy; vaguely remembered that it was a priceless artifact, ancient and sacrosanct.
The throne was massive, a single piece of beaten metal of incredible workmanship. A huge circular sun formed the backrest surrounded by flares and sunbursts, the surfaces of which were heavily beaten and etched to reflect even the dull shadows of dying daylight about it in a complex array of tiny refractions across floors and walls.
Before it stood a low footstool, intricately worked from a similar rose-gold precious metal, a deeply-engraved representation of the galaxy rendered in midnight blue enamel and set with precious stones, the allusion hardly subtle—the galaxy beneath Palpatine's feet whenever he sat on the throne.
Despite its obvious value, it held Luke's attention for only the moment it took to realize that it was not original to the throne; it was an inanimate object, instantly dismissed. The throne… In the heavy, stagnant stillness, the throne resonated a silent tone which echoed all the way down to his soul.
Drawn forward, Luke slowly walked the steps of the dais and around the throne—at a distance; he felt no desire to go any closer—and saw that the massive etched sun to the front was mirrored in a separate beaten panel to the rear, the lowest sunbursts resting on the pale marble floor as feet, the two connected back to back, a perfect match, though the complex etchings on its surface bore only passing resembance. He'd never once looked at it before; never cared, Palpatine's unyielding aura overwhelming its subtle ghostly presence within the Force.
Slowing, he retreated to the shadows behind the massive throne, standing in rapt fascination, noticing subtle inscriptions carved in fine, broken letters of some archaic language he didn't recognize about the edges of the sun before it spread into irregular twists of individual flares.
As he stared mesmerized, he fell to an almost trance-like state, the last slim rays of shuttered sunlight catching across the carved words, the only sound in the profoundly still silence that of his own heartbeat, loud in his ears...
The voice from the shadows made him jump, twisting him about, every muscle tensing as his hand fell automatically to the lightsaber at his belt.
"Planning… or simply coveting?" Palpatine stepped forward from the inky shadows, yellow eyes shining—and Luke realized the room was dark; that somehow, it had fallen to night as he'd stood transfixed.
He forced himself calm; sketched a shallow bow as the emotion drained from his face and his sense behind already-entrenched shields. "Neither, Master. Just studying a piece of history."
The Emperor stepped forward, his heavy black gown absorbing the wan light as if the shadows came with him. One pallid hand reached out to trail possessively across the edge of the throne, broken fingernails scratching audibly in the still silence.
"Studying what, exactly?"
Luke hesitated, glancing back to the carved throne. "Reading the inscriptions."
Palpatine frowned, eyes tracing the point at which his Jedi's attention had been held. It had originally been dubbed the Seat of Prophesy by the Jedi, a hallowed artifact long held by them and coveted by the Sith, but when Palpatine had claimed it from its centuries-old resting place in the destroyed Jedi Temple on Coruscant, he had renamed it the Sunburst Throne. The hidden scripture's words were a jealously guarded secret in a language so old that it was the last surviving example, Jedi scholars devoting years towards its translation, many variations and permutations documented and carefully considered.
"A prophesy," Palpatine said enigmatically, watching the boy closely. It was said that in the prophesy carved into the massive sunburst was the key to a power capable of changing the course of the galaxy, the means to channel the Force without limits.
His fallen Jedi turned, eyes tracking right to left as he read the words: "Son of Suns."
The Emperor's chin lifted a fraction, eyes narrowing as his fingers tightened possessively onto his throne. A cryptic message in an ancient, enigmatic language; there was no way the boy could know...
And yet— "Read it aloud."
Frowning, the boy turned back to the throne. "Which one?"
Palpatine's lips twitched a smile. "How many do you see?"
The boy's eyes stayed on the throne, scanning its surface. "Several—or just one. Different pieces of the same puzzle."
"Read it aloud," Palpatine repeated, voice tighter now.
Luke glanced to his Master, drawn by the brooding tone of his gravelly voice, before his gaze turned back to the etched hieroglyphs. For a second they seemed alien again; unreadable—but just as it had done earlier, as he stared at the faceted rose-gold carvings an insular acuity came over him, resonating through the Force—and words swam effortlessly up into his consciousness, stanza appearing unbidden; forming complete. His eyes traced the curve of the scribings as he translated without effort, words transmuted with a clarity and a significance which called to him—
"This is the way of things, the will of the Force;
Intentions and empires, Councils and kinships.
Aspiration to ambition to atrophy.
Desire to domination to dust.
Only the will of the Force remains.
Beginnings are bought at the cost of an end,
New Hope given life when all else is lost.
From darkness comes light; from destruction salvation;
Son of suns, the Force given form.
That which is fallen will rise to dominion,
That which is riven will heal the rift.
That which is tainted transcends every limit
The one who will falter will balance the way..."
Luke paused, insular and pensive as he read the last,
"It is shadows whose edge define the light
At the brink of the dawn and the darkness."
At the brink… Palpatine tipped his head, ochre eyes sharp and shrewd. "And where do you stand, my wolf?"
The boy turned to Palpatine, clearly aware of the direction of his thoughts. But he was far too familiar with his Master's word games now to give ground soeasily. The smallest of smiles touched the corners of his lips as he offered both abstract and literal answer, looking down to his black-booted feet. "I stand right here, Master—behind the throne."
"Lord Vader, we've received a communiqué from the Palace—the Emperor commands that you attend a private audience with him following your arrival ceremony tomorrow."
It was Admiral Piett, one of the few officers which Vader trusted—so far.
It was a constant, subtle battle between himself and his Master, as Palpatine carefully placed spies in the senior staff of his Star Destroyer and Vader constantly found reasons to rid himself of them—permanently.
"Thank you, Admiral," Vader boomed, his annoyance sounding out loud and clear.
Piett bowed carefully and made a hasty retreat, leaving Vader to gaze out of the wide viewport of the Executor's bridge, considering his options.
If he was being allowed to return to Imperial Center, then it was because his son was subdued to some extent. But Vader knew that anyway—Palpatine wasn't the only one with a network of spies. There was, Vader knew, a new presence in Court, always close to the Emperor, always silent, always reclusive.
Only Palpatine spoke to him, possessive and watchful, anyone who attempted to approach him pointedly discouraged. And the boy spoke to no one, detached and distant. He never came from his apartments unless it was to answer the Emperor's command, being seen only in the Throne Room or on his way to the Practice Halls, where he went daily, accompanied to and from both places by four Red Guard, though they were more to discourage interested parties than to control the enigmatic stranger, his sources guessed. There was an edge to him though, Vader's spies reported—a hint of something unstable beneath that insular disposition.
Interestingly, his spies had no name—no idea who the stranger was, extensive as their contacts were.
Vader hadn't bothered to tell them that he knew; better to see what they were fed by the Palace rumor-mill.
But he knew the truth—and he thought he knew why the Emperor wanted him back.
His new Sith needed a test—as Palpatine had once tested Anakin. Turned him on Count Dooku, his previous ally, to rid himself of the complications inherent in having two acolytes serving the same Master.
He remembered with faultless, morbid clarity, holding the sabers crossed at Dooku's throat.
Remembered Palpatine's hissing goad to kill him.
Remembered the bewildered betrayal on Dooku's face.
Vader had always believed absolutely that when he died it would be for his own reasons, not to serve his Master's cold ambitions. Had always sworn he would never give Palpatine the luxury of such an easy escape. That if his Master wanted to rid himself of Vader, then he would have to face him personally.
Yet he was still returning like a trained dog to his Master's side.
Not because he wanted to face Palpatine… but because he had to see his son again. No matter what, he had to see him.
For what, he didn't know—or rather, he chose not to examine too closely.
He had no idea how much Palpatine had twisted the boy's mind, but he knew that at any point in their stormy association, had Vader put a lightsaber into his son's hand, Luke would surely have struck out against him. It would be no stretch at all for Palpatine to push that emotion into action.
In more lucid moments Vader knew that Palpatine would not simply exchange his life for a new Sith—or rather, he believed such. He knew his Master well; knew his confidence and his convictions, knew that he would believe himself beyond the restrictions placed on the Sith in centuries past; that there could be only two Sith—Master and apprentice. Which was why he had risked taking the boy to Palpatine in the first place.
After two decades of servitude, he knew the Emperor well enough to be willing to take this chance; that Palpatine too would be tempted by the boy's potential. That he'd seek to control him, tempted by the lure of raw power far more than he was shackled by ancient rules and archaic warnings.
He didn't like having been forced to gamble on such, but Luke's stubborn refusal of an alliance in Cloud City had forced his hand. If Vader could have turned his son alone then he would have done so, but such was not his forte. It required the kind of subtle contrivances and scheming manipulations which Vader prided himself on not possessing—and which the Emperor possessed in abundance.
He'd known, of course, that Palpatine would attempt to prize the boy away from him—had expected no less from the wily old man—but he also knew there was a resonance between himself and his son. And Luke surely felt it too, no matter what he said out loud.
That Palpatine had sent Vader away had been unexpected. He had relied on being there throughout his son's conversion in order to maintain that connection, that obligation. But even if his Master did think to force a fight, then Vader was confident of his own abilities; he had beaten the boy once—he would have no qualms about bringing the same force to bear again.
Though perhaps not quite as vehemently. He had not intended to allow the duel at Bespin to degenerate to that degree; had not intended to lose control so completely. Nor had he intended to injure the boy again when he was recaptured aboard the smuggler's ship. But then self-restraint and Darkness were hardly synonymous, and the boy seemed to have some innate ability to get under Vader's skin so completely that all intentions were lost beneath a swell of frustrated enmity.
How he did so with such unerring ease was a mystery—perhaps because they were so similar or, more disturbingly, perhaps because for the first time in memory, Vader actually gave a damn about what someone thought…
That consideration stayed with him for long seconds, in which he resolutely ignored it, dismissing it as irrelevant.
As far as Vader was concerned, the answer to his own inability to maintain any self-control in the presence of his son was obvious—Luke should stop antagonizing him. The boy needed discipline. The notion of Vader himself exercising anything more than the most crucial self-restraint in these confrontations was plainly ludicrous—especially now.
Because he knew Luke's potential; that much was crystal clear.
He knew what the boy was capable of—given a little careful direction. And Vader would make it his mission to ensure that when it came down to a choice, Luke's loyalties would reside with his father.
To do that he needed free access to his son, and at present any access was strictly on Palpatine's terms. But that was enough for now. Enough to shepherd the boy, to subtly direct and guide him. Ostensibly to his Master's requirements—privately to his own.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, some small atom of doubt wormed its way through Vader's thoughts—at how ironic it would be if the boy should now turn on him. If the weapon he had sought to use against his Master was the weapon that his Master used to destroy him.
That he would be extinguished by that to which he had given life.
That he should still crave forgiveness from the boy who wished to kill him.
But such fleeting qualms were easily ignored in the face of greater motives. Something called louder now, with a voice all its own, and it was reducing all of Vader's carefully-laid plans to insignificance. Something within him…
Because this was his son. His son. His flesh and blood. Instinctive connections, no matter how hard they had both tried to deny them. No matter how the Emperor tried to rip and sever them, no matter what he had whispered and twisted.
All of Vader's previous intentions were falling away before this simple fact and everything—everything—was re-focusing about it. Confusing and frustrating and unwelcome as this was.
Everything was changing; every foundation, every belief, every conviction being tested by his son's very existence.
He'd wanted to convert the boy for the power he embodied, for the opportunity he represented. Before he had seen his son there had been no question, no shadow of doubt as to his role in Vader's greater plan; either he served Vader's purpose or he was removed.
Now… all that Vader knew for sure was that he could have killed the boy on Bespin and freed himself of a complication. And Luke—Luke could have pulled the trigger and killed his father when Vader gave him the chance onboard the Millennium Falcon. Should have done so, knowing the alternative, knowing that Vader could control him.
But neither had the stomach for it.
No matter what else happened, that would remain; Vader believed it absolutely. Because he knew what he felt. Let Palpatine do his worst; let him try any treachery to turn the boy against him or him against the boy. Vader had the greater hold; a deeper resonance.
It was the most natural, ingrained compulsion in the galaxy, beyond all conscious choice or manipulations. It was involuntary and instinctive and no matter what he planned and how far he ran, it always kept pace, because it was within him; it ran with the blood through his veins. This was his son...
And that he could not deny.
The massed ranks of stormtroopers gathered in parade-straight lines on the vast main landing platform of the Imperial Palace, assembled to mark the return of Lord Vader from his extended mission to the Rim Worlds.
Palpatine stood in one of the private halls far above in the South Tower, removed from the ceremony he had ordered, his attention split between that and the near-soundless footsteps which approached now, aware of the tightly twisted ball of Force-presence that accompanied them.
His acolyte walked the length of the long hall in silence, the complex mindset which shaped and drove him an endless fascination to Palpatine—such as he allowed visible, at least; his awareness that the sharp, streaming sunlight was absorbed and dissipated by his relentlessly dark clothes, leaving him feeling little more than a shadow in the light of day. His wary disquiet at being summoned; guarded realization tinged with anticipation. Briefly, he allowed his hand to brush lightly against the lightsaber at his hip, its weight reassuring. Reaching his Master, he dropped easily and lightly onto one knee, back straight.
Palpatine didn't bother to turn, a subtle indication of his awareness, though he gestured with his hand as he spoke, "Rise, my friend."
Luke Skywalker rose and stepped forward beside his Master to watch the preparations below.
"Your father will land within the hour. I have commanded his presence in my Private Audience Chamber. You will also attend."
The boy didn't take his eyes from the preparations below, his voice distant and dispassionate. "Why?"
"Because I have ordered it," Palpatine bit out, gravelly voice clipped in that now-familiar, frustrated tone—though he too did not take his eyes from the landing platform.
They remained silent for a time, the boy knowing that Palpatine had more to say and willing to wait until he voiced it...an admirable trait.
Palpatine turned just slightly, his words tight with anticipation. "Will you fight him?"
"Do you wish me to?" Skywalker said instantly.
There was neither fear nor desire in his request, though Palpatine knew what was in his heart.
"You may do as you wish." Palpatine let his permission hang in the air for a long time, though his fallen Jedi did not stir. "But you may not kill him."
This brought the boy's eyes to him, though his face and voice remained guarded and neutral as he spoke, not quite deferential but no longer openly defiant. "You continually accuse me of being less than a Sith, yet when I choose to bite, you muzzle me."
Palpatine didn't look round. "You will do as I command."
His feral Jedi remained still, visibly unmoved. Four long months since he had first been freed from the cell, his scars—some faded with the passage of months, others so fresh as to still be darkened by bruises—were a testament to this ongoing battle.
But the war was long since won, Palpatine knew. This was simply a re-drawing of the lines, a testing of limits and boundaries.
And in truth he enjoyed it; the game was not over, it had merely moved to a more subtle arena.
Palpatine held his Jedi's gaze for long seconds, subduing him by force of will before Skywalker turned away without comment, jaw clenched against the words he so clearly wished to speak.
"Do you understand?" Palpatine pushed.
"Yes, Master," he finally conceded without looking back, voice tightly bound. "Though I don't understand why."
Palpatine smiled at the smoldering frustration evident in those words. But he didn't relent—he too was testing. "Because I need him."
"To do what?" the boy challenged, an edge to his voice again.
"The one thing that you seem incapable of," Palpatine accused, eyes hard. "Obeying my commands without question."
Those wonderful ice-blue eyes seethed with repressed resentment at the provocation, but his Jedi said nothing.
Palpatine lifted his eyebrows. "When you can do that, you may take his head."
Skywalker finally turned away, chagrined. Trying to obey, Palpatine knew, but unable to in spite of himself—which was one of the reasons Palpatine valued him, enjoyed his company. The wolf who ate from his Master's hand. Walking to heel now—almost.
Occasionally he still sought to run, metaphorically if not physically—and Palpatine still yanked at the chains which held him. But it didn't stop him trying when the mood was on him.
And it did not stay Palpatine's hand when he did.
Vader walked the long corridor of his Master's private residence in the East Tower without pause, knowing the Palace from long experience, though these were not rooms his Master generally summoned him to.
That alone was warning enough, but far more so was the absence of guards outside the Hall which led to the Private Audience Chamber known as the Vermilion Hall.
He narrowed his eyes but walked through the tall carved doors into the oppressive deep scarlet of the extensive unlit hall beyond, the evening's final rays of sun catching the ornate gilding of the carved walls, long slits of light from the tall windows making the red veining in the black marble floors sparkle. Dozens of perfectly spaced high-backed chairs in dark, ruby hide lined the two long walls, reflecting in the polished marble, their regimented line interrupted by the deep steps which separated the hall into three distinct levels, so that one climbed ever higher to reach the presence of the Emperor.
Always manipulations, subtle or transparent, as Palpatine saw fit.
Vader had already braced himself mentally, wondering how his Master would try to play this, open to all possibilities.
But nothing could prepare him for what lay beyond those doors.
Standing to one side of the huge, chair-lined hall was a lone figure—
Dressed in midnight blue, he was almost lost in the shadows, his back to the room as he stared out at the distant city beyond, the dusk sky burned from fiery red to inky black, its fading glow the only light in the darkening gloom. The figure didn't turn when Vader entered, remaining still even when he heard the Dark Lord's heavy footfall falter against the polished marble.
For long seconds, Vader had not even recognized his son, had not sensed his connection to the Force, so many and so impenetrable were the shields about his mind.
And now—now that he did—it stopped him dead.
The still silence hung heavy in the half-light, expectant…
His son turned—and all of Vader's hopes, all his aspirations, all his intentions were lost, shattered like glass against stone by the biting truth which confronted him now.
His son—the idealistic, unwavering, reckless young man who had fought with such passion and resolve above Bespin—his son was gone, ripped away by the reality of fate, burned and buried beneath the shadowed tatters of the man who watched him with such cold animosity now, his gaunt face marked by multiple barely healed scars.
Exhaustion—physical and mental—rimmed hooded eyes with dark shadows, hinting at fragile weakness despite the fact that he stood tall and straight. Those ever-expressive blue eyes were hooded and guarded now, hard and blank, giving nothing away, neither hope nor hate.
But as he turned, as their eyes met, for just a second those shields faltered, and Vader saw what lay beneath. His heart skipped a beat, perfectly regulated breathing breaking pace momentarily in empathy, every instinctive need of a father to protect his son coming unexpectedly to the fore.
Recognizing this, Luke turned abruptly away in unresponsive rejection. All that he wished to convey had been communicated in that broken moment; he neither desired nor needed his father's concern, far too late to be of any aid, if it ever could have been. As far as Luke was concerned, Vader had made his loyalties clear at Bespin. For his father to claim any disquiet now was hypocrisy bordering on insult.
Vader remained frozen, wildly conflicting emotions raging at the sight of his son. At his sense in the Force, isolated and detached, raw with desolation, body and soul both bruised and battered, doused in Darkness. Scars that would never heal but keep on cutting ever deeper, tearing into any last vestige of hope.
And Palpatine's hand clear in it all. He knew that; recognized those feelings from his own scorched soul.
But he'd never thought to see it in his son—not like this.
The moment was broken as the man before him turned away, stepping from the twilight shadows though he remained shrouded in Darkness to Vader's mind, walking toward the lofty double doors of the Audience Chamber as they opened in silent invitation.
Vader started mechanically forward, climbing the steps so that they reached the doors together, wringing his mind for something—anything—to say. Some motive, some defense, some justification of higher goals.
"Don't. Don't even try," Luke murmured simply, eyes straight ahead, sense brittle with barely controlled animosity.
This was his son, his son, who spoke those words with such cool hostility, leaving Vader cold. All that he had returned for was gone—because there was no empathy here, newly gained perspective and mutual standpoints affording neither the acknowledgment nor tolerance he had anticipated.
In that moment, he wondered how he could ever have believed it would. Acceptance was earned, not enforced.
After years in a solitary, empty void, Vader had discovered a connection, true affinity—a chance to regain so much that had been lost...of himself and of Padmé. He had been given a gift beyond price…and he had driven it away, he realized. Destroyed it, as he had destroyed everything of meaning in his life. He had lost the son he sought to gain, by his own hand—by the Emperor's hand, with his willing collaboration. Knowledge of this twisted his stomach, churned his thoughts, lit some distant fuse as he walked automatically forward.
Then he was in the Audience Chamber, the room as dark as his Master's soul, as dark as the realization of the sum of his own bleak loss in that moment. His son walked at his side—but had never been further from his reach.
The Emperor sat tensely upright in the heavy, ornate chair placed on a low dais at the far end of the cavernous room, this the only furnishing, making the opulent gilded embellishments to the crimson relief-carved walls seem gaudy and gauche, out of place. His taut stance was the only indicator which revealed Palpatine's emotions, though it could be either nervousness or excitement.
Vader walked evenly forward, trying to recall a single moment when he had seen even a trace of nerves in the wily old man.
He was infinitely wary of the immense power contained within his Master, especially here, completely enveloped in the Emperor's dark, overbearing presence.
They reached the throne together, father and son, the thrill of fervent anticipation painting the Emperor's pallid features. Vader took a step forward to drop on one knee before his Master, as he had a thousand times before—it meant nothing now, an unthinking gesture of reassurance for his paranoid Master.
His shock when he knelt, resting his elbow to his knee, face to the ground, was that his son did the same—though he kept his back straight, hand to his knee, only his head dipped.
His son knelt. Vader's mind was numb, stunned to dazed distraction by this simple action, seen a thousand times before as a matter of Court etiquette. But this was different. This was his son.
And Palpatine had control of him.
He had known that this would be the case, but to see it, to have it played out before him, was deeply unsettling in ways he couldn't yet begin to recognize or resolve.
The Emperor sighed, a deep sense of contentment passing through him, widening his thin, pale lips into a satisfied grin, relishing the moment he had conspired to create since he'd learned of the boy's existence.
Who would have thought that Vader's son had survived? That Vader himself would be so foolish as to give his own son over to Palpatine. That the boy would embody all the power his father had lost, and more. A whole galaxy of possibilities knelt at Palpatine's feet now, plans long since crushed unconditionally within reach once more.
He leaned back, taking another deep breath, glorying in the moment, savoring it. Total dominion with no restraints, no threat left which could genuinely check or hinder his goals. It had been a long time coming, thwarted at every turn by the sanctimonious, self-serving Jedi who sought to bring him down. And now he had destroyed them; more than that—he owned them. Commanded them.
And he had Vader to thank for that. Vader had provided the lure and the key to unlocking his son's beliefs and convictions. For that alone, he should grant Vader life—for now.
But survival came at a price; there could be no connection between father and son if he were to keep them both. That link must be irrevocably broken.
There were so many reasons why this fight was destined to take place, that much Palpatine had foreseen. And they would all be twisted to serve his ends tonight, as would Vader. He had always served the Emperor admirably, just as he would now—whether he wished it or not.
Because it was Vader whom Palpatine needed to goad into this fight, he knew—not his son. His son had wanted this for so long, this test of strength now that they stood as equals. The opportunity to overturn his previous failure at Bespin. His final revenge on the man he held responsible for so much loss and pain.
The Jedi would have held him back in this—wanted him to fight but for their own pious reasons, not his. Clipped that driving desire which gave him strength. But Palpatine had revived and restored it, fed and nurtured it, reinforced and intensified it. It had served the Sith Master so well... But he no longer needed it to control Skywalker. Now was the time to lay it to rest, to give his Jedi what he wanted, a reward for his loyalty, confirmation of his abilities—and most importantly, a test of Palpatine's control.
But to do this, he needed Vader to fight, and to do so to the best of his capability. Any less would not push Palpatine's fallen Jedi to that edge, would not be a true test. He was confident though, that if he could incite that first blow, then Vader's innate temperament would take over, and the boy would naturally respond. He was, after all, his father's son.
And it shot this first meeting of equals through with a dangerous, uncertain edge—the excitement, the unpredictability of setting Skywalker loose against Vader, not sure whether his new Jedi could be brought to heel in the fury of the moment. The exhilaration of loosing the wolf without yet truly controlling it, not knowing whether it would obey its Master's command to leave Vader alive.
The prospect made Palpatine's heart beat faster, anticipation lacing his blood with adrenaline, making his hands tremble. He cackled in appreciation, turning his attention to the boy, gesturing slightly with one tremulous hand to the side of the throne,
"Here," he said simply, and Skywalker dutifully answered the Emperor's casually confident gesture, standing and stepping forward onto the dais to take his place beside the Emperor, expression impassive as ever, eyes as wonderfully cold.
Palpatine smiled, turning back to Vader, aware of his disquiet and pleased with the way these first moments had proceeded.
"I wanted you here on this auspicious day, Lord Vader. You should be proud of your achievements—today marks the ascension of a new power in the galaxy. A new Sith."
Palpatine looked thoughtfully to the boy, rising and turning his back to Vader, stepping slowly to his son, aware of Vader's sense boiling. Delicately, he lifted a trembling hand to the boy's face, almost but not quite touching it as he traced its curve, claw-like nail catching just once against his jaw line, pulling Luke's gaze from his father to his Emperor, the boy's eyes narrowing just slightly.
Palpatine set his head to one side, transfixed by those icy blue eyes. "Though he has no name as yet, my feral Jedi. Perhaps for now that is best... It serves my purpose, as does he."
His back to Vader, Palpatine smiled at his old apprentice's thoughts, so easy to read. Vader had always been so easy to read—and to manipulate.
"Will you fight?" Palpatine asked of his Jedi, voice a tremulous whisper.
"Do you wish it?" Even now, the boy wouldn't be led so easily, wouldn't be used as his father always had. Palpatine smiled his amused appreciation. "Will you fight?" he repeated…and the boy turned his eyes slowly to his father.
As the Emperor had stood and stepped close to his son, Vader's eyes stayed on the boy, perceiving the shadowed instant of concealed distaste when the Emperor had reached out to touch his face—perhaps the boy was not yet beyond Vader's reach…then Palpatine had whispered his question with near-euphoric zeal—and Vader's gaze turned down…
He wore a lightsaber—his son wore a lightsaber in the Emperor's presence.
Luke had stood side on to him in the Hall and as he walked to the Audience Chamber, so he couldn't have noticed it, but still Vader chided his own foolishness, his lack of focus in allowing his shock at the changes in his son to limit his awareness of the situation.
The Emperor sensed Vader's chagrin and smiled at it, though he didn't turn to face his old acolyte—why rely on such limited senses? The Force gave him deeper sight, deeper connections—a more rewarding sense of Vader's dawning realization.
"I fear you allowed your wishes to cloud your perceptions, Lord Vader—always a weakness with you," Palpatine said, ever quick to judge, to reinforce any perceived weakness in those around him, and thus his own superiority. He didn't turn as he spoke though, keeping his eyes on Skywalker, knowing that his close presence to the boy was unsettling for Vader. "Your son has no such flaw, though he's willfully obstinate, so very tenacious. He fought so very hard for so long. It took so much to break him."
Vader held his silence, willing away the uneasy burst of self-reproach pressing down on him at the sight of his son's tightening jaw, the momentary flicker of emotion in icy eyes.
Palpatine smiled; yes, so very easy to lead, so predictable. But then he always had been. His son was a constant battle, fascinating in his contradictions, that unpredictable, wild edge just waiting to flare.
"Didn't you sense it, Lord Vader? The moment when your son fell from grace? It was…" Palpatine considered, unable to look away from his Jedi, enraptured, lost in reliving the moment, "...sublime. First blood is always so inspiring, my friend. Don't you remember?"
He remembered; remembered tears of guilt and denial burning trails down his face in the desolate, broken stillness of the Jedi Temple, not a single soul left alive within, not a single thought to break the stifling silence, to still the scream within.
Remembered the horror of realization driving him to his knees, the comprehension of irrevocable failure, numb acceptance of the fate which he had locked himself into. He saw his son's muscles tighten just slightly and felt a fresh pang of disquiet as he recognized the same emotional scars, fresh and raw, still burning through his soul.
Vader knew that feeling so well—the strength which could be a weakness, lost in the hissing mass of Darkness which stealthily enveloped those who were touched by it. Scars too deep to comprehend stripping thought from conscience, guilt from judgment, action from consequence. It freed one of all painful emotions which would constrain or hinder.
But in return it stole everything—every optimism, every comfort and serenity. Every conviction and compassion was surrendered in search of solace, leaving one insulated and isolated, always alone in the empty Darkness.
All of this, his every reluctant step along that path, he could now see reflected in his son's eyes, at once wild with accusation and yet devoid of true emotion, an emptiness down to the pit of his soul.
Vader's eyes were drawn back to his Master's, pale against sallow skin, sharp, expectant, watching him, waiting…
Pushing for some reaction…and he realized—remembered what it was. Why he was here. What Palpatine truly wanted of him.
"We will not fight for your amusement," Vader ground out, very sure.
"Mine? You misunderstand, Lord Vader. I am here merely as an observer." Palpatine smiled; how easy Vader had become to predict—to control. Yes, perhaps it was time for change. "The choice to fight is not mine, my friend."
The Emperor turned meaningfully back to the boy, knowing that Vader would do the same. Skywalker didn't move, didn't react at all under his father's gaze, no trace of guilt in those wonderful ice-blue eyes.
Realization was like a physical blow to Vader, driving any last shard of hope from his soul as he stared into those blue eyes, so very much like his own... He blanched, and knew the Emperor had sensed it.
Palpatine continued, eyes on Luke now, fully appreciative. "It is time for my fallen Jedi to move forward. To cut the final ties to his old life and carve a place for himself within my Empire. Where he belongs."
Vader kept his eyes on Luke, knowing the Emperor was speaking as much to him as for him. Though his expression remained hard and stormy, without any trace of fear, the boy had yet to engage in any way in what was happening. He remained silent, stance wary, combat-ready, shoulders loose.
But he didn't move forward…
"This is what you want, not him," Vader accused Palpatine, unable to stop his gloved hand shifting slightly to the saber at his hip in response to the boy's body-language.
His son saw it; adjusted his own stance accordingly. The moment escalated, Vader feeling his own carriage tighten, much as he sought to diffuse this.
"We will not fight." He put as much power into those words as possible, willing them to be real, seeking control. But the intent bounced off those mental shields, his son unmoved.
Would he fight?
The boy knew Vader's strength and skill—knew what he would face. Surely he realized this was a fight he couldn't win? Surely he realized that? Palpatine had effectively driven a wedge between his son and himself and this would be the breaking point—if he allowed it to escalate. But he had no intention of fighting—there was nothing his Master could do which could compel him to do so.
Nothing Palpatine could do… But the look in his son's eyes…
Thoughts whirled as Vader sought to read a barred mind, doubt and confusion stealing logic, giving emotions free rein.
Would he fight?
Vader's hand edged back infinitesimally towards his saber—and the boy did the same, head tilting to one side in warning, a knowing smile twisting his lips.
"Why did you come here today, Lord Vader," Palpatine asked, twisting intent just enough to serve his requirements, "if not to fight?"
Vader's eyes and attention remained on Luke. His fight was here, he knew—not with the Emperor, much as he sought to distract Vader's attention.
Would he fight?
"Don't," he growled at the boy, hand out before him in warning. "I will not hold back as I did on Bespin."
"You held back?" the boy asked dryly.
"I did not kill you."
His son smiled—actually smiled at that—though it didn't reach his eyes. "You should have. It was the only chance you were ever going to get."
Threat and counter-threat; the boy wouldn't be intimidated, he should have known that. He was too much like his father. More so now than ever.
Luke took his saber from his belt in a smooth motion, turning side-on to Vader. "Or didn't you realize…that you couldn't simply walk away—you'd have to finish what you started."
The boy edged forward, unlit saber low behind him, pushing for a response from Vader.
He will fight.
Realization hammered into Vader—how much his son wanted this. That the boy would push until he achieved it, that he would take no less.
That he was far, far beyond Vader's reach, beyond his control.
That this was a genuine threat.
Because this was not the same boy he had faced on Bespin. Palpatine had invested long months destroying and reshaping as only he could, using every weapon in his arsenal, every duress, physical and mental. Every betrayal, without conscience, without remorse—creating a Sith.
In Luke's eyes Vader saw so much of himself, a shattered mirror of his own lost ideals, memories burning with fresh fire; the spiraling realization of failure; the loathing of one's own actions, the slow erosion of perspective and principles, confidence and composure crumbling—the realization of all this, every step led and fed by Palpatine, as only a Sith Master could.
This was someone possessed by Darkness. Tortured and twisted, honed in the heat of the flame, like a fine blade. Absolute power; no restraints.
For a second, the outrage at recognition of everything which Palpatine would have done to achieve this transformation burned through Vader, boiling his blood in a flare of protective fury, provoking alien emotions long-since buried. But it was tempered by something else—something smothered this convoluted burst of paternal compassion almost as quickly as it had surfaced, the humanity of which was deeply unsettling. Something which he hadn't felt in a long time.
Real fear, as Luke fingered the saber to a better grip in his hand, head tilted down though his eyes never left his father, blade-sharp focus summoned through glacial calm. It was a long time since Vader had faced a Jedi in his prime—longer still since he had dueled a Sith.
Palpatine chuckled, aware of the play of Vader's emotions. "You hesitate, my friend. Perhaps the prospect of a fair fight is a little daunting?"
"Are you sure this is what you want?" Vader said to his son. "I will not hold back."
He was aware that the Emperor was backing up slightly now, stepping clear of the field of combat.
"Neither will I," his son promised coolly, almost close enough to strike now.
The moment hung, tense anticipation stretching out into eternity…
"FIGHT!" Skywalker yelled, lunging forward in the same instant. Within a step he'd brought his front foot down heavily to halt the feint—
But Vader had already reacted.
Driven to the edge of taut anticipation he called his lightsaber from his belt on instinct, activating it as he brought it about in a wide slash which would have cut his opponent open from stomach to spine had he stepped forward.
Remaining just beyond range, Luke grinned, head tilting. "There is the father I know."
Luke's lightsaber ignited low behind him in a flare of crimson, the familiar power making the hilt jump in his hand, the low thrum of the blade reverberating through his arm into his chest. After long hours and long days and long months of relentless training to the Emperor's uncompromising, exacting standards, he felt incomplete without it, its obsessive study to the exclusion of all else his only lifeline here, his only escape.
He lunged forward, completely unafraid—either he would win or he would lose, kill or die—but one way or another, he would be freed of his father's shadow tonight…
No matter what the Emperor had ordered.
Lit by the unearthly sulphurous light of the sparking blades, Palpatine cackled his gratified contentment.
Vader sidestepped Luke's obvious blow, designed to do nothing more than bring him within tested striking distance. Long experience cut in unbidden as he looked automatically for any weakness in his opponent, studied closely his movements as they circled warily, neither ready to give any advantage yet.
Then he stepped forward for four fast blows, one to each side, one high and one low, all designed to be easily intercepted, each with a purpose. He noted from his movements that his son controlled a limp, that his back, shoulders and neck did not move as freely as they should, that he took the brunt of the saber blows with his right arm, the fingers of his other hand already strapped together. All Palpatine's handiwork, no doubt. He could see the fading scars lit by the scarlet glow of the blades, the healing wounds, old and fresh.
All this pain contained within finely focused Darkness. Still there, but contained. It didn't slow the boy; he simply didn't let it. Didn't listen—wouldn't listen. Stubborn, like his father.
They moved warily, Vader's uneasy reluctance holding him back, his son responding to this, no matter how unwillingly.
Some tiny doubt remained, deeply hidden, Vader realized, and it colored Luke's actions now no matter how well concealed; —kept him at arm's length despite that first flush of aggression.
Recognition of Vader's insight only drove Luke forward, angry at his own weakness, his own hesitancy. He lashed out a lightning-fast string of blows, a curtain of hard light the speed and precision of which left Vader staggering back, requiring all of his concentration to parry. He gave ground, but Luke didn't come forward, leaving Vader to realize that his own defenses had been tested, nothing in the boy's stance indicating his opinion or intention, his moves having brought him subtly around Vader so that he stood with the windows at his back, his face and eyes unreadable now, shadowed by the diffuse halo of subdued light from the city beyond.
Each had tested now, had measured their opponent. The next blow would be genuine.
Luke stepped forward, blade high, but when Vader brought his own blade up to parry, Luke's blow was instantly halted, the hilt rotated in the palm of his hand to swing in from the side instead, forcing another backstep from Vader in order to meet the blade with any force. Already that feint was abandoned, the massive momentum from Vader's powerful defense giving Luke the impetus to push off and swing about, his blade whipping down low from the opposite direction, forcing a hasty retreat.
He pressed forward, twisting his blade over Vader's without releasing it, attempting to push it clear. With no effective force to counter, Vader stepped back again, pulling his saber free and to the side. Luke held back, too skilled now to step into the waiting blow as he would have on Bespin.
Instead he stepped nimbly to the side, attempting to move around Vader's blade to gain the advantage by taking his own saber with rather than against the momentum, stealing power from any possible attack, forcing Vader back another step, Luke's blade effectively inside his defense.
He attacked with devastating, cold precision, incredibly fast, each blow providing momentum for the next, forcing Vader to retreat defensively, knowing the wall was almost at his back, no chance to break the flow, only withstand it—
And then an instant, a moment—a split-second too far on the backswing and Vader stepped in, hooking the boy's blade, using strength against speed. The massive, heavy blow took Luke's balance, breaking his attack and, slowing his blade just slightly so that Vader could lock it with his own.
They stared through the glow, each with a better understanding of the duel ahead. His son's scarred face was composed and focused, anger held in check to better serve his intentions, eyes taking Vader in as a whole, looking for signs in body-language: the tilt of his head, the line of his shoulders, his weight on his feet.
Was this the boy he'd faced on Bespin? If Vader had held any lingering belief that it could be, that he could maintain control of the situation if his son was lost and it finally came to this duel, then the finely honed assault which gave him barely enough time to think between blows shattered that hope and scattered it to the winds.
How had it come to this? Vader disengaged, pulled back, his own intent lost in the turmoil which was eating at his soul.
But wasn't this what he had wanted?
Darkness exacted a price, he knew that. Better than most, he knew that. But he'd still wanted this power for his son. Still cornered him and bound him and forced it upon him, believing—knowing—it would make him unassailable, intending to turn him on the Emperor.
But hadn't he known that this could happen? That all that power and capacity could be turned just as effectively on himself, once the boy was brought to Darkness; that Palpatine would know that too—would take control, would manipulate and plot as he always did?
Yes, but he had gambled—gambled that his natural bond with his son would ensure him good will, when in fact it seemed to do the very opposite.
Because of what he had done, Vader realized! Luke had looked to him for that same concession onboard the Executor when he had asked Vader to free his companions—some acknowledgement of a deeper connection—and Vader had turned away without compunction, seeing only his own goals.
What right did he have to ask for those same considerations now? This was his own doing, and he was paying the price...
Or was it the Emperor's doing? Wouldn't it be just like him to stir up all that anger and direct it against the one person who had the potential step between Palpatine and his goal... Gain a Sith and remove a complication in the same act.
Luke came forward again, breaking Vader's train of thought, forcing him to focus on simply withstanding the assault. The boy was finding his own focus now, Vader knew, finding his pace. Which was fast. Very fast.
Both physically, with the speed which he moved in attack and defense, and mentally, always looking for an opening, working several blows in advance of where he was now, leading Vader to check, trying to force him to a mistake.
Vader reached out with the Force; he was steps away from the wall now, and Luke was too fast for Vader to risk allowing himself to be backed against it with no room to maneuver.
The Audience Chamber itself was nowhere near large enough for a saber duel, though Vader knew this was to his advantage. His son was fast, but Vader had brute strength, and in an enclosed space that was difficult to counter. And it was time to bring it into play.
He stood his ground and for the first time mounted a premeditated attack, twice attempting to lock Luke's blade to his own without success. On the second attempt, as he twisted his own blade about Luke's, it was forced down and Vader took the opportunity to step forward, shouldering the boy back, releasing his two-handed grip on his saber to lash out with his fist.
Luke arched back to escape the sideways blow, realized that he was past his center of balance and launched back into a low, tight back flip, one hand to the ground, his blade whipping out behind him to cover the move. Vader took a half-step forward but the boy was already somersaulting effortlessly back again into a high arc, landing in a low crouch well beyond reach, saber sweeping out horizontally.
He stood slowly, body sideways on, blade slowing to a final stop and held one-handed behind him—inviting an attack.
But Vader was far too experienced to step into such a feint of supposed vulnerability, instead moving clear of the wall and waiting, breathing labored, surprised at the boy's unexpected skill and deftness both in technique and reaction time, each honed to split-second accuracy.
There was no need to ask where that had come from—Palpatine would not have allowed the boy to fight until he knew he was capable, probably choosing this moment with great deliberation.
Had the situation not been so uncontrolled, Vader would have allowed himself some measure of pride at his son's burgeoning expertise, even having those razor-sharp skills aimed at himself. But now was not the time. Now that ability required his full attention to hold at bay, committing his son's unexpected talents to memory for future reference.
Both remained still, each waiting for the other to bring the fight to them. Behind his son, Vader could make out the form of the Emperor, seated again on his precious throne, eyes glowing in the low light, enthralled.
Keeping his saber in one hand, Luke stretched his free arm out behind him, that shoulder clearly already injured long before the duel had begun.
"My weak side," he allowed, smiling, a strangely genuine act.
"I know," Vader said, glancing meaningfully to Palpatine.
"Then use it," Luke invited.
When Vader said nothing, Luke took several fast steps to the side without stepping closer, Vader turning to keep him in sight.
"Yours is your limited vision," his son said coolly. "Especially in close quarters. The advantage you gain in strength, you lose in restricted sight."
"Your leg is injured," Vader parried. "An old injury not yet healed. You landed from your high jump into a crouch to soften the impact. You haven't since taken your full weight on your right leg."
"It will hold."
"For how long?"
Vader began a slow half-circle, the boy bringing his lightsaber before him as he kept their distance constant.
"You're weak and you're injured," Vader said in bass tones. "You've been forced into a fight your body's still too damaged for. You've made your point—step down."
"You're old and you're slow, father. And I haven't made my point."
That brought Vader's ire up. "Step down or I will bring you down."
His son only smiled. "Then stop talking and do s—"
Luke broke off as Vader plowed in, saber slashing into an infinity loop, forcing the boy back. After two quick backsteps, he countered with the same move traveling in the same direction, the two scarlet sabers chasing each other, creating a blinding barrier of light which neither could cross without allowing the other inside their guard.
It was Luke who finally stopped the move, his other hand darting out to stop his saber forcefully so that Vader's blade finally intercepted, the driving impetus of its speed impacting Luke's blade in a shock of power which reverberated through the hilt.
It was a gamble, to give Vader a free move within his defenses, but Luke took the risk rather than maintain such close quarters, where his father's strength was a huge advantage. Because of this he expected Vader to move in, to try again to turn this into a more physical fight—and he didn't disappoint.
Having brief control of both blades Vader knocked the sabers down as he plowed forwards, shouldering into Luke, brute strength forcing him back. Luke didn't even try to hold his own against this, giving the ground without struggle, refusing to be forced to fight to Vader's strengths.
Vader lashed out with a roundhouse blow, and with his blade still locked low, Luke could only hunch down and take this one, pulling his shoulder up to protect himself, staggering back at the ferocity of it.
The backward snap freed Luke's blade though, so that as Vader powered forward to deliver another, hand closing to a fist as he pulled it to head-height, Luke was able to swing his saber round and up in a wide one-handed arc which would have split his opponent from hip to shoulder had he not pulled hastily away.
Instead of backing up and taking a second to recover, Luke took the path he'd just cleared and darted forward, twisting to the side and dropping low beneath Vader's vision to come up close behind him, relying on his father's surprise to give him the edge.
Vader spun, lashing out with a blind horizontal sweep, twisting round toward Luke then, as their blades met, abruptly spinning back the other way, his saber still held horizontally before him.
It was an unexpected maneuver, the first his father had sprung on him, forcing Luke to drop to a low crouch, the blade buzzing past his head with inches to spare, his own saber in the wrong hand to parry. Vader immediately stopped his spin, using all the power in his arm to bring his saber back again, low enough to take Luke's head off.
Too close to maneuver, Luke could only bring his own blade up with no real power and allow Vader's to slide along its length towards his unprotected hand, using what little power he had to guide it just over his head, close enough that he felt the heat of the constrained energy; heard it sizzle as it burned the tips of his hair.
Ignoring the hiss of the blade, and reaching out with the Force in that same instant, Luke jerked Vader's legs forward, tumbling him backward as Luke reeled up and away.
Taken unprepared by the boy's Force use Vader stumbled to catch himself before he fell, backstepping as his son came forward instantly, kicking nimbly off without hesitation despite his near-miss.
With all Vader's weight and momentum still moving backwards, he was dangerously split between defense and balance—
And the boy knew it. He pressed home, the blows short and swift, never two to the same place, a series of fast blows designed to keep Vader off-balance, pushing for the error.
His momentum too great to halt, Vader stumbled down as Luke lunged forward, saber before him. Vader twisted desperately to the side, his lightsaber digging a hissing gouge from the floor.
Luke's blade brushed against his leather-clad arm, cutting a long slit through his heavy cloak as Vader rolled free, kicking out against his opponent's feet. His hurried kick caught the boy's right ankle, forcing him to stagger backwards, his weakened leg crumpling beneath him momentarily.
Vader was already lurching up again, saber before him, tapping lightly at Luke's own as each regained their composure. Luke knocked Vader's lightsaber away angrily but without any real force as each circled, freshly wary, realization of the other's abilities clarified.
Over the hissing thrum of the blades, Palpatine clapped appreciatively, voicing delighted encouragement to the combatants, as if this were simply a game, —a harmless distraction for his amusement.
Realization brought Vader a burst of clarity—that he was doing the very thing that he'd come here to deny. This fight could only serve Palpatine's ends,; he was giving Luke what he wanted, carefully managed to better isolate and therefore control him, underlining the limits of the stormy relationship between Vader and his son.
"He wants this—" Vader said, his voice low to disguise his words. "He needs this—to break us apart. Together we're a threat and he knows it."
"Together!?" the boy hissed, tone deriding.
"He's using you—he will always use you."
"And you're so very different," Luke accused knowingly, his words a knife-twist in Vader's dim conscience.
The emotion when he spoke—the betrayal, the anger—was deeply disquieting…and distantly familiar. For Vader, seeing his son like this, the blind accusation in his face a mirror of Anakin Skywalker's on Mustafar, as wild and lost as he had ever been. Everything—everything—was twisting away from him.
Luke's blade swept in again, sharp as his accusations, fast as thought, forcing Vader into defense, realizing more and more the deadly skill of his opponent. Frustration welled up at his inability to control this—to control Luke. And resentment followed it, burning away that burst of conscience in a flare of fury and firing, a new purpose which pushed all other considerations aside.
The boy was committed to this duel, that much was clear—which meant that Vader must be the same.
He must bring his opponent down, as he had before. But decisively; this was no longer the same awkward, unpolished boy that he'd fought over Bespin. He needed to use enough force to stop him despite his determination... Injury was unavoidable now.
In that moment of Dark clarity, the battle between father and son became a duel between Sith. And it could only escalate.
They were past the point of no return—both combatants could not walk from this battle.
Finally accepting that this was no tempered threat, no controllable situation, Vader stepped into Luke's next assault, slashing his blade for his opponent's midsection. With hair's-breadth timing, Luke intercepted the attack, but the backstep put his weight on his injured leg forcing two quick steps to that side, the power robbed from the parry.
Vader used his opponent's unwilling sidesteps to slash out again into Luke's path, pushing home the attack, forcing a slight retreat from his son, genuine anger sparking in Luke's eyes.
Palpatine laughed coldly to no one but himself, the sound lost beneath the angry clash of the blades.
Vader's fighting style, his whole temperament, had escalated in the last few minutes, Luke's own reaction spiraling in response. Long months of strict training were paying off now, Palpatine's harsh lessons and relentless, faultfinding criticism forcing the boy to master every weakness, oppressive discipline drilling knowledge and expertise into him, driving him to obsessively remove every defect in technique.
His fine blade. Unique and exquisite, ruthless and deadly. A flawless work of art.
Luke moved without hesitation, without doubt, without anxiety. He knew that Vader was right; his real weaknesses were the injuries he had sustained at his Master's hand and his exhaustion from months of relentless pressure, never time to fully heal, to recover physically or mentally since he'd first been brought here. But all that frustration, all that bitter resentment could be channeled and twisted to serve now; to give power to aching muscles and failing repairs.
He wasn't afraid—death was easy now. He'd stood so often at the brink in the last months that it held no threat anymore. But he wouldn't die without taking the source of all his torment with him.
He closed in, his mind set on that end goal and what would take him there, his attack herding Vader back towards the cavernous main hall.
Beneath a hail of swift blows, Vader backstepped towards the tall double doors. Momentarily he thought this was coincidence, but the blows were too specific, his every attempt to sidestep them pointedly curtailed.
The boy was trying to back him out into the larger space of the Vermilion Hall, taking the fight to better ground, more suited to his strengths. He'd isolated his father's fighting style, his strengths and weaknesses. Now he was attempting to take control.
In this confined room with no real space to maneuver in counter to his father's greater strength, he'd been uncomfortably close, Vader knew. The boy's speed and agility gave little advantage in the cramped space, so close that Vader had repeatedly been able to force physical contact, knowing that Luke had no defense against his tremendous physical strength.
But Vader hadn't failed to note his son's strengths, and knew that now Luke was pushing to take the fight to a larger arena where he could better maneuver and bring his dexterity and fast pace into play.
Technically they were well matched, Vader's strength against his son's speed. Though Vader was beginning to realize just how much faster Luke was than he, how much more agile, both in body and approach.
Classically trained, with years of ingrained practice, Vader fought according to pre-recognized and established moves, his automatic responses to certain attacks and defenses ingrained, something Luke was already learning to use against him. Wildly unpredictable but unnervingly pre-meditated, Luke used any chance, any opportunity presented, often luring Vader in with conventional moves before changing the attack part-way, so that there was no known response, no guaranteed parry.
The boy fought with the open mind of one who had only recently acquired these skills, the Emperor clearly investing the last several months in intensive training, equipping Luke with the aptitude to fight to this level, but none of the restrictions.
Power and expertise were Vader's main weapons, and Luke was working to counter them.
But if he hoped that taking the duel to a larger space would give him any advantage, he was mistaken, Vader mused grimly. He had fought too many duels against so many opponents in similar arenas, all of whom thought they could gain the advantage this way.
He backed into the long hall, relaxing into the fight, watching his opponent's body language and stance for clues as to his next attack, relieved that the Emperor had not yet followed to interfere.
Because it was here where the real duel would begin. And end.
There could be no hesitation, no holding back. His son's considerable skill had pared Vader's options down to almost none. The duel was too evenly matched for comfort, an unexpected and unwelcome complication.
Cold reality had brought a rush of adrenaline, a clarity of intention which stifled any close scrutiny.
He whipped the blade around and down one-handed, stepping into a feint as he had done in Cloud City, luring the boy in closer then locking their blades in a spiraling movement, hoping to lash out again.
But Luke was too fast, adding his own speed to the spiral then dropping his saber tip down and sliding the blade free as he moved swiftly forward to slash out in a tight horizontal cut towards Vader's shoulder that drew sparks as it impacted with cordite-reinforced armor.
Vader twisted back as Luke stepped nimbly to his side and out of his range of vision, a flare of panic causing him to lash out with a Force-push which the boy easily countered.
The biting realization that they were equally matched, brute force against speed, beat again at Vader's thoughts. There would be no easy win, and the longer they fought, the more likely it was that one of them would make a mistake.
He needed to bring Luke down now, by any means necessary, and deal with the consequences later. That single thought buzzed in his head now, pounded with the beat of his heart, precluding all previous considerations.
Luke launched forward again, the screaming clash of the sabers reverberating around the cavernous, empty space of the long reception hall, their acid glow the only light now, bathing the huge room in dancing shadows of blood red.
Vader pulled back, looking for a way to hobble the boy, who was gaining speed now, using the space, backing his father into the tiered steps then pushing forward as he faltered, using any opportunity presented.
But he wasn't the only one who was capable of that.
When Luke pushed forward again, Vader reached out with the Force and snatched up one of the heavy carved chairs which lined the long wall beneath the tall windows, launching it forward—
At the last second, Luke was forced to abandon the attack to turn and throw out his hand, using the Force to deflect it to the side and stepping clear in one smooth move, the chair skittering away over the smooth marble floor.
He spun back with barely enough time to meet Vader's blade as it swept out in a powerful horizontal blow, forcing a retreat. Vader pushed forward, Luke stepping back beneath the onslaught, fighting hard to hold ground, clearly aware that his father was trying to back him against the wall. A long string of heavy blows kept him moving back though, searching for an opening.
When he saw it he took it without hesitation, catching Vader's blade on his own, stepping back as Vader came forward. In the same moment that he guided Vader's saber past him, he dropped the tip of his own, Vader's momentum too great to stop the move.
Luke sidestepped, moving nimbly in for two fast steps which enabled him to pull away from the ever-closing wall, allowing time to gather an attack—
And Vader launched another chair from behind him, again forcing Luke to abandon his offensive in order to stop the incoming missile.
This time Luke twisted about and shattered the hefty chair to pieces with a counter-blow in the Force, spinning back round to stay the crushing backswing which Vader landed, powerful enough to bat his own blade back, forcing another backstep, feet sliding on the smooth marble floor.
He took another quick step back, his heel hitting the steps he had earlier forced Vader down, Vader pushing forward with a hail of heavy blows, trying again to force the boy to a corner.
Luke backed quickly up the three steps, knowing that Vader would take the opportunity to land a low blow. As the saber swung past his feet, Luke launched upward, somersaulting over Vader, clear before he'd even had the time to bring his blade up.
He twisted about mid-flip as Vader turned, but his agility and speed bought him the edge, and it was Vader who was forced to defend, dropping from a high blow to a low defense, knowing that the boy's saber would land the blow first.
Luke sidestepped, three fast blows gaining him time to pull an attack together—
And the moment he moved to attack, Vader reached out to the long window-lined wall and launched another heavy chair toward him—
Letting out a yell equal parts frustration and rage, Luke broke off, head jerking to the side momentarily, eyes afire—
The burst of Dark power exploded outwards into the room, hitting Vader like a body-blow, knocking the air from his lungs and impacting with painful compression on his eardrums, the shockwave radiating out past him, its power bulging the bank of tall glass windows with a solid 'whump!', crazing them into opaque devastation with an ear-splitting screech of splintered transparisteel—
And the row of chairs beneath them which had proved so useful to distract the boy…every one was instantly reduced to matchwood, collapsed against the wall under the magnitude of the blow, a spray of splinters and fine dust ballooning up about them.
Luke was already rushing forward incensed, saber swinging back to deliver a heavy blow, twisting past as Vader blocked, a second fast blow landed to his nearly unprotected back, forcing Vader to over-reach, to overstep his own center of balance, so that the next blow pushed him back further, his defense slower, Luke already moving again, looking to land another blow.
Vader retreated against the onslaught, looking for an error, an opening, an opportunity. Luke drove forward, every blow a precursor to the next, every defense a step into attack.
He had his space now, room to maneuver, and he used it, always moving, always changing the angle of attack, forcing Vader to do the same, to fight at his pace. Robbing him of his power to hold against Luke's momentum.
Too fast—but if Vader stepped back then Luke was immediately there, taking the fight to him, four or five fast blows, then pulling back again, drawing Vader back into the fight then flipping clear, darting away. And the moment Vader slowed, he would sidestep, moving round his opponent's limited vision, looking for that blind spot, making Vader back up again, giving more ground. Too much ground.
Finally Vader broke the pace, giving several steps, chest heaving in labored breaths as he pulled back to a safer range and Luke paused momentarily, walking slowly around his father, his limp growing worse but still looking for that opportunity, some chink in his armor, physical or mental.
"You're tiring," the boy goaded as he circled, bringing his arm up and back, attempting to loosen that injured shoulder as he swung his saber in slow arcs before him, tip to the ground.
"You're weakening," Vader ground out, aware that the boy was right.
"Not in resolve."
"You don't have to do as he commands…"
"This from the man who told me that I didn't understand—that he must obey his Master." Luke shook his head, voice filled with scorn. "Don't dare lecture me."
"You are slave to no one, Luke—neither Palpatine nor Darkness. You are beyond both. Understand that!"
"Because of you, is that what you think? Because you pushed me to this?" His son's chin came up in a challenge, words clipped by short breaths. When Vader didn't reply, realization flared in Luke's eyes. "Is this what you wanted? Is this what you wanted for me!"
"I wanted everything for you. I would have paid any price…"
"But you didn't—I did." Luke's voice was raw with anger and accusation. "I paid the price for your ambition. Yours, not mine."
"Luke, listen to me..." Vader glanced to the doors which he knew Palpatine would soon walk through, stepping back as his son stepped forward, determined to have this opportunity, even now. To make the boy understand. "The power you have now will gain you everything. An Empire, when you decide to take it."
"I don't want your Empire!"
"Then why were you fighting with the Rebellion? To overthrow—to take command. Everything you wanted then I have placed within your grasp. Everything."
Luke dragged broken, strapped fingers back through sweat-spiked hair, voice raw with emotion. "You have no idea what I wanted! I was fighting for freedom, not command. From you, from him, from this—" He gestured wildly about him to the gilded opulence of the huge Palace, the grasping affluence and self-serving influence of the city-planet beyond.
It was an impassioned cry, accusation and desperation both, a momentary glimpse of the idealistic boy Vader had faced over Bespin, proof that he still existed in some form, no matter how tattered.
"You've made me everything that I was fighting against, and I can't step back—I can't ever go back. That person is dead! Your son died here—can't you see that!"
Vader shook his head, aware that Palpatine would be in the room in moments. "You are still my son—more powerful than ever."
Luke shook his head, manner slipping instantly from impassioned to cool, the change chillingly mercurial, that outburst of unbridled emotion completely suppressed. "That won't save you."
"I don't believe you'd kill me. I don't believe the Emperor has taken you from me so completely," Vader gambled, finally giving all his own tangled confusions voice, realizing that he should have spoken out long ago. "Because everything that you are, I am. Every feeling that tears at you now, I have endured. But look at where you are…the power you hold! I did this for you—for you! The Darkness has not taken away what I feel for my son. No matter how at odds, or how powerful the Darkness, I cannot deny them. This is stronger. And everything that I feel, I know that you feel too. That is why you will not land the blow."
The boy was silent for long seconds, head low, chest heaving from exertion…
Unstable, volatile emotions flared again quicksilver-fast, Luke's reaction tearing through Vader's hope. "You of all people, you who brought me here… You have the audacity to claim affinity, any connection—a right to ambition on my behalf? You're nothing to me! Nothing!"
Luke hurled the words at his father, wild with the pain of bitter abandonment and his own shattered hope, an intensity Vader couldn't hope to counter. He charged forward, saber swinging high and back, the blow coming down with enough power to send a shock through Vader's arms, staggering him back a step as he held against it, Luke's blade still pressing home, locked onto his father's.
He leaned unafraid into the wildly flaring blades, the red glare showing deep scars gouged into the pale skin of his face as ragged black lines.
Vader faltered beneath the raw emotion contained in those eyes and in that moment Luke struck out, eyes hard and cold, the Darkness answering his actions unbidden, whipping about him, power drawn to passion.
Anger, absolute outrage, gave him a speed which Vader couldn't hope to match.
Every move came faster, every action leading to the next, forcing Vader into check, each attempt to free himself only taking him into another check.
Vader looked for an opening, a way to contain him so that he could bring his strength to bear, but Luke was moving too quickly, countering every parry, giving no quarter, every blow closer, reactions honed to a hair's-breadth.
The realization came in a scarlet wave of burning panic; that they were not equal...
That his son would best him.
Luke's lightsaber swung down and away as his hand rose, palm out, a whirlwind of power compressed into a single body-blow.
Realizing, Vader raised his own hand, calling the Force to counter the push, and momentarily they froze, power against power, the Force holding each of them immobile whilst pushing forward with inexorable strength, feet sliding against the smooth marble floor, unstoppable force meeting immovable object.
Raw power—Vader's bulk towered over his son's slight form at this proximity as each channeled the deluge of energy, their hands held out before them, so close they could almost touch. Vader grunted, let out a primal sound as he brought every last trace of strength to bear.
But this was not the physical—this was a blow conceived of Darkness. His son tilted his head, narrowed his eyes…
The power, the blow which hurled against Vader in that moment was fury unleashed, utterly unstoppable. Absolute energy directed and constrained, channeled to a single intent. It was raging emotion given physical form and even countering with the same, Vader had no chance of neutralizing or containing it.
He faltered, felt himself launched backwards, feet leaving the floor, thrown against the far wall with massive force which drove the air from his lungs, his legs collapsing beneath him as he fell. He kept hold of his lightsaber as he crumpled forward, vision tunneling to darkness, desperately pulling the Force about winded lungs and pounding head as Luke stalked forward, eyes burning with grim intent.
It took a second—a second, no more—to bring himself around, to force alertness and energy through failing awareness…
…The sound of a lightsaber's droning buzz overrode the hiss of his respirator.
His son stood over him breathing heavily, pale, scarred features given harsh relief in the scarlet glow, sweat spiking his hair.
His hands holding the saber shook, the bright crimson blade wavering before Vader's throat.
Palpatine stood mesmerized at the entrance, frozen in tense anticipation, waiting to see what his feral Jedi would do—whether he would walk away as ordered or whether the desire to destroy that which Palpatine had invested so much in making him hate would drive him to openly disobey his Master and bring down his wrath yet again.
His own black heart beat fast in his ears, the slightest of gratified smiles tugging the corners of thin, bloodless, breathless lips, waiting, tranfixed…
His Jedi's blade lifted just slightly, weight shifting…
"Leave him…" Palpatine reminded, grating voice low and even, equal parts confident coercion and oppressive threat.
Still the boy didn't move.
"Step back, Jedi," Palpatine ordered, absolutely still, caught up in this strained battle of wills, the ultimate opportunity to pitch his own inflexible resolve against Skywalker's volatile, headstrong temperament. To bring his will to bear against this Sith he had created, as wild and dangerous and unpredictable as the wolf which haunted his visions.
Skywalker wavered long seconds, the scarlet saber blade weaving before Vader's face with every labored breath…
The burning compulsion to push the blade home seared through every fiber of Luke's body, cramping taut muscles to strained paralysis, his Master's words a distant abstraction no more substantial than a whisper, the driving forces which tore at him screaming in chaotic contradiction, driving him to distraction, his heart pounding so heavily that it shook his whole body with every beat.
Harsh, uncompromising reality bled slowly back about him, cold and clammy, the intense burst of Dark clarity abandoning him to a chilling, crushing confusion.
Palpatine watched his Jedi blink; blink again… and back a step away, deactivating his saber. Frustrated and stormy and murderous, driven to distraction—but controlled now, Palpatine knew. Perhaps this wolf would yet walk to heel.
Skywalker stumbled another step back, turning away, sense boiling, Palpatine remaining still, resolute, not allowing his triumph to show in his face.
And Vader launched up, incensed, saber high, slicing down…
With no time to turn, Luke brought his hilt up and back over his head, igniting it as he did so, blocking the attack from behind before twisting round and using the momentum to carry Vader's blade with him, pushing it away, eyes wild and feral and outraged, sense explosive—
The blow was incredibly fast, absolutely faultless; Luke pulled back and swung in high but as Vader moved to intercept, he brought the base of his hilt around in the palm of his hand so that Vader's blade met empty air as Luke's swung in horizontally towards his father's head. Vader ducked and twisted away, sure that he was too slow, feeling the blade engage with the edge of his helmet, missing the killing blow by a hair's breadth. He spun his saber back in a desperate defensive arc but Luke caught it with his own, his blade looping about it, robbing it of any power and driving it to the side—
And suddenly he was inside Vader's guard, batting his ruby blade back with a final twist—
Perfect strategy, incredible speed, flawless execution. No defense.
Luke kicked out hard, the blow landing solidly against Vader's ribs. He fell back, landing heavily, the breath knocked from his lungs in a gasp—
And Luke was there, one knee on his father's chest, back arching, lightsaber held high above that hated black faceplate to deliver the killing blow, hilt up, blade pointing straight down.
Palpatine shouted out, the speed of that final attack unanticipated. "Skywalker—STOP!"
Luke stabbed the blade down, ignoring his Master's shout of "NO!"
All that revulsion and rage and resentment—that driving desire to destroy this creature and so free himself of that which reminded him every single day of his own inherent weakness… Into a single blow was compressed all of that bitter, grievous hatred and loathing…
Of his father—and of himself.
Too far away to intervene Palpatine reached out with the Force, lifting his hand as the saber came down, his attempt to stay the blow knocked aside by the surge of savage power hurled out from his feral Jedi, batting away any hindrance—
The scarlet glow of the blade disappeared without visible resistance as he drove it down, stopping with a solid thunk as the hilt finally hit—
Luke cried out in frustration as he wrenched himself up and away, stalking from the huge hall without stopping, a shadow lost in the darkness…
Leaving the saber buried up to the hilt in the floor—a hair's breadth away from Vader's head.
It's everywhere in the Rebellion, especially here below decks. Especially now.
There's a new Sith. That isn't rumor.
A new enemy who serves the Emperor on Coruscant with as great a commitment as Vader ever did, whilst Vader himself travels with the fleet, dedicated to continuing his life's work of hunting us down for his Master.
He has no name, he has no past.
And Palpatine plays his games; calls him his feral Jedi, his purebred Sith, his fine blade.
They say there's no solid information as to who he is, though rumor is that there are those here in the Rebellion's hierarchy who know the truth.
Theories, gossip, second-hand accounts… There are whispers that this new Sith is Vader's son. There's conjecture that he's Palpatine's son.
There are rumors that he was once a Rebel. There are murmurs that he was a spy. Allusions that he once infiltrated the leadership here.
They speculate that he served as an elite Red Guard on Imperial Center whilst he was being trained by Palpatine.
There are theories that he traveled with Vader in the Emperor's fleet as a combat pilot.
There are hints that he grew up hidden away on a Rim world, where harsh lessons are learned young.
They say he's as cold and heartless as his Master. They say it's good that he stays in the Core System,s because the Emperor likes him close to heel.
There are suggestions that there's discord in the Emperor's Palace; whispers that the new Sith makes his own power base—that he seeks his own position, not the blind servitude that Vader offers Palpatine.
Still, it's this new Sith who leads the Emperor's forces in the Core systems now.
This new Sith who stands at the Emperor's right hand.
They say that Palpatine describes Lord Vader as his attack dog—and this new Sith as his wolf.
That's what they call him now—even here, behind close doors: The Wolf.
They say he'll rule the Empire within a decade.
They say that isn't conjecture.
In Shadows and Darkness
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Jedi-2B again for beta-ing my considerably less than perfect grammar and grasp of American English. She's written endless great stuff herself and always encourages me no end to get my ass in gear!
My gratitude, always.
Disclaimer: As per usual, I should point out that I own no part of Star Wars, nor do I profit from it. It's all owned and run by the guy in the plaid shirt...