At the Brink of the Dawn and the Darkness
'This is the way of things, the will of the Force;
Intentions and Empires, Councils and kinships.'
Fragment from the Son of Suns Prophesy,
(Jedi Master Egorin Dovas translation; 3/ 14,159 [-minus].)
Engraved into the Sunburst Throne (The Seat of Prophesy) circa 23,711 [-minus].
Palpatine was dead, slain by the one person with the ability to do so but not, before now, the motivation. The man whom the Emperor believed he had owned, mind and soul. The man who was, in those final hours, willing to give his life to bring the Emperor down. The man who lay in still silence after six hours of surgery, the white sheet which moved against his slow breaths seeming to Mara far too much like a shroud.
All around her in the Palace, all hell was probably breaking loose as his advocates sought to hide the truth and stabilize the Empire to a carefully planned agenda. It didn't matter any more to Mara; she existed outside of time and space in a bubble of reality defined by the shallow breathing of the man she had betrayed. The man she had saved. The man she...
She stood beside him in the darkness as he lay unconscious…and she cried. For the first time since she was a child, she cried, tears running unheeded down her cheeks, her jaw tightly clamped against the sob that welled in her throat. She cried because Palpatine was gone. Because she was grateful Luke was here. She cried with relief and release. For what she'd lost, for what she'd gained—for what she feared she'd pushed away irrevocably.
He'd walked into her life and he'd turned everything, everything she believed upside down. Every view, every standpoint, every conviction. Shaken her beliefs to the core.
But not like that at all; not by force or manipulation, both of which she knew so well, but gradually and persuasively. The lightest touch, the slightest spur, the subtlest encouragement, oblivious of his power over her.
Alone in the velvet shadows of the most wrenching, grueling, terrifying day of her life, she stood and watched the reason for all this heartache as he lay in absolute stillness, the dull light of the scanner making discreet tracks up and down the underside of the medical bed, the readouts above him updating every time it returned to the cradle.
Mara Jade shook her head slowly, still in some netherworld of shock at the events of the day. But it wasn't just her world that had been turned upside down; not just the Palace or Coruscant or the government or the military. The whole damn galaxy had changed in the space of a few short hours…it just didn't know it yet. Everything was in flux, everything was shifting…around him—his actions, his decisions.
Was that what had held him back for so long? Because now, when she really thought about it, it was a terrifying prospect. The galaxy was resting on his shoulders. The fate of every sentient being, of civilization—it would all hang on his actions. Everyone, everyone everywhere, would turn to Coruscant and hold baited breath, expectant, afraid, hopeful.
He would define the direction of history…he already had.
Palpatine had always carried the burden lightly; a mixture of blithe indifference and deep-rooted belief in his own right to rule had granted him the clarity of vision and unshakable confidence to exert his command with utter conviction. Right or wrong, savior or tyrant, he had carved a path and dragged his Empire into alignment without hesitation. He had united under a single rule a galaxy at war with itself, and held it there by brute force and absolute, ruthless will. His word was law…had been law.
And all that burden of command and continuity for the civilization Palpatine had created would now fall to Luke. To the man who had never wanted power; the man who had constantly questioned the tenets of the Empire and reviled the Emperor.
Say what you would about Palpatine's absolute rule, but it had held warring factions to peace for twenty years. Would Luke have the will and the tenacity, the confidence to do the same? To carry the Empire Palpatine had created forward? He had never wanted power; had actively avoided it for so long, Mara knew. Didn't think he deserved it—she laughed mirthlessly at that; if anybody had proved their right to rule it had been Luke in the last five years. He'd been to hell and back…but not quite back—never quite back.
He'd come here as raw potential, all blunt resistance and stubborn convictions and naïve principles, and Palpatine had carved ability from that aptitude. Had created a Sith and honed him in the fires of violent trials and intense pressure and enforced change, goading and driving and punishing. Guiding and refining and perfecting.
His fine blade, Palpatine called him, and she understood why.
All that youthful, impetuous haste and that obstinate, willful ability to endure for his beliefs had been tempered and shaped into resilience and spirit and absolute fearless courage. Every weakness laid bare and broken, every strength enhanced, every possibility realized.
Again that smile touched the corners of Mara's lips; perhaps he wasn't nearly as unprepared as he believed then…or she. Considering the gauntlet he now faced, it was, in truth, for the best that the idealistic, indignant Rebel pilot who'd arrived here had been so completely purged by Palpatine; had been dragged, kicking and screaming and resisting every step of the way, into his rightful place…
His rightful place; it was the first time she'd ever thought that.
She'd known of course that he would rule one day—but in the back of her head; some distant, dreamlike fact that required no closer consideration as yet.
Then yesterday...yesterday in an escalating chain of mistakes and missteps on everybody's part, the man who had always stood with reluctant disquiet in Palpatine's shadow had reached the end of his endurance and snapped. Turned on the Master who had invested so much in controlling him and given vent to years of abuse and repression; had shown his Master just how much he had learned.
And suddenly, with a single act, a dire decision borne from outrage and loss and betrayal, they were here.
It was the inevitable, inexorable fate that everyone, even she, had tried so hard not to see. Torn between her master and her lover, Mara felt she at least had some excuse for her involuntary blindness. What possible excuse had her master held—what had blinded him so completely to Luke's burgeoning power and crumbling conscience?
He had invested so much in creating his perfect Sith advocate, his wolf. Abruptly Mara remembered the warning issued to her long ago by Luke: "If you put your hand out to a wolf, you shouldn't be surprised when it bites."
And having created his wolf, Palpatine hadn't so much reached out his hand as turned his back; dropped his guard and taken its obedience for granted.
But then, hadn't she been guilty of the same… Hadn't she herself once worried that Skywalker was simply biding his time?
She stepped forward, trailing the back of her fingers lightly down his scuffed cheek, remembering the dread and despair in those desolate eyes when he'd arrived at the Palace just hours ago, knowing his father was dead, killed by Palpatine. No, this was no premeditated act—this had been grief and loss and fury and desolation, let loose at the one who had caused them without any trace of remorse…
But the end result had been the same. Palpatine was still dead, and whether he liked it or not—whether he wanted it or not—Luke had locked himself and the Empire into an irreversible course.
The man whom Palpatine had trained to rule was about to take his place as the single, most powerful man in the galaxy. And he needed to rule with an iron rod if he was to hold this Empire together in these first years; stop it from spiraling back down into decades of civil war as challengers and pretenders vied for the throne.
Did he understand that? Even if he did, would he choose to act upon it? And if so…how?
Because as she stood in the still silence, hand trembling to an unsteady stop against his bruised face, Mara realized with a terrible clarity that whispered a cold trail down her spine…
Although she had shared his life and his bed and in tiny, shattered fragments, some glimpse into his shredded soul…she had no idea, none whatsoever, of what he would do.
Han Solo, Blue-Wing Commander onboard Home One, was drawling through the final part of his lecture to the latest batch of new pilots, a large holo-image of one of the Empire's new Interat-TIE fighters slowly rotating in space next to him. He glanced out into gloom, taking in that sea of bright, expectant faces, reflecting that they seemed to get a little younger every year…
Han narrowed his eyes at that, an alarming thought occurring: or maybe he was getting older?
Nah, couldn't be that.
This was a new Red Flight; 'Sparks,' they'd nicknamed themselves, due to their bright, high-visibility orange flightsuits, painfully pristine and all zipped up, though a few were already beginning to emulate the veterans who wore their hot, stuffy flightsuits unzipped and rolled down to the waist, the arms wrapped about them and knotted there. Reds: X-Wing pilots, if they made it. 'Bright Sparks,' they had called their new Wing Group. Han had already told them that before their first real combat mission was through, half of them would prove to be no more than a flash in the dark.
A movement to the edge of the auditorium caught his eye as Leia entered, the door sliding open momentarily to let a sliver of bright light in from the corridor beyond. She raised her eyebrows meaningfully, a tense, nervous expression on her face which made Han's chest tighten.
Glancing back to the recruits, he brought the lecture to a quick end. "So, to sum up: if you're lookin' at the tail, you're laughin'…but don't forget to keep an eye out for his wingman. And if he's lookin' at your tail, then you'd better hope your own wingman's got more savvy than you have or you're both dust. Right…okay then, back to the flight sims."
There was a collective moan and Han couldn't help but smile, remembering back when he too felt the most exciting thing in the galaxy was to get behind the stick of a spacecraft—a real one that was. Still felt it a little with the Falcon, though the novelty of flying an A-Wing fighter for the Alliance had worn off after a few months of being cramped into that cold, teeth-rattling cockpit to fly endless babysitting jobs interspersed with the occasional nerve-wrenching sortie when the Empire got a little too close. Yeah—a few weeks of double shifts in a snub fighter would cure anyone of that.
Still, he grinned into their groans, amused. "What? Did you seriously think I was gonna let you bunch-a' reprobates into one of my nice X-Wings? Sixty hours, people. Come back when you got sixty hours of high-score combat on your flight sim card and I might—I just might—let you go up."
"Your X-Wings are piles of poodoo anyway," some wisemouth muttered from the crowd as they filed out towards the door.
Han turned on him. "Hey, watch your mouth, kid, or you're gonna find yourself flying garbage scows till the galaxy stops turnin'."
Momentarily he lost the diminutive Leia beneath a blaze of bright orange jumpsuits and youthful grins as the rowdy group of pilots made their way out, turning to the flight simulators down the corridor. She glanced at Han over their heads, almost swamped by them, so tiny was she, standing on tip-toe to keep his eye. "Something's happening on Coruscant."
"Yeah?" Han was unimpressed. "Something's always happening on Coruscant."
Leia ignored that completely; she'd found it was often the best course, otherwise they ended up wildly off topic and one or the other of them would always storm off before she'd actually gotten to the point of what she was trying to say. "You know Palpatine cancelled Court two days ago—and yesterday? We just got word it's been cancelled again today."
"C'mon give the guy a break, Leia," Han drawled as he headed back to the lectern to turn off the holo, the panic clearly over as far as he was concerned. "It's hard work runnin' the galaxy into the ground and bleeding it dry at the same time. Maybe he took a vacation—somewhere sunny. Force knows the guy could use a bit of color in his cheeks."
"Seriously, Han, this has never happened before," Leia maintained, beginning to wonder why she'd bothered coming all the way up here.
Han turned about to take her shoulders as she followed him, letting loose that lopsided grin he knew she couldn't resist and kissing her lightly on the forehead in reassurance, reminding her exactly why she was here.
"Look, sweetheart, it's probably nothing. He went to that…whatever—winter retreat place last year and Court was cancelled for two weeks."
"Court wasn't cancelled, it was relocated to the Winter Palace," Leia corrected. "And Intel says it was done to introduce Kiria D'Arca to The Heir in a less formal setting."
"Please," Han scoffed. "They take the whole of Court near halfway across the planet to the Pole just so they can have some society launch of another spoiled little princess—" he took a half-step back, hands out before him, "no offense, sweetheart—and all so they can introduce her to Luke without it seeming too obvious? You can do that anywhere." At this he launched into miming an imaginary introduction, hands indicating empty spaces as he ran through his routine. "Luke, this is D'Arca. D'Arca, Luke. See? Easy."
It used to drive Leia insane that Han stubbornly clung to the habit of calling The Heir by the name that he'd used whilst he'd been a spy here in the Alliance; now it slipped past unnoticed so often that she'd even found herself thinking of him as such again every now and then. In a strange way it made it easier; he'd had many titles since he'd finished his infiltration of the Alliance and returned to the Empire but strangely no actual name, as if Palpatine were loathe to let the truth out. Certainly his past was a cut thread; no one, not even the Bothans, had been able to unearth the slightest fact on him. Han, of course, took all this as proof enough that Luke Skywalker was….well, Luke Skywalker, which was the biggest leap in logic and faith that Leia had ever seen—particularly for a self-confessed cynic.
It was a strangely dehumanizing thing, to know another only by his title, leaving one always slightly uncomfortable when talking of him…perhaps that was the point. But if so, it was wasted on her, Leia determined; Palpatine had dealt too often in subtleties and mindgames, and she wasn't buying.
"I think there was a little more at stake if Palpatine was willing to move the whole of Court to the Winter Palace than…" Leia paused, realizing what Han had just said about spoiled princesses. "What do you mean, no offense!?"
He took a breath to answer her but she put her hand out, hanging doggedly onto her reason for coming down here. "Stop, don't answer that. The point is, Intel says the Executor should have broken orbit yesterday for Nal Hutta and the Patriot should have left today, and they're both still in geostationary orbit—and the Peerless has joined them. When was the last time you saw three Super Star Destroyers in orbit around Coruscant?"
Han frowned, beginning to pay attention. "Really? Flight's starting to get routine Intel reports from all over for the last two days sayin' that Destroyers are breaking with standard duty schedules."
Leia wrapped her arms about herself, unable to shake the feeling that something big had happened, remembering the strange, wired sense that had dragged her abruptly from sleep three days ago, mind and stomach both tied in knots of dread and panic, shouting out into the night.
Remembered pacing the dark for hours afterwards, unable to shake the indistinct nightmare or calm her pounding heart, knowing in every fiber of her being that somehow, somewhere, something momentous had happened. Some basic shift, at once too far away and yet too big to see.
She'd spent the last three days on tenterhooks, waiting, watching for some change, some anomaly, some break from routine.
The first day it had been easy to dismiss; an unexpected report on top of a bad night's sleep. Palpatine occasionally cancelled Court for a night, usually in parallel with The Heir's disappearance for a few weeks, and certainly the Bothans had confirmed the same this time, routinely checking for his whereabouts if Court was disrupted. Then the same report had come in yesterday: Court cancelled, no sign of The Heir. There were changes noted in daily schedules at the Palace—guards reassigned, stormtroopers brought down from the two Super Star Destroyers in orbit. Three unconfirmed reports that there were blue-pauldroned stormtroopers in the Residential Towers…in the Towers! It was unprecedented.
And so it went on through the day; changes in pre-assigned courses of Destroyers, elevated levels of interchange on military communication lines, Command staff mysteriously reassigned without notice, the Peerless reappearing at Coruscant.
And every new fragment of information crept up Leia's spine and wound her stomach tighter and pressed in with mind-numbing power, until even the low lights of Intel's assessment center made her head throb and her heart pound.
"Something's happening," she murmured, shaking her head, knowing she was echoing Han's thoughts now. "Something big."
Mara stood to loose attention for long seconds in the inner atrium to the medicenter, tapping her foot impatiently, awaiting Hallin. Though she had never once been excluded from seeing Luke in the three days he had remained here since his duel with the Emper….with Palpatine, she was now uncomfortably aware of the fact that every time she arrived, she was made to wait until Luke's personal medic and trusted ally Nathan Hallin appeared to clear her for entry.
Thus it had been made politely, pointedly clear that if they wanted to, either Hallin or Reece presently had the power to exclude her from seeing Luke completely, her access controlled probably more at the ever-cautious Reece's insistence than Hallin's, she suspected. The medic seemed to have mellowed a little in the days following 'the event,' his frayed nerves calming as Luke recovered.
He was even smiling today, as he entered the atrium from the medicenter, remaining in the doorway as an invitation for her to return with him. "Good morning, Commander Jade."
With only a momentary sideways glance at the watchful guards, Mara stepped forward. She could have passed them at any time, of course; five years as Luke's personal bodyguard hadn't dulled her combat edge in the slightest and had she felt the need, they would all have been dead before even one could draw his weapon. But this wasn't the time for making waves. Right now she needed to play the game—and she needed everyone to know that she was willing to do so.
Because suddenly, after a lifetime at the top of the pile as Palpatine's personal envoy, she had no official jurisdiction at all. No legitimate rank, no power, nothing. Only an ambiguous personal link to the man who was Palpatine's successor, and that precarious, if they found out the truth… If Luke chose to tell them. Thus far, he hadn't.
"You can go straight through," Hallin said easily, tactfully making no move to enter Luke's suite as she stepped past him. "He's up already."
When she entered his small medicenter suite, Luke was halfway across the room, one arm wrapped about his ribs against his injuries there. He wore only a pair of linen sleep trousers, so that the near-mortal lightsaber wound which ran front to back through one side of his stomach was clearly visible, marked by rows of neat sutures and synthflesh, heavy internal bleeding leaving dark bruises.
He paused, glancing to her then quickly away with a broken half-smile. They were both still uneasy, the breach of confidence which Mara had committed still foremost in their minds, and though Luke seemed willing on one level to move past it, Mara could understand his reticence yet, so soon after the event. She had wanted to talk, to at least be allowed to put her reasons forward. To make some attempt if not to defend the indefensible, then at least to explain it, to apologize—to lay it to rest.
But he wasn't ready yet, unwilling to discuss it at all, let alone her role in it. Every attempt on Mara's part made him either defensive or evasive, so that after three days her own guilt and Luke's obvious brittle fragility, both mental and physical, held her to an uneasy silence. Awareness of her tenuous position—of the fact that if she rocked the boat too much then either Reece or even Hallin may well decide it was in Luke's best interests to limit her access to him, and that in his present state and considering her actions he would probably allow it—also played uneasily on her mind, making Mara worry that they had both survived all this only to be carved apart by it. Now she smiled hesitantly as he glanced away uncomfortably, his own smile quick and forced.
"You're up early." It was an awkward banality, but in that moment Mara couldn't think of anything else to say.
She took two fast steps forward as he backstepped and turned side-on to her, turning what would have been an intimate kiss into little more than a peck to the edge of his lip. To cover the fact, he reached out to the bed for the fresh towel which was laid there with his free hand, more as an avoidance of her closeness than for any greater reason.
"I was just…" He held the thick, heavy towel up, voice apologetic more at the awkwardness of his avoidance than for any other reason, she knew. "Nathan's cleared me for a water-shower."
His quiet words were perfectly enunciated. Even here, in private, the refined Coruscanti accent that Palpatine had been so determined he would voice and had so ground into him over the years, still held sway, his own provincial Rim accent completely lost to it. Another little piece of Luke Skywalker surrendered to survive.
But there were still fragments to be seen, if you knew where to look. He hated sonic showers for the sole reason that he had grown up with them on Tatooine, where water was far too rare a commodity to waste on washing. He'd been nagging Hallin from the moment he'd woken and the medic had apparently finally relented, though knowing Luke he may well be acting on his own initiative here despite his words.
Mara stepped back and to the side, head set at a wry angle. "Emperor of the galaxy and you have to wait for…"
"Don't say that," he said quickly, still deeply uneasy at everything that had happened.
Mara sighed, wondering how Reece and Hallin were getting on with this one. Certainly he hadn't once allowed the title to pass without contradicting her. But the fact was that even with the civic accession ceremony still eighteen days away, on Palpatine's death his title had immediately passed to his named Heir. The first announcement of his death was due to go out over all official HoloNet channels in a few hours time, three days after the actual event, accompanied by a short, pre-recorded message by Luke.
Pre-recorded. A subtle reminder that, however premature, this insurrection had been planned.
Not surprisingly, Reece and Hallin had gone to great lengths to hide the fact that it was Luke who had killed Palpatine in a duel which had almost cost both their lives. A duel triggered by Mara, though neither Reece nor Hallin knew that yet.
Because it was Mara who had told the Emperor of Luke's illicit meetings with his father; she who had brought his defiance to light. Unwillingly, but still… Whether Palpatine believed her that Luke was being manipulated by his father or whether he had his own reasons for killing Vader she didn't know, and ultimately it didn't matter. The relevant point was that it was Mara who had betrayed Luke and his father. Luke must surely hold her responsible for his father's death.
And in her own mind, Mara felt the sickening guilt of responsibility for Palpatine's as well—the man to whom she'd pledged absolute allegiance.
She remembered her master once saying that Force-sensitives were, by their very nature, facilitators of change, their involvement in any event rendering it too fluid to read or predict with any accuracy. Luke was nothing if not unpredictable, a trait which had increased over the years rather than stabilized. When he'd first been brought here against his will, he had at least been predictable in his loyalties to friends and causes; controllable through them. But Palpatine had stripped him of such 'weaknesses' and in doing so had cut him free of any ties.
He had, he believed, created his wolf—had named Luke as such; his Wolf, his perfect Sith advocate. Everything he had anticipated in Vader had finally been fulfilled in his son; all the power and the connection to the Force he had once seen in his father, Palpatine had finally realized in Skywalker. But the wolf he'd created had been wild and willful and feral, and in hindsight her master had never truly tamed that fire and fury. He'd put it on a leash, held it to heel for a while but…
Mara remembered when she had once told Luke that Palpatine's epithet for his new Sith was fitting and he had turned on her, outraged:
"Then you're a fool to be here—never trust a wolf."
"I trust you."
"No you don't, not really. You tell yourself you can trust—you think you're safe because for some reason you believe you can control it…but I can't, so I'm damn sure that you can't. You're not nearly as safe as you think."
"You're saying that you're capable of hurting me? I don't believe you."
"I'm saying if you reach out to a wolf you shouldn't be surprised when it bites."
She took a step back now, allowing him to pass, glancing at him as he did so; at the myriad of fine cuts and nicks and scrapes on his body and his face from the duel, pale bristles visible on his chin because he wasn't yet able to shave.
He didn't look like a wolf. Didn't look like a Sith or an Emperor. Didn't look like the man who had killed Palpatine—who had changed the path of galactic history…
But the truth was he was all those things—and from one moment to the next, she was never quite sure which he would be anymore… And deep down, she suspected Luke was aware of the same.
But she was sure of one thing, even if Luke himself wasn't: he was Emperor.
By his own hand, he was Emperor now.
"Luke, you know at some point you're going to have to accept…"
"Not now. Not yet," he said levelly without turning, voice quiet but resolute. "I'll deal with it all—set it straight. But later."
He walked slowly away, tired to the bone, hand still wrapped about his injured stomach, leaving Mara to wonder once again how she could associate the quiet, unassuming man before her with the one who had returned to the Palace only hours after his father's death, incensed and bereft and outraged, finally provoked to the point that he was willing to challenge Palpatine. Because of her. Because of her, he'd done this.
She lowered her head, searching to reignite that spark of comfortable, familiar intimacy between them but unable to even look him in the eye. "I'll…" Remembering he was heading to the shower, Mara stuttered to a stop as Luke paused, hand to the door jamb for support. She smiled tentatively, suddenly uncomfortable, unsure what she should do. "I'll just…I'll wait here."
She glanced about, sitting on the bed, the memory of early mornings and shared showers and so many stolen moments of intimacy in the Palace playing vividly through her head.
Luke simply nodded in silence and disappeared into the 'fresher suite without looking back.
Inside the 'fresher Luke paused, hand to the wall as he steadied himself, his mind racing, unsure if she was aware how deeply her close, attentive presence disturbed him right now. Ironic, really; they'd spent so long hiding and masquerading, concealing their closeness, every glance a danger, every touch a stolen risk. And now that they could finally be together, now he just…didn't know anymore. Didn't know if he could forgive her—or was it her fault at all?
It had, after all, been he who had instigated and allowed to continue a relationship which he knew was a danger to himself and those around him; Mara had never concealed her loyalties. It had been he who had admitted to Mara that he and his father were in collusion when she'd confronted him, he who had actually refused to take her to Mosiin with him, leaving her in the Palace close to her master.
He'd given her the ammunition, but still…she'd chosen to use it.
And where did that leave them? He really had no idea any more.
He let himself lean forward against the wall, part out of exhaustion even at this small exertion, and part out of dismay at his own misgivings, the marble cool against his forehead as he closed his eyes, listening to the rattle in his breath from his injured lung.
"You cannot trust." His Master had said it so many times. "Trust will always confine and contain; trust will always weaken and betray. If I leave you with one knowledge, it should be that; enemies make war, but the wounds are clean and they will always heal. Trust alone will make you truly bleed, child. Trust alone can mutilate and maim—betrayal is the most brutal butcher."
Luke shook his head slowly against the cool marble; it wasn't true…was it?
His father had trusted and it had killed him; there had been no fight, Luke knew that. A single blow, straight through the heart.
Palpatine had trusted, in his own way; had thought even then that Luke would allow him control—and it had killed him.
Luke had trusted, and lost everything. Like a fool, he had trusted. Despite everything; every lesson, every edification, every eager example on his Master's behalf. Did he keep on trusting, now? Had he learned nothing? Or did he stop trusting, and prove Palpatine right? Did he give the black-hearted Sith that power over him, that influence, that win?
Because he'd be damned if he would.
But he couldn't do this again; couldn't bleed like this again. Couldn't hurt like this.
So what did he do?
Lost in her own thoughts and frustrations, Mara's head had snapped up when the sound of Luke's cursing drifted through the half-open 'fresher door above the hiss of the water, bringing her quickly to her feet, afraid that something had happened.
"Luke…are you okay?" She set hesitantly forward into the 'fresher, walking into the outer room.
His voice came from the far side of the wide frosted screen, laced with disillusionment and frustration. "Yeah—except I can't lift my hands up above my head."
Mara was silent for long seconds, torn between sympathy and helplessness…then she smiled. Turning, she paced quickly across the marble-tiled room and locked the door to the 'fresher as she unzipped her bodysuit.
Luke remained under the deluge of the shower for long minutes, arm across his stomach wound where the water stung the sutures. He couldn't even do this—couldn't even wash his own hair. They wanted to call him Emperor and he couldn't even do this.
He closed his eyes, feeling the water drench him, willing it to wash away the memories which threatened to overwhelm him; the realization of what he'd done, the still-raw memory of why, the absolute loss as to what to do next…
Smooth hands stroked over his shoulders, making him start, so deeply had he been lost in thought…
"Mara?! What.. " Had she forgotten where they were?
She took the small bar of shampoo, reaching up to rub it through his water-tangled hair. "Turn around."
"Would you... What the hell are you doing?!"
"I'm washing your hair," she said calmly.
Luke reached out to take her arms as she lifted them to his head, holding her back forcibly. She shook her head gently, voice open and firm and adamant, promising the strength that he needed right now, the calm in the eye of the storm. "No more secrets anymore, Luke. No more hiding. From now on, we make our own rules. We make our own future. We get through this—we get through it together."
She gently slipped her arms free of his hands and reached up again to run her fingers through his soaked hair.
Slowly, hesitantly, he relaxed, lowering his head beneath the torrent of water and resting his hands on her slim hips.
It was late in the day when the announcement went out on all official channels across the HoloNet: Emperor Palpatine, founder of the Galactic Empire, had died the previous night following a short illness.
Onboard the Rebel base-cruiser Home One, Leia had heard the news from the Bothan spy network about two hours before it was released across the HoloNet, but she still waited before making the statement over all fleet channels, unable to bring herself to do it before that moment.
Somehow she hadn't believed it—hadn't dared—and yet in every fiber of her being, she knew he was gone. And just like that, in the space between minutes, absolutely everything had changed and they were standing on shifting sand, the whole galaxy reeling.
Everything and nothing; following the official announcement, a short message was read by a somber-dressed Skywalker in that perfectly enunciated Coruscanti accent. Expressing regret, pledging continuity, assuring stability.
Leia had been standing with everyone else in the mess hall when it was released, having gone there immediately after the HoloNet announcement that Palpatine was dead, knowing there would be a thousand and one questions, none of which she could answer. The room was in an uproar when someone came rushing in to activate the holo-emitter there, shouting and shushing the crowd.
Everyone fell to a slow, uneasy silence to hear the quietly spoken words by the dark-dressed Heir, not a trace of emotion in his face or his tone.
Except, she supposed, he wasn't The Heir anymore—and the tumult of feeling which rose within her at that was dizzying, making her grip against Han by her side.
What did you do? What did you do when the man you once believed you knew so well had become Emperor? What did you do when that was the most terrifying thought you could name?
His last words, spoken with quiet dignity in the Court tradition of Archaic Coruscanti—a reassurance subtly aimed at the Royal Houses rather than the populace at large—did nothing to hide the permasteel hardness and absolute conviction which underlined them:
"En Emporo mortuus. Emporitus eternuus."
The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.