Star Wars Fanfiction by Blank101 : Empire's Son
 

 

 

EMPIRE'S SON

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

 

 

 

Indo dealt with the removal of Ashtor's body with weary acceptance, when he arrived at the apartment just minutes after the event. In many ways, it surprised him that Ashtor had lasted as long as he had—the best part of a year here, despite Luke's knowledge. There would be no greater implications attached to the man's…demise—Palpatine even encouraged such enmities, it often seemed. He certainly knew that Vader had recruited Ashtor and had been waiting with rapt fascination to see when Luke would turn on him. He hadn't himself become involved of course, as he wouldn't now. It was an incident of contention between two Sith, and such things had always stood above any law save the Emperor's own commands, Indo knew. The fact that a third individual had been involved was neither here nor there.

With the body removed and the apartment once again empty—Luke had stalked out immediately afterwards, it seemed, and Solo had of course gone looking for him, apparently unable to understand that the boy needed the dignity of time alone—Indo walked calmly down the main enfilade to the mirrored door. It snicked open as he neared, and he walked in without pause, passing through the two rooms which led to Luke's bedroom.

There was little to hint at the order that it had been returned to during Luke's time in the medicenter just a week earlier. Instead, the bed had once again been tipped onto its side and dragged across the floor into the corner, where the mattress had been dropped to the floor angled into the small space, to provide the sheltered hide that Luke still somehow needed to sleep with any sense of security. The walls remained mostly unmarked, but the first run of sketches had begun to trail out at sitting-height from the crumpled mess of the hide, and Indo paused to look. The same mix of old and new memories, a mind laid bare. Scattered among the new were those same familiar faces, already drawn five or six times, eyes wide in shock. Indo wondered idly what Luke would draw tonight, when he returned—which he would. There was no need for Solo to rush off after him, Luke would come back in his own time. And there was certainly no need to address what had happened here, in Indo's experience; better to let it settle and be forgotten.

That Solo was surprised by any of this only served to underline his inexperience here, it seemed to Indo. There was nothing unusual about it, or about Luke's actions, given his upbringing here—though Solo would know little of that. Luke himself never spoke of his past, and would broach no mention of his formative years under Palpatine's attention—or lack thereof. Indo wondered, in truth, how little the growing youth remembered at all of his arrival here. How much the boy had locked away to come even this far, scarred as he was. Flaws too deep to ever remove entirely, he suspected.

And so he had made it his life's work to contain them; manage them. Provide the stability and the means for Luke to do the same himself, whatever it took—and sometimes one did have to compromise in the present, to achieve long-term results. One had to allow a smaller lapse, to avert a greater one.

The way that Indo had dealt with, ignored or even fed certain of the boy's failings was not something he was proud of, but he was a pragmatic man, and high ideals were often the first thing which had to be surrendered to the realities of life—as Luke, too, knew. And even if he wasn't proud of the means, Indo was genuinely proud of the fact that he had brought Luke this far. Compared to that, any lesser compromises that he had been forced into, in order to attain these accomplishments, were valid. He lifted his hand, to look at the small box he carried; yes, he believed that absolutely.

At times, it had been difficult. With few rules save the ever-shifting demands of the Emperor, the young boy handed over into Indo's care had been precariously unstable, and as those demands had grown over the years, Indo had several times feared that the boy would crack under such unrelenting pressure. All that he could do—all that enyone in this unique situationcould possibly do—was to work to maintain a constant background, as counterpoint to the mercurial uncertainties which comprised the boy's time with the Emperor. Though Indo knew that even these—the long hours of endless lessons which were timetabled to fill every waking hour of Luke's life away from Palpatine's presence, to constantly push him academically beyond even the Emperor's expectations—were exacting a toll.

It had taken him a surprisingly long time to realize, when Luke had first started disappearing—months more, before the truth came out, and even then only when the boy's actions had put him in the medicenter. Spice had been at once the obvious explanation and deeply shocking to Indo. He'd spent so long, and invested so much in the boy; it was inconceivable that Luke should repay him like this.

There had been words, when he had recovered; hushed accusations, made in private rooms. No denials—if one thing could be said of Luke, it was that he seldom lied to those close to him. Perhaps because he'd been prey to so many himself; his whole life, his very identity, was wrapped about by them and he knew it. More likely because the Emperor had beaten even the contemplation of such a thing out of him long ago.

Despite being restricted to the Upper Ziggurat Luke had disappeared again within weeks, forcing Indo to send out search parties first into the palace, then farther afield. It was two days before he was found, unconscious and ignored in the back of a filthy cantina—a spice den in the deep-set shadows of The Shades. A longer spell in the medicenter was needed, and this time it was impossible to hide the fact from Palpatine. But Luke was a fighter, and again, he'd made it through with hardly minor, but still correctable damage. Then he'd had to face the Emperor…and had spent another two nights back in the medicenter.

Yet Indo had known—he'd known, watching the boy when he'd returned, bruised and pale, to curl up in the huddle in the corner of his chaotic bedroom—that Luke would do this again. Because nothing had really changed. The same pressures existed—from the Emperor, from Vader…from Indo, in an effort to keep the boy of value to an Emperor who would doubtless remove him entirely, should he fail to excel.

With no control of the situation, and little control of the boy himself if his mind was set…there seemed, to Indo, only one place that he could intercede.

If he had control of the drugs the boy used, then he could at least ensure their quality and amounts. He could ensure that the source was reliable. He could stop the boy from resorting to squalid spice dens to buy suspect goods, and render himself insensible and vulnerable there for hours on end…and most important of all, he could regain control of a child who was, for the first time since he'd come into Indo's hands, beginning to look elsewhere to fill the gaping holes in his life.

It seemed the only logical course.

Whether it had been an error of judgment on Indo's part to feed such a condition remained to be seen. In the short-term, once Indo had investigated the subject and reliable and discreet suppliers had been sourced—every delivery medically checked, purity guaranteed—his control of the drugs had enabled him to manage quantities and times, releasing them only after Luke's studies were completed for the day. They became rewards for good behavior, incentives for conforming, commiseration when unfair ordeals were enforced or endured…and most importantly, a method of reinforcing the two's inter-reliance.

They were, of course, never passed on directly or spoken of in even the most coded terms. At the time, Luke had still lived in rooms within the Emperor's vast apartments, and he knew as well as Indo did that Palpatine would have put an instant stop to any practice which turned even a fraction of Luke's attention from his Master.

The first few times had been awkward and clumsy, then. Indo had wanted minimal involvement, but the boy had soon learned, and needed little outward shows of intention on Indo's part, knowing to follow him at a distance onto one of the ziggurat roofs, or some other secluded spot where Indo knew Luke would be left alone. They were generally placed in advance, so that Indo needed only to pause for the boy to know where they were. He never stayed; never knew if the boy used them where they had been left, or took them elsewhere. He didn't wish to know. It became nothing more than a distasteful necessity.

When Luke had been awarded his own apartment, it had seemed the perfect answer. They were simply left, in regular amounts and at regular intervals, in his bedroom, and for a while Luke had regulated his own consumption with minimal involvement. In the last year that had devolved somewhat though, and with no larger amounts forthcoming from Indo, Luke had first taken to seeking out sources in the palace, then eventually out on the streets again. Palace contacts weren't too difficult for Indo to control; his position meant that it was easy to simply remove with extreme prejudice any who even considered supplying the boy with spice. Word circulated very quickly that the reaction would be zealous, and discouraged most from even considering it. Not that he ever spoke of this directly to Luke, nor did Luke ever bring his grievances directly to Indo, the long-established convention of never speaking on this remaining always intact.

Instead, of late, Luke had taken to simply disappearing into the city's lowlife sectors to buy it on the street again, a fact that was as unacceptable now as it had been in years past. If he found such unscreened spice Indo always destroyed it immediately. But with Luke more capable and conversant than ever with the necessities of his… distraction, if Indo wanted to contain this, he knew that eventually he would have to step in as he'd always done, to ensure that the boy had all that he needed to survive here.

He knew too, of course, that what he was doing was…questionable, but it solved so much so easily. And it bought for Indo the one thing he had always feared that he would lose as the boy grew; it maintained the invaluable closeness which naturally eroded as any young mind matured and gained in self-reliance. Ensured that Luke would always come back to Indo above any other.

And when he did, Indo would continue to do as he had always done—as he had done since that terrified, traumatised child had first been delivered into his guardianship; he would hold Luke together, and he would push him forwards. Would be his strength and his ambition. Because whilst the boy's harsh education with his Master had drained him of the latter, Indo had enough for both of them—and Luke alone had the abilities which would enable Indo to realize them. He'd taken the raw material and made of it all that he could, but it was the boy's innate abilities which would keep him forever in the Emperor's attention…and Indo would do, as he always had, anything that was necessary to maintain that.

.

Crouching down, he placed the small, freshly filled wooden box on the crumpled blankets, making no move to straighten them—neither ever acknowledged to the other where the box came from—then rose to stare at the wall, making a mental note to ensure that that sufficient of the room's paint would be stored in stock for the coming year, before he turned to leave.

 

 

 

 

 

Han was tired and tense, strung out by too many close calls and not enough sleep. He felt like the grime from this whole damn place had permeated his clothes to choke the pores of his skin, and he just wanted this to be over—more than anything else, he just wanted this whole mess to be over.

Knowing exactly where Luke would be, Han walked into the gloom of the apartment which the Organa's had once inhabited, his path lit by the open door behind him. Inside, early morning light filtered through the only open door in the musty corridor,r from the semi-lowered privacy blinds within its room. Han slowed to a stop, squinting in the shadows. That same dust-dulled darkness hung heavy on the soft edges of old, ornate furniture. That same smell of stale air and fresh spice.

Luke was sitting on the floor in that same spot just inside the room, his face half-hidden in the long shadows, an unlit spice stick held loosely between his fingers. "Don't—don't even start trying to tell me that I was in the wrong."

This time Han knew to stop at the door. He crouched down to Luke's level without mentioning the spice stick, working to keep his voice quiet and casual. "You think you did the right thing?"

The kid pursed his lips, scowling into the darkness of the musty room before he brought his arms up to rub at his eyes with the heels of his hands, and Han sighed, looking down. "C'mon, you're tired. It's been a hell of a day, and this is the last place you should be."

"It's funny," Luke didn't make to move, voice hollow. "Bail Organa was the only one I ever really thought of as my… The only one I'd ever give that name to. Kenobi…I was too angry, too…"

Betrayed.

He didn't say it; didn't need to. Han too had grown up alone, and alternately and vehemently cursed those who should have been there, then wallowed in abject guilt for doing so, torn by desperate longing. And he'd had no name, no divisive tales of rejection or abandonment.

The kid stared off into the shadows, eyes on the ornate chaise before that low oval table, so deep in dust that there was no indication as to what it was made of any more. Han sighed as he settled more comfortably, knowing what this place meant to the kid. "This is where you last saw them?"

"No. I saw them again. But this is where it happened," Luke said quietly. "This was the start of the end. And I did it myself…I did it all myself, as it turns out. I set it all in motion."

"Set what in motion?" He didn't expect an answer as the kid lifted his head slightly, his voice brighter and louder—but brittle, painfully vulnerable.

"She was wearing a blue dress…I could pick the exact color out, even now. Pale blue, but warm; opaline. I should have known, you see—I should have realized when I saw them walk to the speeder and she was wearing that pale blue dress…" He blinked, shaking his head quickly as he nodded towards the oval table. "I had paper and pencils, right there…I remember it so well." Luke rose to walk forward a few halting steps then stopped awkwardly, hand to the rolled back of the chaise though he wouldn't quite touch it. "I was leaning here, drawing a picture of home…I was drawing us all there, but…I didn't have the right blue for her dress. I didn't have the right blue…"

So much was unspoken but painfully clear, and Han felt a surge of emotions rise up. "It wasn't your fault."

"They died because of me," Luke said emotionlessly, completely sure. He stared into the shadows for a long time, then loosed a shallow breath. "I wonder—sometimes I think, did they care for me at all…or did they bring me here on purpose? Maybe they died because of a child they wanted rid of, anyway."

"Okay, listen to me, you gotta stop coming here to beat yourself up over this. There's nothing you could have done to change it."

"I should have found a way," Luke murmured, eyes on the shadows. "It was my fault—then and later."

"Luke, you can't take onboard every—"

"He did it for me," Luke said across Han's reassurance, voice perfectly even. "He said he did it for me—to make me strong."

A creeping chill crawled up Han's back in the somber shadows, as he remembered Luke's spice-fed confession months earlier. "Palpatine."

"He said they held me back, made me weak."

"So he killed them."

The kid shook his head slowly. "No, I killed them. Because I was weak, he said."

"You're not weak."

"I'm not Sith—not a true Sith." Luke turned to Han, the finality in his voice echoing his knowledge that this was all that had ever been expected of him. A stray shaft of light caught across his face as he loosed a self-deprecating smile. "Pale blue eyes."

"D'you really want to be like him?" Han asked. "D'you want to think that you could put someone else through all that he's put you through? Or that you could treat someone the way Vader treats you?"

The kid's eyes, still touched by that shaft of wan light, lowered as he frowned. Then he shook his head briefly, as if to dismiss a thought he couldn't even begin to deal with right now. "Palpatine gives Anakin the freedoms he never gives me. I've never earned them, he says."

Han frowned. "Who?"

"Vader's name," Luke said calmly as he returned to that same spot by the door. "His given name…it was Anakin."

"I didn't think that guy had a first name."

"Maybe he doesn't any more," Luke said, fighting to keep his voice level as he dropped back into a crouch beside Han, turning the spice stick between his fingers as he stared at it…itching to light it, Han knew. "Maybe that's what you have to do, to become Sith; just…reject everything from your old life."

"He's already had you do that," Han said of Palpatine.

"He's ordered me to," Luke corrected—and Han realized, glancing back to the dust-encrusted silence of the musty room, just how much the kid was unable to let go—how helpless he was to change that, no matter what the command. "But when it came to that final test…I was weak."

"Test?"

"I didn't know. Didn't know that there would be one—didn't know what it would be." He looked to Han with a hollow smile. "Powder blue dress, which should have been black."

Han frowned; kid kept saying that…

"I let him down," Luke continued quietly, hanging his head. "I let them down." He brought his hand up again to rub at tired eyes. "I let everybody down, sooner or later—remember that."

"Palpatine tell you that?"

"If he could have separated the boy from the power, he would have done so long ago, I know that. I knew it by the time I was eleven—and Indo never hid it from me, either. He thought I should understand, that I deserved to know. But knowing it didn't mean that I had the slightest idea of how to change it…" Hunched in the near-darkness, Luke stared at the black-papered spice stick. "But I did know how to change myself."

"The spice," Han nodded.

"Spice," Luke confirmed, "that closes down your contact with the Force. Not completely, and just for a while, but it made me less in his eyes. Made my abilities erratic, unpredictable. Made me a less interesting proposition." The last Luke said with as close to distaste as Han had ever heard the kid speak of Palpatine.

"And how's that working out?" It felt low, to push the kid when he was this tired and pummelled by ever-escalating events, but there was something in his manner tonight, something that said he just might listen. "Never does, y'see. All that happens, is that it becomes part of the problem."

Luke scowled, eyes on the spice stick between his fingers as Han pushed on. "And that makes it my problem, too." He shrugged as the kid lifted his head in confusion. "I told you before, I'm not goin' anywhere."

Luke stared for long seconds, then looked quickly away, bracing. "You should—leave, I mean. I shouldn't have let you stay this long." There was self-censure in his quiet voice.

"Why do you want me to leave?"

"Because I'm…I'm death to everyone around me, can't you see that? I always have been. The longer you stay, the greater the threat." He looked away again in to the shadows of the musty room, his mood darkening. "Ask Bail and Breha Organa."

"Indo's still here—and Sith knows, I've wanted to kill him a few times myself."

"Indo's different. He's here because Palpatine appointed him. Because he…he pulled me together, made me of use."

"Yeah, I can see how Old Yellow Eyes has let him stay, but what about you? That's the rule, isn't it?" Han said knowingly. "If they're serving Palpatine's interests, it's okay. But the next one is, you don't get attached. I know what you do—how you try to push everyone back…how come you let Indo in?"

The kid glanced away, tipping the spice stick end to end in a run between each of his fingers with practiced ease, his silence leaving Han to wonder what it was about Indo, that Luke didn't push him back. Was it simply familiarity…or some deeper tie?

"Besides, I got news for you, Kid," Han said, remembering the night when he'd quit and stormed out—and Luke had gone after him, because the kid couldn't quite bear to give up on probably the only real friendship he'd ever known. "You're not goin' anywhere either. Like I told you, we're in this together." He raised his eyebrows, half in reproach, half in reassurance, as he reached out to take the spice stick. "But you gotta stop doin' this. This is just another way to knock yourself down. It's amazing how quick it becomes that, isn't it? How fast something that once took it all away, becomes something that just adds to your daily problems."

Luke remained silent…but he hadn't walked away—so maybe, just maybe, he was listening.

"You can't keep on doing this—not you. You're all or nothing. You've had to be, just to survive here, I know that. I see it when you duel, I see it in the way you serve Palpatine—all or nothing. That's why you can't do this, because it'll eat you up, and you won't see it, you'll just slip down further and further, because that's how you are. How often every day do you think about it? Don't tell me, I don't want to know…I just want you to realize. How often do you think about your next fix, where to go, so you're not disturbed, what time—not too soon before food, or you can't eat, and not too soon after, or you'll be sick. Timed to be in between when Palpatine's likely to summon you, but so you can still get enough in, in one day, to stop withdrawal. When's the next batch coming, will it be enough? You need papers to roll it, stubs, somewhere to keep the extra stuff that you hide from Indo...what if there's something wrong with it and you need more, quickly? Timing out your day to what you need and your week to how much you've got left... It creeps in and takes over, and it sucks every strength out of you, because it becomes your life. But it'll only ever pull you down, because it's never enough—because you always want more…don't you? It doesn't deal with the problem, it becomes part of it, because when you're using it, you forget just how much you can do without it—what you're capable of."

Han hesitated…but the kid remained silent, eyes on the shadows of the musty room, reserved and withdrawn. Holding out the spice stick, Han crumbled it to nothing, unchallenged. "This is what keeps you here, because it makes it all manageable, when otherwise you'd do something about it. All it will ever do is hold you back. And I know that you were just tryin' to deal with something—and maybe it worked, for a while," he allowed, not looking to add to the kid's already low opinion of himself. "But it doesn't any more, does it? If you ask me, that means it's time to leave it behind."

"And everything else…you want me to leave that behind, too?"

Han let out a brief laugh. "Be great if you did, right?"

Luke glanced down, his voice finding some of its lost certainty. "I can't."

It had been worth a try. "Well then, we'll work with the first one for now, huh? I'll tell you what'd be good though…" Han left a long pause, waiting until Luke finally looked to him before he nodded to the spice stick on the floor. "Screwing 'em up one at a time feels great, it really does...but aside from that floorboard in your room, I'd like to know where you're keeping it—cos I saw the size of that box an' I swear, most days you smoke more than would fit in it."

The kid tapped the tips of each finger against his thumb in turn, for want of something to hold, but Han let the silence hang… Finally, he admitted, "I get new most nights."

"You don't go out every night."

Kid glanced away, uneasy. "I don't need to."

The old medic Kalter's words, after he'd cleaned the kid up one more time in the medicenter, came to Han's mind: "I can tell you for a fact that the day that he leaves here, he'll be back on the spice. By the time he's back in his own rooms, he'll go looking for it—and he doesn't have to look very far."

Han's eyes narrowed as his mind skipped, trying to connect the dots. In the palace, then—despite all of Indo's Draconian attempts to dissuade people, Luke was still getting it from someone inside the palace. "Who is it?"

Luke lifted his hand to chew at his thumbnail as he seemed to consider for a long time, eyes on the floor, the slight lines which formed about them betraying deep uncertainty. When he spoke it was so quietly that, though he'd heard the name, Han leaned in, uncertain.

"Indo?" For a moment, it just wouldn't compute—wouldn't make sense, in Han's head. He'd surely misheard, or…

"You don't repeat things, not around here." Again, the medic Kalter's knowing words drifted into Han's thoughts. "Not about people who have the power to make you disappear."

"How come you never do this in front of Indo?"
"I don't know if you've noticed, but he likes it to be known that he officially disapproves." 

Luke's reply to Han, onboard the Immortal, took on a new significance—as did the kid's wary accusation of Kalter:

"So you're not the one who checks stuff for Indo, then?"
"No, I'm not. I'm your medic, not his."

Abruptly, the argument from long ago, when Indo had confronted Luke with a box of spice he'd found hidden in the kid's room, came clear…
"You searched my rooms."
"If you didn't bring spice into the palace, I wouldn't need to do it."
"Well aren't I the bad wolf."
"I'm serious."
"No, your nose is out of joint—there's a difference."
"Where did you get it?"
"I don't even remember. Some cantina, probably."
"This could have anything in it!"
"Please, don't feign concern. You're just worried your hold is slipping."
"You know that this is unacceptable. It's dangerous and it's unnecessary, and it has to stop."

The words played again, their meaning transformed. "You're just worried your hold is slipping."
"You know that this is unacceptable. It's dangerous and it's unnecessary, and it has to stop."

"It's dangerous and it's unnecessary…"

"…it's unnecessary…"

Endless, ignored fragments came together to compress to a black fury which clamped Han's jaw and pulled every muscle tight. "…Indo…"

Luke straightened, suddenly nervous at the growl in Han's voice. "You can't tell anybody—if Palpatine found out…" He didn't finish; didn't need to. Though in that moment, even the most extreme reaction on Palpatine's part would've been fine by Han.

He scrabbled to get up, cursing as he slipped in the thick dust—

"Han, wait!" Desperation made Luke actually reach out to grab Han's arm, so that he was yanked up as Han stood, though he didn't let go. "You've always said that you want me to trust you…well I just did. I just did!" He stared, the unspoken challenge obvious in his wide eyes and his tense stance: What are you going to do with it?

Han paused, torn. What did he do? Hold it—hold the kid's trust and stay silent…or go back there and…and what? He'd just gotten off telling the kid that violence wasn't the answer. Was he really going to go back there and punch some old guy's lights out?

He dragged his hands through his hair to clasp them at the back of his neck as he leaned on the door jamb, exhausted and world-weary. What the hell kind of life was this that the kid lived, when even that last redoubt turned out to be nothing more than calculated exploitation? He'd known all along that anything Indo felt for the kid was conditional—Indo's actions when he'd willingly taken Luke's lightsaber to Palpatine, then stood placidly by and watched the Old Man turn it on the kid, had clarified that. But this… "I can't just…" He stuttered to a stop, too furious to form words.

"I'll stop," Luke said, absolutely serious. "I've barely smoked for weeks, you know that. I'll stop, now. But you can't go to Palpatine."

"You can't keep protecting people who act like this with you."

"Like what?"

And there it was. Hadn't Gorn said it, what seemed like an age ago: "You've seen how Luke's grown up here, what his life's like. He doesn't know any better. How could he? To him, this is normal."

Han turned, voice firm. Angry, but not at the kid. "Okay, this is how it's gonna be from now on. You stop takin' stuff off Indo. In fact, you stop takin' stuff, period. You don't need that crap any more. If you've got some kind of problem, whatever it is, you come to me, right?"

The kid nodded in silence and Han pushed on.

"Not to Indo—you don't go to a guy who thinks that's a solution to anything, understand? You don't go. Me and you, we're a team, and we get through this together. I'm not goin' anywhere—you know that now. I'm in this until you kick me out…and mean it. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Okay, then," Han said. He lifted a hand to rest it on the kid's shoulder, not pausing when Luke leaned back, arm automatically lifting just slightly in defense. "Let's get back to your apartment."

"Why?"

"'Cos I want every damn box you've got hidden there. Tonight."

 

 

 

"This all of them?" Han was holding three boxes containing mixed amounts of spice, two near-empty, one full.

They'd entered without seeing anyone, the doors to the three offices just inside the main entrance all closed. Indo had sent Gorn on some kind of concocted task early this morning, Han knew, presumably not liking too many sets of eyes around when he was cleaning up. As for Indo himself…Han had no idea, and he sure as hell wasn't gonna go looking for the man.

In Luke's rooms, the first box had come from the underfloor space that Han already knew about, a second from the roof space inside the fresher, and the last…the last was just placed casually on the kid's crumpled bedsheets. Luke hadn't even known it was there.

"What about elsewhere?"

Luke's dark-ringed eyes lifted in thought. He was still pretty accommodating right now, stretched too thin and way too tired, half-trusting Han, half mollifying him, Han knew. Maybe he even wanted this himself, at the back of his mind. Maybe too much had come to a head last night, and something had to give.

"Uuhhh…there's a box in the study opposite the library, and a few balanced inside the plasterwork cornice in the atrium of the main crossroads outside. And a box in the cartography hall nine levels down."

"What the hell, were you savin' up for a party?"

"And some on top of the secondary ziggurat."

"…Any more?"

"Probably."

"Well, since that sounds like a day's work all on its own, I'll take what I've got for now, and bring a bag tomorrow," Han said. "A big one. In the meantime, you get some sleep."

"Okay." Luke stood uncertainly, hands gripped together, eyes on the spice he'd handed over. "What are you gonna do with it?"

"Well I'm sure as hell not gonna flush it down the recyc," Han said lightly, pushing two of the boxes into his pockets. "Get some sleep. Comm me when you wake up." They'd been up and moving since Han had first met Leia alone yesterday evening—was it really just yesterday? Kenobi, Vader, Palpatine, then Ashtor…even the kid, used to doing these long stints without tiring, was visibly failing, hunched and drawn.

"Okay…okay." Luke pulled his gaze off the box Han held and turned to glance around the empty room, then nodded, hesitantly.

It occurred to Han only now that Indo had been so determined that the kid's every waking hour would be filled with the serious stuff like duties and study, that there really was nothing else. Not just in the kid's room, but in his whole life. He paused, wanting to end this on a positive. "Hey…look at us. All hell's hailed down in the last thirty hours, and we're still standing." The kid stared, and Han shrugged in allowance. "Okay, a little frayed round the edges, I'll give you that."

"Oh, you'll give me that." Luke's voice regained a fraction of its dry edge as he glanced again to the spice box in Han's hand. "But nothing else, apparently."

"I got news for you, kid," Han said genially, "you don't need it. You never did. All you gotta do now, is prove it to yourself."

Luke tilted his head. "Pep talk done?"

"Smartass."

"Killjoy."

Han turned, and was through the first room and halfway towards the mirrored doors which marked the end of Luke's bare rooms before he said lightly, and just loud enough to be heard, "And the last word is mine."

He heard the kid mutter something from the bedroom behind him, and waited until the doors had opened with that familiar snick, before adding, "… Still mine."

 

 

Without needing to maintain face for the kid's benefit, Han's mood darkened as he walked through the soulless, sterile grandeur of the stately enfilade and into the dark, ebony-lined corridor. He was nearly at the exit before the door to Indo's office opened and the man himself glanced up, surprise written into that same superior look on his face—and Han had never been so tempted to wipe it off.

"Lieutenant Solo. I hadn't expected to see you here at all, today. I thought that even you would have more discretion than to show your face after…"

Han lifted the small wooden box, gripping it so tightly that his knuckles were white.

"More?" Indo asked at last. "Where did you find it this time?"

"No, I'm done playing this game," Han growled. "I know you're the one who fills it."

Indo straightened fractionally. "How dare y—"

"Spare me the indignation. That's why you don't want anyone else to give him any, isn't it? It'd ruin that handy little stranglehold you have on him. Quite a stitch-up you got going there, very neat."

Indo stared for long seconds, his flexing jaw the only tell on an otherwise poker face. Finally, with a brief glance down the empty corridor, he turned about and walked calmly back into his office—and it only stoked the flames higher for Han.

He followed, holding the box up. "What the hell made you give a kid this stuff?"

"Because it keeps him alive!" Indo hissed without compunction. "You know his life here, the pressure he's under. If this is what helps him until he's old enough to hold his own, then this is what's necessary."

"And you think that he's just gonna stop one day, when you've been giving him this crap for years? Look at him!"

"I didn't start this, Luke did. I don't know where he first got them, I don't even know how long he'd been taking them for. I only knew when he was rushed into the medicenter half-comatose, because whatever he'd taken had been cut with compounds one step short of poison. I told him to stop. He didn't. He was back in the medicenter within two months. And again, soon after." Indo paused, chin rising. "So I stepped in. With no other options, I stepped in and I provided a product that I at least knew was clean. Uncut."

"Product!"

"Luke bought it anywhere—on the streets, in back-room spice dens, he didn't care. I set up reliable sources, clean sources. I had medical checks put in place for purity and concentration, I—"

"It's still spice!"

"It's a controllable situation," Indo ground out. "A containable one."

"Yeah? That why you keep on having to burn the stuff he's bought elsewhere? You haven't changed anything, Indo, you just put yourself in the loop. That's what the kid meant, isn't it? When you found the spice in his quarters that night he was gone, it was stuff you hadn't supplied—that's why he said you were just worried that your control was slipping."

"You know nothing about how far I've got him, what he was like when he first came into my care, what was necessary to stabilize him. You just stumble blindly in and—"

"Care!" Han spit the word out. "Look at him—look at him right now! Have you actually spoken to him recently—I mean sat down and spoken to him, not checked that he's done his coursework from the ridiculous amount of stuff you pile on him, or made sure he's done this report or that task? I mean have you actually had a conversation, and listened to him? The kid's falling apart. Look at the walls of his room, for Sith's sake. Look at how he lives, holing himself up in a corner before he feels safe enough to sleep!"

"There is nothing wrong with Luke's mental state."

"Listen to yourself—just listen! You're part of the problem and you won't even see it. You won't admit it to yourself. You just keep pushing on with your precious agenda and painting over the cracks. Anything that doesn't fit in just gets ignored, right? You're making the same mistakes now that you made with…" Han broke off, glaring at that perfect sabacc face, which remained intact and unmoved.

When Indo spoke, his voice was as cool as ever. "In five years' time, Luke will hold sufficient rank that most of his daily difficulties will be resolved. He'll have a life well outside of the confines of the palace and…"

"Five years? In five months he may crack—in five weeks…hell, in five days!"

"I have held Luke together for five years here already, Lieutenant Solo. I will hold him together for five more. By my own methods—none of which I feel the need to validate to you."

"No? How about yourself—or does convenience come above conscience, every time?"

"I've kept him alive, made him of use!"

"Used him, you mean."

"Made him of value," Indo ground out. "Look where he is, the rank he's achieved, the kudos he holds in the Emperor's eyes."

"I'm talking about the kid's sanity and you're quoting what rank he might make."

"Rank will buy him immunity from the petty infighting—rank will buy him respect."

"Really," Han nodded dryly. "Or will it just drag him further into the firing line? But then even that's not a problem for you, is it? It's just a calculated risk. You said to me…you actually had the gall to look me in the eye in the medicenter, and accuse me of finding it easy to push the kid, when it was Luke who faced the reprisal. What the hell are you doing, in pushing him through the ranks this young?"

"I have no idea what you mean."

"The hell you don't. You know damn well that the only place that the kid can go from here, the position he's actually competing for—the position you're knowingly pushing him towards—is Vader's. You know that!"

Indo stared for long seconds…then glanced aside, adamantly dismissive. "The situation is manageable."

Han raised the box. "What, like this is manageable? You said yourself that Vader becomes more of a threat every year…and he does it because you keep on pushing the kid, regardless, don't you? You seriously think you can keep Luke out of Vader's way while you just keep on driving him up through the ranks, with the Emperor? Do you really think you can hold someone like Vader back? Cos I'm telling you, I've seen what he's like with the kid, and I'm betting not. I like the occasional gamble, but I know bad odds when I see 'em, and that's an all-out fight just barely waiting to happen…and when it does, you know that only one of them will walk away from it."

Indo's expression didn't once change, leaving Han to wonder whether that cool, detached indifference ran right to the core of him.

"Believe me, Lieutenant Solo, Luke is more than resilient enough to weather this. He has in the past, and he will continue to do so—with or without your help."

"That's what this is all about for you, isn't it—how far you can push him," Han said, disgusted. "He's not your son, Indo."

Fury flared in Indo's eyes for a moment, then chilled to icy rage. "You're dismissed, Lieutanant."

Han didn't even hesitate: he was in too deep already. "You're makin' the same mistakes that you did with Dubrail. You're pushing Luke for your own gain. Pushing him to achieve what you couldn't—pushing him too hard. Giving a kid spice to cope, when the pressure gets too high? You're not willing to try to reduce the pressure—oh, no! You'll just give the kid spice instead!"

"Don't you dare talk—"

"You're using him…using a kid to secure your own power base, because it's easier that trying yourself—safer. Isn't that what you were looking to do with your own son?"

Indo lurched forward. "Get out!"

"What, and leave him with you? I don't think so. Here," Han slammed the box down hard onto that perfectly-polished, inlaid desk, "you might want to get rid of that—get rid of it all—because let me tell you, the only thing that's stopping me taking it to Palpatine right now, is the fact that your sorry mistakes'll drag Luke down too. But I’ll tell you this too; if I see it in his room again…I'll take it anyway."

Han whirled about and strode out before the temptation to do just that overcame him, stalking back to his rooms through hallways whose stark and sombre shadows reflected, for once, his own bleak thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

 

 

 

 

Luke sat watching dusk fall to darkness, the first chill of night cutting through the thin shirt he wore. He'd slept through the day without Indo coming to rouse him, and woken as the waning sunset had stretched its shadows across the capital, the massive bulk of the Imperial Palace casting its broad, deep influence into the darkening gloom. Rising, muggy from sleep and with only the fact that he had no spice at all in his rooms on his mind, he'd come up to one of the smaller flat roofs of the main ziggurat and wound his way through the wide, rattling piping of the maze of air exchanges which cluttered and clattered unseen, walking to the roof’s castellated edge…and beyond.

Now, he sat cross-legged looking out over the city from one of the stone leader heads which protruded from the external walls at roof level. From the ground, the leader heads which diverted the rainfall from the palace's leaded roofs and clear of its masonry walls, looked small and slim and delicate. But a hundred stories up, their scale matched the building, four feet wide and easily six feet long. Luke sat mid-way along its length, a sheer drop beneath him as the wind buffeted him, the occasional gust rocking his body, tussling his hair and tugging at his clothes. But he'd climbed out to and sat on these leader heads for years, and had no particular fear of falling, despite having done so twice, in his life. It was amazing, what you could grab for and hold onto, when the alternative was death itself.

He frowned at that, considering it in the greater context…then looked down at the object whose existence—and implications—had burned into his awareness even in sleep. Placed carefully on the parapet on which he sat, was the small vial of blood that Kenobi had given him. Laid on its side in the drainage channel of the water spout, it rocked slightly in the high winds, just barely protected from the wild gusts which whistled and whipped at the edge of the massive building.

He should throw it from the leader head—or simply stand it upright, and let the wind take it. He could almost see its path, as it was snatched away into the encroaching night, turned end over end by the high winds until it was lost, or hurled to smash against the blue-slabbed stone of the palace walls…

He should do it, he really should. It was a dangerous, deadly game that he had somehow become caught up in, and it should stop, now. There was nothing to be gained, even in knowing. It would change nothing, save that if Palpatine found out…

And anyway, all of this was speculation. It could be completely untrue, all of it. Right now, this was nothing more than unconfirmed hearsay—and that from a Jedi, his sworn enemy. He leaned forward and took the vial gently, cupping it in his hand to stare. What he needed…was facts. And he couldn't get those here.

 

 

 

In the medicenter, the 3-1B droid sealed the sterile blood sample as Luke rolled his shirt sleeve down and hitched his jacket back on. It turned to hand over the sample, mild tone friendly and expectant. "Will there be.. n..t.."

Luke took the sample from its grip as the medical droid pitched over forward in a fine shower of sparks, stepping coolly to the side to avoid its fall. It collapsed to the ground in a clatter of plasteel, a fine wisp of smoke carrying up the faint smell of charred circuitry and fused insulation.

"Thank you, no," he stated easily, striding over the ruined wreck of the droid without another thought and into the corridor beyond—to come face to face with the medic, Hassett.

"Luke?" Hassett glanced in through the door to the fallen droid, then back to Luke.

He shrugged, prepared to brazen this out. "Turns out you were right; I do wreck medical droids."

The medic narrowed his eyes, but remained still. "Do you need something?"

"No." Luke kept the vial concealed, held against the palm of his hand by his thumb, his fingers hanging loose.

"Then why are you here?"

"Headache." It wasn't a lie, actually, though he could just as easily have chosen to cite the cramps which twisted his stomach from time to time, or the nausea that always came with spice withdrawal.

"Considering the plethora of drugs which you seem able to avail yourself of at any given hour, I find it difficult to believe that you don't keep analgesics in your apartment."

Luke smiled thinly, already bored of this; Hassett had nothing on him, and he was far enough down in the order of things that if he wanted to go to Palpatine, then he'd need more than vague suspicion and a broken droid. "I know—imagine the irony. You're standing in my way."

Hassett stepped slowly to the side as Luke set forward at an even pace, tilting his hand to keep the vial hidden as he passed the medic.

"You haven't received an analgesic," Hassett said to his back.

"I'll live," Luke replied without turning.

"I can give you one."

"You'll likely lace it with something, to curb my habits." He turned to smile at the medic as he walked backward towards the medibay exit. "The droid I didn't like, but you I don't trust."

"Perhaps I should be grateful, then, that you can't blow my CPU as easily."

Luke held the knowing half-smile on his face a little longer…then turned about to leave the medicenter, dropping his hand casually into his pocket to let the second blood vial clink against the first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He was already in the street outside of the Blue Lekku when the comm came in, and he pulled his comlink from his pocket to glance at it…Leia Skywalker—again. It brought him to a momentary stop to stare at the chiming comlink, aware that this was the third time he hadn't answered. Eventually it stopped, and Luke set it to silent, then returned it to his pocket as he opened the door.

Noise hit him in a wave—music, chatter, shouting, raucous laughter…everyday life. He'd never felt particularly connected to it. Real life was something to be used as cover whilst he went on about his true business. Something to be observed from a distance with a kind of morbid fascination. To be accessed for information, or emulated for camouflage. Crossing the cantina’s main room without slowing, he passed familiar faces sitting in familiar spots, their minds calm or settled or alcohol-blank; no one too nervous. Nothing to worry about. So why was his own heart beating staccato at what he was about to do?

He nodded once at the barman Litto as he walked, and the big, heavy-built Besalisk raised hairless eyebrows to wrinkle the thick crest down the center of his head in cool acknowledgment. Passing through an unmarked door at the back of the cantina, Luke entered a darker room so thick with smoke that you didn't really need to buy the spice—you could get high on the fumes.

It smelled good—the spice. He'd been without for almost a week—none at all in the rush that had happened since Kenobi had arrived—and the fact that Han had now removed all of his hidden stores had fired a quiet panic within Luke that hadn't been there before, so the smell and familiarity of this place made his heart beat faster again, adrenaline kicking in anticipation. He glanced briefly at figures slouched on low seats, eyes lingering on the spice sticks they held…then looked resolutely forward, quietly cursing Solo.

His thoughts began playing their usual tricks, unprompted. This wouldn't last; he'd go back on the spice anyway, so why not do it now? What was a few more days? How was he supposed to face Palpatine without the Force-diffusion that the spice offered, anyway? Did Solo have an answer to that? No. And just one stick would make no difference—he could have just one, now, here, and then no more. No-one would even know. Just one didn't really count, and it would make him feel so much better. The cramps had come back in the last hour, as had the shakes, but Luke was damned if he'd ask the medic, Hassett, for something to combat them. Damned if he'd face that self-righteous stare. And he could stop both at any time anyway, he knew. He didn't have to smoke the whole spice stick—half would get rid of the withdrawal, and he could throw the rest away. He could do that—just half of one, then throw the rest away…

He walked on, cursing Solo again.

The bouncer, another Besalisk and cousin of the barman Litto, glanced up as Luke slowed at the far door, marked 'No admittance'. But Luke was a common enough customer here that he too only nodded, giving Luke an up and down glance and a curl of his wide, mobile lips that suggested he was singularly unimpressed.

Clutching the vials in his pocket, Luke walked through, flinching in the bright lights of the lab beyond.

There were few places that he knew of, where he could have the blood samples tested with reasonable reliability and well below any official radars. Lind, the chemist who worked in the back of the Blue Lekku testing and mixing for the spice den Luke had just passed through, wouldn't go to the authorities but had all the facilities and more importantly the skills necessary. And of course, considering his profession, he wisely kept the complete set-up unconnected to Coruscant's main hub—which was quite a trick, in the Capital; on any built-up Core world, Luke knew. You didn't have to voluntarily connect to the Hub, pretty much anything and everything connected automatically. If you didn't protect it with full wide-frequency shielding, then someone, somewhere, was monitoring, and by dint of his own position within the Ubiqtorate, Luke knew for a fact that certain information passing through the mainframe triggered a flag and was sent to Intel and security bureaus for further study. And he was pretty damn sure that the blood groups which were being utilized for the test would light all kinds of alarms, somewhere. To keep the test isolated, therefore, was the ideal.

Another surge of guilt tightened his gut, that he was here, like this. Coming for spice was one thing; this was knowing, premeditated deceit—of Palpatine himself.

"Dack!" Lind looked up from his work with a grin. Closer to Han's age than Luke's, he had the slight frame and waxen skin of all users, with an affable, easygoing smile that came too easily.

"Hey, Lind." Luke smiled in reaction to the name he'd used since first coming here three years ago. "How're things?"

"Good, and about to get better, if you've got some credits with you."

Luke dug into his jacket pocket and put 250 in Imperial script on the desk—along with the vials.

Normally he would have spent half a day pondering over just who had hacked him off sufficiently in the palace that he could be bothered breaking into their apartment to clean them out as a matter of principle, but today his own guilt had made him use one of the many stashes of credits he'd accumulated and hidden about the palace. As a kid, finally released from the confines of the Throne Room and dropped into a marginally more 'normal' life, it had been food that he'd stolen and systematically hidden, for fear of further neglect. Now it was credits, or spice…old habits died hard, it seemed.

Lind leaned forward to run a finger over the credits in a rough check, then picked up the two vials. "So whose are these?"

Luke shrugged casually. "I got a hundred myself, for doing the drop and waiting for the results…for those kinds of payoffs, you don't get to ask questions."

"You know, if they'd wanted a paternity test, they could have just handed over sterile swabs."

"Hey, I'm just passing on what I was given," Luke said, affecting disinterest. "How long for the results?"

"Half an hour. You can go wait in the den if you want—have something on the house."

"I'll wait here, if it's okay."

Lind held Luke's eye for a fraction too long, then grinned again. "Whatever. Take a seat."

Luke glanced about the big room and pulled out a tall lab stool, familiar with its layout from previous visits. He and Lind weren't exactly friends—Lind had that particular vague but sociable affability which meant nothing, Luke knew—but previous discussions on everything from planetary trade embargoes and martial law to Litto's frankly appalling cocktails, saved only by the fact that the bartender used all four arms to juggle bottles and pour measures, had made them comfortable acquaintances.

The lab was organized haphazardly, with clinical analysis equipment crushed chaotically onto cracked and worn surfaces, their sterile finish long-since overwhelmed. Piles of used slides and encrusted vials had been discarded and simply pushed to the back of long benches over the years. It smelled, as ever, of burned spice and boiled stasis fluid.

Stasis fluid…a brief image reformed in his head, and he gave it hold; closed his eyes and let it take him: the squat, dour building beneath overcast skies; the gurgle of air through medical stasis fluid…

It wasn't the first time he'd seen the vision, nor had it been the first when he'd been with Palpatine in the early hours of dawn yesterday. Yet he hadn't told Palpatine that he'd seen it before; had felt deeply apprehensive at the very idea of doing so. It existed on two levels, the vision; the physical and the mental. Far away, though its source was at the very center of everything…

Shouldn't be here…

Luke jolted abruptly as that knowledge assaulted him, and shook his head free of the vision and back to the moment, uneasy. Lind glanced up from his task, but said nothing; in his line of work, you didn't generally see people at their most self-possessed, Luke supposed.

"Jumpy?" the chemist eventually asked.

"Clean at the moment—" Luke shrugged; glanced away. "Makes me edgy."

"How long for?"

"Who knows."

Lind nodded genially, and Luke could sense his indifference; his unspoken certainty that it wouldn't last. Given where he worked, he could probably quote a long line of examples. But despite his occupation and habits, the man was still a capable chemist, and the set-up was watertight, Luke knew that; he'd checked himself, to be sure that he was safe buying here.

He watched Lind work for the next half-hour. Made inane small-talk when all the while his head rang with greater knowledge, alternating between cool logic and the disconnected calm of denial, and momentary flares of misgivings, aware that even now, as that first kernel of need began to eat at him, the larger part of him didn't want to find out. Part of him still couldn't believe that he had even gone this far—that he had listened to Kenobi at all. He knew his past and present associations, allies and enemies both. He had neither the desire nor the need to reassess…so why was he here?

This time yesterday, he'd known exactly who he was. He hadn't met Kenobi, hadn't faced the old man's quiet, persuasive manipulations. Hadn't stood before him in mute shock as he'd dismantled everything Luke had believed he'd known.

This time yesterday, his biggest problem had been what to tell Han, when he killed Kenobi, as he intended. Han…Luke sighed, resisting the urge to shake his head. He hadn't mentioned the vial to him yet—hadn't said anything of this. Maybe it was denial, maybe it was the deeper knowledge that these were genuinely dangerous truths—the kind that could easily get someone killed.

He stared at the open vials on the scuffed table as he chewed at his thumbnail, then glanced down, still deathly tired, aware that he'd been silent for too long but unable to pull himself out of his own convoluted thoughts. It was only when Lind stood that Luke looked up, tensing. Because somewhere in the back of his mind, he had the uneasy feeling that he was going to walk out of here a different man to the one who had walked in. A different past shaping present perceptions. How many times had Palpatine turned his world on its head and crumbled its foundations just for the pleasure of seeing him stumble? Now, the chance to hold definite facts was finally in his grasp…and Luke was terrified.

Why? Because if it was true, then everything his Master had done to date paled by comparison. "Well?"

"Well, I'd be very interested to know where you got the samples from," Lind opened as he lifted one of the small, half empty vials—Luke's—his usual easy grin now absent.

"Why?"

"These are pretty rare blood groups, with atypicalDNA. I haven't tried them for midichlorian content 'cos it'd require interaction with the main hub—maybe even a military access code—but I'm pretty sure that if I did…"

"I'm not interested in Force abilities, I want a more general breakdown. I want its geneology." He recognized his own slip instantly: I, not they.

Fortunately, Lind was too wrapped up in his own nerves to notice. "Well, again without being able to run it through the mainframe archive, it's hard to lock down…"

"I know that," Luke dismissed, not interested in rationalizations or proviso's. "What can you tell me with what you've got?"

Lind sighed, placing the vial down with care. "Human, male, unusualDNA, as I said. Genealogically, there's accountable Nabooan humanDNA, which doesn't mean that the subject was from there, simply that he has recent Nabooan heritage in at least one parent. It's Class Two, so he would look human, and there are no genetic defects…"

"Why Class Two?" Luke interrupted. "Why not Class One?"

"Class One is pure-bred and I just can't account for a percentage of thatDNA; it follows no known pattern, including any and all officially listed human and alien hybridDNA's I can pull down. It's completely outside of the known spectrum. Strictly speaking that makes it unclassifiable, but for the clarity of the test, I've defined that percentage as non-human, which would put it in Class Two. I suspect it may actually be some kind of natural mutation resulting from hybrid fusion, but generally that kind of transmutation is still attributable."

This was news; it had never occurred to Luke to have his ownDNAanalyzed before, but then why should it? He'd believed he'd known his past—had it thrown at him like a weapon so many times by Palpatine. "So one parent wasn't human?"

"Oh, they were both human, but one parent had that same unclassifiableDNA. There's something very unusual happening there." Lind stared at the screen as it scrolled results, fascination shining briefly. "It could have been the Nabooan donor who had it, but judging from the breakdown, I'd say it was the second donor. Unfortunately there's no way to separate off which parent donated which facets ofDNAwithout a full-spectrum analysis, which would mean connecting to a main hub."

"An informed guess as to which parent had Nabooan heritage?" His mother, Breha, had of course been from Alderaan—a member of the Royal Houses, all of whom were closely linked and genetically attributable through many generations. Luke felt a tightening in his chest as it occurred that the test could coincidentally disprove the only true link he'd thought certain. Quite suddenly, he realized that he didn't want to know; had opened his mouth to tell the chemist to stop—

"Nabooan is probably from the maternal donor," Lind said, eyes on the screen.

And just like that, another pillar that Luke had relied on to prop up his crumbling past was gone, the knowledge burning in his chest as the chemist continued, unaware of the body-blow he'd just delivered.

"The distinctiveDNAis paternal, I'd guess. Again, if I had access to the main hub I could verify that, but..."

"How…how certain can you be without accessing the mainframe?"

"Everything I've told you is fact," Lind assured. "The only thing I can't guarantee without that full-spectrum analysis is what the hell that unattributableDNAis, and which parent donated which specific facets. What I'm telling you here is an informed guess based on the numbers."

"How reliable?" Luke pushed.

Lind tilted his head in allowance. "Maybe eighty percent, somewhere in that field. With a full-spectrum I could give you above ninety-nine percent accuracy."

Luke braced himself as he nodded his head toward the readout on the screen of theDNAsample that Kenobi had supplied. "The second sample?"

"Obviously, the same caveats apply here, and the sample was hardly sterile, but again it's human, Class One, male. Another rare blood group, but attributable." Lind looked Luke up and down, clearly wondering where the samples were from. "Again, I'm thinking a test for midichlorian content might clear a few things up on that score…"

"Any paternal connection to the first sample?" If the chemist couldn't recognize the tension in Luke's face and voice then he must be blind and deaf, but if he did, then he hid it well. Luke waited, an eternity stretching taut as Lind looked back down at the screen, frowning. "No, none."

None.

Just like that, Luke's whole life had been turned upside down, and what the hell was Palpatine doing this time? What was happening in Luke's life, when his enemies told the truth and his closest ally—his own Master—offered only manipulations and lies? "There's no connection—none at all?"

"Not genetically, no. No connection."

No connection.

Aware of the chemist's eyes still on him, Luke stepped mechanically forward to take the samples. "You've made no copies of this, in whole or in part," he asked mechanically, going through the motions without thinking; it was beginning to become second nature to him, covering his back—necessary protection against supposed allies.

"No, and you saw me incinerate the samples I used." Lind too was solemn, as if he understood the danger he'd brought down on himself, simply in having had the vials in his lab.

"Thanks," Luke said neutrally, at a loss for words, though his thoughts screamed out in shock. The man whom he'd believed to be his father for most of his life—whom Palpatine himself had identified as such based, he'd claimed, on genetic samples—was nothing more than a random stranger.

What was wrong with him, that he didn't even know if he was relieved or disappointed?

Luke turned and walked quickly to the door, and was almost there before Lind spoke out again. "Dack…you take your fee and you get rid of those vials, you hear me? That's dangerous stuff you're toting round."

And it was, Luke knew that now…but even if he got rid of the vials, he was still a walking, talking time bomb, mind ticking with profound facts. He nodded once, and turned—

"Hey, Dack?" The chemist straightened and walked to a run of clear plasmesh boxes which were stacked along one wall. "Here, you tried this?"

He lifted a small packet from one of the boxes and threw it to Luke, who caught it one-handed. "What is it?"

"New variant on the market. Snow and Ruby cross-blend. Thinking I might call it Red Snow. Free sample—on the house."

"No, thanks." Luke threw the packet back. "I told you, I'm clean."

Lind shrugged, and threw it back again. "Keep it for a bad day."

Luke wanted to laugh out loud… Instead he gave the barest smile, hesitating for a second…then he pocketed the bag, nodding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"So…what happened between you and Indo, then?"

Han turned to Gorn, his first thought that he had bigger things to worry about right now…but sitting on his chair across the staffroom, eyes trained on his virtual screen, Gorn's voice was innocently casual…which always made Han itch.

"Why d'you think something happened between me and Indo?"

"Because you're both walking around like neks with sore heads, and I already know what happened last night, to make Luke turn on Ashtor."

"Maybe it was that."

Gorn slouched back as he swivelled his chair about, smiling amicably. "I considered that…and Force knows, Luke getting arrested and dragged back here on a troop transport is bad enough…but I couldn't link it to you, so—"

"That a fact?" Han raised his eyebrows—and instantly regretted it, as Gorn leaned forward.

"Should I have? I heard you'd gone out to stop him. You…didgo out to stop him, didn't you?"

Han glanced down, following the script he and the kid had worked out—albeit only roughly. "Nothing to stop. Luke went out after a Jedi who was on Coruscant. Ashtor told Vader, and Vader tried to cut in on the action—had the kid arrested to get him out of the way."

"So it's true?"

"What?"

"I heard Luke'd been shouting Vader down in front of the Emperor."

"How the hell do you know that?"

Gorn shrugged. "C'mon, there were about sixty people on the other side of those doors last night…and you can bet that they were all listeningrealhard."

Now they were into an area that Han hadn't even heard. "What happened?"

Gorn grinned, in his element when regaling palace gossip. "Shouting, posturing…some people swear they heard lightsabers ignite. Luke came storming out, and Vader followed soon afterwards."

"Did it…seem like Luke was in trouble?"

"Like you said, he hadn't really done anything wrong." Gorn hesitated, eyes lifting to Han. "He...hadn't done anything wrong, right?"

Han looked down, the surety of his voice coming easily, because he believed it absolutely. "No, he hadn't done anything wrong. Sometimes that doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of difference around here, though."

Gorn fell to silence for a moment, thoughtful. "You did a brave thing, trying to step in—with Ashtor."

Han sighed. "Yeah, well, didn't make much difference in the end, did it?"

"I don't know, seems to me like you've made a lot of difference around here. More than you think. You don't know what it was like before you got here—with Luke. He was…you know. He's really changed…or he's trying to." Again he hesitated, tentative now. "Is that why Indo's down on you—because he thinks you're stepping in on his territory?"

"I haven't even started yet," Han said grimly—then pulled back, remembering who he was talking to, and all too aware that even friends could damn you here, with a few innocent words in the wrong ear. "Besides, who said anything's going on between us?"

"You're kidding me. I don't need any of those Sith skills to see that you could cut the tension around here with a knife today."

Han leaned back, looking to dispel that a little, aware that he'd promised the kid that he'd say nothing to Indo…which already hadn't worked out so well. Maybe that was why Luke hadn't commed Han when he'd woken this afternoon, instead slinking out of the apartment to who knew where. Certainly the kid wasn't answering his comlink, though that could mean anything from his not wishing to speak to Han ever again, to his having abandoned it somewhere, or simply be ignoring it, as Han had seen him do often enough. "Nah, we're just…y'know, business as usual."

Gorn stared for a few seconds more, and Han knew that excuse wasn't even nearly gonna cut it. "What can I say? Maybe I finally realized a few things."

Gorn stared long and hard at Han, lips pursing. "You're not gonna tell me, are you?"

"I can tell you Indo's no good for the kid."

"I thought you already knew that."

"So did I. Turns out I didn't know the half of it."

Again Gorn paused, seeming to choose his words with care… "Remember what I told you the first week you were here? Don't get involved."

The soft tack of boots on hard floors made them both sit up, as Luke walked quickly past without slowing. Rising, Han patted Gorn on the shoulder on his way out of the staffroom. "Too late for that."

.

In the silent stillness of the main corridor he heard the library door slide closed, and went to follow the kid, walking in without pause. "Oh you're still alive, then? Only I was beginning to wonder, after you failed to answer five comms."

Whatever Luke had made to roll across the wide main desk before Han entered, he now reached out his hand and it shot back, visible only for a moment, though his voice was calm. "That was you?"

"Who did you think it was?"

"I was getting other comms."

"Right, so I just got ignored in the rush to ignore someone else's comms, huh?" Starting forward, he scowled as his brain only just fathomed that brief glimpse of what Luke was holding. "And what the hell was that?"

"What?"

"In your hand—what was that, a vial?"

"That..." The kid paused a long time, as if trying to decide whether to say anything at all…but whatever it was, it was so clearly eating him up inside, and he had to speak to someone. He opened his hand to place a small medical vial on the polished table. "That, is a thousand questions."

Han stared at the viscous ruby fluid. "Yeah? 'cos it looks a lot like a vial of blood to me." He reached out to take it…

"It is." Luke held out his hand and the small vial clinked once as it tipped, then flew neatly back into his palm before Han reached it. Luke held it up to shake it as he studied it…and again, Han had the distinct impression that the kid was deciding how much to say. "In fact, I have it on very good authority that it's a sample of blood from Darth Vader's son."

And there was why.

In amidst all their raft of existing problems, the universe had apparently taken the time to add one more to the teetering pile. Han stared at the vial, all earlier worries about whether the kid had realized his argument with Indo forgotten. "Vader's? You serious?"

Luke nodded contemplatively. "I'm very serious. Maybe deadly serious. The question is, am I serious enough to let Vader know."

"He doesn't already?" That was a twist—for the kid to have something on Vader.

"I don't think so. I'm not even sure that it's real, yet."

"You're not sure?"

"No. I need a sample of Vader'sDNAthat hasn't been through the system or been stored."

"That's gonna be tough. It's not like you can pick up a shed hair or a glass he's drunk from."

"I know." Luke considered a long time, his eyes remaining on the vial as he spoke. "There is one way to check without any outside contamination, of course: give Vader this sample. Let him do the check."

"Let him know? That's a hell of a risk."

"It guarantees a reliable test, though."

"You're assuming he'll tell you the result."

"Since I know where this came from and he doesn't, I think that's a given. If it's genuine, he'll have to come back to find out more."

"Well then, I guess the next question is, can you protect him?"

"Protect him?"

Han nodded to the vial. "The kid—from Vader."

Luke frowned, eyes skipping the polished desk before him—clearly he hadn't even considered that. It was the first thing that had occurred to Han; he was surprised it hadn't yet done so to Luke. "You're assuming Vader will be happy about all this, and not see the kid as just another threat. And what if the Emperor found out—what kind of threat do you think he'd see in Vader having that kind of connection to someone?"

A dry smile came to Luke's face. "The concept of Vader ever forming anything approaching an alliance with anyone is patently ludicrous."

Han nodded, aware of Luke's own childhood, spent at the mercy of Vader's bitter wrath. But this was different altogether—couldn't the kid see that? "Maybe so, but you know Old Yellow Eyes won't see it that way…or is that what you're thinking?"

Even if you weren't revenge-minded, considering that Vader had murdered Luke's father just yesterday, that thought had to be coming to the fore in the kid's head right now… And Luke had a dark streak—even Han admitted that.

The civilian comlink that Luke wore at his belt chimed, and Han paused as he took it out, checked it, then replaced it without answering. "Who's that?"

"Doesn't matter."

But Han knew for a fact that only one person beside himself had the call-code for that particular comlink. "It's Leia, isn't it?" The kid glanced momentarily to Han, but didn't speak. "You ever gonna answer it?"

"Did you tell her—about Kenobi being my…" he trailed off, unable to say it, seeming strangely unsettled about something that he'd been so comfortable with previously.

"No, I didn't tell her. I figured that's something for you and Kenobi to…well, something you'll want to tell her yourself. I would've thought that you and she had a lot to speak about now, with…with Kenobi, and all."

The barest twitch of Luke's head told volumes about his discomfort and uncertainty, though his words were cool as ever. "You'd think, wouldn't you? Turns out, not so much."

He was trying so hard to be indifferent, Han knew, but he'd been with the kid long enough now to know that this particular front of composed indifference meant that Luke was turning some big stuff over in his mind. He always got kinda distant when he was, all shut down for his own protection, every possible shield up—even from himself.

Luke turned abruptly to walk from the library, leaving Han to scowl after him. "Where you goin'?"

"I thought I'd speak to someone a little closer to home. Who knows, maybe I'll turn out to have something in common with him, instead."

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time, when Luke ignored the comlink's chime, another came in just minutes later. Again, he lifted the comlink and watched it time out…then stopped, eyes coming to the polished gloss of the ebony door at the end of the long hallway he walked.

Finally, he lifted the comlink and pressed to record. "Same place as last time, two blocks east of the cantina,midnighttonight." He sent the message immediately, before he could change his mind. May as well get it over with.

.

Luke paused as he reached the tall door, seized by a sudden pang of doubt…then set his jaw, making the slightest nod in self-reassurance. Taking a calming breath, he pressed the entry chime and waited, aware of the ridiculousness of the situation. Given that Luke hadn't hidden his presence, Vader would have known when Luke had arrived on this floor—would have probably sensed his intent to come up here before that. He certainly knew precisely how long Luke had stood in this hallway, so his decision not to answer immediately meant one of two things: either he was leaving Luke to stew to prove some petty point, or he was trying to decide whether to open the door at all.

The door slid silently aside and Vader's bulk filled it completely, barring any access.

Luke automatically gritted his teeth against familiar patterns of thought, Kenobi's death and his own arrest, to be dragged before Palpatine by stormtroopers on Vader's command, still fresh enough in his memories to smart. It was an effort to remind himself just why he was here, but when he did he willed a calm, reasonable tone to his voice. "I need to talk with you."

For long moments Vader didn't move, nor did he speak, until Luke began to wonder if his attempt to uncover the truth would end right here, in stalemate… Then finally Vader stepped to one side and turned about, offering no further invitation as he strode into his chambers.

With only a second's hesitation, Luke followed. He'd had no idea, until this moment, what Vader's private chambers might be like. It had simply never occurred to him to wonder. Dark, he supposed, starkly Spartan. How could they be anything else?

The unlit corridor led into a huge room where the soft violets of the evening sky flooded in through a wall-length run of floor to ceiling windows, to cast velvety tones over pale, sand-colored walls.

There was little furniture—no particular concessions to human comforts; a console table, close to the door where Luke now slowed; a massive desk of pale wood to the far side of the room, its contents meticulously arranged. Behind it a huge piece of free-standing driftwood reached easily twice Luke's height and almost the same in span. No, not driftwood…it was too irregular; too pitted. Some other natural force had worn away at it, before its bone-white carcass had been mounted on a heavy fossilstone base.

About it, those pale walls were hung with massive, glass-framed images. Technical prints, mostly; exploded diagrams of bristling swoop engines and elegant Nubian yachts, their graceful lines rendered in meticulous detail.

It was fascinating, what another considered art; what moved them sufficiently to spur the desire to display it as such.

Three steps away Vader turned about and Luke stared, seeing him afresh now, a dark hollow, even here. He wore his armour on the outside, a visible barrier blocking all access, denying any concept of humanity. Luke carried his scars and his shields deeper, but they were just as impenetrable—Palpatine had seen to that. Had taken great care to help Luke build those diamond shields, the path through them known and chartable only to his Master. But the shields which protected also isolated—both Vader and Luke knew that; maybe even understood it of the other, in some way. It was likely the nearest they had ever come to any kind of connection—and even then, it was light-years apart.

Luke glanced again to the prints…they were interesting; fastidious. He wondered whether Vader had studied the minute details of that Nubian yacht a thousand times, without once seeing the exquisite elegance of its fluid lines. Whether he became, in all things, mired in the minutiae without stepping back to consider the greater picture. Whether he found comfort in the regular predictability of the mechanical, devoid of emotional complications.

Wondered for the first time whether his own walls, strewn with vivid flashes of intense color, meant that he sought out the passionate, the vital, the vibrant …or perhaps simply compensated for some perceived loss of the same in his own life, to cover every inch of his narrow existence with ever more intense expressions of individual freedom.

His eyes came back to the twisted, sandblasted wood which…sandblasted; he remembered the image he'd drawn onboard the Death Star, taken directly from Vader's mind: high canyon walls in muted striations, their footings dusted in desert sand. Remembered his words to Han: "This is something familiar, something he knew..."

Remembered Han's reply: "Why is it important? Seriously, why do you want to know?"

"Know your enemies," Luke had said—and meant it.

He remembered Han glancing to the half-healed scar over his eye as he'd said the last, and resisted the urge to reach out and touch it now. It was still visible, though much-faded. A dark mark which sliced through one eyebrow, cut deep by a blow from Vader's saber hilt. He had at least ten others across his body, from hilt and blade both, all inflicted by the man who stood before him in charged silence right now. Chances were, they wouldn't be the last.

So why was he here? What did he possibly think he could get out of this?

Know your enemies, he supposed.

 

 

 

Vader remained still as those sharp, pale eyes glanced about the room then came back to him, taking him in as if seeing him for the first time…then Antilles frowned and glanced quickly away, leaving Vader at a loss as to what had been going through his mind in that moment, as the boy braced both physically and mentally, shields dropping into place.

Eyes narrowing beneath his mask, Vader wondered what this manipulative little Sith was up to. Infinitely wary but equally confident that he could hold his own, he waited, staying close so that his size and his bulk intimidated, though Antilles was accustomed to both, and didn't back down in the least. They remained a few steps apart for long seconds, Vader left with the sense that, now that he was here, the boy was having second thoughts about whatever he had intended. He could almost see the hesitation in those pale eyes, so much like Kenobi's.

Aware of his scrutiny, the boy narrowed those eyes in consideration, then pursed his lips and lifted his chin slightly, and held out his hand.

In it was a small medical vial, half-filled crimson red. Vader looked at the vial without comment, waiting.

"A blood sample," Kenobi's son finally stated, voice tense. "You need to have someone you trust test it against your own—a new sample taken specifically for this, not one that's been stored or logged, or allowed to leave your sight at any time. And you need to do it in absolute secrecy."

Vader remained still, and eventually the boy half-shrugged, placing the vial on the console beside him.

"For?" Vader prompted at last.

He saw familiar defenses rise again after that momentary uncertainty, as the boy fell easily into old patterns at the mere sound of his voice, finding some of his lost poise. "Just test them side by side—complete breakdown."

Again the boy hesitated, then turned to leave, seeming to feel he had nothing more to say in that moment. Reaching the darkened corridor he paused without turning. "I'm sure when you see the results, you'll appreciate the importance of keeping this strictly between ourselves."

Beneath his mask, Vader let out a small smile. Oh, he had the boy now—finally had him at fault. "You are asking me to lie to the Emperor?" he challenged in a rumble.

The boy turned, voicing doubtful amusement at Vader's apparent reluctance, the picture of confidence—though as ever Vader could see just a fraction beneath his shields, and knew that right now, he was anything but. "Do as you wish. But do so with an informed opinion."

'Make your choice after you have the results,' was the obvious message, leaving Vader uneasy at just what Kenobi's son could possibly have which he believed could induce Vader to lie in order to protect him, of all people. Nothing—there was nothing existing which would induce him to protect the boy…though he'd do anything to bring him down.

Antillesdisappeared into the dim shadows of the long hallway, and eventually Vader heard the main entrance door slide open, then close. Alone, his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the small glass vial on the table. He lifted it, holding it aloft to see the ruby red liquid within...and somewhere, in the shadows at the depths of his soul, something stirred, subtle as a shiver. Anticipation, portent; the barest tremble on the wind which whispered of the hurricane to come.

Unsettled, he placed the glass vial back down and strode from the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han sat in the library for over an hour, waiting. Then he wandered through to the Red Room and watched the sun go down, still waiting. By the time his shift had ended the kid still wasn't back, and Han was sitting in one of the seldom-used chairs in the Red Room, ankles crossed on the windowsill, head dropped back in frustration, once again cursing the fact that Luke was too used to the habit of telling nothing to anyone.

He'd even reflected on the fact himself, earlier; that the kid got all insular and secretive when he had things on his mind. He'd already stopped answering his comlink, and then Han had been stupid enough to just let him walk out of here without even…comlink!

Han stood up so suddenly that the chair toppled back loudly behind him. Leia; he'd gone to see Leia!

For a fraction of a second his mind raced to fathom whether that was good or bad. Maybe it was good…but then why hadn't he taken Han? Han always went with him—always.

Why would he do that—why would he go alone? For a scarlet second, he wondered if the kid had gone to bring her in…but no; Luke'd given Han his word, and he wouldn't go back on that. The danger was over anyway, the confrontation passed.

Abruptly he remembered the kid coming to his quarters after Bria Tharen's death, resigned and accepting of whatever punishment Han had cared to dole out, believing as ever that it was all his fault. The exact same attitude that he'd held with absolute conviction when he'd intended to face Palpatine after the destruction of the Death Star. He'd already admitted to Han that he left Kenobi alone knowing that the old man intended to face Vader…knowing what that meant. Had he gone to see Leia with that same belief—that this time, it was Kenobi's death that was all somehow his fault; the same certainty that there was a price to be paid, and he would be the one expected to pay it?

Leia had said that Kenobi was like a father…would she lash out? No—Jedi didn't do that, surely…but the old man had been everything to her. If she did lash out…would Luke let her? He'd let her go free yesterday…but had said to Han that it was the last time. That after that, the slate was clean, and he owed her nothing. Even if he went there intending to let her rail at him, as he had Han over Bria's death, how long before it escalated? How long before the threat became a little too real and the contrite kid became the hostile Sith?

"A Jedi against a Sith?" He remembered the way that Luke had said that, innately confident of the outcome. Remembered the way he'd fought Vader, driven to a frenzy by fear and fury and grim determination, every last ounce of commitment consigned, lost completely to the moment. If something Leia did pushed him to that edge, if something she did triggered that kind of reaction…

His eyes scanned the endless crush of the ecumenopolis below, a sea of lights as the night had closed in, bright clusters here at the heights, falling away to the all-concealing darkness of the depths.

Shades…he'd meet her in the Shades, because that was where he'd met her every other time, and if he'd had to name a place over a comlink, he wouldn't have quoted specific names, he would have referenced somewhere they'd met before.

Han was striding from the room now, mind still rushing; how many places had they met? Less than half a dozen. Would he have picked the nearest, the most recent? Quietest, surely. If he expected trouble, it would have been the quietest.

By the time he reached the apartment door, he was already at a full-out run, no idea whether he was rushing to help Luke…or hold him back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke walked through the Shades displaced from everything about him. Surrounded by vivid, incandescent clouds of people who laughed, flirted, and chattered their way through another night of frivolity, he was intensely aware that they existed one step removed from his own life…and he envied them for it. The ease with which they fluttered through the night, unaffected, unconcerned.

He slowed as he looked to the shadows of the alleyway, aware of her presence as a dark smudge against the night, simmering in wretched misery. What had been so warm and so sure the last time he'd touched it now seemed darkly embroiled; lost in its own bitter grief. Eventually he set forward, leaving the noise and the lights and the exuberance behind; he didn't belong there anyway.

He walked slowly down the alley, giving his eyes time to adjust to the light. As before, it hadn't been chosen randomly. It was a long, thin sliver of a strip which stretched the full depth of the buildings to either side, each easily ten stories high. Its length afforded a comfortable distance from the milling crowds beyond, ensuring that whatever happened in the far reaches of its shadowed depths would remain unseen. The tall buildings to either side were all commercial, with no windows to the darkened alleyway, their frontings looking out onto the main street beyond, and even those now closed, their business done for the day. Equidistant to either side of the long alleyway were the metal-grid steps which led up to the businesses in staggered flights, level by zigzagging level. Neon signs tethered to the front of the walkway balconies looked out onto the main street, their shuttered radiance cut in broken patterns through the mesh steps, irregular blinking reduced to the faintest glow, unable to reach into the somber shadows which engulfed the far end of the long Luke walked on.

Senses on edge now, he saw all this afresh, reappraised as a series of opportunities and possible pitfalls…then he dismissed his own paranoia, bringing his eyes back to the furthest shadows, knowing that Leia Skywalker would have retreated as far as she possibly could. He slowed when the light and the noise were a distant haze, and she took a step forward without ever leaving the gloom.

They stood for a time as the silence stretched taut and Luke remained still, waiting. Though she had hidden her presence in the Force, as ever, he could sense it as a subtle furl of fractured grief. If she wanted someone to shout at, to rail at, then he could take that. If she wanted someone to hate, he could be that too. He was only a half-step short of that with himself, most days. There was little she could call him that hadn't been hurled at him from elsewhere, or that he didn't know of himself.

"I'm sorry," he said evenly.

"And that's supposed to make it alright?" she grated, voice low and hoarse.

"No. It simply means I'm sorry."

As she came forward another step Luke looked into her face, pale and drawn, her eyes still red…and it brought home to him how recent all this was. So much had happened for Luke since Kenobi's death. He'd been cornered and dragged back to Palpatine by stormtroopers, forced to lie to his Master, to shout Vader down in self-defense…he'd admitted to Han about Indo, he'd turned on Ashtor… He'd had the blood sample verified, to reveal a terrible truth.

Kenobi's death seemed a distant fact to him now…yet it was little more than a day ago.

For Leia Skywalker, probably the longest day of her life.

"You did this." There was such accusation in her words, such raw, reined-back rage. "You planned all of it."

"How could I have? I didn't even know Kenobi was on Coruscant." His own voice was flat and weary, drained of emotion. The last thirty hours had hardly been easy for him, either.

"You knew he was coming. You'd asked to meet him."

"I didn't know he'd come here."

"Is that a fact?" Her sense was twisted through with cutting disbelief. "Because you didn't seem so very surprised when I told you."

"I'd worked it out by then." He was careful not to mention Han, not wanting to involve him.

Her head tipped. "So you're saying you did know before you met me—and therefore did have time to set up a plan with Vader."

"I'm saying I'm sorry that Kenobi made the choices he did…but they were his choices. I tried to dissuade him as much as you did. You saw that."

"And how long had you spent before I came in there, persuading him to stay? To face…"

Her voice broke as she blinked quickly, visibly suffering, and Luke felt a pang strike deep within him—of what, he didn't know. Empathy, perhaps. Regret. Rare permission within her undisguised grief, for him to feel something himself… Then anger flared again, tinged with fear, because if he allowed it of himself even once, then he would pay a thousand times with each new order his Master gave him, until it bled away and he was safely blank once more.

Far easier to remain dispassionate and uninvolved. To simply do as he was ordered and never look any closer. But that was being stolen away from him in increments, caught up in the fallout of too many close events. He had no idea what to say—how to offer any kind of comfort. He'd neither received nor been required to give it before.

"You should know that the man who gave Vader the opportunity to find me, and therefore your Master, is dead."

She lifted her head, voice low. "How very convenient. An unknown scapegoat."

"He was informing on me."

"And you're claiming that you didn't know?" She was dismissive again; derisive.

"Yes, I knew—but the fact, not the details. I didn't know that Vader was following me."

"Liar!"

"He's Sith."

"So are you!"

Luke stared, struggling to understand why Kenobi's death was so completely his fault in Leia's eyes. He'd expected her to accuse him, expected to have to defend his actions and take some of the blame—but not all. Why wouldn't she hold Vader responsible, too? He'd take her anger and her accusations, but he'd be damned if he'd take the full blame—not to save Vader's hide. "Sith can mask their presence, from each other as well as from Jedi—you know that. Vader's wanted to kill Kenobi for a long time. He's tried to track him down for years, but he never could."

"Until you came along, and gained him that opportunity."

Her hand went to the small of her back as she straightened—and Luke knew what she reached for, unseen. He tilted his head in warning. "Don't even think it."

"You led Obi-Wan's killer right to him—and you used me to do it."

He noted only now that she didn't wear the thick, heavy cloak she always had previously, and cursed his own inattentiveness. She'd come here looking for a fight; retribution for her Master's death from the man she thought had engineered it. Justice, she probably believed. If she'd come here to duel, her cloak would slow her down, and she knew it.

"I'll say it again; I didn't know that Vader was following me."

"To a venue that you named!"

"I suggested. I said at the time that you could refuse if you wanted." Without his realizing, his own hand had moved to rest just behind his hip, fingers lose. "If I'd wanted Kenobi dead then believe me, I would have simply killed him myself, when I walked into that room with him."

To Luke it seemed a reasonable clarification, because it was true—he'd gone there looking for that fight, but on meeting Kenobi he couldn't go through with it. He'd tried—truth be told, in those first minutes, he'd tried to wring up sufficient anger to turn on the old man…but he couldn't. He hadn't. What he'd said was the truth; if he'd wanted to kill Kenobi, he would have done so.

But he knew instantly that it was the wrong thing to say—

She let out a yell and her saber jumped to her hand, coming round in a wide, wild sweep at neck-level, more an expression of her outrage than a measured blow. Luke leaned back to let it pass a hand's-breadth from his face—but his own blade ignited in answer, coming behind it to bat it down when it had passed, putting him instantly inside her guard. She took a hasty step back to free her blade but Luke held contact, maintaining pressure as he stepped in, to show her that she was playing with fire; that he could have taken her head from her shoulders at the very first exchange.

It was an aggressive response when he could have simply stepped back; a prelude to a duel instead of an avoidance, and Leia rallied at the threat, slipping her blade free by dropping it vertically, hilt up. The tip sizzled into the ground, and as it came free she made the only response possible when Luke was this close; she angled her body and pulled her blade in a sideward arc to spin in for a downward blow from above, more instinct that calculated riposte.

Luke was already placed to catch it, knocking it aside with all the power of his shoulders and leaving her wide open. He lifted his hand, fingers splayed, and she staggered back three fast steps with a breathless gasp, the air knocked from her body.

Closing his hand to a fist, he lifted one finger in a growled warning, the first sparks of hostility flaring. "Stop. I needed you before…I don't now. That's the only warning you'll get."

"Needed me to get to Obi-Wan!" Her voice was pain and accusation and bitter fury.

"Yes—but not for that, not to kill him…"

"Liar! All you do is lie!"

Luke straightened—not at the accusation: it was true often enough—even now, in part—but at her sense of outrage, of self-pitying misery. She'd had everything, every opportunity, whilst he'd had nothing but divisive neglect. What might he have been, given her life? The unfairness of it—his private, bitter realization of how appalling his own life really was—bit deep. "Do you think you're the only one who bleeds?"

"You have no blood," she hissed. "Acid runs through your veins!"

"I protected you! I lied to my Master to keep you safely anonymous. My own Master! You have no idea what he'd do if he knew—what he'd put me through! I broke every law in helping you—and Kenobi—and all he did was rip everything I knew away. Every truth. I don't even know who I am any more!"

"I can tell you exactly who you are."

"No, you can tell me what I am. But I can tell you that myself, there's no mystery there." His anger was rising now; indignation at her accusations, her unwillingness to listen. He'd actually tried to do the right thing here, and this was what he got. That was the fact of his life; the hard truth. "Everyone around me dies—everyone. I never made a secret of that. Darkness and death," he said, absolutely sure. "That's what my Master says I am—what I always will be." At least in that his Master hadn't lied.

She let out another yell as her blade came round with incredible speed—but skewed, still barely controlled, driven by grief and the need to act—to do something in retaliation; he knew that. Which didn't make her any less dangerous.

She came in again with a fast blow to his side which Luke caught easily, knocking it aside. Another to the opposite side, twisting her wrists to make the turn; fast, darting blows, in and out in seconds, light on her feet, pushing for an error.

He dropped his blade a fraction too low to draw her in, and when she took the feint, pushing forward with a stab, Luke stepped into rather than away from the blow, catching her blade close to the hilt to knock it upward and to the side. It was a blow that would never have worked against Vader or his Master, but Leia didn't have the strength to counter it and was forced into a hasty withdrawal, loosing her saber to a one-handed grip for fear of losing it as Luke kept the momentum of his counter-blow pushing outward in a wide swing.

She backstepped once more, instantly resetting her weight, pulling her hand back to hold her saber vertically, body atilt, already poised for the next exchange.

They were finding their focus now, defining pace and style as those first wild swings settled into a measured duel, each pushing their opponent, looking for weaknesses, playing their strengths, finding their tempo.

Luke had always been fast, he knew that. Having spent a lifetime duelling bigger and stronger opponents, speed and dexterity had been his only advantages, and he'd learned long ago to tell a break from a feint and to turn any chance, no matter how small, into an opportunity. But this was something completely different. Because in the many hundreds of duels he'd faced, first against Palpatine then later against Vader, he'd never once in all his years, had to face an opponent from the position of greater strength and size. Leia was barely more than shoulder height to him, obviously physically weaker…but this was how she had always fought—that much was clear.

She was incredibly dextrous, making up for her lack of strength by nimble moves, darting in with fast blows only when she knew she had an opening, then disengaging and withdrawing the moment it looked like Luke would maneuver the fight to a position where strength would come into play.

He had no idea how to fight in that context—no idea how to engage an enemy who wouldn't be pulled in to more than two or three consecutive blows. Vague memories surfaced of being eleven and twelve, when his Master had organized training duels between himself and Mara Jade, to equip him for this possibility. But even then she'd been taller than him, older by a year, and he'd been small and slight beneath his Master's neglect. He had no idea how to do this—how to duel from the stronger position. How did he fight…himself?

The answer was obvious, of course; he needed to fight Leia as Vader fought him. Needed to back her into a corner to limit her ability to dodge or back off, to keep his saber blade in the higher position, always moving forward and bearing down. But it was hard, to discard all that he'd known; every move, every trick. His only advantage was in recognizing them early, as they were levelled against him.

But she was learning—they both were.

She came forward again with three fast blows, looking to lock her saber over his as Luke stepped round, eyes on the wider picture, thoughts on those first few moments when he'd walked down the alley taking in its geography; opportunities to be used.

He sidestepped without making a blow; another step, another, before she pulled her own saber back, realizing that he was playing her now. Her eyes glanced to the far side of the alleyway, a mirror-image of what was behind her, letting her know that she was too close to the underside of the nearer stairwell—too close to being cornered. If she broke to the right she'd have to move towards him to get around it, and to the left, the solid stretch of the side wall gave her too few opportunities to maneuver.

Luke angled his saber to her left, waiting to catch the blow that she'd have to make to that side in order to break free. It came low, as he'd known it would, but instead of breaking left, she brought her body round with the blade and stepped in so that they stood almost side to side, twisting as she did so, so that her back was close to Luke's right shoulder, her blade skimming free of his own. Loosing her saber to one hand she twisted about his left side, nimble enough to duck beneath the edge of the stairwell as her blade pulled free.

Luke moved his own blade to one-handed to snatch at her back as she passed, her saber slowed only slightly as it dragged through the edge of the metal stairwell. She continued the turn three-sixty to bring her about, blade low, the twist snatching her free of Luke's hold. His saber came round in a wide arc to follow her as he turned, snagging against the edge of the stairwell with barely a drag as hers had, but enough to mean that the blow that would have caught her instead only snicked on the edge of her tunic in passing—

But as she finished her turn it brought her back round inside his own guard, Luke's blade low and to the right, all speed and power spent. She swung in at shoulder-height with her first dangerous blow of the duel, forcing Luke to jump awkwardly back, undefended.

He caught his breath as her blade brushed his shoulder, burning jacket, shirt and flesh in a humming hiss, though it made no greater contact. Immediately he caught his weight, pushing back to alter his center of balance as he lunged in with his blade still low, catching her saber in a roundhouse defense that knocked it away as he yelled out, furious at himself, at her…

He had his center again now and she backed off rapidly, knowing that she'd have nothing to counter the heavy blow to come, still moving to open ground.

She glanced once to the stairwell she'd cleared; again to the final one behind her, to be sure she wouldn't be caught again—

And Luke's own eyes went to it, still fuming at his slip—his assumption that because he couldn't have fit beneath the edge of the stairwell, neither could she. Blind fury fired as he lifted his hand, drawing the Force to him in a surge and hurling it out, fingers outstretched. The stairwell behind Leia wrenched from the wall in a cloud of cracked duracrete and powdered plaster, barely jerking as it ripped free from the walkway at its top, a frenzy of twisting metal.

She turned, straining as her hand came up, trying to bring sufficient counterforce to even slow it. With a grating shriek of stressed metal the stairwell buckled, and Luke tore it apart to gouge it into the ground either side of her, twisting as it crumpled like paper. She took one hasty step back then jumped above the tangle, landing three steps closer, but with her eyes beyond him.

Instantly realizing, Luke turned to glance to the distant street behind them in recognition of the noise they'd made. The slim ribbon of bright light and raucous noise continued, oblivious and unabated, as both Jedi and Sith crouched, wary, waiting for a reaction… But nothing came, and Luke turned slowly back, straightening as he did so, eyes and attention on the battle once more.

He could have brought the whole stairwell down on top of her, or could have brought the folding ends together and compressed them about her—hadn't she known that? Luke hesitated a fraction of a second; hadn't he?

A moment of doubt burned at his own misgivings, and he brought his hand out, one finger lifted. "Don't…don't try to fight me."

Her chin came up in defiance and he knew that she didn't understand—didn't understand that he was warning her, not threatening her.

Too much was long-since lost, and his Master had rushed to fill the gaping chasms. Too many nights as a terrified child endured absolutely alone, until part of him had learned that the only way not to fear the monster hiding in the darkness was to become it. That grinding fear which had made him stand when his Master had dragged him to his feet after a beating…that primal ability to survive. To do what he had to do. Palpatine hadn't simply taught that child to endure, he'd ground survival into it day in, day out, in every lesson—every breath. Luke felt the monster's icy, disjointed calm immerse him now; felt it wrap about him and take over, bringing the moment into crystal clarity, reducing it to its most basic law; survive. Do what you have to—

And as Leia Skywalker came forward again, those first clumsy, grief-driven, uncoordinated blows tightening into a serious threat, he could feel it building within him; everything he'd been taught. Everything he held back. Everything he was. "If you fight me, I can't control it, understand?"

"Nothing is ever your fault, is it." She was still coming forward, both shaken and spurred on by his offensive with the stairwell, clearly determined not to give him the time to try a similar stunt.

For a few blows he fell back as she launched a lightning-fast offensive, a curtain of blue light blinding him as he parried, focus narrowing to the duel, the blade, the instant. He knew this; it was years of repetition, every move polished, every flaw punished, every single lesson hard learned. This was what he did—what he had always done—what he knew. Be pro-active, not reactive. Create your own chances; lead the fight. Curb your opponent's strengths and play to their weaknesses. Beneath the rising attack it became easier to disassociate himself from the details; who he was fighting, why he was here, what he had originally intended.

Only the duel remained. This opponent; her skills, her weaknesses. How to use them both.

She was fast but not experienced. How many opportunities did a Jedi have to actually duel? All her practice had honed her speed and her technique, but she'd been taught by the book, by someone with experience, but staid and traditional; this riposte to this offensive, this stance counters this swing. Luke had been taught the same, in his early training…but he'd also been taught that rules were made to be broken, and any move that gained the advantage was fair—so the moment he'd done something unexpected, she'd gaped, uncertain. She took greater risks when he pushed forward because she knew now that he was stronger and equally as fast as her, and she knew she was trapped in the wrong side of a dead-end alley, where every step she took back limited her ability to maneuver.

She'd come here looking for a fight; retribution…his earlier thought rang again in his head as his mind sought the advantage… She'd been so sure, so committed to that duel, that she'd already taken off her cloak…

Committed…

Crouching down, one hand to the ground, Luke paused momentarily to look at her. "Come and get me." He sprang upwards, using the Force to gain height so that he reached the first level of balconied walkways to his left, landing lightly in a crouch, one hand to the rail in the narrow space.

Leia turned and ran for the stairwell that led to his level, and for a moment Luke thought that she'd actually use it to get to him, such was her eagerness, placing herself in a nearly impossible-to-defend position. He held back, knowing that the stuttering staccato glare of the neon signs which were bolted to the walkway balconies behind him to advertise the various eateries at this level cast glaring, shuttered bands of vivid color, rendering him a broken silhouette and forcing Leia to scowl as she came forward. Hoping to draw her on he remained still in invitation, but as she neared the top she realized her error and Luke braced as she dropped her saber to the side and brought her hand out. The walkway's sectioned steel flooring panel bucked up beneath his feet, knocking him two staggering steps back. As he steadied himself, one hand to the rail beside him, the next panel began to wrench, but this time he was ready, and slammed it back with a downwards push of the Force.

But it had bought Leia what she needed. She'd reached the top of the stairwell and was coming forward at a run, saber held before her in the limited space like a lance. Amazed at her nerve, Luke still didn't shirk back but instead waited until the blade had almost reached him before sidestepping and driving her blade down one-handed with his own. All her momentum travelling forward, she slipped nimbly past, the two so close that they could have touched in the enclosed walkway, each blade held tightly down for its wielder's protection. Luke took the opportunity to shove her hard, knocking her off-balance and onto the handrail, and further past himself. She probably thought she'd done well to get past him, if she'd thought about it at all. Thought she'd sidestepped a strike, to make it up the stairwell unharmed. She hadn't even realized that with every step, she lowered her options. Lessened her space.

Opportunities: use your surroundings. Hers were becoming more and more restricted now—which was a bad thing if you were relying on your speed against a stronger opponent. If she had an ounce of sense, she'd try to get off the walkway. If she'd had any experience whatsoever, she wouldn't have come up here at all. He set forward, saber slightly ahead of him, a barrier which swept the width of the walkway in easy strokes, forcing her to retreat blindly backwards along the restricted walkway, hemmed in by high handrails to her left and the building itself to her right.

At the corner she slipped momentarily out of sight, turning onto the front of the walkway where it overhung the main street three levels down. Luke set forward at a run to try to maintain contact, but when he rounded the corner she was already gone, and with the high, close-set tubes of the back of the neon signs forming a virtual cage to the outside of the balcony, she'd had only one choice to take; into one of the stores, limiting her space further. Smiling coolly as he walked forward, he flinched back from the stuttering flicker of the neon signs which were bolted to the handrail, runs of arrows flashing in alternate red, green and white, advertising their wares to potential customers, and guiding them up. This close, the strobing signs drowned out the actinic glow of the lightsabers, so that Luke kept his ignited as he moved along the walkway, glancing momentarily between them and onto the crowded main street, his senses strained to their limit trying to separate Leia's half-hidden presence from the teeming mass of crowds just levels below, oblivious to the spectacle barely above their eyeline, where lives displaced from their self-absorbed noise played out a private, deadly game in a parallel existence of high stakes.

Luke stalked past storefronts long-since closed down for the night, their doors bolted, their windows barred—and froze, as he heard a voice shout his name. Glancing back along the walkway to the point where it opened into the alleyway, he saw a figure—Han! Han was standing at the entrance to the alleyway, the angle setting him sideways-on to the flashing neon, so that he must have seen Luke's and Leia's brief struggle of moments ago, their sabers visible from just within the alley. Almost immediately on the back of Luke's shock that Han had found him, came his realization that he had met Leia here just days earlier, with Han. For a brief second the desperation in Han's shout touched Luke, and he hesitated, turning briefly back to the doors ahead of him…but as he did so, he saw that the next door was just fractionally ajar, stressed splinters of its forced surround intermittently highlighted in harsh neon light—

And he set forward, caught in the moment, hand lifting to throw a jarring Force-push to the door which swung violently back on its hinges, ensuring that nobody was waiting just beyond…then stepped inside.

He glanced about the room, holding his saber low and to his side until his eyes grew used to the lower light levels and he made out its laid tables and neatly-placed chairs, in readiness for tomorrow's trade. Standing perfectly still, it would have been easy for another to have missed her entirely as Leia held her place to the far side of the darkened room, her lightsaber doused. For Luke, she shone brighter than any of the strobing lights outside, a flare within his honed senses. Briefly, his eyes took in the peripheral details of the room—opportunities and threats—without ever leaving her. For an eating house it was of average size…for a duel it was restrictive, its ceiling low, its only exit directly behind her, and that into a smaller room still—a kitchen.

She knew she'd been cornered.

As he took his first step she crouched and half-turned away—

In the semi-darkness he sensed rather than saw it; a heavy stock-pot from the kitchen launched through the wide serving hatch towards him, and impacted on the wall behind him when Luke ducked, throwing out a cloud of fine plaster and chippings. Another followed almost immediately, then a third, its angle lowered mid-throw. Luke yanked the chair beside him across and up, and the heavy pan almost ripped it from his grip on impact.

Rolling, he wedged his back to the wall, momentarily abandoning his lightsaber to bring his hands up, fingers splayed—

And every chair and table in the room was pushed forward at speed, scraping across the big room to crush in a clattering jumble against the far wall where she stood. He heard her cry out in surprise, but sensed nothing else.

When he stood the room was empty, and the swinging door which led to the kitchen was half-ajar, forced back by the tables piled up against it.

For a brief moment, the sound of Han running along the balcony outside penetrated Luke's thoughts, forcing him to turn about, hand raised. The door slammed shut against Han, its only surviving lock, probably unengaged earlier and so still intact, rammed home into the keep high up to its outer edge, barring it. Han hammered on the door as he reached it, shouting his name, but Luke had already set forward, his still-lit lightsaber whirling about in a bright amber swirl to launch forward and land solidly in his grip as he deactivated it, forced to slow to climb over his own handiwork. Slipping in the darkness and the uneven footing of the crowded tables, he made for the wide service hatch, crouching to clamber through—

The blue blade lit bright in the darkness and came down in a sweeping blow, forcing Luke to throw his weight to the side and land awkwardly, rolling across a chopping block as the blade hummed past him in a flare of light.

He landed clumsily as the wheeled chopping block rolled away beneath him, to come up against a brief blare of shock almost dead ahead. Igniting his saber he brought it round, catching the hilt in a loud, jarring clatter against the underside of a worktable in the restricted space…and for a brief fraction of a second he saw the wide, all-black eyes of a Pau'an crouched in the corner, an unwilling witness to the rarest of sights.

His blade, coming down without thought, was caught by Leia's from above and knocked back from the shocked Pau'an, forcing Luke to throw himself to the side, turning to kick the wheeled chopping block out behind him as he did so, to force Leia back. The azure blade pulled away, so she must have staggered a step or two, giving Luke enough time to clamber up and get his own saber before him.

Leia was backing up further along the length of floor between two of three long, metal-topped workbenches which ran the width of the room, each divided in its center-point to form a single walkway. In the limited space, trying to find the clearance to fight, she knew that she'd been backed into an arena where strength had the advantage over dexterity. Glancing to the side as Luke came forward, she raised her left hand, giving him enough warning to look to his right as a set of plasteel shelves set between the end of two workbenches came alive and flung themselves forwards, their contents flying free.

He brought his own hands around as he threw out a hasty Force-fed wall of defense, his saber, blade down, slicing vertically through the workbench before him with a clatter of crockery. The plasteel unit itself and the contents of its upper shelves were stopped, but heavy stock-pans from the lowest shelf hit his knees and ankles at speed, driving them painfully from under him and forcing him to grab at the workbench to prevent his fall, his saber dragging a fraction as it cut its path free, knocking stacked plates to the ground in the darkness about Luke's feet.

Leia was there instantly, her blade coming down where Luke's hands were, and so forcing him to push backwards, taking his weight on his heels as he staggered across crockery, slipping as it slid beneath his weight—then he was on solid ground and he launched forwards with a yell. His saber, held one-handed, cut a wide backhanded arc which must have taken a hank of hair, so close did it come to her shoulder.

With the initiative, Luke scrabbled clear of the pots and pans which tried to trip him, angling his body to take his saber two-handed as he advanced down the central walkway for a powerful backswing which Leia blocked where she stood to one side, unable to retreat, forced to take her saber hilt in an awkward grip with one wrist twisted forward and the other twisted back; the only way she knew she'd have enough force to block the blow.

But she had no room to disengage, and so was forced to maintain blade contact as Luke powered forward, taking a step closer to trap her away from that single main walkway and into the narrower one between workbenches, gaining more ground as Leia struggled to maneuver in the limited space, her back forced against the wide stretch of worktop.

To the corner of Luke's vision, the Pau'an saw his chance and scrabbled up to run for the exit from the kitchen…only to halt as he swung the door open and came against a wall of tables and chairs, buckled and crushed together. When he then began to scramble to the wide serving hatch, Luke had to disengage, risking a division of his attention to turn about and throw one hand out. The Pau'an, resolutely clambering through the hatch, was yanked back into the kitchen and down to the floor, where he fell heavily.

"Stay down!" Luke yelled, not wanting to lose sight of the being who had witnessed all this.

He turned quickly back, expecting an incoming blow, but Leia had used the time to roll herself backwards over the worktop, whose far side she now stood at, her hands resting on its edge. Realizing, Luke made a desperate jump upwards, gathering the Force beneath it to gain height. A second later the whole heavy workbench came grinding forward to slam into the one behind Luke as he landed on its surface, struggling to hold his balance.

But he was now on the high-ground—and they both knew it. Leia backpedalled swiftly along the gap between the last two benches, bringing her saber up defensively as Luke set forwards. He made two high downwards blows as she tried to back clear, the second with enough power to knock her into the side wall as she countered it. Luke landed on the ground between her and the main walkway with his feet already planted, and brought his saber through a wide horizontal arc, catching her blue blade and powering it back one-handed into the wall beside her without slowing.

Both blades passed through the wall as if it were not there, but Leia's hand about her hilt hit the rough, unforgiving duracrete with force, and Luke sensed the jolt of pain shock through her as he pushed his own hilt onward to pin her hand.

Inside her guard with his own saber, he knew she was wide open for a backward swing from his blade which would have taken her head cleanly from her shoulders. As it was, he pulled his free hand up and back to deliver a heavy backhand blow across her jaw instead, with enough force that her knees went from under her and she collapsed down.

To her credit she didn't let go of her saber, though Luke's momentary shock that she would go down after so little abuse bought her a second in which her hand came to her face, where her lip had began to pump blood. And her shock finally fired something else in him; a deep burn started within his ribcage and flared out as momentary guilt so strong as to stop him cold…

Then experience took over, because he knew that one blow like that wouldn't even slow him against Vader. She still held tenaciously to her saber—and that made her a threat. He ground his hilt forwards against her hand.

"Let it go—let it go!"

When she didn't he pulled his saber briefly back to deliver a hard downward blow to the barked and bleeding knuckles of her clasped hand with the heel of his hilt. The shock of it opened her fingers by reflex and her saber fell free, dragging the blade back through the wall to deactivate as it fell. Luke bent to take it in the confined space…

And crouched down face to face with Leia as she remained still, one hand to her face, the other dropping to the floor, he felt again that rush of guilt—and with no threat to disperse it, this time it wouldn't fade, or be willed away. He faltered, feeling compelled to say something, though he had no idea how to explain.

"I'm… We couldn't fight, you understand?" He was still breathing heavily, but the all-consuming heat of conflict was already waning, leaving him cold. "It could only have escalated, and I didn't want to k… I had to stop it."

"Kill me now—get it over with, because if you don't, one day I'll kill you." She lifted her head, fire in her eyes.

"Don't," he said, quiet and very sure. "Don't say that, because I will. You have no idea how easy it would be."

She let out a half-laugh, part mocking, part frustration; knowledge that she'd lost her chance. But it was still bound up in that same anguish, that same all-consuming sense of loss, a pain more real than her bleeding face or broken knuckles.

Luke stared, pulled into some kind of empathy despite himself…and his hand, still tight about his saber, loosened, letting it drop slightly as he voiced in a whisper. "I swear I didn't know Vader was there."

"You dropped your shields so that he could pinpoint you—I sensed you do it!"

"I dropped my shields because Kenobi asked me to, you know that."

"And you're telling me that Vader just happened to be able to pinpoint you in that time, with no help from you?"

"Yes!"

"I don't believe you."

His saber dropped another inch, close to her but no threat any more. "Vader…Vader has a close connection to me. I've grown up around him. He'd need only moments t—"

"Because you're both Sith!"

Still lit, Luke's saber was facing away, now. They were both vulnerable, both undefended. "Because…because he's my father."

The jolt of shock that burst out from her made his own heart skip a beat in empathy as she stared, eyes wide. "That's…that can't... I don't believe you."

Luke frowned, taken off guard by her reaction, his own heart still pounding. "It's the truth."

"No, that's impossible!"

"Kenobi told me."

She stared, all her anger swallowed up within this sudden chasm of bewilderment. "Well then why didn't he tell me?"

"Why should he? Nobody else knows, even here."

Completely embroiled in her stunned wonder, Luke didn't even notice Han rush up behind him. Didn't know until Han grabbed at the rear of his shirt just below the collar and hauled him bodily backwards, pulling him another three steps and into the central aisle before Luke got his feet to the ground. Struggling to curb the overwhelming instinct to simply hurl Han bodily back against the wall with the Force, he brought his arm up fast, elbow out. The blow hit Han hard in the chest, and he let out a gasp but still didn't let Luke go, yanking him about, lightsaber swinging dangerously as Han yelled into his face.

"What the hell's wrong with you! Did you come here to—"

Luke struggled to wrench free, shirt ripping as Han fought to hold him, powering him back along the workbench until Luke hit the edge of the far wall with jarring power, Han still yelling in his face. "Luke—Luke!"

He turned just in time to see the briefest blur of Leia's form at the broken rear window as she disappeared into the night.

Twisting, Luke managed to get his elbow above Han's hold and used the heel of his free hand to launch a blow to Han's shoulder at the same time that he wrenched down, yanking himself free. Deactivating his saber, Luke rolled across the workbench top towards the window, almost falling as Han made another grab for him, thinking Luke was trying to pursue her. He stopped at the window though, only leaning out into the night to see her already two stories down, running along a narrow balcony and stopping at its edge to make a jump to another, two levels down…then she was gone, following it around the corner of the building into another deep alleyway…

Luke turned…to see Han, fury in his eyes. They stared at each other across the decimated room, Han's face hard, his lips narrowed into a thin line…then he spun about and set off at a run back out of the kitchen, pushing through the narrow clearance of yanked-back tables at the kitchen entry—hoping to catch up to Leia, Luke knew.

For long seconds he remained still, breathing heavily, coming down from the duel…from the strange buzz of profound empathy at its end, before Leia Skywalker had fled. Slowly his surroundings bled in about him, and he realized the demolished kitchen and restaurant beyond, distinctive narrow, burned slashes which gouged the wreckage and debris telling too clear a story. Still wired by the displaced calm that he'd had ground into him over the years, he calculated in seconds the possible outcomes, and how best to work within them…then walked coolly over to the kitchen's polished cooking burners. He opened all eight and stood, watching them hiss for a while, then slowly backed out across the room, the smell of the cooking fuel becoming heady as it flooded the space.

As he walked through the narrow path between the tangle of tables and chairs that Han must have dragged aside to get in, Luke saw again the terrified Pau'an, who'd inched slowly clear of the inner room. Backing up to the wall, the Pau'an remained still, eyes flicking between Luke and the hissing burner taps. Still possessed of the buzzing calm that had taken him early in the duel, Luke knew damn well that he was looking at a liability which needed to be taken care of—permanently. Deviating his path just slightly, he took a hank of the being's creased clothes and dragged him to the exit with him. Closing the door behind them, he stood on the twisted, half-wrenched-free floor of the metal walkway, gaze on the all-black eyes of the Pau'an who had seen far too much…

Foolish, to even think such a thing; his Master would laugh in his face for such weakness, Luke, knew, as he stared at the terrified man, not more than a year or two older than himself.

He dragged the unresisting Pau'an on by the scruff of his clothes, walking round the corner from the main street and hauling him about to come to a halt on the walkway at the side wall of the eatery. The Pau'an pressed back, eyes on Luke's lightsaber, and Luke stared into wide, glassy black eyes set into a pale red face, the deeply-inset vertical lines which naturally marked his skin now creased by undisguised fear as Luke pressed the toggle to reactivate his saber, feeling its familiar kick of power as the amber blade came forth.

It was strange, what came to Luke's mind in that moment; the insignificance of this one anonymous life, the clear and undeniable logic which dictated that to let the one being who had seen the duel live, was a gaping mistake…

The memory of just how much he'd envied the anonymous crowds whom he'd slipped between earlier, never once feeling part of.

His Master, standing inches from his face, fingers wrapped about Luke's arm, nails digging painfully into his flesh after Luke, barely more than eleven, had killed on command: "Never hesitate. Hesitate and you've already lost. Hesitate and I'm wasting my time trying to teach you. Hesitate and you're useless—worse than that. You're a hindrance. An embarrassment. Never, ever hesitate.

The body-blow memory of the moment that he'd killed Ashtor; of the sickened pall which had pressed in about him, collapsing something deep within with that familiar dense weight of...something. Some faint, fragile, unjustifiable sentiment that could never be allowed—not to him.

The Pau'an stared, chest frozen, eyes wide…

Luke thought briefly of Han, but in this moment even that didn't matter. All that was left was himself, and the youth with the all-black eyes. Luke stared, seeing himself in their glassy reflection, surrounded by absolute darkness…

"Go home," he whispered. The Pau'an stared as Luke released his hold of him and lifted his free hand to tap one finger to his own lips in both request and warning. Understanding, the youth nodded vigorously then sidestepped, still pressed against the wall. Two steps clear, he turned about and half-stumbled, half-ran down the remains of the metal staircase as Luke watched, curious at his own behavior. The barest twitch of a tentative smile came to his lips for one brief moment…

Then he turned about and plunged his lightsaber into the side wall. The growling flare as the gasses trapped on its other side ignited shook the building, the force of the explosion sufficient to bulge the permacrete blockwork to its side where Luke stood, and shatter the windows to the front of the eatery with violent force, fragmenting the flashing neon signs strapped to the outside of the walkway in front of its length, the bright, expanding bloom removing all evidence before it doused the main street into dark pandemonium.

Deactivating his saber, Luke walked from the alleyway and past the burning shopfront into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Stood before the windows of the Red Room in his quarters, Luke watched the long night bleed off into the dull stillness which always laid heavy before dawn, with no sign of Han.

Would he return at all? Probably. But so much was changing, and despite all that Han had said, Luke knew that he was still losing Han's friendship…simply because Han was going down a road that Luke couldn't follow, in being with Leia and in questioning the Empire. He'd tried to hide both from Luke, of course, and perhaps if things had been different they could have continued to act as if each didn't know, and the status-quo could have been left at that; just a few more facts which neither ever addressed—Force knew, there were enough of those in Luke's life.

But it couldn't be that way, not with Han. Simply because Han wouldn't let it; couldn't let things be, even if the outcome could only be damaging or straight-out dangerous. Strange, that it was how they'd met, was what had somehow welded and held them together…and it would be what eventually tore them apart. Luke could survive among secrets and compromise—it was how he lived—but Han…he was trying, so even by being here, he was changing—being forced to change. The very traits Luke valued in him, he knew he was extinguishing, by asking him to stay. And in return, in trying to be what Han asked of him, the concessions that Luke had long since surrendered to in order to simply survive here, were being equally and painfully relinquished. And unlike Han, Luke had no luxury of being able to walk away. His Master had long-since made that crystal clear.

The comlink at his hip pipped quietly and he pulled it free, thankful for the interruption…then sighed, feeling his shoulders slump. Leia Skywalker, again. She had commed six times in the last hour since the duel, though what was left to say, he didn't know.

He stared for long seconds…then opened his hand and brought the Force to bear. It required barely a sliver; he could collapse a snub-nose fighter around its pilot—this was nothing at all…and everything. Ridiculously easy, and one of the most difficult things he had ever done.

The comlink crushed into itself with barely a noise, compressing to a tangle of twisted debris as its single light faded and died—and with it, these brief, wild few weeks of recklessness.

Because this was all too hard—this friendship with Han, this futile attempt to step beyond what he knew. What he was. It was too hard to do alone, and it was too much to risk, that Han might just stay, when so much pulled him away now. Luke knew that. The man who had promised that he would stay, no matter what, was already absent.

He stood for a while and watched the distant streams of traffic until they blurred in his vision, bright lines in the darkness. About him, the dour-painted rooms held their own particular sullen silence in these early hours, their stillness stifling. He hated these hours, when his mind turned inwards. They reminded him of the crushing silence of the Throne Room; of hunching in terror in some corner of the vast, cavernous space whilst hulking shadows crawled and writhed with a life of their own, and he'd prayed for someone to come—anyone…save his Master.

He remembered too much, with the perfect crystal clarity that only the Force could summon.

It was now, if he was awake, that he would generally head out into the city, in search of the raucous, animated noise of the cantinas, or the hypnotic, grinding beat of the music in back rooms where you could buy sanity and oblivion in neatly rolled sticks. Anything to break the silence which he carried within like a scar on his soul.

Sighing, Luke dug his hands thoughtlessly into the pockets of the hide jacket he still wore…and pulled out a small packet.

It was the sample that Lind had given him; Snow and Ruby cross-strain. Luke stared at it for long moments, feeling his mouth dry and his heart beat faster…

Walking through to his room, he dragged his mattress back and rifled through tangled sheets until he found what he wanted—an old and crumpled pack of scarlet papers, only three left. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, it was so very easy to pack and roll the spice stick despite the tremble to his hand—as if no time had passed since the last…in the greater scheme of things, that was probably true.

He put it to his lips…and paused, taking it out again to study it. Loosing a long sigh, he looked past it and across the broken shadows of his empty room, to the wall at its far side…to the drift of sketches that had slowly begun to accumulate there. A distant light from some unknown source outside flashed across them, highlighting the faces of those who'd come to mean something in this pitiful excuse for a life. Indo, with barely a smile on his face, Palpatine, glaring in judgment, Bail and Breha Organa, eyes wide in fear. Vader, Solo.

Solo. He'd pulled Luke this far back from the pit…but that monster in the darkness that was all of Luke's tangled past still had its claws entrenched, and it was weighing him down and dragging him back, and he knew all too well that to struggle would only hurt him all the more. He'd learned that long ago—learned to hold silent and still and numb, and let the reality of his life roll over him. What had possessed him, to think for even a moment otherwise?

It came again, the memory, stilling his chest and wrapping about reality, bending everything to its power: his Master reaching down with such empty compassion as long, cracked nails catching against Luke's cheek as he wiped the tears away. "I am the only constant in your life, child. I am the only center, the very foundation. And I am the holder of secrets, now—I know you, as no-one else does, or ever will."

Luke flinched, blinking quickly against the moment he'd drowned within a thousand times. He looked briefly to the sketched shouts of Bail and Breha Organa, then made himself turn away. But the regret still gnawed, as he pulled the strike-lighter he still carried from his pocket, knocked open the lid and fired it in the same familiar motion, taking it in both hands to still its tremble as he lifted the spice stick to his mouth and lit it.

The first breath didn't work; the spice was never hot enough, it needed two or three to pull the heat through… Then a rush raced through him, tightening his chest and loosening his limbs, as that familiar heavy weight came over him, dropping his shoulders and rolling his head forwards. He wondered briefly if he was doing this to console himself or to punish Solo—but it was momentary, and easily overrun by the numbing spread of the spice, which pulled such thoughts down to hazy abstraction as his heartbeat amped louder. Painfully so; he didn't like the spice, didn't like that it took the floor from under him and stole his senses, reducing him to sluggish numbness…but it didn't matter; not any more. Too loose to sit, he leaned back to rest his head on the cold, hard floor, thinking—finally—of nothing more than the play of the city's distant lights across the ceiling of the big, empty room, as he had done a thousand times before.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

 

 

 

 

The summons from Palpatine arrived late in the afternoon. Luke had woken early, head muzzy from spice—the first he'd taken in many days, driven by the runaway events of the previous night's meeting with Leia Skywalker…and by the look on Han's face after he'd pulled Luke back. The duel had already been over, Leia's brief flare of antagonism and Luke's readiness to answer it quickly burned out to be replaced by…what? Something else entirely. But Han hadn't known that when he'd finally reached them, hauling Luke away then walking out on him to go after Leia.

So now Luke sat alone, torn between his frustration that he'd taken spice at all, and the nagging conviction that to drop back to the way things were, was the only real answer.

And yet Han's words kept on ringing in his head, underlining Luke's own disappointment in himself.

"It's amazing how quick it becomes that. How fast something that once took it all away, becomes something that just adds to your daily problems... And I know that you were just tryin' to deal with something, and maybe it worked for a while…but it doesn't any more, does it? If you ask me, that means it's time to leave it behind."

The words leached into Luke's thoughts more and more as the morning dragged on, so that he resorted to ever more elaborate props to keep his mind busy. Gorn and Indo, both on the day shift, stayed out of his way as Luke threw himself into accessing all information from the Ubiqtorate Hub regarding the Leafar Shield X project, his library desk strewn with multiple datapads and holo-projectors, all loaded up with details of the most likely candidate to get him off of Coruscant as quickly as possible, until the action of the last few weeks had died down.

He even had a reason for picking this project—the shields on all AdvancedTIE's, including his own Interceptor which had survived close proximity to the Death Star's destruction, were offshoot-technology from the Shield X system, originally designed for use with far larger ships. So it wasn't unreasonable that it would catch his interest. And the case had escalated when, after the theft of a corvette equipped with an operational Shield X system, several small Advanced starfighters which utilized Shield X technology had also been seized from the same Imperial-funded research facility. It could have been anybody, of course: a rival company, a theft to order, Black Sun even…but with the Leafar design company's links to the Maw Installation, and the information's inbound route to Coruscant through the Cron Drift—and therefore the Rebel listening post—Luke could already see the Rebellion's fingerprints all over this. Older fighters like the X-wing simply wouldn't have the power to fuel the Shield X system, but Luke didn't particularly want to start coming up against any of the rumored new A-wings utilizing it, the next time he flew against the Rebels. Any small fighter had its shields substantially bolstered by the system, and as long as it was able to supply sufficient power to them, bigger craft such as corvettes were rendered near-invulnerable.

That had to be sufficient reason to keep the design out of Rebel hands—and get Luke off of Coruscant to do so.

By lunchtime Han still hadn't shown, though security registered him as being in his quarters. Theoretically he had the evening shift tonight, but he generally turned up hours early. When he didn't, Luke quashed down the desire to go to his quarters, biting at his thumbnail as he stared at the datapads strewn across the wide library desk without seeing, torn between his body's freshly-fired desire for the next spice fix, and Han's words…and with a sudden, grave apprehension, he wondered if Solo himself was remembering those words and thinking the same thing—not of spice, but of being here at all: "I know that it worked for a while…but it doesn't any more… If you ask me, that means it's time to leave it behind."

.

When Palpatine's summons arrived it was, for once, a welcome distraction.

Accessing the Ubiqtorate's hub throughout the day for Shield X data had meant that Luke had also been able to passively monitor through-going information, and though the explosive fire in the Shades last night had been logged, it was being left to local law enforcement, meaning that it was presently not considered to have the kind of suspicious circumstances that would warrant Intel's interest. Which meant that Palpatine's summons would likely be about something else.

The list, Luke reflected, was still pretty long.

Still, he ran through the details of the Shield X project in his mind as he made the long walk through the upper levels of the ziggurat and into the grand, lofty corridors of towering proportions within the Turrets, the Emperor's private reserve, hoping for the chance to gain permission to leave.

 

 

Ninety steps. It was ninety steps to get from one side of the Waiting Hall, which preceded his Master's audience chamber, to the other. Ninety steps. He'd counted them many, many times as he'd made this same, tense walk. The immense red-marbled hall was almost without scale so great was its size, taking a minute or more to cross, though it still contrived to press in claustrophobically to Luke, making him always glance to the massive vaulted ceiling of the windowless hall, where a vast leaded glass lantern cast shuttered shadows over bare stone-dressed walls.

It had its usual scattering of power-mongers, who stared with open distaste and hidden wariness, the unremitting liver-red basalt on every surface coloring their features. Luke walked past with barely a sideways glance, though he knew most; their strengths, their weaknesses…at what point they would buckle if the right pressure was applied. It was his business to know such things, and at this level of power, they all knew that—as well as the fact that their status bought them immunity from his attention…for exactly as long as his Master needed them.

He walked on, caught up in his own mire of potential problems at the audience ahead, and the fact that his own wellbeing could just as easily be forfeit…and wondered for the first time what they saw in his own face, right now. But then everyone who made this fateful walk to his Master's presence was braced with the same look, no matter how often they did it; an uneasy mix of apprehension and resolve, the relative quantities dependent entirely upon the situation.

.

The fact that the Audience Chamber was empty when he entered caused Luke's step to break just slightly—if he was to be reprimanded, it was generally alone—but he caught his pace and walked the length of the hall, chest a little tighter, to kneel before his Master. Palpatine stood facing away from Luke to one side of the deep dais, as far from the streaming light of half-darkened windows as possible, his eyes on a large holograph of the major hyperspace routes of the galaxy's turnwise arm.

He didn't prevaricate; didn't even look round. "An armada of five Star Destroyers is being assembled in orbit over the next day, in preparation for a course taking in Atrivis and the Maw Cluster, then the Sanctuary Pipeline at Sullust."

Luke nodded, feeling his tension settle just slightly at the subject, his guilt at lying to his Master still playing on his mind. But the stop-offs indicated that this was another thing entirely. "The Second Death Star."

"Precisely. Its completion will be brought forward apace."

It was no great surprise; with the destruction of its predecessor, Luke had known that his Master's attentions would soon turn to the second Death Star. Even before the first Death Star's completion it had effectively been superseded by its successor, whose systems far outstripped it. Everything that had been learned in the first Death Star's construction had been put into practice in the second's. It occurred to Luke briefly to offer to go, in an attempt to get himself off of Coruscant—in fact he'd opened his mouth to say such, when his Master continued.

"I myself will make the journey on the Conqueror, going first to Atrivis, to better instill in those working upon it my expectations, and then the Maw, to personally rate and accelerate other weapons programs and completion schedules."

As he spoke, Palpatine reached into the hologram to highlight and magnify the upper part of the Rimma Trade Route near Sullust, and Luke held silent, suddenly hopeful, mentally calculating the amount of time that would be given over to the tour. It wasn't unheard of for his Master to make such journeys, he'd done so several times in the last few years of the first Death Star's completion, and only occasionally had Luke been made to attend. Weeks—it would take weeks, to make the wide arc which spanned almost half of the Empire, though his Master could conceivably make the tour in three separate stages, going first to Atrivis, then returning to Coruscant before journeying to the Maw Cluster in the Outer Rim, then a second return to Coruscant before travelling to Sullust just outside of the Mid Rim, though it made more sense to make at least two of the journeys together and—

"You will accompany the armada, travelling onboard the Relentless. Lord Vader will also form part of the force, onboard the Devastator." Highlighting Fondor, his Master continued without pause, unaware of the punch of panic that Luke suppressed at the casually-uttered command. "We will return from Sullust via the Fondor Shipyards, to view the Executor prior to its completion."

Luke's lip twitched; travelling in an armada meant that it would be harder to avoid his Master on a day to day basis—or for Lord Vader to do the same—which effectively put Luke in daily contact with both of them. "I've…" He looked down, hesitating…but he had to try. "I've already committed to the ongoing Ubiqtorate investigation into the stolen corvette fitted with Shield X technology, Master, and need to—"

"Leave it for another," his Master dismissed.

"It has connections to the infiltrated Maw communications. I led that case, and so have a clearer overview of..." He stilled as Palpatine turned.

"Perhaps I did not make my requirements clear. You will travel with the armada. Whilst we are at the Maw installation, you may use any free time available to you to further the case, then make a report to be transmitted back to the Ubiqtorate for their continued investigation."

Luke took a breath to speak…but his Master's unrelenting glare stopped him, so that he let it out a silent sigh and lowered his head in capitulation, knowing that his chance was lost—if there had ever been one.

Palpatine stared for several seconds longer, then turned away, his gravelly voice level again. "You will also make out a dossier on the outward journey containing everything you know of the Jedi woman, in readiness to be handed to the agent who will pursue her."

Again Luke glanced up, seeing an opportunity. "Let me take the task. I know her, I can—"

"No. That assignment is to be given to another."

"Lord Vader won't bring her in—he won't even get close. It needs more subtlety than he's capable of."

"I agree," his Master said simply. "The assignment will go to a field agent."

Brie or Jade, then, Luke knew; his Master would send someone capable of working against a Jedi, and there were few of those. If it wasn't himself or Vader, then it would have to be Shira Brie or Mara Jade, his Hand agents in the field. For a second, Luke realized that he was calculating this fact with an intent to pass it on…then quashed the thought. He had no way now, in any case; he'd made that decision final when he'd destroyed the comlink last night.

Aware that the Emperor was still looking closely at him, Luke straightened, trying to summon some sense of openness while hiding so much. He took the one thing he knew was unshakeable—his loyalty to his Master—and he brought that to the fore, gaining enough strength from it to hold his Master’s eye.

 

 

 

Palpatine watched the boy's nerves flicker briefly; sensed some deeper qualm quiver momentarily before it was quashed with decisive certainty asAntillesmet his stare without blinking. He knew, of course, that something was wrong—had sensed the ripples that had played uneasily across Antilles' thoughts for weeks now—but given the discontent in his own Household, that was to be expected. Viscount Indo's escalating attempts to have Solo removed, were evidence of that.

At least the boy had finally put to rest the matter of Vader's spy in his camp. It had taken longer than Palpatine had expected, but from all accounts, it had been decisive in the end…despite Solo's intervention, it seemed. And that, particularly, was a favorable sign. It would do the boy good to learn how to distance himself from all of those around him with equal effectiveness—save his Master. And if he didn't…well then, Palpatine intended for this trip to be cathartic for the boy in more ways than one.

Still…he narrowed his eyes. "The pilot in your staff…"

Antilleswas instantly on the defensive, though he answered his Master's prompt without hesitation. "Solo."

Palpatine nodded as he turned casually back to the starcharts. "Bring him."

"…Why?"

It was a careful question rather than an actual challenge from the boy, but even that was intolerable. Palpatine turned, letting his irritation imbue his sense unchecked…andAntillesglanced down, dropping his head a little lower—as well he might. Palpatine held silent as he glared for long seconds, watching the shadow of a frown cross the boy's tense face…

He was becoming more like his father as he grew to adulthood, harboring guarded thoughts, hiding tiny corners of private knowledge and holding them like gems. Such a desire for autonomy was to be expected to some degree, of course, but though his loyalty remained unreserved, these half-formed doubts had spotted the purity of his deference, leaving Palpatine to wonder, of late. Yet along with this had come a burgeoning connection with the Force; the final realization of all the potential that Palpatine had seen in a seven-year-old child…and as ever, the boy's undiminished allegiance ensured that this new wellspring of power was available to Palpatine without hesitation or misgivings. So if the two facets of development came hand in hand, then so be it. As with his father—as with countless others—it didn't matter what the boy felt. It mattered only that he obeyed.

Still, the knowledge of those hoarded fragments gnawed at Palpatine because despite the boy's devotion, they revealed a certain amount of self-determination, albeit crushed down and muted, and that was a far less desirable thing than a few petty little secrets.

Perhaps he needed some encouragement, to find his direction again. "Stand up."

Antillesstood, though he didn't meet his Master's eye. Palpatine stepped down from his dais, feeling a smile of satisfaction play on his lips when the boy tensed as he closed. He halted just a half step away, but said nothing for a moment; let his presence intimidate…then he reached out to gently lift the boy's head, crooked finger to his chin.

"These…friendships…" He said the word as if it were distasteful. Put into it every nuance of the debilitating hindrance that he wished the boy to understand they were. "They are always a disappointment, in the end. They always burn. No one will ever come close to the power of this bond between you and I. All others…they are petty and selfish and narrow, and if you leave yourself open to them, they will peck and they will dig and they will drive you to distraction."

Antillesglanced to the side with troubled eyes, and Palpatine knew that he'd touched a nerve; that this may well be the moment to push. He shook his head slowly, persuasively, indulgent now. "Such forged and fleeting friendships that others offer are always deceitful and insincere. They are always self-serving and hypocritical. If you let them, they will always take from you—and take, and take. They will always judge, and they will always demand….and when you can give no more, they will fade away to look for easier prey. Is that how you want to define your life—by clinging to feeble and fictitious props, offered by those who know that you are already more than they will ever be?"

"No, Master." It was barely more than a murmur.

"You could be so much, child…yet you hold yourself back. Knowingly. Worse, you let lesser beings do it for you, in tying you to their own inferior standards and ambitions. You know all this, and yet you allow it to continue…and for what? To undergo the humiliation of abandonment, one more time?"

When he remained silent, Palpatine moved to rest his hand gently against the boy's cheek in a forged gesture of affection—and in that second was suddenly intensely aware of his own decrepitude; of the dry and cracked whorls worn into the pale, sunken skin of his hands at every joint. Of the youth and vitality that the boy embodied; the one thing which no amount of power could buy—though he had greater plans and preparations in place, even for this. Still, a flush of envy filled him with the driving desire to close his fingers to talons and drive curved and cracked nails through that soft flesh…

The boy glanced up, his uncertainty visible in fine lines about his eyes…and Palpatine smiled graciously; guilefully. Because what he could not himself reclaim, he could hold in another. So there was joy, even here, in the knowledge that he could subjugate; could ravage and erode with dark clarity and absolute delight.

The thought twitched his lips from a sneer to a smile, as he put such false candour into his voice; such caring consideration. The boy should know this all too well, of course…but denied companionship with any other, he had always been so painfully desperate for any connection to the man who had raised him. Palpatine smiled wider, appreciative of his own artifice as he spun his persuasions.

"What did I say to you, the very night that I showed you just what a weakness such things are? What devastating, unnecessary flaws. I told you on their deaths that you need never feel like this again. I told you then that I was the only constant in your life. I was the center, the very foundation. The only keeper of secrets. I have never once judged you, though I know more than any other ever will. I alone know the truth—and I have always kept it safe." The boy glanced down as a flare of guilt lit his sense, unchecked, but Palpatine only smiled beatifically. "I have never asked anything of you, save that which I know will make you stronger. I told you that it was not the Sith way to harbor any other connection than that between Master and apprentice. That you should deny and eradicate any other by strength of will, or you would always be this vulnerable. You did not listen…and so I look now at one brought low by this pathetic and demeaning state." His lip curled in open distaste. "If you could only see yourself through my eyes, child…see how pitiful you are, in this. I had such plans for you…such hopes. Will you see them all fade and wither?"

"No, Master."

"Must I drag you every step of the way…or do you have within you the strength to walk alone?"

The boy remained still, head lowering by degrees as he scowled at the floor. But he listened; he always did.

"Luke," Palpatine pressed lightly at the boy's jaw to lift it again, aware of the power that simply speaking his name held, so little did he deign to use it. "We are different, our kind. We do not need others as they need us. We cannot and should not be bound by their petty rules or endless, insignificant demands. Every time you allow such a thing—every time you even consider it—you limit yourself. You humiliate yourself. They are below you, child. Pay homage to your own kind—to your own Master. It's here that dignity and solace lies. Duty will gain you contentment. Reverence will gain you honor. "

He released the boy, maintaining a subtle spear of disappointment in his voice. "Stand up straight. Remember who you are; what you are. I gave you that purpose, that identity. I granted you life itself, because I saw within you the potential for true loyalty. Do you feel nothing—no desire to uphold my faith in you? Because of me, you stand here today stronger than you could ever have been alone. I have given you everything—everything that you are and everything that you will ever be…I ask only for the same, in return."

Antilleslet his gaze drop in quiet compliance as Palpatine shook his head in rueful reproach. "You must place your faith here, child, and here alone. Place your life itself."

The boy's eyes skipped to his Master's, already anticipating the reply that was expected—but Palpatine shook his head before the words were spoken, though they remained a gratifying truth. "I know that you would die for me…but that is no longer enough. You must live your life for me, too; for my command. Devote it to me alone...there can be nothing else. I ask so little in the greater scheme of things; the devotion of a single, lost child." His voice dropped lower, forcingAntillesto strain; to concentrate simply to hear, so that his next words, spoken with absolute surety, would remain in the boy's thoughts for a long while to come. "Don't you see, child? I ask this not of you, but foryou, because without me you are nothing…absolutely nothing."

 

 

 

 

 

Stood alone in the looming grandeur of his Audience Chamber when the boy had been dismissed, Palpatine steepled his fingers to rest them on his lips in thought as he glanced up at the domed and lanterned ceiling, dressed in agate-marbled stone. His thoughts were taken momentarily by the somber magnificence of the echoing space; it dwarfed so many, he knew. To him, it was merely a token of the scale of his achievements.

He looked to the doors through whichAntilleshad exited moments before, thoughts a conflicted tangle of his Master's words and his own private, always deep-seated inhibitions. He had held the boy so long, and controlled him completely in so much, and yet…he still wondered whether to have gained him younger still, would have been beneficial. Then again, the methods which had gained him the boy—the decisive removal of his guardians, andAntilles' carefully-plotted involvement in it—had also aided greatly Palpatine's ability to manipulate the growing boy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, fear of abandonment had long been one of Antilles' greatest weaknesses, and so was always a useful tool to underline the capricious fickleness of others as opposed to his Master's constant presence—in fact, Palpatine had worked towards this by inserting a string of individuals into the boy's life over the years with the express intention of removing them, of which the Corellian, Solo, was simply the latest. Each was used to further draw the boy away from even considering trusting any other, and pull him back to Palpatine himself, with claims that he alone was the only constant in the boy's life. It was, after all, true; Palpatine had seen to that.

But his words tonight had not been simply another underlining forAntillesof the drawbacks of placing his faith anywhere but with his Master. Not simply another demand for loyalty. Because of late, as the boy's powers had clarified and begun to reach their full potential, Palpatine had become more aware of just how much he needed to ensure that he hadAntilles' total attention. The obvious way to do that—the easy path—would be to underline the boy's isolation one more time by removing the Corellian, as he'd promised Viscount Indo was his intention. But no...he smiled appreciatively into the night, aware that the game had become so much wider—and yet so much more specific, as the stakes had increased. Because what had been intended as a test of detachment had taken on new potential in the past weeks, asAntilles' Force abilities had finally stabilized.

Indo had been so reliable for so long, but Palpatine hadn't missed the signs; the boy's abilities were ringing truer every day, and the question playing through Palpatine's thoughts now, was whether that because of the Corellian's involvement. And if that were so, then the next obvious question had to be…if Palpatine removed Indo rather than the Corellian, would the boy's abilities increase faster? What to do…how to choose.

Palpatine frowned, staring into the depths of the massive hologram which rotated before him, a complex cartography of the galaxy itself, laid out before its rightful master. Yes, the boy's powers had clarified and stabilized...more, even, than Palpatine had anticipated. Perhaps Luke Antilles' role as another Hand should be modified, to take that into account. He had no wish to rid himself of the boy, confident of his control, and one should always be willing to amend one's plans, in the face of unexpected change. To sendAntillesaway in less than a year now seemed unnecessarily wasteful. As to Solo—and Indo…they too should not be wasted.

He tilted his head as a thought occurred—one that dealt with several problems at once: the boy, his mentors…his future, given recent events—

And nodded, allowing a slow smile to snake across his lips. Yes…yes, there was the answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts intent on the virtual screen before him—on the daily work of ensuring the smooth running of Luke Antilles' household—Indo slowed to glance about him: the burred ebony panels polished to a mirror finish in his stately office, the dark and dignified ascetics of the elegant corridor leading to the empty apartment beyond… It had been his vocation for so long now, to maintain everything in its proper place here, with fastidious precision. He simply couldn't imagine any part of that changing. Yet he feared very much that it was doing so, because of Solo's involvement...

And Solo, in his arrogance, thought that this could only be a good thing. Knowing nothing of the greater landscape here, political or private, nothing of the persona's or the powers involved, he simply steamed on ahead to...Indo would have liked to have said to his own personal agenda, but he doubted that the man worked even that identifiably—if he did, he could have at least been either intimidated or bribed. But no, he simply reacted, and in doing so threw everything in the air with scant and reckless disregard of the greater picture—both Indo's long-standing intentions and Luke's ongoing stability.

Luke had, it seemed, avoided Indo since Solo's accusing outburst two days earlier, and Indo had chosen not to push the matter or broach it with Luke yet, preferring to let the matter settle for a while. He didn't particularly feel slighted by Luke's actions; the Corellian seemed to have made it his mission to worm his way into Luke's life, and part of that would naturally require the removal of all existing associations. In a similar situation Indo would have done the same, though a good deal more subtly.

He had, for instance, already been to the Emperor to voice his concern at the disruptions that Solo was causing almost constantly now, which he hoped would pre-empt any accusations that Solo may eventually take to the Emperor. Though in truth, he doubted that Solo would do that; he'd acknowledged himself that to do so would inevitably involve Luke, and therefore cause as much damage to his own reputation with the boy as it did to Indo's with the Emperor. And Solo surely realized that Indo had dangerous information on him, too; about the Rebel woman on Toprawa. That alone would be equally as damaging to Solo's already-shaky reputation here, as any accusation he tried to level at Indo. He had to know that.

And then there was Luke himself; all of this disruption and disorder served only to undermine the wellbeing of the one person whom Solo claimed he was trying to protect. Indo had spent so long establishing calm and order here, habit and convention. Yes, his methods were unorthodox…but in case Solo hadn't noticed, they had worked. And what hadn't…was manageable. He still vividly remembered the slight and stifled boy who had been placed in his care that night. Remembered the pity he'd felt, on seeing the child. The guilt at having looked away for so long. The compromises he'd made in the years since… And quite suddenly and unsettlingly, he wondered…had they been too many?

Movement at the edge of his vision caught Indo's eye, and he turned, to see Luke leaning against the frame of his open office door in silence, still in his Ubiqtorate uniform, the high collar buttoned. He hadn't heard the footsteps which would have announced the boy's return, but then he seldom did.

"Do you need something, Luke?" He kept his voice measured. That Luke was here at all was…Indo hesitated, wondering; That he was here at all… here, and not with Solo. It occurred only now that the man whom Indo generally couldn't get rid of at any time of day, let alone altogether, was suddenly conspicuous in his absence.

He remained still, quietly hopeful for a return to past grace. There was no resentment for all that had happened—both he and the boy were long past that, on so many counts. It was Solo who was at fault, for wheedling the information from Luke in the first place. It had to be; in all their years, Luke had never told anyone else. No, Solo was the dangerous one—first for what he now knew and just as importantly, for the fact that he'd been able to gain Luke's trust sufficiently to find out. One more reason why he should be removed.

Luke remained still and silent, arms wrapped about himself, and Indo brought his own thoughts into cooler alignment, lest the boy should choose to look. But he seemed preoccupied, voice despondent.

"I just spoke with the Emperor…an armada of five Star Destroyers will have gathered in orbit around Coruscant by tomorrow morning. We're travelling with Palpatine in the armada, to the Greater Plooroid Sector, then the Maw, and Sullust. I was…" Luke glanced down in avoidance, so that his eventual words were a barely heard murmur. "I thought I would need to…to go out tonight…"

And there it was; Indo understood immediately, in a rush of relief. Normality was reasserting itself, as he'd had faith that it would. In fact, he'd already prepared—as ever. "I see. It seems that I have a great deal to organize." He glanced, for just a moment, to the drawer beneath the polished hardwood of his wide, orderly desk, then rose to leave, such practices long-since embedded into their private vocabulary. "I would, however, prefer that you remained here tonight."

Luke didn't reply; didn't look up to meet Indo's eyes, though he waited for a long time. Eventually, Indo walked silently past the boy and out of the apartment, knowing that Luke would already have opened the drawer beneath his desk to retrieve the small, copper-spun box which had waited within, carefully filled with Ruby spice.

 

 

Even as Luke walked to his rooms, the box in his hand, some small voice at the back of his mind told him not to; cried out in frustration that he was about to drop back into familiar habits with such calm resignation.

Because this wasn't the momentary lapse that last night had been, and he knew it. This was a return to his old life, to the way things had always been—knowingly. It had to be, because if he didn't, then he wouldn't survive. Wouldn't survive Han's walking out on him, knowing that it would be a slow slide back down into numb, lonely capitulation. Even now it settled like a weight within him as he searched for some kind of reaction, some kind of emotion…but already they were starting to depress down into homogenous stillness again.

He knew, of course, that Han would return to the palace—that he'd walk back in here either at this shift change or the next, as if nothing had happened. But he also knew that everything would have changed. Because for Han, whether he realized it or not, it already had.

Luke hadn't understood, at first—couldn't fathom why, when he'd done far worse things than the duel last night, Han hadn't judged. It had taken a while to comprehend that it wasn't what Luke had done, it wasto whom.Then it had all become clear. Not just Han's reaction last night, but his whole mindset, then, now...and in the future.

Perhaps it would be better this way. He had, briefly, allowed himself to feel something. Had learned to appreciate that strange and alien warmth that emanated from others. Had laughed again. But the price of those brief highs had been devastating lows, and he couldn't survive those without someone here to buffer him, he knew that—couldn't survive this life or face his Master with such a crippling vulnerability. He knew from long experience that it was simply too hard, alone. Indo did what he could, in his own way, but his solutions...they were of a different kind. Better to close down once more; to fall back into the insular safety of stillness, and numb what little was left with spice.

The hint of a dry smile twitched his lips, because he'd thought again of Solo's words: "It worked for a while…but it doesn't any more, does it? If you ask me, that means it's time to leave it behind."

It was true; time to leave it behind, this momentary flare of ridiculous, wild hope. Time to leave it all behind… And he knew exactly how to do that.

Walking into the echoing silence of his empty room, he dropped cross-legged to the floor, and opened the box…

 

 

 

 

…It was a vague attenuation; a swirl of moving shadows at the edges of Luke's frayed awareness, which dragged him back to the moment. He blinked rapidly, feeling some distant sense of surprise that even this had coalesced, in his present state. Lying on the floor in his room and staring at the ceiling through a haze of scarlet smoke, he wanted nothing more than to remain where he was, his limbs heavy beyond tiredness, the overwhelming desire to sleep pulling at every fiber of his body. But again, he sensed the shadows crawl about him, and knew that Vader was close…close enough to be inside his apartment, and coming closer by the moment...and he was angry. But then Vader was always fuming about something. Luke smiled, amused at that, as he rolled onto his side and pushed himself upright with over-loose limbs. Licking his lips, he could still taste the rough acidic tang of the spice stick which had burned to nothing in his hand, its ash falling close to the spent stubs of others…which made him smile again—he wasn't sure why.

He walked through his private rooms with a slow, uneven gait, eyes on the double-doors which opened onto the Red Room beyond; he needed to be out there. He didn't want Vader to come any further, and from the roiling antagonism which whirled within the furls of the dark cloak he wore, Luke doubted that Vader would be stopped by locked doors. For an instant Vader's thoughts cut into Luke's own, so that he saw a brief, confusing image; the reflection of a raven figure in the mirrored wall of the Red Room, fragmented and distorted by its warped mercury-glass panes. His head swam and he reached out his hand to steady himself, but there was nothing for support in the bare room, so that he staggered clumsily forward and to one side until the heel of his outstretched hand hit against one of the canvases on the wall. Blinking rapidly, he called what he could of the Force to him, fighting to clear the effects of too much spice as the doors before him snicked their release and opened.

 

 

Staring at his own reflection in the mirrored wall as he stalked towards it, Vader had a brief, indistinct image from the boy's point of view as he walked towards the other side of the mirrored doors, the vision hazy and unclear despite their now-close proximity, the connection unguarded but somehow tainted. For a second he felt reality tilt to one side so that he staggered a step, disoriented…then the moment lost cohesion altogether and wisped to nothing, as the mirrored door slid aside.

The boy stood there, one hand to the door's frame, his shoulders hunched almost vulnerably. It didn't slow Vader.

"Where is this from?" He strode on without preamble, stopping only to throw the half-empty blood vial atAntilles. It froze mid-air before the boy, but then dropped slightly as he reached to take it, forcing him to almost grab for it as it fell. Still, a hundred shields raised into place with practiced ease as he smiled, unmoved before the open threat in Vader's bass, growling voice.

"I believe congratulations are in order, Lord Vader."

The dry amusement inAntilles' tone bit like never before, and Vader couldn't help but react, stepping quickly forward to grab for him. The boy sidestepped almost clumsily to slip from Vader's grip, still fast enough to somehow be one step free and into the room before Vader had corrected,Antilles' hand up in warning as he took a further step back, though he didn't seem truly threatened.

"I don't believe that it is real." Vader was aware that his own voice and sense were barely controlled.

Antillesshrugged, loose-limbed, blinking too rapidly as he leaned heavily on the edge of an inlaid table, his tone mocking, though his words were almost slurred. "Then don't. Turn around and walk out of here, and forget all about it."

Vader remained, aware that the youth held all the cards. "It's a manufactured sample."

"I'm sure you've had every possible check run on it. You know it's genuine."Antilleswrapped his arms about himself, seeming briefly, intensely uncertain—then grinned. "Perhaps you just need a little time to adjust. I know I did—shocked can't begin to describe my…"

"Where is he?" It was a struggle for Vader to keep his voice level—to resist the urge to wipe that mocking smirk from the boy's face.

Antillespaused, uncertain. "…Where?"

Vader stared, thoughts still rushing as to how this had happened—how Padmé had hidden the boy. Surely she had died too early to protect him at all. But if it had been within her power, then she certainly would have made sure that her son's future was safe. Where had he been, that Vader hadn't found him for so long? And how galling that Kenobi's son had been the one to do so… That brought another thought to the surface, as Vader took a half-step forward. "If you have injured him…"

"Injured?" The boy virtually laughed the word as he looked away. "No, Lord Vader, I'll leave that to you—you make such an art of it."

Vader scowled, furious and helpless in the same instant. What was that supposed to mean? "Until I see him, I don't believe it's true."

Antillesstared into Vader's fury for long seconds, and all that he could do was grit his teeth and take it, knowing that the boy would grasp every opportunity to taunt, long familiarity gifting him the knowledge, and the automatic desire, to twist that knife.

"Ah,"Antillesalmost nodded; almost laughed, as if in comprehension of some private joke. He blinked again; shook his head in cynical amusement. "And what would prove his existence to you? How about a pint of that precious blood?"

Vader took another half-step forward and froze, forcing himself still as the boy's cool eyes filled with amused scorn.

"No? I bet you'd take a pint of my blood right now, though?"

"At the very least," Vader growled.

Antilleslet loose a dry grin. "Be careful what you wish for, Lord Vader."

"Wishes are for children," Vader ground. "I am talking of intent."

"Look at you."Antillesloosed a brief, bitter laugh as he spoke, looking Vader up and down through bloodshot eyes. "I'm betting you'd jump through hoops to see the son you didn't even know existed, wouldn't you? If I were you, I'd be looking to smooth the waters; make a deal. But you just can't bring yourself to do it, even for this, can you—not with me."

Every muscle tense, Vader fought to rein in his temper, aware that now was not the time. When he had his son, then he would deal with this—with Kenobi's bastard progeny—once and for all. This really was the final game the boy would play. The temptation to rip him to pieces where he stood was almost overwhelming…

The boy set his head to one side, tone mocking. "Contemplating fatherhood? I'm sure it's quite a shock; it certainly was to your son."

Realization hit Vader, unnerving in its implications: "Then he knows who he is?"

"Oh yes, he knows,"Antillesallowed, no trace of a taunt in his voice as it dropped to introspection. "He knows exactly what he is."

"I want to see him," Vader repeated, the demand undisguised.

"Perhaps he doesn't want to speak to you."

The words stopped Vader cold. Why would he not want to? How could he feel anything other than what Vader felt right now? Of course he wanted to speak to his own father, this was justAntillesplaying his petty power games. "Because of course, he would tell you that."

"Oh, he tells me everything,"Antillesstated. "We're very close."

The leather of Vader's gloves creaked ominously as he closed powerful hands into fists, though the boy was not in the least fazed as Vader growled in reply, "He would not trust you."

Again that knowing smile. "Ah, but he knows I'm the only one he can trust."

What lies hadAntillesbeen filling his son's head with? Think,Vader commanded himself; get some information—anything. Somewhere to start looking. "Have you spoken to him—does he know that I am aware, now?"

"As a matter of fact he does, yes. And he was, I can tell you, pretty ambivalent about the fact." Again that laconic, private amusement.

"Will you tell him of this meeting?"

"Let's just cut through the games and say I have access to him," the boy stated, clearly aware of Vader's intention. "I've yet to decide whether you deserve the same."

He fixed Vader with a strange look as he murmured the last, and a moment of calculating silence held between them, as if he were truly considering. Then he straightened again, pulling himself back to the moment. "Oh, and if you're thinking of taking this to Palpatine I would advise you against it very strongly. For a start, he already knows."

The twist of raw anxiety that Vader was unable to disguise seemed only to goad the boy on. "In fact, it turns out that he's invested a great deal of time and effort in making sure you didn't know for a very long time now. Believe me when I tell you that if he thought for one second you had even an inkling of your son's existence…"Antilleslet his words trail off, his empty smile doing likewise as his voice took a serious edge. "Together you become a threat, you see; father and son. Too much of a connection for our Master to tolerate, I presume. Think of my…concealing him as a favor. You don't wish to see him hurt—and contrary to your belief, neither do I. And trust me when I say that Palpatine would be livid if this got out."

It was true, of course; his son was in mortal danger even if Vader managed to pry him fromAntilles' hold. His heartrate lifted another notch in realization of that. "Where is he! Let him go."

The youth narrowed his eyes as his chin lifted a fraction. "Why? What do you want with him?"

It was a surprising question in that it was just that—a question. No mockery, no aside, no games. The openness of it reverberated through the Force with unsettling clarity. "He needs protection."

"Perhaps he can take care of himself," the youth said, unmoved.

As if he could—againstAntilles; against Palpatine.

"He's in danger. You said so yourself."

"Which is why he'll remain hidden, for now,"Antillescountered. "I'll be the one to take care of him."

"You," Vader blurted, seeing red. "You'd just as likely turn him over to the Emperor as to me—then beg your Master for permission to cut his throat yourself out of some petty sense of misguided revenge."

"Revenge," the youth repeated, not in the least offended by the charge Vader had hurled at him. "An interesting notion… Why would I need revenge on you, do you think? Perhaps for all those years of malicious abuse that you rained down on a child who was alone and isolated here, because all you could see was a threat. Or perhaps you're remembering that you killed Kenobi just days ago, then brought back his lightsaber for the sole purpose of enjoying the look on my face when you threw it at my feet."

The accusations were issued with the cool, distant calm of one who had lived too long beneath such callous treatment to be effected by such acts. Perhaps his years here truly had caused so much damage that any greater feeling was forever lost to the boy—though he'd long since learned the concept of leverage. "I wonder…do you regret that now?" The words, no more than a murmur, were as close to a threat as the boy had come in this strange conversation, and the implication left Vader cold.

"I regret not killing you nine years ago," he growled with absolute, cold candor.

The intense study inAntilles' eyes leached away, leaving a moment's inexplicable disillusionment before he rallied with that familiar insular amusement, though the boy didn't flinch. It was nothing that Vader hadn't said many times before with equal sincerity.

"And lose this opportunity to know your son? I'm sure you can't possibly mean that, Lord Vader."

"What opportunity?" Vader countered.

Antillespaused, seeming to consider for long seconds… "Give me a message—I'll take it to him."

Vader let loose a rasping laugh; as if he'd give the manipulative little Sith that kind of control. Then a second thought occurred; he should do it—if he gave a message, then Antilles would have to contact his son in order to pass it on…and that might provide an opportunity to find out where he was confined. He hesitated, then offered, "Tell him…tell him that I know of him, now."

The youth tilted his head, voice dry. "Be careful, Lord Vader—you wouldn't want to get too emotional."

Vader narrowed his eyes as he ground out a threat aimed more towards the cur that stood before him now than his stolen son. "Tell him that I will come for him—that I will break and shatter anything that stands in my way. That I will rip it to shreds and hurl it aside. That nothing will escape my wrath and no one will be beyond my vengeance, and I will spend every minute of every day from now until I have my son beside me, in contemplation of the horrific, agonizing deaths that will be exacted on those who thought to cross me in this."

Antillesonly smiled before that heartfelt tirade, completely unintimidated, though he would know very well that Vader meant every word of it. Would his own son be as strong as Kenobi's bastard, Vader wondered? Of course—of course he would. He raised his chin at that, the first inkling of pride for the son he didn't yet know beginning to color his thoughts.

"Well,"Antillesstated evenly, "I was thinking of something more along the lines of 'Hello,' but it's your choice, I suppose."

 

 

Watching Vader flounder in helpless silence, Luke hesitated a second then turned away, having nothing more to say. The absurdity of the whole conversation lent it a surreal air easily equal to the spice which ran in his veins. Still, the undisguised hatred that rolled in waves from his own father made what had originally been nothing more than a bizarre, spice-fed game all too familiar. He was unsure how it had come to this anyway; he hadn't intended to mislead Vader, or to provoke or torment him like this, it had just…happened, as it always did with Vader, the conventions already deep-seated.

And now he had no idea how to backstep, even if he'd wanted to. He turned away and walked quickly to the mirrored wall behind him, wishing to end this.

As the doors slid open Vader's bass voice rumbled out again, the barest hint of hidden need audible, and even that making it all but unrecognizable to Luke.

"Tell him…tell him I am glad."

Luke's step faltered, heart and chest freezing momentarily at the unexpected sincerity, no idea of how to react to such a thing from the man who had been his avowed enemy for so long. But then it wasn't meant for Luke—not really. It was meant for some imaginary, perfect son that Luke could never even hope to measure up to. When he found out the awful truth, Vader's words would change quickly enough.

Shaken more by that momentary chink of compassion than he could ever have been by a thousand threats, Luke nodded just once without turning then walked quickly from the room, deeply disquieted.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

Standing on theCommand Bridge of the Emperor's Star Destroyer, Conqueror, Vader glanced briefly to the Corellian pilot Solo, who stood off to one side withAntilles, curious again as to why the Emperor allowed his continued presence. Aside from some vague attachment toAntilles' household, he had no function here that Vader could see, and Palpatine wasn't in the habit of indulging the boy. Though if that was the sole reason, then Solo's star may well be waning; he andAntillesstood several steps apart, and had not once spoken since entering.

Still, Solo watched Vader warily, eyes narrowed to slits, the protective flare he had for Kenobi's son still firing. Why, Vader didn't know; the boy was perfectly able to take care of himself, by any means.

Vader's gaze turned to Antilles just steps away, staring out of the wide viewscreen and across the void to the Relentless, which flew in close formation starboard of the Conqueror. They were barely a day into a sixteen-day tour of duty, and with all the Destroyers holding sublight speed for this meeting to take place, the four Destroyers responsible for the Emperor's protection were flying with pinpoint precision about the Conqueror. Despite his legendary confidence the Emperor was notoriously vigilant, never travelling in less than a large convoy—which had dragged both Vader and Antilles into service at close quarters, something that they normally avoided…and which the Emperor seemed to take great delight in orchestrating.

Antilles' sense was so tightly wrapped as to be near-impenetrable even at this distance…but as ever, there were tiny slivers there to be read, if one looked carefully; something Vader knew that he could do closer even than Palpatine. And right now, the boy was uneasy—doubly so, first because he hadn't expected Vader to be here, waiting to attend the same meeting as himself, and secondly because…what? Some deeper uncertainty fired within him, something hidden and raw.

He would have liked to think that it was nerves fired by the boy's close proximity to himself, when Antilles had admitted that he held Vader's son captive. But Antilles had always  been stubbornly unafraid of him. Palpatine had worked hard to imbue in the growing boy a total lack of fear for any outward threat, by the simple method of making himself the most terrifying thing in the boy's life.

Palpatine…Vader stilled, thoughts going to their Master now…because if the blood sample that Antilles had provided was real—and the boy's call on that had been correct; Vader had ordered every possible test to be done, to ensure that it wasn't a well-constructed simulation—then that meant that Palpatine had lied to Vader. Knowingly. It had been Palpatine himself who had told Vader of Padmé's death, always alleging that her unborn child had died with her. How many times had Vader made himself watch images from the torchlit procession on Naboo, knotted up by a dark and seething fury at the bitter unfairness of the Fates, to have left him alive when she was lost by his own hand—his own hand!

Yet if Antilles was to be believed, then Palpatine knew that Vader's son had survived. And aware of all that Vader felt—that he had lived for Padmé, that he would have died for her without a moment's hesitation—Palpatine had still made claims which had burned scars deeper than Mustafar's searing lava, and had turned all of his grief and his fury inwards, to eat at his own core until nothing remained.

Had done it knowingly.

For a brief moment, it occurred to Vader that Antilles may have access to Vader's son because Palpatine himself kept the boy imprisoned somewhere—and he stilled, muscles locking in a flare of panic. Was that how Antilles knew—through Palpatine? His eyes went again to the youth, dread making his heart pound; if Palpatine had the boy concealed in some distant keep, if he had total control over the boy's life…

Or was it Kenobi, who had told Antilles the truth? Given his own bastard son the means to strike at Vader with a terrible power? Vader glanced out into the darkness of space, feeling his chest ease and his breathing loosen—because if that were the truth, then his son would have been concealed by Kenobi and… he frowned, intensely aware in that moment of the cooling relief that had cloaked him, at the thought that it may have been his enemy, and not his own Master—the man to whom Vader had sworn his allegiance, whom he had helped place, and now kept in power—who had reared Vader's unknown son from infancy to adolescence.

What had become of all of Vader's high ideals, that this was their sum? That the most terrifying thing imaginable was that Palpatine might hold the same control over his own son, as he now held over Kenobi's—and by the same methods.

He moved his head just slightly to glance to the boy whom Palpatine had raised, seeing him afresh. A scarred and subjugated little creature, slight and gaunt from years of neglect in his youth, yet he still walked to his Maser's heel with blind loyalty…or did he?

Antilleshad claimed that Palpatine knew of Vader's child…but had not actually claimed that he'd come to know the facts through his Master. Had, in fact, gone to pains to clarify that Vader's taking Antilles' admission to Palpatine would be a dangerous thing.

Had Palpatine told Antilles anything at all of Vader's child…or was the boy finally gaining a will of his own, as he grew into a man?

An interesting thought…because if it were true, then what did Antilles intend to do? Why tell Vader that his son was alive? What did the boy who had grown up learning his Master's intricate games, gain from this?

Vader stilled, tilting his head further to secretly watch the boy as he stared longingly at his own Destroyer, clearly wishing he were there, his shoulders taut, eyes locked. Blue eyes… Vader studied them now, as he had a thousand times. Blue-eyed boy—that was what Palpatine called him, curse and derision, both. And yet…the boy didn't know how, in his darkest moments, Vader coveted those pale blue eyes, long-lost in his own reflection. To him they were the color of innocence, of the wide-open skies of Tatooine; of salvation. The boy didn't see it that way, of course. To him they were a blight; damnation, that they hadn't scorched sulphur yellow or burned blood-red.

Blue…it meant something more to the boy, as it meant something to Vader, he knew; could sense it like a shadow over clear desert skies. Every time that the boy saw his reflection—saw again the color of his eyes, he remembered…something. Something hidden and painful, which tore at him deep within…

Antilles turned to look directly at him, and Vader knew that he had pushed a fraction too far and the boy was aware that he was being studied on the deepest level. Sky blue eyes turned cold as ice, everything locked down beneath their frozen stare, and Vader turned to look slowly away. But that moment remained; that half-sensed, opaline-tinted memory of something deeper, something profound. Innocence lost.

.

The door to the conference room to one side of the wide bridge slid open, and Saté Pestage walked out, pausing to bow slightly in invitation as the door remained open. Vader strode forward,Antillesfour steps ahead of him—

The boy paused, turning to Solo…they had brief, tense words as the Corellian whispered through locked jaw and Antilles shook his head, obviously telling him to remain outside. Their whispered argument raised…until Vader neared, at which point both fell to instant silence.

Turning, Antilles walked quickly on, leaving the Corellian stranded with a fierce frustration. Barely one step ahead of him now, Antilles entered an audience with the Emperor without visible qualms—though that same unease remained, diffuse and oblique.

.

They stopped before the wide sweep of a pristinely polished desk behind which the Emperor stood with his back to them, richly embroidered robes the same velvet hue as the inky black of deep space beyond, as he gazed on the convoy of Star Destroyers about him.

"It is time to move plans forward, in the wake of the Death Star's destruction," he said at last, without turning. "I have allowed these petty criminals to act against me under revolutionary claims because it has served my intentions in the past, enabled me to instigate martial laws in reaction to their attacks…but no more. They have the impudence, the audacity to believe they can act against me without reprisals..."

He turned to bring one pale hand to the dark desk, curled to a fist. "It is time to deal with this insolent little Rebellion, lest others begin to believe that the blind good fortune that enabled them to destroy my battle station is some kind of divine turning point. There is nothing stirs the masses like the unlikely victory of an underdog. They believe it providence; the start of something greater. We will disabuse them of that assumption swiftly and completely. We will strike with every power at our disposal."

Ochre eyes flicked to Vader as he continued. "You are to be given control of this commission, Lord Vader. It will be the first task of the Executor upon its launch, to head up a new unit—the Death Squadron—with a mission of rooting out and destroying this fledgling Rebellion."

Beside him, Vader was peripherally aware of Antilles turning his head just slightly, his brief flare of frustration that he was clearly to be left behind once again, quickly quashed.

Uncaring, Vader's thoughts remained on the task. "They are scattered far and wide, to hinder the search."

"Ten Star Destroyers, twenty frigates and an interdictor will be placed at your disposal as an initial force in advance of any action. Whatever ships and ordnance you require when you move from tracking down to engaging them, you have my approval to requisition. Your brief is to…center this Rebellion's attention, shall we say. To apply pressure in any and every way possible. When the time comes—when the second Death Star is at a specific phase in its construction—I will draw them out of hiding for you, my friend, using it as bait. In the meantime, all that their victory has done is brought them to my attention. I rely on you as ever, Lord Vader, to clarify to them and all beings, what a terrible and dangerous thing that truly is."

"The second Death Star is three years from completion," Vader reminded.

"Hence my decision to visit its construction site, now. I will re-prioritize its completion and determine exactly the order of its construction, to keep events moving forward to the pace that I dictate."

He paused, knowing that his next words would cause affront but not caring, the pause simply to make Vader aware of that fact. "To this end, we will make an unscheduled stop at Drydock IV, near Corsin, in two days' time. It is practically en-route to the Death Star's Atrivis construction site, and I have made arrangements to speak with Moff Jerjerrod there. I will grant him formal control of the Death Star's construction, certainly until it is moved to the Sanctuary Pipeline, and possibly beyond."

Unseen, Vader pursed scarred lips in annoyance. Jerjerrod had been his first choice for Admiral onboard the Executor, on its launch. In fact the man had already accepted and made provisions to pull back from his present position as Quanta Sector's Moff, which was likely how he had come to Palpatine's attention in the first place. There was little point in arguing the loss of his new Admiral, however—particularly withAntillespresent.

"The first Death Star was a testing ground," the Emperor said decisively. "The next will be so much more, its superiority such that even before its completion, it will be instrumental in destroying the Rebel insurrection." Having made his intentions clear, the Emperor turned now to Antilles. "By the time we reach the Corsin Drydock, I expect the intelligence file regarding the Jedi woman to be completed, awaiting my approval."

Antilles nodded, and Vader risked a brief glance to the side, aware from the tone of the Emperor's words that he had spoken previously on this with the boy. Was he to hand the task to Antilles after all, then? And how had the boy managed that? Vader tensed in silent frustration, wondering if Antilles had bought the favor by running to his Master with tales of Vader's non-disclosure of the woman's existence. When they'd spoken alone in the palace hallway after Kenobi's death, the boy had made it known that he'd seen images of her escape on security footage from the Death Star …images of her entering the bay where Vader and Kenobi had fought; damning evidence of Vader's decision to withhold such facts from Palpatine. Antilles had claimed not to have told his Master, but Vader had no reason to believe him, and if the boy had gone running to whisper such accusations in the Emperor's ear, then the task of hunting the Jedi down for a clean kill may well have been his reward.

Vader's head twitched, his anger at the malicious youth beside him whipped up once more as Palpatine spoke on, tone brusque.

"An agent has been assigned this mission, and will pick up the dossier in several days' time. Leave no detail out, however small."

"No, Master." The boy lowered his head—and for a second, as the Emperor looked away, he turned just slightly towards Vader without once looking at him, that deep unease tamped down.

Vader kept his gaze ahead, but frowned, confused. He'd been so sure that the boy always told Palpatine everything…of all things to withhold, why this? A second later his hands curled to fists, the leather about them creaking quietly; likely, he believed that he could use it as leverage against Vader. That would be the reason.

If he thought for one second that it would work…but then Antilles had far greater leverage, and he knew it. So why this?

The Emperor tilted his head a fraction, perhaps noting Vader's sideways glance atAntilles. "On completion of this, you will have time to accompany Lord Vader and myself on a tour of the Death Star's construction facility. The decision of your attendance had already been made, but as I recall, Lord Vader seemed most eager to ensure that you travelled with this armada."

Antilles looked briefly to Vader, visibly surprised, leaving Vader freshly irritated at Palpatine's deliberate slip, knowing that the boy would quickly realize his intent: to ensure thatAntilleswas here with the armada and so under Vader's scrutiny, limiting the youth's ability to access his son.

The Emperor's mouth twitched, briefly betraying his amusement at the constant low-level battles between his advocates, even if he didn't care what this particular contention was. His next play was a classic move, designed to instill resentment and insecurity in one and always short-lived superiority in the other.

"You are dismissed,Antilles. I will speak with Lord Vader alone."

The boy's chin lifted a fraction, but he bowed and backstepped before turning about to leave. As the door slid open the watchful Corellian was momentarily visible on the main Bridge. Straightening, he glanced just once inside, then turned to follow close atAntilles' heels, already leaning forward to whisper his first question.

 

 

 

Alone now, Vader looked from the closing door back to his Master. Palpatine's eyes remained there as he voiced his thoughts, his tone that of someone at the end of their patience with a recalcitrant pupil. "In many ways it is good that he didn't corner the Jedi woman when he was alone. He still harbors naïve sentimental frailties, and if anyone could pry open such cracks in his armor, it would be a Jedi. Yes…it's become clear of late that I cannot risk allowing such a power to fall out of my control—and I have a more important undertaking for the boy closer to home." As if realizing that he was speaking aloud, Palpatine straightened, looking to Vader. "Your task, in the meantime, is to track down the Rebels. They must remain your priority… But be ready to move should I command it, to intercept and receive the Jedi when she's captured."

"By whom?"

"I have sent Jade after Kenobi's padawan, with instructions to find out all that she can, but not act against her yet."

Vader remained silent, working to still his thoughts. He wasn't entirely happy about Palpatine having discovered the woman. It irked him thatAntilleshad been right in his accusations when Vader had confronted him in private, following Kenobi's death. Vader had thought to hunt her down and try to turn her, to gain him the power to stand against Palpatine, at last. Tiny spores of dissent had been lodging in his head for years but without a second Sith he knew that he was at a stalemate, because to try to move against Palpatine alone would be suicide. Galen Marek had been his opportunity to gain the advantage…but that had been lost, thanks toAntilles.

If he'd known ten years ago what he did now—just what rare ability Kenobi's son would exhibit as time passed—he might even have tried to cultivate a closer connection, in hopes of using him… But that bridge had long-since been burned to cinders, and he knew it. A pity; the boy's aptitude, as he came of age, far surpassed his father's. He could have easily turned on Palpatine…but then Palpatine knew that well enough to keepAntilleson a short leash, meaning that the boy would always have been a risky choice.

And the fact was that he no longer needed the woman, either. He had a son…somewhere. He had a son who would stand beside him, and whose power would double his own, enabling him to take down this remnant of necessity and implement his own rule in its place. With his son beside him, he could and would do that… But the first hurdle to that rise to power was to regain his son—and if the way to accomplish that was overAntilles' dead body, then Vader was more than willing to oblige.

"Yes," Palpatine spoke up from his own considered silence, running a cracked and clawed nail across his own lip in thought. "The boy's powers are coming of age, you must agree." Those pale eyes glinted maliciously. "Imagine, had I let you kill him when he first arrived here, as you had wished. I would have lost a power far greater than your own diminished capacity, Lord Vader."

Vader bit silently down on his resentment, both of the Emperor's undisguised taunt, and the boy's very existence.

"Still…" Palpatine looked slowly away, lip lifting in amusement at his own mocking words, "it presents something of a conundrum. After all, as I've said, I cannot very well loose a Sith as powerful asAntillesto wander the galaxy unchecked, even in my name and at my behest. It's simply too much of a risk."

Vader's head twitched straight, because that was the very thing that Palpatine had dangled before Antilles for years now; that at some point he would fulfil his obligations to his Master as an Emperor's Hand, free to move across the galaxy on assigned missions, executing his Master's will.

"No," Palpatine stated categorically. "He's too adaptable…and becoming far too self-sufficient, of late. It would be a recipe for insurrection, and I have no intention of becoming an object-lesson in the inadvisability of giving one's own apprentice too much autonomy." Here Palpatine paused to look closely at Vader, shrewd eyes narrowed. "I am neither credulous nor trusting…with any. No, I need the boy close. He will have a new task—a new calling. And if he falters, if he ever shows the slightest wayward tendencies…then at least he is close at hand. You may yet have free rein to remove him, Lord Vader."

The words, spoken so matter-of-factly, almost as an addendum to greater thoughts, took Vader by surprise to the point that for a moment he was uncertain that he had heard correctly. He stared, half pleased at this opportunity, half appalled that even Palpatine could dismiss the boy he had invested so much in, without a single shredded thread of emotion.

Moving on, Palpatine conceded to throw another token gesture in Vader's direction with an offhand flick of his wrist. "I will also bring forward the completion date of the Executor, to have it ready for your new squadron's launch in one month's time. Until the second Death Star is ready, we will need something to hold these sanctimonious Rebels in check—particularly if they have a new Jedi among them. You may remain at the Fondor shipyards to oversee its accelerated completion whilst the armada travels on to Sullust."

The early completion of the Executor had been something that Vader had pushed for almost constantly, for over a year now. He should have been pleased, he knew, but now that it was finally dangled before him, it served only to underline just how much his priorities had changed in a few short days, in that he found himself fired with a deep reluctance to leave the armada without having settled the matter of his son's retrieval. "Plans for the Death Star's safe passage through the Sanctuary Pipeline should take priority."

Palpatine paused for only a second in consideration, then bulldozed ahead to his own intentions, as ever. "They will…through me."

"The armada should not be broken up whilst you still travel."

The slightest lift at the corner of the Emperor's lip indicated his amusement that Vader had thought for even a second that it might be. "The Devastator will continue to travel in formation whilst you remain at Fondor, until the Executor's launch in four weeks' time." He hesitated, though it was for effect rather than out of uncertainty. "You seem reluctant to leave us, Lord Vader."

Vader lowered his eyes, aware that any further effort would only bring his veiled intent further under Palpatine's quicksilver scrutiny. "No, Master. My thoughts were simply on the greater plan."

"Then keep them so," Palpatine said brusquely. "Harass and harry this arrogant, brash little rebellion with constant pressure. Make them ready to risk all, for even a chance at victory. Make them terrified of what you will do, when they become aware that a second, more potent Death Star waits in the wings—sufficient that they will throw everything into an opportunity to stop it from being completed."

"The moment that they learn of its existence, they will try to move against it," Vader warned.

"I certainly hope so." Those bloodless lips widened to a gratified grin. "Because it will not be nearly as vulnerable as it seems. Let them come—all of them. Let them believe they pursue some noble objective…they will be walking into a massacre."

Vader didn't disagree with the Emperor’s intent; after growing up in a galaxy at war with itself, he knew the value and importance of maintaining civil order. Knew how easy it was for the unscrupulous or the subversive to whip civil unrest into armed defiance. Knew how close liberty and anarchy truly were, and how the slightest spark could ignite a wildfire which would raze across entire systems if left unchecked. Knew all this with the clarity of one who had lived through civil war—and yet, the man whom he had chosen to follow to guide them out of this chaos, the one he had chosen to support and uphold…seemed no longer the lesser of those two evils.

He pushed the doubts down as he bowed and made his exit, refusing to accept that he could have been so wrong. It had needed an iron will to stem the infighting and drag the galaxy out of war; to hold the bickering factions to peace whether they wanted it or not. He regretted nothing in his implementation of that; he'd done what had needed to be done, and would continue to do so.

But how little he trusted his Master, as time had passed and he'd seen all that Palpatine was capable of.

Here, today, in Palpatine's casually-uttered summing up of Antilles' possible fate, was the limit of Palpatine's investment in anyone. After nine long years of hard-learned lessons and total loyalty, the boy remained nothing more to Palpatine than a tool to be used for exactly as long as it was to his value, then discarded without a second thought, save to manipulate even that to his advantage. No dignity in servitude or loyalty, even unto death. Vader had no interest in the boy's survival, but to hear him so callously dismissed by the man who had demanded and ensured that he had been the center of the boy's life…was sickening.

It underlined all that he had come to secretly think in the last several years; that this man was not worth Vader's allegiance. Was not worth his loyalty. In a flash of insight, he wondered how many times Palpatine had made a similar promise to Antilles in order to keep the boy's devotion, knowing that this cold, wily, self-serving man would dismiss Vader's years of devotion just as easily because, like the boy's, they meant nothing to him. He believed he deserved them, just as he deserved everything else—the galaxy itself. And Vader had given him that—or at the very least, afforded him that final twist to topple the Jedi themselves from power. He had turned his back on all that he knew, and for what? Empty promises, tainted from the very beginning with the blood of others.

Yet what did he do, even now? What had he said before leaving, to the man who had come to represent the sum of all his failings, the man he had come to despise? "Yes, Master."

He was no less a slave now than he had been as a boy under twin suns. Worse, because now he remained through nothing more than the obstinate inability to admit his own mistakes. At least Antilles clung to the integrity of blind belief. What was Vader's excuse?

But then to do otherwise would have required of him to take responsibility for so much. So many deaths, so many hard decisions made, even knowing their consequences…for such selfishness. Had it all truly been for Padmé…or had it been his own inability to let her go? His own fear of failure, of loss, as he had lost once before.

'I couldn't help her!'

If it had all been for Padmé…then why was he still here? Because the truth was that he didn't for one moment think that she would have approved. She would have been appalled. At what point had love leached into a black tar of frenzied fear?

Alone in the empty corridor Vader slowed, eyes losing focus as his thoughts took precedence entirely. Because now he had the chance to find the son he'd thought long dead—their son…and somehow even that had become a power play; a means to an end, as Vader calculated his unknown son's inherent connection to the Force against Palpatine's raw power. A game of the highest stakes placing that which he should value above all things, at mortal risk.

Had he learned nothing? Worse, had he learned everything, and yet was unable to act upon it, to the point that he would put the one thing that Padmé would have given her life to protect, at risk?

Vader slowed, wondering for the first time…did he even deserve a son?

 

 

 

Palpatine had watched Vader bow and leave, himself nodding munificently though he was well aware of the veiled duplicity which simmered beneath the surface of his old advocate's compliance. He needed the boy more than ever, he knew; he at least, could be relied upon to remain loyal—though Palpatine had detected something, today. Some shimmer of uncertainty when he'd quizzed Antilles about the Jedi woman. Had watched the boy's eyes flick briefly away as he'd resisted the urge to look towards the door beyond which the Corellian, Solo, waited with barely-controlled tolerance. It hadn't escaped Palpatine's notice that the boy had followed his directive regarding Solo to the word, whilst carefully avoiding its meaning. The Corellian had made the journey with the armada, as commanded…and yetAntilleshad done everything possible to keep him visible but beyond Palpatine's attention. He was here today, as ordered, yet left outside of the briefing and therefore away from Palpatine's scrutiny…and yet the boy still looked to the Corellian, even when he wasn't present, it seemed.

Looked to the Corellian…an interesting phrase. He suspected that Solo may have had some part in unlocking the boy's increasing aptitude, because quite clearly, as he grew closer to Solo,Antilles' skills had focused. But if the cost was of Solo coming between Palpatine and the boy, then that was unacceptable. Antilles had slowly raised shields about his mind in the last few years, and that was to be expected as he came of age, but since Solo's arrival, there had been a definite change. Not immediately and not even willingly, Palpatine suspected, but the boy had become… if not actually reticent, then certainly reserved. Circumspect. And as much as the Corellian had done to hone Antilles' abilities, that alone was cause enough to remove him.

It was also proof, to Palpatine's reckoning, that despite all of Palpatine's previous efforts to center the Viscount's attentions, Indo hadn't brought the boy to his full potential, after all. The Viscount hadn't travelled over from the Relentless to the Conqueror today, which would have been a useful tool in revealing the boy's divided attention…which Antilles probably knew, and so had avoided it. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to keep the two separate.

But then Viscount Indo was feeling increasingly threatened by Solo's presence, sufficient that he had again intimated to his Emperor the importance of removing the Corellian—which to Palpatine's ears, simply said that Solo was gaining in favor, whilst Indo feared that his own star was waning. Had it not been for Palpatine voicing his own intentions for Solo, he doubted that the man would have survived the Viscount's dislike even this long. For Indo to have risked speaking out twice in as many days, was rare indeed, and for him to be so threatened, then Antilles must have sufficient investment in Solo, to make a test of worth. The specifics of their ongoing dispute didn't matter—save in that they would both serve Palpatine's intent, either way.

Speaking with Lord Vader had clarified for Palpatine that he once again needed to assure himself that he alone was the center of Antilles' life. He was, of course; he knew that. But to underline the fact—for Antilles as much as for himself—was occasionally necessary, as the boy grew. Milestones marked the important rites of passage in one's life, and the boy had reached his next.

Palpatine nodded once, more sure than ever that the time was now. His last juncture had been on the boy's eleventh birthday, just before he had been handed over to Indo. It seemed fitting, then, that this should be his next.

 

 

 

 

Han walked the drab, battleship-gray corridors of the Destroyer without comment, a step behind the kid, who had his head down, lost in thought. They hadn't spoken much since the night of the duel. Han had turned up for work the next evening and shut himself in the staff office, and the kid hadn't once come in or tried to talk to him. Maybe they'd both needed some time to calm down, still. Lost in his thoughts, it had been well aftermidnightbefore Han had even thought to check the log, and realized that they were heading out by mid-morning the next day.

He'd sent Leia three messages on the comm code she'd given him a week earlier, but she'd replied only that she was fine, and that she was thinking. That she needed some time. Considering all that had happened, he didn't blame her.

When they'd boarded the Relentless, by the time they'd been assigned rooms and the kid had attended itinerary briefings and navigation briefings and command structure and whatever-the-hell-else briefings they'd seemed to think were necessary, it had been well pastmidnightagain, and with Indo hovering all day, Han hadn't had a single chance to speak to the kid. The trip over to the Conqueror this morning had seemed his opportunity, but there'd been two other officers travelling over at the same time, and the shuttle's small passenger compartment didn't exactly make for private conversations. They were alone in the turbolift now though, so Han tried an opener, going with the safe subject of talking business.

"So what'd he say?"

"Nothing, really," kid replied distantly.

"Took him a hell of a long time to say it, then," Han tried. No reaction. "Did he say where we're goin'?"

"Atrivis, the Maw, then the Sanctuary Pipeline."

"Well I know where the first stop is, anyway."

The fact that Luke didn't fill him in was unsettling in itself; kid always told him stuff like that, even when he wasn't meant to. Instead he added to the list.

"We have an unscheduled stop at Drydock IV first, near Corsin."

"Something broken?" It wasn't very likely, but he was trying to get the kid talking.

"No. Palpatine needs to speak to some Moff there."

"Do I know him?"

Luke turned just a fraction, the barest hint of guarded humor entering his voice. "How many Moffs do you actually know?"

"Uhhh…do they have to be alive to count?"

Kid glanced quickly away, a twitch of a smile on his lips. "Jerjerrod. You know him?"

"Did you think for one moment that I might?"

"I was being facetious."

"Yeah? That's so unlike you," Han tried dryly.

Silence, in which only the smooth zip of the repulsor system sounded.

"He's an odd choice, actually," Luke said at last.

"For?"

"For Palpatine's new pet project. Jerjerrod's a good organizer, but he's not Tarkin…" Luke's voice faded to thought. "But then maybe that's the point."

The turbolift doors slid silently open, and they walked another run of near-identical corridors towards the docking bay. The only good thing that could be said of any Star Destroyer's endless corridors was that they always followed the same pattern. Exactly. If you were on the same class of Destroyer, you could pace out the exact same corridors to the exact same destinations, to the meter.

They rounded the corner and passed the massive atmospheric cutoff doors into the busy bay, a flock of assorted supply and personnel shuttles making regulation landings and takeoffs between the close-formation Destroyers.

Luke slowed, spending a few moments too long scrutinizing the shuttles, to Han's mind. He sighed, giving up on the subtle stuff, which was probably pretty pointless with a Sith anyway, and went for it. "Okay, here's the deal. I shouldn't have walked out on you, but you sure as hell shouldn't have given me that reason to."

The kid turned, seeming genuinely surprised. He studied Han for long seconds—actually studied his face looking for clues, instead of simply reading his mind—then he turned quickly away to stare at the shuttles again. "No, you were right to walk out…but I didn't do anything wrong, either." There was a neutrality to his voice; the tone of someone trying hard not to get pulled in.

"You know her—you actually know her. You knew why she was there, why she was distraught. You can't…you can't just push all that aside."

"I can't push a lightsaber attack aside either—not with my bare hands." The kid looked back to Han as they set forward across the busy bay to their waiting shuttle. "You're saying it like it was just me—she had a lightsaber too."

"I'm not looking to lay blame…and she didn't have one when I saw her."

"Oh believe me, she had one earlier—and she was the first to ignite it." His voice rose a little, defensive now. "Do you want to see the open burn I've got on my shoulder, where she took a chunk out of me? Doesn't matter why she did it or what her state of mind was, a saber's still a saber, and hers'll leave a good-sized scar to remember her by."

"That doesn't excuse what you did."

"What I did was take her lightsaber off her, to end the duel."

"You could have just not gone," Han said levelly, not looking to let this escalate into an argument. "What the hell made you go to meet her anyway?"

"Because…" Luke walked quickly up the shuttle's ramp a half-step ahead of Han and without looking at him, still trying so hard not to get pulled into talking. Trying to maintain some distance between them. "I don't know, okay? I thought…if she wanted someone to shout at, it may as well be me."

And there it was, Han realized, his exasperation softening. As ever, the kid had gone to take the blame; take the hit. Because that was what he did—what he had always been expected to do. His voice settled, losing any last trace of edge. "So what happened?"

"I don't know," Luke said, chagrined. "I honestly didn't go there to fight her. I don't…I don't even know if she came to fight me—not really. It just…happened."

They sat in silence for long minutes, in which the shuttle's engines began their pre-takeoff warmup, whining lightly.

"I wouldn't have killed her," Luke said at last, turning to Han. He stared, and the kid glanced quickly down, adding, "But that's not the point. I know that."

Again Han felt his anger subside, knowing that Luke was trying, he really was. "What did you tell the Old Man, when you got back to the palace?"

"I didn't tell him anything," Luke said distractedly. "I blew up the building before I left the Shades."

"You blew up the building!"

"Just a few levels, to cover up my tracks—there was no one else in it."

Luke glanced instantly to the side after this quick attempt at reassurance, and Han frowned. "What?"

"There…there was a witness."

"Who?"

"I don't know. A Pau'an."

Han braced, knowing the kid had been taught early that you didn't leave any kind of trail, ever. "What did you do with him?"

"Nothing. I got him out of the building before I blew it, then left him on the sidestreet."

Han hesitated. "You actually…why'd you leave him?"

"I don't know," Luke mumbled. "Stupid—stupid thing to do, I know. I should have dealt with him—I know that." His eyes came to Han, bewildered. "I don't even know what I'm doing any more. I'm getting pulled every way at once and I can't…"

"It's okay—it's okay, Luke. You did the right thing."

"No, I didn't!" Kid was becming more and more agitated. "You always clean up—always. No evidence, ever."

"It wasn't evidence," Han said quietly, “it was some guy's life. You did the right thing."

Luke settled a little; stilled to a brittle silence before he spoke again. "I…I went back to Indo. After Palpatine."

It took a moment for Han to realize what the kid was really saying. When he did, he let out a rough sigh, but what could he say? He'd promised the kid he'd be here, that he wouldn't walk out, no matter what…then he'd done just that at the first hurdle. "Okay…okay, it's just a single lapse, we can—"

"No, it wasn't. It was a decision." Kid let out a long breath as if bracing himself, then looked to Han. "I can't do this, and I can't be who you want me to be, Han—not here. This…it worked like it was, before you came—all of it, you understand? This is for the best. Palpatine said…" Luke broke off from the inarticulate plea, his eyes to the ground.

"What?"

Kid paused as a moment of doubt came over him, visible in the tenseness of his body and the lines on his face, then his features levelled out again. "Doesn't matter—except that he was right, I guess."

He looked to the side viewport, lifting his hand to chew distractedly at his thumbnail. Beside them another shuttle took off from the busy bay, its backwash buffeting theirs just slightly, and both glanced distractedly at it.

"Is…has she said anything?" Luke asked at last, and Han knew exactly who he was talking about. When he remained silent, the kid added, "I know you've spoken to her. Not because I've read your mind," he added quickly, "because…I know you. You'd be going crazy by now if you hadn't."

Han looked down with a sigh. "She's fine. She said she needed to think."

"About what?"

"I have no idea. What did you say to her?"

"Nothing." Luke looked away again to the viewport and the crowded hangar beyond. "Tell her…tell her to watch out for redheads."

"Redheads?"

"Palpatine knows she exists now. He'll send someone after her."

"You know who?"

"Maybe…probably."

"You got a name?"

"They won't know her," he said, very sure. Then he brought his hand up to rub his temples, letting out a long, tired sigh. "I shouldn't have said this much."

"Redheads," Han said, straightening. It was enough, for now. "So…are we okay?"

Luke stared for long moments, as if Han had asked an impossible question…then stood abruptly. "I have to go."

"Go? Go where?"

"Will you cover for me?" He spoke like someone looking to move the conversation on, but he was serious enough that he’d already backed two steps towards the shuttle's exit hatch.

Han's voice dropped a wary, worried octave. "Cover for you? What have you done now?"

"Nothing…yet." The kid's eyes went back to the viewport, and the busy bay beyond. "But I need a ride, and that shuttle's going my way."

Han glanced to the nearby cargo shuttle, also in pre-flight. "Wait a minute, this isyourshuttle—it's always goin' your way."

"I need something that's going someone else's way—then I get there quietly."

"…Where exactly is there?" Han wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"The Devastator."

Vader's Destroyer. Kid was still obsessing about Vader's past, still trying to put it all together to find out who he was…in fact, he was getting worse. Han sighed as he looked down; it seemed an outrageous and unnecessary risk. "What, you're gonna start sneakin' round his ship, now?

"Basically."

Han stared for several seconds…then shook his head quickly. That was just a whole other can of trouble, and he didn't want to even get started with it right now, when there were bigger problems like Indo and spice, and the kid's staying here at all, that needed sorting. "Whatever. But when you get back, we need to talk…about everything. It can't…it can't continue like this, you've gotta know that. We can't keep on doing this."

"I know." The kid lowered his head, regretful and resigned.

"I'm serious."

"I know," Luke said again, strangely resolute. "I know that."

 

 

 

The door to the cockpit slid open as the pilot looked quickly from the exit hatch to Han, probably having seen Luke walk down the ramp and off the shuttle, and wondering whether to take off or not. He glanced quizzically to Han, who nodded, saying simply, "Go."

The man held his eye just a second longer before turning about to the cockpit. As far as he was concerned, his job was to take the shuttle from the Conqueror back to the Relentless. Period. However many people turned out to be onboard compared to the outward trip was pretty much irrelevant.

Han felt a flush of envy, at the memory that his life had been like that less than a year ago; just some grunt pilot, doing as he was told…or more likely not, and getting yet another dressing down. Alone, he shook his head, knowing that this had gone on far enough. Wondering if the kid had known how serious he was, when he'd said that it couldn't continue.

Wondering how he'd somehow ended up trying to cover for the kid yet again when they got back to the Relentless and Luke wasn't on the shuttle, because you could be damn sure that Indo would be waiting—probably in the bay itself, foot tapping already. He hadn't really wanted Luke and Han to go alone in the first place, and now Han was gonna walk out onto the Relentless's deck, knowing that the kid was sneaking around onboard the Devastator, no less—not that he'd tell Indo that, or that he really gave a damn about what Indo thought of him.

But Luke dropping back onto the spice—and more importantly, sounding like he'd somehow managed to convince himself that it was for the best—was a major blow. Kid had just gotten himself to the point where he was willing to cut it out, finally gotten to a point where he actually wanted to—and that was the trick, Han knew; you had to want it, yourself. No amount of someone else telling you would ever get through, you had to actually want it yourself….

So what had changed? Palpatine, by the sounds of it. What the hell had he said, without even knowing it, that had made the kid fall back—convinced him that even trying was pointless? Then again, if there was one thing the old man knew how to do, it was reset the status-quo in his own favor.

He wondered briefly if maybe Leia could get through to Luke where nobody else could—she seemed to be his one weakness, right now.

To his memory, when Han had finally managed to shoulder the door open in the eatery, Luke had been crouched in front of a visibly injured Leia with a lit lightsaber in his hand…but thinking back, it had been angled down; turned away. Like the kid had just said, he hadn't been about to make any kind of blow. Clearly it had gotten messy, and both of them had ended up hurt, but in that moment, Han had only noticed Leia's injuries. That was what had made him see red and drag Luke back like he had. What had made him turn his back and walk out of there. But when his own adrenalin had finally ebbed, he'd realized that they'd been past that. They'd been talking, that was all, as Luke had just claimed.

His thoughts slipped back to Leia for a moment, no idea what he was going to do on that front—even less, in the bigger scheme of things. Or maybe he did…and it was just takin' him a while to admit it to himself. Because he'd meant it when he'd told the kid that they couldn't continue like this.

But the trouble was, Luke had the balance of a whole hell of a life lived here dragging him down, and Palpatine's control was just too strong. Kid simply couldn't imagine a life any other way—couldn't let himself. Couldn't hope.

So where did you go from here? Where did Han go?

He shook his head just slightly, eyes on the looming bulk of the Relentless as the shuttle arced beneath her, heading for the aft docking bay. There was a time when returning to any Star Destroyer that he was stationed on had felt like a homecoming. Now...he couldn't quite pin down when exactly he'd ceased to fit any more, couldn't even figure out whether his views had changed or just…clarified.

Yeah, he knew exactly where to go—he just didn't like it.

He needed to contact Leia.

 

 

 

 

 

Luke walked down gray corridors, each the same as the next, hard floors and plain enclosed walls which reverberated every bootstep, along with the background hiss and hum of air exchanges and gravity regulators. It should have been easy to lose one's way in the massive flying fortress, but he’d had travelled on them as long as he could remember, and knew every turn and room and bay on every floor from memory.

So he walked now with one thing in mind: avoiding notice. He passed others of course; this was a Destroyer in full flight, there were constant comings and goings, especially in the habitation decks, with one third of the crew always asleep and one third off-duty.

But even with the residual drag of spice still swimming around his system, it wasn't hard to gently shunt the minds of those he walked past elsewhere, so that they looked past or through him, despite there being little else to look at.

Wasn't hard to find the quarters he was searching for, despite the increased security in the upper levels. All of the quarters to either side were, to Luke's searching senses, empty. Very likely even senior officers had chosen to take quarters elsewhere.

He felt weary and woolly, stretched thin by a mixture of spice and tiredness. Perhaps that was why he'd spoken to Han earlier. Brief as it was, it had been a mistake; a momentary lapse, allowed because Luke hadn't wanted Han to leave whilst they were on bad terms. Hadn't wanted him to think that Luke would be so petty as to terminate his commission here entirely, because of what had happened after the duel with Leia. But nothing had changed for the talk, neither the greater situation nor Luke's resolve that it was best to fall back into the way things had been before. Even Han knew that they couldn't keep on like this. Hadn't he said the same, in the shuttle—that they couldn't continue.

He reached the end of the long corridor and turned into one of the few that actually had viewports set into its length along one side, a subtle indicator of the status of those who kept quarters here—and paused at the locked door. On impulse, he tried a Ubiqtorate override code. Nothing. A Hand override code; nothing. Luke tilted his head, surprised at that, though he'd bet that it should have worked.

He could have closed his eyes and rested his hand on the locking mechanism, of course; could have used the Force to turn the tumblers and grind the lock open. Could have simply used brute force to lever the security-rated door back against the lock's pull…but he was keeping his presence closely shielded, aware that Vader would probably have returned to the Devastator by now.

Instead, he input one of his Master's override codes…and the door slid silently open.

He slipped quickly inside, pausing as the corridor brightened to a useable level. A brief smile took his face as Luke imagined just what exactly Indo would do, had he known where Luke was. He'd fleetingly considered whether to tell Indo the truth of his heritage, then had dismissed it out of hand as being painfully naïve, if he didn't want the facts to get back to Palpatine—though even Indo would likely have tried to keep that particular secret hidden. Indo's protection of him was, Luke knew, also a protection of Indo's own ambitions, and to pass Luke's knowledge back to Palpatine would destroy both.

So was it self-protection, or denial, that kept Luke silent? Or even simple need? The desire to fill the gap in his life, that had been ripped away by Palpatine…no, not Palpatine; by himself.

He was feeling Han's absence keenly. Feeling the need to tell someone—anyone—the truth, just to watch their reaction, as if somehow that would give him permission to feel something himself. To know what to feel. Perhaps he should be more like Vader. As insular and independent, needing no one. How much easier it must be. All he had to do was learn not to feel. Not to care.

Strange; he'd never once thought that he should be more like his Master. He'd thought so often that he should try to be what his Master wanted him to be, but had never once wanted to be like him.

His mind went to Bail Organa. To the memories he secretly cherished even as he tried to dismiss them, at Palpatine's order. But he couldn't. He couldn't, because they were everything to him. The secret he'd always held hidden, unable to purge because they were so intricately tied up with his own guilt; with his knowledge of what he truly was. He was aware, of course, of how much he involuntarily searched for that lost relationship, even now, aware of the void that he tried to fill. Of the weakness inherent in such need—and his Master was right; it was a weakness.

It was that which had held Luke to torn silence on the night of Kenobi's death, when he'd been dragged in front of the Emperor, struggling to hold together under fire. Yet he'd held back from incriminating Vader in return, even though he knew—he knew—that he wouldn't find in his real father, all that had meant so much to him in Bail Organa. But the memory of all that Bail Organa had meant to Luke had still stayed his hand, in that moment.

Luke paused as the entrance to the main room slid open into a big space, empty save for one massive structure to its center, so big that it must have been assembled inside the room. Black within a black room, the huge globe which split along its central equator into interlocking halves, it was a hyperbaric chamber.

Only a handful of the most senior officers knew that Vader's suit was more than a personal choice. Luke had known as long as he could remember. Whilst still a child, he'd been taken into Lord Vader's rooms in the palace by the Emperor, specifically to show him this 'weakness'; to tell him that it had been inflicted in a duel, with Kenobi. To warn Luke that he would suffer the same, likely at Lord Vader's hand, if he failed to practice sufficiently.

It had seemed terrifying to him at the time, this huge domed chamber which split open to swallow up its occupier, its interlocking edges like the teeth of some mechanical beast.

Luke slowed as he approached it. The chamber was open but deactivated, a single seat at its center surrounded by external data links and the equipment necessary to monitor the chamber's functions. Stark and impersonal, it was the sterility of it which took him, now. No childish nightmares; just cold, hard reality. What must it be like, to be trapped in that suit, save in this chamber? To rely on such equipment completely, to keep him alive. It was hardly the image that Vader sought to put forward. He liked to wear his armour on the outside, a visible barrier blocking all access, denying any concept of humanity. Luke carried his scars and his shields deeper, he knew, but they were just as impenetrable—Palpatine had seen to that. Had taken great care to help him build those diamond shields, the path through them known and chartable only to himself.

Because the shields which protected also isolated—both Vader and Luke knew that; maybe even understood it of the other, in some way. It was likely the nearest they had ever come to any kind of connection—and even then, it was light-years apart.

For himself, Luke had long since learned that with his shields well hidden as opposed to blatantly, defiantly visible, he could—when he chose—make himself seem reassuringly approachable; trustworthy even. His youth and slight, unthreatening physique were advantages to be used, as he'd been trained to use everything else in his life, for his Master's benefit.

His Master, who had lied to him; told Luke that his father was Kenobi. Told Vader the same, instigating a deep, fierce, lifelong antipathy.

Should he be angrier, he wondered? Outraged, perhaps? The truth was, he didn't feel anything other than numb disillusionment. Perhaps because he'd had far worse piled on his shoulders by his Master, when he'd been just as young. All for the loyalty that Luke would have given anyway, had he simply asked. The concept of not doing so was inconceivable.

Hand resting lightly on the cool shell of the hyperbaric chamber, it occurred to him for the first time to wonder what else Vader believed he had lost to Kenobi… Whether his Master, looking to guarantee that same loyalty from Vader, had twisted the truth to tell a tale in which Kenobi hadn't simply stolen Vader's son away, but had taken him entirely; killed him. Was this why Vader had been so driven? Why he had despised Luke with such vehemence, believing him to be Kenobi's son, still alive, when his own son was dead by Kenobi's hand?

Luke felt a brief swell of longing to be that lost child—to tell all, even though he knew that it wouldn't gain the outcome he wanted, that there would be no great, forgiving reunion, no prodigal son in his father's eyes. He had to put that from his head. Couldn't let himself think it, because it would only be another blow, another abandonment—though this time, he would at least be braced.

Yet he was here, to ask more of the man whose hatred he had sensed so clearly in the earlier meeting—which was a good thing. It kept Luke's own shields raised; made old habits that much easier to maintain, in self-defense.

At the far side of the room, almost hidden by the bulk of the massive hyperbaric chamber, was a second door. It slid aside as Luke approached, leading into a wide room whose stately run of viewports stretched its entire length, giving an unobstructed view across the convoy of Destroyers, their deadly bulk and massive scale reduced to a serene if sinister scene, like shoaling sharks in deep water.

On the near wall were those familiar large prints of technical plans, hung in an ordered row above sparse furnishings. Unilluminated right now, though, since the room was softly lit by two widely-spaced spotlighs, one of which pointed to a display console to the far end of the big room, whilst the other was a tasklight which shone down on the contents of a table beneath the viewports, where a datapad had been placed with meticulousness care, its corner precisely aligned with the table's edge. Lifting it, he touched the screen to activate it. He was still flicking through files when his head came sharply up, aware of a presence entering the room beyond. He braced, squaring his shoulders…

The door slid open, and Darth Vader's bulk filled it entirely

 

 

 

Vader had known as soon as he entered his quarters that someone had been here, and felt within the realization a flare of outrage that anyone would dare. He'd strode quickly across the main room, empty save for the looming bulk of the hyperbaric chamber, unbelieving that anyone would have the gall to skulk any further into…

The rear door slid aside to a barely lit room, and standing in the sanctity of his private chamber…was Antilles.

Vader's shoulders dropped and his hackles rose as the boy turned, holding in one hand the datapad that Vader had been using earlier, its screen activated. He tilted it just slightly, so that Vader saw the technical plan of the AdvancedTIEengine whose finer mechanics he had been working on.

"You doubled up the tertiary feedback link coming out of the compressor," the youth said casually, as if nothing was amiss in his being here.

"Finer divisions will disperse the ions more efficiently," Vader replied in kind.

"They'll go into phase," the boy dismissed.

"A pico-shunt wired into the binary splitter will deliver power to the second link with a millisecond delay, and thus offset the risk of phasing."

Antillesbrought the datapad back round to study it closer, blinking slowly. "Interesting," he said at last.

"Get out." It was barely more than a growl.

Indifferent to the very real threat,Antilles' hand went to the datapad, flicking through pages as its screen light reflected onto his face in shuttered shifts, in the semi-darkened room. "I know why you checked that I was with the convoy," he said at last, eyes still on the pad. "It makes no difference."

"Where is he?"

"Safe." Antilles' lip twitched in amusement at that, as his eyes came back to Vader. "Though that's always a relative term, I find."

"Where?" It was a demand wrapped about with genuine menace. The boy didn't speak, but simply held that enigmatic half-smile. Frustration percolated to a cold fury within Vader, thoughts of dropping the boy where he stood, or using the Force to hurl him backwards against the wide viewport behind him with bone-breaking strength, demanding to be fed. But now was not the time—not with Antilles holding his son captive. Though it bought him immunity for exactly as long as it took for Vader to pry his son free, and they both knew it. "Did you tell him?"

Antilles frowned for a second, unsure. "Tell him what?"

"My message."

"Ah. Yes, he knows all you said."

It was Vader's turn to hesitate now, aware of the subtle evasion in Antilles' calm voice, though he couldn't quite lock down why. He was telling the truth, but not all of it—not even nearly. "His reply?"

"I don't remember saying that this was a two-way thing."

"You don't have him at all," Vader goaded, looking to draw Antilles out; force his hand. "Kenobi had him. He gave you the sample." It was the next logical choice, given the timing.

"Kenobi didn't have him," Antilles stated categorically.

Sensing the truth in his words, Vader mentally ticked Kenobi and the Alliance off of his list of possibilities. "Palpatine, then."

"No…and I'm not going to spend the next hour playing twenty questions with you while you whittle down where he could be."

With no choice, Vader ground out the words that the boy was probably waiting to hear, not for one second disguising his disgust. "What do you want?"

The boy stared…and so much crossed those pale blue eyes in that moment. Wariness, repressed curiosity, uncertainty, as if he knew this would end badly for him—and it would end badly, Vader would see to that.

"I don't really know," he admitted at last, letting the datapad in his hand drop to his side. "That's the problem. Answers, I suppose."

"To what?"

Antilles looked Vader up and down as the moment hung, seeming…fascinated, eyes narrowed in consideration. "Who were you," he asked quietly at last. "You were somebody once, weren't you? Not like me. I've always been this."

His voice was level and matter of fact…but there was awareness in his words; the knowledge of opportunities lost. It moved Vader not a whit. "Why do you want to know?"

Antilles tilted his head in a shrug. "I found myself wondering, over the last few days, how this all came about—how Lord Vader came to have a son. He knows nothing at all, your son—nothing about who he was."

"You said you had told him."

"But I can tell him only that one fact. I have nothing else, nothing at all."Antilles paused. "So I'm offering you a pact…I want the truth. And in return, I'll tell your son. He has questions…and I presently have no answers for him."

Vader laughed, the sound a rough rasp as it filtered through his mask. "I'll tell you nothing."

"Why?"

"You don't deserve to know." He spat the words through curled lips, believing them completely.

"And your son?"

"When he's here, I will tell him all that he asks. But you'll be long gone by then, dead at my hand—or my son's…perhaps I'll give him that opportunity."

A brief smile played on Antilles' lips. "He's as likely to do it as you are, I suppose. More so, I sometimes think."

"Then it's unlikely you'll live long enough to see me reunited with my son…or if you do, it will be your last day."

Again the boy loosed a brief, dry, half- suppressed laugh, and Vader bristled. "You find that amusing."

"A little…but then I'm told I have a dark sense of humor."

"Give me my son…and walk away from this alive," Vader growled.

"Why do you want him?"

A flare of guilt broadsided Vader at the simplicity of the unexpected question, and he fought to tamp it down before this most perceptive of audiences, willing to show the boy nothing. Still…why did he want his son? Was it simple possessiveness; that the boy was his? Raw ambition, that his son represented Vader's greatest ever chance to remove Palpatine…or something stronger than both. Something primal. It was a long time since Vader had felt anything even approaching fear, but it burned right now in the pit of his stomach, both at the prospect of losing his son…and the prospect of meeting him.

Antilles stared expectantly…and Vader's lip curled beneath the undisguised study. "It is none of your concern."

"Except that I hold him, and you don't. That makes it my concern."

"That makes it your death warrant."

The youth paused for several seconds, calculating…then glanced about the room, before speaking quickly—not nervous, not threatened, simply…moving the conversation on. "What's the sculpture, in your apartment in the palace? The driftwood?" He walked the length of the room as he spoke, to stand before a piece of sculptural sandstone on the wide console at its far side, lit from above by a single light. A smooth-edged oval with a naturally sand-worn hole off-center, it stood on a bora-wood plinth, its reflection mirrored in the polished ebony console.

It, like the large petrified growth of sand-smoothed caulus-wood in Vader's apartment, was a distant echo from his hidden past…though he had no intention of admitting that to the boy.

Instead, he folded his arms across his chest. "How long has Palpatine known of my son's existence?" It was more demand than question, but Antilles didn't turn.

Instead, he continued to study the smooth sandstone. "It's unsigned."

"It is not art," Vader said finally. "It is nature."

The youth straightened, the smile that Vader couldn't see audible in his voice. "Then it's the relationship between the object and its owner that becomes of relevance." He spoke distantly, his attention on Vader’s datapad, which he had lifted to write something on, unseen. "The ultimate expression of idiosyncratic abstraction." He paused to turn his head, tone mischievous, as if sharing an insider truth. "Art is in the eyes of the beholder."

"I am not interested in your ability to regurgitate philosophical—"

"You're from a desert."

Vader remained silent, though Antilles had turned back to the datapad as he spoke. "This was eroded by sand, not water, like the larger piece on Coruscant. Since you keep them, but claim they have no artistic worth, their value must be intrinsic; personal."

"They are irrelevant."

Antilles glanced around the spartan room. "You don't strike me as someone who keeps irrelevant objects."

Grinding his jaw, Vader held staunchly to his own line of questioning, refusing to allow the boy to lead the conversation. "How long has Palpatine known of my son?"

The youth stared for long seconds as Vader held still…but finally tipped his head just slightly in allowance, throwing the datapad that he'd held onto the console with a flick of his wrist, where it clattered across the mirror-polished surface. "A long time. I told you, I don't have specific facts. I simply have the knowledge of his existence."

So it was true that he hadn't gleaned what little he knew from his Master, then. "Is he looking for the boy?"

Antilles' eyes narrowed in scrutiny. "Why do you care?"

"Answer my question," Vader rasped.

"Answer mine,"the boy replied, undaunted.

Distasteful as it was, Vader knew that at least partly answering these questions gained him several advantages. Firstly, Antilles remained his best chance at finding out where his son was confined, and the longer he kept the youth here, speaking, the more likely he was to make a mistake. And secondly…secondly, it simply kept the boy talking about Vader's son. Because somewhere within a flame flickered; fascination, about the child he'd never seen. Did he have his mother's eyes, her chestnut hair? Did he have her fire and her innate empathy…or his father's quick temper? Vader remembered so little of himself, now. Burned and disfigured, locked in this suit for years, he barely remembered the color of his hair or the set of his jaw. Didn't care to look, to see how the years and the Darkness had eaten into him. Didn't wish to remember the youth who had felt driven to this.

But he remembered her exactly. Every subtlety of her presence and features; limpid brown eyes capable of expressing so much without a single word uttered, soft, full lips that smiled so readily. Such innate strength, delicate as she was. Would his son hold that same strength? That same integrity, that deep-seated sense of duty and honor?

Would he have her eyes? Her manner, her nimble build? Vader looked at the youth before him as never before, knowing from memory that his son would be just over half a year older. A little taller, then, his body less gaunt, from the years of abuse thatAntilleshad withstood at the hands of the Master he still held such fundamental loyalty for. His skin less pale, the dark circles that always rimmed Antilles' eyes non-existent. His hair darker, perhaps, but just as unkempt, as Anakin's had been, in his youth.

His only way to find out, was to tolerate Kenobi's son for a little while longer. Tolerate this. Then he could deal the final blow, could rip him limb from limb—a fitting end for Kenobi's son, at Vader's hand.

So he ground his jaw as his fists curled tighter in pent up fury, aware that he had only a short time in which to find out all that he could to gain him his son, before he would have to leave the fleet at Fondor…which meant that he should take every opportunity to try to uncover the smallest fragments about his son's whereabouts. In days he would be planet-bound, with no opportunity to try to search himself. A month, no less! Despite the fact that they had been a lifetime apart, the thought of one more month, now that he knew of his son's existence, seemed intolerable.

"You will not protect him from your Master, I know that."

"And you would?"

It was the sense of knowing doubt and dry disbelief in the youth's words that needled Vader. "More so than you."

"You never…" The boy hesitated, glanced away, then back again; stopping himself, then saying it anyway. "You never once protected me."

"You deserve each other." Vader snarled without compunction.

Antilles looked down with another brief, laconic laugh. "Very probably. But I didn't when I first came here." It was almost an accusation. Almost an appeal.

"You were nothing," Vader growled. "If I'd had my way, you would have been dead that first night. As it is, you've learned your Master's lessons too well. I'm surprised you haven't run to him already. Set this up as a trap at my expense, with the reward for uncovering my supposed disloyalty that you remove my son yourself—just as you did Marek."

"Is that all you want him for—to overthrow Palpatine?" There was offense in his words, indignation raising his voice.

"No. You could not possibly understand."

"If he's worth so very much to you, why did you leave him in the first place?"

"I did not leave him, I believed him lost."

"A little remiss of you, Lord Vader, to misplace your own son. Why didn't you look for him?"

"Dead," Vader snapped in curt justification. "I believed him dead, along with his mother."

Something in the boy's face changed—barely a fraction, and carefully concealed. "How?"

"By my hand." He spat the words before he'd thought to censure them, his desire to intimidate Antilles momentarily overriding his realization that the boy would run and tell his son with malicious glee. He received the reaction he'd sought—the deeply disturbed jolt of shock that flashed with sudden intensity across pale blue eyes—for all of two seconds. But for a decade now, Vader had loosed every shred of vindictive retribution on Kenobi's son for the sins of his father, unchecked and without the slightest qualms. There was likely nothing left that the boy believed he wouldn't do, nothing he believed Vader incapable of. So the boy's revulsion faded quickly into a muted curiosity, threaded through with a strand of injured bewilderment.

But no judgement, even for this…perhaps because he had been subjected to more than his fair share of horrors at Palpatine's hand, as well as Vader's. Had grown up in a life where darkness and vindictive death were the norm, and been manipulated or bullied or coerced into turning on those few he cared for, by Palpatine.

In a moment of abrupt clarity, Vader was surprised thatAntilleshad flinched at all.

Out of his desire to repel the boy came this brief moment of empathy, reluctant and instantly rejected, yet still somehow reflected in those searching blue eyes, and the muted tone ofAntilles' words reduced to a perceptive whisper.

"What did you do?"

Vader instantly wanted to take the moment back, to askAntillesto say nothing to his son—but how could he? "You are not the one I need answer to," he said at last, ill at ease.

"I was…I was the one who suggested to Palpatine that you remain on Fondor, with theExecutor,"Antillessaid at last, inexplicable contrition in his unexpected admission.

"To keep me safely locked down." He should be furious, Vader knew, but his anger was spent, drained beneath memories of a greater guilt, and it was no worse than he had done to the boy anyway, in making sure that Antilles was part of the armada in the first place.

"I thought…"Antilles hesitated in a wave of uncertainty, "whilst you were on Fondor, you could…if I gave you the opportunity to speak with him—by comlink…"

Vader straightened, resisting the urge to take a step forward, such was this opportunity!

Seeing it Antilles almost panicked, rushing to place proviso's, as if he'd made the offer without thinking this through. "I said if. When I return to the palace, if I'm sure you're still on Fondor, and when I have an untraceable system set up..."

In that moment, none of the backtracking mattered to Vader. It didn't matter what petty safety measures Antilles felt he needed to put into place to save his own hide, didn't matter that Vader would be systems away on Fondor. It was a chance, a step closer, and he grasped at it. "Let me speak to him now."

"No." The boy glanced down, instantly evasive.

"Why?"

Antilles shook his head rapidly, not stopping as he spoke. "I don't trust you. I've never had a single reason to, and you've not given me any tonight. You'll walk away."

"Walk away? From what?" Vader asked warily. "What games are you playing now?" His voice dropped lower, to a distrustful growl. "Do you have him or not?"

"Yes." The youth's voice was quiet but honest, edged once more with that same evasive twist; the truth, but not even nearly all of it.

"Then you know I will not walk away."

What should have reassured seemed only to increase the boy's nervousness as he stared through troubled eyes, searching for what, Vader didn't know. His whole demeanour spoke once again of a sense of someone who had started a course of action which he now regretted, but saw no way to step back from. Very suddenly he turned, his need to be gone blaring out.

Did he genuinely believe he'd made an error in his offer to Vader, or was he simply playing the part—dangling the bait before he sprang the trap. Vader hadn't been making empty claims in when he'd accused Antilles of having learned his Master's lessons too well.

Yet when the boy walked quickly past him and to the door, against every inch of better judgment, Vader still spoke out. "Wait—"

Antilles paused as Vader took a step forward, aware that his own desire to prolong this burned, because even though it was torture, it was something. Some connection. He hesitated…and swallowed his pride. "What is his name?"

Antilles blinked, as if taken completely by surprise at the simple request. "What?"

"His name," Vader repeated. "What is his name?"

The youth lifted his chin a fraction, still struggling to regain his composure, his reply little more than a thinly-disguised evasion. "What's yours—your real name."

Vader paused, reluctant to give the youth anything when he was so clearly searching for facts from Vader's past. But it was long-since closed, the truth of his prior identity erased at the same time that all records of the Jedi had been removed. Antilles would get nothing of value from it save a name and a birthplace, and would have no excuse not to tell Vader his son's name in return. There was no harm in this; a simple name from the distant past… "Anakin. Anakin Skywalker."

The change was instant, a quicksilver run of emotions which flared ever brighter within the boy's senses; confusion, uncertainty, recognition; a jarring jolt of shock—genuine alarm. Then he was backstepping, murmuring excuses to leave, all composure utterly shattered…

And Vader was alone, wondering what had finally held the power to reduce the boy to this.

.

He glanced across the room in confusion, eyes drawn to the bright light of the still-active datapad screen, abandoned on the console table. Curious, he walked forward to lift it—and stared…

Using the tip of his finger as a stylus,Antilleshad sketched a rough image. Having seen him do it as he had asked Vader about the worn sandstone form displayed on the console, Vader had assumed that it would be that. Instead, it was a swiftly-made sketch of an open landscape, high cliff faces and deep ravines marked by bright light and strong shadows. And looming in the foreground was a huge craggy rock formation, its softer surfaces long since eroded by high winds and harsh desert sand, leaving a yawing hole in its center. Though quickly drawn, its distinctive shape was instantly and unmistakeably recognizable to Vader, even after all these years.

It was the Stone Needle, in Beggars Canyon on Tatooine.

 

 

 

Reality shuttered about Luke as he walked quickly down long corridors, hazy and indistinct, the moment when Vader had admitted his real name playing over and over in his thoughts. Was it real? He hadn't been lying, Luke knew that, but… his thoughts reeled, trying to process the impossible, to dismiss it and make everything safe again, though it blared over and over, unignorable.

Was it true? Could it possibly be anything other than…

Skywalker—Leia Skywalker, a Jedi knight raised by Kenobi. The irony of it left him dizzy—that each of them had grown up beside the other's father. Only not so, of course, because Kenobi wasn't Luke's father, not really.

First his real father had abandoned him, then Kenobi, the man he'd believed for so long was his father, had handed him over to Bail and Breha, only to have them ripped away by Palpatine, leaving Luke alone again…and now Vader, yet again. Because he had made it very clear once more tonight that, once he knew that his son was the same person he'd spent years berating and condemning, he would want nothing to do with him.

Luke stopped dead in the corridor, hands coming up to cover his face at his own stupidity; what had possessed him to offer a direct conversation by comlink! What had he been thinking? He hadn't, obviously. He'd just had some vague and stupid need to hear his father—his real father—speak to him with that same dedication that he spoke of him. Wanted to be that person, that son, if only for a short while. Because once he knew the truth, Vader would surely walk away.

He dragged himself back to the moment, trying hard to ignore the hollow that opened up inside him at the realization of that. The slip in his words, as he'd admitted his knowledge to Vader. Still shaking his head in self-censure he set off again…and the memory of Vader's name stopped him as Kenobi's words drifted back to him, when the old man had handed over the identity of Luke's father: "I came here to tell you the truth…but it can be a dangerous thing. A powerful thing."

"You want to know that I won't use the knowledge as a weapon."

Luke hadn't realized until now how completely Kenobi's thoughts had been on Leia when he'd said, "Yes…yes, I do."

He'dknownthat Luke and Leia were siblings…that was the weapon that Kenobi had feared Luke would use against Leia…

Did she know? Did Leia know the truth about herself and Luke? Luke slowed in the corridor, trying to fathom the facts. No, surely not; she couldn't, given Kenobi's fears. And Luke would have known if she had; she was so easy to read… so easy to read.

He let his head drop backwards, closing his eyes; easy to read—like his father. Another slow sigh escaped Luke, as he shook his head; Kenobi. "Why didn't you tell me," he murmured in the empty corridor, too many wild truths battering him. More importantly, why hadn't he told Leia? He'd had all the time in the galaxy. Why keep all these secrets when…ah.

They stood on opposite sides of the divide, he and Leia, in a conflict which had raged their whole lifetime, and had no common ground. For millenia, in fact; forget this petty little rebellion, the civil war that had instigated it, the rise of the Empire and the fall of the Republic. Sith and Jedi had existed before all of them; had built civilizations and toppled them in crusades that had burned through the eons. That was the weight that divided he and Leia, the chasm that stood between them, and Kenobi had known it. Had known that because of it, he was training Leia to eventually stand against Luke.

Yet he'd told Luke about his father. Surely he'd known that in doing so, he'd given Luke the first step along a path which would eventually uncover the truth. Had he thought—hoped—that in revealing it, he would instil a weakness in Luke that he'd hoped to protect Leia from, in keeping the truth from her? That single instant of hesitation, when the moment came? The split-second between equally-matched duellists, which would mean life or death.

Luke straightened, jaw flexing. If so, Kenobi was wrong. He was wrong! He was… Luke’s shoulders loosed as his eyes narrowed, part in indignation at having been played, part in study of the inescapable results. Because he was, he knew, hopelessly entangled, now. Or had he been compromised already, simply in meeting her; by the very fact of her existence? Was that what it was; was it that which had driven Luke to fight for her life at the Death Star's trench? To let her walk free countless times? He'd told himself that it was Han, that he'd done it for Han…but it had been more than that. A thread stitched directly into his soul, which tugged whenever she seemed in danger.

He set forward again to walk into the freight hangar unseeing, heart pounding, thoughts racing, feeling…what? He had no idea—no idea what he was supposed to feel. No words for the breathless sensation that gripped him, the rush that coursed through him in this moment… It felt so much like raw terror—and yet it had a lightness to it, a nervous buzz, part dread, part elation.

He hesitated, terrified to admit it even to himself, for fear that simply in knowing, he would somehow taint and eventually damn it, as he already had with his father. But after a life alone and isolated, prey to Palpatine's manipulations and accusations and constant lies…

He had a sister, too.

 

 

 

 

It must have been two hours in all, before Luke returned to the Relentless. When he did so, he went straight to Han's quarters. Habit, he guessed.

Habit he was going to have to break.

Solo watched him enter and sit in silence at the upright chair before the small desk, himself making no move to speak. Automatically Luke pulled out the drawer beneath it and took one of the sheets of flimsy that he knew were stored there. Reaching into his inner pocket, he brought out Han's old stylus and began to sketch from memory, as Han moved to sit opposite him.

He let Luke sketch for a while, his curiosity a narrow tendril, like a curl of smoke hanging in the air as Luke redrew the image he'd picked out of Vader's head, of the hollow rock formation set close to tall sandstone bluffs,

When Han finally spoke, the question was unexpected. "You ever use the stuff I got you?"

"No." It was a lie, for no other reason than to keep Han at bay. But as ever, he wouldn't be.

"Why not?"

"I don't know."

"That's the best you got? That's not even an excuse."

Luke lifted his head slightly. "You want it back?"

"No."

Luke could sense Han's confusion as to why he was being so belligerent. He didn't understand; anger built walls, and walls maintained distance. And distance was safe—for Luke and everyone else.

"I got a question for you," Solo pushed.

Luke didn't raise his head. "Another? You had one of those last week."

"Well here's this week's…why haven't you ever drawn Leia?"

His stylus stopped its scratchy motion for just second…then continued. " I don't remember what she looks like."

"Right. What about yourself, you never draw yourself either. D'ja forget what you look like, too?"

"A long time ago." Concentrating, he continued scratching deep shadows into the rough bluffs.

"Well I'm glad we got that cleared up," Solo muttered dryly, gaze dropping to the sheet of flimsy. "So what're you drawin'?"

"Not sure."

"…Whose head are you inside this time?"

"Was," Luke corrected. "Vader's."

"Still trying to figure that out, huh?"

Luke slowed, then stopped entirely, staring at the sketch for long seconds… Abruptly he stood and grabbed the flimsy sheet, screwing it up to throw it across the table. "You're right. Indo's right. I'm wasting my time. Stupid—stupid to even try! I'm already in too deep. I don't learn—I never learn!" As he spoke he curled one hand into a fist to beat it against his own forehead in frustration at this constant failing.

"What are you talkin' about?" Han rose, disconcerted.

"I'm talking about going to speak to Vader…I'm talking about being here, right now!"

"I didn't say that—any of it."

"You should have—I should have. Indo would have—and he'd be right."

"Nothing about Indo is right. He's just a cold-hearted son of—"

"No, he understands," Luke said emphatically. "He does it for me, can't you see that? He allows that distance! I like that detachment—I need it."

"And the spice?"

"It isn't about that," Luke dismissed. "Indo understands, he knows that I have to stay focused."

"On Palpatine? You think that saves your life?"

He quietened at Han's misunderstanding, composure returning, and with it, resolve. "I think it saves his. I think it saves yours."

"…and what about yours?" Han asked quietly.

Luke hesitated for long seconds, but with nothing left to say, he shook his head in silence. Glancing down to the stylus still in his hand, he wavered momentarily…then placed it gently down on the table, before turning to leave.

 

 

 

When he reached to his own quarters, Indo was sat in his room's only chair, waiting. He stood immediately, voice tight. "Where have you been?"

"Out." It took a brief adjustment of his mental state, to be back around Indo. But it was a change to the familiar, to the comforting convention of distance, and despite Luke's curt answer there was no malice in it. It was simply a necessity of dealing with the facts, which were that with a few exceptions, pretty much whatever Indo knew, he would eventually pass on to Palpatine. Knowing that, the precedent was long since established that anything sensitive—anything that Luke knew damn well he would get into trouble for—he simply didn't tell Indo. And Indo, for his part, knew that to press Luke further would only gain him a piece of information that would, in the end, reflect badly on Luke—and therefore on Indo himself.

So now Indo simply stared, disapproval written all over his face, along with that particular strain of long-suffering acceptance that Luke knew so well. "You turned off your comlink."

"Yes." Luke wondered briefly if Indo had tried to check his location via his deactivated comlink, when Luke hadn't returned, though it would have gained him no more than he already knew, which was that Luke wasn't onboard the Relentless. To learn more than that, he would have been forced to contact the other destroyers and have them perform their own in-ship scans, and he wouldn't have risked that. Such an order would always be logged, and in all probability passed on to Palpatine, not only highlighting the fact that Indo had no idea where his charge was, but also revealing Luke's location, a fact that Luke had clearly gone to great pains to hide, considering the way he'd chosen to get there. So they both played this familiar game, because if there was one thing that Indo could be relied on to do, it was consider every angle before he made any move.

Walking in to let the door close behind him, Luke's eye was caught by the light in his small bedroom. Laid out on his bed, immaculately pressed and starched, was his full Ubiqtorate dress uniform. His heart pumped a few fast beats as he glanced to Indo, whose expression changed not a whit, though the gravity in his voice told all.

"You're commanded to the Emperor's presence, onboard the Conqueror. You're ordered to wear dress uniform, and to go alone."

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

 

 

 

 

Luke arrived on the main bridge of the Conqueror in full uniform, increasingly uneasy, barely aware of the wary glances which his Ubiqtorate status drew from the bridge officers on duty. Admitted immediately, he walked into a room empty save for his Master, who stood to its far side staring out across the sprawling hull of the Destroyer. He turned only slowly as Luke, led by the fact that he'd been ordered to wear his uniform, came to a stop and gave a military bow from the neck, clicking his heels together.

Yellow eyes regarded him for long seconds as Luke stood uncomfortably, deeply wary.

"Stand up straight," the Emperor intoned. "When you wear a uniform, you represent my military. You deport yourself with composure and surety."

Though he'd already been standing to tense attention, Luke tried to straighten himself further, hands clasped tightly behind his back. Whatever this was, it was going to be bad. He could feel it gathering at the edges of his awareness now. Could sense it in every movement his Master made, in the tone of his voice and the set of his jaw.

"I have come to a decision as to your future," the Emperor said at last, tone brusque, allowing for no dissent.

His future? Luke frowned just slightly. His future was set already—had been for as long as he could remember. He would be an Emperor's Hand. Would travel through the galaxy as the other select few did, doing his Master's bidding. He was waiting only for the release which he knew would soon come…

"On your seventeenth birthday, you will take up your official position as Hand. Your studies will cease, and you will devote yourself to this calling every waking hour, with all due gravity and sincerity."

Exactly as he'd expected…so why did he feel a weight pressing in on him to near-panic?

A brief pause, then his Master continued. "You will not, however, take your leave of the palace—or of me."

Luke's chin lifted a fraction, eyes widening as the Emperor continued, giving him no opportunity to speak.

"You will instead become my bodyguard. My defender. You will do this without absence or respite. Without hesitation or reluctance. You will devote your life to it, every waking hour, as only you can."

It was a body-blow that pushed the air from Luke's lungs. For the longest time he simply stared, seeing his life—any chance at some small sliver of autonomy—evaporate in the course of a few words, spoken with absolute understanding of their damning power yet no allowance made, even now, as Palpatine continued.

"You have told me many times that you would die for me…why did you think I would ask such a thing of you? It is time to grow up and stop holding to foolish, juvenile dreams. You claim that you are not a child any more—prove it now." Palpatine paused, eyes flicking back and forth across Luke's gaze, manner curt and brisk, no attempt at interest feigned. "Say what you have to say."

Given his chance, Luke didn't hesitate. "Why me? Why not Brie or Mara Jade?"

"They have not been trained as you have."

"To be a Hand! To go out into the galaxy and do your bidding, like them—not for this! Trailing around that damn palace behind you when there are others wh…."

The Force-blow hit him squarely in the center of his chest, sending him staggering back several paces, though he held his balance and stayed upright, gasping for breath as his Master ranted.

"I give you the ultimate accolade, and you…you struggle to be free of it!"

"Let me serve, like them!" Until this moment, when he saw it being ripped away, Luke hadn't realized just how much the knowledge that he would eventually be free of all this had meant to him. "Let me be of use, not shuttered up and…"

"Your use is whatever and wherever I deem it to be."

"Let me be of value!"

"You will be. Here, against any and all detractors—against Vader."

"Vader would never turn against you."

"You sensed what I did, in the vision. The dark-cloaked threat. Vader plots against me—now more than ever."

"He doesn't have the strength. He knows it would be his death sentence, because he doesn't have the power to stand against you—he knows that!"

Palpatine smiled as he set forward, gravelly tones shifting from annoyance to dismissive amusement. "Ah, so now that you are finally reaching your potential, you think that power is everything? The very fact that you say such a thing proves how naïve you are." His Master stopped before him, shaking his head in impatient disapproval. "His hold on the Force has weakened, yes, but his resolve only grows… And most of all, he carries no weaknesses, as you do."

"I don't ha—" Luke stopped mid-word as his Master's hand stretched out with the speed of a striking snake— But he only rested one finger beneath Luke's chin, the action stilling his jaw and silencing him.

"No?" Palpatine stepped closer, voice dropping. "Then why do I still look at a blue-eyed boy? Where is my Sith?"

Luke braced for the inevitable string of derision that always came with that accusation…but instead his Master smiled benignly. "You hate this life, I know…but it makes you strong. Feel the power that builds within you to diamond hardness because of it. When the time comes, child, I shall withdraw my protection of Vader, and he shall be yours." His Master held that empty smile for seconds longer, lips trembling just slightly. "I look forward to that day as much as you do—to the spectacle of a duel between Sith, when that glorious power that I have toiled so long to propagate in you, may be turned on him without restraint."

Luke glanced down, uneasy at the realization of what Palpatine was truly offering—knowingly. He pulled the thought in and hid it deep, looking up to meet his Master's eyes, and Palpatine's thin smiled broadened indulgently. "But first, I must see a true Sith's eyes." Again his Master paused portentiously, his own ocher eyes catching the light as he studied Luke's, his hand still to Luke's chin. "Tell me…what do you hold hidden?

Silence stretched taught as Luke stared, heart pounding, composure slipping. "Master?"

Palpatine tilted his head, as if tired of repeating himself. "There is a reason that I look into insipid blue eyes, child, and I have told you what it is. Yet still you cannot admit it…still you hold to these petty and undignified amities with lesser beings than ourselves."

Luke glanced down in silence, every possible shield in place as Palpatine nodded slowly.

"You cradle a weakness, knowingly. For some reason that I will never comprehend, you hold it of value. Child, listen to me, and understand; it is not precious, it is costly. These trivial, petty creatures, they will always, always betray you, in the end."

 

 

 

 

Han walked quickly through the corridors of the Relentless, heading for the large tech maintenance room beneath Stellar Engineering, because Luke had admitted once that he used the unimportant and little-accessed room when smoking spice, since it had no surveillance.

Luke. Han blanched at the pang of guilt, feeling that taking it even this far was a betrayal, of sorts. But as far as he could see he was out of choices. This was all he had left—presuming that he could make it work.

Inside the big room the huge tertiary heatsink which served the holo array for Stellar Engineering hummed, taking the majority of the space though he was easily able to walk around its bulk, which disappeared down several levels behind a safety rail. Reaching the far side, he fumbled for his comlink—and his eyes paused on his own uniform as he remembered the kid's words to him, about his wearing an Imperial uniform—about taking his pay and toeing the line. Because the kid was right...it was just that he was looking at all this from the wrong side.

It wasn't enough to object in words alone; to grumble and moan, but still put this uniform on every morning. To keep on saying that things should change, but never be the one who would step out of line and make them.

Lifting his comlink, Han keyed in the code Leia had given him…then paused, before he transmitted, in realization of the fact that he had absolutely no idea what to say, how to start this going. Already half of him was saying he couldn't do this to the kid, even while the other half was talking himself into comming her.

His hand was actually shaking as he pressed transmit. She answered quicker than he'd expected, her voice full of concern.

"Han?"

"Hey." His mouth was abruptly dry. He couldn't do this.

"What's wrong?" It was the concern in her voice, the warmth, the memory of those big brown eyes that pulled him on.

"I uh…I needed to talk to you about something."

"Hold on…" He could hear her walking; hear a ship-style door slide open and closed, grinding slightly on old runners. "Okay, I'm alone. Are you alright?"

"Fine, yeah. Good. You?"

"I'm…I'm sorry I couldn't speak before, when you commed on the night that Luke and I... I had a lot on my mind."

"S'okay. I got a lot on mine, right now."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"I think…yeah, I think I am. Or…I will be, if you'll help me."

"Help you how?"

"I…I need asylum."

"What?"

"You said…you once said there was no dishonor in acknowledging that I'd made a bad decision when I was young, and I chose to put this uniform on—it only became a mistake if I didn't do something about it, now."

"…I remember that." There was an edge of subdued hope in her voice.

"Well, I guess I'm ready to do somethin' about it, and I need asylum. Can you offer it, on behalf of the Rebellion?" He had to do it this way, though he knew damn well that the kid wouldn't see it like that. But he'd said it enough times—that they couldn't keep on doing this any more.

Sometimes…sometimes, you had to sacrifice everything, for even a chance to start again.

 

 

 

 

"Tell me, if I asked you to sacrifice…would you?" Barely half a step away from Luke, Palpatine's voice was quiet, but no less dangerous for it.

Standing before the wide run of lozenge-shaped, floor to ceiling viewports in the ominous silence of the conference room onboard the Conqueror, his dark-dressed form was framed by the view of the massive Destroyer's hull and the dense blackness of deep space beyond.

Luke blinked, searching to place the remembered words, but…he tensed, and instantly stopped himself as the memory replayed in his head, of kneeling before his Master in the throne room, his hand on the throne's armrest, his own lightsaber grating against the fine bones in the back of his hand, held there by Palpatine; "If I asked you to sacrifice…would you?"

"You want to prove yourself, child," his Master asked. "To be truly free?"

Luke took a breath to speak—but something broke it in his throat, something cold and portentous which rose up like a wraith from the shadowed edges of his awareness. Palpatine's eyes remained on him, and knowing that his Master had sensed his twist of doubt Luke rallied to remove it, though when he spoke his voice was wary. "…Yes."

Palpatine nodded approvingly, a thin smile coming to his bloodless lips as he studied Luke's face for a long time…then he turned and walked to the huge desk whose flawlessly polished surface reflected the ice-cold expanse of space beyond, which seemed now to seep in through every viewport. "I gave you this test when you were eleven, and you failed dismally. Don't disappoint me again."

"Test?"

Reaching out, his Master activated the holo set into the desk's surface. Two images flickered into life and rose up into the air. Standard ID turnarounds, one depicted Indo, the other Han. Instantly Luke backstepped in realization, feeling the memory strike as keenly as any physical blow.

The Emperor brought his cool and pitiless gaze up. "It is time to clear the boards. To once again wipe out a past that should have no bearing on your future."

Luke retreated another three fast steps, all composure gone, his demeanour reduced to that of a child as he clenched a hand to his chest in realization of what Palpatine was leading to. "Don't…don't make me choose."

Palpatine smiled as he set his head to one side. "Choose? I would have thought that this time, at least the decision was a foregone conclusion. Viscount Indo is clearly no longer of use to you…ah, but then, what real use is Solo? Yes, I see your predicament. A difficult choice indeed."

Voiceless, Luke could only hunch back beneath his Master's mocking indulgence, vivid memories assaulting him, breath coming shallow as his chest tightened.

"But a choice you have to make, none the less," Palpatine grated, unmoved. "You are no longer a child, and you will not carry such flaws. You will not nurse these failings as if they have value. You will not divide your attention nor diminish your motivation."

Luke shook his head, voice reduced to a broken appeal. "I don't—I've never once…"

"You think I am blind?" Palpatine declared, hand slamming to the wide desk. "You think me incapable of seeing the petty little attachments you form? I believed that time would see these failings diminish, but when you finally begin to distance yourself from Viscount Indo, it seems that you do so simply to replace him with another. I thought I had made this very clear to you, but apparently not, so I shall say it again. I am the only constant in your life. I am its center, its foundation. I am the only one you look to. No one else, ever. You know that."

The silence blared as his Master glared, fuming, eyes ablaze…then let out the smallest laugh, pale skin creasing into deep folds as he walked around the wide desk and towards Luke, who backstepped just once as his Master closed. Palpatine didn't slow until he stood near enough to reach out and take Luke's jawline in his cool hand, the motion so unexpected that Luke flinched back…but his Master only smiled, voice gentle, affectionate, almost. "For you, I have done this before—removed those who would weaken you, divide your attention…and for you, I will do it again, without hesitation. If I remove them, you know that it shall be both…and you know that it will not be easy. However…if you wish to save one, then the method is simple enough, you know that. You need simply kill the other."

"I can't…"

"Then do nothing…and I will destroy them both."

"Please—"

"For you, I do this, child," his Master said again, over Luke's inarticulate plea. "To make you strong. Such petty and base connections, they are not the Sith way. Viscount Indo has been too close for too long, you know that. And Solo…his wayward guidance has served a great purpose in instigating within you the strength to bring your powers to the fore, but no matter what he has enabled you to achieve it is tempered by the weakness he begets, simply in being here. No…he has outlived his value. His final and most significant lesson will be in his removal. Child…" Palpatine let his cold, cupped hand trail gently along Luke's jawline and drop to rest lightly against the throat it had many times tightened about, his thumb resting on the pulse of Luke's neck as it raced. "If you are strong enough to do this yourself, then you will, I promise, step free of all the vulnerabilities and pains of your childhood, all of these cloying and crushing limitations, and you will become a man—a worthy. A Sith."

 

 

 

 

"I think…" Han paused, then said it aloud into the comlink. He'd better get used to the idea. "I think it's time to leave. Will you help me?"

"To do what?" Leia asked, breathless. "Leave the Empire, or join theAlliance?"

"Both, I guess." Funny, how he basked in the sound of her smile when she next spoke.

"I knew there was more to you than that damn uniform!"

"Sweetheart, you don't know the half of it. Question is, would it be safe there, for an ex-Imperial?"

"You'd be surprised how many we get. One of our best Generals is an ex-Imperial tactician."

"Madine." Han knew of him by reputation; the highest-ranking Imperial ever to defect. "So I wouldn't, y'know, get court-martialled or anything?"

"Not when you come to us voluntarily, of course not. Why would you be?"

"And what if I didn't?"

"I don't understand…"

"You know when you said that there was more to me than this uniform? You were right, there is. There's a whole other uniform—and that one's Ubiqtorate."

"You're not Ubiqtorate."

"No, but Luke is, and I'm bringing him with me." Had she thought for one moment that he'd leave the kid behind? Luke had cited often enough to Han that running was pointless, because Palpatine would find him—well let him try to find the kid there! He'd thrown the whole damn Imperial military machine at the Rebel Alliance for nearly two decades, and it was still around. "It's not enough to get him away from Palpatine, I need to get him outside of the Old Man's reach—and there's just one place in the universe that I think I can do that. And there's just one woman I know who can help me."

Leia was silent for a worryingly long time. When she finally spoke, the confusion was clear in her voice—and he could swear it was mixed with a huge great hunk of hope. "Luke actually wants to defect?"

"Aaaah…no. That's the problem bit."

"I don't understand."

"If I bring him, it won't be by his choice. I may…you know, need a little help keepin' him there, at first." Forget about weaning him off spice, this would be an attempt to wean him off of Palpatine's influence…and that was the real addiction, the real dependence—the Old Man had seen to that. The spice was just a way to deal with it.

Why hadn't he seen all this before—why hadn't he connected all the dots and seen this way out? How many times had he said that he couldn't sit by and watch Luke slowly spiral down any more, but done nothing, because he'd had no idea what to do. How many times had he watched the kid struggle so hard, and drag himself so damn far…then get knocked back down, because the Old Man had such a hold on him. This was the answer, this was the way out—but it had taken Han's slow recognition that he couldn't serve the Empire any more, to realize the one place where he and the kid could safely go. He had no idea if Luke would ever forgive him…but he'd risk that. He'd take that hit, and just hope to hell he could change it, given time.

Yeah, time was what he'd need…and he wasn't entirely sure he could get that without a Jedi and a whole damn Rebel army to gain it.

Leia, it turned out, didn't seem that sure even with them. "You're asking me to bring a Sith into theAlliance—against his wishes. Do you know what he's capable of?"

"He's not like them. You gotta understand, what you're seein' is what Palpatine's trained the kid to do all his life."

"I do understand—that's what I'm afraid of."

"But he's growing up and he's getting a mind of his own and he's askin' questions—and the Old Man doesn't like that, believe me. It's going against everything Luke's been taught, everything he's ever known, and he's tearing himself apart in the process, but he's…he's still trying. And I know you think he's Sith, and I understand why, I really do, but…I don't even know what to tell you. All I can say is, he's not. He's not like them—trust me on that one."

The line remained silent for long seconds, and when Leia's voice came, it was soft and uncertain. "I want to, Han, I really do."

"Then do it! Iknowhim, I know exactly what's goin' on in his head. And yeah, the kid's belligerent and he's confrontational and every damn time he even thinks he's starting to actually trust someone he does somethin' stupid to sabotage it without even realizing it, which enables him to back off—I know that! But you gotta understand, that's a massive leap of faith, with not a damn thing in his whole life so far to back it up… Hell, I remember when I'd've done the same. That's why I understand him; because someone once gave me that same opportunity—that same faith. Someone stuck it out and went the distance for me, and she turned my life around completely. And now it's my turn." He paused, still surprised how easy it was, if you took that leap in the dark and let yourself care. "He just…he just needs somebody in his life to finally hang on in there and not give up on him."

Leia remained silent, and Han was aware of speaking too quickly in his effort to get everything over in the kid's defense. "We've had so much in common in our lives, he's like a little brother…I mean, an incredibly frustrating, unpredictable, explosive little brother, I admit that, but from what I hear, that's what they're all like anyway, and…and his heart's in the right place, I know it is. He wouldn't have hurt Kenobi, even if Vader hadn't turned up. He might have been pretty full-on hacked-off at him, but he would have backed off, like he did with you. He sure as hell wouldn't have known that Vader was followin' him that night—you know that, right?"

"I think…I think I do." She sounded distant, surprised at her own admission.

"Vader and Luke've been at each other's throats for years, he'd never tell Vader anything, let alone about you."

The silence held for long seconds, then he heard her light sigh. "He hasn't…told you anything about…"

"About what?"

"Luke…he told me something very important that night we fought, and I just didn't know how to handle it in that moment, so I ran. I've been trying to get in contact with him ever since, on the comm code he gave me, but it seems inactive."

"He might have left it on Coruscant. I'll pass it on—in fact, help me, and speak to him face to face."

"Han, I want to help you. I absolutely want to help Luke, but…he makes it very hard."

"Sometimes, what Luke says and what he's really thinking are at odds. You gotta know him well enough to spot it, but let me tell you, he does it all the time, even to himself." Luke was the very thing that he'd once accused Han of—that was probably why he'd thought to make the accusation in the first place, and with such frustration. He was the man who put that uniform on, and lived under the roof and answered the commands of the Emperor…but somewhere in there, at his very core, he knew it was wrong. Heknewit—because occasionally, under pressure, a little of that leaked out into his actions.

It was so obvious! Kid tried so hard to toe the party line, but deep inside, at the very core of him, he didn't want to. He did so because of Palpatine—only that. That was why sometimes his words and actions were so at odds…because the kid himself was.

 

 

 

 

In the still silence Palpatine watched the boy falter at his demand. Sensed the panic which radiated from him, unchecked, at his memory of past trials. He wanted to answer his Master's command, wanted to obey, as he always did, the controls planted in that seven-year-old boy now deeply embedded. But something held back, something at the very core of him.

The boy had failed this test last time—but then Palpatine had given it knowing that he would, manipulating its outcome to gain him the unbreakable hold which he still maintained today. The exclusive secret which bound them together. Death could be a powerful thing to a young child—death of someone as close as one's parents even more so…deaths blamed on the child himself the ultimate hold. It had affected the eleven-year-old child that Antilles had been at the time deeply. Had taken what was left after four years of Palpatine's absolute domination, and broken him apart entirely…but then, that had always been the intention. The overload of emotion which would numb all else, the guilt which would bind the boy to him.

Because of it, he could easily persuade the boy to act on his present command, he knew; could slowly twist the knife even as he tightened the leash. Antilles would listen, as he'd always been taught to. Palpatine's hold on him was just as absolute as it had been on Darth Maul; as it presently was on Mara Jade and Shira Brie—acolytes gained in childhood were always the most loyal and tractable—but this was not about persuasion, it was about compliance. Capitulation. Willing consent. So he remained silent, watching fleeting emotions cross the boy's face as he moved from bewilderment to near-panic.

It seemed, to Palpatine, such a small thing that he asked; the death of two Aides whom the boy should have no attachment to in the first place. Far less than his demand just weeks ago, when he had pressed a lightsaber against the back of Antilles' hand. The boy had tensed then, willing to take that trial…but Palpatine had invested years in training him to think little of his own safety. And he knew that sometimes, with the boy, what seemed the lesser test so clearly held the greater cost.

And now was the time to test; to push his advocate on, to take him to the next level.

Antilles took a half-staggered step back, eyes dropping as he backed down, guilt-ridden, because he knew already that he couldn't make the decision. Palpatine let him babble, having known that he would. Let him apologize again and again, without pushing him further—not yet.

Instead he accepted the apologies with patronizing disdain. Let him think on the fact that he was at fault for being unable to act, for a few sleepless nights; think on his own failings, on his weakness and limitations. On the futility of them. Because one way or another,Antilleswould make a decision and he would act upon it—even if Palpatine had to hold the boy's hand to the lightsaber as he made the killing blow.

But for now he played the gracious mentor and shook his head, stepping in close again because he knew how uneasy it made his charge, as he lifted his hand to push the boy's unruly hair gently back from his eyes, tone dripping empty indulgence. "Don't apologize, child—not to me. It is yourself whom you are failing, yet again. It means nothing to me, to complete this task if you are unable. Nothing, to turn what could have been a mercifully quick demise into a tortuous slaughter. That is what makes me stronger than you. This would always happen one day, you most surely knew that? It will happen every time I see that you allow another beneath those flawed shields. I have always told you, there can be only one focus in the life of an Emperor's Hand. Only one allegiance." He paused to smile munificently. "But I will grant you the time to find your resolve. You have until our return to Coruscant, then I will bring Solo and the Viscount together…and you will make a choice, and act upon it. Use this time wisely, child; sever connections. They only ever weaken you. Show me your strength, show me your resolve. Show me your true worth."

 

 

 

 

"He just needs some time." Huddled to the back of the room, with the heatsink humming over the pointed silence from the comlink in his hand, Han argued the kid's corner. "Time away from Palpatine. The old man's been his life, he's made sure of that. He won't let anyone else even close. That's why the kid won't let anyone in—it's like he's afraid to, for some reason."

"I know he…" Leia hesitated, voice barely audible over the heatsink's thrum, "he didn't want to duel me."

"He went there intending to let you take a pop at him, that’s all. He just didn't count on your doin' it with a lightsaber in your hand. C'mon, you know how many times he's tried to protect you. It didn't work with Kenobi, but he still got you out. You think that wasn't at risk to himself? You should see what Palpatine does, when he thinks the kid's showing even a glimmer of autonomy—you should see what he does to him. But Luke still protected you over the Death Star. Palpatine put him in the medicenter for that—without even knowing about you, just because the kid had been there…and Luke knew he'd face a hell of a lot worse if he helped you on Coruscant—believe me, he knew. But he still did it."

"I'll help him."

"Plus…what?"

"I said, I'll help him."

Han blinked, speechless for a second. He was barely halfway through his spiel to persuade her! "You don't want to know why? I got it all worked out…"

She laughed, and it came out as a breathy sigh over the comlink. "Then you're doing better than me, Han Solo. I'm going on gut instinct here. I'm closing my eyes and making a leap in the dark."

Han couldn’t help but laugh. "Welcome to my life, sweetheart!"

And how the hell did the kid make people do that, with not a damn thing to back it up? Or was it just him and Leia? Han grinned wider, 'cos if it was, didn't that make it better still? "Clearly we're on the same wavelength, here."

"Unfortunately it won't be our choice that counts."

"What d'you mean?"

"I can't make that kind of decision independently. I can't just bring a Sith onboard a Rebel ship. I want to help him…but I can't endanger the Alliance to do so—and believe me, that's what everyone will see."

"What about your leader…Mothma?"

"Mon?"

"Can't you speak to her, tell her what he's worth?"

She hesitated. "Worth?"

"You said you want someone who understands Palpatine, who knows your enemy inside out? That's Luke—that's the kid. I can tell you for a fact that he knows exactly how Palpatine thinks, because I've heard him call the points so often—what Palpatine's real motives are, what he's setting in place, what he's hiding behind more obvious moves. Luke's grown up in close contact with him, like no one else, ever. He knows him inside out—how he reasons, how he reacts… and the military—he's exactly the same there. It's what he's been brought up with. He knows procedures, codes, high level stuff. Knows how all the big players think. You want to talk Luke up in front of your boss, tell her that."

"That's all dependent on Luke's helping them—voluntarily."

"We'll sort that out when the time comes," Han said uneasily, aware that he was skimming over a mammoth hurdle there…in fact, this whole crazy scheme was one big planet-sized hurdle, from beginning to end. But hey, one ridiculously unlikely problem at a time. "For now, I got a chance to get Luke out in the next few days. Now's the time to do it, because we're not on Coruscant, we're part of an armada, and we're about to make an unscheduled stop. After that, we're either at high-security installations or in lightspeed again until we get back to Coruscant, then depending on the kid's assignments we might not be travellin' on our own away from Coruscant for months afterwards. But we're makin' an unscheduled stop at some drydock near Corsin in the early hours of the morning, I think. That means that security'll be less organized, and we're only half the time with Palpatine anyway. That's my best chance, so I need to get a deal in place by—"

"Where did you say the drydock was?"

"Uh…near Corsin. Drydock IV. It's the supply dock for the Rim systems turnwise of Coruscant and—"

"I know where it is. Han, you can't be there—not unless you arrive and leave within the next day."

It was the gravity of her voice which stopped him cold. "Why?"

"I can't tell you, you just…" She paused… "Wait, did you say Palpatine was part of the armada?"

"Palpatineisthe armada."

"Palpatine is with you, right now, heading to the Imperial Drydock at Corsin?"

"Yeah. We're goin' to lightpeed within the hour. That'll be our last jump to get there, I think." He waited, but the line remained silent for a long time. "Leia….Leia?"

"Oh, Han…" Her voice was low, loaded with emotion. "Do you have any idea of the opportunity you've just given us? Do you know what this is worth?"

 

 

 

 

True worth, Luke reflected in bitter silence. That was what his Master had said; show his true worth. Sat alone in the stillness of the shuttle’s passenger compartment as it slipped through space towards the Relentless, Luke stared distantly out across the scattered ships of the armada as they regrouped for theier next hyperspace jump, the moments of his meeting with his Master running relentlessly over in his mind. True worth…and they both knew what that really was—Palpatine had made it unrelentingly clear over the years; it was nothing, without Luke’s ability to obey a command without question. And he couldn't do that, not really. Not in this. So what was he worth?

He sat still and withdrawn, wishing for the old numbness to return as real life closed in about him again—his life. He'd spent years cultivating the art of feeling nothing, of being safely removed from all of the complications that this particular life pressed in on him. But in the last few months all of that had been lost, as the walls that had kept him safe had begun to crumble. He'd taken outrageous risks—saved prisoners, helped Kenobi, let Leia go free, protected her…lied to Palpatine to do it—actually lied, to his Master's face!

…And yet he couldn't bring himself to regret them. Their results, and the fact that he'd deceived his Master, yes, completely…but the acts…no.

All because Solo had allowed him to hope, to need something other than the dour, dismal life he was destined to lead. Because Solo had let him think that there could somehow be something more for him. And briefly, stupidly, he'd actually begun to believe him…to trust him. For one single, star-bright moment, he'd hoped…

But already that star was collapsing under the weight of its own impossibility, and once again he was that child in his dreams, just steps from the bright light but with the cloying shadows closing in about him, and that monster…that monster in the darkness reaching out to claim him and drag him back. And it was just too hard to hope any more. He'd been pulled back down into those shadows too often to be prepared to try again. He couldn't take that chance, couldn't survive that fall one more time, and watch all that he'd desperately craved slipping away. And worse…worse, was what was at stake. Han needed to go, and it had to be now, because if he didn't…if he didn't Luke genuinely feared that somehow he'd eventually be made to capitulate, no matter how reluctantly, and do as his Master commanded. How could he not?

No, better to have such risks safely gone. Better to fall back into his life as it had always been, a numb, spice-wrapped solitude with no risks, no pain, no loss…no hope. Better to let it all slide away than to keep on struggling to hold on to some broken travesty of what he could never have—what he was never meant to have.

Better to feel nothing, than to feel this.

 

 

 

 

"This changes everything." Leia's voice was charged with subdued excitement and raw hope. "This could change absolutely everything, Han. This is…this is the opportunity we never thought we'd have."

"Wait, all I'm tryin' to do here is get the kid safely away. That's hard enough without—"

"Palpatine is part of the armada en-route to the Corsin drydock, right now?" She'd dropped to the kind of focused concentration that demanded an answer.

"I told you, Palpatine is the armada. He's making the tour of some of his high-security installations—to crack the whip, I think. But first we're makin' an unscheduled stop at Corsin Drydock, so the Old Man can speak to some Moff."

"How long is he staying?"

Han hesitated; this was all so alien to him, to impart this kind of information; stuff that he knew damn well was classified. Part of him trusted her like he trusted the kid, but he knew she was part of the Rebellion, too. But wasn't he, now? And it wasn't even because of this conversation—not really. He'd been slowly committing to this for a long time…it had just never had a name before—a focus. "I don't know," he said slowly at last. "I could try to find out."

"How many Destroyers are in your convoy?"

"Five, altogether."

"Plus four at the drydock."

"…How d'you know that?"

"Han…if we needed your help to pin down which Destroyer Palpatine is on at a certain moment at the Corsin Drydock, would you do it?"

"Seriously? You think you're just gonna show up there and take some random potshot at him? You think it's that easy?"

"No. Han, I can't tell you anything more, but would you help us?"

"Okay, you just said yourself there'll be nine Star Destroyers there—nine! You know how many fighter compliments a single Star Destroyer has? You know how many guns it has?"

"Han, you told me a long time ago—when I asked you whether Luke would ever help the Alliance—you said it was complicated. I told you then that we simply needed to remove the complication. Well, that's Palpatine. He's the complication. You say you want to get Luke away from all this, but you know yourself that even if you do, he'll always go back to Palpatine. The only way you'll stop that is to help us get rid of him. Permanently."

Han remained silent, wondering if Leia had any idea what she was asking of him. He'd come into this conversation thinking he'd have to persuade her, and now she was doing the same to him, as she pressed on urgently.

"You're in an unprecedented position. You've ended up incredibly close to the Emperor almost by default. He controls everyone around him, and everyone there is hand picked for their loyalty—everyone. But because of Luke, you've slipped in beneath that net. You have the opportunity so very few do—to make a difference. A huge difference—a real one—at the source of the problem. Help us."

And what had he thought himself, earlier, about it not being enough to grumble and moan, yet do nothing to change things? He'd commed Leia with that myopic little view of Luke and himself in mind, looking for her help to keep the kid safe. But she was right, in that if he could, the kid would always go back to Palpatine. Still, that didn't mean to say that Han could do a damn thing about it. He bit his lip; this was insanity! "Just because you have the Old Man out of Coruscant, that doesn't mean he'll be undefended."

"You said yourself this is an unscheduled stop."

"Surrounded by nine Star Destroyers!"

"All I need you to do is take a comlink and leave it open on a set channel at a set time, on the Emperor's destroyer, so that we can pinpoint it. Then you need to get off the Destroyer—you need to do that no matter what, understand?"

"And then?"

"We'll pick you up. Either way, we'll pick you both up, I promise. I'll come myself, if I have to. Will you help us?"

Han hesitated… "You get that deal for Luke, and I'll do it. Whatever the hell you think you've got a shot at, you need the right destroyer in the first place, and I can give you that—but on my terms. I want Luke's guaranteed safety, his immunity from any prosecution. Tell Mothma that."

"Stay right where you are," she said, fire in her voice. "Don't go anywhere."

.

Sitting alone in the tech room waiting for her to get back to him, Han wondered what she had in mind. Wondered what had been going through his own, when he'd agreed to plant the comlink.

More than anything else, sitting in a dark corner of the noisy and cluttered room, he wondered how the hell he was gonna persuade a wary, unwilling Luke Antilles to leave with him, when he'd planted that comlink…and what he was gonna do if—when—he wouldn't.