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Power Lust: Lust for Revenge

Part 2


Chapter 6: Contact

The next morning, Mara Jade rose early and put herself through a strenuous training session against practice droids; she kept fighting for as long as her mind wasn't a blank.

As it used to be 'before', she sighed as she finally recovered her blissful state of oblivion about everything and anything except her goal.

Nowadays, her goal was to avenge her master.

After another shower, she grabbed some breakfast bar and made her way toward the command room. Now that she was back in the thick of their preparations, she was determinate to oversee everything in order to not let any detail slip past her attention.

While she ran a cursory check on the electronic screens of the communication room as she walked through it, she conceded that her subordinates were excellent at what they did, but they still lacked her drive as far as their goal was concerned.

They themselves wanted the power back in their hands while she was after her master's murderer.

Darth Vader.

As she walked behind the station of incoming messages, she paid attention to the content of their communications, ready to catch any bit of information that would tell her that the time was at hand...

Other than empty reports of their troops holding their positions, she didn't hear anything interesting. She finally reached the sealed command room, which was adjacent to the intelligence room where data-crushers were analyzing absolutely everything that came within their hands. She threw a glance in their direction, absently noticed that their luminous boards hadn't changed from content since the previous day, then focused on the men who were already sitting around the table. "Good morning, Gentlemen," she greeted shortly before she picked up a first datapad from her own place around the table. "Any news since last evening?" She remained in a standing position.

"We have pinpointed the location of four new rebel surveillance outposts," Veers informed her as he keyed in commands in the tactical table around which the others were seating.

"In four different parts of space," she observed coolly before she refocused on her pad. "Mere gnats that will be part of the clean-ups."

"Yes, Madam, yet at the same time, sabotaging them would be a piece of cake," the man observed.

Mara barely listened to him while he exposed his idea. The other officers noticed it and took care to confirm with him that the stations would be their last targets. They weren't even armed in any way, she shrugged inwardly, so other than target practice, they were totally useless in their campaign.

"Anything else?" she asked once the other had cleared his targets from the holotransmitter. She picked up another pad, discarding her first one as trivial. The content of their last cargo was not 'exactly' very important in their quest for information about the enemy.

"We heard from Coruscant," colonel Grant of Intelligence commented.

That did get her attention; she looked up at the man, waiting for him to elaborate.

"Vader's daughter truly is in charge of everything these days. Yesterday, she signed the treaty between the Yuzzemmit and the Empire."

"And still no sign of Vader?" she frowned, aware that such an important agreement would have warranted the signature of her master, had he been alive.

The Yuzzemmit were part of the most intelligent species of the galaxy, hence could produce a technology that was years ahead of anything that other species could dream of.

The other shook his head. "According to our spy, she even signed in place of Vader."

"Could he be dead?" Piett inquired, turning away from the bay window through which he had been gazing up to now.

"Unlikely," she snorted shortly, then gazed at the other--- and froze.

For some reason, his sight suddenly made her shiver as if in horror--- she forced herself to recover her composure. Everything had worked well up to now, she reminded herself sternly. She did not have any reason to doubt her men.

"What did Skywalker say about this?" Veers inquired---- chilling her once again to the bone at the mention of their prisoner.

She had almost, almost forgotten that they had him in their grasp and that Piett... She absently brought her hand down and picked up another datapad; an undeniable feeling of unease settled within her as she touched the electronic device.

"He wasn't cooperative," the other began sarcastically.

Mara shut him out as she almost hesitantly turned the report on. It was Piett's report about the nightly session with Skywalker. As she read the description of what had been used on the Jedi, she felt her heart wilt in sympathetic pain; she forced herself to read some more---- then dropped the pad from her frozen hands before she turned away from the table. She suddenly had to check on their prisoner.

"Madam?" one of the officers inquired instantly.

"Are you all right?"

"I'll be right back," she reflexively shot back, then stepped into the communication center.


Once she had reached the main corridor, she didn't try to maintain her composure anymore and ran as fast as she could toward the detention levels.

She dimly wondered what had gotten into her, why she was even acting as she was, and yet... she couldn't keep herself from running. It was, she reflected, as if her feelings, which were now out of her control, had even taken control of her body to make her act foolishly.

For a brief, very brief moment, she reflected that the Jedi was doing something to her, but she remembered that he was surrounded by ysalamiri; she admitted defeat in her attempts to fault him for her actions.

She was the only one responsible for them, the only one who was acting foolishly... She ran onward, all the way to the detention level.

She screeched to a halt as she entered the detention center. Barely clearing herself through the checkpoint, she stalked down the sole corridor of cells.  She stopped in front of Skywalker's cell...

And seemed to awaken from a dream/nightmare.

What was she doing here?? she asked herself even as the guards began to key in their access code. Why had she run all the way to ‘that’ cell instead of finishing her very important meeting with her allies? She didn't care about the Jedi, she reminded herself, she didn't worry about him.

He was an enemy, a nuisance to get rid of, a---

Very badly injured young man, she stopped in shock as the door slid open and revealed the battered sight of the Jedi. Before she was aware of what she had done, she was inside the cell with him; the door slid shut behind her, locking them together in a soundproof cubicle.

For an horrible moment, she felt the fierce desire to just turn around and request to be let out, but she decided that it wouldn't help her to appear less emotional than she already did.

Hence, she reluctantly faced him and studied his status. Piett hadn't lied, she shuddered in revulsion. He had truly used everything that they had at their disposal to try and break the Jedi.

Even as she identified the different injuries on his body, she realized that the rumor she had heard about the Jedi had also just been proven true. He had resisted a whole month of torture once... was the most powerful Jedi of all times, hence unbreakable even when he couldn't feel the Force.

But without the Force, she suddenly understood when she noticed how his head was lulling as much as it could against his chest, he couldn't recover as fast as he needed to remain alive!

Suddenly aware that they would lose him if he fell unconscious, she quashed her cool demeanor and gave way to her feeling self. "Skywalker!" she called urgently even as she stepped very close to him and forced his head up until she could see his eyes. "Wake up! It's not time to sleep," she tried to rouse him.

"Hmmmmm," he moaned weakly before he seemed to sag further in his chains.

"Skywalker!" she called again, this time accompanying the rousing call with a series of light slaps on his cheeks.

That did wake him slightly; she held his bruised face with her two hands. "Look at me, Jedi. Don't die on me," she added earnestly.

"Would think... it would please you," he slurred, obviously fighting to remain conscious.

"No, it wouldn't,” she shook her head in disagreement. “I never gave orders to beat you this badly," she added, dimly wondering why she was telling him all this yet aware that it was true.

She had never told her men to kill the Jedi during his questioning.

Slowly, as if that action too was painful for him, the young man forced his eyes open; he barely slit them, yet it was enough for her to meet his gaze head on.

Again.

For a long, very long moment, neither of them said anything, yet said everything through their eyes. She for one saw his pain, his tiredness, his resolve to not betray his secrets, and his confusion about her.

For some reason, this new eye contact with him completely shattered whatever denial she had maintained so far about her feelings for him.

However, she was still perfectly aware of the situation; she knew that she couldn't show any sign of those to anyone, not even herself or him.

On the other hand, she decided that she would use other means to find where his father was hiding from her; she would not hurt him anymore, not even through her subordinates. She then made up her mind about what she would do next with their prisoner. "Don't move," she warned him, then stepped closer to him and brought her hands up to his wrists so as to free them from their bonds.

Given his own stretched position between the floor and ceiling, she ended up standing very close to him once again. Unlike the last time though, she grew 'extremely' aware of his hard, muscled body as it pressed against her softer yet no less athletic one. She tried to not touch his lulling head too much, but it was hard... Since the Jedi was still semi-conscious, his head was now resting against her shoulder, right next to her head. His silky yet sweat-soaked hair was tickling her cheek while the faint scent of sweat and something else that she couldn't exactly identify at the moment was invading her nostrils.

Although this experience made her senses almost reel as she became aware of what she had put him through the previous night, it didn't hit her as powerfully as his subsequent moan of pain did.

She was so close to him when he made that sound that his torment seemed to transfer itself from him to her, practically awakening her as if from a nightmare and making her see her actions for what they were.

However, before she could step away, or block away that unwelcome thought, his now freed right arm fell down from its perch and loosely wrapped itself around her shoulder before it slipped down and against his side. It generated another moan of complaint from the semi-conscious prisoner.

"That's why I'm moving you from that string, Jedi," she commented in the silence while she worked on his other cuff. "Tell me," she then asked, "can your sister contact your father or is he hiding from her too?"

"Not... hiding," the injured man half-whispered before he moaned a little louder than before when she slung his second arm around her shoulders.

Careful to not add to his pain, she lowered him to the floor before she also freed his ankles. "Then she can contact him if we contact her, right?" she prompted him, cutting his left leg free as she did so.

"Why..." the young man began, seemed to drift off a little, then he recovered more awareness. "Why are you..."

She never found out what he had in mind before he drifted off again.

First and foremost, she decided while she pulled him closer to the wall, which had restraints that would allow him to lay down without being tortured, she would send a medical team in to fortify him and tend him a little. All of a sudden, she really didn't want to lose him to death, either before or after Vader would be in her grasp. Strange, she then reflected, how her mood had changed from one end to another within less than a day, but, she reluctantly admitted to herself, she simply couldn't condone any action against Skywalker himself anymore.

He had already done his part, and, well, she didn't know yet what she would do with him once the war will be over, but she knew that she would keep him with herself.

Of that she didn't have any doubts anymore. "Skywalker!" she tried to rouse him once he was secured in new bonds. "Skywalker!" she yelled just a little louder before slapping him once again on the cheeks.

The Jedi moaned feebly as his eyes fluttered, trying to open them once again.

"I will leave the door of your cell open so that the guards can keep an eye on you until the medical team gets here" she explained. "You are chained to that wall and are not in any shape to try anything. Just rest and fight to remain conscious. My team will make sure that you don't fall into coma."

The Jedi didn't give her any sign that he had understood what she had told him, but she decided that it was time to leave him. She had to, she commented to herself, or else she would do something that she would bitterly regret when the troops would discover how much she 'cared' about their prisoner.

Affecting her cool mask once again, she stood up, turned her back to the Jedi and walked out of the still open cell. She gave orders to the guards to keep an eye on the Jedi but to not harm him any further, then she contacted her medical team.


While Luke had caught a word every two or three words, he couldn't help but frown slightly as he finally understood that his captor wanted him to remain conscious until a medical team came in.

Medical team? he wondered, watching her as she left his cell. He heard her again as she instructed the guards outside to keep an eye on him until medics came in, then he was alone once again with his torments and thoughts.

The coolness of the floor was slightly helping to alleviate the fire of his injuries, but the pressure of his body resting against it was quickly overcoming that soothing effect of his new position.

His questioner had wanted answers, had wanted to know where his father was, the status of the defenses of the Empire around Coruscant, etc, etc. Naturally, he hadn't answered any of those questions, had remained silent except for his screams of torture.

When they had left him alone, he had had the dim feeling that he would never wake up from his slowly engulfing unconsciousness---- then 'she' had pulled him out of the abyss of coma and death.

When he had heard his door open, he had prepared himself for the end, had given up any resistance to the final Night that was trying to overcome him, then she had suddenly roused him from his listless state, had literally forced him to recover as much of his senses as he could recover in his current situation.

And then, he had looked straight in her jewel-green eyes. Unlike the last time that it had happened, he had seemingly pierced past their cold front, past the woman whom she had been with him up to now, the cold-hearted tormentor... and he had seen a young, beautiful woman who had been living within a shroud of lies, who had been deeply hurt by the loss of the Emperor and who was now trying to get rid of this pain the only way she knew of.

Through revenge... although she didn't like it.

He had seen all this within the space of a few heartbeats, then she had stepped so close to him that he had almost felt as if they had become one.

Now that he could think a little about it, he had to admit that Jade was truly, seriously confusing him. First, she had tormented him through nightmares, then through light hypothermia and pain enhancing drugs, then she had sent him to a torture room...

Only to order him to remain conscious until a medical team could check on him...

While he could understand why she wanted to fortify him instead of losing him, thus saving him as a tool against his father, what truly confused him was her eyes.

When she had talked about the medical team, they had not been as hard as before.  Instead, he had had the feeling that she had been fighting tears somehow, but, he mentally shook himself, he was perhaps losing it himself.

After all, he reminded himself while he tried to not fall unconscious again, he wasn't in exactly a good shape to be completely coherent... let alone reasonable.

And sadly, he thought as he fought down his memories of his very first experience about torture, he had learnt to not trust himself when in such a state... His father had taught him that rather efficiently.

His father...

He had no doubt that he was looking for him, that he would come to his help and defeat the danger that was Jade's group, but...

On the opposite specter of this conviction, his latest experience of pain had woken up his memories of his first meeting with his father, of how he had been with him 'back then'...

A monster.

Considering how his own father had insisted that he was still a monster, and that Jade had revealed to him that Vader had meant to use the pain enhancing drug on him if he had ever 'recaptured' him, he was beginning to wonder if he was wise to trust him as implicitly as he did.

Sure, his father had told him that he would kill himself before ever hurting him or his sister, but... why hadn't it been true 'before'? he wanted to ask him in suddenly freed resent.

Why had he put him through the horrors he had inflicted upon him?.. Why hadn't he saved him already to save him from more torment?.. And was he playing him for some obscure goal of his now? Was he slowly turning him to the Dark Side, but without his knowledge this time?

He was fighting tears of despair and sadness when the medical team finally reached his cell.


On Yavin 4, Kyp was trying to persuade his comrades of the danger that was the Dark Lord; he was close to despair. Nobody would listen to him.

He had tried to speak with Kam, but Kam had just smirked and had ignored him.  Of course, Kyp sneered, their temporary teacher was already under the Sith's spell since the other had proclaimed him Jedi.

He shuddered at the thought of this sacrilegious deed and considered his other attempts to find an open ear.

Old Streen had smiled sadly and had turned him away, saying "You're too young to understand, Kyp."

The young man had bristled so much at this statement that he had been hard pressed to not attack the older man right there and then. He had managed to control himself.

Later on, Kirana Ti had also heard him out, but had just laughed. "I believe in Master Luke," she had said. "He isn't stupid like you think his is, but then, perhaps I should speak with this Dark Lord to see for myself."

That, of course, had been the opposite reaction that Kyp had wanted to generate.

In the end, only Cilghal had listened to him seriously and said that she would consider his information.

After two hours of wait and no news from the alien woman, Kyp was ready to burst in frustration. He honestly couldn’t understand what there was to consider.  All his feelings were warning him of an approaching danger. Couldn’t they feel this too?, he asked the Force in disbelief.

The Sacrifice that his master had mentioned was coming closer, he realized, worried. Some of his friends, if not all of them, were in danger of death--- yet wouldn’t fight.

He himself wanted to scream at the futility of all his efforts.

Finally, after much pondering, he understood that he would probably have to stop the Dark Lord all by himself. Although he was quite confident in his abilities, he knew very well that Vader was much stronger than he himself was. Fighting against him would be an heroic act.

His only hope to win this fight, he then realized, would be to obtain the help of his Jedi Master. Remembering that his Master had showed him how their spirits could be fused, if only for a short moment, he made a very important note to request his help if the situation became too demanding for his own abilities.

His heightened powers would not last long, he conceded, but perhaps it would be sufficient.

Perhaps.

For the moment though, he could only wait... and worry.


Two days later, on Coruscant, Leia worriedly chewed her nail as she listened to more reports from their search teams.

Even though she had the stronger and stronger feeling that Jade's group was hiding in Hoth's asteroid field, she was still spending all her days in the tactical room of the Imperial Palace, listening to all the reports that came in at any given hour of the day or night.

Han had already reported to her, saying that their hasty departure had proceeded well and that they would be on time to catch up with Wedge's team. He had also reassured her that he understood why she had sent him there instead of anybody else and that he wasn't angry at her anymore.

Dear Han, she sighed once again to herself. The Force had truly given her the greatest gift that it could give her when it had put this man on her path. Even though he hadn't understood the strength of her feeling that had pushed her to insist that he took the first fleet away from Coruscant and went in the Hoth System, and even though he himself didn't want to leave her alone in such difficult times when she was left alone to deal with both the Empire and the disassembling Rebellion, he had obeyed her.

He had been angry, had argued that it was an overkill and might cost Luke's life if this wasn't where he was, but he had trusted her frustrating instincts and had gone all the same.

He and Chewie had boarded the Falcon before rejoining the Executor and its six companion star-destroyers, then he had taken them toward the Hoth system.

It was, she admitted, like some kind of weird replay of what had probably happened during the Rebellion years, when her own father had boarded the very same ship and taken it in the very same direction in search of the unique young man who was her brother.

Who was suffering at the moment, she could feel it.

She hadn't slept well for days now, constantly feeling the ghost of his pain every time that she had tried to push her worries out of her mind.

That Jade woman had dared hurt her beloved brother! Why, if only she could get her hands on her, she thought dangerously, she would make sure to not let her off the hook until she would feel sorry for what she had done to him.

Luke.

Her dear Luke who had braved the evil Empire to save the life of a perfect stranger, her dear friend who had then saved them all on Yavin... only to reveal his existence as a Jedi and become most actively sought by the dark Jedis of the galaxy...

From this moment on, her brother had been through hardship after hardship... up to this latest one.

Couldn't the Force be lenient on him for once?! she asked the unseen energy field. Why had he be picked once again to be tormented??----

"Your Highness," Winter suddenly cut in her inner arguments. "We are receiving a transmission from Mara Jade herself."

"Where?" she asked, her eyes instantly searching the whole communication room to see who had received the message--- and saw the image of the hated red-head.  She was waiting in the reception field of the main holonet receiver.

As if set on her target, the ex-princess of Alderaan gathered her long skirts and walked as fast as she could toward the lower level of the room. She fought down the urge to simply jump over the railing in order to reach the transmitter even faster, but considering the tactical stations that were gathered under the main balcony, she conceded that it might not be a good idea.

She finally stood within transmission range of the device; she glared at her brother's kidnapper. "Release him," she ordered instantly, dangerously.

"Ah, so I see that taking your brother from you has shaken you, princess.  Good."

"Whatever you want, Jade, I will not give it to you unless you let him go right this moment," Leia defied the caustic woman.

"You will not give it to me?" the other perched an eyebrow, then chuckled sarcastically. "Why, little princess, I never expected you to give me anything either. It's not you I'm after," she finished more grimly. "Contact Vader right now. I wish to speak with him."

For a brief moment, Leia debated whether to give the other what she was asking for. "Not before you set Luke free," she finally stated adamantly.

The red-head silently raised her left eyebrow again while glaring at her, then she nodded to someone who was out of transmission range. The image shifted from Jade to that of----

"Luke!" she instantly recognized even as she took a step closer to the badly injured, collapsed form of her dear brother. The moment that she entered the static field, she lost his image, as if he had disappeared once again.

"Establish contact with Darth Vader right now," Jade's voice ordered once again while the image of Luke's unconscious form returned in the receiver.

Aware that she was beaten, Leia turned toward the communication relay and wordlessly nodded to them to establish contact with Yavin 4. As she did so, she noticed that everybody who could see Luke's image was as pale as a sheet.

Oh Luke..., she moaned silently while she tried to ascertain from a distance that he was not suffering as much as he seemed to be.

"Yavin 4 is answering, my Lady," the technician commented. "They inform me that they have to hold us on the line while they contact Lord Vader. He is not at the main temple at the moment."

"Then we will wait," Jade commented sarcastically, smugly crossing her arms in front of her chest as her image replaced that of Luke's crumpled form.

Leia glared daggers at the mean woman, wishing that she could pinpoint her location through the communication, but of course, the other had scrambled the transmission to prevent such tracing.

And she didn't mean to release Luke any time soon, she understood as her eyes met the other's vicious green glare.


Chapter 7: The Race

Forcing himself to take one more step toward the imposing yet beautiful temple, Kam Solusar wondered yet again how the dark Lord of the Sith had been able to change its appearance as much as he had.

Where there had always been a vine-covered stack of rocks which had eventually been identified as a smaller temple, there was now a clean-scrubbed temple... which was surrounded by water that he could only imagine where it came from. He was also unable to conceive how the other had dug the watery trench.

Gathering his courage, and after checking his surroundings one last time to make sure that the Dark Lord was nowhere in sight, he walked around the outer side of the ring until he was facing the main entrance of the temple, then used the stepping stones to reach the temple itself.

He didn't go in. "Lord Vader?" he called as he had done the last time that he had been around the temple.

Like the last time, he felt the temple answer him to wait. He turned around to wait, gazing at the huge red giant that was Yavin. As he took in the magnificient sight of the gas giant, his thoughts went to Luke---

"Have you received any news?" the deep, familiar voice inquired from behind him. The Jedi whirled around in shock, having not heard nor felt the other's approach.

"My Lord," he bowed, hoping to hide that way how uneasy he still was when in the other's presence. "You need to come with me to the Academy. We are receiving a transmission from Mara Jade herself."

The moment that he mentioned the woman's name, Kam felt the air around him freeze. He shuddered even more when the darksider walked past him--- and jumped all the way to the other side of the trench before he stalked in the direction of the main temple.

As he gaped at his surprising companion, he realized that the Dark Lord was set on his target. Forcing down his uneasiness, he hurried to catch up with him although he didn't want to be anywhere near him when he would deal with Jade.


As he walked briskly through the jungle, Vader wanted nothing more than to be going to Jade herself instead of just a transmission from her.

At last, he thought grimly, the she-devil was making her move, and he himself would have some news about his son even though he already knew that they wouldn't be encouraging at all.

He had felt his son's pain the previous night, had felt his despair but before he had been able to contact him and comfort him however he could, the youth had woken up... and hadn't fallen asleep since then. "Has she said anything about Luke?" he inquired with his reluctant companion.

Despite his tall body and long legs, Solusar almost had to run to keep up with his decided pace. "Not yet, My lord. Your daughter transmitted the message to request your presence, then Jade overcame her signal."

"Have you been able to trace her?"

"No further than Coruscant, and it comes from the main transmission room so it is probably only your daughter's signal, not Jade's."

Well, he conceded silently, he would have been disappointed if Jade hadn't thought about shielding her transmission. On the other hand, he 'needed' to find her if he wanted to find his son and take him away from her.


Minutes later, he was strutting down the darkened corridors of the Jedi Academy. His entrance in the former command center naturally didn't go unnoticed by the few students who had gathered there to hear about their teacher.

He didn't acknowledge their presence, nor did he motioned to them to leave the place; their presence simply didn't bother him one way or another.

"Ah, Lord Vader in the flesh," the red-head she-devil smiled in satisfaction when he finally entered the reception field of the transmitter. "It's so good to see you alive and well, 'my lord'," she sneered next.

"Cut the pleasantries, Jade," he warned her ominously. "We both know why I'm here, so talk."

"So fast, my lord?" she mock-exclaimed. "Won't you even take a second to say hello to your son?"

Before he could brace himself for what would happen next, her image was replaced by that of his injured, beloved son who was unconscious at the moment. Even though he had known that Luke would be badly wounded when he 'would' get to see him, his broken sight still ripped what little heart he had to shreds.

*Luke,* he tried to send him, *I'm so sorry.* 'It should have been me.'

Gripping his emotions in a steel hold, he refocused on the returning image of Jade.  Although she re-appeared in the transmission though, he didn't lose the image of Luke, making herself look as if she were looming over his son's crumpled form.

"I think I made myself clear now," she commented meanly.

"What do you want?" he answered coldly.


On Coruscant, Leia watched the ongoing transmission, wishing against wishes that she could break into it, or simply wipe Jade's satisfied smirk from her face.

"What I want, in the end, is simple," the red-head stated scornfully. "yours and your family's death.  But," she added as if her statement had been trivial, "I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, 'Lord' Vader, you will humiliate yourself for me... or I should say for him," she finished, motioning toward her prisoner.

"Luke would never let him do this!" the ex-princess spat out loud, literally filled with rare hatred for this woman.

"And how would you want me to do this?" her father's voice inquired while his image remained unmoving.

A rock in the center of the turmoil.

"Why, by undoing everything you have done after you killed the Emperor of course," the other sneered in disgust.

"But we didn't kill---" Leia tried to intervene once again.

"The Emperor died of sickness of the brain, Jade," her father stated calmly.  "I merely took over to make sure that the Empire would not die with him and what his sickness was doing to him."

"You poisoned him!" the woman retorted angrily and glared daggers at the transmitter... then softened.  "But whether you're ready to tell the truth or not is inconsequential.  You will still deny your treaty with the Rebellion and destroy them before making an announcement, galaxy-wide I might add, that you intend to bring back the old Empire once again, that your 'Peace' was a lie."

"And if I don't?" Vader inquired, making Leia's blood freeze in her veins as she became unpleasantly aware that her father's cold nature might condemn Luke this time.

No, she prayed the Force, he wouldn't... He was not like this, not 'really' this heartless...

Luke's image took up the whole transmission once again.  "I let you guess, Vader.  You have forty-eight hours to make that announcement, or else..."

Luke's image lingered slightly in front of Leia's eyes, then nothing but static before her own connection re-balanced itself with Yavin's.  "We can't do this, Father!" she called instantly, dimly aware that the techs who had watched the transmission with her were sidling closer, as if to convince the Dark Lord to not abandon his son.


On Yavin 4, the last image of his suffering son shattered Vader's control over his emotions.

He cursed in a lowest form of Outer Rim's slang.

On the other side Leia blinked in non-understanding, the techs behind her whistling in appreciation. "Father?"

"She's got us, Leia," he growled angrily.  "We simply don't have a single chance to find him in so large galaxy in only two days!! It's just impossible."

"Unless he's in the Hoth system," his daughter retorted, the fire of her determination to not give in to Jade's request shining in her nutty eyes.

"The Hoth system?" he frowned "Why there more than anywhere else?"

"I got an hunch about that two days ago and sent Han to catch up with Wedge, who was headed for this system. If Luke's there, then we'll be on time to save him before she can do anything to him."

"Are you sure that you felt something?"

Leia frowned, then nodded. "Yes, I'm positive. However..."

"However we must ascertain his position," he completed for her, his temper completely recovering its cooler edge now.

"Can you check it?"

Vader frowned. His connection with Luke was strong, but the Hoth system was too far, way too far. As for contacting him through the Circle... Even if it would be possible, that kind of contact did not allow him to pinpoint a location in a physical space... Unless---

Staring at the screen, he suddenly wasn't seeing his daughter's image but that of a hazy memory about the Hoth system.

"Wait a minute," he asked Leia. "I might have found a way."

He closed his eyes and stepped into the Circle... and prayed that there was indeed a Sathed temple in the Hoth system.

The information flew in his brain, thousand of years of compressed data--- and indeed, there had once been a temple on the planet that was now covered with ice.

The building itself had been destroyed long ago, but the temple, the god's presence, was still inhabiting its ruins.  All the Sathed temples were created on the same model, and the Circle still united them in one entity, beyond time and space.

"The distance is not important..." he whispered to himself, trying to transfer his being, his Force-awareness in this frozen, destroyed temple on Hoth.  "Not important..."

Never before had he attempted such a dangerous undertaking.

Reaching for the white blue Circle with all his being, trusting its waves to support him and his life till he could reach his destination, then suppressing all caution and control, he followed the Circle to the Hoth System.

As he moved away, he dimly became aware that he was losing his connection with his body, that his body could not keep such a deep trance without his mental support... that his heart was threatening to stop.

'Not important...' he reminded himself---

And finally touched the god's presence, still confined into the ice.  He felt the ice closing around him, but also heard--- felt, with all his being, Luke's silent plea for help.

Near, so near --- in the asteroid field.

*Be strong, Luke. We're coming.*

*Father...?*

*Son. I love you,* he sent him with what little strength he had left.


On Yavin 4, Cilghal saw Vader's body collapse in the nearby chair, his head rolling back and the deep sound of breath... stopping---

Whatever she thought or felt about the Dark Lord was now irrelevant.

She was a medic, and as such she had to help.  Hence, she stepped near him and touched the black shoulder, reaching inside---

And almost cried aloud as the white-hot wave of pain hit her.

However, it wasn't the pain itself that hurt her the most, but the awareness that this unbearable pain was normal for the Dark Lord's body.  For it, it was the normal response that the uncountable implants that had been forced into his flesh.

But it wasn't the problem, she reminded herself.  The problem was the failing link between the Dark Lord's spirit and body.  She could almost see its line, steel gray, reaching far, far away, beyond the limits of her awareness.

Had he really gone to Hoth?, she pondered in bemusement and awe.  However, time was flying past them, making the line become thinner and thinner, and then the thought hit her: if  that line would disappear, he would not be able to return to his body.

Which meant that she could... kill him.  She could destroy this link--- she already knew how to do it.  And once it would be done, the threat would be over.

For an awful moment, she seriously contemplated giving it to her thought...then she remembered who she was, and wanted to quiver in shame.  'I am a medic. A medic. I don't kill...'

She reached along the line, trying to strengthen it.  Just when the thin, semi invisible line threatened to disappear, his presence returned--- and roughly expulsed her from his mind.

Despite the pain of this expulsion, she wanted to weep in deep relief. Despite the Dark Lord's return though, she would never know, nor did she really wanted to know, if her intervention had saved his life or not.

The Dark Lord himself didn't know about this.  


Vader opened his eyes, instantly fighting against his violent headache and the uncommon strain of his body; he felt completely devoid of energy.

The first thing he saw was Leia's face, confused and worried. "Father? Are you all right?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes," he said, slowly sitting upright. "I was able to contact Luke; he is indeed in the asteroid field of the Hoth system."

Leia's features paled. "Oh, my ... How is he?"

"As we saw him, but nothing life threatening. We need to reach him as soon as possible."

"I'll contact Han right away to tell him about what you've discovered," Leia informed him and moved to cut off their communication.

"Wait," he interrupted her. "Give me contact with him. I've also found the coordinates of the base."

Leia smiled. "You know, were you here, I could have hugged you," his daughter smirked at him playfully.

"Leave me out that disgusting emotional display," he replied, smiling.

His daughter smirked. "Whatever. Stand by, I'll connect Han."


"Executor here," said Han's voice in spite of the image's static, then the image cleared. "Lord Vader, what an honor!" the old smuggler smirked.

"Wish I could say the same, Solo," he replied in kind. "I've managed to locate Luke.  He is in the Hoth system, in the asteroid field."

"Great," Han muttered unhappily. "Now all there is left is to find on which 'rock' they're hiding.  We could spend an entire week trying to find them there and..."

"A certain deja-vu, don't you think?" Vader smirked wryly as he remembered hunting down a certain elusive target within the rubbles of that exact same asteroid field.  "I have the coordinates of their base," he commented quickly, pulling himself away from those less pleasant memories of the past.  It was over anyway. "Prepare to copy."

Han blinked. "Impressive.  Ready to copy," he nodded, then smirked lopsidedly, "I don't even want to know how you found this information with your mumbo-jumbo."

"Good," Vader said, entering the data. "You have forty hours to reach Luke.  Jade just contacted us and gave us a two days ultimatum."

"Wonderful," the smuggler gripped more grimly as situation turned serious once again.

*We are thirty-eight hours away from our destination, even through the most dangerous paths through hyperspace," Chewie's voice informed them grimly from out of screen range.

"This is gonna be a race, your Lordship," Han commented, then turned toward a side screen. "Data received. We'll do anything that we can to retrieve him, but you'll have to distract her to give us a little time," he told him next.

"She is a professional and is followed by Piett and Veers," the Dark Lord reminded his son-in-law.  "I know the three of them; considering that the chance that they may be distracted is very low, I wouldn't count on it."

"Great," Han muttered yet again. "Well," he then heartened himself, "it won't be the first time. We'll keep Leia informed of our ETA and progress every five hours."

Vader nodded.  "I pass her to you now. Keep my ship in one piece," he warned the younger man seriously.  "Vader out."

"See you, your Lordship. Solo out."


After a short lapse of static, Leia's worried face appeared on Han's transmission screen.

"I heard everything," she informed him instantly. "Please, Han, save Luke..."

"I'll do everything that I can, and more. In the meantime, pray the Force that we'll succeed," he finished grimly.

"I do," his wife answered in the same fashion before her hand went to her barely bulging stomach. "Be careful, Han. We want you back home in one piece."

"I will, and don't worry, Leia. We'll save Luke from them, I swear it."

"I know," she nodded somberly. "I love you, Han."

"I love you too, princess. First fleet out," he signaled, aware that every second that he was spending in slower Lightspeed were seconds that Luke didn't have to lose.

Leia also understood this and put an end to the conversation.

The moment that they interrupted the contact, the engine's techs poured speed back to maximum and the Executor hurtled once again through hyperspace.

And toward their dear friend whose life was the price of this latest race across the galaxy.


On Yavin 4 Vader slowly rose from his chair.

The four Jedi apprentices warily parted before him as he left the room without addressing them one way or another.  While they themselves would interpret it as his normal coolness, he himself knew better.

Weary as he was, it was already extremely difficult for him to keep up the appearance of strength, but he did...

At least as far as the outer door of the temple.

He had barely set foot in the forest itself when he collapsed, spent of any dregs of remaining energy.  Unable to move at all, he resigned himself to spend the night in the forest.

Back at the Jedi Temple the trainees vividly discussed the news; no-one seemed to realize that Kirana Ti wasn't in the Temple or its nearby area...


Once her latest meeting with her allies was over, Mara Jade returned to the detention area in order to check on their prisoner.

She had read the medics' report about his condition, had given them orders to see to his most serious, painful injuries, then she had decided to check on him by herself.

If the guards were surprised to see her once again at the door of their prized captive, they didn't show any mental sign that they did.

Instead, they wordlessly keyed the cell open, then closed it again behind her once she was inside.  The lights had been dimmed to help Skywalker rest while a sensor on his forehead would inform them if his brain pattern were slipping toward coma instead of healing sleep; the probe was also designed to stimulate him awake, should the need arise, until the medics could stabilize him once again.

Thanks to this ongoing treatment, she hadn't used the images of the tended-for Jedi during her communication with her enemy, but it had not bothered anyone.  They had had plenty of other images to use anyway, and it had allow them to not delay his most-needed treatment.

However, with or without treatment, she had to admit that he still looked in very bad shape.  Piett, she thought with slight resent, had really done quite a number on the beleaguered young man.

Silently kneeling beside him, she reached in the medkit that was just beside him and picked a wad of cotton to dab at some of his once again bleeding marks.  She surmised that he had re-opened them when he had shifted on his side instead of laying flat on his back.

As she delicately touched his injuries, careful to not aggravate them, she admitted that she was now thoroughly lost as far as 'herself' and her attitudes were concerned.

Even though she had never been trained to show any feelings toward anyone, let alone 'feel' those emotions, and even though she had sworn to herself that she would make Skywalker pay for his role in the death of her master, she simply, illogically couldn't help but care about him.

Even now, no matter how hard she had tried to make herself change her mind and leave him to his lonely cell, her feet had taken her down to the detention level, then into his cell.

Even worse, she admitted reluctantly, she was now aware that she didn't 'want' to be anywhere but here, with him, making sure that he was as right as he could be given the circumstances.

What could cause this?, she wondered while she continued to tend him.  Could it be because he was so very different from his father?  Or, she wondered, moving her tissue to the side of his face, which bore a very ugly black and blue, could it be that he was simply the most handsome man that she had ever seen?..

Unless it was because of his own care about her even though she had been tormenting him when that had happened.

Whatever it was though, it was there, and no matter how hard she was trying to fight against it... She wanted to be with the young Jedi, to see him recover from his torment so that they would be able to speak... And perhaps figure what was going on with her, she thought in slight, very slight but resisting frustration.

It simply wasn't her, she fumed at herself, throwing the soiled fabric aside as she decided that enough was enough.  She wasn't a goody-two-shoes little girl...

And yet, she softened yet again when she noticed that the young man was finally recovering his senses, she was.

She 'did' care about 'him'...


Slowly, as if he were crawling up steep ladders, Luke recovered his more aware senses.  He sluggishly clenched his teeth against a groan of pain as his body reminded him that it was in bad condition at the moment.

As if he needed reminders, he groaned anyway while he tried to assess his situation.  Last he remembered, a few medics had been fortifying him with nutrients when he had drifted out completely.

'Must have drugged me,' he realized while he tried to force his eyes open.

A beautiful vision of a red-gold haired, worried angel welcomed him back to the world of the living; he smiled slightly and closed his eyes again, thinking that he was probably still dreaming.

"How are you feeling?" the vision asked him--- and her delicate hand caressed his cheek.

He awoke again and gaped in surprise at his captor, who was once again beside him.  He completely froze under her touch, literally transfixed by it as he gazed straight into her jewel eyes.

He was dreaming, he tried to convince himself.  He was dreaming and losing it, and... and 'she' was truly at his side, looking at him in a way that didn't make him feel as if he were her enemy anymore.

But no, he tried to shake himself back to his 'complete' senses, he was having delusions now.  They had probably shot him with hallucinogen elements.

"We managed to contact your father," she informed him, then reached for something that was out of his field of vision and brought her hand back in it with what looked like a water skein.  "Here, it will help you to recover your voice."

A dim, very dim voice tried to tell him that he shouldn't trust her like this, that she could be trying to hurt him again, but another, confused part of him accepted her help and allowed her to give him something to drink.

Water, he realized, feeling his tears flow from his eyes as the delicious sensation of water entered his dehydrated body and throat.  It really was water.

As if aware that he would empty the whole skein if she let him, she rationed him--- to keep him from being sick, he frowned, now thoroughly lost and confused, and...

What was going on?, he wanted to ask her yet still lacked the strength to do so.

She continued to pour small doses of water in his mouth until he motioned to her that he had enough.  They then gazed at each other for a long, long while... and a while longer, neither knowing how to interpret what was undoubtedly happening between them, no matter how irrational it seemed.

"What... what did he say?" he finally half-whispered once he remembered what she had told him about his father.

"Nothing," she shrugged slightly.  "We gave him an ultimatum, then cut off the transmission."

Nothing?? he wondered in worry.  His father hadn't said anything about his current predicament?..  Could he be even more a monster than he had ever led him to believe?..

"I also spoke with your sister.  Now 'she' answered me with the vehemence that I had been expecting from her," she commented with barely a trace of the dislike that she had once displayed toward he and his sister.  "Do you think that she will convince your father to cooperate?" she asked him next.

Luke, who had been considering the ghost of the contact that he had had with his father, refocused on her as he understood why she was acting as she was with him.

She wanted information, nothing else.

His own eyes hardened slightly while he tried to pour strength in his voice.  "Do you really think that I will betray my family to you?" he defied her despite his laying position.


Mara sighed in slight frustration and leaned away from the Jedi.  No, she almost told him, she was not asking him to betray his family.  Instead, she wanted to know in advance if she could trust Vader to not force her hand into injuring him again.

She didn't say so however, all too aware that it wouldn't help her to cover her feelings for the Jedi. "Look, I'm just asking," she finally commented in the portent silence.  "If you noticed, I'm far from beating you to 'get' the answer this time."

The other answered by shutting his mesmerizing blue eyes.

This was ridiculous, she berated herself.  She was falling for someone who would never----

"They will never give in to your demands," her... what?, she wondered slightly.  He wasn't her prisoner anymore, or not fully one anymore, but he wasn't an ally or a companion either.

"Even if it would save you from more torments?!" she gaped shortly, then caught herself and assumed her more regular grim face once again.

"Even if you kill me, they won't cooperate," the other confirmed with a mix of fear and pride in his voice.

Mara however was downright horrified by what he had just hinted at.  Kill him?

Even as she became aware of her unavoidable loss of composure, and how the Jedi was watching her very closely, she reflexively drew her pocket blaster from her holster, flicked the setting from kill to stun and shot the other before she had completely lost it.

Skywalker slumped once again to the deck, out cold while she herself let her hand fall on the same deck to stare in horror at him.

Kill him?!?

But she would never be able to kill him, she admitted to herself even as she tried to quash mental images of such an action taking place.  No, she would never give such an order, would rather keep him with her forever than to give that hideous order... and kill the only nice man who had ever shown 'real' care for her.

And talking about orders, she reminded herself while she brushed the Jedi's hair away from his sensor, she had to think of a way to 'appear' to hurt the Jedi in two days...

Without actually doing it.

Leaving him to his forced rest, she left the cell, feeling more confused, yet more self-assured, than the last time that she had dealt with him.


Chapter 8: Rescues and Attacks

Penetrating inside the Sith's temple wasn't Kirana Ti's intention.

She, as Kam before, wisely stopped after the first warning and meant to inform the temple of her desire to speak with the Dark Lord. However, after catching sight of the carvings that were adorning the white walls inside the temple, all wisdom left her head.

The carvings were singing. They were speaking to her in a language that she didn't understand yet their form was strangely familiar to her. She was sure that she had seen them somewhere before.

Somewhere at her home planet...

In the ruins.

In the ancient holy ruins, she suddenly remembered. Similar carvings had filled the half-destroyed white walls of another abandoned temple of unknown origin.

The sages of her people had told her that it had been music written by the ancient, permitting the mastery of the Force, which the witches of Dathomir had learnt to use in turn.

At the moment, she couldn't stop herself from going to the white, glowing wall; to the chanting carvings.

Her hand raised up by itself, like in a dream, to touch them.

They were cold, and full of energy and life.

The moment that she touched them, the words of the chant appeared in her head, and she found herself repeating them, trying to keep up with the melody.

The melody turned and danced, and Kirana began to understand what she was chanting; the images filled her mind further and showed her the history of the past.

Thousands of years ago, she sang, the battles, the victories and losses were also part of realities. The pain and prayers for the justice of uncountable beings was filling the air.

The chant went on and on, and she followed the lead, only dimly aware of the movements of the body, praying it to not give up on her.

Unaware of her actions, she went underground, in a darkness of the main temple that was bearing the sky-blue line of music.

Somewhere on the way down she began to sing, like she sang for the wise ones at home. Unlike then though, she sang the old chants and prayers, the ones that had been used to lessen pain and loss---- and the temple rejoiced around her and sang with her.

The rocks and carvings sang in unison with her for all her people, for her lost Master, for Kyp who had lost his way, for all the beings who were suffering and who were craving for justice. Never before had she ever felt such great joy yet such great sadness at the same time.

Time went by; she didn't stop dancing nor singing...

And suddenly she wasn't alone anymore; a man's voice entered the chant, then she saw him. He was a strange, brown-skinned alien--- a Noghri, she identified when the other had stepped out of the shadows. He was wearing black robes that were adorned with a silver sign. Like her, he was moving in accordance with the music and her chant.

When he was just in front of her, the silver light of a sword suddenly appeared in his hand cutting the music at its highest peak.

Kirana reeled as all her strength left her at once but the alien steadied her with his angular hand.

"You gave me a high joy, young Jedi, bringing here the memory of your people who is dear to my heart. However, it was most unwise from your part to give all your energy to the chant- you could have died here."

"I'm sorry..." said Kirana Ti. "But... who are you?"

"I am called the Lord of the Sword," smiled the Noghri. "And this place happens to be my temple."

"Your..?"

"I'm one of the Sith's gods," he shrugged.

"A god!.." Kirana whispered faintly, shocked. "And my people is dear to your heart??"

"They used to follow my path, many hundreds of years ago, when they were at their greatest. They may have forgotten about me, but I haven't forgotten them."

"Ah," Kirana nodded, then frowned. "Am I dreaming?"

"Not yet," said the Noghri, "but you should, for you're very tired, young Jedi, and will be unable to return to your home. Sleep and gather your forces."

"Here?"

"Why not? I will protect you. No harm will come to you here, young Jedi, you have my word on it."

"All right," Kirana reluctantly agreed, yet she could not refuse either. She was exhausted. "Thank ...you."

She was alone once again.

She collapsed where she was standing, and was asleep in a second.


The next morning, upon returning from his unplanned rest in the jungle, the first thing that Vader saw when he entered the temple was Kirana Ti on the floor, sleeping like a baby.

He blinked, then questioned the temple; the answer that he received made him laugh aloud. It was highly unexpected, and he was quite sure that the girl didn't understand the honor of seeing the Lord of the Sword, but he could feel that her opinion of Siths had changed.

One less victim for Exar Kun's lies, or to the opinions of the Old Jedi Order.

As he approached the young woman, he briefly wondered if the dead dignitaries of the Old Order now understood how much their opinions of Siths had been very much like those of the darkest and vilest of their foes.

Most probably not, he sighed. After all, what monster would willingly admit that he is one?

Except himself, he thought with harsh amusement, kneeling by Ti's slumped form. It was time for the sleeping beauty to rise. Her friends were searching for her.

He was raised his hand to shake her awake----- when a strangled cry of rage and pain startled him.


Kyp, like everybody else, had been searching for Kirana for a while, when a thought hit him: she was in Vader's grips.

The sacrifice was nearing, he suddenly realized as he ran as fast as he could toward the enemy's temple. Perhaps it was even already on the way!, he gasped, pouring the Force through his muscles to enhance his speed.

Why did nobody listen to him??, he demanded to the Force, ducking under low- hangings before jumping over a fallen trunk. Not even Cilghal, who might have been leaning in his direction, was now very calm and pensive after what she had experienced while in the Dark Lord's body.

Very well, he determined, pulling his lightsaber from his belt as a new surge of hatred filled him, he would do it alone then. He would go to the Sith temple,  he would face Vader, and he would save them all from the dark monster.

Barely out of breath, he burst through the last barriers of leaves and branches, ran toward the main temple.

He had reached its entrance when he froze in horror.

Vader was looming over Kirana's prone body, as if preparing for the killing blow of a predator.

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" he yelled in disbelief, then, turning on his lightsaber, he rushed toward the Dark Lord.

Despite his brash action though, he was almost dying of fear when Vader effortlessly blocked his attack, then straightened up, turning into a deep, graceful and deadly shadow.

"What are you doing here, Jedi?" he asked him menacingly.

"What are you doing to Kirana?!"

"Nothing," the Dark Lord answered, a bit surprised. "She is sleeping."

"Only for now," Kyp defied angrily, "then you will sacrifice her in order to get power!" Kyp was really angry now; the Force was singing around him. He followed its lead, and his anger gave him more and more power...

But Vader was stronger.

And faster.

He parried every one of his attacks. No matter which combination he tried, the other countered them all.

"What sacrifice are you talking about?" the dark lord inquired, as if innocent.

"The one to your Lord of the Sword!" the youth spat in disgust, then swung hard with his blade once again.

Vader shook his head while he gracefully side-stepped the slash. "The Lord of the Sword doesn't accept a human sacrifice, stupid boy."

"As if I would believe you!"

"Then I'll make you to believe," Vader shrugged, "but first we must finish this nonsense."---- And for the first time, attacked with his full power.

As he barely withheld against Vader's full might, Kyp understood that everything was lost; Vader would kill him now. 'Master, please, help me! I'm asking you: take my body, save us all!'

"No!" he heard Vader's cry, and smiled at hearing his Master's voice: 'With pleasure'. However, unlike usually, the voice had some strange edge to it.

"With great pleasure," Exar Kun repeated, taking the offered body---

And Kyp suddenly understood that he had been played and cried out in horror but he had no mouth to scream anymore.


'I'll deal with you later, you stupid boy. Now be quiet,' the Sith snapped as he refocused on his enemy. "Really," he sneered at his enemy, "I expected more from you, Vader. Being unable to understand a so simple manipulation. But you'll make a great offer to my Master... I can't wait to feel the power that he's promised me. At last, I will fulfill my destiny!"

"But first," Vader defied calmly, "you must kill me."

"Absolutely," Kyp's/Kun's face smirked. "Shall we proceed?"

As he resumed the duel, Kun quickly realized that he was truly stronger than the poor boy had been . Even fighting with his maximum skills, Vader had problems to counter his attacks.

This time, he thought victoriously, nothing would stop him.


What had just happened greatly disgusted the Dark Lord. He could hardly imagine a worst abomination than a long dead Sith Lord taking possession of the body of a young and misguided Jedi, manipulating the said Jedi's talents.

Bending the Force through him.

It was an abomination, he snarled inwardly. It was disgusting, unbearable. As the Chosen One, he had to eradicate it from the world; he had to remove it forever.

The Force was singing in him, around him, leading him, moving him against his foe like a sword.

A weapon that knew no misses.

The enemy must die, so was the will of the Force. Exar Kun and Kyp Durron will die, and the Chosen One will complete another task for his destiny.

Destiny.

All of a sudden, this word also disgusted Vader. He looked at Kun, the other one who was also moved by his supposed destiny, looked at Kyp's face, contorted by Kun's hate.

The young Jedi was his son's trainee, his almost friend. He was someone whom his son cared about. He would hurt Luke again when the youth would find out that his own father had killed his friend.

Again.

Suddenly, Vader was extremely tired to fight. Following his destiny, his path chosen so long ago would be very easy and safe. He would only take one innocent life while saving millions!

But he didn't care anymore about that; he just was so tired.

Tired of killing innocents for the greater cause.

Tired of hurting the ones he cared about. 'No' he whispered to the siren's chant of his destiny. 'No, go away. I no longer wish to follow your path.'

A moment, he had to battle to not lose control over the energy overflow; the next--- he had nothing.

His awareness of the world collapsed to even less than he had felt when a child.

Vader smiled sadly under his mask; so that was what had been meant to be mere mortal Sith. Well, he shrugged to himself, he would have to live with it.

Or die with it.

He sidestepped a vicious slash of Kun's lightsaber, spared a gaze around and saw the horrified face of Kirana Ti.

'What a way to be awakened,' he thought wryly and cried: "Run!".

Instead of blindly following his orders, she stayed if nailed to the wall, looking transfixed at the duel.

'Damn.'

"Well, Vader, it seems that you're having difficulties," Kun jeered at him.  "You obviously can't kill me, so I'm afraid that it will be the other way round."

"We'll see," Vader retorted, then attacked the joint Kun-Kyp's mind with all his power, forcing them all to the illusionary world.

By doing so though, he missed Kun's latest attack and felt the pain of the wound just before leaving the awareness of his body.


He was pinned by a lance to a large tree. The pain was red-hot, almost unsupportable.

Exar Kun, in his real form, stood before him smiling in triumph. At Kun's feet Kyp Durron sat, chained tightly and gagged.

"It appears that our little game is over, Vader" Kun smirked meanly. "What a pity. You're dying. It's just a matter of time now," he commented petulantly, reveling in the pain of his foe.

"Kyp," Vader hissed, not looking at the jubilating Sith Lord, "you can still choose. You can decide to be free."

"Free!" Exar Kun sneered. "Right."

*He is too strong!* Kyp sobbed silently. *Can't you see, what he's done to me?!*

"He hasn't done anything!" Vader gasped, fighting against the pain and the approaching darkness. "You did all this yourself, you stupid boy!"

*I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry...*

"Oh yes, be sorry before you die, slave," Exar Kun snarled. "And to think that you refused your destiny, Chosen One, only to save this wimp! Well, you're just as I thought," the other sneered in disgust. "Your attachment to your son has made you too weak."


Kyp closed his eyes. Vader had refused his destiny to try and save him?

Save him??? A stupid boy who had caused-----

What a fool had he been, he berated himself vehemently, what a fool. He should have known better than to follow his feelings. He should have checked them and compare them with the others, verifying them with the facts...

And now this whole mess was his fault, he thought forlornly, and Vader, Luke's father, was dying because of him. In a moment or two, Kun would complete the sacrifice and all will be lost.

Stop! He warned himself. That's panic, a stupid, paralyzing feeling. He had to think with his head this time, or at least pretend he had one. Vader had said: "you can still decide to be free." Considering how the very same Dark Lord had just refused his Destiny, he conceded that the other probably knew what he was talking about.

So what had he said to fuse his mind with Exar Kun's, he pondered furiously.  What had he---- and then he knew.

*Who is the Lord of the Sword?* he inquired to the waning Dark Lord, not opening his eyes.

"Justice and retribution," answered the awfully weak voice of Vader.

For a moment, Kyp wilted inwardly in worry. Considering his latest actions, the Lord of the Sword would not treat him very kindly, and yet, he reminded himself, he did not have any other choice. Focusing his mind, he thought: 'I ask the Lord of the Sword to accept me as his Sith, to use me as he sees fit, to enter my body and stop this maniac from destroying everything!'

*Do you really want to be a Sith, my boy?* a soft, gentle voice inquired in his head. *Or do you just want my help?*

*I can't be a Jedi,* Kyp answered through the Force. *I have always dreamed to serve someone worthwhile ... that's why I did all this stupid things. I need... a Master, a purpose to serve. Please. It's not just for help. Even if this would be awfully nice.*

*Very well, my boy. Your master will be Lord Vader, do you accept it?*

*If he will agree. Yes.*

*Than your demand is accepted. Thank you for the honor.*

And Kyp felt his chains disappear---- and heard a strident scream of pain.

He hurried to open his eyes, worried---- and gaped as he discovered that Vader had transpierced Kun with the bloody lance that he had apparently ripped out his own body.

"Your execution will be completed, Sith Lord Exar Kun," Vader stated with finality, "and may you never return to the mortal world!"

Kun howled awfully--- and disappeared, gone forever this time.

The sudden silence was stunning.

Vader collapsed on his knees- Kyp hurried to his side. "My Lord... Can I help you?"

"No, it's alright." Vader shook his head. "You did already did what had to be done."

"Really?"

"Of course. Don't you understand?" the older Sith explained to him. "Your action expulsed him from your body. It was what I needed you to do if I wanted to be able to kill him."

"But," Kyp gaped in confusion. "your wound?"

"Really," Vader smiled under his helmet, "I am not *that* powerless... yet." He slowly raised to his feet. There was no wound on his body. "Let's go back... apprentice Durron."

Kyp grinned.

And so they integrated their bodies--- Just to meet with an hysterical Kirana Ti. They tried to calm her and reassure her that Kyp was back to his normal self.

It was not an easy task for either of them.


Mara checked her chrono once again: T minus three hours.

Still no news from Vader and his bratty daughter, she reflected seriously, nor from her own spies to inform her that her prey had taken her bait and was obeying her orders.

"So what are the results this time?" she asked the computer tech who was sitting in front of her and her two main allies in her vendetta against Vader.

"I still don't understand why you're going to rely on computer simulation to look like you're hurting the Jedi again," Piett frowned while the tech loaded the results of his latest program. "We could very well hurt him for real again."

"And kill him," Mara glared coldly at the mean man.

"Well, sooner or later, what does it matter if he'll be dead anyway," Veers shrugged from beside Piett.

"We can't kill him," she shook her head, refocusing on the screen that was in front of her. "Not yet. If this doesn't work, we'll need him alive if we want to brainwash him and manipulate the rebels through him," she explained as coldly as she could.

However, her heart was far from being the cold, icy body part that she was pretending to own at the moment; instead, it was literally 'feeling' for their captive Jedi, aware that she herself would 'never' be able to give orders to either brainwash him or hurt him again.

Her two allies continued to frown uncertainly at her.

"He's our only bargaining chip," she reminded them sternly. "We can't risk his life anymore than we already did. Besides," she shrugged, nodding toward the images on the screen, "what you've done is already perfect."

On the screen, an image of a strung-up Skywalker writhed and screamed in pain as Piett attacked him, adding to his already obvious torments. "Great job of correcting the image, cadet," she praised the young tech who was sitting straight-backed in her chair. "If your work fools the enemy, you will be in charge of your group of techs from now on, with the increase of salary of course."

"I... huh, thank you, Madam," the worried young woman bowed her head slightly before refocusing on her program and making minutes adjustments in order to please her further.

"Looks like this settles our argument, Gentlemen," she commented, focusing on her two closest allies. "Vader and Organa Solo will never think that this is not real. They will bow to us this time."

"And if they don't?" Veers inquired seriously.

"Then Skywalker will still be alive to help us whether he wants it or not."

"Then why not brainwash him now, Madam?" Piett frowned, locking his dark-brown eyes on her green ones.

Suddenly feeling as if she were slowly being cornered by the two men, Mara squared her shoulders and glared at them as if they were, suddenly, her enemies and about to be destroyed. "He would not survive the procedure at the moment, Admiral Piett, thanks to you. We will not take any further risks with him for the moment. Are we clear on this?" she inquired lowly, glaring at them from under her eyelashes.

"Crystal clear, Madam," both men snapped to attention, as if aware that they had crossed a line that they shouldn't have crossed.

"Good, now report to your units and prepare to oversee the attacks on Bespin and Rialteer the moment that we're done with the Vaders. Dismissed."

The two military officers reflexively saluted her, then turned heels and headed toward their respective destinations in the well-organized command center.

"Men," she sneered openly, then turned back toward the computer screen to refocus on the images there. "If we would listen to them, we would kill everyone without considering the consequences."

"I... huh," the other hesitated, then decided to not answer and refocused on her very important assignment.

"I guess that's why I lead them instead of the opposite," she added, consciously aiming to dispel any feelings of weariness from her surrounding subordinates.  "To lead them to victory this time."

As if remembering how their group had failed against Vader's Empire before she had found them and taken their lead, the uneasiness that had been slowly invading the communication center suddenly dissolved as if it had never been in the first place.

And she herself knew that she had convinced them... and saved Skywalker from more torments for the time being.

"Make it look more real than real," she advised her future head technician, then she too left the computer area to return near the holonet receiver.

If Vader or his daughter were to call, she wanted to be ready to answer them.  She could barely wait to savor her vengeance.


An hour and a half, aboard the Executor, Han was standing behind the scanning officers, overseeing their furtive scan of the far away asteroid field.

The blips appeared yet again in the midst of the moving rocks, confirming the presence of Jade's group in one of the biggest asteroid of the field.

"Wedge, you getting that?" the ex-smuggler inquired in his comlink.

"Yes, we do. Remind me to kiss your father-in-law's ugly mask next time I see him. Without him, we would never have located them in time; they must have three times the regular shields of any base."

"But they still can't hide from a focalized scan," Han grinned, trying to imagine his friend 'trying' to kiss the cool, unloving Dark Lord of the Sith.  "As for Vader, I think thanking him will do, Hotshot. That is, if you want to remain in one piece."

"Right. So," the rebel commented as the blips reappeared yet again on their screens. "Are we going to look at them all day or do we get going? We're still a good hour away from them in stealth mode, and that is without mentioning the asteroid barrier that we have to tackle."

"Got you loud and clear," Han nodded even as the officers around him continued to organize the boarding parties. "Let's kiss the Rancor!"

"I always loved your images of speech, Solo," the other groaned. "Antilles out," he finished, then turned off their communication.

*The Falcon's troops are ready to board it and the other drop ships are waiting for your order to lift off," Chewie informed him as he himself returned to the higher level of the bridge.

"Good," Han nodded, dimly wondering when he had picked up on his lordship's language when commanding troops, then turned around to speak to the officer who would be in charge of the two ships while he and Wedge would be in the Asteroid Field. "Deploy the fleet to prevent escape, Admiral. We'll make them prisoners, but this ends here."

"Yes, Sir," the other accepted with a military salute then turned to his own subordinates.

Han, for his part, joined Chewie near the main hatch; they half-walked, half-ran to the main docking bay.


On Coruscant, Leia watched the enormous time-counting device that was set below the main tactical display.

Both Han's and Wedge's groups had reached their target and were now approaching it, careful to not rise the hornet before it would be too late for them to escape them.

It was now T minus thirty-five minutes.

Thirty-five minutes until her brother would once again be hurt by the evil woman before Han would be able to save him from her claws---

"Are you sure that she will not kill him?" she asked her father, with whom she was in contact to discuss the last details of their upcoming cover-up.

"I know Jade well enough to suspect that she will save him for further use if even this doesn't work," he reassured her from his seated position in the reception field. "I also suspect that she knows me enough to not risk killing him and bring down my lethal wrath down upon her. With Luke alive, she can control me, and she knows it."

"How very reassuring," she muttered, forcing her hands to unclench from her long, loose skirt. "So whatever we'll say, she'll hurt Luke, right?"

"I'm afraid so, yes."

"But she won't kill him."

"Sometimes, death can be a relief instead of a torment," the Dark Lord commented coolly to reassure her.

And she couldn't argue with him since she remembered having yearned for such a relief herself... twice... "I still prefer to see him back home, safe and alive," she finally retorted glumly.

"So do I," her father nodded. "Solo will bring him back to you, Leia. That smuggler of yours seems able to pull any kind of rescue when it comes to your brother."

"Yeah," she nodded, feeling a tear of worry slip past of tight self-control to slide down her cheek. "He did manage the near-impossible on more than one occasion."

"And he will save Luke again," her father stated. "So it is agreed," he continued more coolly once she had composed herself once again, "you let me handle Jade while you keep track of the rescue for the two of us."

Throwing another gaze at the tactical display, she held her breath as she became aware of her lover's position. "They're entering the asteroid field even as we speak."

They had twenty-five minutes left--- when a warning informed her that her holonet was being invaded by an incoming signal.


On Yavin 4, Vader was turning toward a display of the Hoth system when a warbling sound came from the holonet receiver--- and replaced Leia's image by Jade's.

"My, Lord Vader," the red head smiled sourly as she caught him by surprise. "I expected you to foment a way to not give in to my demands, but I never thought that you'd be in communication with your beloved daughter at this very moment.  Now, if only you cared this much for your son," she continued, her face turning cold and expressionless, "you would have followed my commands and transmitted your message of betrayal to the whole galaxy."

"I am not on Coruscant at the moment, Jade," he reminded her coolly, straightening his posture in his chair while not standing up.

He simply didn't have the strength to do it yet.

"So?" the other challenged, raising an eyebrow in mock-polite confusion. "How does this prevent you from addressing the whole galaxy as I have so 'nicely' requested?"

"If you remember, Jade," he reminded her coldly, "the trans-galactic system is not hooked to the main holonet transmitters. It cannot be used unless we're on Coruscant itself, which is four days away from my current location. Even if I had tried to reach Coruscant on time, you would have considered your demand as being rebuffed."

"Which means that you do choose pain for your 'dear' son," she rebuked him as if she were a very good friend instead of his arch nemesis.

"I do not but you must be realistic in your demands if you want me to give in to them."


Leia, who had once again been forced out of her communication with her father, held her breath as she waited for the red-head's answer. If she didn't take her father's bait, she 'knew' that the other would put her threat to execution with Luke.

And she herself would then only be able to pray that the red-head didn't want to kill him yet, giving enough time to Han's team to rescue him.

Turning toward the alternative connection with the Fleet, she saw that they had finally managed to raise the Falcon and were now preparing to relay the ongoing discussion to her husband's receiver. She walked closer to talk to him.

"Any sign of detection yet, Han?" she inquired as she picked up a free head set.

"None that we can see, Sweetheart," her husband answered grimly. "With that asteroid field around themselves though, they don't need any detection device, believe me. We've already lost a third of our fighters and one transport."

"Yes, I saw," she nodded grimly, then threw a gaze at the ongoing discussion between the enemy and her father---- only to gape as she saw that the image had been replaced by that of her brother---

"Han! We're running short on time!" she warned him.

"Yeah, I can see---"

They both fell silent as her brother screamed in pain thanks to the renewed attack on his already battered body.

"How close are you to them?" the petite brunette asked, suddenly desperate to get her brother out of that harpy's claws.

Beside her, her aide, Winter, covered her mouth and turned away from the main display of the torture scene.

"Five minutes and closing. I'll contact you when Luke is aboard is safe, Leia.  I promise."

Aware that she was endangering his life, as well as Luke's only chance if she kept distracting him from his flying, she didn't try to keep him any longer on the line; she reluctantly turned around and witnessed her brother's torment...

And cried, unable to believe that it was happening again.

She was simply unable to believe that she couldn't do anything to stop it from happening, again.


"Get ready to fire at the outer defenses the moment that we're within range," Han instructed the two troopers who were currently manning the quad guns.

"Yes, Sir," their filtered voices answered him, as emotionless as ever.

Just like their twenty colleagues who were waiting in the lounge for his order to attack the enemy.

Imperial stormtroopers waiting in orderly ranks for 'his' order to leave the Falcon and pounce on the enemy; who would have thought, he mentally shook his head while he continued to focus on his ace piloting.

He was so focused on it that he barely heard Luke's screams of agony, yet he still heard them a little as they slowly pierced the cold blanket that he was desperately trying to maintain to be able to save his friend from his current predicament.

"We're coming up in their detection range for sure now," Wedge commented----

"Enough, Jade," Vader's cool voice suddenly interrupted their communication as the transmission from Coruscant/Yavin 4 changed pitch.

As if aware that she had finally gotten results, the red-head tuned out the wails of agony of her prisoner and focused on her main target. "Yes, 'Lord' Vader? You were saying?"

'No, please, no' Han thought desperately as he understood that the Dark Lord was not faking his worry for Luke.

*We can't let her win!" his Wookiee companion growled angrily even as he poured more speed into their engines.

"Wedge!" Han called in his mike, "we can't spare any second anymore. Floor it, we're coming fast and hot---- now!"

On his command, the ships, which had already been flying faster than caution warranted, sped up and headed straight for the half-moon-sized, relatively stable asteroid that was sheltering their target.


At last, Mara smiled to herself even as she exchanged a meaningful look with the up-to-now dubious Piett. They had him now.

"Stop hurting him, I... I'll return to Coruscant and----"

Even as she was just beginning to savor her victory, their alarms went off all around the base.

"Incoming attack at 330!" a monitoring tech suddenly bellowed, interrupting the touchy moment of finale negotiations. "We've already taken major casualties on our forward defenses and can't stop them from landing in our main docking bays!"

"Send the troops to stop them and protect our own transports!" Veers barked from his station, which was close to the main comm system. "Order emergency evacuations of everything that can be taken aboard the transports within the next five minutes."

"You son is dead, Vader," Piett growled, stepping into range of the transmission field, then cut the transmission without checking on her next intentions. "I told you that we should have tortured him for real," he sneered at her, then approached the tactical display while checking the charges of his blaster. "How did they get this close to us this fast?"

Mara, for her part, remained rooted to her spot near the transmission device, still reeling from the speed with which the situation had slipped out of her tight control. One moment, she had had Vader right where she had wanted him, and the next, her allies were organizing their escape---

And Skywalker was about to escape.

Completely forgetting the rest of her group, she pulled her own pocket blaster from her wrist band/forearm holster, then took two steps in the direction of the closest exit that would lead her to the detention bay---

A strong hand caught hold of her biceps and jerked her to a halt. "This way, Madam," Veers informed her even as he dragged her after him and the departing men. "We'll stand a better chance if we try to get past them through the troops than if we do it on our own."

"But Skywalker---" she argued even as her cooler self followed her wise officer and ran after the leaving group.

"The first stage of destruction will flood his level. The explosive charges are already counting down. We will still manage to avenge part of the Emperor's death," he told her grimly.

'And kill a good man,' her sensitive self whimpered at the thought of the abandoned young Jedi who was perhaps even unconscious in his cell at the moment.

Unable to even try and save his life.

And now it was time to save hers, she sternly reminded herself, forcing herself to focus on the situation at hand.

Before she could ask for a report about the situation, the loudspeakers flared to life once again. "The enemy troops have entered the base, the enemy troop have----"

"We can't go out the main corridor," she commented seriously, then made a break for an adjoining one.

Veers, Piett, and the six or seven closest troopers followed her.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to the enemy, the countdown of the self-destruction system continued.


Han Solo, who had been part of the first boarding party, had quickly gathered his special team of three allied troopers and had run out of the fighting area.

After hiding from incoming troops and capturing one, he had hurried to reach the indicated detention area, pushed by his adrenaline as well as the knowledge that as long as he wouldn't be 'with' Luke, the young man would be tormented to death.

Barreling down the last corridor before their 'supposed' destination, Solo shot the cameras that he could see; he wanted to surprise the guards of the detention area. As they approached the door, he let a trooper overcome his positin. The other reached the door and keyed it open for the rest of them to rush through--- into a deserted control room of a basic detention area.

Weary for a trap, Han swiftly swiveled from left--- to right...

"Jedi Skywalker is in cell 22b, Sir," a trooper informed him even as the two others covered the whole space of the control room with their accurate aims.

"Come with me," he ordered the imperial who had just talked to him; they both ran as fast as the could down the row of electronically-locked cells...

>From which no sound of torment was coming from.

Could they be..., Han thought, feeling an horrible tightening in his chest at the thought that Jade had already killed Luke---

Cell 22b finally showed up; he screeched to a halt and keyed it open.

The moment that he caught sight of the sprawled form of his brother-in-law and best friend, he held his breath in horror, his first instincts telling him that he was too late... then the door finished to open and he saw that Luke was far from dead.

Instead, he was alive and being monitored... by medical devices?, the smuggler frowned even as he rushed to his friend's side. "Luke!" he called, lightly slapping his friend's cheek to wake him up even as he took stock of his actual status.

He thus noticed that he was not as 'injured' as he had expected him to be considering the harsh beating that he had just---

"Sir! We have to leave this level quickly!" the trooper suddenly cut in his thoughts. "Unit 3 informs us that they turned off the self-destruct system of the base, but they can't stop the detention levels from being flooded."

Great, more race!, he grumbled even as he shot his friend's chains free from the wall. "Help me," he told the other while he removed the sensor from his friend's forehead.

Pulling Luke's injured body from the cold floor, Han slung his arm around his shoulders while the other man repeated the procedure with the Jedi's other arm.  They then straightened up--- wakening their wounded companion from his sleep.


"Aaaahh," Luke groaned reflexively as he felt his body being shifted and manipulated just a tad too much and too fast considering its current status.  He forced his eyes opened--- and moved to pinch himself to check if he were dreaming or not.

"Hang on, Kid," Han Solo was telling him while half-carrying him out of his cell, using the help of a stormtrooper. "I know that this is not helping your pain, but it's that or drowning and personally, I want to return to your sister.  You?"

"Drowning?" he rasped, trying to work past his pain-killer-induced confusion to understand what was going on exactly.

"Yeah, that red-headed bitch decided to drown you instead of letting you go."

And with this last statement, it clicked: he had been in his cell in Mara Jade's secret base, sleeping for lack of anything else to do except think and be confused... and he was now obviously rescued by his brother-in-law and best friend.

"Where is Jade?" he inquired, looking around himself to see if Han had had to fight past guards to get to him.

"Not here. She can't and won't hurt you anymore, Kid. I swear it."

However, as if to prove him wrong, the ceiling above them suddenly shook as a loud explosion resounded throughout the corridor and detention block--- then water began to flow down from many openings in the still intact-looking ceiling.

"So it was a trap all along," his friend growled, then pulled him higher on his shoulder.

Luke almost passed out again at this, but he somehow managed to remain conscious. Or perhaps, he conceded, the cold water, which was quickly gathering around his bare feet, was helping him to retain his full senses.

Around them, the water was streaming down the surrounding walls, transforming them into cascades of cold water. It was now up to their shins and climbing faster with each passing moment.

"How far are we from the stairwell?" Han inquired to the troopers who were wadding through the waters in front and behind them, obviously alert for more danger.

"Another twenty meters, Sir."

The water was now up to their knees, slowing them down further with each millimeter that it gained on them--- and he himself finally recovered the Force as they 'exited' the ysalamiri bubble that had been set around the detention area.

The healing energies instantly poured right through and into him, soothing his slighter pains while helping him to sustain his more tormenting ones.

And he himself knew what he could do to assist his rescuers.

The cold water was already up to their thighs. "When I give the word," he told them as strongly as he could manage in his condition, "run for it. I'll hold back the water."

"You'll what?" Han asked him, throwing him a look of disbelief even as he continued to struggle through the gathering water, intent on saving both of their lives.

On his left side, the trooper equally threw him a look.

"On my mark," he answered seriously, then closed his eyes and focused on clearing a trench between two walls of cold water.

At first, nothing seemed to happen, then gasps coming from his companions told him that his idea had worked--- then he had to brace himself in order to retain his focus. With each running step taken by his carriers, his pain was ramming in his body.

A little more, he encouraged himself, just a little more----

His dangling legs suddenly hit the rising stairs and he lost what little concentration he could still maintain against the increased pain.

The water, which was suddenly released from its prison, rushed back into the whole corridor, meeting into two strong waves--- and unbalancing the trooper who was just behind them.

The man fell face first toward them, reflexively catching himself on Luke's close-by legs and body before being drawn back into the gathering water.  Combined with the sudden wave of water that hit Luke and his carriers from behind, it was enough to pull the wounded man free from the others' hold.

In his weakened condition, he knew that he would have slipped away and under the water without any chance of being able to swim--- but Han's strong hand flashed out and grabbed hold of his injured arm before pulling him to safety even as he himself extended his hand toward the rear man who was struggling against the spiraling current that was resulting from the strong wave. They then struggled up the rest of the stairs.

The three of them made it to safety just as the water level stopped rising. The detention levels were now completely flooded.

"All right, let's get out of here," Han commented seriously, tightening his hold on Luke's wrist as he helped him up to his feet.

"Yeah, I think we're all clean enough to go back home now," the dripping wet young Jedi tried to joke, trying to lighten the mood of the moment as well as forget his constant aches.

"Well, we never know with Leia, she might insist for a bacta swim," his friend grinned lopsidedly.

"And for once, I wouldn't complain," he answered, exchanging a meaningful gaze with his best friend, then with the men who had come in with him. "Thanks for coming after me. I owe you one."

"Thank me when we'll really be away from here with Jade safely stashed away in a cell."

"Right," Luke nodded as he tried to support his weight on his weakened legs this time.

While he gauged the amount of pain that this action caused him, he berated himself for feeling concern for the woman instead of seeing her like an enemy who had tried to kill him despite 'whatever' had happened between them when they had been alone in his cell.

With the help of Han and his other carrier, they ran as fast as they could down the upper corridor and toward the docking bay where they had berthed the Falcon.

And Freedom.


Meanwhile, on Yavin 4, Vader was once again in touch with his daughter, following through her reports the progress of their attack.

"Have they gotten Luke out now?" he asked her the moment that she returned from a short talk with an officer.

"Yes," she smiled in relief. "A trooper in Han's group just informed them that they have retrieved Luke and that the were out of the detention area. This area of the base is apparently completely flooded now."

To kill their enemies, he surmised grimly even as he sighed in relief.

Luke was safe.

Solo had once again been true to his word and managed the impossible in the nick of time.

"What about Jade? Piett? Veers? Have they been captured already?"

"A few squads have reported encounters with a woman that corresponded to Jade's description, but we lost contact with all of them a few seconds after they reported the contact."

Probably killed by Jade's flawless aim, he surmised inwardly. "Where did those contacts take place? Any specific area of the base?" he inquired coolly although he felt a very definite lust for revenge for what the devilish woman had done to his son even minutes ago.

"Huh," Leia turned away from the reception field and furthered his inquiry to her tactical people. She returned in the field with a frown on her face.  "According to what little data we have gathered about the base through the different reports, she and her group are heading toward the main hangar bay, exactly where---"

"Luke and Han are headed at the moment," he finished grimly for her.

Headed for a final face-off.


Back in the base, Mara shot an enemy trooper in the knee before shifting her aim to hit him in the chest. She had barely finished him that she had to take care of another target, then a third one, whom she knocked out with a roundhouse kick when he kept coming despite her hitting him in the chest.

"They managed to deactivate de self-destruct, Madam," Veers informed her as he turned off his comlink and checked their surroundings. "They will capture every information that we stashed in our computers."

"We'll adjust to this once we're out of here, General," she rebuked him sternly as she noticed his lowering level of confidence. "For now, we're not out of it yet. Come on."

Piett, who had been all bluster and bravado while they had been preparing their contact with Vader, was now self-erased, his nervous eyes darting back and forth, as if to look in every direction at once.

That man, she understood, had never been in a real combat situation before.  Like most of his ex-colleagues, he had always been aboard the ships during the battles, wielding the weapons that were whole ships instead of his hand-held blaster, for which his aim was poorer than poor.

"Are the enemy troops still in the main hangar bay?" he asked nervously, tagging close to her as they resumed their run down the now deserted corridors.

It was her turn to throw him a disdainful glare. "Of course they are; it's our main hope to escape and they know it."

"Unless their officers aren't as bright as you are, Madam."

First near condescending attitudes, now pointless praise. That man, she sighed in growing annoyance, was not versatile at all.

She ignored him and saved her breath for the final meters of their race--- and the upcoming fight, she braced herself as the sounds of an ongoing ground battle drifted up to their ears.

Three meters...

Two meters..

One meter, and the audible cringe of the man who was undoubtedly hoping to hide himself behind her---

Then her group emerged from the corridor; two of their techs fell the moment that they stepped out of the hatch, opening the way to the others.

Mara brought her blaster to bear and shot two men dead before they had had time to blink, then turned toward her right as she caught sight of a swift movement closed-by.

For a moment, she, Han Solo and Skywalker gaped at each other in shock and disbelief that they could be so close to their true targets---- Then Solo opened fire on her even as she did on him, forcing the two men apart.

She barely had time to aim before she rolled away from Solo's sizzling bolts of energies, then again when other bolts seemed to track her across the floor.


Aware that more cover would work better for the troopers' safety, Luke had ordered his second carrier to let him and Han handle his weight while the others would make sure that they would remain alive.

As expected though, the 'wise' decision was taking quite a toll on his still aching legs and back, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep running beside Han. Soon, he reminded himself as they covered more distance in the otherwise deserted corridor, they would all be aboard the Falcon and home free...

Once they would get past the asteroid field of course.

However, even with that touchy obstacle in their path, he was still closer to freedom and safety than he had been in... a while.

The sound of a nearby ground attack grew louder and louder in the corridor.

"All right, we're going in. Brace yourself, Kid," Han warned him even as he pulled his blaster from his holster and held it in his left hand.

A few clearing shots from their escort, then they were prowling through the open hatch---- just as Jade and her group came through the closest entrance on their left.

For a brief, very brief moment, he couldn't help but gape at her... at her beauty and his confusing feelings for her----

Then she aimed at him and Han. The moment that Luke registered the fact that Jade was going to shoot at him, he freed himself from Han's slackened hold and threw himself away from his friend, hoping to take the danger away from him and toward himself.

He hit the deck rather hard on his side, his still-cuffed wrists clanging loudly against the metallic floor; he instantly drew unwanted attention from nearby enemy, or so his danger senses warned him.

He reflexively rolled away from the danger, ignoring his body complaints in order to save his life, then reached out with the Force and called for a blaster nearby.

The moment that the weapon slapped into his outstretched hand, he rolled on his painful stomach and opened fire on his immediate threat; three shots later, he was safe again and had time to check which weapon he had recovered.

He stopped short in shock as he recognized Jade's wicked-looking pocket blaster.  Instantly aware that it meant that the woman was in danger, he searched around himself, using all his senses to track her, and Han, down--- and saw that Jade was reeling from an obvious close explosion when Han had hit the discarded power pack of a discarded weapon.

His friend had a clear shot at her; the red-head wasn't even fully aware of her predicament---

Han was going to kill her!, he realized even as he rushed to his feet and ran as fast as he could toward them, fighting past everything that his body was yelling at him, ordering him to lie still.

Only one thing mattered to him now: he had to save Mara's life from his friend's shot.

"Han, no!" he begged, then, calling on the Force to shield her and himself from the shot, threw himself toward her, hoping to tackle her away from Han's clear line of shot.

The bolt of energy left his friend's weapon anyway---

"Luke!!!" his friend cried in horror as he realized what was about to happen.

It was too late to stop anything.


Still reeling from an explosion that she had never seen coming, Mara Jade shook her head and forced herself to recover her full senses, perfectly aware that a battle was going on at the moment, with her life at stake-----

"Luke!!!!" Solo's voice suddenly cried out as if a catastrophe was imminent.

She forced her eyes opened, winced at her instant headache--- then could only gape in disbelief as she became aware of the Jedi who had thrown himself at her.

Her very first instinct was to think that he was going to kill her himself, then she saw more than heard him tell her to duck.

She spared half-a-glance away from him to judge the situation for herself--- then cursed and ducked away from the incoming bolt of energy.

With her out of the way, it missed its target and instead buried itself in the Jedi's shoulder; he crashed in a heap beside her, groaning at the rough landing before he rolled toward her.

"Luke!!!" Solo called out again.

Mara, who was currently facing the half-conscious Jedi, looked up at this, estimated the new threat that was Solo charging toward her as if he were going to bodily ram into her, then spotted her blaster in Skywalker's hand. She swiftly retrieved it from his hold with her left hand even as she rolled on four, resting her right hand behind Skywalker's back, thus looming over him once again. She then brought her weapon to bear from under her chest, straight at Solo's knees.

Under her, the Jedi had laid back on his feet---- "Han, look out!" Skywalker warned his friend, now fouling her attempt to kill 'her' enemy.

The older man trusted the Jedi's words for it and jumped away from his target, then cursed and rolled further away as reinforcement joined her efforts to keep the enemy at bay while they were covering her escape.

"We have to leave now, Madam," Piett was telling her, almost begging her while trying to pull her up.

She shrugged him off and refocused on the young man who had just saved her life.  He was looking at her too, obviously wondering what was next for them.

She wordlessly asked him if he wanted to stay with his friend; he barely shook his head in answer while both of them looked at each other as if they would never let go of each other.

"Come on, Skywalker," she told him gently, using the voice that she had always used with him while tending him, "let's get you up if we want to leave in one piece."  "What are you---?" her admiral inquired in disbelief, then shut up completely when the Jedi accepted her help to stand up, then hobbled up to his feet, leaning against her, but not as much as he would have had, had he been a reluctant prisoner.

"Luke! Don't! She's lying to you!" Solo called in desperation from the other side of the hangar bay; she and the others around them answered him with new shots, forcing him back under cover.


As he ducked for cover once again, Han couldn't believe what he had just seen.

First Luke had saved Jade's life as if she had been his best friend, and now, he was collaborating with her to take him away once again???

"Luke!!" he tried again, desperate to break through the obvious brainwash that his friend had undergone while in the other's hands.

*I'm sorry, Han. Tell Leia that I miss her, and forgive me,* Luke's warm if tired voice entered his mind.

He peeked from around his chosen cover to catch sight of his friend; the Jedi was looking at him, regret etched in his face, but something else was alight in his eyes.

Something.

*I love her, Han. I can't explain it, but I know that it's true. Please forgive me,* the young man's mind told him once again directly in his mind, then Han could only watch helplessly as his friend boarded a ship that the imperials had managed to salvage and defend in order to escape.

Slowly, then with more speed, the freighter lifted off and disappeared in the distance, leaving a very confused Han Solo in the midst of a battle which he wasn't aware of anymore.

What the?..., he frowned confusedly... worriedly for both his friend as well as how he would explain all this to both his wife and father-in-law.


Chapter 9: Explanations

Aboard the Death Sparrow, Luke, Jade, and the other rescuees, were still sitting on the deck, more or less in the same spot than where they had collapsed the moment that they had been aboard the ship.

"We're approaching the edge of the field, Madam," a general informed the red- head from the vicinity of the cockpit's hatch.

"You know what to do, Veers," the puzzling but beautiful young woman retorted, briefly sparing a glance at the other before she refocused her jewel-green eyes on his tired ones. She shifted her gaze once again. "Piett," she commented, addressing the other officer who was watching them wearily. "You're the space tactician here. Make sure that we make it unscathed through that blockade."

Despite Mara's commanding intonation and attitude, the other didn't move to obey her just yet. Instead, his eyes never left the two youths who were sitting unusually close to each other on the deck.

Jade turned around until she was facing him; she glared blaster bolts at him. "Now!"

As if scalded by the sight of her angry gaze, the older man snapped to attention, saluted jauntily, then ran toward the nearby cockpit. Veers, for his part, gave the Jedi a very cold glare of distrust, obviously disliking him, then followed his counterpart inside the cockpit.

It left him alone with the woman whom he had just saved... and a few of her troops who didn't seem to know how to react to his presence amongst them.

Well, he shrugged inwardly, that made two of them because he couldn't exactly comprehend his own actions himself.

One moment, he had been with Han and yearning for freedom...

And the next, he had saved his tormentor and had accepted to go with her once again.

Somehow, he mused while he silently studied his puzzling companion, he knew that she would have left him there if he had not wanted to come with her, but that was the really tricky part of the situation.

He 'had' wanted to come with her, had even fought past his old and new pains to not be separated from her----"Ah!" he reflexively gasped when the object of his thoughts barely touched his injured shoulder, effectively pulling him out of his pondering.

"Sorry," she apologized contritely even as she hurried to remove her hand from his wounded, blaster-shot shoulder. "This is obviously worse than it looks. Come on," she said, then positioned herself beside his other arm and slung it around her shoulders. "Let's get you on the emergency bunk. We need to take a look at that before it worsens."

"Huh,..." he hesitated slightly before he gathered his legs under him in order to help her to pull him up. "Sure."

Working together, they managed to push him back to a standing/leaning position, then, with the help of Mara's strengthening arm around his bare waist, they shuffled toward the back of the ship. They pointedly ignored the befuddled gazes of the troops that were gathered around them. Or rather,Luke amended when he gazed at one of them and saw nothing but the blank, unemotional face of a trooper helmet, they ignored their puzzled feelings.

*Are you sure that it's a good idea?* he sent his unexpected companion as they exited the main hold of the shuttle.

The moment that he touched her mind, he felt her intense surprise and shock upon hearing him talk to her this way. As he realized that she was very startled by his voice, he reflected that she would either ignore him, or else let him fall.

Fortunately though, she didn't do either. Instead, she answered him in the same fashion. *I'll deal with them later, Skywalker. For the moment, we need to stop the worsening of your blaster burn before it truly incapacitates your muscles.*

Right, he conceded with a silent nod, unable to answer in any other way as he felt her presence mingle with his; it completed him so wonderfully that he dimly wished for her to never leave his mind ever again.

Unfortunately, his wish wasn't meant to be. She reintegrated her full senses, but not without lingering slightly within him. As if she had also felt what he had felt, he reflected, trying to fight past his tiredness and growing confusion to make sense of what was suddenly going on with the two of them.


They finally reached the small medbay, which was more like a small, long closet with lots of basic tending tools, including a long bunk, than it was a real bay.

However, it was equipped with a door. The moment that they were inside, Mara took care to close it and locked behind them. She too had noticed her troops reactions to Skywalker's presence with them, and she too was acutely aware that her unusual actions with him were on the limit of what the others could understand.

Thus, she had decided that it had been both time to tend him 'and' figure out what was going on at the moment. If she could, she would now also try to find out what was in store for them next. "Why did you save my life?" she asked him the moment that they were alone. She turned toward the closest storing locker and searched it for the appropriate tending tool for the situation.

"I..." the Jedi hesitated slightly as he hitched himself on the bunk, then closed his eyes and lowered his chin to his chest as if in shame. "I guess... I couldn't let him kill you."

Turning around with a desensitizer pack in hand, she brought her fingers under the other's chin and made him look back up at her. "But why, SKywalker?" she prompted him mercilessly. "Why did you do..."

The moment that their eyes met, she fell silent; she had just gotten her answers... and he, his.

They loved each other---

But it was impossible!!, she instantly denied, pulling away from him to find refuge against the nearby bulkhead.

She and Skywalker couldn't be attracted to one another, let alone---

"I don't understand this anymore than you do... Mara," he told her, hesitating slightly on her first name. *But you know what 'this' means just like I do,* he sent her next----

Her whole being and senses were once again filled with the most unique sensation of well-being that she had ever experienced. *Even if we can't find any logical explanation for it,* she sent him back, accepting his presence as a good thing.

*Yes,* he nodded tiredly. *I don't know how it happened, or why,* he continued, locking his blue eyes on hers, *but I do know that when I saw Han shoot at you... I...*

Feeling irresistibly drawn by his warmth, gentleness, as well as by the confusion that was seeping through her senses via their link, she slowly covered the few inches that were separating their two bodies until they were almost as close physically as they currently were on the Force plane. Delicately, she touched his still bruised jaw, careful to not hurt him through her touch, then she gently lifted his chin once again until he was looking at her. *I wanted to save you too, Luke,* she admitted, then reflexively shared with him the thoughts that she had had about him during the battle.

*I could not bear the idea of you being dead,* he answered, returning the sharing with his own.

And even as she 'saw' how he had ignored even his pain to come to her rescue, how he had been ready to sacrifice his life when he had discovered that he was too weak to shield himself with the Force as he had planned to do, she understood that no matter how hard she, or he, would try to deny their feelings for one another, or even if they were to go their separate ways once they would be safe, they would always search for one another.

They would always miss the one they... loved.

Gazing deeply in the Jedi's beautiful blue eyes, she slowly became aware that just like he had chosen to be with her, she was currently choosing to be with him. "But what will happen next?" she inquired uncertainly. "I may be attracted to you, but I still hate your father," she reminded him seriously.

"And I may care about you, but I won't help you in your fight against him," he answered in kind.

"So what is waiting for us?" she asked him, taking a step away from him in hopes to diminish the effect that his very close, physical and barely clothed presence was having on her.

"I don't know," Luke admitted with a shake of his dark-blond head. "But perhaps," he suggested more thoughtfully, "my being with you could save us all from another war by negotiating with him instead of using threats. He didn't kill the Emperor, you know?" he reminded her honestly. "The Emperor was truly ill."

Normally, such statement would make her so angry that the Jedi wouldn't be conscious anymore to know that he had irritated her. However, in this case, her lover's words annoyed her, but not that much either. "It won't do, Skywalker," she shook her head while she gave him the desensitizer pack. "Whatever I feel for you, and I'm still not sure that I like it," she added reflexively, "you can't change what I set out to do," she added more soberly. "So," she finally offered him coolly, "either you stay and help me, or you do not interfere at any rate, or else you return to him and forget about me."

The moment that she mentioned his going back to his father though, she felt her heart clench in sorrow.

She 'didn't' want to lose him. She couldn't imagine letting him go back to his monster of a father.


Carefully pressing the pack to his still burning injury, Luke sighed in understanding. Mara Jade was out for a vendetta against his father; he had to either accept it... or forget her... or perhaps he could help her, somehow, to change her ways, which were so obviously hurting her real self...

One thing he knew for sure though was that he couldn't hate her, nor resent her... Nor leave her.

He loved her.

It was a crazy feeling, perhaps even a side-effect of his previous near-death and he was falling from something that had never affected him before... Unless, he thought more glumly, it was simply his reaction to his father's lack of love and care of 'before'. Perhaps he subconsciously wanted to make the old man 'know' how it felt like to be betrayed and hurt by his relatives... to be abandoned when you needed help.

Perhaps, he shrugged somewhat shamefully. And he also perhaps wanted to help Mara the way he had helped his father, although he couldn't foresee how he would do it this time, but, all in all, the situation kept coming down to the same three words: he loved Mara.

He had saved her life, had been ready to die for her and he knew that he would do so again should the occasion rise again. Hence, he had already made his choice; all he had to do was to say it out loud.

And he did.

"What about your students? Your family?" the red-head inquired pointedly, not taking him for granted, he realized.

"My students are well-cared for at the moment," he commented with a light, very light yet sarcastic curl of his lips at the thought of his best student and father working together to keep an eye on the future Jedi Knights. "As for my family, I never really see them even when I'm on Yavin 4, so here with you, or there and alone, the main, and most important difference for me is you." He slowly extended his good hand forward until he could grasp her own hand, then pulled her closer once again until she was standing between his legs, allowing them to be as close as possible in the current situation. "If you promise me to not use me against my father or sister," he half-whispered, locking his eyes with hers, "I promise you to not interfere in your fight against my father," he said, aware that his choice of word left a window for him to intervene on her whole attitude toward Life in general, if she could provide him with that window, "but..." he added as another thought penetrated his mind.

"But?" she asked, tilting her head sideways, daring him to continue.

"Can you give me your word that you will not hurt my sister in your struggle?" he queried earnestly.

Mara silently raised an eyebrow at that, waiting for him to elaborate.

"She's... she's been through much already," he explained sadly, "and she's more under my father's control than truly at his side per choice," he added with a grimace. True, his sister had chosen to help their father, but he had still cleverly maneuvered her into that position too. "He kind of manipulated her to make her follow in his footsteps, but she's much more the Rebellion type than the Imperial one," he explained, then locked his gaze with hers once again. "Please?" he begged her. "If I have to, 'I' will make sure that she doesn't become a threat to you, but please, promise that your vendetta will only involve Vader and yourself."

The beautiful red-head took a moment to ponder his request, as if weary for a trap from his part. Luke unflinchingly met her gaze, not opening his mind to her, but not hiding himself behind shields either. If she knew him even a little, then he suspected that she was aware that he would probably have different values about Life than she did, and that because of those values, he would, consciously or not, try to encourage her to find other ways to wage her 'battle' against his father, whom he still loved and didn't wish him ill fate... Yet he also wasn't sure about him anymore. Anyway, he shrugged inwardly, if Mara knew his reputation like he thought she did, then that was what she was considering so carefully.

She finally nodded shortly. "Deal, Skywalker. I will not use your sister as I did you, and once I get to Vader, I will leave her alone."

"Thank you," he breathed in earnest, elated by both her promise and the fact that they would stay together, that he might have a chance to help her be happier, in the Light--- then unconsciously leaned closer and covered her petal lips with his own, his instincts taking over his confusion.

The woman naturally started at first, just like he did; she also almost pushed him away, but the moment that her hands touched his chest, she changed her mind and pulled him closer to herself, deepening their kiss.

They thus sealed their deal which would make their strange feelings for each other possible.


Meanwhile, back in the asteroid of the renegades, Han was watching Luke's torture again.

A computer-generated forgery, he thought grimly, feeling his blood boil at the memory of how even Vader had seemed to buy into it. They had all thought that it had been the truth while, in fact, Luke had been as right as can be as well as under medical monitoring.

Or had he been brainwashed?, he wondered as he remembered the probe that had been attached to his friend's forehead. Could it be why the Jedi had saved Jade's life? Or why Luke had left with her instead of resisting her and returning to his side?

It sure made sense, he conceded while he pulled the heart-rending disk out of the computer station and refocused on the rest of the scavenging operation. So far, they had found information about Jade's plans for when Vader would have cooperated. His team had already transmitted the location of her waiting units to Wedge's teams, who had probably already informed the rest of the Republic fleet about those.

"We're taking everything aboard," he ordered the ground troops who were busy unbolting computers and stations in order to transport them to their own ships.

*And let's hope that we'll find out where they took the cub this time," Chewie growled lowly from his side. When Han turned toward him to exchange a gaze with him, he noticed that his furry friend was holding the core of the main computer in his large paws.

"Yes," Han sighed, unable to tell his friend that Luke might not have been 'taken' as they thought he had been. "I guess there's nothing else to do but to transmit the news... and face Vader's wrath," he swallowed hard. Stepping closer to the holonet transmitter, Han worriedly typed in the command to contact Yavin 4; he waited for the contact to be established.

At long last, the static was replaced by the image of the sitting dark lord, looking as threatening and dangerous as ever. "Report, Solo?" the Sith Lord ordered instantly, foregoing any type of formalities with him. "Where's Luke?"

"I... I think that it would be better to set up a relay with Coruscant, my Lord," he tried to suggest as confidently as he could. "Leia will probably appreciate to hear the news as well."

He had barely finished his sentence that Vader had motioned to someone, who was off transmitting range, to set up the relay. "Is he safe?" he inquired next. "Have you captured Jade?"

"About the first question," Han began, nervously rubbing his neck with his right hand, "I think that he is as safe as he can be, but to the second question, no, we didn't manage to get Jade in the commotion."

"So what do you mean, as safe as can be?" the dark lord prompted him, leaning closer to the transmission field as if he were trying to intimidate him with his ever-impressive bulk.

Han had barely begun to understand that he was in boiling water already that the relay took place and both Vader and Leia's image shared the transmission field; they both had the ability to answer him.

And there was no other way but to tell them what had happened, he winced inwardly.

"Han, is Luke all right?" Leia inquired while he tried to figure out how he would tell them that Luke was still with Jade without signing his death warrant at either his wife's or his father-in-law's hands.

He decided to begin by telling them about the false torture. "He hasn't been tortured today," he informed them seriously, producing the disk that he had retrieved from the transmission board. "Here's the program that they used to sway your will."

"What?" Leia frowned.

Vader, however, nodded. "I know that , Solo."

Han couldn't help but gape at him. "You do?!"

"I didn't feel his pain," he stated as if he were talking about the actual weather on Yavin.

"But you..." the younger man stuttered, "Your reaction was..."

"Exactly what she wanted to see," he explained. "Besides, you needed time, so I gave you time. Now continue."

Han swallowed hard, but did as he was told. "Well, when I found Luke, he was injured, but not freshly so... and," he hesitated slightly on the next detail.

"And what, Solo?" his father-in-law prompted him more demandingly this time. "He was apparently under medical monitoring," the pilot answered quickly. "A probe was attached to his forehead and he was bearing signs of having been tended... not tortured again."

"Han, where is Luke right now?" Leia asked, her voice shifting from horror to worry.

"I... He's... He's not here," he finally admitted truthfully.

"Not there with you, or not there because he's aboard your ship, Solo?" Vader inquired in turn, as if taking turn with his daughter to grill him for questions.

"Not here... here, Sir," he barely muttered. "He left with Jade."

"With Jade?" Vader asked with icy calmness. His figure stilled completely.

Han heard a nearby officer hold his breath at this, then he noticed that the man slightly stepped back; it left him completely alone to face his wife and frightful father-in-law. He sighed in resignation. "Yes, Sir. He left... with Jade. He told me that he loved her."

"What?!" That was Leia. "What else did he say?"

"That he misses you, Sweetheart," he answered her sadly.

"He didn't say anything else?" Vader inquired coldly.

When Han refocused on him, he became aware that the other was calm and composed. Too much so to his state. He thought to himself that this was a 'very' bad sign. He barely shook his head in answer to his question. "No..."

Silence answered him.

"Han," Leia cut in, desperation now detectable in her voice. "Tell us everything. From the beginning of the attack to his leaving, what happened exactly?"

Han nodded in understanding and began his complete report. He told them about absolutely everything that had happened since they had reached the base. As he did so, he admitted to himself that he preferred to be under enemy's fire than to make a report to Vader.

In a way, he thought forlornly, dodging blaster bolts was much easier than to not squirm under his father's-in-law masked gaze.

"I see," Vader finally commented.

A pause ensued; Han felt as if someone had just loaded his shoulders with heavy bricks.

"Expect me in two days by your location," the Dark Lord suddenly informed him; even his daughter's eyes widened in surprise at this.

"You're coming aboard Executor?" Han gaped at him in confusion.

"Leading the search from there will be much easier than from Yavin 4," the other retorted, then turned his head as he obviously listened to somebody nearby. He nodded, and refocused on Han. "Four of Luke's trainees are coming as well. Await us in two days."

His image then disappeared, leaving him alone with his wife.

"He is not pleased," she informed him matter-of-factly.

"Tell me something that I don't know," Han retorted, pouting slightly in displeasure.

Leia nodded in agreement. "What a mess...," she muttered sadly. "I wonder what Luke was thinking about."

"He wasn't," Han shook his head too. "That's the problem."

Leia sighed audibly and fell deep in thought. Han searched what he could see of her eyes with his, trying to figure out how she was faring at the moment. As he gazed fondly at her, he noticed that the stress of the past two days were obviously catching with her; they were beginning to show on her face and stance, tightening every line that she owned.

"I'll leave you now," she finally commented in the silence. "I need to rest, and think..."

"Take care of yourself, princess. And don't worry, we'll get him back," he promised her, determinate.

"I'm all right, Han," she reassured him warmly. "However," her voice hardened slightly, "You can be sure that I will have a word or two with my 'dear' brother when we'll find him."

"I don't think that you will be the first to scold him, Love," Han smirked slightly as he tried to imagine how Vader would handle his wayward son when he would recover him. He made a note to himself to not be in the room with them, but to still stay close enough to keep the Dark Lord from going 'too' far either.

"I miss you so much, Han," she smiled softly, her tired eyes shining.

As usual when he saw her like this, their light touched his heart, filling it with love. "May the Force be with you, Love."

"May it be with us all, Han. Take care."

The transmission ended. Han expelled the breath that he hadn't noticed he had been holding; he turned toward the team nearby, and belatedly noticed that he was trembling thanks to the regressing adrenaline in his system. "Well, you heard his lordship," he addressed his troops. "We have two days to find 'all' the valuable information that they have left behind. Otherwise, I really can't promise that we won't become space dust ourselves."

The team nodded frantically.

'At least,' he thought in slight amusement at his own ominous lie, 'that would motivate them...'


On Yavin 4, except for Streen, who had decided to stay and guard the temple, Vader and the trainees, boarded his shuttle.

The Dark Lord was tired, and angry. The presence of Jedi trainees was also unnerving him, thus increasing his challenge to control his temper. It just tired him further. Then, as if the situation was not bad enough already, his wound, the only one that he wasn't able to heal by himself, was beginning to bother him anew.

The implant that was replacing his right lung had been affected during his fight against Kun. It was now working at thirty percent of its full capabilities, making it difficult for him to breathe 'and' remain conscious.

That itself was dangerous, but only in a long run, he reflected coolly. However the pain that it was generating was sharper than usual ; in his exhausted state he couldn't block it out.

Hence, the only thing that he wanted now was to retreat to the small medical chamber of the shuttle and rest. There, he would, at last, give in the demands of his body and 'shut down' for a while.

He quickly took off, bringing the white-silver bird up in the sky and past the atmosphere of the planet. The ship shuddered at the dangerously fast ascent, but it still obeyed his commands and darted for the sky, then pierced through it and reached the cold void of space.

The risk that he had just taken had been unnecessary, he dimly scolded himself, but it had calmed him. His anger was out of place at the moment anyway. None of the trainees was responsible for the current disaster, nor was Solo nor his son.

No, he rumbled inwardly, none of them were his target. The only responsible fo the current fiasco was Jade. However, no amount of anger, justified or not, would help him to find her. Instead, to accomplish this, he would need a cool head; he had to rid himself of this fiery emotion before it could cloud his judgement.

Besides, he shrugged to himself, revenge was a meal that was best served cold.


Chapter 10: Resuming the Chase

Meanwhile, aboard the Death Sparrow, Mara's lips were still glued to Skywalker's; her hands were slowly helping him to lay down on the bunk where the two of them would be more comfortable to pursue their current activities.

While her body was doing this though, her mind was working furiously on trying to figure out what was wrong with her. Skywalker having saved her life or not, there was still quite a margin between not considering him anymore as a prisoner ... and being unable to stop kissing him and ravishing his elegant neck with her lips and tongue.

And yet, margin or not, it was her actual predicament; she couldn't, no matter how much she tried, put an end to her exploring and kissing. She wanted to touch him, to know him, to stay with him forev---

A sudden rap on the closed door pulled her out of her musing even as she physically pulled away from the equally startled Jedi; they both leaned away and shifted their gazes to stare at the door.

"Madam, we're ready to contact the other teams," Veers' muffled voice said from behind the door.

"I'll be right there," she quickly answered him, exchanging a genuinely disappointed look with the man who was under her. She leaned away from him and sat on her heels. "Prepare the contacts for a priority message of abandon."

"Abandon, Madam?" the officer questioned from the other side of the door.

"You have your order, Veers," she bit out warningly, then willed the other to leave the vicinity of the door and wait for her in the cockpit.

"Yes, Madam."

*Good thing that you locked the door,* the Jedi sent her seriously as he slowly pulled himself out from under her and back to a sitting position.

*And good thing that he came by,* she retorted tartly, pulling herself off his legs before she set her feet on the deck. "What was this all about anyway?" she inquired out loud, miffed.

"Dunno," he shook his head, "but we sure gave into it with all our hearts," he smirked uneasily.

That earned him a patented glare from her part. "'You' did, Jedi; I for one am an assassin. I don't have a heart."

"For the others," the Jedi answered with a knowing smile. "But don't worry," he reassured her as she almost went ballistic at that comment, "I'm not about to ruin your reputation."

His understanding cooled her down faster than even a cold shower could. "Besides, you'll have plenty of explanation to do anyway," he added, nodding toward the still-closed door.

Right, she sighed. Once she would cross that door, she would have to explain her decision to keep Skywalker alive and free amongst them, and one, crucial detail was still missing in her explanation, she reflected as she reviewed what she would tell to her men.

"Just tell them that you brainwashed me," the young Jedi commented seriously from behind her.

She whirled around in surprise, shocked by both his suggestion as well as the fact that he had known what she had been thinking about. "How do you know what was in my mind??" she asked him defensively.

"You just told me, through whatever there is between us," the other shrugged.

"What?"

Skywalker waved her concerns away. "We don't have time to explore this matter right now. Just go back to your men and tell them that you brainwashed me into staying with you. That you had planned to do that in order to hurt my father further."

"And you won't mind?" she gaped, incredulous in front of his unexpected suggestion.

"Well," he shrugged hesitantly, "for all we know, that's exactly what's happening, isn't it?" he queried.

"Right, and what will 'you' do while I'll deal with the others?"

"I'll stay here and wait for you." He then lost some of his lighter composure and lowered his gaze to study himself, "I think that I could do with a little healing trance," he muttered to himself.

That he could, she nodded briefly, then steeled herself for a difficult moment of commanding duties. "I'll leave you alone for now. I'll see you again once we reach our destination," she concluded before she pressed her hand on the control pad of the door.


The moment that he was alone, Luke shifted his torso back in a neutral position, then stretched his legs on the bunk. Once he was done with that light, yet painful exercise, he laid back on his back and threw his arm across his eyes in self-annoyance.

Just what in Sith was going on right now?, he asked the Force. Not only had he fallen for a woman who had hurt him because he his identity as his father's son, but just moments ago, he had been cooperating with her to do more than just calling a truce between them.

In fact, he rebuked himself, had they not been interrupted, he had the feeling that they would still be doing it, and more.

Of course, he then conceded, it didn't help him at all that he couldn't feel any danger from her anymore. Somehow, her presence had now stopped raising his warning senses, which was more than what he could tell about his father.

Could Mara, he wondered uneasily, be so special to him that she was even outweighing whatever respect and love that he had come to feel for his own father?.. Or was his love for her stronger because he wanted so much to help her?

Like his father, she had come in his life as an enemy, and both of them had been nemesis who had loved to hurt him.

However, almost just like his father had appeared to him under a new light when his sister had gone missing, Mara had overcome what common sense he had left when he had woken up and found her tending him instead of hurting him.

And unlike his father, who had hurt him throughout years, the woman had changed heart within 'days'!

Could this be why he was so easily trusting her?, he wondered while he blindly called the desensitizer pack to his hand and pressed it to his freshest wound.  Could it be this simple? Or was there another, more... mystical reason for their truly joining paths this easily and under the given circumstances?

Whatever it was, he shrugged next, it was obviously at work now and neither of them seemed able to resist it. Once he would be recovered though, he promised himself that he would meditate on it.

Perhaps then, he would know better what and who was playing tricks on him. His selfless heart? Or the Force?

He closed his eyes--- but didn't find the expected peace. Instead, images of his most recent rescue filled his mind, then an image of his best friend came to him.

Han!, he suddenly thought even as he snapped his eyes opened. Han had come to his help, had saved him from drowning in his cell, and yet, he himself had abandoned him!!

Right on the heels of that thought, he belatedly remembered that his friend hadn't come alone to save him. He had brought along a full contingent of troopers... and he himself had heard the screams of pain of those men as they had been fighting against Mara's troops to save 'him', who had then showed total lack of worry about their sacrificed lives... by running away with the enemy...

What had he done?, he gaped as he sat bolt upright in horror and shock, his healing trance completely forgotten.

Desperate and horrified, he tried to remember every single detail of what had happened during those few, crucial seconds after he had saved Jade's life from certain death.

He had first saved his friend from Mara's accurate aim, then he and her had looked at each other...

And even now that he was aware of what 'else' had been going on around them at that moment, he realized that he would still make the same choice.

He would still leave with Mara...

But, he decided forlornly, it didn't mean that he didn't care about all the lives that had been given to save him from at least his cell. Now, he had to do something extremely crucial,... vital... essential... for whatever good it would do to the troopers and their families, he rebuked himself meanly.

Focusing his thoughts on his bond with his father, he concentrated all his sending powers on three, simple words that would carry all his feelings of regret and apologies to his father.

*I'm sorry...* he sent... and eventually felt it connect with his father's mind.  He withdrew before the other could track him down or contact him and scold him for his mistake.

For the time being, he would take care to do it by himself.


Not far from there, Mara's senses picked up on her... companion's sending, but the moment that she understood what he wanted to do, she let him be.

Somehow, she 'knew' that she could trust him to not betray his promise to not help neither she nor his father in their fight against each other.

Which was more than she could say about her other allies who were currently looking at her as if she had turned into a traitor.

"Skywalker will be my business, and my business alone," she warned Piett, then glared at Veers' cold eyes. "The brainwashing procedures have been interrupted a little too fast, but what has been done already will suffice to make him harmless to us."

"Unless Lord Vader manages to find us again through him," the shrewd ground general pointed out coldly.

"It won't happen," she reassured the other. "I made him block off his connection with him. Now, shall we?" she offered, indicating the pending signals of her other units. And unlike Veers and Piett, she reflected seriously, those other, lower-ranked troops wouldn't question anything that she would order because they 'knew' her.

They had been in missions with her when she had joined the regrouping renegade Empire.

Back then, she had been aware that her position with the Emperor had been kept secret from everyone but Vader and a few others. Hence, she had known that she would need to do some of the dirty work to prove to the 'men' that she was not someone to trifle with while they could trust her with complete command of their group. Thus, she had made a point of honor to be present to every attack that had been led against the back units of Vader's troops, showing off her skills until absolutely every type of soldier that could be under her command had respected her. From the regular troopers to the commanders of their few ships, they had all given her their loyal allegiance.

Back then, even Veers and Piett had done so, she then remembered as she waited for the other transmissions to clear. However, unlike the others who were away from the main command group, those two had seen her strange interactions with their enemy's son. It had obviously been enough for them to begin to doubt her; she made a note to be careful and not repeat that same slip with the rest of her troops.

On the main communication console, the four commanders of their remaining units reported in. "Our base of the Hoth system has been found, Gentlemen," she began without any ceremonies. "The attacks are postponed; return to Avenger, we will meet there."

As she had expected, neither of the four men questioned her decision. They knew that they could implicitly trust her to bring them victory against Vader.

As she refocused on the two other men who were with her, she resolved to remind them of the same fact as soon as they would be able to have a little privacy.


------As soon as the shuttle made the transition into hyperspace, Vader gave the controls to Jedi Solusar and retreated in his small medchamber.

Although it wasn't equipped with all the facilities that were available on Executor, it had a full life-support and a few other elements of essential technology.

However, since he wouldn't be able to quickly put his armor back should an emergency arise, he didn't dare remove his armor completely. Thus, he only  removed his external, heavy armor and helmet, then he connected himself to external lungs to give his implants some release.

The pain dropped almost immediately to an acceptable level.

Vader sighed and relaxed in the narrow bed. He was quite sure that he wouldn't be able to sleep in such a vulnerable position and with so many Jedi apprentices around, but he was aware that laying down still did him much good while it would be a good position to enter a meditation trance.

He had barely closed his eyes that a familiar voice entered his awareness, just long enough to drop a message--- then it was gone.

*Luke!* he reflexively called out, having barely taken time to register his son's words before he tried to contact him in return.

Whether by design or not, his son had cut off their contact before he had been able to even check on his actual status.

'Jade,' he rumbled inwardly, cursing once again the young woman who was responsible for his son's illogical actions. He decided to study his boy's message.

'I'm sorry,' he had said.

At first, Vader frowned as he wondered what his naive son could be sorry about, then, once his mind worked past his tiredness, he understood.

Luke was having a guilty conscience about what had taken place in the asteroid field and had wanted to apologize for his still being with the enemy. However, he pondered seriously, if the youth had been brainwashed and forced to go with Jade thanks to some subconscious order, then why did he feel sorry?

Unless, he reflected more grimly, unless it was another of Jade's games, forcing his son to contact him that way, just long enough to torment him with his elusive presence before cutting him off again.

Yes, he hissed angrily, that was it, and deep down, Luke was aware of what he was being forced to do but couldn't resist it.

*I will free you, Son,* he sent out although he was aware that the young Jedi would probably not receive his answer. *I promise that I will free you from this nightmare.*

As expected, only the void of the Force answered him, cool and filled with power that was waiting to be harnessed.

He took control of it and initiated his meditation trance.


About an hour later, Vader felt a presence enter his awareness. Cilghal, he recognized.  "Enter," he ordered her, feeling her uneasiness.

The Calamari woman momentarily froze in the open door. "Hmmm... I don't want to annoy you, my Lord," she said as she walked in and approached his bed.

Given his laying position, he didn't see her, nor did he turn to look at her, but her feelings came clearly through his senses all the same. Under his mask Vader smirked humorlessly. He knew very well how she was feeling; almost all the medics who had examined his case in the past had felt like this at the beginning. Every single one of them had felt that where others had failed, they would succeed in helping him.

All of them had naturally experienced disappointment.

There had been times when such feelings had annoyed him to the utmost, but not anymore.

He knew that the Calamari healer was intelligent and capable; he also knew that she really couldn't stand suffering. This was her only motivation to overestimate her abilities.

"Take place, healer," he invited her coolly. "What do you want of me?"

He heard her take a seat near him. Her voice was hesitant. "I... I've felt your pain, lord Vader. It's unbearable," she explained naively, somewhat reminding him of his son. "Surely..."

"Force healing can do something?" he offered, feeling mildly sarcastic today.

"Yes," the alien agreed earnestly.

"Of course," he began seriously, " and you know that I'm not a stranger to the Force healing, correct?"

"I... yes, I know, my Lord.  However, with all due respect, it's not your field of expertise--- if I'm not mistaken," she added faster than his temper could react to her bold statement.

"You aren't," he finally smiled coldly at her naivete. "My expertise is in rehabilitation and implants. However, I can tell you that nothing can be done."

"My Lord, if I may," the woman countered once again. "Allow me to make my own decision."

He sighed. 'Medics. They were all the same.' "Very well," he agreed indifferently. "You may examine me, if you wish."

"Thank you, my Lord. I'll be very careful."

He smirked, as unseen as ever, and let her Force-awareness enter his body.


Still awed by her boldness, Cilghal gently Force-touched the black-clad body that was laying in front of her. Even though he was attached to external lungs, thus exposing himself in a vulnerable position, lord Vader still emanated power and danger.

She then admitted that it was perhaps a foolish idea to even offer her help to the powerful man. However, even if it weren't, she had no doubt that the dark lord was considering that she was an arrogant, foolish girl.

Well, true or not, she couldn't turn her back to him. She simply couldn't forget the unimaginable suffering that she had felt in him when she had tried to save him on Yavin 4. She was a healer, she reminded herself, a very good, very talented Force-healer. Although she did not hold any false beliefs concerning her abilities, she simply had to help him; it was her duty.

There had to be a way to remove suffering from his body, she then reflected earnestly while she slowly scanned him. The Force literally longed to make it whole again, she could feel it.  All she had to do, she then mused thoughtfully, was to decide where to begin. Once the healing would be initiated, the body would heal itself.

It was easy.

Confident in her abilities and the guidance of the Force, she scanned the dark- clad, dark-minded man, taking mental notes about his wounds while she tried to not let his pain disturb her focus. She had to assemble the whole picture, she reminded herself. Then, the beginning point for the treatment would reveal itself.

Finally, she had everything that she needed. She called the assembled picture in her mind. Now, she thought with anticipation, everything would be clear...

What she saw deeply shocked her.

Like the other medics who had tried to help Vader before, she had to accept that there was no possible treatment for him. Every intervention would irrevocably disturb the finely tuned system of implants, which were everywhere. Even worse, she then understood glumly, the Force itself was causing him his pains.

The Force, which was so strong and present in his body, was eager to make his body whole. Thus, it didn't accept the implants that opposed It's healing. Its reaction was at the origin of lord Vader's continuous torments.

"Oh, my..." she half-whispered in despair.

"A shocking sight, isn't it?" the deep voice inquired seriously.

"I'm...sorry for my foolishness," Cilghal managed despite her dry throat. "I hope that I didn't offend you, my Lord."

"You didn't. However, you really 'should' have taken into account that I'm no novice in my fields of specialization, nor are the medics who treat me," he slightly rebuked her although his voice sounded more resigned than harsh. "Some things are impossible. Even for the Force."

"I'll remember that," she nodded, humbled. "But... "

"Yes?"

"Is it possible to make implants that wouldn't be refused by the Force?" she inquired as a new idea began to take form in her mind.

"Only in theory," Vader answered simply. "In practice, it is not yet possible. For one thing, we don't have the necessary technology at our disposal."

"And I suppose that you have considered using a donor's organs..." she nodded again, in reluctant understanding.

"Yes. It wouldn't work," he stated with the same finality as the one he had used before. "If you're interested in this theory though, I'm sure that once aboard Executor, Dr. Forester will be happy to enlighten you."

Cilghal took the hint and rose. "I'm sorry, my Lord. I won't annoy you any further."

She didn't receive a reply.


Meanwhile, in the cockpit, Jedi Solusar tried to understand Kyp's actions. He couldn't. "What in Sith got into you?!" he asked the youth in disbelief

"Um..." said Kyp, looking at Kam warily. "Exar Kun did. I thought that I had explained that."

"I know, but that's not what I mean," the older Jedi shook his head in rapidly growing annoyance. "I mean what were you thinking when you accepted to become Vader's apprentice?! A Sith!"

"Hmmm, well, The light of reason?" Kyp offered shyly. However, he was he was not afraid, nor was he anxious to be understood and accepted by the others.

In fact he didn't care in the slightest anymore about what the others thought. He knew that he was right. He knew that he had made the right decision. That alone gave him a feeling of incredible freedom that could not be ruined by mere worries about what the others thought of him.

His god was with him, he could feel it; he finally belonged to something much more than just himself. He would never be alone, and because of that, he felt calm and almost invincible.

Thus, if he had used to crawl under Kam's blazing gaze, he merely smiled serenely at him this time. "I'm not suited to be a Jedi, Kam. You know that, you said so many times yourself."

"But a Sith!" the Jedi argued, obviously at a loss for words.

"Why not?" Kyp challenged him.

"Because they are vile..."

"and dangerous," he completed his statement. "Those were the words of Exar Kun, Kam. However, what do you really know about the Siths?" he defied the older Jedi once again. "All we know are bits of tales that were edited by the old Jedi Order, nothing to base our judgments on."

"You don't know much either!" the other reminded him vehemently.

"I know, but I intend to find out," Kyp answered, smiling confidently. "If I'm wrong and turn into some kind of monster, then you'll have my authorization to kill me. In fact," he continued more somberly, "I ask you to do it before I can wreak too much havoc like the Emperor did."


Jedi Solusar was flabbergasted. He looked at the thin, pale skinned, smiling boy that was standing before him and admitted that he couldn't recognize Kyp Durron anymore. The annoying, self centered, arrogant Kyp Durron was nowhere to be found, having been replaced by a calmer, slightly sarcastic, but total stranger.  He conceded that he liked him much more that way. "Okay," he finally nodded. "You have a deal here."

He extended his hand for a shake; Kyp extended his own hand and they shook on it.

"Thanks."

"You better not be angry at me if I come after you, Kyp," the older Jedi warned him seriously, then sighed as he released his hold on the kid's hand. "How do you know that this Lord of the Sword of yours isn't deceiving you?"

"I don't," Kyp shrugged simply. "However, strange as it may seem, I trust him. I really do."

"I do trust him too," Kirana Ti commented thoughtfully from a passenger seat. "After all, he is a Noghri."

"What?!" Kam gasped in shocked surprise.

"Huh, didn't I tell you?" Kyp frowned slightly.

"You sure as Hell didn't!"

"Oh, well," he shrugged sheepishly, "he is."

"And Lord Vader is ..er.. serving him?" Kam inquired in confusion.

"No," Kyp shook his head in answer. "He isn't. However, he will train me because there's no other Sith left."

"Ah. Okay for the moment, but," he warned the youngster, "when you'll understand all this god-matter better, you will run this past me again, okay?"

"Sure thing, Kam," Kyp grinned wildly. Although he did not care about what the others thought, acceptance and understanding were still sweet on his soul.


Part 3


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