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Power Lust: Lust for Revenge

Part 4


Chapter 16: Recovery

Mara was sitting at the commanding console idly staring at the screen,her blaster in her lap. Piett and Veers were still laying on the floor just behind her seat - unconscious and restrained with bonds.

The screen was filled with Executor's huge form.

"They have landed, Madam!" the nervous ensign informed her.

Vader's soldiers. Landed.

She nodded, silent.

She felt so empty.

Her fingers stroked her blaster. For a fleeing moment she considered to fire at her head. But really, what would that improve? She surrendered to her sworn enemy- she didn't have any honor to save anymore.

And she wanted to see Luke again.

'I should have woken him,' she thought as she remembered the tumultuous events of the past hour.

When her troops - those who were loyal to her and not to Piett - had woken her, she had decided to not rouse Luke too, mainly because she had felt that her troops did not trust the Jedi. Considering that those troopers had been her only hope to take over the ship, and that the Jedi was sure to not approve some means she had in mind, thus cause a scene in front of those unexpected allies, she had promised herself to awaken Luke only once the battle would be over.

Then, by the time that her new team had reached the bridge, the ship had not only been in battle over Bespin, but Piett's men had been losing the fight.

Somehow, she hadn't been surprised at all to see Executor in this location.

All of a sudden though, it had been as if all her illusions had collapsed upon registering that sight; Vader had outplayed her.

It had been all too predictable...

The only thing that befuddled her was how long she had been able to delude herself with the belief that she could win against such a cunning adversary...

Then, she had heard his enemy's voice, had heard him threaten Piett that he would not be making any prisoners unless they surrendered, in which case the orderly would not be tried. At that moment, 'she' had known what her next action was supposed to be.

Now that she had been given a chance to get her men out of the High Treason accusations, it had been her duty to respect the other's terms, no matter her feelings about it. It had been 'her' obsession that had gotten her men in this situation.

Belatedly, she had also understood that she had definitely begun to think like a Jedi would, but by that time, she had already acted on her first thought.

Luke's ways had sure rubbed off on her, she sighed as she refocused on her current whereabouts. In the old days, she would have unwaveringly ordered Avenger to ram Executor and be done with it.

Anything would have been acceptable in order to get to Vader. Anything 'at all'.

Today though, she had come to her senses and had accepted that not only she couldn't save the situation, but that she didn't want to do so anymore. She didn't have any more reasons to fight.

It was over, she sighed in defeat.

She had lost her battle, had lost her war.

In a few minutes at most, she would be in the hands of her enemy, who would undoubtedly torment her before killing her.

In a few minutes, Luke would be in the hands of his controlling father once again... a father who would hurt him yet again when he would kill 'her'.

She touched her blaster once again.

It was such a clean way to die, she reflected glumly, much better than what Vader doubtlessly had in store for her... and it would be her doing. Luke would understand her decision, she tried to reason with herself. He too would prefer that fate for her than what was to come... and yet... Damn this Jedi! she almost whimpered in worry.

She couldn't do this to him. She couldn't leave this life without telling him goodbye, nor could she bear the idea of leaving him alone once she would be gone.

As she made up her mind to not act on her suicidal idea, she fervently prayed the Force that Vader would allow her to at least see Luke before her execution. She didn't dare hope for any other turn of events though... She was adamant that such mercy was beyond her enemy's comprehension.

"Madam, they're here!" squeaked the ensign.

The door had opened with a hiss. Sounds of heavy steps filled the room.

She didn't turn.

"Hands up and slowly turn around!" ordered a cold male voice.

She did put her hands up and slowly turned her chair.

The man's eyes instantly widened when he saw the blaster on her knees, then narrowed - and that was the last thing Mara Jade saw before the stun bolt from his blaster slammed into her.

Han's reaction was instinctive. The enemy was armed - so he shot her before she could do anything.

The red-head harpy crumpled, much to his satisfaction. "Help me to secure her," he requested to his watching troops.

"Yes, sir."

He was walking closer to his hard-caught prey when his comlink hailed him. Slightly chagrined to be interrupted just as he was about to be able to cuff the terrorist himself, Solo reluctantly allowed his troops to continue without him while he and answered whom he suspected was his father-in-law. "Solo here."

To his surprise, a Wookie's grunt answered him. *We've found the cub," his long-time partner informed him with audible relief in his voice.

Whatever resent Han had been feeling up to that moment dissipated into relief as he registered his companion's words. "Is he all right?" he inquired in instant worry. Please, he prayed the gods, let everything be all right. 'Please, let him be alive and unharmed. I might kill him later myself, but please, let him be alive!..' he continued fervently.

*It... seems so," Chewbacca confirmed with just a trifle hesitation in his answer.

Han first bypassed that anomaly as he grinned in relief. Then, once his first moments of elation were over, he frowned at the strange choice of words and hesitation of his friend. He was about to ask for an explanation when a soldier, who was preparing Mara Jade for transportation, suddenly stood up and wailed: "Medics! She's going into shock!"

Han's attention was immediately riveted on the still unconscious woman. "Chewie, I have an emergency here. Bring Luke to a secure medical cell on Executor, okay?" He then cut the connection and hurried to the newly-arrived medic's side.

"What's going on?"

The medic gaze up at him. "She's going into shock, sir. Her heart pulse is steadily climbing, and if it continues to deteriorate, she'll be bathing in her sweat and heading toward coma."

"Damn," thought Han. He imagined the non-expression of his father-in-law’s breath mask were he to announce to him that Mara Jade was dead due to an allergic reaction to a stun ray. "Take her back to the ship, right now," he ordered as he turned toward a nearby ensign. "Have a medical team waiting to stabilize her the moment that we are aboard."

"Yes, Sir," the stormtrooper saluted, then rushed toward the nearby communication console and proceeded to relay his superior's orders.

As the rest of the men hurried to strap the fallen woman on a floating stretcher, then rushed her off the bridge, none of them ever noticed the slight dampness of the crotch of her black trousers, let alone the blood that was steadily staining the fabric.


Meanwhile, unaware of the events that were occurring on Avenger, Vader switched off the comm, grimaced and closed his eyes. Were his face accessible, he would have rubbed it with his palms. His conversation with Ackbar had tired him a lot more than the ridiculously short battle with Avenger had.

If one could call this web of words a conversation, he sighed.

By bringing Executor by a main republican planet without any authorization, Vader had violated the treaty, and Ackbar had used this advantage to its maximum.

Evidently, no party wanted a conflict, and Executor's intervention had indeed saved the Cloud City - so the main question was what Vader would give to the Republic so they would announce that this intervention was in reality a well coordinated plan.

It didn't cost a lot, though, Ackbar wasn't a fool to press his counterpart too much, - only the price for Balti reconstruction and reparations to the victims families. But Vader did manage to keep the traitors under his custody and Luke was 'graciously' forgotten for the moment.

Luke's case would reappear, of course, but Ackbar had given Vader a great space for maneuver.

However, all this barter had left the Sith with a slight headache. Treating with crime lords was a lot easier for if you wanted to buy somebody's cooperation you just told so, set your price and negotiated - in the open.

What had happened had been basically the same procedure. After all, he 'had' bought Ackbar's cooperation. However, it had taken him twice more time and a thousandth more words, mostly because the deal had to not look as one.

It shouldn't be question of money, or of a banned word in high politics, it should be a question of ideals, mutual help and fraternity between two states.

Vader sighed.

The only satisfaction was to know that Ackbar liked these word laces as much as he himself, and appeared to truly suffer during the barter.

Solo had just returned with Luke and Jade- the mention was mutely showing at his comm console. It had arrived during the conversation, and this alone had calmed him a lot.

Luke was here, Jade was finally apprehended; maybe it had really ended...

A red alert suddenly appeared on the screen. A priority one call from... the medical bay?

Vader opened the channel immediately, his feelings in turmoil.

Surely he would have felt it if anything had happened to Luke? He tried to calm himself while the screen light up.

Forester's face appeared. Vader instantly noticed the raging desperation in the other man's eyes. "My Lord, we need you here. Now."

"Something happened to Luke?"

"Not... directly."

"What?"

"Hurry," said Forester, then the screen went black.

Vader stood and ran to the hospital.


The first thing that Vader noticed when he stormed through the medbay's doors was a pacing Chewbacca who appeared to be quite in turmoil, although it was difficult to say with Wookiees.

"What happened to Luke?!" he inquired as coolly as he could manage while worry was clenching his heart.

The Wookiee started to reply, but Forester interrupted him as he entered, fear and desperation rolling out of him in waves.

"Luke is fine," the man replied succinctly. "We have other concerns."

He wasn't lying; Vader's own fear receded. "What concerns?" he asked, recovering some of his coldness.

"It's Jade. Please, follow me, my Lord."

'Jade?' the Dark Lord frowned behind his mask. "What's with her?" he demanded, not moving.

"My Lord, please, time is crucial here."

"Then the quicker you explain, the better," he retorted coldly.

Forester sighed in obvious exasperation at Vader's ever-rational stubbornness, then seemed to take a few seconds to gather his thoughts more rationally too. "Her body is reacting badly to the stun blast that hit her," he finally said.

"Unusual," commented Vader calmly. "But it was not lethal, as I gather from your general emotions."

Forester looked at him, breathed then licked his lips in a highly rare display of nervousness. He slowly began: "She... is pregnant, My Lord. The blast has triggered a miscarriage and she is at risk of losing the child."

It took two respiratory cycles to Vader to absorb the information.

"It's Luke's," continued Forester as the room was filled only by Vader's respirator and Chewbacca's fidgeting. "My Lord, Cilghal and I have done everything that we could think of. We are quite sure about saving Jade's life, but the child is a goner unless you can somehow save him with your powers."

Vader slowly shook his head to clear the mist of confusion out of it. Jade and his son hadn't been careful during their now-known intimate interactions... Considering the current circumstances though, Jade most probably didn't know of her situation or she would have used it... Her hormonal misbalance had caused such an extreme reaction to stun; he vaguely remembered reading something about it concerning the possible effects of stun blasts...

His grandchild was going to die?

"... My Lord," Forester hesitantly interrupted flow of his thoughts, "if you don't know of anything to save him, I need your consent on abortion, as the child closest available next of kin. This way, Jade's life will not be endangered further..."

To hell with Jade!, Vader almost spat out loud, yet refrained himself. He needed to think fast and clearly right now; his anger would not help him. "Show me, " he finally ordered, already in movement.

"Here," said Forester and lead the way back into the examination room.

Jade lay on the operation table in front of him, hooked to the too familiar life-support equipment, only one lock of her red hair visible between the green sheets. Cilghal was in meditation by the table; she was keeping alight the tiny Force-presence...

Vader, fascinated despite his will, stepped closer, his gloved hand reached to the covered form and stilled just above it.

The small light flared.

A girl, he identified. She wasn't older than a month, yet already reacted to his presence.

He smiled and probed further.

As he slid deeper in meditation, the light became brighter, then turned forest-green. He always saw the Force in vivid colors, and it never stopped to amaze him. Apparently, it was also Luke's trait... He then discovered, with some fatherly pride, that the child was also already taking after his father's heart and gentle soul.

He could see a blue link of Force, fed by Cilghal. He could also see the cream-white bond that the baby already shared with her father's dimmed presence nearby.

Luke was... asleep? He suddenly frowned as he became aware that he had no idea of what had happened to Luke since his recovery at Chewbacca's hands. Concerned anew for his son, he carefully split his concentration and searched for the other bright light nearby.

He found him almost instantly, laying unconscious in a room next door. No, he then amended as he scanned his son's mind further. He was not unconscious, he was as if... stopped, he frowned - - then understood.

Luke was in stasis.

But in good health, apparently. His son's presence was calm and strong, not showing any sign of emotional or physical stress that would result from some kind of injury.

Satisfied with this first scan, he carefully pulled away from his boy's unaware mind--- then scowled in disgust when he noticed the strong link that bonded Luke to Jade. As he quickly studied it, he realized that it was a link that only he could see, and that no one could touch or probe. It was a bond of something completely inaccessible but to the two Jedi.

Love.

True marriage of the souls.

The bond was unbreakable by the third party, that he knew all too well. Only one of them could do it.

And it would be Luke, he decided as he withdrew from this distraction and refocused his attention on his newest future grandchild. Still, once he would awake Luke, he promised himself to have a good talk with him and not let him off the hook until the youth too *would* see the necessity of this. It was, after all, the only sensible way to resolve this situation, or Jade's execution would leave Luke crippled and emotionally wounded...

'Who am I trying to lie to?' came the suddenly harsh thought, and all the other dissolved immediately. 'I can break him, yes, to see and live as I want him to. But the question is, do I really want him broken?'

Put like this, the answer was evident.

*My Lord...*

That was a tentative call from the young healer. She was clearly exhausted. Vader angrily called himself an irresponsible fool, and returned his focus to the small green light.

There was only one way to save the girl, and Vader was surprised to discover that he wasn't at all reluctant to use it. *Retreat* he ordered the healer, reached forward--- and swiftly created a life-bond with the unborn child. Now, his life would sustain hers until her body would be able to do so itself.

The only problem was that the process was bi-directional, and as his life was tied with the girl's, so his death would be hers... and vice-versa.

He made a note to himself to order to equip Jade with Force-blocking devices and to keep her restrained so as to prevent suicidal actions of any type.

He would also have to devise a way to interrogate her safely, he then reminded himself as he realized that whatever pain he would now bestow on the woman, both he and the baby girl would also feel it.

Finally, he decided as he completely withdrew from Jade's presence, he would not awaken Luke yet.

Yes, Luke was less of a problem if he were left in statis for the time being, he thought, regaining his full senses.

He didn't trust himself with his son. Not anymore.

Without a word, he nodded briefly to the nearby medics, then turned heels and left the examination room.

He had special preparations to take care of.


Chapter 17: Luke's Return

At first, Luke was barely aware that he was alive, or even himself. The only thing that he knew was that it was dark and that he was content by that situation, not questioning it. Then, a cool wave of energy swept away the darkness and he became aware that he was laying on a bunk, probably asleep or unconscious.

Asleep?, he frowned, then tried to remember how he had ended up in that situation. At first, he could not remember anything. He could not remember being hurt, and he could not remember fighting, or even merely falling asleep. Still tired, he decided to let time go by him.

After a while, more sensations entered his consciousness; his body felt strangely heavy, as if he had been sleeping for days instead of hours. He also felt strangely nauseous, and he had one of those headaches... His tongue felt strange in his mouth, his throat was relatively dry; he swallowed to make it more pleasant to feel.

Then his ears tuned in once again.

And he heard 'it'.

The sound of his nightmares; the sound of the man who had been badly injured and forced to live in a survival suit forever...

The sound of his father's breathing.

Comforted yet worried by his presence, he dimly became aware that the other's leather-covered hand was the weight that pressed gently against his forehead. But why was he nearby?, he wondered next. Last thing he finally remembered was that he himself was supposed to train new Jedi Knights and he hadn't seen his father for— Wait, he stopped himself. He had seen his father on Yavin 4. Vader had come to visit him, then he had left in search of a Jedi... and had---

Suddenly piercing through the fog that had still been clouding his conscious mind, his memories of the past months came back to him, taking him back to the moment of when he had fallen asleep with Mara in his arms...

"Mara!!" he suddenly croaked even as he pulled away from his father's hand. He didn't go very far and quickly replaced his father's hand by his own when a vicious headache assaulted him. "Owwww," he groaned. "What happened? Where are we?"

"In the medbay, Son. Take it slowly," the Dark Lord replied, his voice gentle, " you've been in statis for quite a while. That's why you're feeling so strange."

Rubbing his forehead once again, Luke sighed and lied back. His father's gentleness puzzled him. As far as he could remember, they hadn't parted on quite friendly terms.

"What happened?" he repeated, turning his head a bit and looking at the black form in the chair nearby. "How did I end up here?"

"You and Jade were gassed by Piett and put in stasis..."

"Is she all right? What have you done to her?"

"...After that, Piett attacked Bespin," Vader continued without missing a beat, "but Jade overcame him and surrendered before any damage could be done to the city. She is in adequate health. I didn't harm her."

Fighting past his dwindling headache upon hearing those news, Luke frowned in confusion. Mara had surrendered to his father? And he himself hadn't been at her side when she had done so? Why hadn't she woken him? He slowly propped himself on his elbows, then pulled himself upward until he was more or less sitting on the bed. "I want to see her," he finally said, slightly winded by his recent 'exercise'.

Something wasn't right about all this, he thought in growing confusion. Something... was missing, and it didn't have to do with his separation from Mara.

"Not yet," the Sith replied calmly.

The young Jedi suddenly glared defiantly at the angular black mask. "Why not? You've got more than enough gua---"

The black gloved hand lifted in a silent warning: obey or else. "You will see her later, but first, you and I need to talk."

Luke sneered. "So that you can mess with my mind anew?" he challenged the Dark Lord. "I don't think so."

"And this is exactly why we should talk, young one," Vader replied, his tone leaving no place for arguments. "Your perception of reality is distorted."

"Distorted?" Luke went ballistic. Of all the things that his father could qualify his relationship with Mara... "Distorted?! What do you know about distortion?" he challenged him vehemently. "What do you know about true emotions versus delusions? I love her," he finally stated adamantly. "Can you understand that??" Luke shook his head and sighed. "Of course not... You can't possibly understand how I can fall for Mara Jade of all people and disobey my father, can you?"

"No," Vader replied calmly yet again. "What I don't understand is why you have meshed your soul with that woman's."

For a long moment, Luke gazed at his father, but the black figure seemed absolutely serene. The young Jedi dropped his gaze and sighed heavily. "I don't know," he finally admitted. Behind his temples, his headache was still pounding, having deceived him with the illusion that it was going away. Tired, he ran his hands through his hair. Darn, he felt so... odd, but what drug could cause this, he wondered anew. "I really don't know why I fell in love with her. The only thing that I know for sure is that it's true. I love her."

"More than anything in the world," commented Vader.

"Yes," Luke nodded firmly. Maybe, just maybe, his father could really understand...

"More than your loyalty for me," the Dark Lord finished and Luke's fragile hope withered.

"Father," he sighed dejectedly, "my loyalty to you was never in question as far as I'm concerned. I merely had to save Mara's life. I had no choice; I simply wouldn't let her die."

"I wasn't talking about you saving her from Solo's shot, Luke," the Sith Lord shook his head in negation. "There was a way to save *and* disable her, but I admit that it was difficult to think clearly in the situation, considering your feelings for her."

Luke frowned. "Then what are you talking about?"

"While you were willingly with her, you held information that could have made her capture easy, yet you blocked yourself from me," Vader accused him, pointing his leather-covered finger at him.

Luke felt his temper blister. "I could not betray her trust either!"

"So you indeed value her trust more than your loyalty."

"I do not," Luke defended himself, his anger simmering in his heart. "Besides, you're not one to speak of loyalties," he sneered.

The Dark Lord seemed to frown in confusion.

Luke's temper flared further at that. "You abandoned me!"

"Abandoned you?" the black mask tilted in a rare show of surprise. "Explain yourself."

"You abandoned me to my fate; you did not even come after me," Luke accused him mercilessly. "Instead, you sent Han, and he found me, but---"

"I did not abandon you," came the unemotional answer even as the Dark Lord's silhouette seemed to minutely relax in its chair.

"Oh yeah? Well, you sure took your time then," Luke spat vehemently. "You also took your time to awaken me this time around too, didn't you, 'Dad'?"

"Luke..." began Vader.

Luke did not want to hear any of his father's lame excuse at the moment; he was too angry at him. "You used to find me even though I did not want to be found," he reminded him viciously, "and you even kept an eye on me from a distance through noghris and other spies when Mothma was around, yet now?" he defied him, "You want me to believe that you could not do better than how many days?---"

"Luke, think with your head," his father interrupted him again. "I wanted to go more than anything, but Yavin is just too far from Hoth. To make Solo wait for me or to take me in his way there was to lose too much time we didn't have - Jade had given us only two days to obey her ultimatum."

Luke took a moment to consider this new element in his overall grief against his father; the explanation was reasonable. It was too cold for his tastes though, but he couldn't find a reply to it - he decided to drop 'that' argument. "All right," he said more kindly, then hardened again, "but it doesn't cover the other times, Father."

"The other times?" the Dark Lord seemed to frown at him.

Galvanized by the other's reaction, Luke pounced onward once again. "Just tell me why you had planned to use a pain-enhancing drug on me if you ever recaptured me even though you 'knew' that you were my father," he asked him pointedly, "why did you cut off my hand on Bespin," he continued, reliving yet again those atrocities of the past, "and even why you didn't awaken me upon finding me aboard Avenger," he concluded, adding his newest grief to his list.

The Dark Lord remained silent.

Luke thought that it was a good sign; the other was considering his words. He pressed forward. "Those were not the actions of a father," he rebuked him, locking his defiant, wounded gaze on Vader's hidden one. "And now, how can I know that I can trust you?" he asked, his voice suddenly breaking up when he realized just what he was asking to his father, yet he knew that he did not have any other choice but to ask him. "How do I know that you're not using me in some strange, unknown way and that now that you have Leia and Han, and even the Rebellion, that I'm expan-"

Vader suddenly stood up. The black form seemed to fill the small room, even as Luke's voice died out on him, as if strangled in his throat; swallowing in fright, he suddenly remembered to whom he had been speaking.

For a second or two, Vader concentrated solely on calming down and recovering his cooler attitude.

The boy's questions had hit him right where it hurt, but not in the way that Luke thought he had; it was definitely time to set things straight between them, once and for all.

"Enough," he finally said, careful to not make neither a physical nor mental move toward the boy. He did 'not' want to hurt him again. "I can take much from you, Luke, but now you've overstepped the limits. It is also hardly proper for a son to insult his father."

"I'm not!..."

"You're baselessly accusing me of preparing a treachery against my family yet you do not consider that an insult?"

"I didn't mean it like..."

"I doubt it. Present your apologies."

Luke looked down as if he were but a mere misbehaved child who had just been caught red-handed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that... without proofs," he completed in a whisper,

Vader decided to let this subtlety go. "Now," he stated warningly, "stop listening to your self-pity for a moment." He sat down again. "About the pain-enhancing drug," he began down the list that his son had 'enumerated' to him moments ago, "I have no doubt that it was Jade who told you about that. Did you ask yourself how she knew about it?"

"She heard you saying that, I presume," Luke grumbled lowly.

"Of course," Vader agreed with him. "And do you happen to take into account the position that she filled at the time?"

"She was the Emperor's Hand, but what does it have to do with anything?"

"Everything, Luke. Whatever I said back then was immediately reported to Palpatine. Thus, if I had ever shown any feeling for you, or even any reticence to hurt you I would have signed both of our death warrants."

Luke was gaping at him now. "So... You never intended to use it?"

"Intended, no."

"But you would have done it..."

"If it had been the only way to save your life, yes, I would have." He brought his large hand under his son's pouting chin and gently invited him to look back up at him. "Luke," he said with more warmth and care in his voice, "it is possible to heal out of everything but of death."

"So you just discard my pain as something unimportant?!" the youth asked, incensed yet again.

"I don't," Vader sighed while forcing himself to 'not' rebuke his son too harshly for his stubbornness. Luke was just too emotional at the moment to be rational. "You asked me to explain my actions," he reminded him more diplomatically than he had first meant to reply. "That's what I just did. As for Bespin, we've talked about it so often in the last year that I suppose that you know my reasons as well as I do myself. There were no betrayal from my part. I did hurt you, but I didn't betray you. And you know it," he stated, adamant. "Finally, I think that you're only trying to justify your decision to follow Jade, and for that you need to find betrayal in 'my' actions. That's why you're bringing up the old issues we already discussed, not because they still hurt you."

"Father," Luke sneered in reply, "as far as I know, you don't have a degree in psychology, so keep your wild speculations to yourself."

'If it keeps going the way it does, I'll get that degree even despite myself,' thought Vader, feeling a desire to rub his temples to ease the weariness that was settling behind them. "Very well," he said aloud. "Then tell me 'why' you keep bringing up the past, Son. The past is the past; we have both dealt with it yet you keep reopening that door again and again when you always seem to have closed it for good."

To his satisfaction, his son remained silent, lowering his eyes to ponder his words more cautiously.

"I don't want you to reopen this discussion ever again," Vader continued warningly, "You know everything that there is to know about the past, about my motivations as well as about how I react nowadays. Deal with it and move on."

Luke raised uncertain eyes toward his father's cool presence. He wanted to be able to close the doors of the past, he really wanted to, and in a way, he even had since he could see his father as 'more' than just the being who had hurt him. However, his memories of his different torments were not 'that' easy to dismiss either.

"I understand, Father," he began quietly. "I will not mention the past challenges ever again, but," he added when he felt that the other wanted to comment his decision, "you must also understand something about me. I cannot predict when my sensory memories of those events will overcome me again. Throughout the past two years, you've seen for yourself that they rarely do, and I don't live by them, but sometimes, I know that they will come back, like at the moment. I just can't help it. I will be careful to deal with them on my own, it's 'my' past, but you can't ask me to consider them over and done with. Part of those will never be over for me, I think, but I will not let them affect our relationship," he reassured his father, who was obviously less pleased by his latest statement.

"Very well," the other finally sighed in acceptance, "I will respect your choice. You must deal with it at your own speed." A pause. "Have you ever considered therapy, Son?"

"What?!" Of all the insults that his father could throw at him---

"Some of my medics are very skilled with post-trauma treatments."

"But it's..."

"Private? It's illness, Son, so it must be treated as one, and not protected and nourished the way you do."

Luke just gaped at him. "I'm not crazy!"

"I didn't say you were. It's just an illness, it hurts you, and it can be healed. What's the problem with this possible cure?"

"Problem?! But you're... I'm... It's just---- All right," he finally relented under his father's unwavering masked gaze. "But have *you* ever submitted yourself to this 'treatment'?"

"Yes."

"Huh?" Luke gaped anew at his ever surprising father. Him?? In a therapy?? "Whatever for?"

"Whatever..." Vader shook his head, then just pointed at himself. "Just look at me, and say that you honestly don't understand why I relied on therapy for a while."

Luke blinked, stared at him. "But you don't seem to have any problem with your condition at all!"

"I don't. That's whole point."

Luke just shook his head. "Look, I'll think about it, but it's just so weird..."

"That's all I'm asking you, Luke. To think about it," said Vader. "It's your own decision. It's you life and your mind. In fact," he added more thoughtfully, "you really need to know how to firmly make your own choices."

"Huh?" Luke frowned, confused once again by this new turn in their conversation.

He had forgotten how straight to point and direct, without any preparations before hand, his father could be.

"You are too influenced by what other people tell you, be it me or Jade," Vader explained in mild scolding. "You accept everything without thinking. I say I care about you, you believe me. Jade say I hate you and betrayed you, and you believe her. Honestly, Luke, you're a grown man and a Jedi, you need to fly on your own and to trust yourself. You'll be a full Jedi Master one day, you'll have a responsibility of leading other people. You need to be sure of your own path. Jade may be your love, I am your father but neither of us is your guide, your teacher or your role-model."

The last example stung Luke hard.

Role-model.

His father had pegged him right on the nail this time. He 'had' been looking at him in search of a model to follow. In a way, he had even sometimes felt as if he had found it, although he had been careful to not follow in all his footsteps either. Still, he had refrained from making many decisions by leaning on the knowledge that his father's decision was the right one, the 'wise' one...

"You need to grow up, Luke," his father summarized his thoughts for him.

The young Jedi could only nod in agreement; he 'had' been keeping himself from taking his complete independence with his lack of self-confidence in regards to the Jedi order and his own, personal life.

"Now," Vader said. "Why did you train Jade in the Force?"

'And here we go again,' Luke thought glumly. He smiled at little; perhaps he was slowly going crazy, but he really did miss his father's way of conversing with him.

"It was what I had to do," he admitted, then looked up as he had realized something of great importance. "It's what saved her."

"Meaning?"

"She has changed," Luke explained, his earnestness pushing down his glum of the previous moments. "She still hates you, but she is learning to not hate anymore. When her troops talked about attacking Bespin, she held them back because she could not be responsible for anymore pain."

Even though it obviously pained Vader to nod in agreement, he still did.

"Yes, that's what she revealed too," he conceded.

"Then you know that she's had a change of heart," Luke began earnestly.

"For what it's worth," Vader commented derogatorily.

"It's worth a forgiveness!" Luke objected instantly.

"Luke..." began Vader but a comm-signal interrupted him. "My Lord,"

Forester's well-remembered voice said from the tiny microphone of the device. "Jade's labor has begun. We are transferring her to the detention block's medbay even as we speak."

Luke didn't hear his father's reply to that information, didn't even notice when the other stood up and moved to help him to his feet.

Mara was in labor? In labor as in about to give birth? But Jema was only a few weeks old! How could... unless...

As a creepy sensation ran down his back, he locked his gaze with his father's expressionless mask. "How long have I been asleep?" he inquired uncertainly.

"So you knew that she was pregnant," Vader commented even as he helped him to his feet. "You've been in statis for almost eight months, Son, and today is the day my caring comes to an end for your baby girl, while you become a father. Now hurry."

"Eight months! But why..." and suddenly he understood. "She was judged, wasn't she? That's why you kept me in statis? She was condemned?!"

"Not yet," Vader replied, calmly leading him to the door. "The last hearings are scheduled for next week. But she most surely will be."

"I will not let it happen," Luke defied his father.

"You can't stop the trial," the Sith replied calmly. "It's too late."

Luke would hear none of this. "You made sure of it too! But I will stop it," he repeated. "She can do more by living than dying!"

"Luke," Vader warned him. "Be reasonable for once. If you are not, I will have to take drastic measures once again, and I'd hate that considering----"

"More drastic than keeping me in statis for eight months?!?" Jedi asked, almost enraged. He locked his burning glare on his father's expressionless mask. "If you, or anybody else kill her, even through a trial," the youth warned him meaningfully, "then you'll kill me no matter if I live or not. I love her," he continued, desperate now. "She is my soul mate; we have been bonded 'by' the Force itself, no matter what you think about this. Just have her left her in my care, Father. As a Jedi, she will be able to atone hundred of times for what she's done in the name of hatred."

"I cannot manipulate the trial in your favor, Son," the Dark Lord replied seriously. "Every single action must be done within the frame of the laws in this delicate matter; the future of the Empire's treaty with the Republic is at stake here."

"So you'll just sacrifice her for your political games, how typical," Luke snarled in disgust even as he shrugged himself free from his father's loose hold. "Since when do you obey the laws?"

"Since I began to write them. It's final, Luke."

"I won't let you do this, Father, I mean it," the young Jedi went on, determinate. "I will not abandon her to her fate; I will follow her to the other side if I have to---"

"We'll see about that," Vader commented after a beat. His voice was within its threatening ranges now, sending a chill of warning down Luke's back.

For a long moment, Father and Son silently defied each other with their glares. Vader would not win this time, he would 'not' have his way with him.

As if understanding this, his father didn't offer any new argument, then turned toward the door. "Come, now. Our presence there is mandatory."

Luke allowed his father to lead them out of the room where he had awoken, and into a world from which he had been absent for almost eight months.


Chapter 18: Luke, Jade, and Family

"Curse you, Vader----ah!"

As a new contraction hit her, the furious red head screamed her frustration as angrily as she could.

Eight months!!!!

It had been eight months since he had captured her; eight months since they had all discovered that she was pregnant with Luke's child, yet she hadn't seen her lover even once since then.

Not even when her trial had begun.

At that time, she had really expected to at least see him in the witness booth, but it hadn't been meant to be. Later, Solo, her assigned guard, had informed her that Vader kept Luke in statis as well as out of even 'his' reach.

Thus, the trial had proceeded despite the Jedi's missing testimony.

The baby had also grown in spite of both her father's absence and the fact that her mother was held in a comfortable but Force-blocked cell aboard Vader's ship.

And now, the baby girl was ready to come to the world.

'No,' Mara begged her silently while she caught her breath. 'Not without Luke. We can't make it that easy for Vader to separate us. Wait for Daddy, please!' she asked her soon-to-be-born daughter. "Just wait for Daddy to be here."

Vader simply 'had' to release him today; he couldn't possibly deprive him of that very special moment. If he really cared about his son like he claimed to, then he would allow Luke to be present for his daughter's birth.

Then, and only then, with the child in her father's safe embrace, Mara would completely surrender and accept her upcoming sentence to death.

If Vader were to try and steal the baby from her or Luke, though, no amount of security would----

"Ah! No!" she begged anew when a new contraction tormented her. She locked her eyes on the female Calamari healer that assisted Dr. Forester. "Not without Luke, please!"

When the other silently shook her head in answer, Mara turned her head away and sobbed. "Not without Luke..."

If only she had been a better person when she had met him, she would not be in this predicament; she wouldn't be about to give birth alone to their daughter.

She wouldn't be in a less than dignified position with nothing but strangers around her.

No, she pleaded anew, it couldn't happen like this. She herself deserved the pain, but her dear lover didn't, nor did their daughter.

Indeed, these two special beings deserved to be together from the very beginning of the baby's existence in the outside world. Giving this new life to both Luke and the baby would be but a small way to make up for what she had done to too many people, but, as far as she was concerned, it would be the most meaningful way to do so.

Her dear farmboy would have a family of his own, and the product of their love would never find a better father in this life.

"Ah!" she groaned again, and then gritted her teeth against the rest of the wave of pain. No, she couldn't---wouldn't allow the expected events to occur until she said so----"Gah!"


The corridor that led to the medical area of the cell bay was gray and dull. No windows, no decorations, only bright lines on the floor - red, white, blue, and green. They followed the green one, Vader walking slowly to accommodate Luke while the younger man raged over his weakness. He wanted to run to Mara, but was unable to move quicker than footpace. He was still recovering from his eight-month forced sleep.

In the corridor, guards stood at attention as their Emperor and his son walked past them.

Not that Luke either minded or even noticed the special attention. Except for walking beside the black silhouette of his father, his mindcouldn't process anything.

Or so it seemed.

Eight months... eight months..., it repeated over and over again.

He'd lost eight months of his life... almost a whole year...

The rest of Mara's pregnancy... probably her trial, too---- Had she been sentenced already? He worried anew. Had his father said anything about that? He couldn't remember.

The only thing that was clear in his mind was his eight missing months of suspended life.

He suddenly whirled toward the black-clad giant, meaning to accuse him of stealing those months from his life. As his infuriated glare rested on him, though, he realized that he loathed him too much to even address him in any way.

When the other turned his head to gaze at him, Luke swiftly averted his eyes; he focused his attention on their destination.

The green line turned and disappeared under a large door that was flanked by two red robed imperial guards. They didn't react at all when he and his father triggered the door open. They stepped inside the room

"...No, I'm busy. Ergen, which part of 'busy and unavailable' don't you understand? No, you can't. I don't care."

A person in a highly formal black uniform was pacing in the small antechamber, comlink in hand. The voice was Han's, but the clothes and mannerisms weren't.

Luke stopped and stared.

"...I'm out, and don't you dare call me again. Solo out."

Han-who-were-not-Han switched off his comlink, sighing angrily. He then turned, and looked at him. His face relaxed; something of the old Han showed through as he smiled a little.

"Kid..."

Suddenly, Luke was in a crushing bones embrace that had nothing to envy to Chewbacca's.

Uncertain as to which side Han was on, though, his or Vader's, Luke froze somewhat in the other's man embrace. Had his friend been overcome by Vader while he had been alone with him? And if not, then why hadn't he awakened him when Vader hadn't? "Han...," he finally gasped when Solo strengthened his hold around him. "I need to breathe."

Han instantly let go of him, yet left his hands on his shoulders. "Sorry, Kid" he said happily. "I'm just glad---"

Before Luke could interrupt him with the semi question/semi accusation that was burning his lips, the small, well guarded door on their right opened. Dr. Forester, dressed in a green surgeon blouse, came out of it.

Luke's heart jumped at that: his ears had instantly picked up on a familiar voice. Mara! She was in the adjoining room! He could also hear that she was furious and in pain.

"If you can't use the Force either, then get out!---ah! You're useless here! You hear that, Vader?" she vehemently shouted; she was obviously aware of the other's arrival, but not of his...

"Mara!" he called in the direction of the opened door even as he rushed toward it.

"Luke?" she called uncertainly, then more hopefully: "Luke! You're awake!"

He smiled in relief--- then became aware that the troopers had moved to block his entry. Up to this moment, he had only had eyes for his lover in labour. She was in the middle of the room, laying half-reclined on the modified surgeon's table.

"Mara!" he called again, and then tried to push past the troopers. They held him fast; their actions irritated him so much that he did something he had never thought he would someday do.

He focused his dark anger on the men and reached out to strangle them.

He thus discovered that the medbay was kept in an ysalamiri bubble. Irritated further by this discovery, he looked in his back and snarled hatefully at the man responsible for his lover's unpleasant situation. "Let me through."

"You can't go in there, young man," said Forester. "The chamber is sterilised."

Luke locked his defiant glare on his father's hidden one. "I said: let me through."

For a long moment, they locked gazes, gauging each other's reaction. Vader finally nodded in silent authorization.

Forester balked in worry. "Milord, it's unreasonable!..."

Luke didn't hear further as he rushed to Mara's side.

"Luke," she sobbed and collapsed against her pillows. She was bathed with sweat, her red hair abnormally cropped and plastered to her head. "Thank the Force, you're here. I don't think I would have been to hold her back for much longer."

"I wouldn't have missed it even if someone had wanted otherwise." He fractionally turned around and bestowed a furious glare at his nearing father; he then focused his attention on his lover. "How are you?"

"Better now that you're here."

For a long moment, the two soulmates held gazes, totally oblivious to their situation. Their eyes spoke of the love that their heart held for one another, rendering pointless any vocal communication between them. Then, unable to resist the temptation any longer, they kissed like only long-separated lovers could.

Luke felt tears of relief fill his eyes; he let them come. She was alive and well. He still had a chance to save her life.

"Aaaah..." she suddenly groaned, interrupting their moment of intimacy.

Reflexively, he reached out with the Force to relieve her, but found himself blocked once again. He glared anew at the nearby black-clad silhouette. "Remove the lizards," he ordered calmly yet defiantly. He then locked his gaze on Han's eyes, silently asking him to obey 'his' command for once. His friend was still in the anteroom.

"Then get out, all of you!" Mara spat from his side. "It's not as if I can go anyw----Aaah!"

Luke turned back toward her, holding her hand in support. "It'll be all right, my love," he tried to soothe her. "Soon, it will be over. Just hang on, okay?"

Mara weakly nodded as he kissed her sweaty temple in comfort.

The young Jedi then turned back toward their unwanted audience. "Han, the lizards," he clipped commandingly. "And you," he glared angrily at his father, "get out, too."

"Master Luke, it's too dangerous," Cilghal intervened. "Lord Vader share..."

"Be silent!" Vader clipped, but too late.

"... a life-bond with your daughter..." she trailed off.

That piece of information thoroughly stumped Luke. Huh?.. His father had what?.. Then, his anger sprang forth once again. How dared his father bond himself to his daughter without both his and Mara's consent?! "So that's what the lizards are about," he fumed further.

"As if I could ever hurt the flesh of Luke's flesh," Mara scoffed at the Sith Lord, disgusted. "Who do you think I am anymore? You?"

"Get out!" Luke bit out, equally disgusted by his father's actions. "Leave us, all of you, except Forester."

"Master Luke..."

"Kid, look..."

"Son..."

"All of you shut up!!" interrupted an angry Forester. "It's 'my' medbay, and you 'all' will do as 'I' say. Lord Vader, you're assisting me, so off to the sterilizer with you. And hurry, we have no time! Cilghal, prepare the patient. Lord Solo, remove the lizards 'and' bring this royal highness with you." He pointed at Luke as he said so.

Luke reflexively glared as he registered how the other had just referred to him. His royal highness?.. What in 'heck' had happened while his father had kept him under his complete control? "I'm not---" Luke began, but Forester interrupted him, shoving his face close to his, his angry eyes drilling into his. Luke reflexively backed away from the smaller medic.

"Your irresponsible behaviour endangers your lover and your daughter," he vehemently rebuked him. "Or haven't you noticed that we're dealing with complications, here? You delay the caesarean. Out!" he shouted again as he physically pulled him away from Mara's side and got him started toward the door.

Luke was too befuddled by the medic's unusual behaviour to resist him.


A moment later Luke effectively found himself in the small antechamber, the sound-proofed doors closed behind him.

Nearby, Han gave the ysalamiri's cage to a trooper and ordered him out. He then turned to Luke.

"Forester is quite impressive when he wants to, huh? Would have been a great warlord, I say."

"I have to be at her side," the Jedi whispered; his anger was gone from him for now. "I 'want' to be with her for this."

"Forester won't let you, Kid. Believe me, I tried already."

Luke turned his morose gaze back toward the now sealed doors; on the other side of the physical barrier, he could feel Mara's pains as she went through the process of trying to deliver their daughter, and being unable to. He dimly wondered if his father was also behind that unfortunate turn of events, or if it were simply an incident of nature.

"Now come."

Luke blinked at his friend. "Where?" No way that he was going away from this room, he thought decisively. He might not be beside his wife, but he would sure as hell stay as close to her as he could throughout the ongoing procedures...

Han shook his head at him. "In the observation room, of course. You can't be with her, but you will be able to see her. And feel in your case, I guess."

Luke sighed in relaxation and sadness. "I already feel her, but it's not enough... She's alone with her sworn enemy..."

Han stepped closer to him, a look of rebuttal on his face. "Kid."

The younger man ignored him as he gazed longer at the closed door. He couldn't see through it, no matter how hard he tried. He finally sighed in resignation. "All right, let's go."

The observation room was just above the operation room, allowing them a detailed view on the people working furiously around the green covered table.

Upon arriving in the many-sitters room, Luke had walked up to the observation window to gaze down at the ongoing operations; he hadn't moved since then.

Nor had he spoken.

"Forester is really good, Kid," Han tried to draw him out of his apparent torpor. "Don't worry, they will 'both' be all right. The little one is in good hands, too."

"Jemma," the forlorn Jedi replied calmly.

"Huh?" Han frowned, wondering what his friend was talking about.

Luke still didn't take his eyes off from the operation table where Mara Jade was knocked half-conscious by the pain killers. "Our daughter's name is Jemma, after her mother."

Han smiled as he discovered his niece's name. "Jemma, huh?" he grinned further upon saying the name for the first time. "It's a beautiful name, for an undoubtedly beautiful little girl. I bet she will take after her father's recklessness," he tried to tease him out of his solemn mood.

Luke didn't smile. "Hopefully, she will take more after her mother's wisdom."

Jade again, Han grimaced. Although he had spent a lot of time with the woman throughout the past months, and although he had witnessed first hand how she seemed to have had a true change of heart, he couldn't find within him the heart to like her. He respected her, as a worthy adversary, and he appreciated her for carrying his niece to terms, but he couldn't quite imagine himself sharing a family hug with the cold-hearted assassin.

No matter if he had seen her talk to her baby like any future mother did, and no matter that he had recently witnessed the strength of Luke's love for her and vice-versa, he couldn't forgive her for kidnapping 'and' hurting his 'little' brother in the first place.

For a moment, at least, he then amended. He remembered all too well that once upon a time, he had also thought that being on friendly terms with Vader could only happen in a fantasy of bad taste. He had been proven wrong since then, so perhaps, the same would be true with Jade.

Perhaps some day he'd even share Luke's thought about her, but he wouldn't force himself to change his perception either. Only time, he decided, would bring about such change in his heart and mind.

"I still root for your side of the family to be stronger than hers, Kid," he finally commented in the silence.

Luke threw an askance glance at him, but remained silent.

Below them Vader finally entered the room and joined Cilghal at the table. Luke grimaced. "Why is he allowed there, and 'I' am not?! He is not Jemma's father; 'I' am."

The link between his father and his unborn daughter was visible and vibrant. He could also feel that it was indeed sustaining the baby's life. 'Putting her at his mercy before she is even born,' he silently gritted his teeth in disgust.

He turned toward his 'friend'. "How could you let him interfere in my child's life the way he did?"

"Me?" Han blinked, pointing at himself in surprise. His features darkened somewhat in resent. "It wasn't as you think, Kid. Jade almost had a miscarriage after we stunned her. The bond was the only way to save Jemma's life, so you should thank him for the risks he's taken for her sake. She could have still died after that, killing him with her death."

"Thank him?" Luke snorted in disbelief. "If he hadn't ordered Mara to be stunned, she wouldn't have had a miscarriage and..."

"You're wrong again, Kid," Han interrupted him, his eyes harder this time."Your father didn't endanger Jemma, I did."

"What?"

"Jade was armed, so I stunned her. As a pregnant woman, she reacted according to the statistics and her womb began to bleed profusely. You know," he then commented as if in afterthought, "perhaps if she had known that she had been pregnant, she would have been more careful and not shown up with a weapon on her lap."

Luke glared hard at him. "Don't try to shift the blame, Han---"

Han returned the man's glare with one of his own. "I'm not. It's my fault, I admit it. And it's also a fact that your father saved Jemma's life afterwards. You can't deny that."

Luke snorted in frustration and turned back toward the observation window. They had begun the incision now; Jemma would soon come into their world.

"Even if you had been there, Kid, you wouldn't have been able to help her. Just accept that you father 'did' save your daughter's life, and that he put his life on the line to do so."

"While stealing eight months of 'my' life?" Luke growled in resent. "Sure, he's a real hero."

Han sighed; things were not going as he thought they would. Somehow, he had envisioned Luke's return as a happy event that they would celebrate while preparing him for his new life as a father.

So far, all they had done was argue against his perceptions of the events of the last eight months, forcing him into a defensive position that supported Vader and his different decisions ever since he had recovered Luke. He had disagreed with most of them, yet now, he sounded quite the opposite.

It was now obvious to him that the Luke who had emerged from the statis unit was not the Luke he had last seen in Jade's base. Vader's actions had changed him almost beyond recognition.

In a way, he was even afraid that his friend was dangerously skating the line of the Dark Side at the moment. He was so angry at his father...

"Anger won't lead you anywhere but to more pain, Kid, remember?" he finally replied, non-committal.

That earned him a new glare from the younger man. "Don't talk to me about anger, Solo. Especially not when you show up like one of my father's lackeys. He might have lured you to his side, but he won't do it to me." He looked harder at him. "He stole eight months of my life, for Force's sake!"

Han locked his gaze with the youth's disgusted one. "If we're comparing grievances, Kid, don't forget that he stole one full 'year' of my life," he replied calmly.

Luke blinked at that. Huh? What was Han talking abo--- belatedly, he remembered that Han had once been frozen in carbonite during the war. At that time, it had taken them a whole year before locating and rescuing him.

"I'm sorry... I forgot," he flushed shamefully, yet the reprieve was short-lived. His resent rose once again within his heart. "But anyway, it wasn't the same for you. You were his enemy, not his son."

Han didn't flinch. "He still stole a year of my life, Kid."

The young Jedi subsided. His friend was right; they had been through similar experiences. "Yet you forgave him?" he asked more calmly.

"Yeah. It wasn't easy, but it helped when I discovered that the carbonite had saved my life."

"Huh?"

"Well, the bounty said 'dead or alive', and bodies are easier to transport. If not for my frozen status, Fett, or Jabba, would have killed me. In the end, the slug was content to keep me as a decoration. Hence, the carbonite, and his Darkness, 'did' save my life."

While a smirk tugged at the corner of his lips upon hearing the other's ungracious address for his father, Luke considered his words. "I guess it helped," he finally conceded, yet argued: "still, he didn't save my life. He---"

"Actually, he did," Han replied.

Luke frowned in confusion.

Han went on. "You're the Emperor's son, and Jade is a traitor, no matter that she changed her mind in the end. The problem is that you went with her on your own will in front of all my troops. Afterwards, you acted as her lover and not quite a prisoner in front of all 'her' troops. Do I need to explain to you just how 'that' sounded in court?"

Luke shook his head, speechless.

"Throughout the first month after your recovery, we've had all the pains in the galaxy to make the rebels forget your case and instead consider you as a victim. An ill-placed word from you," Han shook his head in annoyance, "and you would have been judged, too. Now, though, even your enemies in court consider that you've paid for all the treason you could have committed. You're clear of all charges."

Luke stared at him unbelievingly. Political and military games?.. He had been kept asleep because of--- "And you agree that I was kept out of the way for that reason?" He glared daggers at the man he used to call 'friend'. "When did you become this---?"

"I don't," Han countered with a vigorous shake of his head. "In fact, it was my attempts to wake you up that backfired on you once this first month was over."

"Huh?"

"Despite your father's direct order, I tried to get you out. Foolish of me, of course," Han smirked slightly at him. "After my third attempt, 'everybody' knew that I had defied your father. Imagine the scandal that ensued: Emperor Vader was defied by his third in command. Your father couldn't let it pass, not if he wanted to save his credibility. So, even though he had thought about awakening you once the legal danger was over, he didn't. He 'couldn't' let you go; it would have looked as if he were agreeing to 'my' wishes."

"So I became a political pawn? He's worse than I thought," Luke spat in disdain.

Han shook his head in renewed disagreement. "He did what he did, but woke you up as soon as possible. He cares a lot about you, Kid."

Luke grimaced. "Sure." Some way to care about someone, he mentally grumbled as he considered his father's actions in the lights of what Han had told him. If Vader had really cared about him, he would have told the rebels to not meddle in his family business and wouldn't have played with his life the way he had---

A rough grip suddenly closed around his left arm and whirled him around. He looked up in Han's angry, cold eyes. That unusual sight greatly surprised him. He stood stock still.

"Look, Jedi, you're alive, aren't you?" Han spat in his face. "Jade is alive, your kid is alive. You're clean of all charges and you can speak for your lover in court if you want. True, you've lost eight months of your life, but if you think that you could have spent them with Jade if you had been awakened, you're a great deal more naive than I thought."

Luke was stumped by his friend's sudden change of attitude. All of a sudden, he wasn't a mere ex-smuggler anymore, nor even his brother-in-law. Instead, he had turned into the officer, whose uniform he now wore. Luke looked at him with confusion in his eyes. He didn't know this man at all.

"Quit your martyr attitude," Solo told him angrily, letting go of him. "I'm not impressed."

Luke looked at him silently. Could Han be right about how things would have happened if he had been awake? Did he still have time to save his wife's life?

The young Jedi turned back toward the observation window.

Nothing more was said between them.


As far as Mara Jade was concerned, giving birth to her daughter was her worst experience yet.

First, there had been the pain of labour, and then Vader's obnoxious presence at her side instead of her husband's.

To top it all, she hadn't been able deliver the baby the regular way; the medics had had to use surgery to help her give birth. While doing so, she had been drifting at the edge of consciousness, barely aware that her beloved was watching over her while he, too, resented their situation.

At long last, though, the nightmare was over and the baby girl was here to stay.

Mara had fumed inwardly when the Calamari Jedi had first presented the infant to Vader before showing her to her, but she had been too spent and dazed to act on her thoughts. Her only comfort was that Luke had been watching from above as the others had bathed and clothed the little one.

Her precious, fragile daughter who represented everything that she had never thought she would even want in life. Shrugging off the last effects of the pain-killers that had dazed her during the surgery, Mara Jade tried once again to assess what was going on around her. Cilghal was nowhere to be seen, and Forester and Vader were exchanging comments while the aide was putting away the medical tools.

What now? She wondered drowsily as she struggled against her sluggish body; she wanted to acquire a straighter position than her current slouch. Upon seeing her, the aide came over and offered her to be brought into another room so as to get some rest before they brought the child to her; she adamantly refused.

She ignored her healing, bacta-covered stomach, too, and continued her attempt to regain a sitting position. She had enough of being in a less-than-dignified position.

She was fed-up to feel at the mercy of everyone nearby.

When her pain became more insistent as she kept straining her freshly sealed womb, she took it out on Vader once again, ordering him out of the room now that his bond with the girl was severed.

She then closely watched Cilghal's actions with her child as the other returned from the cleaning area behind her. Meanwhile, Forester, who had understood her situation, gave her some pain killers. It helped her to regain her calmer attitude, for the baby's sake.

A few seconds later, her daughter was finally in her arms. Mara marvelled at the way the cooing infant looked like a baby angel. She was Luke's spitting image with her blond hair and blue eyes, yet streaks of red in her hair also belied her mother's identity. Mara felt tears of happiness creep up in her eyes, but then she remembered who she used to be and her happiness was replaced by sorrow.

Soon, she would die, she reminded herself. Now that the child was born, Vader had no reason whatsoever to delay her trial anymore, and the rebels were more than eager to gain custody of her. Unlike Vader, they would summarily execute her, too.

"I'm sorry," she whispered at the infant, gently caressing her tiny cheek with the tip of her index finger. "I wish that I had been a better person before I met your Daddy. That way, I would be able to be with the two of you."

But she hadn't been. However, she was determined that the past would not hurt either her daughter or her lover anymore. She would not cause them grief with her death; she would not even make them hold a grudge against Vader for his actions.

Instead, she would not form a bond with her daughter, nor would she maintain her relationship with Luke.

It was the best that she could do for them, she thought as tears of regret slid down her cheeks. It was the only way... no matter how horrible she felt at the thought of never kissing Luke again.

Of never seeing her daughter grow into a Jedi and follow in her father's footsteps...

"Goodbye, little one," she whispered as the door of her surgery room slid open. Through the Force, she could feel that her husband had finally been allowed inside with her.

Before he could walk closer to her, she reluctantly picked the child up with the Force and swiftly levitated her toward her father's presence. Luke stopped in his tracks, stumped; he hurried to catch her before she could let go of her. "Mara?" he asked in confusion.

She 'had' to do it, she reminded her already-grieving self. She had to make Luke break up with her.

No matter how she still loved him more than even her own life.

Thus, unable to face him, she forced in her voice all the roughness that she used to muster in his presence. "Get out, Skywalker!" she spat mock-vehemently.


Luke, who had argued long and hard with Dr. Forester before being let in the surgical room, was shocked by his lover's reaction.

When he had come in, he had been confident that everything would finally be all right now that their daughter was born. He had even managed to ignore his father's presence in the anteroom.

Then, Mara had practically thrown Jemma at him, as if she were discarding the new born child from her life. Luke had been thoroughly stunned by her unusual attitude.

Even the Mara of old wouldn't have treated her newborn child this way, he thought subconsciously. Luke meant to take a moment to gaze at his little Jemma--- when his wife's voice reached him; it was hard, cold... uncaring and hateful once again.

"Get out, Skywalker," she spat while turning his back to him as if in disdain. "I don't want to see you anymore." Her short hair was disarrayed from the woman's recent writhing in labour pain.

What?.. he gaped silently, the child in his arms almost forgotten. If not for his reflexive protectiveness of her, he might have dropped her on his way to his wife's location. As it was, he held her tighter against his chest as she began to react to her mother's unusual coldness. "Mara..." he asked in a subdued voice, uncertain if he had heard right. "What's wrong?.." What had Vader done to her this time?

The red-head barely glanced askance at him. "Get out of my sight, Jedi, and take your brat with you! Out!" she spat again in disgust.

This time, he was utterly stumped. Something 'had' been done to her. "Mara," he tried again while he reached out to check on her.

He ran into her mental blocks. "I hate the sight of you, Skywalker, I always did. Now get out before I really lose my patience and hurt the kid."

The wave of coldness that emanated from her was deadly, warning him that she wasn't joking about her threats.

What?.. He stared at her, barely noticing her most unusual appearance as his eyes searched her hard-set profile. She was once again avoiding his eyes. She had never liked him? No, that was a lie. It couldn't be true. It--

"Mara---"

"Watch out!" Forester warned, but too late.

Luke barely ducked in time to avoid the scalpel that she threw at him as she whirled, furious, toward him.

"Get out! Now!" Mara screamed in outrage.

For a long moment, Luke could only stare dumbly at the scalpel that had embedded itself in the flesh-like surface of the nanny droid behind him. She had aimed at his head, he realized in shock. She had meant to---no...Vader had done something to her... yet... Had he ever known her? Truly known her?

In his arms, Jemma cried loudly, frightened by all this noise as well as the emotions that were churning the Force around her sensitive mind.

“Tell your 'sire' that I want the lizards back," the furious red head commented coldly from behind him.

Luke turned back toward her; his eyes widened in disbelief as he noticed that she had knocked out Forester and Cilghal with the mobile table. He also discovered that she had acquired two more scalpels and held one of them in a throwing position.

"I hate your presence," she spat, her right arm poised for action.

Yet she didn't throw her new weapon; she could have, he dimly reasoned. Paralyzed by his growing confusion, he once again took in her unusual sight. Deprived of her usual, glorious mane of long red-gold hair, and with no clothes except for a medical robe, he could only see her for who she was.

She was aggressive, lethal, ill-tempered, apparently cold-hearted... and yet, she was also vulnerable, filled with emotions that were not only negative..., beautiful...

And he loved her still.

The door behind him suddenly slid open as Vader and Solo stepped inside, ysalamiri in tow.

"Drop the knives on the deck, Jade," Han ordered calmly as he aimed his blaster on the still sitting woman. "Now! Luke," he addressed him next, "get out of here. Jemma needs you."

Too shocked and confused to think clearly, Luke nodded in agreement; with a new glare of resent directed at his father, he walked out of the room. It was Vader's fault, he reasoned yet again. It 'had' to be the darksider's fault.

Behind him, Han and the troopers subdued Mara once again. He heard the definite sound of closing binders before the doors sealed closed behind him.

When his tears finally spilled free, he was alone in the anteroom. Against his chest, Jemma also cried her lungs out, wanting to be comforted from what she had just experienced.

Never had her mother felt that way to her before today.


Inside the surgical room, Mara first cuffed to her surgical table, then taken to an isolation room before Han and the others looked after her other victims.

Once alone, she laid on her right side and let go of her tears of regret; she sobbed for all her worth. Even though she had wanted to make Luke turn his back to her, she was now haunted by the face that he had made when he had faced her after her fake attack.

Sorrow, sadness... disbelief... His sight had broken her heart just as much as she had his.

"I'm so sorry, Luke," she whispered, burying her head in her cuffed arms. She had never meant to hurt him ever again... yet had had no other choice at the momen---

Her door opened again. Even despite the Force, it was easy to tell who was checking on her.

"I don't want to see any Skywalker anymore," she growled, hiding her teary face behind her arms. "Past or present. That includes you, too."

"Tell me one thing, and I will be gone," Vader replied, approaching her bed.

She remained silent, unwilling to cooperate with the man who had obviously understood that she had only pretended to want to kill Luke moments ago.

"I know you love him. So why did you pull this act?"

She remained mute.

"You could have killed him if you had really meant to; even 'I' was too far away to stop you, and Luke is far too trusting. Yet, you didn't take this opportunity. I want the truth, now: why did you hurt him this way?"

She pulled away from her arms at this and sat up to glare at him through her tears. "You uncovered my intentions, can't you discover the rest?"

It was Vader's turn to remain silent.

Mara fumed at him. "I'm a doomed woman with a husband and newborn daughter," she stated with animosity. "And I want to live! I want to know her, but I can't! If I know her, if I experience any further the happiness of motherhood, I will never be able to let go, to do what is right. Worse, my husband might willingly get killed if it meant saving my life because he's convinced that I am a Jedi! Well, I'm not. I have accepted the truth, but he hasn't,... and I don't want him to get into trouble because of me." She finished more quietly; throughout her last sentence, her anger had turned into grief and regret as she had spoken. Vader was still listening to her. "I don't want my daughter to remember me in any way either," she admitted in conclusion, casting her eyes down at the deck.

No, she didn't want her daughter to remember her, the woman who had hurt countless innocents, and even her future lover, before she had discovered the value of love.

Before she had 'known' love...

Suddenly remembering that she wasn't alone, she reflexively glared anew at her unwanted visitor. "So, you happy?" she spat in animosity at him. "I'm out of your son's hair," she mercilessly concluded for him, "and you will be able to find a suitable mother for your granddaughter. Now get out!" She fell back on her surgery bed and hid herself back behind her arms.

She wanted to die; she was so sorry to have ever crossed path with anyone, let alone Luke... and Jemma now. She wished that she could undo what would always hurt them, one way or another...

Beside her, Vader turned, silent; she followed his presence as he approached the door. To her surprise, he paused before leaving, as if he were hesitating.

Finally, he spoke.

"How can you say that you're not a Jedi if you refuse to pass the Jedi's tests?"

The door slid opened once again, and then closed behind the dark Lord of the Sith.

Mara, who had once again raised her head from her pillows, stared at the closed door, speechless.


Chapter 19: Luke's New World

"Master Skywalker, where are you going?"

Luke stopped and turned. He had just left the antechamber and was moving towards what he assumed was the exit of Executor's medbay. Jemma was still crying her lungs out despite all his attempts to calm her.

"Out," he replied tersely. He felt weary to the bone and hollow... as if he were caught in a nightmare. "I'm taking Jemma home. We are orbiting Coruscant, aren't we?"

"We are," Cilghal nodded," but your daughter has to stay under observation..."

Luke stopped short in his steps and whirled toward the Jedi healer. "Is something wrong with her?"

Cilghal reassured him with a gentle shake of her head. "No, have no fear. It's merely standard procedure for new born babies. Master Skywalker," she then appealed to him soothingly. "Please, don't worry so much; she can pick up on your turmoil and it scares her. Perhaps you could allow me to hold her? I'll calm her down."

Luke shook his head, adamantly rebutting her offer. "It's my job now, I'm her father. Show me what to do."

Cilghal accepted his counteroffer. "That's easy," she reassured him. "Imagine something soft and warm - a blanket - and gently envelop her in it. Cradle her, send only love and reassurance; she will calm down - at least for a moment."

Luke nodded and set to work. He should have thought about such obvious method himself, he rebuked himself. It was not so unlike how he used the Force to heal someone, in fact. He smiled down at his daughter’s red face. She had already stopped crying and seemed to relax a little.

"Poor baby, so much anger all around you..."he whispered softly. "Don't worry, I'm here, now. I'll protect you..."

"Nicely done, Master," Cilghal praised him when the baby started fighting against sleep. "The severing of the life-bond caused her a lot of stress, but she will get accustom to you in no time. I can feel that your bond with her has already taken shape." She studied them a little while longer, and then turned heels and walked toward the opposite end of the medical bay. "Please follow me," she instructed him.

Luke fell in step with her. "Where to?"

"To her room. She will soon need to be fed and cleaned. Her nursery room is on the second level, where the wards are located."

Luke mulled over her words for a moment. Second level? "I never thought that Executor's mebay was so big," he muttered, calmly following his self-assured student toward the closest elevator.

"It isn't. We are in the "Gray Prison"."

Luke stopped short on this information. "Where?!" In his arms, Jemma started and resumed crying in discomfort. He tried to soothe her once again, sending her apologies for his newest outburst.

Cilghal had also stopped walking and was waiting for him to calm Jemma down once again. "The High Security Military Hospital, Master," she said, matter-of-fact. "In orbit, in the second ring of defense."

Luke frowned but made an effort to not upset again his very sensitive baby girl. "Then what is Forester doing here?" he inquired as quietly as he could. "And why isn't there anyone except guards around us?"

"This subsection was closed when we moved you and Mara in. High security, I'm sure you understand."

Luke reluctantly nodded in agreement.

"As for Doctor Forester," his student continued soothingly, "he is one of the Empire's senior surgeons. He must exercise somewhere, doesn't he?"

"True," Luke relented. The way she had said that, made much sense to him.

Silently, Cilghal nodded again at him, then started toward the elevator once again. Luke followed.

As they rode the old-fashioned elevator in companionable silence, he pondered her revelations some more. He had to admit that he had never thought that his father's 'personal physician' might work somewhere to keep his skills up to date. He had always thought that he had plenty of practice tending to his father and his troops on Executor.

The elevator stopped; Cilghal passed an id-card trough the reader and the doors opened. They stepped out and followed the green line on the floor.

As he followed her, another question came to Luke, and he berated himself for not having thought about it earlier. "How come you're here, Cilghal? Why aren't you on Yavin? Where are the others?" His voice had slowly edged toward frustration as he had realized that his father had probably taken advantage of his students, too, while he had been absent.

"Calm, Master," Cilghal admonished him softly," you'll wake her up. I'll tell you everything, but not in a corridor. Ah," she smiled at a non-descript door, "we're here."

She stopped and opened a door which wasn't any different from any other they had passed by. Inside, the room was quite small, the lightning soothing.

Immediately appeased by the calming environment, Luke silently walked inside while his resentment drained from his system once again. Cilghal gestured to him to lay the baby in the waiting cradle; he complied without arguments. Cilghal activated the med-droid, and then motioned him to follow her in a small, tidy kitchen nearby.

"Please, take a seat, Master. Would you like some coffee? Or perhaps you are hungry?"

Luke sat behind the table and, with some surprise realized that he was hungry, indeed. "Is there some sandwiches?"

Cilghal snorted. "Everything you want, Master. We're in a VIP section."

"I'd still like a sandwich," Luke shuddered at the implication of the VIP description. "And a hot chocolate," he added as he thought of how long he hadn't had one of those, even before he had been put in stasis. He looked around himself, and then back at his student. "What are you doing?" he inquired when he saw her manipulate a bottle in a droid's hand.

"I'm taking care of Jemma's breakfast. Host's needs first." She smiled at him before she refocused back onto her preparations. "We're only her guests in here."

"I see." He felt that some knot inside him was undone by these simple words and all-too-banal movements of someone programming a kitchen droid. He sighed, relaxing, and then allowed his senses to drift toward the tiny presence that was growing hungry in the room next door. He sent her his love, and then refocused on his student.

"We are all well," Cilghal was saying, still occupying herself with the droid, "Except for Streen, we all left Yavin to help with your rescue. Streen also wanted to come, but someone had to stay to guard the academy. You know how the jungles are," she smiled.

He nodded in understanding.

Cilghal continued her accounting. "After we found you, Kirana returned to Yavin to help him. Kam and Kyp are still here, on Coruscant. Kam has enrolled in the Imperial palace security corp, and Kyp is a helper in Court. As for me, I'm training under Doctor Forester's direction. He helped me to improve a lot."

Luke barely heard her last sentence. "Kyp helps in Court?" he frowned in confusion.

"Yes, and they are very satisfied by his service. He is preparing the entrance examination to the juridical department of the University."

Luke noted that she sounded very proud of the young man. He himself frowned further. Kyp? A boy who was all fire and no calm at all? Wishing to enter the University? Now that was a strange idea. Unless... had the boy decided that he was unable to become a Jedi and had decided to serve justice this way instead? Justice was very important to him, Luke remembered. He resolved to speak with Kyp too, and soon. He had to talk some sense into him before he invested too much in these ways; before he decided to discard his unfathomable talent for the Force. Otherwise, what a waste that would that be! "I'd like to talk to him," he informed her.

Cilghal glanced at him. "I'll let him know, but please, Master," she asked him earnestly, "Don't be angry with him. He is a good man and he is trying to do a good thing as he understands it. I'm sure that it will be for the best of us all."

Luke smiled in reassurance. "Don't worry, Cilghal. I know that he is good boy. I only want to talk with him about that decision. I know how hard he can try sometimes, as well as how often he wastes his energies on the wrong pursuits."

Cilghal didn't reply. A moment later, she put a plate with a large sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate before him. She took a glass of something green-grey for herself and sat down.

"Many things have changed in the world while you were absent," she said. "Please, be wise and understanding, as I know you can be."

He sighed heavily in returned wariness. "I'm trying, Cilghal," he answered somewhat gruffly. "But it's not easy to see how my friends have been changed into almost strangers while I was not there. I'm not sure I like it, but, please, don't lecture me about this, okay? I've had enough of Han already."

"It's not my place to," she replied peacefully. "I'm just... expressing a concern."

Luke searched her eyes, and then nodded as he felt her honest concern for him. "Thank you," he nodded wearily. "I'll keep your warning in mind."

He took a bite out of the sandwich. It was excellent. The chocolate was also. Sweet and hot; it was almost like a balm on his relatively embittered heart. Many things had changed, true. He knew it for a fact already. Han had changed so much that he seemed another man - an unknown man to him.

What role did he play in his father's plans? Had Vader's dark influence subtly changed his brother-in-law until nothing of the old Han remained? Had he also changed Leia? And Mara? What had happened with Mara after the operation? What had Vader done to her?

Luke hesitated and finally didn't ask the question that burned his lips. He had to go more calmly, more slowly.

Instead, he asked another question, one which did not raise his hackles. "Talking about changes," he began calmly, "how come Forester took you under his wing?"

Cilghal smiled. "I was foolish enough to offer assistance to your father once. He explained to me how stupid I was in my conceptions of healing and health and sent me to Dr. Forester for further information. So I went. And he indeed showed me the extent of my ignorance - so I asked for even further instruction and he agreed."

"And you like him?"

"He is a great physician. He would even be one of the greatest in history if he had any ambition. However, he says that serving Lord Vader is enough. I like him."

Luke sipped his beverage. "Cilghal...," he began hesitatingly. "Have you noticed anything unusual during Jemma's birth?"

"Unusual, Master?"

"Well... Some unnecessary Force manipulation... on Mara..."

The Calamari female, who had leaned closer in concern, slowly withdrew until she sat straight in her chair upon hearing his words. "Lord Vader did nothing of the sort," she stated adamantly. "His actions were only those that were necessary by the intervention. He didn't influence Mara Jade's further actions."

Luke frowned at her. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Could you not detect his manipulations?" he tried more insistently.

"I doubt it."

"But it's possible."

Cilghal, who rarely displayed anything but calm and care, gave him a stern glare. "It's also possible and much more probable that Mara Jade's actions were only her own decision."

It was Luke's turn to lose a little bit of his temper. Again. "But it can't be! I don't see why she would do such a cruel thing!"

"To protect you," his student visibly shuddered. "She loves you. It's a possible motive."

"To protect me from what?"

"From attacks on you if you were to defend her in court. If you were to care about her, you would expose yourself to danger, or so I imagine she was thinking at that moment."

"Mara is too intelligent to worry about 'that' kind of danger. Words and gossips cannot harm me!"

"They could, master," the medic retorted calmly. "But that's not really relevant. She loves you, she was worried, she had just experienced a great stress, and her hormonal level was less than stable. She could make such a decision. However, I'm sure that she will calm down and ask for you before the day is over."

Luke perched an eyebrow at her. "You think so?"

"I'm sure," the alien nodded confidently. "She'll sleep, she'll eat - and then she will ask for Jemma, and for you, too. Don't worry, master. She loves you very, very much, that's obvious or else she wouldn't have reacted the way she did when you first arrived. She also begged repeatedly for us to wait for you before we proceeded with the delivery."

Luke pondered the woman's words for a moment. He finally nodded in comprehension. Perhaps, Cilghal was right and Mara was simply caught under the effect of her pregnancy hormones. He hoped so. He finished his cup and set it down. "Tell me... What do you think of my father?" he asked her next.

"Lord Vader is a great warrior," the Calamari replied calmly, without hesitation. "All Calamari respect him greatly."

"That's not what I meant," Luke sighed with a shake of his head. "I meant, what do you personally think of him?"

Cilghal straightened once again in her chair. "It's not my place to discuss the head of another clan, master."

Luke locked his gaze with hers. "Your opinion is important for me."

Cilghal pondered his request for some moments, and then said: "Amongst the warriors, the greatest are those with the soul of a medic, capable of conscious self-sacrifice to save a life even when it goes against their strategy. He is one of those. I will say no more."

Luke stared at her. Huh? That was the most important thing that she saw in his father?... "My father - acting 'against' his strategy? That would be the first!" he laughed bitterly. "You idealize him."

Cilghal suddenly stood, took her glass, his cup, and then turned to the sink. Luke looked at her back in confusion.

"Huh, Cilghal, did I offend you?"

"No, master," came the calm reply. "Do you want more hot chocolate?"

"Well..."

"He doesn't," Han's voice commented from behind Luke. The young Jedi turned toward the unexpected visitor. He had not heard him arrive. His friend now stood in the doorframe, smiling.

"My niece is great!" he beamed. "You did a great job, Kid."

Luke couldn't help but grin proudly. New Han or not, he couldn't resist the man's smile when it was this genuine-looking. For a moment, he could see the old Han, his friend. Then the mask of efficiency fell once again and he resumed being a stranger.

"So, as I was saying, you don't want any more chocolate. What you do want is a hot meal and a hot bath. True or true?"

"True!" Luke chuckled despite himself. How could he be Han, yet not Han...It was all so confusing. "Especially the latter. But..."

"I'll call you immediately when Mara Jade asks for you," Cilghal soothed his unspoken worry.

"The Palace is only fifteen minutes away from her, anyway," Han added. "If Jade asks for you, I doubt she will change her mind within the following fifteen minutes. She isn't the type. And anyway, you'll need to catch up on what's been going on at the trial, right?"

Luke had to concede defeat here. "Right."

"And I'm sure you want to see *your* niece and nephew, too."

Luke gaped for a moment as he processed Han's strange words--- until he realized what the other had just told him. "You and Leia had kids? Congratulations!" He stood and clapped his friend in the back as he embraced him like they used to back in the Rebellion.

"Thanks," Han said once they had pulled away from each other. "They're four months old already, though... So, will you wait till they're older or are you coming to see them now?"

"I am!" he nodded vigorously in assent. "I wish I had been here when they were born." He meant to follow Han outside, but remembered they were not alone. He turned toward his nearby student. "Thank you, Cilghal, for everything."

She bowed her head in farewell. "You're welcome, master."

Luke bowed as well, and then hurried after Han.

They stormed down the corridor, Luke barely able to keep up with Han's strides. "Hey! What's the rush?"

Han turned around to look at him. He blushed slightly. "Eh... sorry, Kid. I'm always running these days, or so it seems to me," he slowed down his pace.

Luke frowned slightly at this. "From problems or into them?"

"Between them," Solo grinned in answer. "Too many things to do, so little time..."

They stepped in the elevator; the doors closed behind them. Han leaned against a wall and glared at Luke, surprising him with his sudden change of mood.

"You know, Kid, for a Jedi you can be extremely dense."

Luke blinked. "Huh?"

Han locked his stern glare on him. "You asked a Calamari to go against their customs and tell her opinion on a subject they 'never' discuss, and immediately afterward, you dismiss her point of view as delusional. Couldn't you have nodded and say "thanks for the insight", you know?"

"You eavesdropped on us?!"

"Not intentionally," Han said. "I was there to check on your daughter, but given the open doors, I couldn't help but hear. I didn't think that interrupting would have been a great idea. And don't change the subject."

Luke sighed. "Did you hear what she said then?"

"Yeah. But at the moment, what she answered is absolutely irrelevant. 'You' showed complete disrespect for her opinion - and that what's important."

Luke scowled at his friend's patronizing attitude. "She said that she wasn't offended."

"Did she say she wasn't hurt?"

Luke sighed again. When had Han become his second father? "Look, I'll manage that myself, okay? I don't need your counsels of how to speak with my students and I don't need your sermons. I'm not your kid. Stop calling me that, by the way."

Han snorted and shook his head. "It wasn't a lecture, Luke. Not at all. It was just an opinion of my ever disrespectful self."

Luke glared askance at his companion. "Well, it sounded like one."

"Just because I think you were dense?"

"Look," the Jedi sighed. "She expressed her opinion, I did mine. Why make such a big problem out of it?"

"Because I like her and you did hurt her by not thinking beforehand."

"You like her?"

"Yeah," Han shrugged. "She's a good girl, a great medic, has a neat influence on Forester - he seems almost human now..."

Luke rubbed his forehead. "I forgot," he commented softly. "You had time to know each other..." His missing time with his people was really beginning to make his head spin with all the changes that he had not witnessed. He dimly wondered if he would understand them ever again. "Do you really think I hurt her?"

"Believe me, I'm an expert. When she turned around, her stance was just like Leia's when she's disappointed." Han shrugged again, this time nonchalantly. "It must be an interspecies female reaction."

Luke nodded in comprehension. Yes, Han had had a lot of experience with women, and his sister was not exactly the easiest woman to live with sometimes. Much like Mara, he smiled thinly. Mara... "Why the ride is so long?" he asked, changing the subject of both his conversation with Han and of his thoughts.

This time Han did let it pass. "'Cause we're going directly to the hangar bay. It shouldn't be long now... "

As if on cue, the cabin stilled and the door opened. Han detached himself from the wall and strode forward. Luke followed silently. The hangar was small; there was only one ship in it: a Tyderium shuttle. As he studied the ship that sat in the middle of the landing pad, Luke dimly wondered where the Falcon was nowadays.

An ensign met them at the shuttle's ramp.

"Lord Solo, your highness, I'm ensign Targi, your pilot for today. The shuttle is ready to launch."

"Thank you," Han said politely. "We're leaving immediately."

"Yes, my lord."

They followed the ensign into the shuttle's passenger's section - spacious, all dark leather and soft lines, and it was visibly equipped with the best transmitters and computers the Empire had to offer.

"High class, heh?" Han grinned at him, falling into an enormous chair. "That thing is one of the five shuttles that were made for Palpatine. He never used it."

Luke warily sat on a soft couch. "Do you like it?"

Han smiled. "I like comfort, yes." He absentmindedly logged into the console next to him. Luke noticed the complete automatism of his gestures. "And these communicators showed to be quite useful." He threw Luke a glance and flashed a grin. "Don't worry, Master Jedi, I haven't been corrupted by wealth."

Luke smiled. "It's not that."

"Then what?"

Luke shifted uneasily in his seat. "It's... these... titles. It's so unnatural..."

"You'll get used to it," Han replied, his eyes scanning the screen. "They don't sound so awful after some time."

"Maybe, but... 'your highness'?.. Between you and me, do I look like 'your highness' to you? Besides, they never addressed us like this before---"

Han raised his head, looked at him directly. "You 'are' the Emperor's son, Luke, therefore the Imperial prince, therefore 'your highness'. It's just a fact of life, and it's a well-known fact now. Don't worry so much about it."

Luke blinked.

Han grinned at him. "If you really can't stand it, maybe you could deal it for 'Master' or 'Lord'. The latter is quite bearable. I can say; I'm an expert."

Luke continued to frown at his friend. "How come you 'did' accept it? I remember a time when you had trouble joining anything formally."

"That was before I married your sister and began serving your father. Besides, Lord Solo, is much better than 'consort of daughter of our Master Darth Vader', don't you think?" he inquired, imitating the Noghri's accent perfectly.

Luke barely smiled in agreement or amusement. "Seriously, though, why not 'general' for example?"

"'Cause I'm not one, that's why. And my position demanded a title of power. Somebody who can order an orbital bombardment can't be called "hey, you there!" It's just isn't done."

Luke blinked and stared at his friend. Somehow 'orbital bombardment' didn't go well with Han Solo in the same phrase. Although... "Can 'you' order such a thing?" and even as he pronounced this, Luke became certain that *this* Han, clothed all in black - could; it gave him chills in the back.

"Theoretically, yes. If we were at war and Vader not around..." Han shuddered. "It's military stuff."

"But you aren't in the military. Why? If the title is just for them..."

"It's not only for them, Ki... Luke," Han looked at him seriously. "it's for everyone. We, as a ruling family, are somewhat outside of the system. We don't belong to the structure of any career's hierarchy, but we 'do' have power - and a great deal of it, too. Titles remind everybody of our place, including - most importantly - ourselves. Each one of our movements can have consequences beyond our reach, so you see, we better remember who we really are. I certainly 'do' remember my manners when I'm addressed as 'my lord'!" To Luke's horror, his friend grinned at his words. "Awwww, don't make so grave a face, Luke. It's not so terrible."

"But you're talking about distances and superiority! You're saying that we're 'better' than the others, than our friends!"

Han rubbed his forehead in annoyance. "by higher placed, Luke, I mean that we are higher 'placed'." He locked his gaze with his once again. "Sure. You're right about distance, but it's inevitable anyway. If we don't create it, the population does it for us, so..."

"And what does Chewie say about this? Where is he, by the way?"

"He is fighting xenophobia in the High Tec School, where they form those guys who design Star Destroyers. He's the first nonhuman to be accepted after all the restrictions were lifted - anonymously, of course... He showed them all," Han smiled proudly at this. "He got to the third year directly, and he did agree with me, last time we talked.... oh, about a month ago, I think. Ah, does time fly or what, huh?"

Luke stared at him in disbelief. "A 'month' ago?!"

"What's the problem?"

"Problem?! You didn't find a moment for your best friend for a whole month?"

"Luke, he works. I work too - you didn't see my agenda... Speaking of which... I also have a family and I, too, need to eat and sleep. So 'no', I didn't find time. So what?" Han squinted. "I know this face. What is burning you?"

"I think," Luke began carefully, "that this high position and power are just..." he paused, searching for a word. Han kept silent, looking at him with a smile that was just a trifle ironic and bitter. "...they are turning you into someone who is 'not you'. They're moulding you into something... You used to laugh, and to not care about titles or a stupid job. You cared about your friends, you used to fly! And now... I don't recognize you."

"I grew up," Han shrugged simply. "Luke, you can't make an image of a person, and then decide that he or she will be like that forever. I'm not an image in your history book. I'm a person. I change. Everybody does."

"But what about... you? As yourself?" whispered Luke.

"That's me. As myself. As I'm now. Oh, darn!" he stared at the screen. "And right now I'm in a deep bantha shit. Sorry, Luke. I'll just drop you at home, and fly off."

"What's up?" the Jedi frowned, fearing bad news coming.

"Ergen put a meeting with the senators on three! I will have just enough time if I go directly- just enough. Damn it all to the Sith Hell!"

"Who's Ergen?"

"My aide. An illegitimate child of Winter and C3PO, you'll like him..."

Despite the seriousness of their previous discussion, Luke couldn't help but burst into laughter at this.

Han waited till Luke finished laughing, "It's true, Kid, you'll see it for yourself. I have no idea how they managed it, but..."

"Stop!" Luke pleaded, still chuckling until his belly ached. "I don't need 'this' in my head!"

"Sorry, didn't remember you could read my thoughts... Anyway, you need the documents of Mara's trial, right?"

The mood sobered instantly.

"Yes," Luke became serious again.

"I'll tell Kyp to send them to you; I'll meet him in the Palace anyway."

"Tell him that I'd also like to talk to him."

"No prob here, he usually comes at home for some saber practice around 7pm. I'll tell him, he'll have a word sparring this time, huh?"

Luke didn't comment on the other's insinuations. "Thanks."

"Milords," said voice in the intercom, "We'll land in three minutes."

"Thanks a lot," muttered Han. "As if I can't tell..."

"Can you?"

"Sure. The sound of the approach is different."

Luke blinked. The cabin was soundproof. "Which sound?"

"It's a 'real' pilot's thing, Kid. You just feel it..." Han sighed.

"Do you miss it?"

"Flying? Yeah. I do fly sometimes... with your dad, also," he grinned. "You know? A bonding thing?"

"A 'bonding thing'?"

"Yeah. Kid... Luke, there's one advice I have for you. And for free, too."

The young Jedi sighed in resignation. "Shoot."

"You should decide what's more important for you - that image you have of your dad, or the man himself. No," Han lifted his hand as he saw Luke open his mouth, "don't reply - just think about it."

Luke shuddered. That was a ridiculous question. The response was obvious - the problem was that this new Han couldn't see it. "All right, Han. I will. Thanks for the insight."

Han just smiled. Bitterly.


Winter met them in Vader's castle as they landed.

"Welcome back, Luke," she said with a small smile that was an equivalent of hug-and-many-kisses from the less restrained people. She looked at Han. "Everything is well," she said. "The children were fed and are sleeping. Her highness ate well at dinner and is now sleeping, too; I checked five minutes ago."

"Great," Han beamed. "Convince her to go to the park for an hour or two when she awakes."

"I'll employ all my ruses," Winter smiled. "Good luck in your hunting, Lord Solo."

"Thanks," Han grimaced. "I'll need it. Good day, Winter. Luke, see you in the evening!"

He then turned and hurried back into the shuttle. Winter turned back to Luke. "Congratulations for your daughter!" she said. "I'm so happy for you!"

"Thank you," said Luke levelly. He didn't want to continue in this painful direction and Winter felt it.

"Your quarters are ready," she said. "Do you want to eat something?"

"No, thanks."

He followed her in the opulence of the castle. Leia's touches were visible here and there, he mused. She had obviously applied herself to 'humanize' the museum, but he greatly suspected that she never had time enough to finish this challenging task.

The only places she redesigned completely were hers and Luke's suites.

"How is she?" Luke inquired when they bypassed an abstract painting she had clearly put there; it was too bright for his father's liking.

"Giving birth was difficult," Winter replied calmly. "She was very drained and it took her a long while to recover from the physical stress. But now, everything is well," she smiled, the sun shining through the ice of her eyes, "and the children are so adorable!"

"Could I see them? After Leia's up, and that I've cleaned up?"

That got him a surprised glance from the woman. "How can I tell you what to do in your own house?"

Luke sighed glumly and cast his eyes down. "It just doesn't feel like a home to me, I suppose. I feel like I'm in sort of hotel or something..."

"With me as a major-domo?" there was a twinkle in Winter's eyes.

Luke smiled. "Sorry. But you'd be a great one."

"Thank you."

"The thing is, I don't feel as if I belong to this house. I'm sort of a temporary guest... It's not home."

"It's not a house that I'd call 'home'," she retorted wisely. "A house is just a shell. Home is the family you belong to."

"Which one?" Luke grimaced. "The one I was born into? Or the one I made?"

"Both," was the reply. "It's the people who will always welcome you whatever comes."

He pursed his lips at that. "Somehow, I don't think I'm quite welcomed by my family..." ... Surely not by my father, he thought.

"That's not true," Winter retorted strongly. He felt she was replying not only to his words but to his thought too. "All your family loves you very much. Please, believe me."

"My father doesn't know love."

"Who told you such a nonsense?!"

"Vader did."

"Then, I believe, he either has a misconception of the meaning of this word, or he just doesn't know himself well enough." She gazed deeply into his eyes. "I saw him during his search for you, and only a blind wouldn't see how great was his love and his pain."

"Care, Winter. It's just care. Nothing more."

“When a feeling is of such intensity, I see no difference."

"I do. I don't wish to discuss it further."

They were not very far from his door now; they walked the rest of the distance in silence.

"Thank you for your company and honesty," he said finally.

"You're welcome," she replied with emphasis on the last word.

He entered his room, and closed the door.


An hour later, after he had taken a bath and had changed clothes, Luke felt more like himself. His mood had also lightened a bit. The world around had lost some of its foggy quality. Instead, his surroundings felt more like solid reality.

Something he knew.

As he remembered his previous conversations with Cilghal, Han and Winter, he felt remorseful to have treated Winter so coldly. She was an excellent friend and she really didn't deserve to be the recipient of his bad mood. Even if she understood why he had been melancholy, he had no excuse for his attitude with her.

"Next time I see her, I'll apologize," he decided.

But first, he badly needed more information about this new world he had awakened in.

...What he found deeply shocked him.

There were trials in progress, Mara's, of course, but also others of a totally different nature. One of them was called 'Journalists' trial'. Reporters and news programs directors of liberal channels were being judged for defamation, collaboration with enemies of the state. Some of them were even tried for treason.

Worse, Leia was a prosecutor.

Draped in white, pregnant, she should have looked angelic on holos, but instead, she had chilled him to the bone. Her face had been solemn and cold, strong, almost cruel. The reporters had called her the 'Ice princess'.

Others had addressed her by her now official name: Leia Solo-Vader.

As he sat looking at these so simple words, Luke felt the rest of his world crumbling around him. Absentmindedly, he registered the fact that Leia's presence felt awake in the Force now; he could feel her in the background - so familiar, so ... domestic, warm, friendly... How could that coexist with the horror he was seeing on the screen?

How?

He sprung to his feet and ran out of the room.

He had to see her. He had to see with his own eyes if she had truly changed as much as the holos suggested... or if she was still his beloved sister.

The sister he remembered.


She was branding her hair.

The screen on the wall in front of her was turned on; a woman's head was muttering something barely intelligible. 'News, probably', Luke thought as he stepped in the living room.

"Luke!" Leia beamed, excited. Her eyes suddenly alit with joy, she grabbed the remote and turned the screen off. "I'm so happy!"

She looked so, indeed, he conceded as she rushed to him and hugged him in a fashion not so different from Chewie's choke holds.

As he held her, he reflected that there were strange new feelings in her, too.

It had been how she held herself before she saw him, he realized. The way she had slowly turned her head - with dangerous grace. She 'had' changed, too.

"How are you? Is the baby okay? Congratulations for---" she pulled away from him and looked up in his eyes. "What's wrong?"

For a long moment, he met her concerned gaze. She was so warm and caring like he remembered, and yet... cold, too, in a way. "How could you..." he finally muttered, his heart breaking. Leia, too, was dead... They were all dead.

The ones he had loved, tried to save, and had even convinced to stay with Vader... they were all dead, replaced by people he didn't know anymore.

People who blindly served his father, the new Sith Emperor...

"What?" she asked, not understanding? Her eyes turned from happy to confused in a flash.

Luke met her gaze unflinchingly. "How could you betray yourself like this? What happened? What did Vader do to make you betray everything you ever stood for?"

Leia frowned, and then blinked. "Luke... What in Force's sake are you talking about?"

"I was researching what I have missed. I looked at holos." He let his hurt come through his eyes and voice. "You used to stand for liberty and freedom, Leia. How could you discard this commitment?"

"Ah..." she nodded slowly. "The Journalists' trial, I gather."

"Yes."

She walked back in the living room, sat down in the couch, and then rubbed her forehead. "Luke, if you read news materials, read 'all' of it. Some of those 'journalists' cooperated with Jade and Moffs; they wanted to bring us down. Others made up such a crap about us to increase the size of their audience that it became downright defamation..."

"Are you sure, it was all 'crap'?" he asked, raising his two hands on both sides of his head and mimicking commas with his indexes.

Leia glared at him. "Yes. I was there. I heard it. 'I' was on the receiving end of it. None of what they said about our search and rescue operations were true. It was complete lies; dirty, evil absurdities. They concerned father, me, you, Han; everyone involved in your rescue. So don't speak to me about freedom and liberties! There's no freedom and no liberty in defamation."

"But you proposed a law to reintroduce the censure we so hated back in the old Empire!"

"Did you read it?" she asked him pointedly.

"Well..."

"Then 'do'. If anything I want to preserve our freedom, but I don't want to hear such bantha's shit ever again. We have the freedom to be informed, but to be informed by 'truthful' reporters, too."

"But it's just the beginning, don't you see it? It's a first step to return to dictatorship."

"Luke, honestly... 'We' are making the decisions, and I'll never allow any more restrictive law to pass. Calm down, please. We're not in a B-movie, and Palpatine didn't take over my - or anyone's - body," she scoffed.

She gentled a bit and invited him to sit beside her. He did so, avoiding her eyes until she delicately took hold of his hands in hers.

"Tell me what's really troubling you so much, it can't be merely politics. What happened?"

Luke looked at her, and then averted his eyes to hide his tears from her. "I am back, but my world is in shambles - that's what happened!" he sobbed in despair. "I don't recognize anyone; everything, everyone I once knew is now twisted, not how I remember them..."

"Oh, Luke..." she comforted him, drawing him to herself in a sisterly hug. "I'm so sorry..." She rocked him soothingly as he let go of his self-control and cried on her shoulder for all the losses that he was now only discovering. "Of course, we've changed. You have been missing or in stasis for almost a year...Still, it's not that bad a change. Nothing much has changed really... except for the babies, of course," she smiled against his hair.

Luke, who had been basking in her comfort at first, slowly pulled away from her as her words settled in his mind. This was not Leia... His sister would not belittle his worries like this. Only Vader would---- "Not 'much'?! not bad??" he asked her, locking his distraught eyes on her startled ones. "Can't you see what is happening? He's turning you into his copy? Oh, Force, Leia..."

She looked at him, her surprise transforming into a mix of condescension and irony. "Luke, really, there's absolutely 'nothing' so dramatic going on. I'm just becoming a real politician, at last, and I assure you, I can take my own decisions. Father and I often have arguments about points we disagree upon."

"So it was 'your' idea to change your name?"

"Is 'that' what it's all about?!" Leia stared at him in disbelief. "Luke, it's just a formality, really. I'm his official heir, so the name of the line must be continued. 'Both' lines, as far as I'm concerned. That's 'all'."

"Then what about the 'Organa' name? You once vowed to never give it up, remember? Did you forget him so soon? What about 'his' legacy of freedom and justice?"

Leia paled. "I can never forget Bail. Never. However, I can carry only one legacy..." she whispered. "I hope, he can forgive me..."

"For betraying the memory of Alderaan?" he asked vehemently. Inside him, a little voice chanted 'I'm right! I'm right! Here's a betrayer!'. He relished in it.

Leia closed her eyes, and it felt chillingly final - as if curtain of steel fell between them. His anger instantly dissipated, but it was too late; he was already left with just a cold image near him; that of 'Lady' Vader-Solo. Not his sister. What have I done?!

He fell on his knees at her feet.

"Leia, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't want..."

"Luke. Please. Go out."

"Leia, I..."

"I do believe you. I still love you. I'll never leave you. I'll still trust you. But today... I don't want to see you anymore. Go out. Please."

Beaten at his own attempt to generate guilt in his sister, Luke left her, his chin to his chest in deep regrets.

What was going on with him today?..

What 'was' wrong with him?


Back in his quarters, Luke took a message from Han. Kyp would be at his place around seven o'clock tonight.

He waited with some nervousness for the evening to come.

What had happened to Kyp? What was happening with him?! He was feeling disorientated and all alone, as if in a desert - and a storm was building on the horizon. Soon, everything would be destroyed. Fear was creeping into his heart.

Remembering Cilghal's words, he understood now. Indeed, many things had changed in the world he had foolishly left behind almost a year ago.

And for what, in the end? For adventure? For the prospect of a new Jedi student? For Love? For a family of his own?

For more pain?

Had any of his recent joy really been worthwhile?..

When his student finally stood at his door, he felt as if the deck had fallen under his feet; he was falling into the abyss, falling, falling... It was not possible!

Kyp was wearing black robes that were adorned with a Sith symbol, and he carried an ysalamiri on his shoulder.


"...And then I pleaded allegiance to the Lord of the Sword," Kyp was saying. "And I'm happy, Master Skywalker. I feel complete, like I never did when struggling to make myself fit to be a Jedi."

Luke closed his eyes, briefly. He was still falling.

His father had known of Exar Kun, had allowed his communications with the boy...

Yes, it was a masterful manipulation that Vader had mounted to make this youth a Sith. However, instead of due awe, Luke felt only the pain of betrayal. He had welcomed his father at the academy, had left the students in his 'care'... "How can you be grateful to him," he finally spat, interrupting Kyp's eulogies to his father. "He allowed you to be corrupted!"

"No. He merely left me to my choices."

"But he knew, your 'friend' was a Sith, that he was deceiving you! That he wanted you for evil purposes. He should have warned you!"

"He didn't know what Kun was planning. Besides, being a Sith doesn't mean that he can understand all the other Siths he meets. Anyway, even if he had warned me, I wouldn't have believed him. I was certain that I knew 'Master Kenan' well, that I could trust him..."

"You never told me about him."

"Well... I wanted my mystery, my special treasure. I wanted to feel different and important. I was such a fool," The youth lowered his eyes to look at his clasped hands, "not able to see the obvious deceptions and traps. Lord Vader still believed in me, though, I think. He helped me - and Lord of the Sword helped me - and no-one forced me to make this decision. I just wanted to. And I don't regret it at all. Lord Vader is helping me to learn..."

Learn, sure, Luke thought, feeling as if he were adrift in deep space, his pain cutting him off from his surroundings. His father had been right to admonish him for trusting him too easily. 'He' had been a fool for that, not Kyp. All this time, Vader only wanted another servant, someone else to imitate him, and since his own son had refused his offer... As he gazed at his former student, he realized that this time, his father didn't go with half-measures to twist Kyp. He kept him cut off the Force so that he couldn't feel the divergence of the path he was being led on.

Until too late.

 "And the 'lizard'" he almost spat in disgust. Does it also help you learn?"

"Yes, she does."

At this, reality returned to Luke, and his outrage exploded in words. "And you believe it?! He is cutting you from the Force, destroying your awesome talent, and you're grateful?! I never saw an abomination so vile..."

He just couldn't bear the existence of this ... lizard, crippling his most talented student. Before Kyp could understand his intention, he was beside the youth. A second later, he grabbed the lizard and viciously threw it against the wall.

Shocked, Kyp didn't move for a moment, merely stared in utter horror. Then, he rushed to the fallen animal and fell on knees beside it. He carefully picked up the ysalamiri from the floor. "No!.. Lila..."

At this moment, the Force bubble simply switched off - and Luke was assaulted by Kyp's disbelief and grief.

Grief for his pet.

His 'pet', Luke realized in stark horror at his own actions. The ysalamiri had been Kyp's pet, nothing more, nothing less.

There were no plots, no manipulations in his mind, no sinister plan of turning him into something vile and dark. He had truly chosen the way of the Sith, but he didn't intend to pursue goals different from the ones he had been taught when training to be a Jedi. He didn't want to hurt people. He wanted to serve Justice.

Just before Kyp's shields closed, Luke saw a shadow of a memory - his father, injured, speaking with Kyp about his studies. "I may be your teacher, but I'm not your Master."

Luke back-pedalled in terror at what he had just done. "I'm sorry", he half-whispered, his throat constricted by grief. "I'm so sorry."

For a moment, Kyp seemed to ignore him, cradling the dead animal to his face, and then he gruffly said: "Apologies accepted." He abruptly stood up, his face lowered, his hand caressing the green fur. Another silence stood between them. Luke saw how Kyp took deep breaths to overcome his darker emotions. He finally looked up at Luke, his eyes full of tears. "It was unwise, Master Luke. And..." he looked him into the eyes. "There's too much darkness in your thoughts, you frighten me. Please, be careful. Beware the Dark Side."

At this, Kyp the Sith apprentice, turned on his heels and was gone.

Luke, for his part, crumbled to his knees and covered his face with his hands. What had he done... what was happening to him?..


High Security Military Hospital, 11 p.m.

It was night already.

The view screen in her room looked like an abstract painting - golden rings over a black background; Coruscant's night side as seen from orbit.

She was lying flat on her back, her head turned toward the said screen, her left hand still cuffed to the edge of the bed. She had awakened in this position four hours ago and had barely moved ever since. She felt devoid of any energy, as if her break-up with Luke had taken all her strength.

'Vader will not come now,' she thought, noticing the time on the clock. It was too late in the day; her nemesis was probably catching a good night's rest.

Should she be upset or relieved, though?

Immediately after she had awakened, she had asked her guards to signal to Vader her desire to speak with him; Vader hadn't bothered to even acknowledge her request. Of course, she couldn't really expect anything of the Dark Lord of the Sith. They were barely on speaking terms, and that itself was already a miracle considering all the history of enmity between them.

A miracle... Like her little miracle called Jemma.

As she thought about her pregnancy, she allowed herself to analyze Vader's behavior with her. He had been remarkably civil with her then, had even been bordering on paranoid about her security and mental state. However, now that she knew about the life bond with her daughter, she understood his motivations. He hadn't been worried about her, nor had he been worried about Jemma. He had been worried about himself...

She paused on this thought. Vader? Afraid for his own life? Nah... She knew that as her enemy, his personal bravery had never been underestimated; the man was known to risk his own life in a battle if it meant victory. Of course, he had always taken calculated risks, carefully considering his capabilities before acting, but still, he had never shied away from the danger either. He was a warrior.

Period.

So, no, she shook her head in comprehension. Vader had not been worried about his existence; he had been worried about Jemma. He had been concerned about his grand-daughter... his blood-line.

Jemma...

Her little angel Jemma...

Would she ever forgive her for being who she had been before--- and now, for doing what 'had' to be done, she reminded herself meaningfully.

She held onto that thought, refusing to let her resurfacing doubts get the best of her.

But it was too late to not hurt Luke anymore; she had already wounded him, she whined inwardly. Jemma's cries had proven this to her; she had cried her little lungs out for as long as Luke hadn't managed to calm her. It was clear to her now that the poor infant had been crying all 'his' turmoil and pain; she had been in 'his' arms when she had reacted to such an extreme.

In her case, every new loud complaint that had reached her ears had cut deeply through her soul. 'She' had caused this. 'She' was at fault for hurting him, and Jemma, again—

But it had been necessary, she reminded herself sternly as she tried to trace the lines of light on Coruscant with her eyes; tears had formed in her eyes throughout the past minutes, blurring her vision for a moment.

It had been the only way to save him from her loss; she had had to turn her back to him before it was too late. Had she not loved him as madly as she had, she would have never been able to go through this.

She still loved him, though...

She dried her eyes with her free hand. Strange how she could thoroughly dislike the father, yet be so enamoured with the son that she was willing to give her life for him if it meant saving him...

She stopped on her thoughts, and then shook her head to rid it of that wrong perception of the facts.

No, she wasn't sacrificing her life for Luke's; she was only hurting him again. Badly, too. She had nothing but his interests in mind, and yet...

'Who do you think I am? You?!' she had spat at Vader while she had been on the medical table. At that moment, she had been outraged by Vader's actions to save Jemma. She had especially been angry at him for the obsessive security that had surrounded her even at that moment.

Now, though, she was calmer... more rational.

The more she remembered that particular argument with the Dark Lord, the more she realized that she might have brought up a good point of reflection when she had uttered those words. Could she 'still' be like Vader in her desire to protect Luke?

Hadn't Vader also hurt Luke when he had tried to protect him from harm by keeping him in stasis for the duration of her trial? After all, if Cilghal had told her the truth, Vader had only done so to save Luke from the events that had surrounded her arrest... Vader had wanted to protect him from all this madness.

The father greatly cared about the son and didn't want to hurt him any more...

Just like she did.

By the Force, she and Vader 'were' alike!

Damn it! Despite her turning her back on her vengeful self, and despite her giving back his freedom to Luke, she was 'still' like Vader.

They both hurt the people they - she hesitated - loved the most. They both sought to protect their loved ones from... - she paused again- "us", she concluded in a strangled whisper. A heavy pang of regret and fear settled in the pit of her stomach at that.

They hurt people they loved in order to protect them from them, she thought in sudden comprehension. Both she and Vader tried not to harm their loved ones in any way by keeping them at arm's length. In the end, though, they hurt people they loved... in order to protect...

Was that why Vader had told her Jedi and trials? Did he see, like her, the real motivation behind her action? Did he regret his own decision? Was he trying to prevent her from doing the same mistake?

"Yeah, sure," she muttered, a familiar cynical smirk settling in place as she studied a particular pattern of movement on the surface of the planet. Her eyes were once again dry. "The Dark Lord of the Sith, whom I've tried to destroy, now has only my best interests in mind. I believe that already."

Still, why would he seem to suddenly 'care' about her fate? Why would he even give her an advice, no matter how cryptic it had been?

Why did he even bother? She frowned, confusion already replacing her reflexive cynicism. She had delivered his grandchild. By all rights, he should have reverted to considering her as a stranger, especially after her refusal of Luke's continued love...

'Damn,' she thought again. 'I don't 'want' to understand him! I didn't ask for 'that'!' She had asked for freedom her from her negative emotions because she did not wish to waste her remaining days, or even hours, on hatred, anger, and lust for revenge.

However, her dislike for the Dark Lord was intact; she was entitled to that emotion and as long as she didn't hurt anyone with them, it didn't matter...at least she hoped so.

Yet, she reminded herself pointedly, 'she' had called for him. What kind of trick was her mind playing on her right now? She had a fair idea as to what trials he had been referring to earlier today... and she was adamant that she did not want to dwell further in Vader's mind, so what did she 'really' want from him? Why was she feeling annoyed that he would not abide by her more-than-respectful request?

The sound of the opening door suddenly attracted her attention away from the hypnotic sight of the view screen. She turned her head; almost simultaneously, her ears picked up on a familiar sound.

She gaped at Vader as he silently entered her room; he had come after all? He had answered her request... He motioned to her guards to leave them alone, and then positioned himself at the foot of her bed. "What do you have to tell me?" in inquired without detour.

For a long moment, Mara could only stare at the black figure. Thoughts had suddenly flown from her mind. He 'had' come to speak with her.

Him.

Vader.

The mighty dark Lord of the Sith who had 'never' been known to pay much attention to anything except his duty.

"Well?" he prompted her, placing his hands on his belt.

So calm and poised, she dimly reflected while trying to gather her composure. He had really changed a lot... since 'he' had become Emperor. Was he a good one?---

And how could she even think that?! She rebuked herself vehemently. She didn't care about Vader's reign; she only cared about his son's future... and how she could help to make it better than his present.

Vader, meanwhile, was gazing at the door, visibly annoyed by her silence and pondering whether to leave or not.

She imagined that he, too, was wondering why he had come here. Perhaps, they would both finally elucidate that mystery, she decided as her mind resumed working once again.

Still, her first words were not the ones she had planned. "Why did you kill the Emperor?" she inquired. The black mask slowly turned back toward her.

"He was not killed," he corrected calmly.

Mara noticed that he didn't seem surprised by her question the way 'she' was. Did he really know her that well?

"Let's not play with words," she warned him meaningfully. "You purposefully prohibited a treatment that could have saved him."

"I did."

"Why?" she asked him, partly incensed by his easy admission.

"Our whole life work was threatened by his madness."

Mara glared daggers at his cold argument. "You sacrificed him, 'the' Emperor, to the Empire."

A firm nod accompanied his answer. "Yes."

Mara could barely contain her temper at this. She sat up in bed as if she meant to jump down his throat. "But he 'saved' you!" she reminded him vehemently. "You were in his debt. How could you?!"

"That dept was fully paid," Vader replied coldly, implacable in face of her physical reaction. "As for my loyalty, it has always been primarily to the Empire; to Peace and Justice, as you well know."

The ex-assassin had not heard the last part of his explanation. "Paid?! A life debt can't be---"

"He wasn't our savior, Jade," Vader stated coldly. "He was but our Master, and we, his slaves."

She returned his glare with one of her own. "It's 'not' true."

"You know it is," Vader replied. "I see this knowledge in you, even without the Force. You have realized it a long time ago. Am I right?"

He was, even if she had managed to deceive herself for a while.

"Damn you."

"For what this time?"

To her surprise, she definitely heard a smile in his voice this time. Huh? His unusual attitude softened her despite herself. She still glared half-heartedly at him, but it was more out of frustration than real anger this time. "For not leaving me any illusions." She took a moment to ponder his words further. "So I started a war without any valid reason at all..."

Vader shrugged. "You wanted revenge for your lost world, Jade. Wars have been started for less."

Was he trying to...'comfort' her?! "But then I'm right. I'm a monster; Luke and Jemma are better off me, and that's the right decision. It's a Jedi's decision. So what was the point of your talk about Jedi trials?"

"A monster, indeed." Mara could now swear that his smirk was almost visible through the faceplate. "Don't flatter yourself, Jade. Your death count is quite inferior to even Luke's. Anyway, it's not a sufficient reason to flee your life. 'That' what a Jedi's trial is all about."

"I'm not fleeing, damn you! I'll be executed soon 'because' I'm not fleeing!"

"No, Jade," Vader answered calmly. "You're talking about your 'death'. I'm talking about your 'life'."

"Or what's left of it," she grumbled, avoiding his gaze.

He nodded. "Or what's left of it. Still, it's the oldest Jedi test; the only one, I guess, that's really valid. To become a Jedi, one must face his worst fear, and make peace with it. In your case, your worst fear is to live. Not to die."

Mara was dumbfounded by the Dark Lord's statement. Not only was it extremely reasonable, far more reasonable than she had ever expected to hear from him, but she could not detect the sign of a monster through it. Instead, he had almost spoken like Luke did when teaching her... Like a Jedi.

Like a Jedi Master.

She frowned. What was she thinking? "Why would a Sith Lord want 'me' to become a Jedi? Why do you even speak to me, actually? I'm your enemy. You should despise me."

"Luke loves you and this time 'he' is apparently in need of your support. If you must become a Jedi to give him that support, then so be it. I'll help you as I can."

"And how can a Sith Lord help in this?"

"By showing where you must 'not' go."

"Logical," she assented. "But it was a response only to the first question. Shouldn't you hate me?"

"My feelings are my own to govern."

It meant that he 'didn't', she understood. "But why?"

"You are my daughter-in-law," Vader stated. "Enemy or not, betrayer or not - it's irrelevant. In my family, there will be no war."

She gaped in shock at him. "What?!" F---f-- family?? Had he said what she thought he had said?

"Luke loves you. So I decided to tolerate you. And I believe you are not without honour, so I do trust you to fight the temptation to try and avoid your fate, whatever it is."

She continued to stare in disbelief at him. All her life, she had wanted a family; she knew this now. And, now she had it. Officially, too. And not only Luke and her daughter either, but the whole package - including the Sith Lord as her father-in-law.

That he accepted her like that was astonishing. She knew him enough to know that it will not influence his decision about the trial - and - strangely - she was content with that. She needed it, even condemnation she did need.

She badly needed a closure to her old life.

If only... She crushed the thought before it could torment her with what-ifs and possibilities. "What difference does it make, then, whether I'm a Jedi or not for the last few days that I have left to live?"

"To change now might affect the future. Choices... are a very powerful tool of Destiny."

Mara wanted to grimace at him, to even sneer at his hand-me-down wisdom, but as she glared at him, at his survival-suit-encased body, she began to realize that, indeed, choices could have a lot of effect on one's life.

All of a sudden, she was aware that Vader's choices had led him where he was today, and that he might want to have done a few things differently in the past.

Not that she would tell him that, though; his bad temper had been legendary even before she had been an active agent in the Emperor's service.

Still... he was telling her to beware her choices, and 'she', indeed, had a choice to make.

Or perhaps, she amended, she had to 'change' a choice.

As if on cue, the door of her room slid open once again. She and Vader looked up; they both visibly started at Luke's distraught sight. He was dishevelled, his face was flushed as if he had just cried, and he walked with the speed of someone who was desperate for help.

He looked up at her, and then his eyes instantly filled with hatred upon seeing his father at the foot of her bed.

In a way, she was almost glad that there was an ysalamiri under her bed so that they were all cut off from the Force at the moment. Even without the Force, she could feel the dark energies that were swirling around her tormented husband.


Part 5


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