Imperial - Part 2
Leia would have been impressed with the size and elegance of Vader's mansion had everything in it not been black. Black wall, black furniture even the crystals in the chandelier were black diamonds. There were a few pieces of art, but the statues were black marble (which matched the floor and the borders on the walls) and the paintings were all in dark, depressing colours. But all the materials and styles were classy and tasteful, and Leia thought she would have enjoyed her time here, had their been colour.
And, of course, if she had been free.
A little sparrow of a maid flitted up to them.
Shall I see the Princess settled in her quarters, milord? she asked Vader, her brown eyes wide but unafraid.
Yes, Vader said simply, and stood aside so Leia could pass him and join the maid, who led her up the stairs.
I'm Lanna, the girl said as she led Leia up the stairs. Lord Vader has put me in charge of your comfort. If you need anything, do not hesitate to call me, or one of the other girls. There are three of us assigned to you, Lanna explained.
She pushed open a door black, like the rest of them. The other three maids were inside the darkened room.
Sera, Clary, and Wyn, this is the Princess --
Please, call me Leia, she said, slightly embarrassed by the formality.
As you wish, Lanna replied. Clary, open the curtains. I don't believe Leia likes the dark as much as milord does.
The girl chuckled and flung the drapes wide. Leia gasped happily as the sun poured in to reveal gray walls that, if not exactly bright and cheerful, were at least a relief from all the black. The floor was still cold marble, but it was ivory shot through with little black rivers. The large painting over the beautiful marble fireplace was more colourful than the others ornamenting the mansion, and a little softer, depicting a vase of flowers, albeit wilting ones, instead of stormy seas or violent-looking rainclouds.
After a quick orientation and a brief description of where she could and could not go within the mansion, Leia dismissed the maids and walked out onto the balcony. Even growing up as a princess, she had not experienced anything so elaborate and expensive before. It was a pity it belonged to such a horrible person.
The gardens, she noticed, were meticulously kept. An old man, bending over a flower bed, straightened and caught her eyes, grinning. She smiled hesitantly back. Did everyone on Vader's staff know who she was? Did they know why she was here?
Leia sighed, uneasily wondering if she knew that answer herself.
Han strolled into the lobby of the Academy, and sat down to wait for his appointment with the Dean, Piett beside him. He hadn't been here since he had nearly been expelled, then rescued by Vader.
I haven't talked to Chewie in a while, he realized, other than a brief hello-goodbye conversation.
Captain Solo? the receptionist said, interrupting his musings.
Han glanced up. Yeah?
The Dean will see you now.
Han and Piett followed her down a short hallway to the Dean's office. The Dean himself saw sitting at his desk, but he looked up and greeted them with a smile. The receptionist closed the door as she left the room.
Admiral Piett, Captain Solo, the Dean said, standing up. I'm honoured you stopped by. I hear Lord Vader needs a few new pilots?
Yes, Han said, wishing the man would dispense with the small talk.
Apparently the Dean understood that, because he immediately handed him a list of names, room numbers, and test scores.
Our top twenty students, the dean explained. I trust you'll find someone suitable.
I'm sure we will. Han handed the list to Piett. Let's go.
Leia wandered around Vader's huge mansion, trying to get a feel for the place. It was late, and she probably shouldn't be up and around, but she couldn't sleep, despite the silk sheets that smelled like summertime and the warm breeze that carried a flowery scent through her chambers from the gardens, or even the fact that she was exhausted. But she was worried about what her days here would bring Vader was acting out of character, leaving her notes among ship's wires, giving her access to most of his home, going out of his way to stay out of hers.
Although, now that she thought about it, that might be more for his own peace of mind than hers.
It made Leia worry. Was he going to torture her again? Then why give her a huge king-sized bed, her own quartet of maids, a room with a gorgeous view of the gardens? Why offer her an extensive menu and let her roam about the place as she pleased? It made no sense.
She made her way down to the kitchens, just to see what they were like. It was unlikely Vader ever spent any time there could he even eat? but Leia wanted to see them anyway. She had heard it said you could tell a lot about a man by the state of his kitchen.
The kitchen was done in black big surprise there. But what she didn't expect to see was the man standing at the counter, making himself a sandwich. She glanced at the time it was after midnight, right?
Then she took a better look at him, and gasped. Was he even human at all?
He turned to look at her.
Yes, she realized, he was human, but so hideously scarred that she felt like she shouldn't even look at him for fear of insulting him, but that looking away would insult him, too. She settled for biting her lip in pity and sneaking glances at him between staring at the floor.
Princess, he greeted her in a raspy voice, no louder than a stage whisper.
I'm sorry, she said awkwardly. I didn't realize anyone was here.
He sounded amused, and familiar, somehow, but she'd never met him before. She was sure of that.
I ah I'll just go now, she said hastily.
Who was this man? Vader filled his staff with pretty girls and able-bodied men what was this man doing here?
You're not hungry? he asked mildly, raising what would have been an eyebrow, had he had hair.
Not really, she replied truthfully. I just wanted to see what the kitchens were like.
They say you can tell a lot about a person by their kitchen.
I've heard that, too.
Trying to figure out what Vader's planning?
She swallowed. Something like that.
He grabbed his sandwich and a glass of blue milk -- Blue milk? Who drinks that stuff on Coruscant? Where can you even get that stuff on Coruscant? -- and swept past her. She stepped back as he passed; she hadn't realized he was so tall. And, she realized, he was strong and well-muscled. She just had to look past the scars to see it.
Good luck, he called over his shoulder, irony and sarcasm ringing in his hoarse voice.
She watched as he disappeared down the hall, then headed back to her own room, making a mental note to ask one of the maids about this mysterious stranger.
Luke's eyes widened as he took in the sparkling landscape that was Coruscant now known as Imperial Center. Where was he going to land? And how the hell was going to find Leia?
Vader prowled around the rooftop of the building beside his mansion like a giant cat. From here he could see anyone attempting to enter or leave the grounds, and he had felt his son land on Coruscant Imperial Center only an hour ago. It may take time, but Vader planned to be waiting when Luke came calling.
He thought back to his conversation the previous night with the Princess. He had felt her roaming the mansion, but hadn't expected her to walk in on him making himself a midnight snack without his suit, no less. Not the healthiest thing for him to do, but he did it anyway.
He had thought his home was bigger than that.
She hadn't known who he was, that much was certain. She had actually pitied him! He resisted the urge to laugh. He didn't need her pity.
It was kind of nice, to have someone care like that . . .
But he didn't need it. He was a Dark Lord of the Sith; he needed nothing but the Force.
He would have to watch her even more carefully now and what would happen when he no longer had any use for her? He had planned to use her as a hostage against the Alliance (he couldn't exactly kill her, if his son cared about her) but if she ever began to suspect he was the man she had seen in the kitchen last night --
He watched the scene below for any sign of Luke. It was quiet so far. He watched Solo and Piett make their way up the front walk. They'd be looking for him, but he had more important things to deal with at the moment.
Han and Piett walked through the huge front hall of Vader's mansion after hiring the four pilots they needed.
Is he here, do you think? Han asked in a hush voice, a bit intimidated by the never ending black of the mansion's interior.
Piett opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off.
Nope, he's outside, Jix said, strolling up to them with his hands in his pockets, looking completely at home. Waiting for his kid.
Piett's eyes grew huge. Jix threw up his hands.
You didn't know either? By the Force, he's antisocial! Okay, here's the scoop --
Is it going to get me killed? Piett wanted to know, but Jix rolled right over his objection and told him the whole story anyway.
His name's Skywalker, he's the one who blew up the Death Star . . .
It was only when Jix was finished that Han looked around again, and saw the Princess standing at the top of the stairs. From the look on her face, she had heard every word Jix had spoken.
She ran. Acting on a strange protective instinct, Han followed.
Vader smiled as Luke crept up to the gates of his mansion. The child was looking furtively around to make sure no one was watching, but he was not trained enough to remember to look up. Vader jumped off the roof, using the Force to cushion his silent fall.
He landed on his feet, catlike, behind the boy. Luke whirled around at the soft crunch of his boots on the duracrete, and his eyes widened. He gulped, but to his credit, he quickly composed his face into a passively blank look and calmly ignited his lightsaber, a shimmering blue Vader knew all too well.
So that's what Obi-Wan did with my old blade . . . Vader's eyes narrowed as he ignited his own weapon.
The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet.
Luke swung. Vader easily blocked and returned the blow, and the battle had begun.
Han caught the Princess's arm just before she made it to the door to her room. He swung her around to so that her back was to the wall, his hands on either side of her.
Move, she demanded, sounding as if she were fighting tears.
No, Han shot back.
Her chin rose. I don't want to talk to you!
I just found out my best friend is an Imperial. Can you blame me for wanting to be alone?
He's not an Imperial, Princess --
He's Vader's son!
He doesn't know that.
That shut her up for a moment.
He doesn't know, Princess. He's as loyal to you and the Rebellion as ever. He's here to attempt to rescue you.
Understanding dawned on her face.
I was bait.
Don't be angry with him, Leia. I have a feeling that once Lord Vader is done with him, he's going to need you more than ever.
Vader forced the boy back against one of the large gates that housed the mansion, and then away, sliding into the shadows of the dark, smooth walls. Vader , thanks to his mask, didn't even have to blink, but the sudden change in light threw Luke's perception off, the glow from the lightsabers distorting his vision until his eyes adjusted to the dark. He tried to whirl out of the shadows, into the street, where he would have better vision and more room to maneuver, but Vader kept him firmly at the wall, trying to keep the fight as private as possible.
You have learned much, young one, Vader commented, pleasantly surprised. Had he taught himself all this?
You'll find I'm full of surprises, Luke snapped back.
Vader mentally shook his head. How disrespectful.
Your destiny lies with me, Vader said as he feinted a cut at Luke's neck, only to change direction mid-swing and swipe at his legs. The child barely managed to jump over the blade. Obi-Wan knew this to be true.
No! Luke shouted, but a blow aimed at his shoulder distracted him enough so that he didn't say anything else on the matter. He used the Force to jump up onto the the twenty foot wall.
Impressive, Vader said, smirking behind his mask as he looked up at his son, who was eying him warily. Most impressive. Then he jumped up beside him.
Luke was wide-eyed. He hadn't expected such an agile move from the armour-clad warrior.
Shall we continue? Vader asked pleasantly.
Luke swung again.
Leia stared hard at the Imperial before her, trying to decide if he was telling the truth. If she ignored he uniform, she had to admit he was quite handsome . . .
A strange noise distracted her. She glanced down the hall and out of the huge window at the end.
By the Force, she gasped in shock.
Luke and Vader were dueling on top of the wall.
For the love of . . . Han said, his jaw going slack.
There were footsteps on the stairs.
Hey, you two, can we join the party? Jix asked, Piett hovering at his shoulder.
The two men followed their gazes.
Holy Force, Jix breathed.
The four of them ran to the window.
Ten credits says one of them falls off, Jix breathed, enchanted by the sight of the dancing lightsabers.
Which one? Han replied.
Don't you dare bet on something like this! Leia ordered in a tone so like Vader's all three Imperials unconsciously stood a little straighter. Life and death isn't a game.
Don't worry about the kid, Jix said soothingly. Uncle D won't kill him. He is his kid, after all.
Leia gave him a funny look.
Uncle D? she asked, eyebrows raised. And you aren't dead yet?
What can I say? Jix shrugged. He loves me.
Leia snorted and turned her attention back to to duel outside the window -- just as Luke stumbled.
Luke had thought he was holding his own fairly well until he tripped and nearly fell off the wall. Instead he was flat on his back on the top of it, while Vader held his crimson lightsaber to his throat.
You are beaten, Vader informed him. It is useless to resist. Don't let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did.
Luke gathered the Force around himself as Yoda had taught him and used it to leap back and up, away from Vader's blade and to his feet. He barely had his footing before he slashed at Vader, determined to hurt him before the monster got his guard back up.
His blade smacked into Vader's shoulder. The Sith shied back from it; combined with the protective layers built into the suit, the blade didn't sink in very far, but Luke did glimpse an angry, cauterized red welt underneath the folds of the suit before Vader forced his to run backwards along the wall, he came on to him with such a vengeance.
Luke realized he didn't have a chance approximately two seconds before Vader slashed his hand and lightsaber from his body.
Leia gasped and tears came to her eyes as the four companions watched Luke's hand tumble over the side of the wall.
Ouch, Jix commented.
Leia smacked him on the back of the head.
What's he saying? Leia asked anxiously, as Vader's helmeted head bobbed up and down in speech.
How should we know? Jix asked irritably, rubbing the back of his head.
They all heard Luke's scream of, NO! as Vader took out his comlink. Jix's rang.
Hey Uncle D! Great battle! We've been watching!
We? Vader asked dangerously.
Yeah! Me, and Han, and Firmus, and Princess Whats-Her-Name.
Leia, Vader and Leia said at the same time.
Her name is Leia, Vader continued. Send a medical squad out. And have a couple girls prepare a room next to the Princess'.'
Sure thing, Uncle D. The connection ended. To answer your question, darling, Jix said to Leia, I think our young Mr. Skywalker just found out who his daddy is.
Vader hissed as Polor, his physician, cleaned the wound Luke had given him. It was only shallow Vader had suffered much, much worse but because it was so minor, Polor had refused him any pain medication, and Force, cleaning hurt.
Vader glanced over at Luke, sedated on the examination table as a droid took measurements for his new hand. Vader regretted that but then the boy should have known better than to push him like that.
Will he be alright? he asked Polor softly, so that even the droid could not hear.
Polor glanced at Luke. Of course.
Vader nodded absently, still staring at Luke's prone form.
Polor stood up. All set, my lord.
Thank you, Polor, Vader replied, standing too.
Not a problem, the physician replied as he moved over to check Luke's vitals, as if being thanked by Darth Vader was something that happened every day.
Vader sighed and with one last glance at Luke, left to attend to his other duties.
Leia watched Vader leave the medical bay and snuck in after he had disappeared from sight.
Luke looked awful. He was pale and still, and that scared Leia more than Vader did.
May I help you? a soft voice asked.
She looked around to see a plain man dressed in a doctor's attire looking at her intently.
I I just wanted so see him, she said, her voice faltering.
The doctor nodded in understanding and gestured to a chair.
Take all the time you need.
What is this? Vader asked Jix as his agent led a sad parade of droids and other machinery through his front hall.
Salvage from Hoth, Jix said. Thought you might want to have a look, see if there's anything important in the lot.
Vader glanced over the collection of poorly maintained equipment.
I doubt it.
By the Maker, I do believe that is Darth Vader, he heard an all-too-familiar protocol droid whisper in the back of crowd.
And Jixton, have the protocol droid disintegrated.
What? came the startled reply from the mechanical being. Oh, no.
Jix, however, was too busy wondering why Vader didn't like the droid to pay any attention to it.
Come on, he ordered the golden droid. Let's go.
The droid was too well-mannered not to obey, so he followed Jix down the hall.
This was not Threepio's day. Why would Darth Vader want him disintegrated? He had never met the Dark Lord before; surely he hadn't done anything in such a short period of acquaintance to annoy the man. It just made not sense to Threepio. Honestly, organic beings were so difficult to understand, sometimes.
A quiet beep interrupted his computerized thoughts.
Artoo? he whispered quietly. Artoo Detoo, is that you?
Why, I don't believe it! Oh, you've got to save me, Artoo! I'm going to be disintegrated!
What do you mean, Master Luke is here and he is Darth Vader's child? Really Artoo, where do you get your delusions?
Hey, Goldenrod! the human who was going to disintegrate him called out. Come on!
I have to go, Artoo No, you are not coming with me!
A rude noise.
Well, I never! Fine, but it will be your own fault if you get disintegrated too!
Vader stalked into the Imperial Palace, his cloak swishing angrily behind him. Clerks and other officials pressed themselves against the walls in an effort to make themselves smaller. The exception was Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand, but even though she kept walking, she did move aside and let him pass.
Jade, he greeted her.
Her green eyes widened, and she slowed. Lord Vader.
Do you have a mission?
Not at the moment.
You should come with me. I'm sure the Emperor will find something for you to do after he hears my news.
In truth, Vader was hoping Sidious would assign Mara to oversee Vader's training of Luke, rather than insist on training the boy himself. Vader would even suggest it himself if it kept Luke out of Sidious's paws.
And besides, both he and Luke would need a new sparring partner. It got old, training with the same person all the time.
She blinked at him, disbelieving, but he sent her a feeling of sincerity through the Force, and she agreed. Very well.
He continued his swift walk through the palace, heading to the throne room.
Greeting, Lord Vader, Sidious said as he entered. He looked at Mara. Back so soon, my child?
I asked her to accompany me, Master, Vader replied for her. She shot him a dirty look, which he ignored. I have captured my son, Master. I wish to borrow your Hand to help me train him in the ways of the Dark Side.
Vader couldn't see Mara from where he was standing, but he could easily feel her shock through the Force.
Yes, Jade, I do have a child. You can stop gaping now.
Sidious's eyes narrowed. I can help you train him, Lord Vader.
With all due respect, Master, I was planning to take him to Bast. He will relax his guard there, I think, and become more susceptible to the Dark. You know you cannot take such an extended leave from the court, Master, and Bast is not equipped with the means to run the galaxy from there.
Meaning you do not want your private retreat overrun with Imperial busybodies. Sidious smiled. Yes, I know the workings of your mind well, Lord Vader.
Vader ignored that. Also, young Jade is of an age with my son, Master. He would undoubtedly be more open to her than to either you or I.
Sidious thought about that. Very well, Lord Vader, he said slowly. You may have your son and my Hand. However, if the boy does not turn in one year, you are to bring him back to me, and I will train him myself. Is that understood?
Excellent. What time do you wish to leave Imperial Center for Vjun?
Tomorrow morning, Master.
Very good. I will sent Mara along at seven hundred hours.
Thank you, Master.
Vader bowed and left, snickering to himself as he felt Mara throw him a vicious glare for getting her tangled up in all this.
Have a seat, Jix instructed that protocol droid.
Is this standard procedure for disintegrations? the machine asked his friend, who beeped exasperatedly.
You're not being disintegrated,' Jix informed him. Either of you. I want to know why Vader doesn't like you.
I really wouldn't know, sir. I have never met him before what do you mean, yes I have? I do think I would recall something like that, Artoo!
Jix rolled his eyes. These droids were worse than an old married couple.
Did you have a memory wipe? he asked, trying to be patient.
Not that I remember but Artoo Detoo says I have, the protocol droid replied in surprise, placing a dingy hand on the astromech's dome. And oh, where are my manners? I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relat--
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wonder . . . Jix muttered. Shut down, he ordered.
The protocol Threepio, had he introduced himself as? -- obeyed, and Jix moved around to remove the back of his head coverings.
The wires were a mass of jumbled functions, further proof that Vader knew this droid. Jix had been unfortunate enough to have to fix things Vader had worked on before, and this droid was classic Dark Lord. However, it didn't take him as long as he thought it would to find the memory center, and luckily, it appeared that Vader had played with this droid long before he had secrets to hide, because he had placed a special device inside to retain memory even after a wipe. All he had to do was reattach this, switch that, and replace the plate. He turned the droid on again.
Remember anything now? he asked it.
Yes I oh my goodness, Master Anakin turned to the Dark Side! Oh my! Poor Mistress Padmé, and the poor babies! Oh, but they're alright, oh yes, I remember them now, Mistress Padmé would be so proud --
Wait wait wait, Jix said quickly. Babies? As in two?
Yes, sir, twins. Master Luke and Mistress Leia. Although now that I think about it, they don't really act as if they know they are twins I suppose they were raised apart --
Leia? Jix said urgently. As in Princess of Alderaan?
Yes, sir. She looks just like Mistress Padmé, doesn't she, Artoo? And Master Luke looks like Master Anakin except he's not as tall --
Princess Leia is Uncle D's kid, too. A wide grin spread over Jix's face. Holy Force.
Jix waltzed into Vader's suite of rooms, where the Sith Lord was talking to Polor about something boring and medical.
I know something you would dearly like to know, he announced as both men turned their attention to him.
Do tell, Vader replied dryly, an edge of irritation over being interrupted creeping into his voice.
I'd kind of like to prove it first, Jix told him.
Vader's eyes narrowed. Then go prove it.
I need his help. Jix pointed at Polor.
Vader gave the confused doctor a look of long-suffering, which Jix thought was a bit much. He wasn't being that annoying.
Polor stood up.
Oh, and I'll need a sample of your blood, Jix added, addressing Vader.
What? Vader gaped at him in shock. No!
Please? Jix begged. It'll be worth it, I promise!
Vader glowered, but nodded at Polor. The doctor pulled a syringe out of nowhere Who carries around syringes? -- and handed it to Vader, who inserted the needle into his own abdomen and extracted about a tablespoon of blood.
Enough? he asked Jix with a glare that said it had better be enough.
Sure, Jix answered, not having a clue as to how much blood was needed for a DNA test.
Vader handed the syringe back to Polor, who capped it and looked at Jix. The agent turned and led him out of the room.
Well, what else was I supposed to do, Artoo? You try getting your memory back sometime and we'll see how you handle it!
The astromech tootled angrily at him again. Threepio huffed.
I can tell Master Luke and Mistress Leia anything they want to know about their parents! And I'm sure they'll want to know. I have no good reason to stay quiet.
Artoo gave a series of furious beeps and whistles.
Well, no, I didn't know that --
Another flurry of chirps.
Well, I can't be everywhere --
Really worked up now, Artoo spit out a rapid exclamation of hoots and beeps.
No, I'm not the one who flew with Master Anakin --
Reaching out with a tool Threepio couldn't remember the astromech ever having before (but then who knew what Master Anakin had done to him) Artoo poked at Threepio, sending a small current of electricity running along his frame.
Ouch! Artoo! Are you trying to make me short-circuit?
An affirmative, angry beep answered him, and he was zapped again.
Ow! Artoo! That's quite enough! Ow! Ow!
Threepio had to find a set of stairs to go down before Artoo would leave him alone.
Luke knocked tentatively on the door he was pretty sure led to Leia's room. She had said it was right beside his, and he could feel her presence inside, so he was comfortable in his assumption.
However, he was tossed slightly off-balance when a pretty young girl who was definitely not Leia peered out at him.
Master Skywalker, she said, sketching a slight curtsy.
He winced. Just Luke, please.
To his surprise, she laughed. As you wish, Just Luke.
He smiled back, amazed at how at ease the servants seemed. After all, they did work for him.
Is Leia here?
The maid opened the door wider. Come in. I'll go get her.
Luke stood uncomfortably in the bedroom while the maid slipped out onto the balcony. A moment later, Leia was practically flying toward him.
Luke! she shrieked in delight.
He grabbed her around the waist and hugged her tight as she clung just as hard to him. After a moment, though, he pushed her away. Before anything else happened, he needed to tell her what Vader had told him.
Leia . . . when I came . . . Vader met me, and we fought, and he told me he told me --
He's your father. I know, Luke. It doesn't matter.
He looked at her hopefully.
Really. It'll take a lot more than that to get rid of me, farmboy.
His returning smile was so sweet and relieved that Leia couldn't understand how, just over a day ago, she had considered him a traitor to the Alliance over who his father was.
You have no idea how glad I am to hear that.
She led him out to the balcony, and they leaned on the railing side-by-side.
Luke, Leia began, what are we going to do?
I have no idea. We aren't going to get away from anyone long enough to make a run for it, and even if we could get out of the castle, we'd never get very far. I don't know about you, but I don't know anything about this planet.
You forget I was a Senator, Luke, she reminded him gently. I know the political district quite well, but I'm afraid I never got around to exploring this section. I was always warned not to antagonize Vader.
Luke winced and involuntarily flexed his right hand.
I can understand that.
She gave a slightly bitter grin in response, and looked down over the gardens, which were being tended by the same old gardener. Instead of just smiling when he saw them, like he had the first day Leia was here, he gave a slight bow before bending over his plants once again.
Of course. Luke is Vader's son they've been instructed to show him the same respect as Vader. She took note of Luke's uneasy face. And from the looks of it, he doesn't like it at all.
They stood in companionable silence for a few minutes, and then heard one of the maids arguing with a man the same man Vader had called after his battle with Luke, if Leia wasn't mistaking his voice.
I'm sure they won't mind -- he said.
Then you won't object to waiting outside while I ask them, will you? the maid Wyn, Leia thought snapped back.
She exchanged a look of resignation with Luke, then called in the balcony door, It's alright, Wyn. Let him in.
Leia could imagine the maid gritting her teeth and glowering at Jixton? -- as she heard the man say, Thank you.
The brawny Corellian stepped out onto the balcony.
Leia! Luke! he greeting them happily.
Leia raised her brows, but smiled. How had this man ever ended up in Vader's service?
Only if you're pissed at me, he replied cheerfully. Otherwise, I'm Jix.
Jix, then. Can I help with something?
His face brightened like a child who was just asked if he wanted a second birthday celebration.
Yes, actually, you can.
They waited, letting him elaborate.
See, I'm doing this experiment-confirmation-test thing, and I need -- he whipped a couple of syringes out from behind his back -- blood samples, if you please.
What? she and Luke exclaimed at the same time, looking at the needles with trepidation.
Leia especially didn't care for Jix's request, having had far too much experience with imperials and syringes.
Please? Jix wheedled, giving them a sad, begging look.
They looked at each other, wondering what in the galaxy the Imperial was going to do with their blood. The DNA it carried could be used for lots of things, many of which Leia did not want to think about.
At that moment, Vader and Solo stalked onto the balcony, Wyn and Clary following behind them. Vader froze in his tracks at the sight of Jix and the syringes.
What is it with you and blood?! Vader demanded, giving Leia the impression that they weren't the first people Jix had asked.
Nothing, Jix said, looking innocently up at the black-clad Dark Lord.
Out, Vader ordered.
Come on --
Uncle D --
I said no.
Leia got the impression that Vader was glaring evilly at his agent. Ten.
Deal! He thrust the syringes into their hands. Hurry hurry hurry!
Luke efficiently drew Jix a sample from his own arm, but Leia couldn't bring herself to break her skin. Luke took the needle from her and gently drew the blood from her arm himself, then handed both syringes to Jixton. The agent thanked them with a boyish smile and took off.
Leia glanced down at her arm. It didn't hurt at all then she looked at Luke, realizing he must have used the Force to numb her skin. He placed a hand on the small of her back and tapped his forefinger twice against the thin cloth of her shirt. It was their signal that meant, Keep your mouth shut. I'll handle this. Luke had never used it before he wasn't very diplomatic but Leia realized that in this situation, he could do more good than she could.
As it was, the situation didn't need much handling at all.
Vader watched Jix dash out the door, then turned his attention back to Luke and Leia.
We are leaving in the morning for Bast Castle. Princess, your maids will help you pack. Luke, Solo has agreed to assist you.
The Sith Lord turned on his heel without another word and stalked out the door.
Please, Uncle D, just trust me on this, okay? Jix begged as he struggled to hold the door shut against the giant Dark Lord.
I think I've trusted you enough, Jixton, Vader growled, using the Force to splinter the door.
Jix winced as sawdust began to collect on the floor of Polor's lab. The doctor was going to kill him.
Look, just fifteen more minutes, okay? Then I'll tell you, I promise.
Five, Vader ordered, backing off. Jix nodded agreeably. Five. Sure. Okay.
Vader left in a fury, and Jix closed the door gently, not wanting it to shatter completely under his hands. He walked back to where Polor was running the paternity and sibling tests.
Can you give me an answer in five minutes? Jix asked hopefully.
Polor grinned conspiratorially at him. I can give you an answer now.
Vader was overseeing the loading of the shuttle that they would be taking to the Executor when Jix came up to him, fairly skipping with joy.
I know something you would dearly like to know, he informed Vader gleefully, repeating his words from earlier that day.
Vader glanced at the chrono on the wall.
It's only been three minutes, he said, surprised.
I know, Jix said, but we were done.
Vader glared at him expectantly even though he knew it wouldn't faze his agent in the slightest.
Jix gestured behind him, and two droids came toward them.
I thought I told you to disintegrate that driod, he snapped, recognizing Threepio's slim frame. And -- By the Force, is that Artoo-Detoo?
I know, but he had such interesting stories to tell when I fixed his memory, Jix said slyly.
At that moment, four more people burst into the loading bay.
Lord Vader, Luke doesn't have any -- Han began.
What will the weather be like, so we can pack -- Clary overrode him. Luke and Leia themselves cringed in the background.
Quiet! Vader barked. Continue, Jixton.
Jix shot a look at Leia. Well, c'mere, Threepio. Tell him what you told me.
The driod shuffled forward, looking as frightened as a blank-faced robot could. Well, Master Anakin --
Don't call me that! Vader snapped.
Well, I ah ah I well it's about Mistress --
Don't say her name, either!
I um um I, ah very well ah well, on Polis Massa, she had the babies, and they were sent away --
WHAT?! Vader thundered.
Luke went white with comprehension. Leia was confused and slightly scared.
The babies they they --
BABIES?! MORE THAN ONE?!
By now, the entire work force had stopped what they were doing to listen to the confrontation. A furious wave of Vader's black-gloved hand sent them scurrying back to their duties, but all we still carefully eavesdropping which, at the pitch Vader was shouting at, wasn't hard to do.
Y-Y-Yes, Master Ana--
Don't say it! Where is the other child? There is only one more, right? Vader was dangerously close to Threepio now, and the protocol droid backed up, only to trip over Artoo, who had been whirring angrily at him the whole time under Vader's stormy replies and now reached out to zap him again with the same tool he had before.
Ouch! Oh, Artoo! -- Yes, sir, just Luke and Leia.
The entire room went silent. Everyone turned to look at Leia.
She froze, shocked. Then, for the second time in two days, she turned and ran.
Vader glared at all the personnel desperately avoiding his gaze as they scurried up and down the boarding ramp, carrying supplies for the trip to Vjun onto the ship.
Admiral, he snapped at Piett.
Piett gulped, but did his best to appear impassive, despite the bomb that had been dropped just minutes earlier. Yes, my lord?
Oversee the remainder of the preparations. I want to leave at eight hundred hours tomorrow morning.
With that final command, Vader swept out of the docking bay, leaving his shocked employees behind.
Much to Leia's surprise, no one bothered her all night. After the shock had worn off and the realization that she, too, was Vader's child had sunk in, she had alternately cried and brooded. But nobody, not even Luke or the maids, had entered the room.
She sobbed herself into a fitful sleep, for once thankful for the dark décor that hid reality from her.
Vader sat in his hyperbaric chamber, as still as a stone, searching the Force for the truth behind Threepio's words even as his gut instincts told him the droid had spoken without any falsehoods.
She looks just like How could I have missed it? I'm smarter than that.
He turned and smashed his artificial right hand into the wall, putting a hole through the metal and screwing up several of the mechanisms situated on the back of the hand. He growled furiously, angry at far more than his fragile mechanical systems, and set to work repairing the machine.
Piett sincerely hoped Vader would not come back down to the docking bay for quite some time. In the mood the Sith Lord was in, several people would not survive the night if he did.
Admiral? one of the workers asked him softly.
Piett turned to look at him.
Is it really true? the man asked eagerly. Is Princess Organa really --
If you know what's good for you, you'll forget you ever heard that, Piett advised sternly.
But if she's Lord Vader's daughter, we need to treat her --
With respect, Piett finished firmly. And you should be treating her with respect already. Continue to do so until Lord Vader tells you differently. Until he acknowledges it, it is only another rumour and it's to be ignored.
Yes, Admiral, the worker replied respectfully, and he went back to his job and to tell his colleagues what Piett had said.
Piett himself sighed inwardly. He hoped this mess was cleared up soon.
But really . . . Lord Vader had twins! What were the chances?
Luke crept silently up to Leia's door, listening intently for sounds coming from within. He had avoided this conversation for hours, but Force, she was his friend! And his sister! He couldn't let her go through this alone!
He hesitated, his hand hovering above the door controls. On the other hand she was furious. Even with his rudimentary Force training, he could feel her anger at Vader and at the Force for making Vader her father. And when she was like this, Luke knew from experience, it was best just to let her work it out on her own.
He cast one more longing look at the door, then moved away, toward his own room. He had a sister! The idea was still so new, but he liked it a lot. Even if Vader was their father.
Han Solo had been feeling neglected. With all the uproar over Luke and now Leia and how weird was that little revelation? -- he had not been missed when he had escorted the new pilot recruits up to the Executor and he had not been greeted when he returned. Not even by a landing aide.
He thought over the idea of Leia being Vader's kid. It wasn't so far out there, really. They both had vicious tempers, and they both had a similar view on battle. Granted, the Princess's was a little less ruthless, but the general ideas were still there.
And she was only nice to people she liked -- Force help anyone she didn't. She was an excellent leader who knew what she was doing; she had an air of confidence and single-minded determination. And when she was mad, he didn't dare go anywhere near her.
Just like Vader. It was rather frightening.
He had to call Chewie. It was gossip time.
I really don't see what the fuss is all about, Artoo, Threepio insisted as the two droids were hustled into the cargo hold on the shuttle. I only told the truth. Humans like the truth.
Artoo gave an irritated whistle.
I know far more about human behavior than you do, you rusty, interfering mechanic, Threepio retorted haughtily.
Artoo made a rude sound.
Alright, you two, shut up, a worker ordered. He looked over his shoulder. Hiche, shut these two droids down for the journey up to the Lady Ex. I don't think Lord Vader's going to be in any mood to put up with their chatter.
Oh dear, Threepio muttered fearfully.
Artoo just ignored them all.
Jix leaned back on his bed, a stupid grin on his face. That had been amazing. Even if Vader was mad.
He still couldn't believe it. The girl was Vader's. Who would have thought?
Vader slipped into the medical bay, just another shadow in the gloomy mansion.
Polor, he hissed in the dark.
A dim light lit the medic's room and he stepped out, a lab coat over pajama bottoms and no shirt.
Milord? he replied, voice fuzzy from sleep.
Vader sighed. I hit a wall, he admitted grudgingly.
Polor blinked a couple times somehow, that seemed to bring him to fully alert consciousness.
And you damaged your hand too much to fix it yourself.
Considering I only have one other hand . . . Vader stared down at his messed up hand in frustration. I tried to improvise, but --
Sit down, Polor ordered briskly.
Vader did so.
Polor pulled up a stool and table with small tools on it. He helped Vader out of the armour Vader knew he should have come without it, but even though the chances of meeting someone were incredibly slim, he didn't want to be caught without the mask between him and them. He was feeling too out of sorts for that.
They removed all the armour to the waist, so that not only was his damaged arm free, but he was comfortable. Vader was grateful that Polor was so considerate about things like that. He spent enough of his time being uncomfortable.
An oxygen mask and tank stood by the chair, but Vader ignored it. He would not use it until he absolutely needed to.
As Polor bent over his arm, Vader looked about the room. Three vials of blood caught his eye.
That's what you and Jix were doing in here, wasn't it, he asked.
Polor glanced up for a moment, then back down at his task.
A blood test. To prove that Leia was really my daughter. And Luke's sister.
Polor glanced up again as he reached for a small instrument.
Vader looked over at the door. He thought he heard --
Um . . . excuse me? Doctor?
Polor glanced at Vader, who shook his head, managing to keep the movement from looking panicked. No way was Luke seeing him like this. never mind that Leia already had; that had been an accident, and she hadn't known who he was. Luke would know, and Vader was not prepared for that. It would not happen.
Polor went to the door, but he only opened it a crack.
Can I come in? Luke asked.
Vader groaned mentally.
Polor hesitated, but let him in. Careful to guide Luke's attention away from his father, he led the boy to a back room to talk.
Have you done a blood test? Vader heard Luke ask.
Yes, Polor replied evenly. It revealed you to be her brother, and Lord Vader to be her father.
There was a pause. Vader was growing restless. He studied his arm, noting the work Polor had already done. It shouldn't take much longer to complete. Maybe he could do it himself . . .
He suddenly felt light-headed.
. . . but not if he couldn't breathe.
Okay. Thanks. I just wanted to make sure.
Reluctantly, Vader reached for the oxygen mask. He put it over his nose and mouth, not bothering with the strap. He could hold it in place. He took a deep breath, and the gas hissed into the mask.
Rather loudly. Why had he never noticed how loud those things were? They were worse than the suit.
What was that? Luke asked.
Vader froze. Oh, shit . . . no, no, no!
None of your concern, Polor replied coolly.
Vader sighed in relief.
It sounds like someone's on an oxygen tank, Luke said curiously, and Vader heard him move.
Oh no . . .
He stopped abruptly, as if Polor had grabbed his arm.
This is a medical bay, the physician informed the boy. Not a circus. My patients are not attractions in fact, most value their privacy. Now, if that is all . . . he said pointedly.
Yeah. Luke sounded deflated, as if he had really wanted to come visit, perhaps comfort, the sick person. Yeah, that's all. Thanks, Doctor.
When Polor returned, Vader smiled slightly. Thank you, he said softly.
Not a problem, Polor replied easily, and continued to work on his arm.
Jade, Vader greeted the glowering Emperor's Hand the next morning.
Lord Vader, she gritted out in return.
Oh, so the child thinks she has better things to do.
Upstairs, turn right, third door to the left. The Princess is still sleeping; go wake her up.
Mara's look would have killed, but she didn't dare use the Force on Vader. She also had orders from the Emperor, Vader knew, to obey all reasonable commands from him, and this did not fall outside of reasonable, so she headed for the stairs.
Vader turned his attention to Solo and Luke, who were entering the docking bay. Luke shot a curious look at Mara as she slipped out the door as he was coming in. Through the Force, Vader felt his son's interest spike, and the boy quickly looked to the floor, then glanced shyly over his shoulder at Mara's retreating figure. Vader narrowed his eyes.
Well. That's interesting.
Leia was awake, but she was still in bed, staring out the clear balcony door.
She still couldn't believe the events of last night had really happened. She felt so detached from them, as if it had happened to someone else and she had just happened to see it through their eyes.
She needed to be strong for Luke, she told herself. Strong for . . . her brother.
It felt nice, the thought of being related to Luke. That wasn't the problem.
The problem wore a big black suit and wielded a crimson lightsaber.
The problem had tortured her and stood idly by while her home planet and everyone she called her family was blown up.
The problem was her father.
NO! Her mind screamed. Bail Organa was her father, not this this
Her thought were interrupted when a beam of magenta energy emerged around her door, cutting in open. Leia sat up in shock.
The lightsaber disappeared, and the door was kicked in with an almighty crash, revealing a slip of a girl not much taller or bigger than Leia herself, with brilliant red hair and snapping green eyes.
Alright, Princess, she snarled disrespectfully. Time to move. You're holding up the parade.
Leia shot her a furious glare. I'm not going anywhere.
The green eyes narrowed. Do I have to go get Vader?
Leia didn't reply, and they faced off, a silent battle of wills, until Luke and Solo came looking for them.
Ah, we have to go . . . Luke began.
I'm not going, Leia replied.
Luke's eyes widened. Um --
Solo gave a gusty sigh, strode over to the bed and picked Leia up, slinging her over his shoulder. She was so shocked she was still for a moment, and then she began to struggle for all she was worth. However, he had too good a grip on her, and he carried her all the way down to the docking bay in her pajamas, with Luke and the redhead following behind. Vader gave them a look as Solo marched up the boarding ramp, but he didn't say anything.
Han deposited her in chair and stood guard over her until everyone was on board and they were on their way to the Executor. The journey to Bast Castle had begun.
You have absolutely no right! Leia yelled as the ship vibrated to life and lifted off. Even in the Empire there are laws against kidnapping!
How is it kidnapping if I brought you to your dad? Han asked, both reasonably and irritably.
HE IS NOT MY FATHER! Leia screamed furiously.
Could've fooled me, Han muttered, turning on his heel and stalking out of the hold before she could shoot off another sentence.
He closed the door behind him and headed for the cockpit, hoping Vader was in a better mood than his daughter.
Han wandered into the cockpit, where Vader and the redhead what was her name? Mara Jade? -- were sitting in the pilot and co-pilot seats, respectively, staring out at the looming shape of the Executor. Behind them, Piett, Jix and Polor were engaged in a game of sabacc, while Luke watched them with interest.
Han sat down.
Deal me in.
He looked over at Luke.
Want to play, kid?
Luke glanced furtively at Vader, who hadn't moved, then looked back at Han.
I'm not really sure how, he admitted quietly. Wedge tried to teach me, but . . .
Han waved him down to the floor.
Let a master show you how it's done, he invited, earning a snort from Jix and a chuckle from Polor.
Piett stayed quiet. Han never would have guessed, but Piett had the best sabacc face of them all.
Luke slid shyly to the floor beside Han as the captain picked up his cards. Han held out the cards for Luke to study. The boy looked confused for a moment, then surprised, and finally happy. He nodded at Han.
Han gave him a weird look the cards weren't that interesting but kept his peace and began to play. He'd explain the game to the kid after the round was over.
Luke nearly fell over when Vader spoke to him inside his head.
When he had recovered his wits, Luke managed to reply, What?
Solo's got a good hand. He's got this game wrapped up if he can end it before the cards shift.
Doesn't he need twenty-three points? Luke asked, quickly adding up Han's cards over his shoulder. He's only got twenty.
That's closer than Jix and Polor are, and Piett hasn't a hope in hell with the cards he's got now. He needs a shift to happen quickly if he's to win.
Oh. What's the card on the far left called? I haven't seen it before.
Master of Sabres. Tell him to play his Ace of Flasks.
Which one's that?
The one second from the right.
Luke poked Han.
What? Han growled over his shoulder.
Play that one, Luke said, pointing to the card Vader had indicated.
Han stared at him.
Are you crazy?
He discarded one Luke recognized as a negative eight of Staves and the Master of Sabres.
As soon as his hand left the cards, the ones still in his hand shifted. His hand now added up to negative six. Han made a funny noise in his throat that sounded to Luke like a bitten-back swear word.
Serves him right, Vader said in the back of Luke's mind.
Luke glanced up at the big black menace sitting in the pilot's seat above them, his back to the game. He hadn't moved a muscle.
How do you know all this? Do you play?
There was a pause.
I used to. It annoyed Obi-Wan. Now . . .
He didn't say any more. He didn't have to.
Leia paced the hold she was locked in, fuming. Every time she glanced out the small porthole, the huge gray bulk of the Executor had come closer, and she was beginning to fret. Once she was on that giant ship, there would be no chance of getting off until Vader allowed her to, at the destination of his choice.
Not there was much chance of getting off this one, locked up as she was, but still, she felt a lot better when it was just six hostile people, rather than thousands.
She sighed and slid down the wall, burying her head in her arms for a good cry.
Han and Piett stood behind Vader as the Sith expertly guided the shuttle into his private docking bay aboard the Executor. Polor and Luke sat near the back of the cockpit. Luke seemed to trust the doctor quite a bit perhaps because he had taken care of him after the loss of his hand, or because the quiet doctor had that effect on people, or both. Whatever the cause, the kid visibly relaxed as Polor struck up a small conversation.
The boarding ramp lowered with a hiss. Mara Jade was the first one off the ship, her backbone as stiff and straight as a durasteel rod.
She has issues, Han thought as he followed her, watching her bark at one of the attending officers.
Piett and Polor came down next, with Luke. The kid looked like a nerf caught in speeder lights, Han thought. He couldn't blame, him, really. This was still enemy territory to him.
Vader escorted the Princess down the ramp next, Jix following in their shadows. Her Worshipfulness's colour was high, and her chin was stuck in the air in a defiant gesture. Han rolled his eyes at her arrogance.
Vader moved to talk to Piett, and Han noticed the Princess' eyes immediately start to dart around the docking bay, looking for an escape route, he assumed.
Oh, no, you don't.
He strode over to her.
Pleasant flight, Your Highnessness?
Go away, you stupid nerfherder.
You wound me, Princess. Can't we have a civilized conversation for once?
Her glare turned wry.
What's a civilized conversation? she asked.
No idea, Han replied cheerfully.
He noticed Vader striding across the bay, Luke, Jix and Polor at his heels.
You'd better go, he said jerking his head in their direction.
Her jaw set mulishly.
He frowned at her.
Do I have to carry you again? he asked.
Her glare returned full force, but she began to walk albeit slowly, after her father and brother. Han was supposed to check in with his squadron, but he figured he'd better go with her. He had no doubt that she'd get lost and accidentally end up in an outgoing shuttle.
Luke peeked around the corner at the redhead sitting in one of the Executor's lounges, going over datapads. She shifted position, curling one foot underneath her, and he ducked back around the corner, not wanting her to see him. For a little slip of a girl, she was downright scary.
But pretty damn cute, too . . .
No! She was the enemy! Wasn't she working for his for Vader? Though she didn't seem to like him much.
Why was he even here? He would like to talk to her, but she looked about ready to bite someone. He didn't want to be that someone.
If you don't approach her now, you never will, a little voice inside his head that sounded like Aunt Beru admonished him. He stepped forward.
She didn't even look up until he was standing directly over her. Then she gave him a glare so icy he quickly sat down in the chair next to her. She resumed ignoring him.
Um . . . hello, he said.
She didn't even blink.
I'm Luke . . . but I guess you knew that. You're Mara, right?
Her head snapped around.
You may call me Emperor's Hand, she informed him haughtily.
You work for the Emperor? Luke replied, surprised. I thought --
That I work for Vader? She snorted. Not in this lifetime. Vader's coming so close to treason it's not even funny.
But he's the Emperor's right hand ma--
No, I am the Emperor's Hand. Vader is just his lackey. The Emperor thinks Vader wants to overthrow him, that's why he's training you himself, otherwise he wouldn't mind letting him train you.
Luke's eyes went wide.
The Emperor wanted to train me?
She glared at him.
Let me give you some advice, Skywalker. Don't get to attached to Vader, even if he is your father. When the push comes to shove, Vader's going down. And if you know what's good for you, you'll side with the Emperor against him.
She got up and walked away, leaving a slack-jawed Luke behind.
Hey, Jix? a voice asked from the doorway.
Vader's agent sat up from digging in a drawer and swung his chair around and looked at his visitor.
Hey, kid. C'mon in.
Luke entered the small room, looking around with interest at Jix's cluttered living space.
I was just wondering about Mara. She says she works for the Emperor, and . . . well . . .
She does work for the Emperor, Jix replied, going back to his hunt for something or other. She's the One and only Emperor's Hand! he finished dramatically, beginning to shove things off the bed in a fruitless effort to find whatever he was looking for.
Or so she thinks, another voice rumbled.
Luke jumped up and whirled around, and came face to chest with Vader. He sat back down in an effort to stay out of the Dark Lord's space.
But Vader wasn't paying any attention to him. He was looking at Jix, his head cocked to one side as if he was amused by something. Then he held out a datapad.
Looking for this, Jixton?
Jix pounced on it.
Yes! Why didn't you tell me you had it? I've been looking everywhere!
Why were you talking about Mara Jade? Vader asked instead of answering.
Luke wanted to know, Jix replied, casually flipping his hand in Luke's direction as he scanned the datapad.
Vader turned to look at Luke, who cast his gaze on the floor and pretended he was invisible.
What did she tell you? Vader asked after a moment, a slight bite to his voice.
How does he know I talked to her? Luke wondered.
This is my ship, I know everything, Vader replied.
Now Luke understood.
Stay out of my head!
What did Jade say to you?
She said you're planning treason against the Emperor, and that you're only a lackey, and that he trusts her more than he trusts you, Luke told him reluctantly.
Vader's huge chest expanded even more as he took a deep breath.
First of all, I am the Sith Lord, not her. She's only a Hand, and contrary to what she believes, he has multiple Hands dozens, in fact.
That sounds so weird, Jix commented. He has multiple hands . . .
Secondly, Vader continued as if Jix hadn't even spoken, If I was planning treason, I would not invite her to Vjun with us. She may only be a Hand, but she has a quick, brilliant mind and she is one of the strongest in the Force among the Hands.
Yeah, if you're going bring an enemy into your midst, bring a stupid one, Jix added.
Thirdly, Vader kept going, until she can be sure of her allies, she should not be speaking so on this ship. Most of the crew are loyal to me, not the Empire, and would not appreciate her saying such things. That carelessness is why the Emperor has me remove thorns, while she only scratches at itches.
And with that, he swept back out the door.
Oh, Luke said, slightly confused. He turned to Jix. So which version is the right one?
That's the question, isn't it?
Leia looked both ways to make sure no one was coming before she left her room, only to walk into the insufferable Han Solo as she turned a corner.
He caught her arm to keep her from falling, and as she wrenched herself out of his grip, she nearly toppled over again. Once she had regained her composure, she continued on her way without a word.
Of course, he had to follow her. Evil nerfherder.
Of all the people I could run into on this waste of firepower, I couldn't get a nice, anonymous ensign, could I? she groused at him. No, I have to get you. I'd almost say you're stalking me.
Why would I want to stalk you? he replied, arching an eyebrow.
She made a sound that was half scream, half groan, and took off down the hallway, much to his surprise.
She turned a corner.
Wait! he called that was the way to the hangar bay!
He ran after her.
Leia grinned as she heard Solo's footsteps pound past the door she was hiding behind. She turned away from the door into the room --
-- and came face to face with R2-D2, C-3PO, and a giant, hairy Wookiee. She shrieked in surprise.
Mistress Leia, Mistress Leia, it's perfectly alright! Chewbacca here is in charge of the droids aboard the Executor. We have received excellent care at his hands I mean, paws I mean --
I know what you mean, Threepio, she interrupted, getting her bearings back.
She held her hand out to the Wookiee.
I'm pleased to make your acquaintance . . . Chewbacca, is it?
The Wookiee looked doubtfully at her tiny hand and nodded. Then he growled.
Chewbacca says he doesn't wish to be rude, but your hand is too small for him to shake. He is afraid he will hurt you.
Leia smiled and withdrew her hand.
I appreciate your concern.
He barked gruffly and motioned for her to sit down. She accepted.
Han banged into Chewie's maintenance room an hour and a half later.
Chewie? You haven't seen there you are, Your Worshipfulness. I've been looking everywhere for you.
That's why I've been hiding, she replied acidly, glaring up at him from where she had been peering into a dismantled servodriver that Chewie was fixing. She looked down again.
What does this do? she asked, pointing to a part inside the servodriver with interest.
Chewie replied and Goldenrod translated, but Han's attention was caught by Chewie's next question: Why do you and your brother have different last names?
Well, that was random, Han thought, then realized they were trading question for question as the Princess looked up sharply and asked when they had gotten into personal questions.
Chewie just shrugged.
Leia sighed, glared at Han, then said , We were raised apart. I was formally adopted by the royal family of Alderaan, and he grew up with our aunt and uncle.
So what's his last name? Han asked, a little feeling in the back of his mind telling him he really should ask this.
She glared again, but said grudgingly, Skywalker.
Skywalker. Where had he heard that name before? Then it dawned on him.
. . . you remind me of someone I once knew, a man I was . . . very close to at one point in time. His name was Skywalker. I have denied for years that I still consider him . . . something of . . . a partner, or . . . friend . . .
Han turned and dashed out of the room, much to the surprise of Leia and Chewie..
Father, help me! Please! Father! Luke called through his pain as he writhed on the floor, a victim of Sidious's Force lightning.
Vader stood beside Sidious, watching.
He had to help, he had to. But he was frozen in place, unable to move at all.
Luke cries eventually subsided, and he lay limp within the electricity that had overcome him.
His son was dead.
Vader awoke, drenched in sweat and breathing hard. He buried his face in his hands and was shocked to find his cheeks wet with tears. He couldn't remember the last time he had cried.
He threw the covers aside and moved to the viewport to watch the stars, as he always did whenever he needed to think. It was calming, somehow, to know that he was only one man in a galaxy of trillions. Somewhere, he figured, there must be someone out there with bigger problems than his.
But his were the only ones that mattered right now.
He had expected the vision, had expected it ever since he realized he had begun to care for the boy, but the content had disturbed him. He had expected to see Luke strike him down as the Emperor laughed in the background, or to see himself kill the boy as Sidious watched. Worst case scenario, as always.
But he seemed to be a magnet for worst case scenarios coming true.
He settled into his hyperbaric chamber and began to meditate. He knew sleep would be fruitless tonight.
Sidious called first thing in the morning.
Lord Vader, he greeted the other Sith haughtily. It has come to my attention that there is another child you call your own.
Well, shit. But I should have known. Jade would never keep her mouth shut.
Yes, Master. It seems the Organa girl and Skywalker are twins, raised apart on different worlds. It stands to reason that if the boy is mine, the girl is, too.
Sidious's nostrils flared at the insult to his intelligence.
Obviously. What I cannot understand is why I had to hear this information from my hand, and not from you.
The girl has been difficult. I have been attempting to keep her from doing to much damage, whatever it may be. I was going to inform you of the situation after we had arrived on Vjun and she and her brother were securely settled at Bast Castle.
Sidious glared, but could not find a loophole in that lie quickly enough.
You try my patience, Lord Vader, he snapped, and ended that conversation.
Vader sighed. Thank the Force.
Han strode out of his room, where he had just finished doing research on Skywalker and Vader. Luke was in the database, but his parental records were not. There were no other Skywalkers. Vader appeared to have jumped on board the Imperial ship fully grown twenty-two years ago. He had no childhood at all.
So there was nothing for it but to confront Vader about his suspicions.
He lifted his hand to knock on Vader's door, when is swung open. The Dark Lord wanted out.
Han stepped aside and let his superior pass, but followed him down the hall.
My lord, do you remember what you told me years ago? About Skywalker?
Was it his imagination, or did Vader's step falter just the tiniest little bit?
What about him?
Well, I just found out that Luke's last name is Skywalker, too. So all I want to know is were you Skywalker? The friend you told me about?
Vader swung around, gripping Han's bicep in a vicious grip.
If you tell anyone, Solo, I'll kill you. Slowly and painfully. Understand?
Han's eyes were wide.
Yes, sir, but --
But nothing. Anakin Skywalker is dead. That is the end of it.
Yes sir, Han replied as he processed that information away.
He now had another name.
Wait a minute.
Anakin Skywalker . . .
The Jedi Knight!?
Han nearly fainted.
Han had only been to Bast Castle once, when Vader needed to make a brief stop once because he had managed to destroy both lightsabers he had on board the Executor. Now, it seemed they were stuck here for a year.
Vader charged Han with helping Luke get settled in When did I become a babysitter? This was so not in my job description and had one of the maids take the Princess to her quarters.
What is he like to work for? the kid asked as he opened the drapes.
Han shrugged. Hard, but fair.
Does he really kill at least one person a day?
Not that I'm aware of.
How long have you been working for him?
Have you ever gotten in trouble with him?
Do you ever shut up, kid?
Luke went sullenly silent, making Han feel guilty for the rest of the day.
Leia sighed and flopped down on her new bed as her new maid, Jessa, slipped out of the room. She wondered if Vader had assigned only one maid to her this time. She doubted it. He'd given her four before he knew she was --
Best not think about that.
There was a knock on the door.
What? she snapped in that general direction.
It opened, and Luke stuck his head in, one eyebrow raised.
Now don't I feel welcome, he commented.
He entered the room and sat next to her on the bed.
Let's go exploring.
She gave him a look.
We're in Vader's private residence, she said slowly, as if talking to a very small child, and you want to go exploring.
He frowned at her.
Well, we're stuck here for a year might as well make the best of it, don't you think so?
No, I don't think so. She pulled a pillow over her face. You are far too optimistic, you know that?
I have to be, it counters your pessimism.
She sighed and pulled the pillow off her face.
You're not going to leave me alone until I go with you, are you?
He grinned cheerfully down at her.
She was about to reluctantly give in when she caught sight of a swirl of dark robes and pale skin move quickly past the open door way. She sat bolt upright.
Did you see that?
Luke looked over his shoulder.
No; what was it?
I'm not sure. I think it was the man.
Wow, that's specific.
Shut up. My first night on Coruscant, I went to the kitchens and found this man there. I never saw him again, but I think he's here now. She grabbed her brother's hand and dragged him to the door. Let's go.
Which way now? Luke asked, panting slightly.
Damn, this spectre of Leia's was fast. All they had seen of him was robes twirling around corners, and now they were hopelessly lost in Vader's maze of a castle without even the man to guide them.
Leia looked around, frowning, and pushed slightly damp hair out of her eyes.
Pick a door, Luke suggested. There's only two.
Three, Leia corrected, pointing behind him.
Luke turned and surveyed the door.
I doubt he went in there. Look at the track. That thing's so rusty I'd be surprised if you could wedge it open in less than ten minutes.
Leia's frown deepened and she stepped closer.
Luke looked at her.
Not really. It just means it hasn't been cleaned in a while.
That's my point. She gestured around them. Look at the rest of this. It's immaculate.
So what's behind this door that's so horrible nobody opens it even to clean the track?
Her eyebrows rose suggestively.
Luke backed up.
Oh no. When you put it like that, there is no way you're getting me in there. Besides, it's probably locked.
You're a Jedi, Luke.
And the Force only knows what kind of demons Vader's hiding behind that door.
Leia stared long and hard at the door. She didn't know why, but she felt a pull to that room. It even overrode her curiousity concerning the man from the kitchen.
He blew out a breath of air.
If we die, I am blaming you, he informed her as he stepped up to the keypad.
Fine by me.
She hovered over his shoulder as he used the Force to wiggle the lock open, much as he had on the Death Star.
It didn't take ten minutes to open the door far enough to slip inside the room, but it was close enough. Both Luke and Leia had sore, rust-smeared hands and clothes by the end of it.
A dim light reluctantly sprung to life as they moved to the center of the windowless room. There was dust and dirt everywhere, and Leia barely managed to bite back a scream as two large insects skittered over her feet.
What is this place? she asked Luke. I'm not seeing any demons.
I am, Luke said, his eyes fixed on a miniature holocube of a small, blond boy jumping out of a Podracer into the arms of his waiting friends and family. The cube appeared to have spilled out of a box, which was lying beside it. Luke straightened the box, but his attention remained on the cube. He picked it up, and it fit perfectly in his palm as he studied it. Just not the kind we were expecting.
Leia looked it over.
You mean personal demons? What kind of --
She glanced into the rest of the box. A bundle of letters caught her eye, and she pulled them out.
What are those? Luke asked, glancing over at her discovery.
Letters, Leia replied, opening one, Addressed to Anakin. She met her brother's gaze, eyes wide in shock.
Luke looked around the small room with newfound interest and respect.
Do you think this is all his stuff, from before . . .
Leia began to tremble.
But why did he keep it? Vader's not sentimental, why would he . . .
Where, Luke groaned, is Jix when you need him?
You know, Luke said, examining the holocube even more closely, this looks an awful lot like Tatooine.
How ironic would that be? Darth Vader grew up on a planet that rarely sees darkness.
Hey, we see darkness! Luke objected.
Leia gave him a look.
For an average of five or six hours per day, he finished with a mumble.
She gave him a winning smirk and looked back down at the letters.
You know, these are love letters.
From Mother, do you think?
Who knows? They aren't signed with a name.
Dear Anakin; I love you. I can't wait to see you tonight. All my love, your Angel.
That's not very long.
And it's almost like they're together or at least pretty close to each other. Same planet, at least.
They're just little love notes, then. Written as a way to express feelings when they're apart.
To get them through the day, or something, she agreed. There is one for about every day for two weeks before the fall of the Republic. She paused. Anything else around here?
Luke pulled some material out of another box. Jedi robes?
Leia narrowed her eyes. Pitch black Jedi robes.
Leather Jedi robes, Luke added with a grin.
Leia took in his expression and sighed. Boys.
Leia peered into the box the letters and holocube had been in. Nothing else in here.
Luke opened another box. Datapads. Want to go through them?
Leia reached in to grab one just as a voice demanded, What do you think you're doing?
Han sat on the floor of the pressurized gymnasium, watching Vader spar with Mara Jade. The Hand's reaction to Vader's appearance had been a sight to behold. Her eyes had widened to the size of moons, and he could tell she was working to keep her jaw from swinging open. It wasn't until Vader's lit lightsaber had gone for her head that she recovered and began to spar.
He had always liked to watch Vader fight, but without the armour to weigh him down, he was quite a sight to behold. And if Han's limited lightsaber knowledge served, Jade had underestimated him.
Instead of the straight, arching, heavy blows the man in the suit had been famous for, the man out of it employed a series of feints and more footwork as well. Brute strength was used, but it took a lesser role to something almost like a dance. Han was enchanted, even if he did have to scramble out of the way a few times.
Briefly he wondered how the twins weird how easy that had been to accept were settling in. Vader had informed Jade that they were to start training them tomorrow. Remembering the Princess's fiery temper, Han had to wonder how that was going to work; out of the four of them, Luke was the only one who even knew the meaning of calm.
Jessa! Leia sank to the floor in relief. Oh, thank the Force!
The maid gave a mirthless laugh.
Out. Before Lord Vader finishes sparring with that Jade girl and comes back this way. He'll kill you. And me.
Why is all this stuff here? Luke asked as the maid shooed them out and struggled to close the door relatively silently. And what is it?
It's Lord Vader's personal effects, she said in a low, furtive voice. From before he became Lord Vader. He ordered it all thrown out, burned, whatever but one of the more sentimental maids couldn't bear to do so, so she hid it in that room. There was nothing in it anyway.
She took a deep breath. But whatever else he appears to be, whatever else he is, Lord Vader is a curious man. He took note of the door he never used, never saw anyone use, and didn't know what was behind it. He went to investigate, and well --
He found it, Luke said, a sinking feeling arranging itself in his gut.
Jessa nodded, a frown on her pretty face.
He was furious. He killed the maid who hid it and forbid everyone from going in there, but he never ordered us to get rid of it again. So it just sits there, collecting dust. She shook her head. All I can say is, you had better hope he never finds out about this. You may be his children, but even that won't protect you if he is angry enough.
She turned and stalked down the hall. Luke and Leia looked worriedly at each other, then Leia ran after her maid. Jessa, wait!
The maid turned impatiently. Yes?
There's a man -- a tall, pale bald man who wears black. Who is he?
Ask him yourself.
What if I never see him again?
You will, the maid said, turning her back on them again. Believe me, you will.
Yee haw! Han howled as he and Corry raced along the surface of Vjun in a couple of Vader's modified TIE fighters. How can you hate a guy who designs ships like this!
I can't! Corry agreed. Bless you, Lord Vader!
Solo! a voice snapped through the comm.
Speak of the devil, Han muttered. He hit the reply button. Yes, my lord?
Get back here immediately.
Don't get your knickers in a twist, Han mocked under his breath before feeling guilty. Vader had let him fly this awesome ship he had better be properly grateful and come when called. Copy that. Heading home.
He switched back to the frequency he shared with Corry. Emergency. Sorry, kid. Duty calls.
I think we should go back, Leia announced later that night.
What? Luke asked, startled from his thoughts.
I think we should go back to that room we found today, she repeated.
Luke eyed her as if she had suddenly sprouted wings. Didn't you hear what your maid said?
She blew out her breath.
Yes, I heard, nut Luke, aren't you the least bit curious? Vader will never find out if we're careful.
Vader will find out, Luke insisted.
Vader is not all-knowing, Leia retorted.
A faraway look appeared in Luke's eyes.
You'd be surprised Leia! he shouted at his sister's retreating back. Wait for me!
Leia looked around the hallway before sliding into the room, Luke at her heels. She closed the door behind them.
We did it, Luke! she whispered triumphantly.
Leia -- Luke said in a strangled sort of voice.
What? she replied, turning around --
-- to stare into the faces of Jix, Solo and her mystery man.
Except the man's eyes were no longer blue.
They were angrily glowing a sickening yellow.
Luke recognized Leia's mystery man immediately it was glaringly obvious through the Force.
Leia, however, wasn't trained to use the Force.
Ah . . . hi, she began, the fury radiating off the man making her nervous. I'm --
Her words were cut off when she and Luke were slammed into the wall behind them by a Force-created gale. Her eyes widened as they slid down the wall, and she huddled against her brother on the cold, hard floor.
Vader, she whispered, frightened.
In response, the holocube Luke had admired so much earlier that day flew at them, shattering on the wall above their heads. Glass rained down on them, the sharp sides catching in their hair and clothes as the small pieces of colour fell around them. The twins looked up at their father with horror and fear.
He advanced on them, his anger and their position on the floor making him seem even larger than he normally was.
Datapads danced wilding in the air, then dived into the floor at their feet, sending shards of metal and plastic into Luke and Leia's faces. They shied back, only to come up against the wall again.
Using the Force, Vader hauled hem to their feet and pinned them painfully against the cold stone of the wall.
How dare you, he hissed, his harsh, scarred rasp of a voice made even harder by the strength of his rage.
He moved to Luke first, coming so close that Luke could practically taste his fury.
You're a fool, boy, he spat. You want to know Anakin Skywalker so badly but he wasn't worth knowing. You want to be like him but there was nothing to like. He was weak, foolish, idealistic stupid enough and desperate enough to blindly accept the opinions and orders of others without question. And you're just the same. Too dazzled by the lights to realize it's just a show without substance. Too brainwashed by an idiot of a Jedi Master to think about all the inconsistencies and problems that appear in his teachings rather than all the cute little mind games he promises to teach you. You're not worth my time.
Vader paused to catch his breath, but he was hardly finished. Keeping Luke helplessly dangling from the wall, his throat not quite closed but making it difficult to suck air into his lungs, he turned to Leia. He grasped her chin in strong, unforgiving metal fingers as his eyes bore into hers. She forced herself to meet his gaze, but his will was overpowering, and eventually she was forced to look away. When she did, he gave a disdainful snarl and released her face in a violent movement that sent her head to the side and into the wall.
Stupid child, he growled. Didn't Daddy Organa ever teach you not to meddle in other people's business? I suppose not he was never one for turning the other cheek himself; why should I expect him to have raised you any differently?
Leave him out of this, Leia ordered, her voice wavering.
Vader narrowed his eyes. Always trying to intervene somewhere, whether or not it was needed. Force-forsaken bastard. I'm glad to be rid of him.
He backed up, pacing back and forth. You are an infuriating mixture of him and your mother, little Princess. I have a feeling that it's only a matter of time before you meet their fate. And when you do . . . I only hope I'm there to see it.
He fell back, his breathing ragged, and Jix stepped up behind him as he blinked and shook his head, as if to ward off sudden light-headedness, looking concerned and ready to support his boss if he happened to collapse.
Just then, the door opened to reveal Polor, who was carrying a pile of black armour.
You're late, the doctor admonished.
Vader stared at him, enraged.
Polor stared calmly back.
Vader sighed and nodded, looking slightly sheepish, amazingly enough. Very well. His gaze turned hard again as he glared over at his two children. I am not finished with you. We will continue our little . . . chat . . . once Polor is satisfied that I am not on the verge of dying.
More's the pity, Leia shot back under her breath. Luke winced.
Vader heard, but Polor had a surprisingly soothing aura for someone who was not Force-sensitive, and he had managed to take the edge off Vader's anger. The Sith Lord settled for slamming their heads into the wall hard enough to make them see stars for several minutes. By the time they regained their vision and clear minds, they were slumped on the floor, watching the bottom of Vader's cloak sweep majestically out of the small, dusty room, followed by Jix, Han and Polor.
All alone once again, Leia looked into her brother's pain-filled eyes and began to cry.
The guards Vader sent to escort them back to their rooms found them curled around each other, sobbing as if tomorrow would never come.
It was really scary, Han stage-whispered into the comlink. I mean, seriously, Chewie. I've never seen him like that before.
It was an invasion of his privacy, part of his past he is not willing to share with them, with you, or anyone else. It is understandable he is angry.
But if he didn't want anyone to find out about it, why didn't he destroy the evidence when he first got it, instead of hanging on to it?
I don't know. Maybe he has more of a heart than you give him credit for having.
Did you just use the words heart and Darth Vader in the same sentence?
Chewie snorted. Be reasonable, Han. He's human. Humans form attachments. And sometimes, those attachments are hard to sever, especially when they come with good memories.
Still . . . it's so unlike him.
But can you honestly say that you know him well enough to judge him on that?
Han opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything.
Leia sat sullenly on her bed, Luke beside her, clutching her brother's hand for dear life. Neither twin had bothered to clean up since Vader's outburst in the Memory Room, as Leia was beginning to call it in her head. It was hard enough to sit here and wait for Vader to come back.
When he finally did, he was still encased in his fearsome black armour, but the presence of the suit did nothing to lessen the aura of sheer power and rage that rolled of him in waves. Although, a small part of her mind noticed distinctly, he did seem to have regained something resembling rationality.
Your punishment is as follows, the rumbling thunder that exited the vocalizer said. Each morning, you will undergo training in usage of the Force with myself and the Emperor's Hand. In the afternoon, you will join the staff in their duties, doing whatever they tell you to do. Evenings will be dedicated to lessons in history, philosophy, deportment, and Force theory with Doctor Polor and the Emperor's Hand. At the end of the day, you will be locked in solitary confinement cells for the night. At no time during the day are you to speak to each other; you are not to question orders, you are not to misinterpret or forget about any order you are given. Your basic needs will be met do not worry about that. Am I making myself clear?
His children nodded silently. Vader turned and strode from the room. Behind him, guards grabbed the twins arms and led them down the stairs to the solitary confinement cells for the first night of their punishment.
Leia ran the brush through her hair. It wasn't a very good brush; it tore her hair as much as it untangled it. A few stray pieces stuck to her tear-stained cheeks; she shoved them aside and nearly broke down into tears again when they didn't move as far as she wanted them to.
She wasn't allowed to talk to Luke! That, more than anything, was the worst part of their punishment. He was her rock, her sanity in this whole insane mess. What was she going to do if she had to keep everything bottled up inside her head and heart?
A piece of glass fell out of her hair and bounced slightly on the hard duracrete floor. She blinked down at the colourful piece.
Oh. The holocube. Right.
She bent down to retrieve the piece, then straightened up, cupping it in her hand.
And nearly dropped it again.
Of all the pieces of glass that could get caught in her hair, she would end up stuck with the one that depicted her father's round, childish face, perfectly framed with sandy blonde hair and Luke's bright blue eyes.
She burst into tears again and sank down onto the floor, clenching the piece tightly in her fist, as if she could shatter the image using the strength of her grip alone.
The piece held, and she didn't notice as it cut into her palm, spilling her own blood between her fingers as she cried.
Vader switched off his practice blade, barely winded. Mara Jade did the same; Luke and Leia, on the other hand, were drenched with sweat.
You have much to learn, Vader commented, his unmasked voice coldly echoing in the large, oxygen-pure gymnasium. He used the Force to call the twins' blades to him. Be here at he same time tomorrow. Jade, escort them to the servants hall. They are to help them for the afternoon.
Mara narrowed her eyes, but stepped up to Luke and Leia.
Remember, Vader warned, This is the only time of the day they are to be together, and they must not speak to each other.
Mara nodded, and led the sullen twins from the room.
Han frantically ran through the stacks of papers that were due on Vader's desk in ten minutes, trying to be sure that he hadn't missed any of the forms on any of the pilots.
Identification card . . . simulator scores in the last year . . . battles in the last year . . . injuries and craft damage in the last year . . .
He hadn't realized that the information would be so hard to keep track of; when the time came to compile it, he had rushed frantically from the computer to his pilots and back again several times. But now, he believed he had everything on everybody.
Seven minutes. Better get moving. Vader's office is on the other side of the castle.
He barely made it. The maid shot him a disapproving glare as her dashed in just as she was about to lock up after cleaning the room. He gave her an apologetic smile as he slipped back out, just as Vader entered the office from the door leading to his suite.
Nice timing, Solo, came the dry call.
Hey, who's in a hurry? he replied, and sauntered off down the hall.
As he rounded a corner, Han saw the very last thing he had ever expected to see in his life: Princess Leia Organa down on her hands and knees, her hair in her face, scrubbing at the flooring of the castle with a hard, old-fashioned brush. He nearly fell down in shock.
Recovering his wits and moving forward once again, Han opened his mouth with the intention of saying something quick and scathing, as had become their somewhat permanent tone of voice when speaking to each other. As he neared her, however, he noticed something that, for some strange reason, nearly made his heart stop.
The handle of the brush was stained a wet, diluted red.
What happened? he asked, crouching beside her and grabbing her hand without a second thought.
She jerked back and out of his grasp; hadn't she heard him coming? Obviously not she was white and frightened, the colour only slowly returning to her cheeks as she recognized him.
Go away, she muttered, placing the brush back on the floor.
He grabbed her hand again, the first thought to cross his mind was that this was a part of Vader's punishment, to make her work with injured hands, and that Vader had intentionally done this to her.
Now, why did that idea fill him with such protective rage?
However, his rationality quickly took over. Vader was furious with her and Luke, yes, but he wasn't sadistic (well, Han amended, not that sadistic). This couldn't have occurred because of Vader.
What happened? he asked again, more gently this time.
She tore her hand out of his.
I cut myself. The water make the scabbing weak, and it reopened. That's all.
She rounded on him. What? What do you want me to say, Solo? That I'm glad it hurts, because then the pain inside me isn't so bad? That I'm all messed up inside my head because I cannot talk to my own brother? That my thoughts are running around in circles, whispering that maybe, just maybe, I'm exactly like him?
That was more than he'd expected.
No I just --
Go away, Solo!
He grabbed her other wrist as she struggled against him.
Leia, look let me wrap up that hand for you. The work you're doing it'll take forever to heal if it's not treated.
And why do you care? she hissed angrily, trying to yank her hands out of his grip.
He merely tightened his fingers around her slender wrists.
Because I hate seeing you suffer like this, he said before he could stop himself. Now where did that come from? And hey, I can actually be a pretty decent friend, if you'll let me. And I think you need a friend pretty badly.
He saw her defenses slip a bit. She bit her lip.
And then she nodded.
Come on, Princess. Let's get you patched up.
He pulled her to her feet.
No need to manhandle me, nerfherder, she replied good-naturedly, and smiled back.
He nearly fell over. When did she get such a nice smile? he wondered as he walked with her down the hall to the medical bay.
He's all yours, Polor said to Mara Jade, causing the redhead to look up from the holocube she was examining. Her eyes landed on Luke, and her mouth tightened into what Luke suspected was a suppressed grimace.
Thanks, she said, dismissal in her tone.
Luke blinked. The doctor was old enough to be her father shouldn't she be a bit more respectful?
Sit down, Skywalker, she instructed waspishly as Polor closed the door behind him. She set the holocube aside. First of all, I'm only doing this because I have to. I do not want to, and I'm not going to pretend that I do. Understand?
Luke nodded silently.
Good. She sat back, studying him, then asked, What do you know of the Force?
It's an energy field that surrounds and penetrates us, he said quietly, almost dully. It binds the universe together. It gives a Jedi his power.
It gives a Force-sensitive his or her power, Mara corrected sharply, her brow furrowing slightly at his unresponsiveness. The term Jedi is nothing more than a title. She thought about his answer. Your definition is in essence correct; however, you'll find it is far more complex than that. So complex, in fact, that most Force-users suspect that we have only chipped away at the depth of its strength and abilities.
He nodded again.
She gritted her teeth.
We'll start at the basics midi-chlorians.
For the first time he showed some true signs of life.
She forced herself to suppress a smile.
Midi-chlorians. Microscopic life-forms that appear in various concentrations in all living things they are the reason life exists. A high concentration creates Force-sensitivity in a creature. The more midi-chlorians a person has, the stronger in the Force. A slight chill entered her voice. Midi-chlorian counts were common among newborns while the Republic reigned; the Jedi liked their apprentices to start young.
She paused for a moment.
You haven't had your count done, have you?
No, he said, and eyes eyes brightened with hope.
Do you want to have the test done?
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. What was she doing? She must be getting soft in her boredom.
Yes! he reached across the table to grab her hand and pull her to her feet.
The effect was immediate and terrifying; something (Mara wasn't sure what) had passed between them, a reaction to the physical contact. She dropped Luke's hand as if it had burned her.
We have to go see Polor, she muttered, gesturing to the door. We need a blood test.
Okay. He started for the door, then looked back at her. Mara? I mean, Miss Jade? I mean, Emperor's Hand?
Just call me Mara, Skywalker, she said, slightly irritated, and shooed him out of the room. What do you want to know?
What's your midi-chlorian count?
Fourteen hundred, she replied.
He nodded. And the Emperor's?
He looked over his shoulder at her. What --?
Lord Vader's count has confused many devices used to measure midi-chlorian count, she said. the machines only go up to twenty thousand, and his count is higher than that. In fact, the older machines, ones with pointers rather than a digital system, used to break in an effort to do their job.
Indeed. But even though his midi-chlorian count has not diminished, his ability to use the Force has, due to his injuries. That's a concept we'll be studying this way! she corrected him, unconsciously grabbing his hand again to pull him down the correct hallway.
He stumbled into her, unprepared for her sudden move, and she was unceremoniously backed against the wall beside the hallway she wanted to go down, his body crushed against hers.
After the shock had worn off, she felt the blood rise to her cheeks, her breasts, belly and thighs tingling with warmth.
She shoved at him.
Sorry, he muttered shyly, backing off enough to peek into her eyes.
But her was still too close for comfort (she conveniently forgot that she couldn't remember ever feeling this good before) and she was still trapped between his arms, his face only an inch from her own.
We have to go that way, she said breathlessly. Well, we don't have to, but it's shorter . . .
Okay, Luke agreed readily, but he didn't move.
She pushed on his chest again, ignoring the hard muscles she could feel beneath his shirt. He released her this time, and she scooted away from him, cheeks flaming and vowing never to let him so close to her again.
Well, it's not as violent as a reaction as we get from Lord Vader's blood, Polor said cheerfully as the machine wheezed and smoked. He shut it off before it damaged itself irrevocably. But it's an indicator.
He looked at Luke and Mara, who were determinately avoiding each other's gaze.
Is something wrong? he asked hesitantly.
No! Mara yelped a bit too cheerfully.
Nothing! Luke added at the same moment in the same tone. They headed for the door --
-- and ended up squeezed together in the doorway.
They twisted their way apart as Polor watched in both confusion and amusement, their cheeks bright red. They managed to successfully navigate the doorway and disappeared from Polor's view.
He shook his head.
Kids, he muttered, going back to his prior project with a knowing smirk.
Vader executed a backhand slash at Mara Jade's head, which she easily ducked while attempting to catch his legs with the practice blade. He jumped over her stroke and delivered a heavy vertical blow that would have cleaved her in two, had the blade been real and had she not moved, quick as lightning, to the side.
Luke rubbed his forehead. He had a massive headache that he thought was from the Dark Side that was clouding the room as the Sith Lord and Emperor's Hand became more and more involved in their duel.
Mara aimed at Vader's midsection from behind, but he threw his blade over his shoulder, blocking the blow and taking advantage of the engagement to spin around. He used brute force to shove the point of her blade down toward the floor, then whipped his own blade out of the entanglement to rest beside her neck.
Mara eyes the blade beside her head; it was close enough to the hilt that batting it way would only take off her own head. Unless she could switch her blade to the other hand . . .
Quickly she tossed the weapon, using the Force to guide it from her left hand to her right, but Vader was quicker and stronger. With a quick flick of his wrist, he pulled the lightsaber toward himself. Mara fought for it, but the Sith was more powerful than she was.
And the blade by her throat never wavered.
She sighed and bowed. You win. Again.
He smirked. She liked the fact that she could see his face; as scarred as it was, she preferred it over the black mask he wore everywhere else in the galaxy.
Vader shut off both blades and turned to frown at Luke.
What is wrong, child?
My head. It I think I'm reacting to the Dark Side, he said, wincing.
Vader stared at him.
You have to stop fighting it, Mara told him, understanding what the Sith Lord did not. Let it carry you, get lost in it, and you will be amazed at it's power. If you keep fighting it, your health will only get worse.
I can't. And I don't understand --
You are in an environment where the Dark Side is part of the very atmosphere, Vader said, catching on. It will affect you, no matter if you embrace it or not. You do not even have to use it to make these headaches disappear, child just let it flow through you.
I still don't --
Certain places Korriban, Dagobah naturally have a high concentration of the Dark Side surrounding them. Whenever Jedi went there, they had to accept the fact that they were a part of the environment and let the Dark Side flow through them. They did not have to use it, though. Just accept it.
I've been there . . . I didn't notice. Except after well, I got one headache, but that was it.
You were not as well-trained then. Vader glanced over his shoulder at Leia, seated in the opposite corner. Jade, you will spar with my son today. I will teach the Princess.
Sure thing. Come on, Skywalker.
I thought we were past the whole calling-each-other-by-our-last-names thing, Luke commented as he aimed for Mara's lower arm.
She sighed and flipped the practice blade out of his hand once again.
Stop going for my extremities, Skywalker. It's getting predictable, and it's not very effective. And no, we are not past that point.
But after what happened in the hall the other day --
Nothing happened! Mara hissed. She landed a blow on his shoulder; he winced as it sent a stinging sensation down as far as his hip. Except that we discovered you have a woefully inadequate sense of direction.
In an instant, she was behind him, he blade across his throat, her knee in the small of his back.
Pay attention, Skywalker, she instructed as she let him go and moved to face him once again, swinging her blade casually, as if she had been born with it in her hand.
Luke scrubbed more vigorously at a spot on the picture frame than was really necessary, frustrated with Vader, Mara, and life in general. Why did humans have to be such complicated beings?!
He still didn't entirely understand the whole Dark Side atmosphere thing, and he especially didn't understand how Yoda could live on a planet encased in Darkness. He sighed and moved on to the next picture.
And why did Vader have to have such a gloomy home? Luke was perfectly ready to see something that was pink, or purple, or yellow again.
Shoving all thoughts of -- well, everybody from his mind, he took a deep, cleansing breath, as Yoda had taught him. His headache was receding, but he doubted that allowing the Dark Side of the Force to flow through him included contemplating murder.
No, the mugs go in there, the plates go over there! Leia instructed Han as he searched the massive kitchen for the proper resting place for a stack of plates they had recently removed from the dishwasher. He obediently turned around and headed to the spot she was pointing to.
He wasn't entirely sure why he was helping her out. He spent the entire morning going through drills with the squad, took the afternoon off, and spent evenings socializing and gambling with the other pilots and calling Chewie, who was still up on the Executor. Now his free afternoons had turned into help-the-Princess-with-her-chores sessions. And for some incomprehensible reason, Han honestly didn't mind.
Well, sorry, Princess, this isn't exactly something they teach us in the Academy! Han replied, but the bite that had entered his tone for so many years when talking to or about her was gone. He set the stack of plates down in the cupboard and shut the door, then turned to find the Princess staring at him with a funny little half-grin on her face. What?
She shook her head.
Nothing. It's just a strange sight to see the captain of Vader's personal squadron trying to put away dishes.
Yeah, well, I never would have expected to see the Princess of Alderaan scrubbing floors, he grumbled back.
She nodded and looked down at her hands.
How's it healing? he asked.
It's fine, she said quickly. Polor gave me a supply of bacta patches and I change the dressing every morning and night.
He held out his hand.
Hesitantly, she stepped close to him and gave him her injured hand.
Gently, he peeled back the dressing and peered at the wound.
One deep, ragged puncture wound was set in the center of her palm, surrounded by five or six other, smaller wounds, like some sort of grotesque, skeletal flower. He grimaced and reapplied the dressing.
It's not so bad. Not anymore. It's fine, really.
She looked down at their hands, his still clasped over hers. He began to gently stroke the back of her hand with his thumb.
That! She tried to pull her hand out of his grasp, but he held her fast. My hands are dirty.
Princess, you just finished handling clean dishes. What are you afraid of?
I'm not afraid.
Her breath was coming quicker now, but she was right; he could detect no fear in her eyes.
I'm not trembling!
But she was, ever so slightly, with what?
Whatever you say, Princess, he replied, voice low, and bent his head toward hers . . .
But she spun away from him, until their joined hands were stretched over a space of several feet. Reluctantly, he let go of her hand.
Goodnight, Captain, she said formally, her back to him as she walked out the door.
Leia cursed as she watched her hand shake slightly as she reached for the small glass holocube piece, and blamed the weakness on Han Solo.
The stupid, interfering, Imperial nerfherder! Why did he try to kiss her? Smack in the middle of Vader's castle while she was being punished, of all times and places! What was he thinking? Was he a complete imbecile?
Yes, she had to admit, he was.
And then there was Vader. Leia could only imagine what the Sith Lord would say when he found out about that little incident, and he no doubt would. Vader had eyes and ears everywhere. Force, probably a couple of noses, too.
She sighed, absentmindedly toying with the holocube shard in her uninjured hand. Vader was a problem in and of himself. As the first month of her punishment neared its end and Vader showed no signs of releasing her and Luke, she was effectively cut off from her brother and anyone else who had the least bit of sympathy toward the Alliance. She had to wonder if that had been Vader's plan in the first place.
She looked down at the little cherub of a boy in the glass piece. He looked so happy, so innocent. So . . . normal.
She sighed and closed her fist over the child's face. Normal sounded really good right about now. So did sleep.
But she was too wired to sleep at the moment. She had far too many thoughts running around her head. Solo, Vader, Luke, Solo, Vader, Luke, Solo, Vader, Luke . . . occasionally she wondered what Mon Mothma and General Rieekan were doing, if they had overcome any Imperial strongholds since her and Luke's capture, if they knew what had happened to her and Luke, if they had tried to look for them . . .
She wondered whether Mon knew about her relationship to Vader, or if she knew who her biological mother was. Leia wondered if Vader even knew. She couldn't picture Vader as a married man; her mother may have been a one-night stand or worse, a rape.
But really, what kind of woman would tie herself to Darth Vader?
But . . .
She looked down a the little piece of glass again.
But he hadn't always been Vader.
She looked more closely at the piece, looking for clues that this child, the one who had grown up to slay millions, had a heart large enough to love. Or a moment, she thought she saw a face, that of a young, dark-eyed woman, but it disappeared in the next instant, and she convinced herself it was just her reflection.
Luke sat cross-legged on the small bed in his cell, trying to meditate his headache away. It worked, when he let his shields down slightly, but that made him feel vulnerable. He could feel Vader, hovering just outside his mind, not concentrating on him, but just there. He would know if Luke tried to contact anyone through the Force. And if Luke let his shields down or thinned them out, he would be able to pick up some of his thoughts and feelings.
Like the feelings he had for Mara.
Which was totally irrational and as strange as a flood on Tatoooine. She was unwaveringly devoted to the Emperor and she wasn't even that nice to him. But there was something about the way her brilliant red hair fell in soft waves down her back when she let it swing freely, and there was a definite, happy sparkle in her emerald green eyes that made him think that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't like the Emperor, despite her loyalty to him.
Luke shook his head sharply. It was best not to get his hopes up. She was an Imperial and a follower of the Dark Side of the Force, if not a full-fledged Sith Lady.
He wondered about that, too. Why were Vader and the Emperor the only Sith Lords in the galaxy? There were plenty of Force-sensitives out there there were four of them under Bast Castle's roof at the moment, but only one was trained as a Sith. Why wasn't Mara, if she had been with the Emperor for so long? It just didn't make any sense to Luke.
He wished he could talk to Leia.
He contemplated trying to contact her with the Force, but a slight relaxing of his shields reminded him that Vader was out there, not really watching, but still aware of everything that happened in a rather large radius. Luke sighed and shook his head, then winced. The headache was coming back.
How was he supposed to let the Dark Side flow through him without letting it claim him if he couldn't shield against it? He'd ask Vader or Mara, but they would just encourage him to embrace the Darkness rather than guard against it. And he didn't want another lecture on why he should let himself fall.
Han wrestled with the controls of the simulator, rolling his imaginary ship away from Corry's line of imaginary fire, then doubled back behind the younger pilot in a tight loop that had even impressed Vader, once, and opened fire himself.
The image of Corry's fighter dissolved before him in a blast of flames and debris.
"Simulation over," a cold, mechanical female voice chimed over the headpiece each pilot wore. "Winner: Black Four."
Han hopped out of the simulator's cockpit.
"Good job, Corry," he told the other man. "You're getting better."
Corry flushed. "Thanks."
Han slapped him on the back and the two of them headed back to the barracks for the night.
Lying in his bunk an hour later, Han couldn't think of anything to keep his mind off the Princess, and why she had turned him down. He was positive he hadn't read her wrong, she had wanted it as much as he had . . . right?
Growling over the fact that she had him second-guessing himself, he rolled over and shoved her from his mind in the hopes of catching a little sleep.
Vader paced his quarters, going in a straight line from the refresher to the bedroom to the office to the common room to the gymnasium and back again, over and over. He felt like he had a large weight on his shoulders, one he couldn't lift for some reason.
The proverbial bad feeling, a little voice whispered in his head. Vader frowned. Hadn't he crushed that little voice ages ago?
He shoved the thoughts from his head. Sith Lords do not dwell on the past. Dwelling acknowledges attachment, attachment is weakness, weakness has no place in the life of a Sith. Note to self: remember that.
Vader threw himself into a chair, reveling in the fact tat he could actually accomplish such a feat. It was rather uncomfortable to do in the suit, but here in his oxygenated quarters, he could do pretty much anything he wanted to without having to consider the suit.
The rest of Bast Castle wasn't yet equipped to deal with his poor health, but he wasn't overly eager to get everything caught up. Aside from trips to the kitchen for midnight snacks (which he was taking full advantage of while the Princess was locked up for the night) he rarely wandered outside of his quarters for long periods of time.
And his leg was aching again. Damn prosthetic. He grimaced as he pulled the fabric of his trousers away from the skin the false limb had rubbed raw.
I need to go see Polor about this . . .
But back to his bad feeling.
He reclined in the chair, stretching as luxuriously as he could given his sore leg, taking full advantage of the absence of the suit. The weight on his shoulders and back likely foreshadowed something bad to come soon.
However, he still had eleven months before Sidious would demand to see his children. And what would go wrong in his own home?
Still, he decided not to attempt to sleep that night. Meditation would suffice, and it would spare him from any prophetic nightmares that may decide to assault him during the night.
By the time Vader walked into Polor's office the next morning, he was limping. His sore leg had twisted at the graft during the night, and in his deep meditative trance he hadn't noticed in time to prevent it. Now, he was in so much pain he couldn't even work up an infamous temper tantrum.
Polor glanced up at him as he entered, studied him for half a second, and dashed over to his side, supporting his weight as he directed him to a chair.
What do you think you're doing!? the doctor snapped. You shouldn't be moving! You should have called me immediately! I do make private calls, you know!
Sorry, Vader said weakly.
That doesn't even begin to cover it, Polor growled. He bent to examine Vader's leg. You must have the constitution of a bantha, my lord. Most men would be whimpering like little girls right about now.
Vader's mouth quirked, but he wisely stayed silent as the doctor completed his examination.
Finally, he sat back on his heels with a sigh and looked up at Vader.
You need surgery, he said bluntly.
You've been saying that for years, Vader argued. And we've been putting it off for years. Surely --
I'm serious this time, Polor interrupted grimly. "I'll need to operate just to straighten out that leg; it's bent around the muscle of the organic part of your thigh, and if you insist on walking on it, it's only going to get worse, causing you more pain as it does so.
Vader frowned, trying to come up with another solution. The thought of the time surgery and recuperation would take did not appeal to him.
How did this happen? It was only sore last night, like it often is. How did this happen so quickly?
Every time I readjusted the leg after one of those episodes, I added more nerveless synthflesh to your leg and reinforced the prosthetic with metal grafts. Now, though, the rest of the original metal has finally withered away, leaving only the new patches to hold your weight, and they aren't strong enough to do so, so they twisted around, taking both flesh and synthflesh with it as it went. I should have foreseen this happening; however, I did think I'd be able to convince you to have the prosthetics replaced long before this, too.
Are you saying I need to have all my limbs replaced? Vader asked. This could be a lot worse than he'd originally thought.
Your legs and left arm at least, Polor told him candidly. Your right is pure durasteel, and it seems to be withstanding time rather well. It's the others I'm truly worried about.
Vader fidgeted under the doctor's pleading stare. To have the limbs replaced would be wonderful, a reprieve from the constant torture of body and mind the inferior alloys put him through, but on the other hand, it required time, and money, and patience, and secrecy. If Sidious found out Vader was having this done, he would see it as an insult to the generosity he had given Vader by piecing him back together in the first place.
Lord Vader. Polor's soft voice broke through his reverie. Just because the Emperor has outlawed the use of the practices to make you whole once again does not mean I cannot improve your living conditions. Please let me do so.
Very well. Is tomorrow too early to start the procedures?
Polor smiled happily.
Tomorrow is perfect.
Leia felt Han approaching her and focused her attention on an invisible spot on the top of the counter.
Hi, Leia, the pilot said quietly, still somewhat confused by her reaction to their last meeting.
Don't you have somewhere else to be? she asked rather waspishly, not taking her eyes off the task at her fingertips.
No, he replied bluntly.
She smacked the rag onto the counter and whirled around.
What are you playing at, Solo? she hissed. Trying to gain bragging rights over the fact that you kissed Vader's daughter?
No! he shot back, stung. Did it ever occur to Your Worshipfulness that I may actually enjoy your company?
Oh, is that what you call it? Enjoying my company?
Han's eyes narrowed.
I'm really not sure what I did to deserve this.
Leia bit her lip, her anger at him suddenly dying in her gut. She wasn't sure what he had done, either.
I'm sorry, she said softly after a moment's pause. I just I'm not too certain of myself at the moment.
She turned back around and picked up her rag, then looked at her palm and switched hands.
Han trapped her newly-free hand with his own.
Leia, he whispered huskily in her ear, what happened to your hand?
She couldn't think very well with him standing so close; the room melted away until it was just the two of them. Struggling to collect her thoughts, she jerked away from him, then took his hand his large, strong, dry hand. Her stomach flipped.
Come on, she said, leading him out of the room and hoping she wasn't about to regret this, I'll show you.
She led him down to her cell, on the high security level. Once inside, she released his hand. He felt a strange sense of loss.
This, she said, carefully placing a small piece of glass in his palm, is what I cut myself on.
He held the shard up to the light. Two bright blue eyes sparkled joyfully back out at him.
Who is it? he asked curiously. Luke?
She shook her head, looking down.
No. It's my father.
Vader? He looked at the piece again. No sign at all of the Sith Lord he knew. Are you sure?
Maybe he has more of a heart than you give him credit for having. Chewie's words from a month before came suddenly to mind.
Yes, she whispered. She smirked sardonically down at her injured hand, looking like she was fighting tears. Just another way in which he's hurt me.
Han didn't know how it happened; one moment he was five feet away from her, holding the holocube piece between two fingers, and the next it was on the floor and she was in his arms, her lips against his in the sweetest kiss he had ever experienced.
Darth Vader strode through the empty reception hall, up to the throne and the withered figure upon it. At the base of the dais, he knelt and bowed his head.
Lord Vader. Sidious rose. "I sense you are displeased, my apprentice.
Master, I have just learned some disturbing news, Vader replied.
Sidious gazed at him, maliciously amused. And what, pray tell, was that?
I have discovered that the technology to rid me of this burdensome machine is available, and that you have outlawed it, Master, Vader informed the other Sith, anger evident in his tone even through the mask. Kamino, and Polis Massa, and --
Yes, yes, I am aware of the facilities that once harbored this information, Lord Vader, Sidious snapped. And I outlawed them for very good reasons. Would you like to hear them?
Yes. Vader's reply was equally tight.
If I allowed you to be rebuilt using this technology, Vader, countless other disfigured Imperial citizens would demand the same treatment, and would insist that the Empire pay for it, as most injuries were acquired in wars and other ways for which the government is responsible. We simply do not have the funds to pay for such a massive project.
So change the Constitution, Vader hissed. Make it so that all injuries are the responsibility of the individual.
Now that is just more trouble than it's worth, Sidious said silkily. Besides, you serve as such a good role model to those . . . less fortunate in their health. His smile was downright sadistic. He sat back down. This conversation is over. You are dismissed, Lord Vader.
Vader remembered the conversation all too clearly. If Sidious had let him, he could have driven the Executor through the holes in his reasons for denying him the necessary surgery, but the Emperor had been adamant in his refusal and over the years Vader's anger and resentment over the incident had faded. Now it returned full force.
He had absolutely no right --
His transmission centre beeped with an incoming message, a special chime that warned him who the caller was. Vader slammed up his shields, lest the Emperor sense the fury directed at him, before stepping onto the transmission deck and kneeling. He hit the ACCEPT button and waited as Sidious' image fizzled into view.
Lord Vader. The Emperor's voice was carefully bored. How is your childrens' training going?
Well, Master, Vader lied smoothly.
Good. I grow impatient, Lord Vader. Your presence is needed in the galaxy, and I miss my Hand's young idealism. I wish for you to return to Coruscant in one month's time. Your children will be presented to me, and their fate decided. I expect you to be on time.
The transmission ended before Vader could wretch his mouth open to argue.
Han was awake most of the night, think about Leia, their kiss, Vader, what his reaction would be if he ever found out, the glass holocube piece of Vader as a child (Vader had been a child. Who would've thought?) . . . but mostly Leia.
He hoped she wasn't regretting the kiss. It had been one of the best moments of his life, and he hoped there would be more in the future.
If Vader didn't mind or even ever find out of course.
Han gave a long mental groan and pulled his pillow over his face. What was he going to do about Vader?
No no no no no! The word reverberated through Vader's skull as he paced his quarters, as he had been doing all night, the same thoughts running through his head. But but but . . . NO! This can't be happening to me! Why me?!
He glanced at the time. Polor would be up by now, and expecting him at any minute. Normally he wouldn't have had any problem with waking the doctor up, but he had needed to work through his plans now that Sidious wanted him back on Coruscant in a month . . . and he hadn't wanted to deal with Polor's response upon hearing that the surgery would have to be postponed in the middle of the night. Mild-mannered as he seemed, Polor could be quite formidable when he was unhappy and deprived of sleep. Vader had found that out the hard way, back during his first visit to the doctor, before offering him a position on his staff.
He slipped out of his suite, still going over the plans and preparations he had to make. Prepare the Executor. Get painkillers. Tell Jade, and Solo, and Piett, and Jix. Beg Luke and Leia to turn to the Dark Side. Figure out a flawless plan to kill Sidious. AH! What the hell am I going to do?!
Ah, Lord Vader! Good, you're on time!
Polor looked almost excited as he snapped on a pair of surgical gloves. Vader winced mentally. Time to take the wind out of his sails . . .
Actually, Doctor . . . I received a call from the Emperor last night. He wishes for me to return to Coruscant in a month's time; what with travel and all, we don't have time to attempt the surgery. There, blame it all on Sidious . . . he's such a convenient fall guy . . .
Polor's face went carefully blank, but his eyes were as sharp as razors.
Of course you cannot defy the Emperor, he said calmly.
Vader nodded uncomfortably, looking down at the floor, then turned to leave.
That's all I came to say.
Vader paused in mid-stride. He knew that tone. It was Polor's do-not-argue-with-me voice.
You have agreed to this surgery. After this affair is over, do not think I will forget that.
Vader turned to face his doctor. I won't. And . . . uh, Polor?
Polor raised an eyebrow.
Yes, my lord?
Vader gave a small, painful smile.
Can I have some painkillers?
Vader worked the twins through the morning training session, but as soon as it was over, Mara Jade bolted out the door as usual, and Vader called his children over to him.
They approached warily, almost as if heading to the executioner's block, and Vader winced inwardly a little. He had never wanted them to fear him . . . had he?
There was a time, that annoying little voice whispered, far too agreeably cheerful for Vader's liking.
I have decided to lift your punishment, he told Luke and Leia as they approached him. You will not have to report for service this afternoon, or for lessons tonight. You may return to your rooms permanently, as well.
And we can talk to each other again? Luke asked hopefully.
Vader nodded. Of course.
His son whooped and hugged his sister hard, then pulled away and grabbed her hand. Let's go flying! he said excitedly.
Flying? Leia made a face at him. It's our first day, our first hour of freedom, and you want to go flying?
Uh, yeah, Luke replied, as if there was no other option.
Leia rolled her eyes. Then I'll talk to you tonight, Flyboy.
What, you don't want to?
Uh, no, she mimicked. Have a good time.
Take someone with you, Vader cut in. Both twins looked at him, startled, as if they had forgotten he was there.
Like who? Luke asked suspiciously.
Jix, or Han or one of the other pilots. Someone who knows the lay of the land well enough to keep you from getting lost.
Luke considered for a moment.
Mara? he asked.
He looked far to excited over the idea of spending time with Jade for Vader's comfort.
I suppose, he agreed, trying not to think too hard about just how well the Emperor's Hand might know his planet.
Luke whooped again and took off out of the gymnasium at top speed. Vader turned to put away the practice blades and equipment they had been using, expecting Leia to follow her brother out of the room.
Something's wrong, she said instead, staying where she was and actually speaking civilly to him.
He looked over his shoulder at her.
You must have been paying closer attention to your Force training than I had thought, he commented lightly, hoping to avoid the issue.
Her chin rose indignantly. I'm also a politician, she reminded him icily. I'm trained to notice when someone is acting strangely.
I'm not acting strangely, he replied, an automatic response.
Yes, you are. She picked up a mat and followed him back to the storage room. You're tense and fussy, and I'm sure it's over more than the fact that Polor's mad at you.
He shot her an amazed look.
How do you know about that?
She waved a hand dismissively.
Everybody knows about that. Not why, mind you, but they know he's angry and that it's all your fault.
Peachy, he muttered.
He stacked his own load of mats on top of the one she lay down by the wall and turned to leave, only to find her in the doorway.
Well? she demanded.
He sighed and ran a hand over his head, wishing he had hair to tangle his fingers in.
The Emperor wants us to return to Coruscant.
She blinked, processing that information. That was quick.
It's unnerving, is what it is. He told me he wouldn't recall me us for a year. he pushed past her out into the gymnasium again.
It's only been a month! she exclaimed.
He turned and looked her directly in the eyes, letting their bong open and his worry flow through him to her.
Luke grabbed Mara's hand and took off for the hangar bay the moment she opened his door to demand why he hadn't shown up for his evening lesson with her. Startled, she allowed him to drag her about twenty feet before digging in her heels with a generous amount of help from the Force. He yelped at the sudden stop and lost his balance, tumbling to the ground. However, she kept his grip on her hand, and she fell with him, ending up sprawled across his chest and abdomen. Quickly and with a furious and totally unwarranted blush, she scrambled to her feet.
What was that for? she demanded haughtily.
He looked up at her, a pathetically hurt look on his face that just might have made her feel slightly slightly sorry for her tone of voice, had it not been accompanied by a joyous twinkle in his eyes. As it was, she had to put most of her energy into keeping her knees from giving out under her in response to that twinkle.
What is wrong with me?
I just wanted someone to go flying with me, he said innocently, now that I'm not longer under house arrest. And you just happened to be the first person I saw.
I'm supposed to believe that? she snorted disbelievingly.
He widened his eyes. His big, soft, lovely blue eyes.
Please, Mara? he begged. I haven't seen the inside of a ship in forever.
I doubt it's been that long, she grumbled, but she let her shoulders relax in reluctant acceptance.
He bounced to his feet hand grabbed her hand again.
She immediately pulled back.
Don't do that, she said severely, and led the way to the hangar bay.
WHEEEEEEEEEEE! Luke screamed exuberantly through the radio built into the helmet he was wearing as he and Mara navigated their way through Vjun's canyons.
Mara tried to yell at him for screeching in her ear like that, but found she could barely keep down a laugh at his antics.
Race you to the end, Luke challenged.
Mara bit her lip as her smile grew. She could never resist a challenge.
How was your flight? Leia asked with a smile as she settled herself at the foot of her brother's bed.
Luke looked up from folding his flightsuit.
Brilliant! he exclaimed. Mara and I raced down this canyon, and I totally beat her. She'll say I didn't, but I did.
Too close to tell, was it?
I could tell! I won!
Leia smiled again, but it was tight.
Luke, she said hesitantly, do you really think it's wise to trust Mara? I mean, she works for the Emperor.
Luke frowned at her.
Would you rather I trusted Vader? he asked, intending a sharp barb at his sister.
She nearly bowled him over with surprise when she replied. Yes. I would.
He stared at her. Leia? Are you alright?
At least Vader really does care about us, Luke! He cares if we get hurt, if we die. We've been recalled to Coruscant, Luke, and Vader's terrified for us. He doesn't know what the Emperor's up to, and it makes him so upset that he may not be able to keep us safe.
Luke's look was comical. And you figured all this out by sitting down with Vader and having a long, deep discussion about his feelings?
It was her turn to frown. Let's just say I haven't been totally ignoring all those Force lessons, alright?
Luke frowned and reached out for Vader. His father had always kept himself so tightly shielded it was like he wasn't there. But now . . .
Leia was right, he realized. Vader had been driven to distraction by worry and pain?
Leia, something's wrong with him, he told his sister, worry clouding his clear blue eyes. He's in pain a lot of it.
She closed her eyes and reached out herself. It took her longer than Luke, and she couldn't do it with out being noticed. Vader sealed off his pain and worry the moment he knew she was there, as he had earlier, but, like before, he wasn't quite quick enough.
You're right, she announced. I think a trip to see Polor is in order.
Vader paused and leaned against the wall for the third time that day. He really shouldn't have tried to teach the twins dueling this morning.
His hand went to his thigh, easily finding the uneven groove where flesh became metal. The joining had been made even more pronounced by the twisted metal and muscle in his leg or so it seemed to Vader. It might have just been the pain talking.
He fumbled around in his pocket for the small bottle of painkillers Polor had given him, and shook two out into his hand. Tossing them into his mouth, he swallowed them dry and grimaced he hated the feeling of pills going down his throat and waited a minute for them to kick in.
He rested his head back against the wall, closed his eyes, and felt his son's presence flitting away.
What had the boy been doing? Checking up on him? Vader groaned. He had let his shields down in an effort to channel out the pain; had Luke picked up on his mangled leg?
Leia's presence came next, and it took him a moment to switch his attention from the puzzle of Luke and block her out. What was their sudden interest in him all about?
Wait a minute. Were my shields up when I was talking to Leia earlier?
No, because your first dose of painkillers was wearing off and because you wanted to know why she wanted to talk to you.
He groaned again. Well, excellent. This was just great.
Luke stood slightly behind Leia as she asked Polor about Vader's condition. His brief contact with his father mind and Dark emotions had brought his headache back full force.
. . . end of his cybernetic limb has twisted around the muscle in his thigh. It will cause him great, constant pain until he consents to have it repaired.
Why hasn't he?
He's worried about the strength such an operation will take from him until he heals. The Emperor has recalled him, you know that, right?
Well, he feels he cannot have the procedure until after he has met with the Emperor and done whatever it is he requires.
And what do you think of his decision, Doctor?
If it were up to me, he would have had this operation years ago, before he ran into this problem.
What do you mean?
Lord Vader's prosthetics are of poor quality; that's why he has so much trouble with them. I have been after him for years to let me replace them, but until he got this year of leave, he never had the time. Now, he doesn't even have a year and therefore no time for it, but he needs it more than ever.
So this won't happen to someone with higher quality replacements, such as, say, Luke?
Polor glanced at him. I feel comfortable in saying no. However, something is paining you, is it not, Luke?
Luke grimaced. My head. Again.
Force headaches. I've heard of those, he turned to a shelf full of small bottles. I can give you medication for the symptoms, but you must figure out a way to keep them away yourself. I don't want you getting addicted to painkillers. His fingers skimmed over labels as he spoke. Finally, he chose one and gave it to Luke. Here. One tablet every time you get a headache.
Luke smiled gratefully. Thanks.
Han sat aboard the Executor, playing cards with Chewie and Threepio. He would have stayed planetside and played with the other pilots, but he needed to talk to somebody he knew wouldn't go running to Vader.
I haven't seen her since, Chewie. Word is their punishment's been lifted and everything, but does she come see me? No. I mean, I know she'll want time with her brother and that, but it's been over a day now! How can she --
His comlink rang. He growled and unhooked it from his belt.
Solo, he snapped into it.
Han, Leia replied. I need to talk to you.
Darth Sidious sat alone in his throne room, yellow eyes half closed as he contemplated Vader and his twins. The children had no loyalty to Vader, of course, but to each other . . . that would be the problem. He would have to turn them on Vader, first, and then take a significant amount of time to turn them of each other.
Or he could just do away with the Rule of Two.
No, no, the Rule of Two had worked very well for the Sith. It kept every other Force-sensitive fool from declaring himself a Sith and challenging his leadership. He could deal with all such challengers quite easily, of course, but it was more trouble than amusement.
No, he would have to turn the twins against each other. It shouldn't be any harder than it had been to bring their father to the Dark Side, against his wife and Jedi Master. And just maybe, it might be just as fun.
You wanted to see me, Your Worshipfulness? Han asked as he stood in the door way to Leia's room.
She looked up from the bag she was packing.
Han. Yes. Ah come in.
He walked in, looking from her to the suitcase and back.
Where are you going?
We've been recalled to Coruscant, she explained. Imperial Center. Whatever you want to call it. Vader wants to leave within two days or so he told the staff.
He usually tells the crew things like that, Han replied, an eyebrow lifted.
I'm sure he will, Leia said smoothly. He's quite frazzled right now. You'll have to cut him a little slack.
Both of Han's eyebrows rose. You want me to cut Vader some slack? It's usually the other way around, isn't it?
Leia averted her eyes. Look, I . . . I understand him a little better now, alright?
Han gave her a slightly shocked look. Are you admitting you were wrong about him?
No! Well maybe. A bit. About the sadistic part. Mostly. I mean, he's still sadistic, just not as much as I look, I didn't ask you to come here to talk about Vader!
He fought down his laugh. She was so beautiful when she was angry.
So why am I here, then?
Because we need to talk. About what happened between us.
A chill want down Han's spine. Vader didn't find out, did he?
She glared at him. If you don't stop talking about Vader, I'll tell him myself!
Han held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. Okay, okay. What do you want to talk about?
Leia turned to fully face him.
Look, Han . . . it's not that I don't like you. Because I do. It's just this isn't the right time for us to get involved in a relationship. Palpatine is plotting something, and Vader's on edge about it, and Luke and I are caught in the middle I don't need any more complications in my life.
So that's what he was to her, huh? A complication? That hurt.
I didn't realize a little kiss would become such a problem, he told her ruthlessly. Because, you know, I never intended it to be anything other than that. I don't know where you got this relationship crap --
Her eyes flashed with fury.
Excellent, she said tightly. You've just proved I was right about you all along, only looking for the glory. And as we have nothing left to say to one another, get out of my sight!
Gladly, he replied coldly, turning on his heel and stalking out the door, perversely happy because for once, he'd had the last word.
Mara? Luke whispered. Hey, can I talk to you?
Mara looked up at him, a half-smile on her face.
Going to admit that I won that race?
He laughed, startled. Never!
Well, then . . . She spread her hands, teasingly helpless. Sorry.
He bit his lip, somber once again. Please, Mara? It's really important.
She tilted her head, sensing his worry through the Force. Yeah. Sure. Come sit. She patted the space next to her on the bed.
Luke sat down gingerly and she shifted to face him. What's the problem?
No problem, really. Just . . . He took a deep breath. You know we've been recalled to Coruscant?
She nodded, waving the datapad she was holding. I just got the message.
Well, uh, I just Mara, what's the Emperor like?
She looked at him in disbelief. That's what's upsetting you? You're afraid he's not going to like you?
Luke looked down at his hands, feeling a little foolish.
She moved over to sit beside him, their thighs and shoulders brushing, and placed a hand on his back.
Luke, the Emperor is a lot like Vader. He's hard, he doesn't accept failure, and he can be cruel, but he treats those under him very well, overall. There's nothing for you to worry about.
Leia says he doesn't think of anyone but himself, that he doesn't care what happens to the galaxy as long as he controls it, that he's sadistic and --
Your sister, Mara said tightly, has only ever seen the Emperor on the Senate floor, and through prejudiced eyes at that. He's not like that, Luke, not really.
What do you mean by not really? Luke asked, not at all comforted.
Well, everybody's a little selfish, a little greedy, a little sadistic. Everybody wants things, everybody craves power to some degree, everybody lets out a sigh of relief when they see someone being hurt because at least it's not them, right? We're human, he's human, and they are all very human traits. You can't fault him for being human, even if he is the Emperor, can you?
I suppose not. He looked down, then leaned over and lightly kissed her on the cheek before getting up. Thanks, Mara.
He left the room.
Shocked, she lifted her hand to the spot his lips had touched, then threw herself face down into the pillow, grinning like a fool and berating herself for it at the same time.
Vader grimaced as he pulled the suit on over his hips and waited for Polor to attach all the necessary wires to his body, then pulled the rest up over his body, his gauntleted mechanical hands looking like gloves matched to the suit. Polor did up the back, and Vader began to get the slightly claustrophobic feeling he always got when he put the suit back on after an extended stay at Bast.
Did Luke and Leia talk to you? he asked as he pulled on the boots.
Polor nodded. They did.
What did they want to know?
Polor shrugged and handed over the codpiece. What was wrong with you, why you were in pain.
Did you tell them?
They are your family, and you never told me not to. I assumed it was all right.
Vader sighed. I suppose it will have to be. I'd hate to have to go looking for another doctor.
Polor, having been with Vader too long to pay much attention to the threat, only smiled a little and handed Vader the cape. They worry about you.
Vader snorted disbelievingly as he settled the heavy fabric over his shoulders.
No, they don't.
Polor gave him a look. You are the only stable component in their lives right now, the only person they trust not to leave them behind. For that, they care about you, even if they believe you only care because you are their father.
I do, Vader replied gruffly as Polor approached with the lower half of the mask and began snapping it into place.
A man does not care about someone because he is their father. He is their father because he cares.
He pushed the cape aside and attached the small, flat backpack of compressed oxygen to Vader's back.
Vader mulled that over as Polor flipped the upper portion of the mask down and held it tightly in place while pushing the button on the chest plate that vacuum-sealed it in place. Then the doctor activated the oxygen flow, vocalizer and system monitors, the lights on the chest plate blinking morbidly.
I'm sure I'm not the only one they trust, Vader objected again, his voice once again the harsh, commanding bass the galaxy knew so well.
Well, Luke has Mara, but she's the Emperor's girl, and he knows that. So you're the only one he has -- Polor lifted the helmet onto Vader's head and vacuum-sealed it in place with the push of yet another button.
Vader winced a little, not that Polor could see it. He was a little uncomfortable with Luke's closeness to the Emperor's Hand. Who knew what the girl would report to Sidious.
-- and as for Leia, well, she had Han Solo for a while, but from what I understand, they had something of a spat yesterday, so . . . Polor trailed off.
Solo? And Leia? Vader frowned as he and Polor exited the room. Just what had been going on behind his back?
Vader shoved yet another needle into his abdomen, going straight through the leather at one of the suit's few spots weak enough to let it through, even though the needle itself was tipped with a shard of corusca gem. He hit the plunger, and the painkillers instantly provided him with relief from the agony in his leg. That was what he liked about injections. That, and they were a lot more convenient than pills when he was in the suit.
Now able to walk without limping, he went on a hunt for a couple of his spare lightsabers. The twins should have one each if they were to meet Sidious.
Just in case.
As he searched, he thought of what Polor had said earlier, about himself and the twins or his family, if they could be called that. He wasn't sure anything so dysfunctional as his relationship with his children should be called a family.
A man does not care about someone because he is their father. He is their father because he cares.
He'd never had a father, he wouldn't know. He remembered how Obi-Wan had acted when they had first met distant and distrustful, almost cold. He'd only cared because, as a Master, he was obligated to. Cliegg Lars, the man his mother had married, hadn't even known him for a day, far too little to base familial feelings on not that he'd seem to care all that much for Anakin or his relationship with his mother.
His mother. If he had to base his relationship with his own children on anything, it would be his relationship with his mother. She had loved him unconditionally. She hadn't even requested he remain at her side until he was grown. She had allowed him to move freely, to make his own mistakes, even if they embarrassed her at times, because she wanted him to be the very best he could be, and knew there were things he needed to experience for himself. And in return, he'd done everything she'd ever asked him to, trying to make her proud.
He couldn't say he was expressing the same selflessness with Luke and Leia. He wanted them with him, he wanted their company and their love. He wanted their acceptance and their respect. That was what he wanted from them.
What did they want?
What did they want from him?
Most importantly, what did he want for them?
BOO! Jix yelled as he burst into the captain's quarters.
Han jumped a foot off the bed. At least, it felt like a foot.
Force, Jix, can't you knock like a normal person?
Can't be normal; Corellian, remember?
I'm Corellian too, and I'm normal!
Jix snorted. Right, you keep telling yourself that. He settled himself at the foot of the bed. Whatcha doin'? he asked with an exaggerated drawl.
How about you answer that question first? Han replied. I haven't seen you since damn, it must have been when the kids broke into that little room of Vader's. What have you been up to?
Oh, this and that, Jix replied airily. Tapping into Miss Jade's comlink, just boring stuff like that.
You tapped into Jade's comlink? Han was impressed despite himself. She'll kill you. Literally. So what was she sending?
Weekly reports to His Most Old And Uglyness. About how the kids are doing, whether Vader's been plotting behind his back, stuff like that. He paused. I did some shopping, too.
Han blinked. Shopping?
Yep. Uncle D planned on showing the kids how to build lightsabers, but I suppose they ran out of time. And he wanted some more clothes for them no time for that either. And I got a few groceries for that cute little maid in the kitchen. And Polor gave me a list of medical supplies. I got those for him, too.
What an exciting life you lead.
Don't I know it.
Hey Uncle D; children! Jix greeted Vader and the twins as they stepped off the shuttle in the docking bay of the Executor. Long time, no see.
Hey Jix, the twins chorused, then looked at each other and grinned.
You know, there used to be a time when that freaked me out, Leia commented.
Luke looked at her with wide eyes and a slightly trembling lower lip. Love you too, sis.
She socked him in the shoulder. Oh, get over yourself. They walked off, still arguing good-naturedly.
They seem to be in awfully good spirits, considering they're going to see His Wrinkledness, Jix commented.
Vader sighed. They picked up on the pain my leg is giving me --
Wait wait wait, Jix interrupted. Your leg hurts? And you didn't tell me?
You didn't need to know, Vader replied.
Anyway, Vader continued, they picked up on it, and ever since they've been like this. At least around me.
Jix fell silent for a moment.
You know, he said finally, they probably are trying to make your life a little bit easier. You're in pain, you're worried . . . they don't want you to have to worry about their feelings, too. Because you know you would, he added when Vader tilted his head disbelievingly. Don't pull that Big Bad Sith Lord act with me. You totally care about whether or not they're happy, or content, or whatever. Don't try to deny it.
When did he get so perceptive? Vader wondered. I didn't even know I felt like that until he pointed it out. Where is Solo? he asked instead. I have orders for the two of you, for when we reach Coruscant.
What kind of orders?' Jix asked hopefully.
The best kind, Vader replied as sweetly as the mechanical voice would allow. The kind that will keep you on this ship, away from the Palace and anything stupid you may do there that will get you killed.
Jix frowned. You know, sometimes, you are a really horrible boss.
And you'll follow, those orders, right, Jix? Vader continued as if Jix had never spoken. Because you remember what happened the last time you went into the Palace uninvited, don't you?
Jix unconsciously rubbed at his chest, over where his heart was, uneasy at the memory. Yeah, that's not exactly something I'll forget anytime soon.
Good. I trust you'll keep Solo from suffering the same fate.
With that, Vader swept away after his children.
Here, Vader said, holding the lightsabers out to the twins.
They each took one.
Real ones? Luke said disbelievingly. He switched it on; the crimson blade shot from the hilt. He tried a couple of swings. Well, red's never been my colour, but it'll do. He grinned at Vader. Thanks.
Vader tilted his head, wondering at Luke's reaction. Had the boy actually attempted to tease him? Maybe Polor and Jix had known what they were talking about after all. Vader shook his head. It wouldn't be the first time, that was for sure. Well, maybe for Jix . . .
What? Luke asked.
You are an impertinent child, Vader replied. Go meditate.
Luke wrinkled his nose both twins hated meditation and headed for the door, Leia at his heels. Vader called out to her.
Yes? she replied. Luke hovered at the door, waiting.
I'd like to speak with you.
She shrugged. So speak.
Vader glanced at Luke.
Luke held up his hands.
I'm going, I'm going, he huffed. I can tell when I'm not wanted.
Vader's stomach flipped; he didn't want Luke to get the wrong idea . . . Luke, he called.
Luke gave him a funny little half-smile over his shoulder.
Relax, he replied. You're far too uptight.
He left, the door sliding shut behind him.
Vader looked at Leia. He doesn't really think --
No, she reassured him, looking rather close to laughter. He's right, you're way too serious for your own good.
Thanks for that, he commented dryly.
My pleasure. She smirked at him. So, what did you want to talk about?
Now came the hard part.
I . . . uh heard there is something of a relationship between you and Han Solo, he commented awkwardly.
Leia's look immediately turned so poisonous Vader nearly stepped back in shock.
There is nothing between Captain Solo and me, she hissed venomously. He is an arrogant son-of-a-nerf who doesn't know his place. In fact, I suggest you take a few strips out of his hide.
She turned on her heel and stalked away.
Vader stared after her. And Jix says I'm frightening.
Vader stood still, looking like a polished black marble statue in front of the doors that would soon open to permit them to enter the Emperor's audience chamber. He listened to Luke and Leia as they shifted nervously behind him. Leia was slightly calmer than Luke, but Vader suspected that was only because she had fooled herself into believing that Sidious would be the same man in this private audience as he was in the Senate Rotunda. Unfortunately for her, she would soon be proved wrong.
Upon landing on Coruscant, they had stopped briefly at Vader's mansion to allow them a chance to clean up and get their bearing, then they had come straight here. And with each passing minute, all three of them grew more edgy.
Vader knew this was only a strategy of Sidious's meant to throw them off balance, and he worked at keeping himself centered so solidly in the Force that no blow would topple him, and attempted to project something calm and soothing at the twins. It seemed to work, a little --
And then the doors swung slowly, ominously, open.
Vader strode through the audience chamber until he reached the dais that the Emperor had positioned his throne upon. He knelt, while Luke and Leia stood awkwardly behind him.
You called, Master? Vader inquired.
The twins looked at him with something akin to shock. The slightly dry voice he used was quite clear to them; Sidious, however, either didn't notice or pretended not to.
My apprentice, the seemingly wizened old man cackled. Yes, yes I did. Rise.
As Vader stood, Sidious got up and moved slowly down the dais steps. He proceeded to circle the twins, attempting to subtly cut them off from Vader, but they instinctively moved closer to him, making such a move impossible unless he wanted to be obvious about it. He frowned slightly and stood still.
Vader had caught on to Sidious' game and had been about to warn the twins, but they had already moved closer to him. The knot in his gut relaxed slightly, letting him breathe again. If they had any hope of surviving this confrontation alive, they had to stay together. If Vader had had any doubts about Sidious' intentions, they were all gone now. He knew that frown all too well.
They are powerful indeed, Lord Vader, Sidious hissed.
He looked at Luke and Leia with cold yellow eyes. Leia's Senator mask fell neatly into place, and Luke gulped.
I am looking forward to completing you training, Sidious said to them. In time you, like your father, will call me Master.
Luke was about to reply hotly, but Leia got her mouth open first.
Dropping her eyes respectfully, she said, If that is what the Force wills.
The Emperor's eyes narrowed at the implication. I am the Empire, young princess. I am the galaxy. And as such, I am the Force!
Forgive me if I am mistaken, Leia replied formally, though her tone implied she really didn't think she was.
Sickly golden eyes flashed beneath the Emperor's black hood. You are mistaken indeed. About a great many things!
Leia didn't so much as blink.
It occurred to Luke all of a sudden to attempt to fade into the background as much as possible. Vader and Leia seemed to know what they were doing he didn't. He he could get the Emperor to ignore him, and then maybe sneak around behind him . . .
He began to back slowly into the shadows --
-- and was abruptly grabbed by the throat and slammed into the wall.
Everyone turned to look at Luke and his assailant.
Very good, my child, Sidious purred. Keep him there.
Luke looked down into startling green eyes. Mara?
You're a fool, Skywalker, she sneered back, her her forearm not budging in the slightest from its position across his windpipe.
You see what happens when you try to resist me, young princess. Sidious again began to pace a circle around Leia and Vader. You will not be so stupid, will you, Princess?
Leia threw a distressed look at Luke.
Sidious grabbed her chin and forced her eyes to his. She cringed. Will you, Princess? His voice was harder this time.
Luke tried to call out to her, but his cry was cut off immediately by Mara.
Leia set her jaw.
Yes, she replied, and brought her knee up to meet the Emperor's groin.
Are you sure Vader said he wanted us there? Han asked as he and Jix strode through the docking bay of the Palace. You'd think he'd just ask us to go with them . . .
And what would His Ancientness think of that, huh? Jix retorted. See, he just wants us there, behind the door, so that is anything happens to him, we can get the kids out of there.
That . . . makes sense, Han agreed.
You sound surprised.
Well, coming from you --
Watch it, Captain, Jix growled, only half joking. Or I may have to toss you down a reactor shaft.
Sidious let go of Leia, roaring with pain and rage. Twisting away, she raced for the door as Vader ducked around to head toward Luke and Mara.
But the other Sith Lord was quick. He straightened up again and sent angry bursts of lightning in her direction.
If you will not heed me, he snarled as she screamed and writhed in pain, then you will die!
Vader stood still halfway between Sidious and Luke and Mara, tension, worry and rage all radiating from him in waves as he stared at Leia, but unable to decide what to do.
Luke decided for him.
FATHER! he screamed so loud Mara flinched back with a wince. It wasn't enough for him to struggle free of her crushing grip, but it gave him another breath. HELP LEIA!
Mara snarled and lunged against his windpipe, choking off his air supply.
Vader stepped hesitantly forward, toward the Emperor.
Luke scrambled for a way to break Mara's grip. He needed the Force, but he didn't dare let his shields down with all the Dark energy moving around here. The last thing he needed was a headache here and now, of all times and places.
Vader was moving faster now. He ignited his brilliant crimson lightsaber.
Luke saw no other choice. He needed oxygen and he needed it now. Letting down his shields, he shoved at Mara with the Force. She went flying across the room.
Vader swung the blade just as Sidious became aware of what was happening. The Emperor screamed in fury and turned the lightning bursting from his fingertips onto his apprentice. Leia lay panting on the floor, watching in horror and fascination as sparks flew from Vader's life support suit.
Thanks to Polor's prescription, Luke's headache wasn't blinding, but it was bad enough. He raced to Leia's side, only nearly falling twice, and grabbed her in protective hug.
Vader managed to meet the lightning with his blade, directing it away from his body.
Across the room, Mara scrambled to her feet and ignited her own magenta blade.
Luke stood and pulled Leia to her feet. She was weaker than he was, and he didn't feel so great, but they had to move.
And then it hit him: He knew how to get rid of the Force headaches.
He opened his mind to the Force, removing the filters he had put up under Obi-Wan and Yoda's tutlage. Instead, he allowed the Force as a whole to flow through him, and pulled the parts of it he wanted to use into his body and letting the rest of it flow back out.
Be a channel, not a dam. I get it now.
At that moment, Vader's bad leg gave way beneath him, and he collapsed with an involuntary cry of pain.
Are we there yet? Han asked. Again.
No, Jix replied. Again.
I thought you said this was a short cut!
I thought it was!
Well, how about I do the thinking from now on, since it obviously isn't your area of expertise? Han snapped.
Do you know your way around the Imperial Palace? Jix retorted.
Well, no, but apparently you don't, either!
Jix gave Han an insulted look. I know my way around the Palace quite well, thank you!
Well, Jix relented sheepishly. I do when I'm in the air shafts. The hallways are kinda new.
Han rolled his eyes. Air shafts, he repeated disbelievingly.
Well, hey, I wasn't about to take a chance on bumping into His Evilness every time I turned a corner. That guy can read minds, you know! And although I am the picture of innocence and virtue . . .
Han snorted in disbelief.
. . . my thoughts are not exactly lily-white. Therefore, I take precautions. Suddenly he caught sight of something above Han's head and eyed it with interested. Speaking of precautions . . .
Han looked up. There, set into the wall, was a large grate leading into the air shaft.
Han's eyes widened. Oh, no, you don't. Don't even think about it! I refuse --
Vader had a very hight tolerance for pain. That knowledge was what scared Leia the most when he cried out.
He still had Sidious engaged, lightsaber to Force lightning, but as he couldn't move, all it would take would be for Sidious to break off the attack, leap back out of Vader's range, and attack from a more awkward angle.
Luke! she whispered desperately. We have to help him!
I know, I know! he shot back quietly. But Leia, he's a lot stronger than we are --
Leia gritted her teeth and pulled out the lightsaber Vader had given her earlier. So? She ignited it.
The action caught Mara's attention,from where she stood watching the battle, ready to step in the moment it appeared that Sidious might be losing. She screamed in defiance and headed right at Leia.
Luke jumped in front of her, meeting Mara's attack with his own ignited blade. What is wrong with her? he wondered. She's never acted this out-of-control before.
As Luke held Mara off, Leia moved toward Sidious. She swung the lightsaber at him, grazing his shoulder.
Sidious hissed and turned to meet her --
-- and sank to the floor, Vader's lightsaber buried in his heart.
Leia looked at Vader.
He gave a feeble shrug.
I threw it, he rasped.
And Mara Jade began to scream, an unearthly, inhuman shriek that Leia hoped she never heard again, and began to attack them all with even more fervor than before.
I can't believe you made me do this, Han grumbled. This sucks a--
Ah, shut up, Jix replied from up ahead.
Hey, you're not the one with your face planted in someone's backside!
I assure you, it is not exactly pleasurable for me to have your face planted in my backside. No offense, darling, but you're not exactly my type.
Han growled unintelligibly.
You could always back up a bit, Jix said helpfully.
You could always speed up a bit, Han shot back.
Jix didn't bother to dignify that with a verbal response, but he did quicken his crawl.
Vader attempted to get up, but his leg wouldn't allow for it. He had to settle for shouting orders.
Pin her down! he yelled at his children.
It took them a while. Though there were two of them, she had the experience, skill and rage to elude them for quite some time. However, their sheer strength, their ability to work together and what little guidance and power Vader could offer them eventually got the better of her. Luke and Leia held her facedown on the floor, all three of them exhausted.
I'm going to need to sleep for a year after this, Leia muttered.
Hear, hear, Luke agreed, stifling a yawn at the mere mention of sleep.
Bring her to me, Vader ordered.
He didn't really feel like searching through the redgead's mind, looking for all the ties Sidious had created to brainwash the girl, but it had to be done now, and Neither twin had the skill. So, he set to work.
Mara fought him the whole way. The twins held her down on her back physically, but once in her mind Vader was on his own. Her shields were strong and very well constructed, and he was so tired, so weak . . .
But he had to do this. Had to . . .
He kept working.
Great, so which way now? Han asked as he dropped to the floor beside Jix, who was looking around with his hands on his hips.
Jix was silent.
You realize all the fun is going to be over by the time we get there. If they do end up needing help, well, we aren't going to be there to give it.
This way. I think.
He set off, not even looking back to see if Han was coming.
And here we go again, Han grouched under his breath. I'm gonna kill him.
By the time Vader finished severing all Mara's ties to Sidious, she had lost consciousness. Her exhaustion, coupled with the backlash of the Emperor's death and the shock from having the ties cut, had knocked her out cold.
Vader looked up at the twins.
Take the mask . . . off, he asked them, so quietly that they more felt the request through the Force than actually heard it. I don't . . . want to die . . . with it on.
Leia's jaw dropped; Luke's eyes widened.
You're not going to die! they exclaimed in unison.
Yes . . .I am, Vader told them tiredly. Take it off . . . please.
The twins looked at each other, distressed.
Please, Vader whispered again.
He could feel the damage done to his organs, could feel the blood and the scorch marks, the labouring of his heart and the stressing of him muscles. The pain in his leg was excruciating . . . at least it would stop when he died . . .
With trembling hands, Luke reached toward the helmet as Leia took one of his large hands in both of her tiny ones, squeezing it tightly.
You've been good to us, she told him. Thank you.
He brushed her mind lightly with the Force in acknowledgment as Luke gripped the edge of the helmet firmly.
What do you think you're doing? a voice demanded from the doorway. Solo, call Polor, Uncle D's hurt don't you dare take off that mask, just sit tight until Polor gets here.
But -- Luke objected.
Don't talk back to me, kid! Jix snapped. Take that thing off and you'll kill him all the quicker. Solo, have you called Polor yet?
He's on his way, Han replied.
And then the world grew dark as Vader sank into unconsciousness.
Vader woke to an extremely bright light that stabbed relentlessly at his eyes, and groaned in pain.
Force, he hurt. Muscles he didn't know he had were screaming in protest, his leg ached horribly, and his head was ready to splinter.
Polor's face came into view, bending over him.
Welcome back, my lord, he said softly. We're on the Executor, heading to Selaran, to the medical facility there. I'm going to repair your injuries.
Banned . . . Vader managed to breathe.
The Emperor is dead, Polor said, a strange expression coming over his face. He cannot prevent it, not anymore.
Vader tried to frown, but it was too hard.
Dead . . . ? he repeated, confused. How . . . ?
Polor looked worried now. You don't remember?
Vader tried to shake his head; that didn't work either. No . . . what . . . ?
Do you remember leaving Vjun?
. . . yes . . .
Do you remember arriving in the Coruscant system?
Yes . . .
Going down planetside?
Vader tried to frown again. He could feel the muscles trying to work, but they still wouldn't do what he wanted.
No . . . what . . .
You and the children went to see the Emperor. Luke and Leia say that the Emperor attacked Leia, and Miss Jade got a hold of Luke, and you killed the Emperor to save them.
Me . . . ? Don't . . . remember that.
I shouldn't be surprised. Miss Jade doesn't remember anything, either.
What . . . ?
Apparently, she went crazy after you killed Palpatine. Luke and Leia say you had to sever several mental bonds. Then Han and Jix arrived and called me. You were both out cold by the time I arrived. We brought you back here, and, well, you know the rest.
The twins . . . ?
Weak and shaken, but no permanent damage. Leia had some bone calcification due to the lightning, but she's been treated and will make a full recovery. Luke's got a bruised trachea, but I've got him drinking several medicinal cocktails, and he should be better soon.
How long . . . ?
You've been out for four days. We should reach Selaran in another two.
Vader nodded absently, then realized he could actually move again. He lifted a hand slightly, eyes widening at the skeletal golden machine.
We had to leave the suit behind, Polor explained. You were too heavy and bulky in it, and we also needed to carry Miss Jade. Plus, the twins were in no condition to bear any kind of weight, though they did attempt to do their share.
Vader's brow suddenly furrowed.
Found by . . . Jix and Solo?
Didn't I . . . tell them . . . not to follow me?
I didn't know, I swear! Han exclaimed several hours later. He said you wanted us there as backup!
I don't know why you're complaining, Uncle D, Jix added. If it wasn't for us --
Jixton, when I ask you to do something, there is no hidden meaning to it, Vader answered. And while I am grateful, next time you are to follow orders. To the letter. Understand?
Come on --
Does it look like I care?
Jix eyed his boss, but didn't say anything. Vader watched the spy and pilot leave, stalking and slinking respectively, and shook his head.
Vader and Mara stared at each other from across the room.
So . . . Vader began uneasily. You don't remember anything?
Mara twisted her hands in the sheets of her infirmary bed and looked fixedly at them.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, until the door slid open to reveal the excited twins. Luke gave Mara a hug while Leia swooped down to kiss Vader's cheek without any sort of hesitation. She settled herself at the foot of his bed; Luke found a chair and straddled it, placing it in between the beds.
We came to visit earlier, Leia informed Vader, but you were sleeping.
Well, I'm awake now, Vader replied, still shocked by her openness. And she seemed comfortable. It was strange. But also very, very nice.
We're only a few hours away from Selaran, now, Luke said. Piett expects to arrive at 800 hours.
Good, Vader replied vaguely.
You're going to actually let Polor repair your injuries, this time, right? Leia asked, sounding so severe Vader wondering if no was still an option.
Yes, he assured her. I haven't got anything better to do.
Luke gave him a look.
Dad, you just killed the Emperor, and you haven't got anything to do? You've just tossed the galaxy upside down, you can't just leave it that way!
I'm sure your Rebellion will be quite happy to set it to rights, Vader replied, but couldn't keep the slight amount of bitterness out of his voice.
Leia looked like she wanted to say something, but Mara cut in.
You're going to let them go back to the Republic? she demanded.
What else would you have me do? he shot back.
Don't go back to it, she suggested, her tone bordering on disrespectful.
Vader frowned, eyes going to those of his children.
You must do what you feel is right, of course, Luke replied to the unspoken question.
Vader frowned more heavily. Did you do that on purpose?
Sound like Obi-Wan.
Luke's expression was deceptively innocent.
I don't know what you mean.
You did! What, I save your life and all of a sudden you're allowed to tease me?
Luke laughed outright at Vader's indignation.
Relax, Dad. I'm going to be teasing you for a hell of a long time; you may as well get used to it.
Vader narrowed his eyes, then sat up in shock. Was he actually arguing with Luke because it was fun, rather that because he felt slighted? When had that happened?
Wait, he said slowly. Since when do you call me Dad?
Luke and Leia burst out laughing. After a moment, Vader joined in while Mara looked on, feeling uncomfortable. None of the three Skywalkers noticed.
Han glanced over at Leia as she talked with Jix. They were laughing at something Han couldn't hear. After regaining a semblance of composure, Leia touched Jix's arm (was there something more than friendly in the gesture?) and turned away from him, a smile still on her face.
She caught sight of Han who was careful not to look at her -- and the smile vanished, but she squared her shoulders and came straight at him.
Captain Solo, she greeted him formally.
Princess, he replied, just as coolly.
Han, she said softly, her voice quieter. About what I said I didn't mean it the way you took it.
I know, he replied.
She looked at him, surprised.
You know? Then why did you --?
I didn't, know, then," he explained in a rush. When you said it, I mean. I didn't know then. But you know, I've been playing that scene over and over in my head since then, and, well, I think I'm seeing it a little more clearly. Out of the heat of the moment, you know? Unless I'm completely twisting it around in my head, and reading things into it that aren't there --
What do you think was there? she interrupted.
Startled, he met her eyes.
Her eyes bore into his.
What do you think was there? That day. What do you think I meant?
I -- uh . . . I think you meant, maybe . . . just what you said. That you didn't have time to concentrate on a relationship. But I thought you had some sort of ulterior motive, that you really wanted to get rid of me and . . . it hurt. So I tried to make you hurt, too.
Leia bit her lower lip and dropped her gaze to the floor.
How about from now on, we're honest with each other, and you ask me if I do things you don't understand, and I promise to always be blunt with you. If I want you to go away, I'll tell you to go away.
Hope filled him as she looked up again to meet his eyes.
That sounds good, he managed to say.
She smiled brilliantly and stepped closer, her chin lifting invitingly.
He bent to kiss her, but stopped right before his lips met hers.
Hey, Your Worshipfulness?
We will still argue sometimes, though, won't we? Because, you know, if we don't, well, that's kind of . . . boring.
She laughed at him.
I think we could manage that.
Oh, okay, good.
And finally, he kissed her, feeling better than he had since the last time he had done so.
Luke watched from the doorway as Mara slowly gathered her few possessions, placing all of them carefully in a worn satchel.
Planning to go somewhere? he asked.
She jumped, unaware he had been watching her, then turned back to the task at hand.
He moved toward her.
Mara . . .
She blew a stray piece of red hair out of her eyes.
He waited patiently.
I just don't feel like I belong here, that's all, she finished, trying to shrug it off.
Luke touched her shoulder.
Mara, the Empire is more your home than mine. You shouldn't feel like you have to go.
She looked up at him.
But I do, Skywalker. I do. I feel . . . adrift. I've always had a purpose, but now, I I don't know what to do with myself. I need to get away. Can you understand that? And can you please not judge me for it?
He nodded sadly.
She picked up the full satchel and left the room without another word or backwards glance.
Are you ready, my lord? Polor asked as he prepared to put Vader under for the surgery.
I suppose. He watched the doctor for a moment, then spoke again. Polor.
What should I do about the galaxy?
What do you think you should do?
I don't know. That's the problem.
Do you know what you want to do?
Vader averted his eyes.
I want to keep the Empire. I think it's a good idea, if it's handled right. I'd reinstate the Senate; Force knows I'd need help in the political field, but I think an Emperor can keep things running quicker, so that when decisions need to be made immediately, discussions don't take months, or years. I want . . .
Polor smiled as Vader drifted off into a medically-induced slumber.
You'll be able to do whatever you wish, my lord as soon as you recover from this procedure.
Mara maneuvered the ship out of the docking bay, and shot toward space. Maybe, one day, when she wasn't feeling so mixed up inside, she would come back, say hi to Luke, try to put down some roots. But for now, she just needed to be completely, totally free.
Five Years Later
She stepped out of her shuttle and stretched, then grinned at the man standing across from her.
Thanks for letting me on board, Admiral, she said. I realize I'm not exactly everyone's favourite person right now.
Piett shook his head.
Taking up with smugglers? Really, Miss Jade, he replied with an easy smile.
So why did you want me to come on board before heading down to Coruscant? I'm not under arrest, am I?
No, you're the one smuggler on our clearance list. You can thank Knight Skywalker for that, by the way.
She nodded. I will when I see him.
The clatter of boots on the deck drew her attention.
Solo! she called with a teasing grin as she caught sight of the newcomer. What's this I hear about you marrying the Imperial Princess?
Han smirked at her as her approached.
That's all you've heard?
She narrowed her eyes.
What's that supposed to mean?
Han's smile grew.
Just that four days, nine hours and thirty-six minutes ago, I became a father.
Mara's jaw dropped.
And then, he continued, obviously enjoying her shock, four days, nine hours and thirty-two minutes ago, I became a father again.
Twins? Mara managed to squeak.
Han nodded proudly.
Yep. A boy and a girl.
How did I not hear about this?
Well, Luke insisted we send you a birth announcement, so we did, but you must have missed each other in hyperspace.
That's the second time in the last five minutes I've heard about what Luke's done for me. Did nobody else miss me enough to think of me in times like this?
Well, to be honest . . . I know we were all getting on better before you left, but . . . well, we weren't entirely sure you would want to know.
Mara nodded slowly.
I guess I didn't exactly express my love for the lot of you, did I?
Han gave a half-grin.
She squared her shoulders.
Well, I here now, and I can fix that. Where's Leia and those babies? Oh, wait, better question: Why aren't you with Leia and the babies?
Han turned faintly pink, but answered honestly, Well, things were getting a little smelly, if you know what I mean.
Startled, Mara just laughed as Han led her to the Millennium Falcon.
Sorry if there's any Wookiee hair lying around, Han said as they settled into the cockpit. Chewie usually flies her, but he's on Kashyyyk at the moment.
Why don't you fly her? Mara asked curiously.
I do, sometimes, but -- he flashed her a happy grin -- I'm a family man now. Got responsibilities. And even back when I didn't, I didn't have the time to devote to her that she deserved. Chewie does. And he likes flying. So he's a good successor.
Good afternoon, Doctor, Mara greeted Polor as she and Han entered his clinic. No longer in the service of the Emperor?
He no longer requires my services. He offered to keep me on his payroll, but quite honestly, I was bored.
Bet he was happy to hear that.
Polor looked at her. You know what? He actually was. That was the first time I've really seen him laugh.
Vader can laugh? Mara replied dryly.
Ah, but he's not Vader anymore. He doesn't even acknowledge the name. He's Anakin Skywalker through and through.
Yet he still kept the Empire in place, Mara reminded him.
Somewhat, Polor said thoughtfully. You'd best ask the Princess about the particulars, though.
Is she around? Mara asked. I actually did come to see her not that it wasn't good to see you again, or anything.
She's here. I believe her husband slipped back to see her.
Mara looked around. Sure enough, Han had disappeared.
Oh. Well, then. Can you point me in the right direction?
Polor gave her directions, and she soon found the royal couple in one of the rooms, each with a child in their arms.
Mara! Leia smiled. Good to see you again. We weren't sure if you'd ever come back.
Well, I'm not exactly part of the court anymore, she reminded the Imperial Princess.
We would have let you stay.
Mara smiled softly.
Thanks for that. But I just didn't feel comfortable doing so.
Leia gave her a piercing look. So why are you back?
Mara hesitated. I have my reasons.
Do they include my brother?
Mara glowered at the other woman, then relaxed and rolled her eyes at Leia's smirk.
No comment, she growled playfully, though she was still a bit off balance at being seen through so easily. And who are these lovely beings? She directed her attention at the baby in Leia's arms.
Leia smiled happily.
This is Jaina, she said, holding the infant up for Mara to see. And Han's got Jacen. Children, say hi to your future aunt.
Mara blushed furiously, and Leia laughed in delight.
You're evil, she accused. Now tell me about all these changes to the government Polor hinted at.
Leia frowned slightly in concentration.
Well, we're still an Empire in name, with a hereditary throne,' she began, but it's more of a figurehead position, now. The only time Daddy steps in is when a decision needs to be made immediately, in times of crisis. All other times, the Senate is in power, and each world has representation it's basically a mix between the Empire you worked for and the Republic of old.
And it works? Mara asked sceptically.
Quite well, so far, Leia replied, bouncing Jaina a little as she squirmed. It's a compromise that has bought us peace with the Alliance, and Daddy's been very unbiased when it comes to appointing people. Mon Mothma is the Prime Minister that's the Chancellor's position, we just renamed it and Carlist Rieekan is Head Strategist. Of course, he put Piett as a Grand Admiral and displaced most of the ones Palpatine appointed, but oh, and Jix -- She began to laugh.
What about Jix? Mara asked, bewildered.
He's Head of Imperial Intelligence, Leia said between giggles.
We re talking about the same Jix here, right? Wrenga Jixton, your standard immature Corellian --
I resent that! Han objected.
You resemble that, Leia retorted calmly. Yes, we're talking the same Jix. Isn't that odd? I would never have pictured Jix as the head of anything --
Join the club, Mara cut in, still surprised.
-- but he's actually really good at it. Chewie's his main agent, with that old clunker of Han's --
Hey! Han objected again.
-- no one ever suspects a Wookiee; but all the young kids fresh out of school apply for jobs with him, and he works miracles with them. After a few years they go off and get other jobs and do extremely well at whatever it is they choose, but they always rave about what a great time they had with Jix.
Isn't it dangerous, switching spies around like that? Mara asked. So many people knowing all the dirty little secrets of the government?
One of Daddy's initial concerns. But it has worked. Jix has a great sense of character, and everybody he's trained has been trustworthy . . . plus, he doesn't tell them any more than they need to know.
Still doesn't sound very stable.
Leia shrugged helplessly.
I'm no spy; I don't know exactly what Jix does to them. For all I know, he could be replacing them all with human replica droids. Fact remains, we've had no trouble so far.
So far, Mara repeated meaningfully.
Oh, go take it up with Jix. He's at the Jedi Temple with Daddy.
I'll do that.
Mara turned and strode out the door, passing C-3PO on the way. The golden droid looked from her to his mistress in confusion, not sure how to interpret the knowing smirks Han and Leia directed at Mara's back before handing Leia bottles of formula for the babies.
Han and Leia, however, couldn't have been happier. Mara Jade was back in top gear, and little did she know, Anakin wasn't the only one at the Jedi Temple.
Now, can you feel that place really far down inside yourself that seems to talk back to you, tells you things to do, or things that are about to happen?
I'm hungry, one of the younglings said.
Anakin paused, fighting down a laugh.
Not in your stomach, Keegan, he corrected. "It's not really anywhere, but everywhere at the same time. To find it, you have to go inside. Once you find that place inside, you can follow it outside and use it more.
So that's the Force? a little Twi'lek girl piped up.
No, not exactly, but that's what it feels like; that's how you find it. We'll worry about what it actually is sometime later, okay?
She nodded and scrunched up her face, trying to find her center once again.
Anakin watched then with pride. He had never been good at meditation himself, but at least he could teach it . . . to some degree.
He and Luke had worked hard to bring the Jedi Order back to the galaxy. They had twenty younglings, all who saw their families on a regular basis, some who even lived at home. The group had been split down the middle between the two Skywalker men, and Luke's class was currently in the gymnasium, practicing lightsaber skills, leaving Anakin to teach his class theory until it was their turn.
Anakin wasn't exactly sure where he wanted to take the new Jedi Order. He had offered training to adults, at first, but only three, besides Luke and Leia, had taken him up on it. It was then he knew he had to go back to taking in younglings, though he hated the idea of taking them from their families. But they still got to see and bond with their parents and siblings, so he supposed it was better than it was . . .
Knock knock, a vaguely familiar voice interrupted his thoughts.
He looked to the door.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
Do I know . . . Vader!?
Anakin, he corrected her quickly.
Master Anakin? one of the younglings asked curiously, one eye cracked open.
Keep looking, Layla. I'll just be a moment.
He silently rose to his feet and went out to join Mara in the hallway.
My, my, don't you clean up nice, Your Majesty, she commented, only half teasing.
Anakin laughed easily.
Well, thank you, my lady. You're not looking too shabby, yourself, and cut the 'majesty' crap. I'm only the Emperor when I have to be.
She smiled slightly, a bit uncomfortable talking to Vader like this. Well, he obviously wasn't Vader anymore, but it was still one of the strangest sensations she'd ever encountered.
And when she recalled how he'd been talking to those children, well, that just made the situation even more odd.
I'm looking for Jix, she said. Leia was telling me about this rotating-spy thing you guys have got going on, and I'm not sure I like it.
Anakin gave her a piercing look.
Why do you even care? he pointed out. You left the Empire five years ago, you haven't been in contact since. Why now?
She blushed. I have my reasons.
He eyed her knowingly.
Uh huh, sure you do, he agreed blandly.
She glared at him.
What's that supposed to mean?
Nothing. He smiled at her. Jix is in the gymnasium. End of the hall.
Thanks. She nodded and started down the hall.
Anakin shook his head as he turned back to his class of younglings. Son, he called silently through the Force, you've got a visitor.
Mara pushed open the door to the gymnasium, and was greeted with a sight she hadn't expected at least, not yet.
She had come back looking for Luke, hoping to maybe be a part of his life again. Her knowledge of Jix's little operation had taken over, as a problem she could fix. She liked fixing things; it was a good coping mechanism for her, and it helped her deal with her anxiety over seeing him again. But when he was thrown into her path without any warning . . .
He turned and met her eyes, and all her feelings of nervousness dissipated into thin air. He moved toward her.
As he drew nearer, she realized just how much he had changed in the last five years. He had gained muscle, his frame had broadened and filled out, though he was still as slim and wiry as ever, and maturity and strength shone from his bright blue eyes. She'd left a boy; she'd returned to a man.
Mara, he greeted her warmly.
His smile, though warm, innocent and slightly lopsided was exactly how she remembered it.
Why did you come back?
I realized that that without all of Palpatine's sickness and hatred inside of me, I'm able to love. And I realized that that I love you, Farmboy.
Luke's smile was beautiful as he grabbed her, his lips meeting hers in a passionate rush. After a few moments or possibly centuries he pulled away.
Did I hear you tell Dad you were looking for Jix?
Was I? she replied with a smile. I can't remember.
That's okay, he said. You're not taking off like that again; you'll have plenty of time to remember.
Are you telling me what to do, Skywalker? she asked with an arched brow.
His look was innocent.
No . . . just forcefully requesting.
She wrinkled her nose at him, then pulled his head down for another kiss.
Across the room, surrounded by younglings and the blue and white astrodroid R2-D2, who was always seen in the company of one Skywalker man or the other these days, Jix smirked.
What are they doing, Mister Jix? one four-year-old asked, watching his Master and the redhead.
Duh! another replied. They're trying to eat each other. Grown-up humans do that when they like each other.
That's weird, a Zabrak child replied.
Jix chuckled. Don't worry, kids, you'll learn all about it someday, when you learn about the Revolution of the Empire.
Oh yes. For never was there a family more dysfunctional than this of Skywalkers and Imperials.