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Power Lust: Lust for Revenge

Part 3

Chapter 11: New Plans

The transit back to Avenger's location took a little under ten hours, which Mara spent studying maps of the Empire while she fought her temptation to simply return to the intriguing young man who had finally managed to wink out in a healing trance.

However, aware that her every gesture was being closely watched by her dubious but powerful subordinates, she resolved to wait it out while she tried to come up with a new way to beat and kill Vader.

That alone proved to be a tough-enough challenge to keep her busy till they reached their hidden destination.

"We've entered the Roche system, Madam," the pilot informed her, cutting in her twisted thoughts of new plans.

"Good. Contact Avenger and tell them to deactivate the cloaking device. Authorization code 34792."

"Yes, Madam."

Turning around in her seat until she was facing forward once again, Mara was just in time to witness the reappearance of the huge star destroyer as its millions of microscopic mirrors stopped reflecting the nebula that was surrounding them.

Even though 'she' had brought this technology with herself when she had joined the regrouped, disgruntled imperials, she still felt awed every time that she witnessed the withdrawal of the flawless cloak of invisibility from around their mobile headquarters.

The noise of clacking heels attracted her attention behind herself. She swiveled her seat once again. Veers was standing at the entrance of the cockpit, obviously waiting for her orders. She reluctantly gave him the duty to bring Skywalker out, ordering him to take him to her private quarters before locking him up in them--- then quickly warned the concerned Jedi about how they would have to play their arrival if she didn't want to have to send him back in a real cell.

Luke was barely exiting his healing trance, having felt a change in the movement of the shuttle, when Mara's senses invaded his once again.

*Luke, forgive me,* she sent quickly. *I have no choice but to let Veers handle your transfer from the shuttle to my quarters. If you don't give him any trouble, he shouldn't harm you.*

Still slightly disoriented thanks to his trance, the young Jedi tried to make sense of what the other was telling him--- when the door of the medbay opened, allowing access to a grim-faced general.

As if disgusted by what he was seeing, the man grimaced, then wordlessly tilted his head in his direction; two troopers walked forward and roughly pulled the young man into a sitting position before they slapped binders on his still slightly sensitive wrists. Then, before Luke had had time to shift his legs so that he would be able to stand on his feet by himself, they viciously pulled him off the bunk and onto his shaky legs.

"What's the matter, Skywalker?" the high-ranking officer sneered in his face as he took hold of his hair and forced him to look up at him. "Not happy to see us again?"

Luke forced himself to not answer the other, playing the part of a brainwashed, subdued prisoner.

"Take him away. Commander Jade wants us to lock him up in her quarters. I think that she's planning to make 'much' thorough use of him," he sneered contemptuously at his 'unaware' prisoner.

The two troopers didn't react to his mean joke; Luke, for his part, didn't pay attention to the angry man. The other could think what he wanted, he reminded himself, he himself knew that Mara wouldn't harm him again.

Whatever that there was between them, it had 'killed' that part of her former personality. Forever.

It only left her burning hatred for his father, he admitted glumly, wondering yet again how he would be able to keep her from killing his father... although he had promised that he would not intervene in her mission for her late master. In time, he figured as the troopers dragged him out of the medbay, he would, hopefully, find his answer. Or perhaps the Force would give him the answer.

Except for the fact that the troopers offered him very little help to carry his still aching body, the transfer took place without any unpleasant happenings.

Naturally though, they couldn't simply leave him in their chief's quarters and be gone. It would have been too kind, Luke sneered inwardly as he tried to recover from the unceremonious shove that had gotten him inside the well-furnished quarters. Behind him, the double doors were already sealed, leaving him alone to pick himself up from his rough landing on the hard, carpeted deck.

Had Mara not been in need to keep up appearances and go on the command deck with Piett, Luke knew that she would have been with him and the others wouldn't have acted like this, but, well, he painfully sighed to himself, what was done was done.

He freed himself from his regular cuffs, then slowly rolling on his back, he brought his left hand to his forehead and gently rubbed it where it had impacted with the floor. That, he grumbled inwardly, would leave a mark for a while. Not that it would be his first one since he had left Yavin 4, he then reflected as he noticed the fainter but still visible marks that were marking his left forearm.

Careful to not add to his slight headache, he slowly pushed himself to a sitting position, then checked the rest of his bare chest. As it had been for his arm, his healing trance had done quite some good to his remnants of injuries, but they were not gone completely yet.

As he studied himself further, he belatedly became aware that he was quite hungry, having been deprived of food for... a while.

Still moving slowly thanks to his general exhaustion, he pulled himself to his feet, using the nearby furniture to do so, then began to study his surroundings to find a way to get food delivered to him. Since he was aboard yet another imperial ship, he suspected that what was true about the internal workings of Executor would also be true aboard that ship, imperial standards oblige.

As if the ship itself had read his thoughts, the back wall suddenly pinged in warning, then a delivery chute opened to reveal a bowl of fresh fruits with what looked like water and something more sustaining while light to digest.

*If you need more, let me know,* Jade sent him through the Force, then was gone just as fast as she had gotten in touch with him.

He answered her nonetheless. *Thanks,* he told her gratefully as he walked closer to the chute; he smiled despite himself when he saw that the meal had also come with clothes that would help him to warm himself up a little. Even though Mara's quarters were well temperate, they were still slightly too cool for him to remain bare chest forever.

Sending a new feeling of gratitude to his new, unexpectedly kind companion, he pulled everything out of the chute, put on the long-sleeved shirt, then, sighing as the instantaneous feeling of warmth invaded his body, walked toward the nearby desk where he sat to take advantage of what she had given to him.

Not far from there, Mara Jade sighed inwardly in relief as she felt the Jedi's gratitude. She still couldn't understand what had pushed her to act as she had, but the moment that she had been in her main office, she had keyed in a request to send light food and warm clothes to her quarters.

Even stranger, she hadn't been aware of what she had done until she had authorized the sending. However, as she felt the other's gratitude for her unexpected kindness, she conceded that it was a good thing that her subconscious had picked up on Skywalker's silent needs.

She truly felt good about what she had just done for him... and herself, she admitted truthfully as she became aware that with her recent actions, she had ensured that, when she would go back to her quarters, her new companion would not remind her 'too' much of what she had done to him before.

He would stop to unconsciously torment her with the fact that her reaction to him was still totally illogical and that he should be in a cell, or dead, but certainly not in her quarters and free. Yet she wouldn't change anything about this situation anymore.

"There will be a major change of tactic, gentlemen," she began when she noticed that the few men who were standing around her had finally quieted down. "We can't use Skywalker as leverage against his father as I thought we could."

"Why not?" Piett inquired instantly. "Through him, we did break that Sith demon, back in the Hoth system."

"Only because he knew that Solo and the others were coming to his rescue," she reminded the other with a barely concealed sneer. "As for harassing Vader through the destruction of his bases, it only proved to us that they did not change anything to his invulnerability."

"His only vulnerable point his is family then," someone observed seriously. "I say we kill the brat and send his body back to his father," Piett suggested hatefully.

"No," Mara objected adamantly. "That, and ambushing Vader, would be the most stupid things that we could do against such an enemy. With the youth in our grasp, Vader can't retaliate against us and he knows it. Otherwise, 'he' will kill the Jedi. He can't attack us anymore," she stated with finality, then punched in a few commands. "I've been thinking about which angle we had left with the Sith Lord, and I think that I found one which even 'he' never considered as a possibility for us to use," she said maliciously before she activated the information that she had begun to compile about her targets.

Five pair of eyes locked themselves on the far wall as the information appeared there. She explained to them what she was beginning to consider as their next targets against Vader, then, when they agreed with her, dismissed them to study their part of the plan so that their victory would be insured this time. Vader, she sneered as she gazed out the huge bay windows that were behind her desk, would never be able to recover from 'that' one... and then, he would be ripped for her final revenge...

Then she would return to his son and...

Stopping once again on the very unusual settings of her new plan, she wondered yet again if she were losing sanity...

Or if she were truly falling in love with the last possible man in the whole galaxy.

Luke was checking out what would probably be his new, luxurious but locked cell for the time being.

But it had been his choice this time, he reminded himself. Mara had not forced him in any way to come with her; he, himself, had chosen to go with her instead of staying behind with his staunchest friends.

He had chosen to leave Han and Chewie's side in order to stay with the woman whom had unexplainably captured his heart... yet his feelings for her were not 'only' unexplainable, he thought seriously.  He knew that, in spite of her tough appearances, his new girlfriend was kind, compassionate, and able of greatness if she were able to break free of the late Emperor's grip on her soul.

Perhaps, he thought, that was why their paths had crossed when they had, and how they had: so that he could help her free her real self from the assassin persona that Palpatine had forced upon her. Even though he didn't know her very much, he was acutely aware that the real Mara Jade had yet to reveal herself to the rest of the galaxy. She had begun to take cautious, if definite and passionate, peeks when around him, and she was marvelous; now, he could only hope that she would want to do it more often, and in other circumstances.

As he wondered how he could help her assume her gentler, more human personality without being afraid of the consequences, Luke dimly realized that training her in the Force could help him to help her. At the moment, she was only sensitive to it, not really able to use it for more than sporadic and limited actions, like talking with him, and yet, every time that they had been in touch that way, he had felt that her skills could be limiteless if she could learn how to properly harness the Force. He could also feel that his girlfriend was slightly frustrated by her Force limitation.

So, he mused seriously, if he were able to train her, although his chances of being given such an opportunity were slim given her dislike of Jedi Knights... but if he were able to teach her how to follow her heart and her compassion in her usage of the Force, and how to open herself to its flow... the real Mara would most probably spring free of the last remnants of the Emperor's Hand... and he would have saved her... and his father...

His father, he paused, who had abandoned him before Han had found him...

Leia had obviously enrolled the Republic to find him, but his father... After checking whether he was still alive or not, he had not come after him at all...

He was considering trying to find a way to tell him how he felt about his desertion when the doors slid open; he turned around just as Mara stepped inside. He waited for her to join him near the main viewport of the room.

"We're waiting for the rest of our units to regroup," she informed him as she walked closer; her jewel green eyes never left his blue ones.

"Shouldn't you do something while waiting for the others to arrive?" he inquired half-seriously, half-worriedly as he studied once again her once hard features.

Whoever she had been when they had met, he reflected once again as he brought his right hand to her forehead and shyly brushed a stray strand of her fiery hair out of her forehead, she was not the same woman anymore. He couldn't even detect any sign that she was lying to him or playing a part; instead, he could feel her genuine confusion and attraction just as he could feel his own.

"I do," she smiled softly at him, closing the remaining distance that was still standing between them. "I said that I wanted to 'grill' you for information," she half-whispered, half-smirked even as she leaned closer and closer to him, as if drawn by a magnet.

Luke, who had been hoping to talk to her again and try to figure out with her what was going on, was unable to resist her 'magnet'; he unconsciously shifted his head slightly even as his arms wrapped themselves around her slim, strong body, gently pulling her closer and closer.

Then their lips met once again in a sweet, heart-melting kiss. Like previously, neither of them could put an end to it.

However, unlike previously, nobody interrupted them either.  Their continued kiss allowed their mutual resistance and confusion to melt away, giving way to the consuming love of two soul mates who had finally found each other.

------Two days later, on the other side of the galaxy, the crew of the Executor was getting ready to welcome its Emperor.

When the approaching shuttle reported in, Han Solo was on the bridge. He was standing in his father-in-law's favorite place near the main viewports of the bridge, looking at the stars. Although he was aware of the similarities between himself and the lord, he didn't try to consciously mimic him. In fact it was more sort of an accident.

After his meeting with the Republican pilots, he had let his feet carry him wherever they wished. He had been in need of thinking; since he usually thought better when walking, he had gone for a short walk on the ship.  When he had come out of his pondering, he had found himself standing in 'Vader's spot', as the place was called by the crew of the Executor.

At first shocked, he had considered leaving it, then he had calmed down and had realized that it was indeed an ideal place to indulge in long thinking. For one thing, he was as close to the controls as he could be on this ship. He also was in a position of authority which allowed him to not be disturbed in his thoughts, and he could see the stars. That, the pilot in him admitted as he briefly longed to be back aboard the Falcon and into 'his' piloting seat, made it a most wonderful place to stand still and ponder problems.

He briefly wondered if Vader perceived the choice of his place this way. Understanding his father-in-law was always hard. He rarely had any insight in the razor-sharp mind of the Dark Lord. However, he had to admit that he liked working with his Darkness. He sometimes wasn't aware of that aspect of their relationship as a 'family', but he truly enjoyed the challenge that the Dark Lord brought into his life, either as his father-in-law, or as his overall officer.

What he particularly enjoyed was that he never knew what Vader would need him for. Sometimes, he had to involve himself in Coruscant's politics, sometimes, with the fleet, and sometimes, he had to coordinate the former rebel troops with the imperial ones.

Compared with his new tasks, being a general under Mothma had been laughingly easy. Back then, he had had practically nothing to do.

Now though, he held no formal rank, merely was the husband of his beloved Leia, but the amount of work was just unbelievable.

The power that his informal rank have given him was also enormous. In fact, his position was extremely close to the one that Vader himself occupied under Palpatine's rule.

Han felt uneasy about that, and especially because he 'liked' this job. Oh, he didn't like the power itself, nor the control that he had over other's lives, but he truly enjoyed the challenge that this situation presented, the difficulties that grew only greater with each passing moment.

That was surely what had pushed Leia into accepting her father's offer to become his heir and second-in-command. Like him, she enjoyed the trill of real, incredibly difficult challenges.

Her choice though had been difficult and painful. She had been torn between the Empire and the Republic. He could still remember how she had been pale, thin, and nervous when she had been unable to delay the decision of her allegiance anymore.

One morning, he had woken to her smiling, and crying. She had chosen the Empire, the power, the impossible challenge. As he had gazed into her pained eyes, he had known that something inside her died that day.

And he remembered all too well his coward relief that he himself would never have to make this choice.

How naive he had been back then, he smirked ruefully.

At the moment, as he stood in 'Vader's spot', he understood very clearly how stupid he had been to believe that he could balance at the edge of the choice for eternity.

The meeting with Wedge's team had been tricky. The team of Executor had expected him to represent them, while Wedge, of course, had expected him to understand his old friends...

Friends, Han sighed.

Between friends and the challenge of power, he had already chosen. In his heart, the challenge of power dominated, which now left him with the question about how he was now supposed to live with his consciousness.

He had to ask Vader to give him some formal title, he decided. That way, he wouldn't have to explain his decision to Wedge and the others...

"Lord Solo!.."

... and the crew would stop addressing him like that!, he sighed in annoyance. "Yes?" he turned toward the Executor's commander.

"Lord Vader's shuttle just exited hyperspace. They will land in the hospital bay in twenty minutes."

Han blinked. "Hospital?"

"Yes, it seems that Lord Vader has sustained a minor injury."

Aware that his father-in-law qualified a loss of a limb as a minor injury, Han couldn't help but worry a little. "I'll go meet him," he informed the other. "No other meeting party is necessary."

The commander nodded sharply and returned to his station. Han spared a last, longing look at the stars, then left 'Vader's spot'.

By the time that he reached the medbay, he was too late to talk with his father-in-law. The medics in charge of his case had already knocked him out and taken him for an emergency surgery.

Thus, Han spoke with the Jedi trainees who had accompanied the Dark Lord, then returned to his duties. While he waited for news from his superior, he tried to motivate the intelligence teams to come up with more information to deliver to the Dark Lord of the Sith when he would wake up.

Aboard Avenger, days went by the two lovers, who were barely disturbed by outside interruptions as Mara's team waited for the others to regroup.

They took advantage of those days to get better acquainted in thoughts, feelings, bodies, and through the Force.

When Mara woke up from her latest nap, she was still laying on her stomach, partly wedged against her lover's chest and pelvic while the weight of his head was resting on her shoulder blades.  While it was a relatively strange position, they had been sleeping that way for the past two days, aware that it allowed them to be as physically close as they could while not putting any weight on Luke's healing injuries... nor her persisting shame at her past actions toward her first and only lover.  She closed her eyes as she listened to his steady, gentle breath that was right by her right earlobe. So warm... like her lover himself...

Lover, she thought in remaining bemusement. Had someone told her that she would ever call Luke Skywalker by that word, she would have shot that person dead before he would have had completed his sentence.

However, after analyzing the situation in depth with the concerned party, she had come to understand that the events of the past few days had brought about several changes in her, changes that would never be undone ever again.

For one thing, she had discovered that she could, like every other being of the galaxy, care and love about someone.

When she had faced the pain of abandoning Luke to his drowning fate, she had been forced to accept that the Emperor had been wrong about that part of her personality.

Right on the heels of this shock, she had then realized that she already cared so much about the Jedi that she truly didn't want to be separated from him ever again.

However, her cooler self had been stronger at that moment and she had reluctantly given up on the one love that she had ever had in her life.

Then, to her unforgettable surprise, her chosen companion had not only returned from the dead, which he had never joined, but he had also saved her life!

When that had happened, even her cooler self had failed to keep her more caring self from asserting herself.  What had begun to strengthen her during her visits to the Jedi's cell had simply taken root in her heart and her love for the farmboy-turned-Jedi had finally settled in her heart to stay.

While she had been aiming for Solo's heart, she might have still managed to deny what she had been feeling for the handsome, intriguing youth, but he had fouled her aim, then his eyes had then met hers...

And their fates had been sealed forever.

Through that soul-baring gaze, she had seen all of him, body, heart, and soul, and so had he her, and she had understood that she would never want or find a companion that would complete her more than that selfless, kind-hearted, strong-willed young Jedi.

And vice versa, she smiled softly as she remembered what Luke had shared with her the emotions that he had felt at that moment.  While she had expected him to admit that this had also been his no-return point, she had been greatly surprised when he had used similar qualities to describe her.  Compassionate? Her? An assassin who was planning to shake the galaxy in order to get to her target?.. Who had hurt his son as if he were the father??..

Still deeply sorry for what she had put Luke through before it had been almost too late, she had tried to deny his words, but her boyfriend had explained that she was perhaps negatively selfless, yes, but that she was still devoting her current days to serving someone else instead of her own interests.  After all, he had wisely pointed out, she was not planning on taking Vader's throne once she would beat him.  So, in a way, he had continued seriously, she was selfless, but she had to perhaps reconsider the goals and people that she was serving with her skills.

Although she had reflexively glared at him as he had indirectly attacked her imperial life, another part of her mind had been pondering his words ever since.

True, she admitted to herself, she was not planning on ruling over the galaxy. On the other hand, she pouted unhappily, she did not really want to see either of her subordinates take over the throne either.  Their ascension would only result in bloodbaths on all the resisting planets while the powerful men would vie for power between themselves.

No, she shuddered slightly, she did not want this to happen either.

However, she thought more grimly as her deep-seated hatred overwhelmed her rationality once again, she did not want to let Vader's crime go unpunished either.  The traitor had to pay with his life.

A life for a life...

Then she would be able to truly enjoy her relationship with his son... with whom she had willingly bonded herself forever.  Even when Luke had explained to her what the consequences of their physical actions would have on their Force bond, she had not changed her mind about wanting to be forever with him.  She had not been able to ever imagine not being with him.

Now that they were one, would always be one, she could barely remember 'why' she had hated him so much before she had met him.  Oh, she conceded, she remembered that she had thought that he had been an arrogant, haughty and self-centered brat who had helped his father kill the Emperor, but now that she was thinking about it, she had somehow known, even then, that it hadn't been true.

She had heard about Luke's unique personality, had even seen him help people after she herself had injured them while trying to test his abilities.  Back then, she had always tried to convince herself that he had been pretending, playing a role to gain political power over the populace, but deep down, she had simply been unable to accept that she had been wrong about him.

She hadn't been able to accept that such a gentle man existed.

Then, he had apologized to her while in her claws, and she had known.

From that day, it had only been a matter of discovering more of his personality, and her relationship with him had been sealed.

What greatly surprised her though was how 'he' too had fallen for her.  After all, she had hurt him, had even made others hurt him for her, and yet...

The object of her thoughts stirred slightly against her shoulder blade, then shifted his right arm and pulled her slightly closer to himself.  "So it wasn't a dream," he breathed against her ear, then kissed it gently.

"A dream, or a nightmare, farmboy?" she inquired uneasily, then turned around until she could face him once again.

For a long second, Luke met her worried gaze with his soft one, then leaned slightly closer and compassionately kissed her forehead. "It would have been a nightmare turned dream, Mara," he reassured her warmly.

The ex-Emperor's Hand closed her eyes in relief and gratitude and pulled him closer to herself, feeling tears of regret and sorrow fill her eyes.  "I'm so sorry, Luke," she choked out of her suddenly constricted throat.  "I should never have---"

"Ssshhh," he soothed her, then shifted his head to hug her more tightly.  "It's all right, Mara.  We all make mistakes in our lives, but what is important is that we learn from them and use them to evolve, to change.  You did so; it's the only thing that matters to me."

"But not to me, Luke," she argued, looking up once again to search his eyes with hers.  "I knew who you were before I captured you," she admitted out loud to him.  "I knew that you were unique and kind, but," she hesitated slightly, "I couldn't believe it.  I couldn't imagine that my childhood's dream could come true, that I might still be able to fall in love despite everything that I had been taught by the Emperor.  I chose to ignore my feelings, and I..." she paused, then carefully searched his back with her fingertip.  "I gave you those and the memories of how you got them."

"That one came from my father," he countered matter-of-factly, then slightly leaned up on his left elbow to gaze down at her.  "As for what you thought and could not accept, you can't blame yourself for being overwhelmed by the Emperor's manipulations.  I accept that he might have done some good for you," he added quickly when he noticed the reflexive narrowing of her eyes, "but you said it yourself, he also taught you many things that aren't true about your feelings, the others, and the galaxy as a whole."

"And the Jedi," she nodded in understanding, then lowered her gaze to stare at his pillow.  "So many things are not so clear cut anymore," she sighed glumly.

"Yeah," he sighed too, then leaned back on the mattress and stared at the ceiling.  "Tell me about it."

"Do you resent your being here with me?" she asked him, then raised her head from her pillow and propped it against her right hand.

He slightly turned his head toward her and smiled softly.  "Not in a million years, my love," he reassured her.  "Besides, it's kind of too late to resent our current arrangements, isn't it?"

"How can you love me, Luke?" she frowned at his gentle smile.  "I mean," she continued, "I understand now why I fell in love with you.  Who wouldn't unless they're insane, but you," she paused slightly, "how can you love the woman who tortured you?.."

He sighed heavily in answer, his lighter mood turning more serious, then he gazed up at the ceiling once again.  "I guess its exactly like how I came to love my father," he answered glumly.


He sighed again.  "Because of the changes, because of the other sides of both of your personalities that you and him suddenly presented to me... Because of the heart that inhabit so much the two of you that you can overcome even your personal Dark Sides," he finished earnestly, locking his gaze with hers this time.

While she didn't like, yet couldn't deny what he was referring to, her turning to the Light Side of the Force... to the path of the Jedi Knights, she also smirked slightly as an image of the hated Dark Lord came to her mind.  "Somehow, I have the feeling that Vader doesn't appreciate when you talk about him like this."

Her lover smirked ruefully at this.  "He doesn't.  Still, the facts are there; he cares more than anyone could give him credit for.  As do you," he added, leaning slightly closer to her.  "You might think that I gave you your feelings," he continued more seriously, "but your heart has always been part of your personality, Mara.  You just hadn't explored it before.  I guess that I was some sort of catalyst, nothing more."

"Just some sort of catalyst, huh?" she smirked as she too leaned closer, then pecked his lips.  *I think that 'ultimate catalyst' is more appropriate, farmboy.*

Even though it still pained her to hear his comments about how her old life had not been good for her well-being and happiness, she could not berate him anymore about them.  He was right.

About everything.

The Emperor had molded her into a certain type of being, but it had not been 'her' mold.  She had not been Mara Jade, only his top secret agent... and she had never been as comfortable with herself as she was at the moment, sharing a 'weak-hearted' moment with her chosen lover, a 'weak-hearted' Jedi Knight who was what had always been missing in her life yet she had never been aware of it before now.

Of course, her old life had not only been negative either, just like the Luke's life had not been only positive, but all in all, she was only beginning to discover that large chunks of her life had been eluding her up to now.

But no more.

She refocused on her companion, who was gazing at her yet didn't seem to see her in front of him.  "What are you thinking about?" she prompted him, pulling him out of his fixation.

"My father," he half-muttered. "Even though he didn't save me from your Dark Side, I..." he hesitated slightly, then brushed his right eye with the back of his hand, "I still love him.  I can't hate him... but I just don't want to see him at the moment."

While she did not share his feelings in regards to his father, she could understand that there was much more to Vader than what she had ever been led to believe.  "Can you tell me about him?" she queried gently, leaning closer to her boyfriend.

"About what?" he frowned, refocusing completely on her.  He slightly pulled away from her, silently reminding her that they had agreed to not use him against his father.

"I'm just curious about how he became so powerful," she shrugged in genuine curiosity.  "I mean, we can't attack him directly because he always kills his assailant, he seems impervious to any other attacks that we mount against him, and," she finished more gently, "he can earn the love from even his son and daughter, whom he almost destroyed at a certain time."

It was Luke's turn to shrug as he turned back on his back.  "To be honest with you, I don't know the answer to those either.  All I know is that you assessment of him is quite accurate.  My father is a very powerful Sith Lord, but not only that," he shrugged.  "He just keeps that other part of himself very secret, even from me."

"Still, you seem to know him more than anybody else; otherwise, he wouldn't have managed to earn your care and love."

He barely quirked his lips at that, turning his head back toward her.  "I could say the same thing about you," he commented, then rolled back on his side to face her.

"That must come from being in the business of secrets, farmboy," she teased him

He grimaced at her moniker.  "Don't call me that," he groaned boyishly.

"But you are a farmboy," she returned teasingly, pulling him closer to herself.

"Well, why not calling me flyboy?" he inquired earnestly.

Mara couldn't help but chuckle at his discomfited face.  She ran her hands up his well-muscled back, then into his hair to tease him further.  "Because you're not as arrogant as regular pilots are, my dear farmboy... and that's what I love in you," she finished as she leaned up toward his descending head.

They kissed anew while their uninhibited hands begun a new round of sentimental exploration.

As he pulled her slightly off the mattress and closer to him, Mara pulled away from his kiss to allow him to ravage her neck with his sensuous lips.  While she did so, she considered her previous comments about having been misinformed about the Jedi and she became aware that she did not resent the Jedi anymore, let alone hate them.  However, she was kind of envying her boyfriend for this part of his life.  She too wanted to be able to use her special skills as easily as he had told her he could... then she belatedly remembered that she was now the master of her life.

'She' could decide to train further in the Force,  if not to become a Jedi, then at least to satisfy her desire to fulfill that other part of herself.  "Luke?" she breathed while she enjoyed his delightful ministration.  "Can you do one thing for me although it might be construed as treason from your father?"

As she had expected, her lover interrupted his activities and leaned away from her before he gazed down at her.  "What do you have in mind?" he asked her uncertainly.

"Can you train me in the ways of the Force?" she asked him earnestly, baring her already bare soul to his to show him that she was only interested to do it for her personal experience.

As if unable to believe her request, her boyfriend gaped at her for a few three or four seconds, then he smiled brightly at her and leaned down once again. "Anytime," he finally answered her before he captured her lips in a new, searing kiss of devouring passion.

Aware that he enjoyed to teach about the Force to people who were ready to devote their time to their studies, Mara chuckled at his boyish enthusiasm, then silently promised him that she would try to not disappoint him.

They deepened their kiss, becoming oblivious to the surrounding world once again.

Chapter 12: Organizing the Search

A day later, aboard Executor.

Dr. David Forester wasn't happy at all.

Even though he was maintaining an unreadable "Sabacc" face, Vader could read his emotions without even accessing the Force; the jerky movements of his fingers were betraying his actual mental state.

"My Lord," Forester said seriously. "You're barely coming out from an operation..."

"A minor one," Vader countered coolly. He was sitting in bed, attached to external life supports. Except for his faceplate, he had foregone his armor to wear the hospital blues.

"Still," the medic objected, "you can't disconnect from the full life support for a minimum of three days. Your body is extremely tired. You need complete rest."

"I fail to see a counter-indication to reading, doctor."

"Reading?" the other almost sputtered, "You're not reading, you're working!"

Vader smirked under his mask. "It's still just reading reports. I'm not a fool, Forester, I know my state and its implicit limitations."

"And one of these limitations is the absolute necessity to sleep for 'more' than five hours per cycle. Not meditating but sleeping. Are you aware of 'that'?"

Vader sighed. Forester and sleeping cycles, he grumbled inwardly. "Yes, doctor, I'm aware of this."

"I must warn you, my Lord," the other stated gravely. "If you don't respect the regulation this time, I'll sedate you for the next four days."

"With what?" the Dark Lord challenged him acidly, focusing his full attention on him. "Have you uncovered some miracle product while I was on Yavin 4?"

From past experiences, they were both aware that every known soporific had a very limited effect on him, three hours at the most. It had always been a problem when he had had to go through long surgeries.

Dr. Forester smiled thinly. "Perhaps. It's still undergoing tests, but I won't hesitate to use it if you do not cooperate, my Lord."

Vader stared at him, than used the Force to ascertain the other's words. Forester wasn't lying about the new medicine.

"I'm willing to test it as soon as I'll be physically capable," he nodded seriously.

"We'll see about that," Forester tempered him, then frowned and looked at the communicator on his wrist. "It seems that you have a visitor, my Lord. Han Solo."

"I asked for him. Allow him to enter."

The medic shook his head in annoyance, but obeyed.

Han entered the room.

"You have one hour," Forester warned them both, "and don't you dare take more." He then strode out of the room.

Solo looked at the medic's back and shook his head in mocking disbelieve. "Now, that's a man who is certain to be obeyed."

"He has an habit of being bossy," Vader smirked, "He is a very self-confident surgeon."

"I've heard," Han nodded as he walked closer to the Dark Lord's bed. "Why did you ask for me?"

"While I was going through records, I've found something extremely puzzling. I'd like your opinion on it."

Han sat by the bed, doing his best to cover his curiosity. If Vader asked for his opinion, the problem had to be *really* interesting. "I'll be happy to help, your Darkness," he answered, unable to not tease the powerful man. Now that he knew that he couldn't kill him anymore, it was one of his favorite mental exercise with the Dark Lord of the Sith.

The Sith, as usual, ignored him. "I've found this record..." Vader tapped some combination on the board that was set in front of him, then turned the screen towards Han, "...particularly interesting, don't you think?"

Han looked at the screen and blanched. 'oh, Sith!'

On the screen, an extremely familiar figure was armed with a practice wooden sword and going through a simple fighting routine.

"Care to explain... Captain?"

"You're paranoid, " Han retorted defensively. "Monitoring your own training rooms!"

"Quite so," Vader smiled under his mask. "So, what is the meaning of this, Solo?"

"Of what?"

"Your learning how to use a saber," the other answered, pointing toward the ongoing images.

"Well... I was curious," the pilot explained truthfully. "At first, I only wanted to try it in order to understand why you and Luke were so crazy about it."

"And then?"

"And then I liked it," Han shrugged. "I know that I will never have access to your mumbo-jumbo Force and that I'll never be a match for any of you, but... well, it's just ... like flying."

A silence ensued this revelation. Slowly, the black mask nodded. "Indeed."

"For you too?"

Vader laughed a little; it came out as a rasped sound since it was almost impossible to laugh when he was attached to external lungs. "Yes, Solo, it is so for me, as well as for Luke. By the way, you do have some talent."

Han couldn't help but gape at the unexpected praise. "Are you kidding?"

"No. You'll never be a great fencer, nor will you ever be a match for myself or Luke, but, should you train a little, you can become a decent swordsman."

Befuddled by his father-in-law's statement, Han gaped further at him. "Surely," he began hesitantly, "you're not talking about what I think you are, are you?"

Vader shrugged. "After the operation, I'll have some spare myself for a while, but I can't afford cutting down on the practice."

Han blinked at his father-in-law in utter disbelief.

"I prefer to fence against a living opponent than against a droid," Vader finished matter-of-factly. "Interested?"

"Huh, ah, very! Thanks," Han nodded earnestly, still unable to believe that Vader had just offered to train him in lightsaber techniques.

"Good. Now that this is settled, what have you found on Jade's group?"

'And back to work,' Han thought wryly, getting used to his father-in-laws abrupt change of topics and moods. At least though, he was now on a familiar territory. "Long version or short, your Darkness?"


"Nothing," he answered. "While you were getting some beauty sleep, your best technicians crunched through all the information that was stored in the captured computers. Their conclusion is that it was not their main base of operation. We could not find any information about their real base."

"What's your own opinion on its location?"

"Huh, I don't do divination, remember?" he frowned at him. "That's 'your' specialty. You found their previous base, didn't you?"

"Only because Leia was capable to indicate the system. I don't have this type of power," Vader informed him calmly.

"Ah, so there 'is' something that you can't do," he smirked playfully.

"Evidently. I can't kill you for your insolence, for example."

"Too right you can't," Han smirked, then sobered. "All right, if you want to know, I don't think that they have a stationary base. I wouldn't."

Vader nodded. "Avenger then."

"Most likely. However, that means that it will be damn difficult to corner them."

"Yes. They have an advantage on us."

"First strike?" Han queried.

"Precisely. We can only sit here and wait to see what strategy they will choose."

"Wonderful prospect," Han commented sarcastically. "I hope that she won't use Luke again..."

"I doubt that she will," Vader interrupted him harshly.

Han narrowed his eyes at the sudden change of mood in the darksider's voice. "What is on your mind?"

"Consider the possibility of her success," his father-in-law advised him. "If she manages to destroy me, she will also destroy the political fraction that supports Leia and the Coalition. Without its support, Leia will never ascend to the throne due to her past in the Rebellion. Not only will the war most likely resume itself, but if she manages to marry Luke, the Empire will be at her disposal, him being the only legal heir left. So no," he concluded, "I don't think that she will hurt him again."

Han swallowed hard. "What a pleasant plan. You really do think that she is after the throne?"

"Perhaps not now. She never was a very political person," Vader shrugged. "For the moment, she is after her vendetta. However, the power is stronger than any drug; it corrupts. I doubt that she will be able to resist, hence this scenario is very possible."

"Great. Well, we have to win then, that's all."

"Indeed. Sounds easy, Solo, listening to you," Vader quipped humorlessly.

"Huh, no, not necessarily, but... we'll find something. We always do. Perhaps Luke's trainees will find something. They want to help, so why not use them? Perhaps they will feel where the Avenger will attack."

"Perhaps," Vader said, non-committal. "I'm quite skeptical on this matter, but you can propose it to them. If they agree, assign them to Intelligence."

"All right," Han agreed. "There's one other thing I want to talk you about."


"I want some formal military title. Anything. I don't care what it is."

"Any particular reason?"

"Yes. I'm commanding the Empire's fleet without even being in the military! People don't know how to address me, or else their title doesn't fit me at all."

"I commanded the Fleet under Palpatine and I never needed any military title."

"Yeah, but you're a Sith Lord. That 'is' a title."

"And you're my son-in-law. I fail to see a problem."

"I don't want to command them based on your authority," Han replied, adamant.

Vader shook his head. "Surely you aren't so blind as to not see that you're obeyed because you're trusted and not because you're in my family. You are a good commander, Solo. I wouldn't leave the Fleet in your hands if you weren't, and all the officers of the High Command know that. So what's the real reason?"

Han sighed. "I have authority problems with Republican teams."


Han sighed in exasperation. "I don't know where the hell I am with them! I know almost everybody, and everybody knows me as a damned hero of the damned battle of Yavin 4! Hell, I hated the Empire- and now I'm a third man in the Empire! They don't understand that it's for real. They still see in me their old-good-pal-Han-Solo-the-smuggler, just in a very amusing situation. Which 'is' quite amusing, by the way."

"I'd qualify it as 'ironic', " Vader amended," but continue."

"Well....The problem is that they continue to treat me as their old-good-pal-Han-Solo-the-smuggler, their friend 'against' the Empire 'cause this 'ironic' situation he is in couldn't change him 'that' much. And the 'real' problem is that their pal Han-Solo-the-smuggler is... well..."

"Dead," Vader finished calmly.


"I do understand."

"I thought you would."

"But I won't give you any title."

"What?!" Han gaped at him in disbelief. "Why?"

"Because it won't resolve your problem. It will just increase the humor of the situation."

Han considered the others' words, and dimly smirked. "Yeah, you're right... But what should I do? What have 'you' done in my situation?" It was very awkward asking the Dark Lord for an advice, but well... this whole discussion 'was' very strange anyway.

"I stopped playing the role of Anakin," Vader replied after a small silence. "You should stop your acting too."

"Easier said than done..." Han sighed forlornly.

"You are merely afraid for your image of Rebellion hero," the Sith stated, merciless. "Some will label you as a traitor, and they won't be totally wrong. But if you are as different as you imply, not acting on it is an even greater treachery."

Han stared at his father-in-law. The Sith's tirade hurt, but the Dark Lord had a point.

He slowly nodded. "All right," he finally yielded. "I got it. And if my friends get hurt in the process..."

"If they're your friends," Vader corrected, suddenly tired-to-the-bone," they will understand. If they aren't, you don't need them."

After this, the Dark Lord slowly lowered himself in a lying position----

Han mentally slapped himself on the forehead. Throughout the discussion, he had completely forgotten that Vader was just coming out of an operation. The man might appear like having an unlimited amount of energy, but the reality was completely different.

The Sith had to be really exhausted to show it in somebody's company, 'especially' in his presence. "Sorry, your Darkness!" he apologized, jumping to his feet. "I better go, before the Doc uses me as organs donor. See you tomorrow?"

He got no verbal reply, just a dismissive movement of Vader's scarred left hand. "Till tomorrow then!" Han said quickly, then almost ran out of the medical bay.

Behind him, Vader fell almost instantly asleep, thoroughly exhausted.

Hours later, Kyp Durron timidly entered the med chamber. Lord Vader was once again sitting on his bed, studying at the screen before him.

He slowly approached the bed and stood there, waiting for the other's acknowledgement.

Five minutes later, Vader addressed him. "Sit down."

Kyp obeyed. Now that the Dark Lord was his master, he really didn't know how to behave in his presence. There had to be a ceremonial of some sort in his presence, he thought uncertainly, but which---

"Before we begin," the other began seriously, "I have to clarify one point: I may be your teacher, but I'm not your Master."

Kyp blinked. "B-but..."

"I am not a follower of your chosen god myself, so I can't lead you in the ways of serving him. What I can do, on the other hand, is to teach you to hear his voice and enabling you to tame your strength in the Force. But for the moment, you must understand that the Force itself will not be your priority; not the Force, nor the ways of the physical world for that matter."

"Then what will be?"

"People. The world of their thoughts and opinions. In your case, those linked with the law and justice so as to change them."

Kyp slowly nodded. "You mean that if Jedis change the world, the Sith change people?"

"The Sith," Vader said calmly, "change and preserve the way the people perceive the world, which in turn influence the world in an indirect way."

Kyp considered those words for some time, trying to combine everything he knew in one image. "Then...," he hesitated, "can a Sith be not Force-sensitive?"

A rasped, short laugh answered him. "Very good. Yes, they can. But it's very rare that a person who can hear their god can't feel the Force. It's like being colour-blind. Usually, people either see all colors or they are blind. But indeed, some of Sith Lords of old were blind or very weak in the ways of the Force."


"Lord of the Sword wasn't Force-sensitive," Vader replied coolly.


"There're similar parts in Jedi's and Siths trainings, and for Force sensitives, they're completely identical: those areas are the skills of illusion and the ability to read minds. However, this ability for a Jedi is limited only for his own species. He doesn't understand a completely different mind."

"It's different for Siths?"

"Yes, there are no race restrictions for Siths. A Sith is restricted only by the way of his chosen god."

"So, if I understand right, it's like two different languages...one to speak with the world, and one to speak with the mind..." Kyp mused.

"Very good," Vader complimented. "Yes, it's a good analogy."

"So... healers can only be Jedis, a Sith can't be a healer 'cause he won't be able to change physical world."

"Only a Sith with Jedi's training can," Vader corrected. "One who can speak both languages. But, of course, he won't be a real healer, and his range of abilities will be very restricted. However, a Sith medic dealing with the illnesses of the mind will be much more effective than a Jedi one."

"Ah. I think I understand..."

"Good. Now, by choosing to serve the Lord of the Sword, you've decided to follow the way of law, of how the persons perceive the law and justice. Do you accept this?"

"Yes," Kyp nodded. He began to feel slightly nervous.

"Do you think that you have enough knowledge to judge their perceptions?"

"Of course not!"


"I must study?" Kyp offered timidly.

"At the very least. You will do your law studies in Coruscant University." Kyp's jaw hit the floor.

"Either you do it, or you break your Sith oath."

"But, my Lord, how can I?! I'll never be able to pass the entry examination!"

"At the moment, no, you can't. But in a year, I don't see why not."

Kyp tried to imagine himself entering the most prestigious teaching center in all the Coalition--- and shook his head. "I... it's impossible!"

"I never ask for the impossible," was the cold reply.

"But I know nothing, absolutely nothing! I have no formal education whatsoever!"

"It can be remedied. If you work hard," the other countered implacably.

For a moment, Kyp considered his promise versus what he had to do in order to fulfill it. But his decision was already made. He couldn't go back; he knew it in every fiber of his being. His Destiny was only moving forward now. "All right... I'll try."

Kyp waited for Luke's preferred expression "there's no try", but received only a calm "Good. Now, concerning your Force abilities, I hereby forbid you to use the Force at all until I say otherwise. You will take an ysalamir with you and always keep it on you."

Kyp paled but nodded.

"It's not a punishment," Vader clarified, looking at him. "It's the beginning of your training."

"A test?"

"If you want. Now, go. You study program must be in your computer now. In four days, you will come to my training chamber and we'll speak again."

Kyp rose, and bowed. "Good night, my Lord."

Vader nodded in answer, then turned back to his screen.

Three days later, Vader was finally allowed out of the medical bay. Despite Forester's warnings, his first destination was the training rooms. Han wasn't surprised in the least.

The pilot stood near the door, leaning against the light-grey wall, studying Vader's slow dance with the saber.

The Dark Lord moved carefully through a sequence of medium difficulty. Despite his lack of training, Han knew that one; he had tried it once in a burst of overconfidence. He had also realized quickly how arrogant he had been.

He realized it even more as he watched his father-in-law at work.

Damn, he thought in reluctant awe, that man's body was a mess of prosthesis and scars, and he had been operated three days ago, yet he still managed to move with feline grace.

It was somehow painful for his ego to accept that he himself, a younger man, would never reach this level.

"If you train each day for four hours during twenty years, you will be surprised to see what level you can reach," Vader replied to his thoughts . He completed the final movement and stilled.

"I'll try," Han smirked, then approached him. "Sorry to disturb you."

"I am finished for today." Vader switched off his blade, then came near the wall and slowly lowered himself in a meditation pose. "However, I'd like to see you train."

Han smirked. "All right, your Darkness. But I warn you: the sight 'will' hurt your eyes."

Selecting a simple exercise, Han went through the sequence that he liked the most, the one that gave him the feeling that he was a flying bird. Or rather a bird learning how to fly, but anyway, it gave him peace and joy.

When he finished he was smiling.

"Not bad," he heard from the black figure near the wall; he stared in disbelief. Had Vader said "not bad"?!

"Your sword technique is awful, but you have the right state of mind. That is the most important."

"Um... Thanks."

"It will be interesting to work with you..."

"Huh, won't it be too tiring for you? I mean, you've already got work with young Durron, and I can wait, you know?"

"First, Solo, I'm not ill," the other replied in almost irritation. "I'm just tired, and that will pass soon. Second, young Durron won't seriously train in fencing for at least six months."

"Poor boy."

"If he wants to be a Sith, he first has to work with his head, not with the saber."

"Can't argue against that," Han smirked, sitting down near the Sith Lord. "What about Luke's trainees? They could also use some training in the 'work with the head' domain."

Vader tilted his helmeted head. "Anything the matter with them?"

"Well," Solo scratched his neck, as he always did when he was about to talk about a subject that was beyond his personal experience, "They are too 'feel the Force' approach to my taste," he finally shrugged. "I mean, there's absolutely nothing to feel in the present situation. So... And the worst is that they don't know anything else! They don't know how to analyze data, how to build models or plans. Nothing. They are just Jedis, and right now, they are useless."

Vader slowly nodded. "Yes, I have considered this... I think that forcing all Jedis and Siths to have at least a professional education will be a plus for both the individuals and the collectivity."

Han thought about it and laughed. "Now, that's a cool plan! If you do that, the situation with the Jedis in the Old Republic will not be possible anymore. They will never be just Jedis."

"Yes. And it will also help their integration in the society."

"Yeah, if they work and not just mess with people's lives, and correct 'the evil ways'," he said the last words with an exaggerated pathos, "the people will be much more tolerant, that's for sure. I wonder if Luke will agree though."

Sudden silence followed. Vader stood up. "I await for your report on the search, Solo," he commented harshly, all signs of cordiality gone as if they had never been there in the first place.

Han's smile faded. "It will be on your screen in an hour."

The Dark Lord left the room. Han sighed.


What the hell was the boy doing?

------Vader stomped inside the small sanctuary of his chambers, sat on the floor and paused, looking at the silver Sathed signs that was on the black wall. His emotions were by far too powerful now to attempt any kind of meditation, he admitted to himself after a moment of consideration. And why?

Because Solo had mentioned Luke's name.

"Am I so out of control?" the Sith Lord asked the Circle sign. "Is it normal that the mere mention of Luke sends my greed for revenge..."

He stopped himself. What he felt now definitely wasn't greed for revenge. It was not hatred either.

In fact, his feeling wasn't directed toward Jade at all. Instead, it was centered on him... and Luke..., or more precisely Luke's absence.

It was not even his absence itself, he then amended, but the fact that Luke had left combined with the fact that he had excused himself...

Vader stopped on that thought.

His son had apologized to him through the Force... and then had erected a block, the block that he himself had taught his son when they had been on Yavin 4.

The only explanation to that sequence of events was that Luke was willingly blocking out their bond.

But why did this bothered him? Vader wondered.

Luke was under Jade's mental control, not willingly hurting him... However, he frowned again, if the boy really was brainwashed, then how could he decide to excuse himself?..

That apology, he thought seriously, didn't make any sense. Hence, he didn't believe that Luke was brainwashed.

It thus only left the option of betrayal, and the thought that his son had betrayed him was... hurting him?

Vader shook his head.

How stupid. How stupid of him to believe that his son could have betrayed him, and how stupid to feel hurt because of that possibility.

Brainwashed or not, Luke had every possible reason, every right to take his revenge on him.

Vader closed his eyes and forced himself into the Circle, in the past, in the very precise moment of the memories.

He forced himself to look again at Luke's torture, forced himself to remember. It had been him who had done that to his son.

Luke had every right to distrust him.

Bespin came alive around him. Luke's jump, his missing hand waiting for him at the bottom of the abyss, as if calling out to him...

Solo's pain while under the torture, then when freezing him.


Needa, collapsing on the floor.

Tie pilots, dying in the asteroid field.

Men dying on Hoth, rebels and imperials alike.

Burning cities, "cleansings", the Death Star; his own people, who he hadn't known how to protect.


Alderaan, the memories of the death of its people piercing him like a spear---

Leia's interrogation.

The Jedi Purges. Slowly, face by face, all the details of each death returned to him.

If no-one could remember, he would. The way of the Circle was a never ending, never fading, absolute memory. It was the acceptance of your past for what it really was. It was the acceptance of himself for who he really was.

And he was a monster.

How dared he to feel hurt if his son saw him for who he was? he pondered, long into the night.

Chapter 13: Plot and Counterplot

Throughout the following three months, Han always gave the same report to his superior: nothing.

Despite their teams accurate researches, they didn't find anything. The searches, the interrogation of the traitor from Dantooine, the Jedi trainees' scanning; nothing produced any result of any kind.

Executor returned to Coruscant, then departed again.

Slowly, days went by, punctuated by a complete silence from either Jade's group... or Luke himself.

Vader didn't know what disturbed him most.

He couldn't feel Luke at all, nor could he reach him through his dreams. Once again deep in meditation, he tried again to reach for the line of their Force bond, but as previously, found it completely blocked from Luke's part.

He paused before his son's solid black wall of defence.

Before his battle with Exar Kun, he might have been able to break through it, but now, he couldn't anymore.  His refusal of his status had made him much weaker in the Force, and he was a lot less confident where his son was concerned.

Before then, he had been certain of one thing: his son had been extremely loyal to those he cared for. Now though, he was beginning to doubt it.

In a way he didn't want to break Luke's wall; he wanted to give himself time, to prove wrong these growing disgusting doubts.  He also wanted to give Luke time to come to terms with whatever was causing the rift between them.  After all, he would find him sooner or later, and when that would happen, their encounter would be better and much easier if by this time, Luke understood his errors.

Vader turned from the wall that was separating him from Luke's mind, and, still in a meditating status, lightly scanned Executor, verifying, as usual, if everything was all right.

It was the middle of the 'night' for the high officers. Admiral Tachta was asleep, and dreaming of revenge.  He had been third officer at the time of Piett's betrayal and Piett had been his hero then.  He still couldn't forgive his fallen hero for his actions. In fact,  no one of the ancient crew did. They didn't care much about Jade, about rumours surrounding Palpatine's death, and they even respected the former rebels for their sheer tenacity if nothing else, but they couldn't stand a betrayal from one of their own.

Especially if this one was Thomas Piett, the one they admired, respected, loved. They had been loyal to him as they were loyal to Vader himself. When Piett had planned his desertion, he had planned well, but he had obviously forgotten to take one fact into consideration: when he had challenged the loyalty of the Executor's crew, they had not accepted his betrayal and had chosen to give their utter loyalty to their Emperor.

The only indulgence they had been given to Piett that day had been to allow him to escape.

On Avenger Veers had been much more successful.  He had deserted with the whole ship in tow.

While the loss of Piett had not been part of the highlights of the recent months, Vader had considered interesting how much more tolerant his crew had become toward republicans after the man's attempt of mutiny. They easily accepted Solo's current power and influence. Former rebel or not- he was loyal, and on Executor it was everything that mattered these days.

Speaking of Solo, he thought to himself, the man was yet again in the training room, his febrile mind buzzing dimly in the background of the Force. Even without scanning his son-in-law, Vader was aware that the ex-rebel was overworking and lacking sleep. Something was clearly on his mind.  Perhaps his 'act' was finally beginning to wear him down.

It would be the end of a difficult time for the man, he sighed as he left him to his callisthenics.

Vader remembered his own time of changing.  It had been painful and restless then... he had finally, openly proclaimed his loyalties.  It had been a difficult task, yet the only way out of his self-imposed tragicomedy.

It all came back to loyalty, he sighed to himself, then turned his focus on the Force.  He gazed at the black wall that was still severing his bond with Luke--- and abruptly ended his meditation.

It wasn't a pattern of thought that he wished to pursue.  After three months of chase, it 'had' to come to an end. Whether he was after his arch-nemesis, or his son.

As she read the reports of her different teams, Mara Jade smirked in content.

At last, she sighed to herself. It had taken them almost three months to prepare their assault on the rebels of Balti, but at last, they were ready and would strike against Vader's second most important weakness: his dream to pacify the universe.

While she had first been frustrated by the Dark Lord's ability to survive anything that they could throw at him, then at his lack of vulnerability through either harassment of his units or even the disappearance and torture of his own son, she now understood, as her boyfriend kept telling her, that everything happened for a reason.

In this case, her previous failures had led her to this precise moment of impending victory.

Soon, she promised the hated, unseen man, his 'true' intents toward the Rebels would be known by the 'whole' galaxy, and he would lose whatever control he had on it.

So Vader liked secrets, she smirked to herself in self-satisfaction, well she would make sure to twist them so much in his grip that he would learn to not play with secrets ever again.

Then he would die, and her master would be avenged.

And she herself would be free...

"Begin," she ordered Piett and her other subordinates, who were standing at attention behind her.

On Coruscant, Leia Organa-Solo, second-in-command of the Empire and future mother of twins, refrained herself from sighing in boredom as she listened to yet another string of comments about how helping the farmers of Tatooine would not be as useful as assisting in the reconstruction of the shipyards of Byss.

Since the man was imperial, Leia knew that his choice was not impartial, but then, the rebel negotiators, who had come in the name of Tatooine, were not selfless either.

She herself felt as if she were pulled in two directions at the same time. On one hand, she wanted to agree with the Republic and assist in the creation of the irrigation system on Tatooine, thus turning the desert into an arable planet, but on the other hand, such a project needed considerable resources and while farmers on Tatooine managed to live quite stably, social situation on Byss due to lack of work was quite disastrous... ----

A worried noise suddenly came from outside of the double doors, then an aide rushed inside. "Princess," Alole called even as she ran to her side.

"Alole," she scolded her wearily, "I had said that I didn't want to be---"

"Interrupted, I know, but you must come quickly. It's an emergency! The Republic has been attacked!"

Feeling her blood freeze in her veins, Leia stood up as quickly as her bulging stomach allowed her, then followed her friend outside. Behind her, the republican negotiators excused themselves and left the room, leaving the Imperial representatives to wonder what was going on.

Aboard Executor Kyp Durron wasn't sleeping either. He was studying the laws of Ancient Republic and wanted to finish his chapter before going to bed.

On his shoulder was an Ysalamiri. While reading, Kyp absentmindedly stroked its fur; the creature gave a hiss of contentment.

The creature was a female, which he had named Lila. She had been his companion throughout the past three months.  Thanks to her nutrient, portable frame, she had never been farther than five meters away from him. He never had had a pet before, but it was turning to be an interesting experience.

She was much smarter than any biology book suggested, even though it was known, that the insect-eating ysalamiri species were more intelligent than the tree-bound ones. She could understand easy commands, such as "eat this" and "get off me!", and she adored to hear him praise her. She had a beautiful leather body, a dark-forest-green fur, and was apparently quite aware of this. It had to be a special, female ability, he smirked to himself as he stroked her fur again.

"Good girl," he whispered in attachment.

At first, it had been difficult for him to live without his Force-awareness. He had been even a bit lonely, but he had still had the feeling of his god's presence.  Now, he also had his books and Lila for company...

All his life he was sure he was a fighter in heart. It took three months of Force-blindness and intensive studies to discover the astonishing truth: he wasn't a fighter, he was a scholar.

He didn't miss his saber lessons at all.  In fact, he cared about them so little that Lord Vader had ordered him to continue his training sessions.  Vader had warned him to not lose the physical shape that he had acquired while training with Luke, that 'this' too was part of a Sith's life.

Thus, Kyp had regularly trained with Solo, who was becoming a lot better with a saber than him.  Of course, if he could feel the Force, Kyp would probably beat the former smuggler without breaking a sweat, but then again, he admitted to himself, Solo might also surprise him.

And the wonderful thing was that it didn't bother him at all.

He was a scholar, and it was fine with him. He was forbidden to use the Force and it was fine too. He had a purpose now, which became clearer with every day that he spent in studying; he didn't need anything else.

Kyp shut the book, relaxed, closed his eyes and entered a brief, non-Force meditation.  He thought of his god, of what the path of his Sith had to be. He thought of justice.

The sharp and painful feeling pierced through his heart.

The voices cried in his head.

"Why? Why us? Why?"

"Find them. Punish them."

"Avenge us."

"See that justice is done."

Pain broke the trance, but it didn't put an end to his pain. Voices didn't stop either. Kyp cried, clutching his head in his hands.

"See that justice is done."

"Find the responsible."

"See to justice..."

"I will!" Kyp cried in despair. "I will, I promise!!!"

Heavy silence fell on him.  He slumped in his chair, shaking all over, then he belatedly realized that something horrible had just happened, somewhere in the galaxy.  He ran out of the room.

Lord Vader had to know about it.

------Half an hour later, Lord Vader, Kyp Durron and Han Solo stood in Vader's meditation/control chamber as they listened to the early reports that were coming in from Balti.

"We estimate the number of victims to hundreds, my Lord," the captain trooper reported on the screen.

"Who did this?" the Dark Lord inquired grimly.

"We don't know yet, my Lord. We will search the ruins as soon as we gain access to them, but at the moment, the Republic will not let us through."

"Put me in contact with the man in charge of the operations there," Vader stated.

"Yes, my Lord."

The moment that the communication system went on standby, Han whistled lowly in grim awe. "Whoever did this made quite a cartoon."

Before Vader could reply, a calling signal attracted his attention once again.

"What is it?"

"Incoming call from Coruscant, my Lord," came the response. "It's your daughter."

"Patch her through."

He had barely finished to give his order that Leia's distraught face appeared on the big screen of his communication system. "Father, what happened? Why did the Empire do that?"

"I don't know," he answered her, then paused on her second question. "Why do you think it's the Empire?"

"Well," she began, then turned around and ordered someone to transmit something up to the Executor, "take a look at what they just found in the ruins, with plenty of reporters to catch sight of their incriminating proof."

Solo, who had already stepped inside his meditation chamber look at Leia's sending, gasped in shock as he obviously saw what was upsetting his wife so much.  Vader calmly turned around and took a look at the communication.

"I have a very bad feeling about this, your Lordship," his son-in-law told him, once again unnecessarily, as he gazed at the imperial-marked remnant of the bomb that had already been exposed to more eyes than he could imagine.

"I believe you that you didn't do it, Father," his daughter told him in the heavy silence, "but someone, somewhere, has just made sure that the rest of the Republic would not believe you anymore."

And that someone, Vader thought darkly as he felt his anger boil within him, was Mara Jade.

His mortal enemy.

Aboard Avenger, Luke was exercising, as he often did when he was alone in his and Mara's quarters.  As usual, the Holonet was turned on but without any sound coming from it.

As he did every then and again, he flicked a gaze in its direction as he sat up yet again, then laid back down before pulling himself in a sitting position once again.  His fingers were laced behind his head, his breath was ragged, and his torso was bathing in sweat, but he kept straining, feeling that he could continue his chosen exercise for a little longer.

Besides, he shrugged mentally, he wasn't that----

His thoughts came to a sudden halt, as did his exercise, as he caught sight of the new images that were now shown on the vid.  Instead of the beautiful landscapes of a chosen planet, he could now see all-too-well-known images of war.

He reflexively reached out and raised the volume of the vidset; the voice of the twi-lek reporter became clearer.

"We do not know how many victims are still trapped under the debris of the Republic building, but we estimate that there were no less than three hundred souls within its walls when the bomb went off."

While the other tried to explain what they could see behind her, Luke gaped in horror as he recognized the architecture of the surrounding buildings. The images were coming from Balti.

"Wait a second, I'm receiving a message from my colleague.  I will transfer you to him," the young woman explained, then the images changed to that of an aged human.  "Thank you, Liee.  The research teams have just found remnants of the bomb, and if we can get a little closer," the other was saying.

A shiver of foreboding slowly ran throughout Luke's body.  All of a sudden, he understood that the act of terrorism had not been a mere act of resistance. Instead---

"I..." the reporter suddenly stopped talking as the images of the pieces finally became available.  "We had only heard rumours about people seeing imperial troops around the building minutes before it went up, but we now have the indubitable proof that the Imperials truly attacked the Republic once again."

Luke's arms fell to the deck as shock took hold of his whole body.  What??  His father had attacked the Republic??  No, he shook his head--- then an even worse possibility occurred to him.

This was what Mara had been talking about for the past weeks, he realized. This was how she had meant to attack his father this time: by black-mailing him.

However, unlike any of her other attacks against his father, this one had taken innocent lives!  Unusually disgusted and upset, he called the remote control to his hand and checked the other channels that he could catch.

Every single frequency of transmission was talking about what had happened on Balti, and every single one of them was now openly, if informally, accusing his father of betrayal.

Had they still been under the Empire's old rules, he knew that no one would openly accuse his father of anything or else risk his or her very life for it. However, now that his sister had instilled the Freedom of Speech and Thought in the very laws of the Empire, the reporters were not afraid for their lives anymore.

Thus, his father was not protected against their sarcasm and negative comments.

If that had been Jade's plan, he reflected grimly, then his girlfriend had sure pulled it off nicely.  In a matter of minutes, she had managed to generate in the galaxy so much unrest and distrust toward his father that open resistance to his new rule were now springing up everywhere.

Luke watched everything, and wished that he could put an end to it.

Now that her strike teams were away from Balti and on their way to Coruscant, Mara left her jubilant officers to their next preparations and returned to her quarters.

Her plan was working better than she had ever hoped for. The eyes of the whole galaxy were now riveted on Balti, understanding it as proof that Vader was truly turning back against the rebels now that he had weakened them, or so most pro-rebels still thought.

At the moment, people were only raging at the dark Lord and trying to establish some sort of contact with either him or his daughter, but after Coruscant, she thought meanly, they would ask for his blood.

The door of her quarters slid open upon her arrival.  She stepped through them.

Ah, she sighed in contentment, sweet...

Her triumphal sneer died in her mind as she caught sight of her boyfriend's face.

"How could you?" he asked her the moment that the doors had closed behind her. He walked around the nearby couch in order to meet with her.

She turned away from him, locking her gaze on the images on the vid that were still coming from Balti.  "I thought that I had made it clear, farmboy," she reminded him as she walked away from him.  "I hate your father.  I will make him---"

Luke's hand suddenly took a firm grip on her forearm, then the equally strong man pulled her around and closer to himself.  "I am not talking about my father, Jade," he scolded her.  "You killed hundreds of innocents today.  Not my father."

Angered by his scolding attitude, she pulled her arm free of his hold, then stepped slightly away from him and glared at him.  "They were only Rebel sympathizers.  They were expandable to get to Vader."

She expected him to glare back at her, or to defy her again, but instead, he gazed long and hard at her, then he turned away from her.  "I thought that your Jedi training would have helped you change those perceptions, Mara," he commented glumly, then turned back toward her.

She couldn't help but take a deep breath in shock when she saw that his eyes were filled with tears.

"They were living beings just like you and I.  They had lovers, children, hopes and dreams.  They had a role to play in the Force just like we Jedi do, but," he finished sadly, "you killed them because you hate my father."

For a long, very long moment, their eyes met in silence.  She didn't know what to answer to his comment.  While she had taken his Jedi lessons to heart, she had never considered them when she had been preparing her strike against Vader. "Luke...," she began hesitantly.

Her companion shook his head in answer, then Force-pulled his shirt to his hand and turned his back to her.  "I can't train you anymore," he told her forlornly. "You are not ready to accept the responsibilities that come with your gift."

Although his voice had been gentle and devoid of aggression or despise, his words felt like a vicious slap in her face.  She had just managed to strike an important blow against her enemy, and his son was telling her that she was not ready to harness her Force powers??

For a brief moment, she felt the urge to jump him and teach him to not treat her like a nobody ever again, but as an image of her hurting Luke came to her mind, she subsided.  She did not want to assail him ever again.

She closed her eyes to recover her cooler attitude.

When she re-opened them, her companion was gone and she was alone in the living room of her quarters.

On the side wall, the Holonet was still displaying images of her first victory against her enemy.  She watched them for a long while, Luke's words running through her mind every time that they talked about her victims.

He had been right, she finally, reluctantly conceded to herself.

In the 'fresher, Luke leaned back against the wall that was beside the door. How could he have not foreseen what Mara would try to use against his father?, he rebuked himself. How could he have forgotten that she hated him so much that she would kill innocents in order to destroy him?

His only comfort was that she had not used the Force to do this, that she had still used her more usual means of destruction.

Still, he conceded to himself, he could not teach her more than she already knew or else he would probably risk the creation of another dark Jedi.  He could not be close to her anymore either.  She was too much of a monster...

At the moment, he truly felt as if he too had betrayed his father with his latest choices.

He slumped down to the deck and sat there for a long, long while.

On Coruscant, Leia walked bristly down the official corridors of the Palace. "Everyone is there now?" she inquired to Winter.

"Yes, your Highness.  They are waiting for you, but I must warn you, they are here to informally incriminate your father," she informed her matter-of-factly.

"No kidding," the five-month pregnant Leia sighed in wariness, then stopped by a nearby mirror to check on her gown and braids one last time.  She then took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  "Right," she heartened herself, "let's do this."

She stepped into a transition corridor, then, adopting her most regal and confident attitude, walked into the media-crowded room and headed toward the waiting microphones. "Representatives of the media," she began solemnly, "citizens of the Empire and Republic.  What has happened today on Balti is tragic," she continued sombrely.  "We do not know yet who has planted this imperial bomb in the new installations of the Republic on Balti, but I can assure you that it was not the Empire."

As expected, voices of disbelief rose instantly.

"As the Republic knows," she continued coolly, "Lord Vader had personally authorized the new installations.  He did not come back on his word---"

"Do you really expect us to believe that the Dark Lord of the Sith is not trying to draw the Republic out to destroy it more easily?" an indignant voice suddenly rose from the back of the group.  "Please, Princess, don't play us for fools. We know your tricks."

"Yeah," other voices agreed while more heads nodded in agreement.

"If you need a guarantee that Lord Vader is not fomenting a treason against the Republic, then pick me as your proof," she challenged the other.  "I can read my father's mind, just like my brother can.  Neither of us felt any deceit when we agreed to help in the unifying of the two former armies into one, two-sided government."

"Unless he lied to you and that you weren't powerful enough to feel it," the same arrogant voice objected.

Who said that?, she frowned while she noticed how the rest of the reporters were taking notes of the other's arguments.

"What about the confirmed rumours that Lord Vader is currently using the whole fleet for a private matter?" another, more subdued voice inquired from the front rows.  "I'm sorry to bring it up, Princess, but it does seem to support the theory that Lord Vader is preparing something."

"I can assure you that the joint Fleet is only searching for someone at the moment.  They are not preparing to strike any of the planets of the system. Once again, the officials of the Republic are aware of this and are helping us."

More grumbles and mumbles welcomed her statement.

"Who are they looking for, Leia?" a new voice inquired, overlapping another, more diffuse question.

For a brief moment, Leia pondered whether to reveal or not that her brother had disappeared, then decided that keeping the secret any longer would not serve them at all.  "They are looking for my brother's, who's been kidnapped by---"

"Like you yourself has been kidnapped shortly after Lord Vader became Emperor, correct?"

"Did your father feel threatened by the new Jedi Order?" another voice inquired before she could refute what the other had just said.

"There are rumours that the Jedi Academy of Yavin 4 is deserted nowadays.  Has Vader killed them?"

Suddenly feeling as if the control of the situation had slipped out of her fingers, Leia finally understood what was Jade's plan this time.  She meant to make the populace of the galaxy kill her father for her, or at least turn him back into their enemy.

Well, she resolved adamantly, she for one would not let the other tear her father apart like this.

"My father," she interrupted the ongoing sharing of theories, extending her hands forward in a silencing gesture, "did 'not', I repeat, did not do anything of what you are accusing him of.  A woman named Mara Jade, who has been harassing him for the past year, has kidnapped my brother and is now trying to blackmail the new Emperor.  I am aware that at the moment, it sounds a lot as if we're trying to deny what you saw, but you can ask for confirmation about all those details to the Republic.  Their main committee has been informed of both events the moment that they occurred. Hence, I ask you, all of you, to give us time to investigate.  We will provide you with all the proofs that we need to ascertain my father's public innocence regarding Balti."

Even though more questions and indignant comments welcomed her statement, she ignored them and walked out of the stifling room.

Whatever she said now, she knew that the worst would still be said about her father until they could, indeed, prove his innocence.

Aboard the Executor, Han Solo cursed under his breath as he and his father-in-law watched the conclusion of Leia's emergency press conference.  "The poodoo has really hit the fan this time," he commented derogatorily.

"Indeed," the black-clad giant commented coolly, then turned back to the main holo transmitter through which he was holding a conversation with General Dodonna and Ackbar of the Republic.

He had been discussing with them about Jade's actions when the younger man had returned to his superior's room, warning them to turn their attention to the holonet for some major head bashing from the media.

Almost as fast as Vader re-entered his transmission range, the Republic side returned within the receiving field of his communication device.  "Leia has done the best that she could, my Lord," Dodonna commented grimly as he locked his aging features on his counterpart's mask, "but I'm afraid that Jade's plan has worked all the same.  Even though we can confirm that we knew about her and that she is indeed trying to get to you, the seed of doubt has been sowed now."

"We can only assist you in your search for her team and your son, but we cannot stop in any way what is already transpiring throughout the galaxy," the alien military genius agreed gravely.

"That is why we will not try to stop it," Vader answered coolly.

As he had thought, neither his son-in-law, nor the Republicans, had expected him to drop this matter without any further fight.  The two humans gaped at him as if their jaws were not supported by bones anymore.  Ackbar nodded slowly.

"Trying to fight the inevitable will only scatter our energies and troops," Vader explained rationally even as he tried to second-guess his cunning adversary.  "Our only hope to expose the traitors is to capture them. For this, I request authorization to access the destroyed complex on Balti."

"Are you hoping to discover a new lead?" asked Ackbar.

"Yes," said Vader. "But it's also possible that she will try to attack me there, and thus give us a chance to capture her. She has an advantage- I have no choice for a moment but to comply to her rules."

"The access to Balti's complex is authorized," Ackbar stated gravely. " In an hour, I will make an official statement about the attack, and will confirm Republican full support of your politic."

"Thank you," said Vader.

"We don't need a war," said Ackbar," so I hope you will get out of this alive, Lord Vader."

"...no matter your personal thoughts of the matter," completed the Sith ironically.

"Exactly. Surely, you appreciate the irony of the situation."

"Without doubt," said Vader, "Thank you for your assistance."

Ackbar bowed at little. "Good luck in your battle."

Vader bowed in response and the communication was cut.

"So we're going to Balti?" asked Han.

"Yes," Vader replied shortly.

"And if it's a trap?"

"Then all the better."

The younger man shook his head in disbelief.  "You're nuts, your darkness, you know that?  And what if she organizes an attack on you under Republican disguise this time?"

"Nobody will believe it."

"And why is it so?"

"Because, Solo," Vader replied patiently, "I will go there under Antilles' team protection.  No republican will attack their own."

Han gaped in awe; he didn't recover his composure for a minute or so. "And... and how exactly do you plan to make them accept it?" he finally inquired.

"Me?" Vader looked at his son-in-law in apparent surprise. "You will order them,of course."

"Ah," said Han intelligently. "I see."

"Great," Han thought while walking to his quarters. "Just great."

Till now, he had managed to avoid Wedge and his team, and they hadn't tried to find him either. After the mixed meeting that had taken place three months ago, there had been an uneasiness between them, a slight cold.

And now, after this disaster, he had to meet with the Republican team and make them accept to protect Vader down on Balti?!

Just great.

He didn't know at all how he was supposed to behave. He just couldn't pretend to be the 'good old pal Han Solo' with them, that would be plainly disgusting.  However, the new Han Solo was a complete stranger to him, he had no idea of what he was capable of.

He had to meet him one day, Vader was right about that.

And he himself was just a coward, delaying this as much as possible.

He entered his quarters, closed the door and paused. So what? How could he meet this stranger that was himself? How?

Well, he said to himself, like he would with any other stranger: looking him in the face. He walked to the mirror and looked in it.

Oh, damn.

It was as if the time had stopped: the "old pal Han Solo the smuggler" looked at him from the mirror: a grin, white shirt, black jacket, pilot pants and all. There was something almost obscene in this, in seeing a dead person.

Han stared at his reflection, pondering what he should do next.


Chapter 14: Turnabouts

Hearing that Mara had finally gone to sleep, Luke left the 'fresher and retreated in the living room, on the couch.

He could leave now, he thought glumly as he gazed sideways at the closed double doors that separated him from his old life. His soulmate wouldn't hold him back... yet she would still come after him someday if only to resume their bond.

Their bond..., he thought forlornly, which was now hurting him; for the first time since joining his soul to hers, he wanted to shut it down instead of nurturing it.

Darn it, he finally scolded himself openly. How could he have been as blind as he had been? As naive as he had been?! It hadn't been the first time that he had tried to save a Darksider, thus he should have 'known' that Mara's hatred for his father would ruin whatever goodness that he could bring into her life and heart...

She had already been consumed by her dark emotions before they had met. He had been too late. As he was now too late to correct his latest mistake..., he admitted glumly.

Kreth, he sighed in annoyance, he was just a naive fool who only saw in people what he wanted to see.

Up until now, he had only wanted to see Mara as a good-hearted deceived young woman whom he could save by his love, so he had only considered that aspect of her personality.

Really, he rebuked himself sternly as he mentally went through all the moments that they had shared since their first 'meeting'. All the necessary clues of darkness had been there, he reminded himself. All the ugly, destructive facts of her corruption had been present in her from the beginning, so he shouldn't be so shocked.

Worse, he 'should' have understood what she was up to a lot earlier...

Yes, he finally accepted even though he was breaking his heart with his admission, he had made a mistake when he had accepted to train her as a Jedi.

He had been so naive, thinking that he could change her like he had seemed to slightly change his dark father. He had been wrong.

Hence, instead of changing her, he had put her more in touch with her untapped potential, had helped her, in a way, to scour her own mind in order to free it from its beliefs of limitation. He had helped her visualize what she 'could' do with the assistance of the Force...

Then she had used her absence of limits to come up with a plan that attacked his father in his only remaining vulnerable spot: his public image.

While he knew that his stoic father would not care about those at all, the destructive potential of such an attack was still worrying enough that Luke felt truly bad about what he had tried to do with Jade.

He had tried to change her.

He had only transformed her into a more dangerous woman than ever.

Now, instead of being a personal danger for his father, she had become a threat of galactic proportions.

Tears started to slide down his cheeks, but he didn't notice them. He was too ashamed of his current status, for despite his previous reasoning about her dangerous nature...

He still loved her with all his heart.

How could it be, he grimaced in frustration. How was it still possible? How could he still feel something for her after seeing firsthand what kind of monster she was turning into? How could he still feel that he could make her see what she had done because of the lies that she had been told about his father? It was ridiculous!, he objected before he could formulate any kind of explanation. He 'couldn't' love her anymore.

Nor could he try to convert her to the Light anymore. He could not influence her in any way, except strengthen her.

Thus, if he were not careful, he could now see himself at the basis of a new Emperor, although she would be an Empress this time, but no less cruel... and he would be trapped within her claws because of his illogical reaction to her presence.

No, he moaned in growing despair, no. He threw his arm across his eyes to block out his most unpleasant reality.

The image of his Mara ever turning into a true monster was physically painful, impossible to contemplate. No, he objected to what his mind was showing to him at the moment: Mara, consumed by the Dark Side, a cruel and cold monster. No!, he repeated with conviction.

He would not let this happen. He would fight this with his last breath...

As he had once vowed to do against his father...

His father.

How he missed his father all of a sudden.

For the first time in months, he felt the almost unbearable desire to reach out and contact his father; to call for his help and ask him to forgive him for his foolishness.

Knowing his father, the reunion would not be pretty, and he might even regret for a while that he had returned to his side after months of desertion, but between him and being responsible of the creation of a new dark Jedi, he chose his father.

No matter how angry and, he swallowed, perhaps even vengeful the other would be.... He should have contacted him much earlier, before Balti, perhaps that way the tragedy could have been avoided... That thought was horrifying. He should have understood, he really should have alerted his father...

But his contact alone would surely have not been sufficient, came the cold and cruel thought. Vader would have requested the access Mara's memories by their bond, to verify the information, he reminded himself, would have wanted to find real facts - and Luke couldn't allow this to happen.

He had promised Mara to not betray her trust in him just as he had never betrayed his father's trust with her.

Besides, he reflected next, there was no telling that his father could have an even more horrifying demand for him if he were ever given access to 'his' bond with Mara. No, there was no telling at all that the dark Lord wouldn't want to damage Mara's mind through 'his' bond with her.

Even though he was thinking about his father, Luke had no doubts that Vader wouldn't even hesitate to hurt Mara that way. Recent events had finally allowed him to see him as a person and not as a long-lost-and-found-beloved father, and the person he saw now wasn't a very likable one.

This person wouldn't hesitate to remove his enemy by any means possible, no matter if it would hurt his lost son in the process.

Instead, Vader would think that he himself was delusional, under Mara's influence, and that he would be grateful once her mind manipulations would be cleared out of him...

"Yes, after my love will be cleaned out of me, I will be grateful..." thought Luke, closing his eyes tight. He pulled the pillow from under his head and pressed it hard to himself with both arms, breathing into it.

It was soft and warm, and was getting wet with his breath and tears. He felt lost and broken.

Both people who defined his existence were hurting him, without meaning to harm him, that was true, but neither even considered this possibility. And he - with all his love - was incapable to change it, to change them. And all this love - for both of them - was tearing him apart.

By choosing one side, he betrayed the other, and he could not chose - but he had to. He had to, that he understood with increasing clarity as the time passed.

'But I can't!' he cried silently. 'Oh, Force, please help me to understand what to do!'

No revelation came. Nothing, just silence.

Exhausted, he wasn't aware when he slipped into black, dreamless sleep.

Mara was lying in a lone bed, not sleeping, aching for Luke's presence near her but with all her will forcing her body to lay still, and her breath to come out calmly and regularly. Go to him, cried her body. Go to him, make him forgive you, force him back into your arms, you can do it!

Yes, I can, she thought in response, and that's exactly why I can't do it.

He was right. She had killed innocents, not Vader.

Not her target.

Or at least not physically, but she was destroying him in every other way that she could, even through his children, who were currently feeling the effects of her actions against the father. Yes, it was satisfying, it justified the actions that she had to take against the dark-clad traitor.

It was justified.

According to their spy on Bespin, Vader would be in transition to Balti for the next four days. They would strike both Coruscant and Bespin during that time... and the populace would kill Vader for her.

And then, she would be at peace.

Then all the cost will be justified, when the mob would tear the traitor apart, limb by limb.

She was imagining the scene, like she did hundreds times, but Luke's choked, unbelieving face always appeared before her inner sight. He will understand, she tried to reassure herself. In time, he will understand; he will see what a monster was his father, he will understand that I had no choice.

'He will understand and we will be together', she continued more determinate. Right now, he simply needed some time alone, but he would understand...

Gradually she relaxed, and slipped into sleep while thinking about them being together.

But then, her dream changed.

She was in her office; the day of the attack on Coruscant had finally come.

She watched with rapture the images of the holovid as it relayed holos of the ruins that she had just created on the surface, the destruction, the crying people/victims of her attack. She smiled sweetly, savoring the hatred that was directed at Vader in the commentator's voice----- when an invisible, strong hand suddenly gripped her and pulled her forward until she fell 'into' the holovid screen.

Gasping in pain, she brought her hand to her chest--- and suddenly saw the surface of Coruscant... as well as the destruction that she had once again wrought on a Republic installation. Unlike the holovid images though, she did not see only ruins and smoking remains.

Instead, she saw and felt the 'pain' that she had just inflicted upon first her victims, then their families... then to her continued horror, she saw how her hatred was not only hurting her victims but also her very spirit, making her rot from the inside until there would be nothing left...

Before she could throw up in aversion and thorough disgust at the sight of where her cruelty was leading her, she forcefully freed her mind from this horrifying vision.

No!!!!!, was her first, conscious thought even as she jumped to her feet, at her office, no!. She had to stop it! She had to contact her team and---

As if to mock her own attempt to fix her new, unforgivable mistake, the news vid came alive once again, confirming that 'she' had just killed another six hundred or so people in order to get to her sole target, the man against whom she had a grief.

'I have to change it,' she thought frantically, 'I have to!'

She ran out of her office, firstly not noticing that something about her wasn't right...

Then she suddenly became aware that just outside of her office, there was a large place, filled with people.

Friends and parents of her victims, she realized in horror.

The place was somehow familiar too...

When the mob encircled her, she suddenly understood.

It was Balti; the main place before the governor's palace.

Without warning, a man so filled with grief that even being near him was painful, suddenly shot at her. She felt a dimmed pain, unbelievingly looked at her body - and saw black armor.

It was the same scene she had envisioned so many times, she realized.

An enraged mob tearing Vader apart--- Tearing 'her' apart for she had become Vader, and now she had to die.

Another shot came, she fell to her knees.

No, no, no... No!

She woke up with a cry, bathed in sweet.

Looked around.

She was alone in the darkened room and she was alive.

And Coruscant's attack hadn't taken place yet. While relief flowed through her, spasms of tears shook her.

Not yet, not ever. She could still stop the madness, she 'would' stop it. It must couldn't be allowed to happen.

Her plan had been simple, she reminded herself: turn the galaxy against Vader, get him, kill him. It had been easy, the only way that she had had at her disposal to beat Vader at his own game of invicibility. It had been a perfect plan, an infallible, flawless, not too costly plan... but she had never considered its living price in the equation, nor how it would affect her.

In fact, she had never, ever taken into account the number of lives that her troops, and herself, would remove in order to achieve their goal, nor the fact that 'she' too could fall victim to her own dark feelings...

She had never considered that the Republicans that she had targeted had been human beings, not droids... That they had been as alive as she was...

As her lover and Jedi teacher was.

She had never adapted her plan so that she would only hit the monster who deserved to die, a monster that she only kept alive with her current actions, and even strengthened, but in herself

By the Force what had she done?, she soundlessly whimpered. She had turned herself into a monster...

Into a new Vader.

Into the creature that she still hated, not only for what he had done to her life, but also for the pain that he had caused to countless souls... Luke's included.

As had she.

What had she done?.., she whimpered as fresh tears of guilt broke free from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. How had she reached this point in time, where she had completely lost track of her initial goals?..

Where she had killed innocents, not only outlaws, and certainly not her target...

Were the Emperor alive, she suddenly scolded herself viciously, he'd punish her most severely for this unforgivable blunder. Of course, he would not mind about the people, only the lost resources, but still, she rebuked herself, he would not be happy.

She was a monster... and she wanted to die...

*Luke,* the deep, familiar voice called in the darkness of Luke's sleep.

*Go away, I didn't decide yet!* almost cried the young man. Then he realized that maybe, just maybe it was the response of the Force for his plea.

After all, he reflected drowsily, his father 'was' its Chosen One...The one of darkness, he then reminded himself meaningfully, but still his Chosen one.

He decided to respond.

*Father,* he sent in answer through the Force---- and suddenly materialized in a room that greatly reminded him of...

Of the Temple of the Sun on Sacorria, where they had forged their truce, he identified. The dark form stood in the middle of the hall.

Vader saw him and stepped nearer.

"Don't come any closer, Father," he instantly warned him as he had upon their first meeting.

"Luke, it's me," said the deep voice.

I know, the young Jedi thought glumly, that was the problem. As he thought so, he dimly felt a careful probe of his mind. He strengthened his shields.

No, he warned his father silently, he would not be able to gather any information from him, let alone influence him anymore.

"What do you want?" he instead asked him out loud. "Why are you seeking me out this way again? Why today of all days?" he continued resentfully. "Did you feel that I was broken and tired, and hesitating - and came to push me to the right side? I'm sure you did," he finally accused him.

"I am looking for you, Son," the older man placated him gently, refuting all his accusations with a feeling of care directed at him. "I am 'always' looking for you. I have left Yavin 4 as soon as I could and have been scouring the galaxy for you ever since."

"As soon as you could, sure," Luke retorted, his resent still coloring his voice as his memories of the previous months haunted him once again. "You didn't even came to free me yourself. Even in sleep you didn't contact me after that first time. I'm not that important to you, am I?" he finally challenged him. "Then what am I to you, Vader?"

In front of him, the Dark Lord's image slightly fluttered upon hearing his words. "Why do you doubt my love for you, son?" he asked him, and Luke had the strange feeling that the other had really been shocked by his accusation.

"I don't doubt that you think it's love," Luke retorted with a shake of his head, "but I doubt that what you call love... really is love. I...," he hesitated as he avoided his father's invisible gaze, then dadred meet his hidden eyes once again. "I think that you are only experiencing 'a mad desire of possession', as you so adequately put about your relationship with Mother. Remember? You once told me yourself you don't know the difference between the two emotions. So, I don't think that you love me, Vader," Luke placated more meanly than he meant to. "You might think that you do, but you don't. You're only using me in some obscure way that is not clear to me, yet... I know that you are, and now that I'm not with you anymore, you just want to ----"

"Luke," Vader began---- then suddenly materialized right in front of him.

Before the youth could react, he was ensconced in the circle of his father's arms.

"Luke," the Dark Lord said again in an almost pleading voice, "please, think. Jade has obviously scrambled your thoughts and feelings, Son. I'm not lying about how I feel about you. See it for yourself if you must; scan me, I'm opened."

Caught unprepared by his father's actions, Luke hesitated for a moment. Vader really opened his shields - as far as he could tell. But really, how much could he tell? Vader was much more expert on shielding that he ever will be. His father wasn't lying, but was he telling all the truth?

In the end, he accepted his offer of opening and scanned him. "I can tell you missed me," he finally agreed.

"Very much so, yes," Vader nodded too.

Upon hearing 'and' feeling how his absence was affecting his father, some of Luke's defiance and insecurity faded away to be replaced by his own undying care for the man. "I... missed you too," he admitted out loud, feeling tears of regret form in his eyes.

It was very hard to not relax in the embrace that followed, so hard to not forget what he had learned... Still, the next question did hurt him - but also freed him from an unseen burden.

"Can you tell me where you are?" his father inquired seriously. "What are her plans next?"

Traitor!!! Luke almost cried in pain. So, all this tenderness had been meant to lead to this?! Finally, he knew where things stood between himself and his father. Vader's care was a lie; he didn't care about 'him... He didn't love him...

At last, everything was clear. Sad... but clear.

"No," he resisted as he pulled himself free from his father's arms. "I don't want to, and don't contact me ever again. I don't want to see you again."

He then concentrated and broke the dream - but still heard Dark Lord angry cry: "LUKE!!!!!!"

I have chosen now, Luke thought to himself as he opened his eyes.

His loyalty now lied with Mara, but his heart ached at his father's now-revealed betrayal... He had really believed that he could have a good, loving relationship with the dark lord...

Then, as he became completely awake, he slowly realized that something wasn't

Right about his current situation.

Mara was ebbing further and further away from him now, as if---

Suddenly understanding that something had happened to her which he wasn't aware of, and that this something was currently destroying her very will to live, he jumped to his feet and run into the bedroom— and stopped short as he saw her slumped crying figure.

Even though he had not known her for a long while, he knew that unless asleep at night, the proud Mara Jade never, ever lost even a minimal amount of composure.

Hence, upon seeing her sobbing, weeping form, he understood that something crucial and potentially destructive had happened to her. He hurried to reach her side, then propped her up to a sitting position.

"Mara," he tried to rouse her, "what happened? Talk to me."

She avoided his gaze and shrugged his helping hand off from her shoulder.

Unlike the usual glare that would have accompanied such an action though, her eyes filled with visible tears once again. This was not Mara, Luke thought to himself even as he tilted his head a little to the left in order to see her better.

She turned her head completely the other way around, avoiding his gaze once again.

No, he shook his head, not at all like the Mara that he knew. For a brief moment, he debated whether to give her her space like she was wordlessly telling him to, or if he should press the matter with her, then an idea struck him.

He quickly reached out and opened his bond with the young woman, allowing her to fill him as completely as he could take her in. As he had expected, she had not thought that he could use such a tactic to draw her out.

Within an instant, he was her, and she was him... and they both knew everything that there was to know at the moment about each other.

Thus, Luke enfolded her in his arms in comfort when he understood that the Force had taken matters into its own hands once again and that it had taught Mara a lesson about how far Hatred could lead her.

The false Mara, the one that he had first met, had completely dissolved under the assault, and the real Mara, the one whom he loved, had emerged for real... forever.

All of a sudden, his lover was no longer the assassin that she had been taught to be. Instead, she had become once again the little girl that had been forced into submission by an evil tyrant, and who was now faced with the results of what she had done while under his blind servitude.

She had killed, had hurt, and had even sacrificed innocents in order to eliminate her target.

Only to become like her target.

"I'm so sorry, Luke," she sobbed against his chest, having finally given up on freeing herself from his comfort and accepting that he still loved her. "I," she whimpered, "I want to die... I should die..."

"No, Mara," Luke soothed her knowingly, his own problems forgotten in the wake of her existence crisis. "You should not die. Not when you have to live in order to change your Destiny."

"Destiny?" she frowned at him unhappily, looking up from his shoulder, "What Destiny, Jedi? I'm nothing anymore, and I only know how to destroy and hate. I can't---"

Luke gently shushed her with his index finger. "You know more than you think, my love," he implicitly reminded her of their mutual feelings. "You only need to develop self-confidence in those ways too."

She leaned back against his shoulder, silently pondering his words while she drew strength and love from their still open bond. Luke welcomed her effort to not let the death of her old self pull her down in the dumps; he sent her feelings of comfort and self-confidence.

They both remained silent for a long, long while, silently communicating and coming to terms with what had happened to their couple within the space of a single day. In the end, she agreed that she was better to not train as a Jedi anymore, but Luke refused to let her face her new life on her own and without the Force.

Hence, they settled for maintaining what they had worked on so far.

"There is still a problem though," she finally commented in the new silence.

"We're aboard an Imperial ship, with a group of terrorists," Luke agreed, then reassuringly kissed the crown of her head.

"And I still don't like your father," Mara added without fire, but without regret either.

Sighing in understanding as well as remembrance of where 'he' stood with his father too now, Luke pulled her closer to himself. "We'll find a way to settle both issues, Mara. I promise," he told both of them earnestly, then shifted his head until he was huddled against her.

Mara sought his physical presence further.

They remained entwined and silent for a long, long while.

Slowly, Darth Vader came to his senses. He was sitting in his meditation chamber, deep within its obsidian darkness. His head ached and his body hurt more sharply than usual.

He slowly exhaled, bringing pain under control. It was his own foolishness that caused this; he made an error of lowering his shields, thus permitting Luke's flare of anger to pierce his mind.

But he wanted his son trust him so badly that had judged the risk worth taking.

Not that it helped much. Luke didn't believe any of his words.

His son didn't even bothered to scan his opened mind - as if he were afraid that he would not get any trustworthy information this way.

It was true that Vader didn't lower all his shields, he couldn't take the risk that Luke would discover some of his plans and transmit them to Jade...

"I don't trust him," he thought suddenly. "I don't trust his loyalty. Worse, I actually *do* believe he transferred it to Jade."

This explained his son's behavior well anyway. It even explained why Luke didn't read his mind: he couldn't face the eventuality that Vader's care and worry for him were genuine. Obviously, Luke didn't want to understand that he had become a traitor to his family and had chosen to believe that it was Vader himself who had broken their mutual trust.

If this mutual trust had ever existed of course...

The Dark Lord sighed. Somehow, dealing with Leia and Solo, who had both seen him as only an enemy at the beginning, turned out to be much easier than with his kind and forgiving Jedi son. They, at least, didn't have any illusions and expectations for him to fulfill, any role for him to assume. No demands. They took what he could offer, he did the same, and strangely enough, it seemed to work. They became quite close with Leia - and his relationship with Solo was slowly evolving into sort of awkward friendship.

Luke, however, seemed to have some fixated image of him, felt betrayed every time Vader failed to conform to it, yet had always forgiven him after some time.

"How exceptionally generous of him!" snarled the Dark Lord. It was just a speculation, of course, but it explained much, and it angered him. "So he decided that his eternal love to Mara Jade was the most important thing in the world, and my question about her plans made me a traitor of his trust. How indeed dared I to betray him in such an atrocious way!"

He laughed shortly at the evident absurdity of the situation, then sighed in frustration. His anger lowered, changed itself into tiredness, into heartache; he did catch this feeling, examined it and banished without pity. No time for such foolishness. He had a war to win.

Once 'Avenger' would be controlled, once Luke would be found... then he would authorize himself to feel it. Maybe. But by all means not before.

He switched the lights on and was activating the computer when he felt Solo's presence near the door. Something had changed about his son-in-law, his mind felt sharp and determined. A smile slowly crept over Vader's lips; he opened the chamber, lowered its walls and allowed the young man to enter. At his sight he knew that he had indeed deduced right, the phase of changing was past Solo now.

It was strange to observe how the change of garb altered his perception of the man. The change wasn't that major; Solo was only wearing steel-gray shirt and a black TIE-pilot pants with black boots, but now, he definitely was 'Lord Solo'. Solo-the-former-smuggler had disappeared without a trace.

His son-in-law stopped before his seat, looked at him. Vader remained silent. He felt that Solo was up to something, so he waited for him to start speaking.

Solo seemed to hesitate for a heartbeat, then knelt before him and bowed. "My Lord, I pledge my loyalty to the Empire and to you," he said, his voice hoarse.

That, Vader didn't expect at all. "I do accept your oath, in both the name of the Empire and my own," he managed.

Solo bowed again, stood up and flashed him a grin. "Thanks."

"That wasn't necessary. I have no doubts about your loyalty."

"Well," said Han, "I had to make it official. Now nobody can doubt where I stand, me first."

"I see."

"And I also thought that whatever you say you could use some assurance about the rest of our family." Solo boldly looked at him, as if challenging his anger. The anger didn't came. Instead Vader sighed, melancholy snaking into his heart once again.

"Indeed. Thank you."

Solo looked at him with evident concern in his eyes. "Are you feeling well?"

Vader smirked. Indeed, he definitely wasn't known for expressing gratitude, especially in such private matters. "Is that all?"

"Well, no. Do you still want me to speak with Rogue Squadron?"

"You question my decision?"

"Actually, I'd like to know what your decision 'is'. I looked at the coordinates of our destination, and while it's written 'Balti' near them, it's not true. I'd recognize them in my sleep. We're going to Bespin."



"Think about it. If Jade kills Ackbar, I lose everything, and she knows it."

"Yeah, I've got it," said Han. "But why now?"

"If she monitored our connection with Bespin, she knows where we were. From that point there's four days to Balti, so the attack will be executed during that time, but not too soon either. She has to make sure that we really entered the hyperspace. However, she can't delay it too much either or else the people's anger that she has generated with her first attack will dissolve and not be of anymore use to her. Thus, I assume she will attack again tomorrow."

"So we are coming out hyperspace near Bespin, straight into battle," Han surmised with a slow nod of his head.


"We're still violating the treaty. Shouldn't we prevent Ackbar? There has to be a way to pass a message without bringing spies attention."

"No time. Also, I think Ackbar understood my plan."

"How? He hasn't this Force stuff."

"No," smirked Vader. "But he fought against me, and he knows that I 'never' play by the enemy rules. As for Rogue Squadron, I leave it to your expertise. But I want your conflict with Antilles to be over before we go into a fight."

"All right."

"Anything else?"


"Then I see you in the morning."

"See you, you Lordship!"

Han saluted in military fashion and exited the room. Vader turned to the computer screen. He was smiling.

Han decided to meet with Wedge on a neutral territory, in a one of the small recreation rooms, communally used by republicans and imperials. Since they were in between shifts; the room was empty but for two TIE pilots playing strato. At Han's entry they glanced at him, calmly saved the party and got out, without any apparent haste, yet rather promptly.

Han sat at strato's board and idly scrolled through base game patterns. All major battles of the last war were there; the one of Yavin had an impressive difficulty rating for playing Republicans. No wonder, the Death Star was an incredible advantage, and he doubted that its computer version included Luke with his Force-talent. Luke, with his idealism, and easy smile, and light in the eyes.

Han winced.

He missed the "Kid", missed him a lot and he had the sickening feeling that once they would find Luke, the "Kid" would be long gone.

That was one thing to see and accept the change within himself, but completely different to admit that his friend would most likely be completely changed too.

He then remembered who he was about to meet with and realized that his own change would probably be quite difficult to deal with for Wedge.

As if in answer, the door opened with a low hiss and in entered Wedge Antilles himself, wearing a pristine and tidy official Republican Commander uniform, which Han had never seen on him before.

Wedge's face was calm and had that official-closed look Han had learned to hate. Han stood up, and they shook hands.

"What happened?" asked Wedge, sitting down at strato's board opposing Han.

"Nothing," said Han. "I just thought we had to talk."

"Do we?"


Wedge remained silent, the very figure of a polite, good mannered, distant republican.

Han sighed inwardly. He came prepared to this meeting, but it was much more difficult to speak before his friend than before any political council.

"Listen, I want us to remain friends. I really do."

"Do you?"

"You have doubts?"

"Yes," said Wedge, looking straight at him. "Yes, Han, I actually do."


"Because you care more for Vader's approval than anything else."

"I better care for his approval," smirked Han, "he's the Emperor, you know."

"It doesn't mean that you have to act as if you've sold yourself to him."

"I guess, in a way, I did."

Wedge stared. Han smiled.

"More like offered, though. I swore allegiance to him. Officially. I'm his third in command, it was a thing I 'had' to do."

Took me an awfully long time to understand it too, thought Han.

"Han..." began Wedge. Solo raised his hand.

"No, let me finish. I am Imperial now, you see. And that means the Imperial crew passes first. It has nothing to do with personal preference; it's my job. And, if my job has to come in conflict with friendship I have to choose the job. I *have to*, but I'd hate the situation, and I'd rather avoid it. So... I want you as my friend. The question is: what do you yourself want?"

Wedge stared at him. Then smirked. "Sith... Han Solo, the third in command of the Empire. Who would've thought?"

"Indeed," said Han calmly.

Wedge sighed. "Look, I need to think it over. If you don't mind."

"It's ok."

"You've changed," remarked Wedge.

"Must be the shirt," offered Han.

"Yeah, have to be. Good shirt, by the way."

"Leia's present."


"Look," said Han, "whatever you decide, no hard feelings, ok?"

"Ok," smiled Wedge. "No hard feelings. I have a question, though."

"Shoot it."

"Do you think the Empire's worth it?"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be here," said Han.

"I see... All right. If you don't have other thing for me..."

Han shook his head.

"Then see you later."

Wedge stood up, they shook hands again.

"See you later."

Chapter 15: Decisions

A day later:

Aboard Avenger, Mara sat in her office, staring absently at the image of Bespin, which was hovering above her desk.

Her attention was not on the problem at hand though. Her head was still feeling as if it were stuffed with cotton, thanks to her sleepless night. After her nightmare, she hadn't been able to fall asleep again.

Thus, instead of sleeping, she and Luke had discussed the situation throughout the rest of the night.

Now, she was back in her office, preparing herself for her scheduled meeting with her high officers to discuss the last preparations for the next strike.

The problem, though, was that she knew that there would not be another strike. Never, ever.

After dealing with the terrifying vision of her becoming another Vader 'because' of her hatred for the man, she had decided to never allow this vision to come to life.

One Vader was enough already for the galaxy.

Making that decision had not been as difficult as it could have seemed, but being faithful to it was a whole other matter. She and Luke were still with her group of renegade imperial soldiers, and she herself knew that her men would not back down from their different private agendas merely because 'she' was putting an end to her own.

Thus, they were still aboard the Avenger, and she was pondering how she would manage her change of heart under the current circumstances.

Luke had suggested that they simply ran away, but she knew that it wasn't so easy.

Leaving would be tricky, but even if they managed it, it would solve nothing.

If she left, then Piett, Veers, and the other blood-thirsty officers of her group would simply take command of the group and continue their planned attack on the innocents of the Coalition. After all, she grimaced to herself, the men were more aiming to regain control of the known universe than to merely kill Vader.

They were out for the throne, all four of them.

Were they to succeed, she reflected glumly, a new civil war would ensue since they would all turn against each other so that only one of them would remain on the most coveted seat of power. And she would be held responsible for this bloodbath, because she let them run loose.

She had no other option but to keep her group in control until...

Until what?, she wondered. Until she surrendered to Vader?

Impossible, she objected with an energetic shake of her red-gold mane of hair. No matter how much she did not want to be responsible of anymore bloodshed, except for Vader's blood, she would never call the Dark Lord for help.

So which other option did she have a her disposal, she reflected, tapping her index finger gently against her lower lip while she absent-mindedly swiveled her chair from a few degrees to the right, then the left.

A rap on her door drew her out of her musing. Bracing herself for an unpleasant discussion, she reluctantly reached out with the Force and allowed her subordinates to enter her office.

Careful to hide any sign of distress, she slowly turned around until she could face Piett and Veers. She did not stand, wordlessly informing them that she still was their leader and that she did not fear them in any way.

"Madam," they both saluted her once the doors were once again closed behind them. "Congratulations once again on your first victory over Vader. The media are going nuts. Crowds are gathering everywhere, asking for the Republic to do something and fight against Vader once again."

"Vader's daughter has her hands full holding the masses at bay with her stories about us. And the Dark Lord is still in transition toward Balti. All is going according to the plan"

"So it seems," she nodded briefly.

Piett stepped forward and handed her a datacard. "While you were having a private celebration, we have finished the preparation of our strike on Bespin, as per your request."

The moment that she took hold of the proffered card, Mara's skin crawled in worry. Fighting past her sudden urge to throw it back at the officer before putting an end to his diabolical plans forever, she slowly inserted the card in her desk's slot... and gasped as she noticed that they had changed their plans and meant to destroy the city completely, not just attack its state buildings.

"If we were to ruin the city," Piett began enthusiastically, "this action would have a much greater resonance. The crowd will undoubtedly tear Vader apart with their bare hands."

'So will they me!' wanted to cry Mara. Her face might have changed then, because Piett's suddenly looked at her as if he were perplexed by her reaction.

Damn, she thought. She had just revealed to her officers that she did not agree with their plans, which would have pleased her just a few days ago. She needed to think something up really quick, or they would lose their trust in her, and that would be a dangerous turn of events, were she Force strong or not.

If only her head wasn't in a sleep-deprivation haze...

"To perform this prolonged attack, Avenger will need to stay near Bespin longer," she finally began as coolly as she could. "This means that it will run a risk of being identified, not to mention, a longer stay increases the possibility of retaliation," she said in disapproval. "I disagree with your proposition. It puts us in an unnecessary risk."

"Madam," said Piett, "if you would read my proposal carefully..."

He made an emphasis on a word 'carefully', and Mara felt her anger rise: his tone was almost patronizing. "... you will see, that it covers these issues too."

She didn't even bother to look through the text, she was certain he was right. It just increased her creeping feeling of insecurity. Her anger grew too, feeding on her fear. Why was he a so good officer, especially when she badly needed him to be imperfect, to make some error so that she and Luke could get out of this situation?!

If her subordinates ever discovered her change of heart and mind, she worriedly reminded herself, both she and her lover would be dead before they could muster their defenses, let alone counterattack.

"Admiral..." she started, not quite sure of her words, her voice not strong enough, and at that, Piett finally made a so needed error. He dared to interrupt her.

"Madam," he began, his voice excessively patient.

Her anger flared at this, and suddenly, she had a way out! "How dare you!" she hissed, laughing in relief inside, feeling this beautiful, glorious anger, letting it color her voice, reaching with it to Piett's throat and squeezing... "How dare you!" she repeated as he struggled for breath making pitiful sounds. "I'm in charge here, Piett, and your life is in my hand, don't you dare forget it. You will obey my orders if you want to live. Am I clear?" She released him.

"Yes," managed Piett in a shaking voice.

"Good. General?" she inquired, whirling around to glare at her third in command.

"Absolutely clear, Madam," said Veers, who had turned pale as chalk.

"Continue as previously ordered."

"Yes, madam."


They got out of her office. She waited for a couple minutes longer, holding her proud stance, and then covered her face with shaking hands.

She had to find a way out of this imbroglio and fast, or else everything, and especially someone she had come to care for would be lost forever...

Meanwhile, Luke was trying to clear his mind from worries. It was not easy.

They were captives with no-one to turn to, and there was no easy way out. Running away wouldn't solve anything. Well, it would, he amended, but only if they ran to his father.

And it wasn't an option. It would mean Mara's death.

Worse, if he would listen to his father again, then in time, he himself 'would' approve of her execution. Thanks to his superior powers of persuasion, his 'dear' father would somehow convince him that her death would be a wise, necessary, and inevitable execution for the deadly terrorist whom she was.

Yeah, he grimaced unhappily, his Sith father had such a mastery with words, with how to present the 'truth' to the others that given time, he could make a person believe in whatever he wished him to.

Wasn't it like this with Leia? he silently accused the other, yet carefully remained away from their waning bond. How else could he have convinced his sister, who just two years ago had been opposed with all her heart to the very idea of allowing an Empire to exist? She used to be disgusted at the mere thought of ruling it, yet here she was, finally accepting the position of Vader's heir, of a second-in-command.

And what about Han?, he pondered further. He too had somehow accepted the command over Executor.

Were his best friends and family truly free from any Dark Side influences?, he wondered yet again. Did they make their own choices nowadays, something that he himself did not know how to do yet? or was the Dark Lord, who was so much more powerful and skilled than he would ever be, simply lying to them all? Was Vader manipulating them all as he so blatantly used to do during the war?

While he knew that his father cared about both himself and his sister, he also couldn't help but remember a discussion that he had had with Han back when they had begun to trust Vader. Back then, his friend had told him that the Dark Lord had admitted that his definition of harm did not correspond to their own.

Hence, Luke wondered, what if his father did not see corrupting them all as harmful? Then, he would not stop himself from doing it, and he himself, young foolish Jedi who had been training under the wing of a Sith Lord for two years now, would once again be falling for his Force trap...

Darn, he suddenly sighed even as he gave up on his new attempt to meditate. How was he supposed to know what he had to do?

As if to answer his silent whining, the door of the main quarters slid open and in stepped Mara. Even though her composure was as cool as ever, he could feel the sudden turmoil of her emotions.

"What's wrong?" he inquired the moment that the doors were sealed once again.

She sighed, then locked her worried gaze with his. Stricken by her resurfacing fears, Luke looked into her mind--- and saw that it was also touched by the remainders of anger. She had once again used her anger to bend the Force!

Oh no! More than anything else, Luke wanted to scream, yet as he felt something else in her heart, he managed to remain calm.

He allowed her to explain herself.

"I didn't have any choice," Mara admitted shamefully. "It was either that..., or an all out fight right there in my office... or here."

"Huh??" he gaped in unpleasant surprise.

"They suggested that we completely destroy Cloud City next, and I simply couldn't agree with them. They became suspicious. I had to scare them into obedience, I had to. " She searched his eyes, as if for reassurance. "They served directly under Vader, so I surmised that the strangling trick would be the most effective..."

Luke grimaced. "All right. I'm not happy with it, but I guess you really had no choice..."

"No, I didn't." Mara sat on the couch and massaged her temples. "Damn, the attack is near and my head doesn't work anymore..."

"I'd like to help, but I can't even cure my own headache," said Luke dryly. "How much till the deadline?"

"Three hours."

"Are you sure you'll be able to manage the battle right?"

Mara looked up sharply at him, catching the slight widening of surprise of his beautiful blue eyes. "Listen, farmboy," she bit out more vehemently than she meant to, "don't tell me how to hold my troops, all right? No, I'm not sure, but I will do it. And stop harassing me!"

Luke, who was visibly shaken by her sudden loss of composure, looked at her in silence for a moment. "You should sleep for a while," he finally said. "It will not help anybody if you will fall down in the crucial moment."

"But my troops..."

"Can manage themselves for an hour or two."

Mara looked at the so-tempting bedchamber's door, as well as the corner of the bed that she could see through it.

Taking a deep breath to calm down, she slowly looked at her lover once again, a different set of emotions lighting her gaze this time. "Only if you lie down with me." she said with a soft smile.

"Okay," grinned Luke, "but we'll still only lie down."

"I have no force to seduce you at the moment, farmboy," Mara smirked in return while she took hold his helping hand to stand back to her feet.

In the monitoring room, Piett's rage was barely contained within him as he watched the two figures move toward the bedchamber. She had 'lied' to them!

He knew it!

Behind him, Veers was visibly hitching to send his troops inside the suite of their former leader, and exact vengeance on her.

He sharply raised his hand in silent warning, then increased the sound of the monitoring device. He waited until the two Jedi stopped making any sound before he finally made his move.

He turned back toward his comrades, to whom he had just proven his theory about the loyalties of their alleged leader. "Send the sleeping gas in," he commanded. "Do it very carefully so as to not alert their Jedi senses."

Veers shook his head in disbelief as he stepped closer to his new leader. "She really is under his spell, isn't she?"

"It appears so."

"Filthy Jedi sorcery," another officer muttered in disgust.

Piett smirked. "Jedi aren't wizards, Cal. Veers here was only talking about the spell of love. Even the best of us can become mad under it..."

"Why not to simply gas them?" Veers inquired, his eyes glowing with his desire to avenge himself of the woman's lies.

"The Jedi would feel the danger to their lives," Piett replied more calmly, his anger once again under his control. "As long as we have no desire to kill them, neither of them will feel anything. Besides," he shrugged nonchalantly, "I don't mind to have some bargaining chips with Vader. I'm not sure that it will work with him, but we always can always use them with the rebels if it comes to that. Vader's own son is in league with Jade," Piett smiled, machiavellian, "directing the attacks that befell the rebs. How do you think they will like it?"

Veers smiled. "Good plan."

"I had good teachers," Piett answered, melancholy. On the screen in front of them, troops had entered the gas-permeated suite and were already putting the sagged Jedi put into stasis containers.

Leia was sitting in her father's study at the Palace, surrounded by monitors. They were all tuned to so-called independent channels and were showing Balti. Everywhere she looked at, there were demonstrations of angry, grief-strickened citizens and smug reporters behaving themselves as if they were suddenly elected The Conscience of the galaxy.

If one were to believe these reports - the whole Empire was currently expressing its contempt and were rising against Vader. Everything was also presented as if Vader's guilt was already proven, and that he was fleeing justice...

"... What is your opinion of Leia Organa's part in this affaire?"

"Oh," the 'expert' graciously smiled, "I'm quite sure that she wasn't in the Dark Lord's confidence. Most probably, she is as manipulated as we all are..."

"Manipulated, am I?" Leia calmly graced the 'expert' with a chilling smile. 'Well, I 'did' show myself incapable to manage the present crisis, thus proving to them that I am merely a small idealistic girl under the spell of her bad father/sorcerer, incapable of thinking for herself,' she then admitted in frustration.

Darn, she wasn't feeling well. Stress and pregnancy weren't a good combination. She knew that she should rest, but her mind just wouldn't stop. She was filled with that cold, detached, black anger that she was sure belonged to the Dark Side.

And she didn't care.

To think that she herself had made all this possible, she groaned inwardly. She had dreamt for countless nights about how to give back to the galaxy the freedom of speech, had even managed to bring her dream come true, but she had never realized that this new freedom would bring forward all this... this... Gamorrean's wash.

These so-called journalists were making completely baseless accusations merely to show how 'independent' they were, how fearless of the Emperor they felt.

They naturally never stopped to consider the possible consequences of their actions.

It thoroughly disgusted her.

However, she promised herself as the amber of her anger remained alive within her heart, they would soon know the consequences. No one could make so many insults and false accusations and go unpunished. There were laws about those, and she for one would use them as soon as Jade would finally be apprehended.

"Talk at will," she sneered at the unaware, still-babbling reporters. "The more you talk, the more evidence there will be, and you will be lucky if you are not charged with treason...----You're so darn stupid!! " she suddenly exclaimed after hearing an especially insulting phrase.

As she listened further to the offender, she realized that the others had somehow completely forgotten that her father was 'still' the Emperor and 'still' had all the power. They also weren't aware that when he made a democratic effort, it was the most blatant demonstration of his good will that they would ever get from the aloof man.

The ex-princess of Alderaan turned away from the frustrating holovid and focused her attention on her companion. "What do you think, Winter?"

Her aide, who had entered the room just moments ago, sighed. "I think, your Highness, that you have to go to bed."

"I can't sleep," the petite woman grimaced as she turned away from her once again.

"Leia, you 'have' to," her friend tried to argue with her.

"Later," she placated her. "Tell me what you think of all this."

Beaten, Winter came behind Leia's chair and contemplated the screens for a moment. "I think that they falsely interpreted Lord Vader's concessions as his defeat. I also think that Mara Jade made the same error."

Leia turned the chair and looked at her thoughtful aide in surprise. "Can you explain?"

The wise woman brushed a stray strand of snow-white hair out of her forehead. "Lord Vader always presented himself as a force of nature, completely unaffected by lesser people opinions. He presented no weaknesses. However, throughout the last year, he tried to accommodate the germs of democratic structures you two began to put in place, and suddenly, he is viewed as just a ruler, a human who 'has no other choice' but to be influenced by his people, vulnerable through his public image of a peacemaker."

"Ah," the experienced diplomat nodded in understanding, "I had never thought about it in these terms..."

"All too understandable," Winter nodded agreeably. "You know him too well to arbor such delusions."

"Yes. But I should have been able to see the situation from the ordinary citizen's point of view too... Interesting," she mused.

"What is so interesting?" the beautiful white-haired woman inquired with a polite frown of perplexity crossing her forehead.

Leia looked up at her once again. "I'm just beginning to see how all this mess could be turned to our advantage. To strengthen the Empire..."

"Leia, you should really go to bed," Winter rebuked her yet again, as if suddenly afraid of what her friend had in mind now. "We will wake you if there's any development, have no fear."

Leia sighed and allowed her coalescing plan to retreat to the back of her mind once again. Winter was right, but she had no desire to sleep. Still, she owed it to the twins. They too needed rest from all her stress.

Just as she prepared herself to rise from her chosen seat, one of the screens blinked, and the face of Kam Solusar appeared on it. The Jedi looked both extremely tired and smug.

"Your highness?"

"I'm here," Leia answered promptly. "Any news?"

"We've got them," the tall man told her grimly. "You were right; they indeed tried to put explosives on republican structures."

"You've got everybody?"

"Yes. They are in interrogation now."

"No leaks of security?"

"None. Nobody noticed anything."

"Excellent," Leia nodded even as she minutely relaxed her unconsciously tensed muscles. "Thank you, Kam, and transfer my praise to those of clan Karedan who assisted you."

"With pleasure," the Jedi grinned more easily. "Good night, your Highness."

"Good night."

The screen changed back to the talk-show that she had been watching. Leia tapped a key on the keyboard and all the screens went dark. She stood up, turned and smiled widely, victoriously to Winter. "We have them now. We absolutely have them."

Winter smiled too.

"The last thing missing is Mara Jade."

"Yes. Jade, and my 'dear' brother..." Leia hissed, her resent about her twin coming forth once again. "We'll have such a 'hearty' talk then, I can hardly wait," she all but whispered in suddenly dark anticipation. The thought of what Luke was putting them all through--- it made her hackles rise----

"Ah, Leia," her even-tempered friend gently interrupted her current train of thought, "such anger ..."

"... leads to the Dark Side," she snapped in irritation. "I know, I know!"

"Actually," Winter amended, "I wanted to say that it leads to adrenaline dozes that surely are not good for the babies."

Caught utterly unprepared by such a comment, Leia stared in shock at her friend and aide, and then laughed as her intense emotions dissolved into nothingness.

"All right, all right," she smiled more easily than she had in a long while, or so it seemed to her. "No anger, no adrenaline. Just a good doze of strong sisterly love. Right on his stupid head," she added with a shake of her head.

"That's much better," smiled Winter.

On the bridge of Executor, the hyperspace clock continued to count down the remaining minutes of transition. In less than ten minutes, they would come out in Bespin's space.

In less than ten minutes, Vader reflected, feeling some of his anger resurface at his thought, all this nonsense would end, and he would finally recover his traitorous son.

Luke had betrayed him. The thought hurt still.

Well, he promised himself as he stood in the middle of the bridge near the viewports, as he always did when he was on the bridge, Luke would deal with the consequences of his choices.

"We're ready to exit hyperspace, my Lords" said admiral Tachta from his right.

"Battle alert," commanded Solo. "We're exiting as close to planet as possible."

"Yes, sir."

It ends today, Vader mused, looking at the silver lines of hyperspace.

Suddenly they condensed to small dots, and his danger awareness jumped to their most alert status. They were indeed very close to Bespin, he could see the shapes of Cloud City far below- and a white spear of Avenger in the darkness ahead.

" Fire at will," he ordered quickly. "They must not escape."

"Yes my Lord!"

The battle was immediately engaged. In the frenzy on the bridge, only Vader remained unmoving and calm, apparently undisturbed.

"There's communication from the Cloud City, my Lord!"

"Belay it."

He then quietly observed the battle, trusting his admiral and Solo to direct it correctly. He, for one, simply waited.

He knew Piett well, too well. In a such situation, when the loss was assured, the former admiral could behave in any possible way...

"Lord Vader! Avenger is hailing us!"

Ten minutes, he counted mentally as he analyzed the possible meanings of such a time reaction. It was good.

There were no losses on Executor yet.

"Direct it here," he ordered, moving before the large screen. Piett's face immediately appeared in the receiving field; his image was disturbed by occasional static.

Veers was standing just behind him.

"Stop the attack at 'once', Lord Vader!" Piett ordered needlessly. He was visibly distressed, barely controlling his panic.

Vader smiled under his mask. "Are you surrendering?" he inquired calmly.

"What?!" the other man frowned uncertainly, then caught himself- "No!"

"Then why should I obey you, Thomas?" Vader inquired surly. "You're not in a position of power here."

"I have your son," the other reminded him meanly. "If you attack us, he is dead."

Despite his own misgivings about Luke's behavior, Vader felt his what was left of his blood boil within his artificial and natural veins upon hearing the other's threat. "If my son is harmed in 'any way'..." he hissed coldly, "no one on Avenger will be taken prisoner."

"No!!" the other objected, obviously shaken by his threat, "you can't do that!"

"You are outlaws," the Dark Lord stated the obvious. "I can do as I please."


"If you surrender, however, your crew will not be tried for High Treason. You have my word on it."

"As if your word can!..." Piett began, but there was a flush of energy around him --- and he collapsed, along with Veers.

A lean, athletic hand, then arm then entered within transmission range--- closely followed by Mara Jade's unmistakable body and features. Her face was set, her muscles obviously tensed as if she were battling with herself at the moment.

For a long, very long moment, both nemesis looked at each other straight in the image of their eyes, a thousand emotions streaking through the woman's uncovered jades, then, she closed them, and dropped her weapon before she met Vader's hidden gaze once again "I surrender, Vader," she stated calmly, yet with resent.

"Wise choice," Vader commented coldly to the hated woman. "Drop your shields - and await our troops."

The young woman signaled to her troops to do as they were ordered, then turned around, her head bowed low to her chest. She was obviously defeated but why had she given in so easily?

It would be interesting to find out during her high-level interrogation.

Vader instructed his son-in-law to stop the attack. "Prepare the boarding party," he ordered him next.

"As you command," the former smuggler smirked grimly. "Just hope that she isn't tricking us into another trap."

"The ion cannons will make sure that she isn't," Vader stated coolly.

"Okay, but it is still difficult to believe that she just surrendered to us."

Vader didn't reply; he agreed with Solo's feeling. The traitor's actions had indeed been too sudden to really comprehend what had really happened there.

Still, it was over. He could feel her defeat even through the Force, but... No, he warned himself.

It was not over yet.

It would only be over when Luke would finally be aboard Executor, and Jade locked in a Force-proof cell.

"My Lord!" the communication expert signaled. "The communication for Cloud City!..."

Vader nodded. "Transfer it here."

"I'll go get Luke," Solo commented as if he had read his father-in-law's thoughts, "Only then will it really be over."

"Be careful, Solo," Vader heard himself say.

Solo looked at him in surprise and then flashed a grin. "Hey! It's me!"

Part 4

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