Left Guardian Welcome to Bast Castle
Right Guardian

Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links

Title: Coming Home
Author: Emerson Quinn (http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1397175/Emerson_Quinn)
Rating: G
Category: Angst, Drama
Characters: Vader, Luke, Leia

Disclaimer: They don't belong to me.

Summary: A deadly illness leads Luke to seek out his father, searching for answers and a chance to know his past.

The vast expanse of star filled, unending night dominated his vision. Darkness, broken only by the occasional burning, spinning planet, soothed him and quieted his mind. This was his meditation. He no longer clung to the teachings of his foolish mentors from so long ago. His peace was here, the blackness of space which mirrored the blackness of his thoughts, and his soul. It was possible for him to stand here, like this, for many hours. It was unwise to disturb him. Admiral Piett therefore felt decidedly sorry for himself, as he was, unfortunately, the means of disturbing the second most powerful man in the universe.

Vader could feel him approaching long before Piett reached him. He could sense the Admiral’s agitated mind…..but it was obviously something extremely important. Piett was no fool. It was this reason he had survived with Vader for as long as he had.

Admiral Piett stopped a respectable distance away and bowed, waiting for Lord Vader to speak first. He had realized long ago that Vader would acknowledge him when he was ready to. There was no need to announce his presence by verbalizing it. The Dark Lord of the Sith was not a man of many words….just as many as were necessary. He would wait.

Piett had a reasonably good guess as to what occupied Vader’s mind. It was the single objective that had taken precedence over every other. Vader was obsessive about it; this objective consumed his every waking moment and probably, Piett mused, his every unconscious one. One thought, one mission, one desire: Luke Skywalker.

The Emperor had, of course, given Vader permission to find him. Indeed, he had ordered it. But Piett was not a simple minded nerf-herder. He listened, he watched, he observed. He also had his own spies. The Emperor had other things on his mind for Skywalker contrary to grooming him as a Sith prince. Piett was aware that Vader knew this as well.

“What is it, Admiral?” Vader’s voice rumbled across the hall.

He turned to face him. For a moment, Piett took in the sight of Lord Vader, standing in a seemingly painted in universe, framed by the impassive silver of the bulkhead. If he were a critic, he may have considered it a fine example of allegorical artwork. But he’d never had any appreciation for allegory anyway. He was a practical man.

“My Lord, we have received an encoded transmission from the Baldor sector. The encoding is Imperial, but hasn’t been used by the Navy in several years.”

“What is the message, Piett?”

“Whomever is sending will only speak to you. He wants to be given your private channel code and will contact you only then.”

Vader considered this information for a moment, trying to seek out the message sender in the Force. It could be related to his son…..but it could also be a waste of his time.

“Was there any more to this message?” Vader asked.

“Yes, milord. The final line of code was in a language native to Tattooine. It is spoken by the Jawas. Our translators had a little difficulty with it; the language is hardly ever heard spoken outside of Tattooine.”

Piett hesitated. Even he, non-Force user as he was, could sense Vader was becoming impatient.

“It translates to Basic as, ‘A traitorous father is better than no father at all.’”

Vader waited with a mixture of his typical impatience and a touch of an unexpected emotion as well. He was unsure how to label it. Anxiety, euphoria, joy, uncertainty….hope? He knew, no, felt, in the stirrings of the Force that the message was from Luke. It had to be. The message was not only literal in meaning but also a telling way of letting Vader know it was from his son. Translated back into the language of the Jawa, the phrase, ‘a traitorous father is better than no father at all’, was a proverb used exclusively by the little race of Sand people. Luke would know it, of course, having been raised on Tattooine. His son would have known he would know it as well. Surely Beru would have passed on to Luke some things about Anakin Skywalker. Luke would have been told at the very least his father had grown up on Tattooine. It would have made sense, as his grandmother was buried just outside the homestead.

The Dark Lord of the Sith turned his thoughts away from his childhood. It was not his to claim regardless. He had turned his back on that time and those memories. He waited in his private chambers as the computer keyed in the codes and opened the channel for reception.

Expecting the pale blue eyes of his son, Vader was unexpectedly greeted by a face he knew well. Mon Mothma, co-conspirator of the rebellion. His anger was swift, but he tampered it down.

Having been raised in politics and in a family as close to Chandrilian royalty as was possible, Mon Mothma had the good grace to incline her head slightly to Vader. Her hair was still auburn, her eyes still gentle and blue.

“Lord Vader, I thank you for allowing me to contact you in this rather unusual way,” she said, her voice still had traces of the soft Chandrilian accent. “I am come to you on an urgent errand.”

But Vader interrupted her. His annoyance at not speaking to his son was clouding his mind.

“The only urgency I sense, Senator, is that of the Alliance to find new safe-bases. If you surrender now, I can assure you I will personally see that the lower-level members of your traitorous rebellion are treated fairly. I cannot vouch for you, or any other senior member. You will..”

Now Mon Mothma interrupted, something she was raised never to do.

“My Lord, you must forgive my presumption that the information I have is very important to you, if you will let me explain I am sure..”

“Where are you hiding, Senator?” Vader spoke her former title with contempt. “I swear to you I will find you and there will be no escape. The Empire will crush you utterly. The only way to save your friends is an unconditional surrender.”

Mon Mothma hesitated a moment, trying to get Vader’s undivided attention. She had wanted to tell him this with decorum and gentleness, but his anger was spurring her to just tell him.

“My Lord, you know that Commander Skywalker is one of our best pilots and…”

Again he stopped her mid-sentence.

“Commander Skywalker is wanted by the Empire. If you turn him over to me immediately I will negotiate terms for a treaty between the Empire and the Alliance. Tell me where he is.”

“Several weeks ago Commander Skywalker led a rescue attempt on Tispir. During this mission he…” Mon Mothma was rushing now, trying to lay out the back story of just why she was contacting him.

“I grow tired of your stalling, Senator. Where is he?” Vader demanded, his deep voice growling and chilling Mon Mothma to her very core.

“My Lord…..your son is dying.”

Han Solo was absolutely seething. Standing in the silent turbo-lift, he wondered, not for the first time, exactly what the odds were that they had gotten into this mess. Stang! Beside him, standing regally, was Mon Mothma. She was dressed in her standard white senatorial robes. She looked neither right nor left. On his other side, unmoving, but not unmoved, was Leia. She was trying desperately not to lose her last scrap of self-control. She too was dressed a little more ceremoniously, hair pulled back elaborately. One hand rested on the hover gurney that bore an unconscious Luke Skywalker. Chewie was there, of course, and a few Rouge Squad members. Otherwise the lift was no where near full capacity. Mon Mothma had chosen this exchange point for good reason. It was on the moon of a little frequented planet, in the landing bay area of an abandoned shipping facility. The flight lanes off the planet were clear, it was away from the Rebellion Fleet, it was quiet enough not to attract attention, and, conveniently, mused Han, the lifts were large enough to contain them all.

Not many in the Rebellion knew what exactly was about to take place. Most did know about Luke’s rescue attempt on Tispir. They knew he wasn’t even part of the squadron going in, but, Luke being Luke, had stepped in last minute. They also knew he’d not had his protective gear with him. The unexpected ambush from a small band of Imperial Stormtroopers had put Luke and several others in close contact with the locals of the system. Unbeknownst to them, it also put them in contact with the virus they were carrying. All 20 members of the team to come in contact with the disease the Tispirians were infected with, including Luke. So far, 19 had died. It had taken the Rebellion doctors several days to diagnose exactly what they were fighting. They were infected with the Eryoundi virus. There was no cure.

The stronger members had held on longer, and the doctors were convinced that Luke’s Force gift helped. But there was no hope. Treatment only caused the virus to multiply, as did anything strenuous or stressful. They kept Luke quiet, confined, calm. The doctors gave him three months, at best. That had been almost four weeks ago.

After learning all he could about the disease, and spending some time meditating alone, Luke came to a conclusion. He asked to meet with the senior members of the Rebellion. Han, Leia, and Chewie he met with privately beforehand. Confessing his parentage, and citing his deteriorating condition, he asked Mon Mothma to contact Vader. The reason, he said, was he wanted to spend his remaining time with the only family he had left. His father.

Terms were discussed, they tried to dissuade him, but he held fast. He needed, he said, to be with his father, and maybe get some answers.

In the end, surprisingly to Han’s mind, it was Leia who had pushed the senior members to let Luke go. She would tell him later of her happy childhood with her adopted parents, and she said no one should be without family. Han had to acquiesce there, as a normal family life was not something he knew much about.

And now here he was, next to the two people he cared most about in the universe, about to let one of them go one of the things he hated most. He still could not think of Vader as a person, much less Luke’s father, no matter what the kid had said to him.

He looked down to Luke. ‘Poor kid,’ he thought, ‘he’s so exhausted from trying to persuade them to let him go.’ The whole event had sent him back into unconsciousness. He wouldn’t even be awake to meet his father.

Han felt to lift jolt to a stop. They were here.

The entire conversation with Mon Mothma had lasted close to an hour. After getting over the initial shock and disbelief of what she had told him, Vader had proceeded to question her relentlessly about the details of Luke’s illness. She told him everything, and even went so far as to send him his son’s medical records. He knew this virus well. It was something the Emperor had concocted as a method of control.

The very best doctors, microbiologists, and exotic disease specialists had been gathered together on a whim from Palpatine. Together, they created a virus with no cure…it was pure propaganda and the Emperor used it to his full advantage. Entire star systems surrendered to his control with the mere threat of the virus being unleashed upon them. It was a yoke of fear he place upon the necks of millions. Once his biological warfare had served its purpose, he moved on to other terrors. All personnel connected with creating the super-bug were terminated. No one living had any knowledge of exactly what spurred the virus, or even how to combat it.

Vader knew, in the vast pit where his soul should be, that his son would most likely die from this disease. He knew of only one man who had beaten the virus, and he was dead now anyway. Yes, he remembered that man….Jolon Bae’din. Vader would look into that later.

He was silently thankful for two things. One, that his son had the weak and misguided desire to attempt to bond with his errant father. And secondly, that the foolish members of the Alliance had allowed him to leave their ranks. Possible deception flooded Vader’s mind, and he probed Mon Mothma’s intentions more deeply.

“What was it that made you do this? Why did you not use Luke against me, once you had learnt his true lineage?”

Mon Mothma gave a sad, soft smile.

“We considered everything good he has done for us. He told us the truth, and asked for help. We could not, in good conscience, betray his trust….or his last request.”

Vader considered this a moment. His son was obviously much loved by his friends and colleagues. He decided, in a moment of surprising good-will, to return the favour.

“I give you my word that your landing party and those escorting my son will come to no harm during the handover. You will be allowed to leave the system peacefully.”

Again her well-bred manners assisted her, as she bowed slightly and keyed off her computer.

In his Super Star Destroyer, Vader sat for many hours, contemplating the stars.

Princess Leia Organa, of the Royal House of Alderaan, was rarely at a loss for words, but when the doors to the turbo-lift opened, she felt the turning of the wheel of fate, and it sobered her into stony silence. She never could have dreamed she’d be standing willingly in front of a monster responsible for most of the misery in the galaxy, not to mention quite a bit of her own personal pain.

Luke was leaving her. In the entire universe, she could probably only count on one hand the number of people she really trusted, and Luke was at the top of the list, right near that scoundrel pirate Solo. The news of his parentage had thrown her, set her perfectly balanced little world of wrong and right reeling. She’d always believed in a universe made up of black and white, but now she was beginning to see shades of grey peeking through. She hadn’t wanted Luke to go, but the desperation she’d felt from him, the utter need to be with Vader had moved her. She was acquainted with that deep, sacred desire to know her true family….and the sorrow that came with the fact that she’d never meet them. Never even know her birth parents names…..it struck very close to home for her. So she persuaded them to let Luke go.

So now here she was, hand holding Luke’s unconscious one, glaring at Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. She tried, in the compassionate part of her heart, to think what Vader must be feeling. Was he he feel that? Was he satisfied, confused….gloating? It was impossible to tell. His black mask was unreadable. He looked at nothing but Luke, and Leia thought, for a moment, that she could actually hear Vader communicating silently to Luke. Her grip tightened on Luke’s hand. Someone was speaking and she tried to focus.

“I trust, Lord Vader, that Commander Skywalker will be well looked after with you. I cannot say that this is the choice I would have wished him to have made, but it was not, after all, my choice. And as Senator Organa so wisely pointed out, we cannot choose our family, only choose to embrace the family we have,” Mon Mothma said graciously.

She nodded her head towards Leia, and the Princess shivered inwardly as Vader turned to look at her. She would have sworn she could feel the Force moving through her, probing her. It was a ridiculous thought, of course….Luke was the Force sensitive one!

Vader never took his eyes off of her as he replied, “The Princess speaks with a knowledge of truth beyond her years. You more than anyone here would be able to relate to that statement, save Luke. You never knew your birth parents, did you, your Highness?”

Vader spoke with a gentleness she had not believed possible.

“No, Lord Vader.”

She kept her answer short and to the point. She would not let him steal her pain. It was something she shared with Luke, a private bond between the two of them. She refused to share it with anyone, much less Vader. The relationship she had with Luke was more like siblings. She was in love with Han, but she loved Luke. He was like a brother to her.

“Admiral Piett, escort Skywalker to his quarters. I will follow shortly.”

The order was given. They had to leave Luke with him now. It was hard letting go of his hand. It was even harder to tell him she loved him silently….not be able to say it out loud. She knew, as she sent the thoughts to Luke, that Vader was listening to every single word.

Oh, Luke,’ she sent to him, ‘you’re breaking my heart.’

Leia felt the change the instant the thought went through her mind. Vader watched her now with more intensity. She glared up at him, his black mask unreadable. She would always believe, in that moment, that Vader was really seeing her, for the first time.

The room was mostly dark, lit only by a few dim cabin lights and the glow of the stars. One being in the room blended into this darkness..indeed, he became one with it. Dark room, dark cloak, dark mind, dark soul. But there was a spark of something unidentifiable to him now, stirring where his soul should be. He mused over this something as he watched his son asleep. The boy burned in the Force.

As dark as Vader was, as inky black as the deepest regions of unknown space, that was how bright Luke was. His Force energy was pure, and light, and absolutely brilliant. And in that moment, in that instant of understanding…..an epiphany came to Lord Vader. That something, that spark, was pride. Pride to have fathered such a boy as this. It was a secretive pride, he realized, and must be kept so. The Emperor would not stand for such rampant emotions as these. Besides, Palpatine would only suspect some treachery on Vader’s part….and he was right to do so. Such plans, he had, for the two of them.

And what to do with him now? Just when all his schemes would have seemed reachable, when he finally had his son with him…now he could not fulfill his grand vision. The boy could not be stressed, or the virus would attack more aggressively. And attempting to turn Luke, Vader knew, would be the death of him. So now what? He would not turn his son over to Palpatine. Since Luke had entered his life, there was no longer any trust between himself and his Master. No, Palpatine would not know that Luke was with him. The men on his Star Destroyer would not betray his secret. They valued their lives, and were more loyal to Vader than the Emperor anyway.

His son turned in his unconscious state, and Vader could feel him coming round to wakefulness. Luke first made contact with the Force, then his mind cleared little by little, until he was awake on the bed, but made no movement. He faced the expansive windows, and the stars spun slowly by.

“Do you know where you are, young one?” his father’s voice rumbled lowly over to him, quivering the air between them.

“With you,” Luke replied simply.

Vader can hear the unspoken in his statement too. He may as well have said, ‘with you, and that is all that matters.’ Luke’s obvious relief at finding himself with his father is a novelty to Vader. He rolled this feeling around his heart the way a connoisseur would enjoy a fine Coruscanti wine. He tucked it away to examine it later.

Luke made no movement to get up, but merely lay in the bed. His first question is exactly what Vader expected.

“Are my friends safe?”

His concern for his allies is classic Luke….he is known for his compassion for others. Vader sensed the meaning behind this seemingly simple query, though, and not wanting to cause his son undue stress, answered him directly.

“Yes, my son. They were allowed to leave the system peacefully. Your little band of loyal friends were very brave in attending you. The Princess seemed to be deeply affected by your choice of leaving.”

Ah, the Senator from Alderaan. Her last thoughts to Luke, so loud to Vader through the Force, had brought back a very distant memory. It was of Padme, pleading to him on Mustafar…you’re breaking my heart…. The Princess even resembled his wife, somewhat. She’d been adopted, right about the time Luke was born, they must be around the same age. She’d been raised by that traitor Bail Organa, she’d entered into politics and reminded him fiercely of Padme in that respect. Vader had been turning these things over and over in his mind since he’d seen his son was properly looked after. Leia’s presence struck him, now, and he wondered, not for the first time, just how much Ben Kenobi had not told him. His son interrupted his reverie.

“She’s the closest thing to family I had with the Alliance. We had pretty similar backgrounds.”

Luke spoke simply, and without pretense now. He was relieved to have a somewhat normal conversation with his father. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, mentally mapping his location in space using the visible stars and planets.

“Are we near Bakura, then?” he asked Vader, knowing full well where he was.

“We left the Bakura system two standard days ago, after you came onboard.”

Luke mulled this over, nodding slowly.

“And are you taking me to the Emperor now?”

He finally looked over his shoulder at his father, and Vader was struck at the boy’s resemblance to Anakin. But it was the way he looked so yearningly at his father that really stirred Vader’s already ambivalent and confused feelings. He is reminded, for the second time in less than two minutes, of Padme.

Vader considered this a moment before stepping somewhat out of the shadows toward his son.

“Not yet, Luke”, he paused, “perhaps not at all.”

Luke again nodded slowly, and turned back to the stars. He contemplated them a long time before voicing the thought that has been roiling around in his mind. It is an important statement, and he is saying it in an attempt to gauge his father’s feelings.

“I am glad you answered Mon Mothma’s call.”

Translation, ‘ Thank you for not turning me away, thank you for taking me in.’

Granted, it was not the homecoming Luke would have wanted…no open arms, no words of love or at least comfort…but he was with his father, and that was what he wanted. Maybe now he’d get a few answers, before the end.

Vader knew this tactic. He was still unable to name his emotions, unable to pin a label on their new relationship. He would not give in to Luke’s bid for his pity and empathy now. He still needed to define exactly what it was they wanted and needed from each other. But, he realized, there wasn’t much time. He could at least be gentle with his son. He had answered Luke’s call, after all.

So he answered as simply and non-committed as he thought possible. “You are my son.”

Luke turned again to his father, and gave him a tight smile. His father refused to rise to the bait that time, but he’d get his answers, or die trying, he thought wryly. Standing now, he turned fully to face Vader, stars at his back. They regarded each other a long moment before Luke broke the silence.

“And what now?”

Many of his personal belongings had been transferred with Luke, and Vader mused over the few and sundry things the boy had brought with him as he waited for his son to wake. Luke had slid back into unconsciousness after his first conversation with his father. Vader had no answer to his son’s question of ‘ and what now?’ He’d left the boy to himself with the excuse of letting him settle in, but he was unable to leave his son’s side. He realized this with no small measure of chagrin as he’d made his way back to Luke’s quarters several hours later. So, here he stood now, guarding his son even in sleep. He turned his attention to the alterations Luke had made to his room.

Luke was not in possession of many things, and it was obvious that the few that had accompanied him were of the utmost importance. A medal awarded to him after the Battle of Yavin, his lightsabre, a tattered cloak the colour of sand he’d brought with him from Tatooine. There were a few holos of his friends from the Alliance…members of his X-wing squadron, that annoying pirate Solo, the Wookie, the Princess Organa.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to Vader was the carved Japor snippet on a Nerf gut string. Memories flooded back to him then, of her, his wife, his love. Padme. This boy’s mother. He knew that she’d been buried on Naboo with the Japor snippet necklace he’d given her. Vader had seen enough of it on the HoloNet to know that. There’d been enormous speculation as to the meaning of the necklace, who’d given it to her, why she was being buried with it, and most importantly, just who the father of her unborn child was.

What he hadn’t remembered until that very moment, however, was the fact that he’d carved another for her on the way to Tattooine. Padme had thought she lost the necklace, and, in an attempt to keep his mind off her and occupied on something more Jedi appropriate, he’d made another for her. She’d found the first one, of course, the moment he’d strung the second. Then his mother had died in his arms and he forgot about the Japor necklace, about Padme, about anything other than his own black rage. Beru must have found it, kept it, and given it to Luke. What had she told him? He was well aware of Luke’s burning desire for knowledge of his mother, of their past together….but these were things he was unable to tell him. He could not maintain his black composure and self-professed devotion to the Dark Side by recalling happy memories of his past. Luke would have to learn to live with disappointment. This was going to be a battle of the wills, he was certain…..what now, indeed.

Again his son woke slowly, and knew immediately his father was with him. Luke pretended, for a moment, that he was 8 years old again, waking in the morning to find his beloved father there, waiting for him. They were going to go after wamp rats, and his father had been up early to prepare everything for their trip….he basked in the warm glow that invented and yearned for memory gave him. It would have to give him strength to face his reality.

“Are you always going to be there when I wake?” Luke asked with slight humour, but it was a loaded question, and the Dark Lord realized it as such.

He countered with his own, “How did you come to possess this?” Vader asked, holding up the necklace.

Luke turned to look at his father, sitting up slowly, tired. Seeing the object his father held, he laughed slightly and said wryly, “Perhaps you should tell me.

Vader contemplated his son a moment….stubborn, to a fault. That was Amidala. It was aggravating and yet exhilarating. This boy held so much of his mother in him. He would concede a little. “I made this for your mother. She lost it on Tattooine.” There, that was all he would offer.

Luke smiled wearily, “And that is where I obtained it. Aunt Beru gave it to me. She said something about you carving it, making it for mother. It was the only thing all these years that I had that was a part of both of you,” he paused, his emotions threatening to break through. “I’ve always carried it with me. I thought it appropriate….the Japor Ivory wood, representing rarity and strength…and the symbols of love and hope carved into it. It represented you, to a larger extent.” He paused, glancing at his father. “Or at least what I believed of you.”

Stalemate again. Neither willing to give ground, they remained in a quasi-comfortable silence. Vader could feel Luke searching him out, trying to reach for some good in him, tempting him with his innocence and playing his father with his miserable childhood memories. Vader would try a different tactic.

“ I have left you a far greater legacy than being the son of a simple spice freighter pilot who had hope…a more magnificent legacy than being the child of a moisture farmer who had love.”

The words hope and love felt like ash in his mouth, so long had it been that he had spoken them. He reduced them to mockeries of their own meaning with his tone. And in that feeling, a remembrance came to him. A vision of himself on Mustafar, burning….practically turning to ash himself. That was where hope and love had left him. He remembered, and wondered how he ever could have forgotten it. It spurred him to step toward Luke, fist clenched with the power of the darkness which spread over him now like the black cloak which enveloped him.

“You stand to inherit the entire universe, Luke. From the Core Regions to the Outer Rim Territories…they are all waiting to bow before you. Can you feel the power? Does it not whisper to you?” The Dark Lord leaned in toward Luke now, luring him with the power of his voice. “You are the heir to the Empire, my son. Give in to the Darkness….it can save you.”

His father told him then, of Jolon Bae’din. Of how the Emperor had tested his disease on the man, the disease with no cure. Vader spoke of how Palpatine had goaded Bae’din, tempted him with the Dark Side. He had been a good man, in service to the Empire, when his Force-gift had been discovered. Palpatine had tried to turn him, but Bae’din had thought solely of his family...a wife and a daughter. But they tempted him, and, when that had no effect...they threatened him. Only when Jolon had fully immersed himself in the power of his hatred, had the Dark energy destroyed the virus….just as the Emperor had known it would. It was the only way to overcome it.

“And where is this Bae’din now?” Luke asked skeptically.

Vader remained unmoving.

“Palpatine killed him. Only two there are, the Master and the Apprentice. We had no need for a third.” He moved closer to Luke, voice even. “That is why the Emperor is uneasy with your presence, Luke. He is afraid of exactly what I offered to you. To rule the galaxy together, we would need to dispose of him.” Another step closer, like a stalking jungle cat. “Use your anger, Luke. Give in to the darkness and save yourself.”

Standing from the bed, Luke went to the window. He watched the galaxy pass by him, and tried to imagine just what it may feel like, to hold that much power. To own the status of the be-all and end-all for thousands of star systems. He swirled the thought around in his mind, turned it over, pondered it. It was not the first time he’d entertained it. He didn’t spend much time with it , not as he had before. Now, he’d worn the idea down smooth and flat, like a stone in a river. It didn’t disturb the waters of his mind like it had at first. He’d made peace with it, let his Force-self ebb and flow around it. He would not let it dictate the direction of his life.

“I have no wish to be some kind of Dark Sith Prince,” he countered to his father. He clasped his hands behind his back, belying a sense of calm that he did not fully have. Sighing deeply, he turned back to face Vader. “And if that is the only way to save myself….I regret I must decline. I will not free myself of this disease only to enslave millions of innocent lives as a tyrannical despot. Yours is a legacy I am ashamed of. I will not be heir to autocracy…..I’d rather die.”

Luke let out another soul-weary sigh as he attempted to control the feelings which threatened to escape him now. He closed his blue eyes for a moment and centered himself in the Force. Opening his eyes, he took a step closer to his Father, causing Vader to meet his steady gaze.

“I will not fight you, Father,” he said to the Dark Lord softly. “I did not come here to attempt to win some kind of battle of the wills. I will not turn, and I will not try to turn you.” He rubbed a weary hand against his forehead.

“What are you here for?” Vader asked, frustrated at the boy’s resistance. The tension roiled off him like ripples in a lake.

Luke gave a small, ironic laugh. “I had though I had made that clear. I….I just want to be with you….for whatever time I have left. No pretense, no corruption, no fighting.”

Luke wondered, not for the first time, if it was going to always be this way. One step forward, two back...on and on like some kind of twisted Chandrilian waltz. He could hear the music...could his father? Who would break step first? Wasn’t it enough for his father simply to have him here...why could he not give him the answers he wanted?

‘Stop’ he told himself, ‘stop or you will exhaust yourself...and you’ll only lose more time.’

His father seemed to sense this as well, and let his frustration go...calm waters again.

“In that case,” Vader’s voice broke the silence, “would you care to join me on the bridge?”

Luke merely nodded his assent, and they left his quarters together, side by side, Light and Darkness, hope and despair...and strode toward destiny.

Their journey to the bridge was surreal, to Luke’s mind. Walking next to his father, on an Imperial ship, as if it were the most natural thing in the universe. Conversations between the enlisted men slowed, then stopped as they passed, only to begin again, in hushed tones. It reminded Luke of the time he had spent on some planet or another while with the Rebellion...one all covered in green. There were fields and forests, grass and flowers, and a lake...a real lake, no small thing to a child of the sands. Leia had teased him about that, but with a smile on her face. She’d always had water and green on Alderaan. When the men whispered like that, it made him recall the sound of the wind in those trees, and brought a smile, unbidden, to his face. If his father noticed, he made no comment.

The vision of space greeted them as they entered the bridge, and the sight of it exhilarated Luke, as it always had. For a moment, he wished for nothing more than to be out flying in it, alone, with only the stars for company. It was a strong desire, and it seemed his father caught the sensation of it, for he looked over at Luke as he gazed wistfully out the view port. He sent his son a reassuring thought, not in words, but with the meaning of, I know...I share that passion. Luke felt his throat tighten, a constriction in his heart. His father had openly shared something with him, something personal and familial. He was moved.

Not sure where exactly to start from here, Luke decided to go with the simplest path...just talk.

“I started piloting young, you know. Flew all over in my spare time...which wasn’t much,” he admitted with chagrin. “But I became good...Aunt Beru said I reminded her of you,” he stole a sideways glance at his father...gauging his reaction. “She only said that when Uncle Owen wasn’t around though. He...never liked to speak of you, and I couldn’t understand why...well, until recently.”

“Beru was always much more sensible than Owen,” his father ventured slowly. “I am sure she did all she could to protect you as much as possible.” He now gave Luke a sidelong look. “And if you are truly my son, you certainly would have needed someone to keep a watchful eye on you.”

Luke smiled despite himself, and half turned to face his father. “I do remember one or two incidents which may have been close to ending my flying career...but I always seemed to be able to pull myself out somehow.” He turned back to the stars again. “I know now it was the Force, moving through me...that’s what Uncle Owen was afraid of.”

Again, the feeling of pride washed over Vader. The sheer possibility of power in this boy, the very potential he possessed was overwhelming. To know that Luke was a part of him, was his, was at once exhilarating and oddly humbling. The instinctive urge to tamp that pride down rose quickly, but was overshadowed by the rebellious need to kindle the feeling. Like a new-born ember, this pride sparked within him and refused to die, even when facing the frigid strength of the darkness in which it dwelt.

By now the men on the bridge had gone back to their business. Rebel or not, if Lord Vader was comfortable with Skywalker’s presence, then it was no concern of theirs. Only one stood nearby, waiting with infinite, well-honed patience. Admiral Piett heard everything and said nothing. Perhaps the revelation that Skywalker was Vader’s son was a surprise to him, and perhaps not. He gave away nothing in his visage. He quietly shifted his weight, his eyes grave.

“It was Uncle Owen who stopped me from going to the Academy...that year the droids came to us. I wonder what would have happened had he let me go,” Luke mused.

“You can easily surmise the outcome, Luke,” his father countered. “Your family would still be dead and you would have come to my attention under much different circumstances.”

“True,” Luke conceded, “and I doubt I would’ve had the strength or desire to resist you then...I was so young, and dreamt only of you.” He placed his back to the stars and faced his father fully. “I may have gone with you willingly.” He tilted his head to the side slightly, judging his possible conduct then with the clarity of hindsight. “I suppose, in my case, not attending the Academy was the best education I could have ever received.”

“ Yet the Force moves in mysterious ways, Luke. You are standing here with me in any case.” Vader paused a moment, carefully choosing his words. “It seems it is the will of the Force for you to be with me. It was unavoidable.”

Luke processed that a moment, before replying. “I’m not sure, Father. This is a special case...whether or not I had contracted this virus, the decision to be here was mine.” He took several steps away from Vader, fingers laced behind his back. “I could have stayed with the Rebellion, spent my remaining time with my friends.”

“Yet here you are.” Vader said simply.

“Yes,” Luke nodded somberly, “I am here.”

Both regarded the other a long moment, and Piett was certain there was as much unspoken conversation going on as there had been aloud. He watched them watch each other. The boy was slight and small, gentle and soft spoken. In short, he was not the very image of his father. Piett wondered what Skywalker's mother had looked like...did he resemble her? Even Piett, without the force, could feel the tension between them. It was palpable. He was not willing to lay bets as to just how this little family drama would end.

Luke broke his reverie. “Now that I am here, I suppose I should know exactly what I am authorized to do and where I am authorized to go.” He grinned slyly. “I would hate to cause any unintentional mishaps while I am with you...no innocent security breaches.” This was directed to his father with a small measure of humour.

Piett had been prepared for this, and the ship’s personnel had been alerted to Skywalker's clearance level. Inwardly, he was still nervous...if the Emperor found out that Skywalker was here, and also learned that Vader had kept the information from him... Piett shuddered. His wrath would be swift and unforgiving. Piett swallowed down his fear. He’d been assigned to Lord Vader, he’d risen through the ranks, put in his time and proven his loyalty. He would share his superiors fate, no matter the outcome.

“Admiral, you have the bridge,” Vader rumbled to him with authority. “I will show Captain Skywalker the ship.” Luke knit his eyebrows together at his fathers use of his Alliance title, but Vader ignored him and gestured for his son to follow him. Piett merely nodded to Vader, gave Luke a small bow, and strode over to the view port. Luke watched him go, and turned back to his father, pulling his dark Jedi robe closer to him. Space is cold, Ani...her voice broke through the Dark Lord's mind again, bringing uninvited memories back. This boy, this visual reminder of his dead past, was the catalyst that exhumed those buried remembrances. Like a highly polished mirror, Luke focused the small light his father radiated and reflected it back to him, illuminating the things he thought he’d forgotten, and plumbing the depths of his darkness with an incandescent shimmer.

They moved off together again, side by side, comfortable in the silence. His son turned to look at him, and gave him one of his bright smiles. Vader wondered, with a sense of foreboding, if he was entirely prepared to stand before that mirror.

Despite being utterly fatigued by the day, Luke was in a state of exuberance, albeit subdued. They’d gone over most of the ship, and talked of the merits of this engine or another, their personal preferences for long and short range starships, and a myriad of other trifling things which added up to a semblance of civilized conversation. Luke spoke of things from his childhood too, not in a vindictive way, merely the passing on of information, the sharing of a pleasant memory. His father, true to form, had not elaborated on anything Luke really wished to hear about, but he took what was given him with graciousness and gratitude. It was a wonder he was not standing in front of Palpatine, he reminded himself.

Now, back in his quarters, he keyed the codes in to the computer and began his search. Vader had seen fit to give him access to the computer in his room and the codes to several low-level files as well as HoloNet availability. He’d told his father he wished to learn all he could about the Bae’din, and though Vader had told him there was nothing else to learn, he’d not been dissuaded. There was no harm in looking anyway, was there? Maybe he’d unearth something useful in his fight against the virus. He refused to be a passive victim. The Dark Lord had relented at that proclamation...there was nothing he’d want more than for his son to eradicate this disease, become well again, stand next to him and claim all that was his by right.

The Imperial database was quite complete and thorough, and it didn’t take long for Luke to find information on Bae’din, his history of service, medical information, personal files...it was all there.

Jolon Bae’din had been born on Coruscant, raised in a middle class family, and excelled in school. Enlisting in the Imperial Academy, he studied hard and performed well, earning the respect of other students and his professors. After graduating, he was assigned to serve on Coruscant as a special envoy. It was back on his native planet that he met his wife, Mahira, a dancer with the Coruscanti Arts Theatre. She was by all accounts the opposite of her husband...free spirited, outspoken, full of fire and temperamental. Their daughter was born two years into their marriage, about the time Palpatine was taking notice of him. The rest Luke only knew from what his father had told him before. The records stopped before Bae’din’s fall to the Dark Side and death...and it appeared his wife met with some kind of accident shortly before her husband disappeared. The daughter became a ward of the Empire. It all had happened around the time Luke was two or three years old...it was odd for him to read about another’s life and realize that this drama was occurring whilst he was happily toddling around the homestead after Aunt Beru. He wondered where the girl was now...if she even remembered her parents at all.

He decided he wasn’t going to find his answers in the Imperial databases, so he went with a HoloNet search. It turned up the standard articles and mentions of Bae’din’s career, his marriage announcement, promotions and such...but no real information. He wondered if he would be able to find information about his mother lurking in the Imperial Database...but without even a name to start with...he was at a loss. His Father would have to provide that information. And Luke knew where those conversations had led before. Granted, he’d never directly asked his Father for her name, but given Vader’s reticence for speaking of his past, he doubted he’d be given such a precious piece of his history. Exhausted, Luke keyed off the HoloNet and decided to turn in for the day. Drifting off to sleep, he wondered how Leia was, what she was doing now. He fell asleep almost instantly, and dreamed no dreams.

Even cloaked and half-hidden, Mara Jade was still beautiful. Like the partly obscured statues in the Khayrin temples, she radiated a dark and mysterious allure. Striding past the watchful eyes of the Khayr priests, and out of the temple, she tried to focus her mind on her task at hand.

Pushing back the hood of her elaborately embroidered cloak, she paused in the gardens near the temple to collect her thoughts. The flowers were in full-bloom now, scarlet and white blossoms with a riot of deep, jewel-green leaves scattered throughout. They climbed the temple walls, wrapped around monuments and ruins...almost hid the very stone walls they embraced. Taking a few moments to organize her plan, she sat on a stone bench near a fountain. She needed to contact Palpatine immediately. She had news which would certainly please him.

Luke Skywalker was dying.

His most feared adversary and the cause of every single one of her last umpteen missions. She hated him. Hated being dragged from one end of the universe to the other in search of this untrained, aggravating, boy. One thing she did consider a perk, however, was the fact that she was now free to escape Vader as much as possible. The Emperor wished to avoid making his Second in Command suspicious. Apparently, Palpatine didn’t trust the Dark Lord so far as Skywalker was concerned. And so, here she was, on another fact-finding mission. So many of her errands in the past had been near misses. But this trip...this trip was different. She had learned that the Jedi-brat had contracted some type of disease, and a life-threatening one at that. This would please His Highness.

Mara pulled her hood back up….the skies were threatening rain, and headed back to her ship.

In her private quarters in the Rebel base...she’d lost count of how many she’d been in...Princess Leia sat contemplating star charts and contact lists. She was tired. Tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of losing a myriad of battles, physical and emotional. Not that she wanted to give up...that was the last thing on her mind. She’d just found it difficult to concentrate lately. It was hard to find her focus. She felt like a Corellian butterfly, trapped by glass, helplessly beating her ineffectual wings against an inescapable fate.

Her door chimed, and Han walked in. ‘Speaking of Corellians’, she thought dryly. He paused by the window which overlooked the shipyards and hangers, leaning up against the jamb. He was wearing his somber I’m-not-here-to-make-any-sarcastic-remarks face. He thumbed his blaster absent mindedly.

“How’re you holding up?” he asked her directly. Well, no need to dance around the subject.

“As well as I can,” Leia admitted. Sighing, she turned off her computer and leaned back in her chair. “I’m trying to concentrate on matters of State, resistance meetings, finding another base...anything to take my mind off Luke.”

“I can see that,” Han responded slowly. “Listen, I’m worried you’re working yourself too hard...you need to slow down, take a break. Why don’t you, and me, and Chewie take the Falcon and head off base for a few days. We’re close to a few resort-type places on a couple of out of the way planets. Hell, you can even bring 3PO if you want.”

She considered that for a moment, weighing pros and cons in her mind. A part of her wondered just how Han knew about those places, but she decided it was probably better not to ask. She’d get more than she bargained for with that story. She gave Han a small smile, the first he’d seen in days, and shook her head slowly.

“I’m sorry Han, I really am. I just...I can’t. I appreciate that more than you know. But there’s so much to do now...I’m afraid if I stop working I won’t be able to start again.” She paused and bit her lower lip. “I just wish I knew that Luke was alright.” Her voice cracked softly.

Han moved over to kneel in front of her, taking both of her hands in his.

“I know, I know,” he said softly. “I miss the kid too. But don’t forget this is what he wanted. He wanted to be with Vader...and you backed him up.” He held up his hands in a placating manner. “I’m not saying that you’re to blame or accusing you of anything...I’m just reminding you of the choices that were made.” He took her hands again and stroked the back of her wrist with his thumb. “It’s what he wanted, Leia. He’d have gone with or without anyone’s approval. I think you should know how much it meant to him to have you support him. It was the best thing you could have done for Luke.”

She gave him a watery smile. “Thanks, Han. I feel better for knowing that.”

“Well, you know me,” he quipped, pushing off his heels and standing up. “I’m always full of good advice.” He held out his hand to help her out of her chair.

Leia made a sour face at that remark, accepted his hand anyway, and retorted, “I’m not sure you should give up your day job, Solo. No one wants advice from a scoundrel.”

“Here we go again with that argument.” Han rolled his eyes and placed his hand on his chest in a mock gesture. “That hurts, Your Worship, really...it stings.”

She laughed outright at him, swatting his arm and walked out of her room. Halfway between her quarters and the command centre the first explosions sounded. By the time they’d reached Operation Control, half the hanger bays were on fire. The command centre was chaotic, men and women scrambling over each other and randomly strewn chairs, consoles flashing, alarms blaring.

One of the Generals looked up at them as they hurried over to his station. His face was grim.

“We need to evacuate immediately.”

“What is it?” Leia asked, her fear controlled “What’s happened?”

“It looks like a small squadron of Imperial troops, scanners show several larger ships orbiting out of range...it won’t be long before the big guns arrive. You need to leave, your Highness...now.”

“How’d they find us?” Han asked. The General merely shook his head. “It was only a matter of time, Captain. Please, get to your ship and leave.” He turned back to his console, barking orders to the men around him.

Han grabbed Leia’s arm and headed for the Falcon. She wondered, in that small part of her mind that wasn’t in panic mode, if Luke was on one of those ships. She sent out a call to him, through the Force...she’d heard him before, on Bespin...maybe he could hear her now. She was met with nothing but silence.

Sweeping past courtiers, Imperial guards, and persons-of-importance, Mara Jade cast her gaze neither left nor right. Her floor length, court-mandated, satin gown wisped along with her. While she wasn’t very happy wearing court dress, she did have to admit it suited her well. Palpatine had a penchant for Nubian and Alderaanian dress and hairstyles for his court women, and the deep blue gown became her. Corseted, sleeves draped, hair alternately braided and loose, Mara was the very picture of Nubian royalty. Several of the men bowed to her as she passed...she acknowledged them with a small nod of her head, red-gold curls swaying slightly. The guards parted as she neared the throne room and she strode past them, directly up to her Master and curtsied deeply.

Palpatine smiled, and although she could not see it under his hooded cloak, she sensed the evil delight he radiated. He was excited...he knew she had news for him. He motioned for her to rise.

As far back as she could remember, the Emperor had been there. She had no memory of her parents...and Palpatine had told her little of her past. She was an orphan, a ward of the State...luckier than most, he’d reminded her. Not all orphan children became personal spies for the Emperor. Not all orphaned children had a Force gift like she had. Not all were chosen...and by Palpatine himself. That was true, she’d conceded. But while he’d been a large part of her life, he certainly did not fulfill the role of Father. She sensed he knew more than he was telling her about her past, and it aggravated her in an absent sort of way. It tugged at her mind in off moments, down time, long space flights. She put it out of her head for the present. She was here for other things.

“You’re looking well, my little spy. I trust things went well with Grand Moff Ahern?”

He was teasing himself, she realized. She’d already sent back the report from her visit with Ahern and the little uprising he was trying to control. Mara had been sent there to help, although Ahern was more than capable of taking care of it himself. The Emperor was worried that the Grand Moff was trying to slip his leash, so he’d sent Mara to shame him back into place. Of course, the other reason she’d been sent was to follow up on a lead about Skywalker. Palpatine was delaying the news she had about the boy in some perverse build up of anticipation. She shivered inwardly...he did disgust her sometimes.

“Tell me, Jade, how was your journey to the Khayr system?” His voice was faux pleasantness. Honey over stones.

“It was very pleasant, Your Highness. The Khayr temples are beautiful and have a fascinating history.” Two could play his game, she decided. “The Khayr priests are mistrustful of non-natives...I was fortunate to gain entry to the temples at all.”

"That is true..." he countered, "but I knew they would not be able to resist your beauty. They have a weakness for beautiful things."

Mara made no movement. She was used to having her face complemented, her hair, her body. It was nothing new to her.

She arched an eyebrow and said simply, "Thank you, Master."

Palpatine nodded thoughtfully and tapped his fingers together slowly. “And what news have you brought to me, Jade?”

No more games...he was impatient after all. In her long travels, Mara had studied every scrap of information she was able to obtain about Skywalker. She knew where he was from, where he’d gone to school, his history with the Alliance...stang, she could probably even tell Palpatine what the boy ate for breakfast. It struck her as an interesting coincidence that Skywalker was an orphan too, like her. It didn’t make her feel any differently about him, it was just a fact. Did he know about his parents at all? What she didn’t understand was why the Emperor was so intent on finding him. Wasn’t Vader already on the trail? Why didn’t he trust his Second-in-Command? Was Vader hiding something?...these were the things she pondered on those long flights, alone in her ship. There were more layers here than veils on a slave-girl dancer.

“Master, I have spoken to one of my most reliable informants. I was told that Skywalker has gone missing from the Alliance. He is no longer with his friends.” She hesitated, gathering her breath. “I was informed, Master, that he has contracted an illness, a virus to be exact. It is without a cure...Skywalker is dying.”

He went still. Like those Khayrin statues in the garden, she thought. She could imagine him covered in the scarlet and white blossoms, so completely still he had become. She waited.

“And where is he now?” His voice was low, and she took a step forward in spite of herself.

“I am working on confirming a report, Master. But I was told,” this would be the proverbial icing on the cake, “I was told that he went willingly with Lord Vader. The Alliance set up some kind of transfer...Skywalker had requested it.”

Still no movement. “And the Alliance allowed him to leave?”

She nodded her head slowly, the sapphires in her circlet catching the dim lighting.

“Master...will you contact Lord Vader, to confirm this report? Or would you rather I investigate further?”

He waved his arm, breaking his granite stillness.

“No, I will deal with this myself. You’ve done well, Jade. Stay here, in court...I will have need of you soon.” He motioned for her to leave.

She hesitated. She wanted that final puzzle piece to fall into place.

“Master, may I ask you why you do not trust Lord Vader in this matter? Skywalker is just a boy.”

Palpatine rose slowly from his throne, and for a moment, his dark cloak melted into the blackness of space in the view port behind him. It was unnerving...he almost seemed to disappear. His voice came to her from where his body should be...a whisper in the expansive room.

“He is not just a boy, Jade. He is Vader’s son. I am not sure if Lord Vader’s feelings are clear on this matter. He was always weak where love was concerned." Mara was speechless. "Skywalker is stronger than his father...and I will turn him.” He descended the staircase slowly. “You have given me the greatest gift today, my little spy. Skywalker’s affection for his father will be his undoing. I will use it to turn him to the Dark Side.” He stopped in front of her, eyes glowing with maliciousness. “Now go, Jade. I will call for you soon.”

Mara finally found her voice. “Your Highness, I have a request to make of you.” She waited for his permission to continue. “I want to be included in this mission. If you are dealing with Lord Vader...let me go after Skywalker.”

Palpatine’s slow smile was all the answer she needed, and she bowed her head reverently. “Thank you, Master.”

Mara again curtsied deeply, rose solemnly, and left the throne room in a whispering of skirts. Her mind turned and turned with the revelations she’d just learned. Skywalker was Vader’s son! For a moment, a pang of jealousy pierced her. The orphan had found his father...something she would never be able to do. She would not wallow in self misery, she was determined. Excitement coursed through her body. Skywalker was in her sights...she would not fail her Master now.

His days were passing pleasantly enough. His time was spent divided between searching for a cure and mundane conversations with his Father. Some of the very best doctors were stationed on Vader’s ship, and Luke spent hours discussing the virus and alternative treatment options. His hope was wearing thin though, and his desire for information from his Father was threatening to overwhelm him.

Sometimes he walked the corridors alone, with his thoughts. He used the time to meditate and centre himself. Today, he was standing at a large view port located on the officer’s quarters level. It was usually very quiet and today was no different. Hands clasped behind his back, he was watching the stars go by. Some distant planet, glowing tawny amber in the blackness, brought unbidden memories of home to him. His throat tightened...thinking of home always reminded him of Ben and Han, of the droids and Leia. He hoped she was able to let him go...to move on.

He could sense his Father approaching him from some distance away. Luke remained unmoving.

Vader watched his son standing in the view port. Time was ticking away and they were no closer to any sort of resolution. Luke stood completely still...and though Vader knew his son could sense his presence, he made no movement. He was waiting for his father to join him. The Dark Lord waited a moment and took the boy in. It seemed that at every turn this boy brought back his past to him...wasn’t it just yesterday he stood like that, meditating in the lake country of Naboo, waiting for Padme to wake? The boy was so slight...like her. He was silently thankful that Luke at least resembled what Anakin had looked like. Having to face a child that looked like his long-dead wife would have been unbearable. He could feel Luke’s quiet despair...the boy wanted answers.

He moved up to stand next to his son, contemplating the stars. Luke exhaled deeply...had he been holding his breath? He hadn’t even realized it.

“Dr. Zsofi tells me that you’ve been discussing the virus with him.” Luke merely nodded in return, and Vader turned back to the stars. “I am pleased that you are pursuing a cure, Luke. Dr. Zsofi is a very capable, intelligent man. If there is a cure to be found, he will be the one to discover it.”

"He's been very kind, very helpful," Luke said thoughtfully. "In fact, everyone here has been...well, extremely respectful to me. Considering I'm a member of the Alliance, I find that rather refreshing."

"You may be a Rebel, Luke, but you are my heir, and the officers are aware of that. They know what will happen to any man who shows you disrespect. They already look to you as my second-in-command..in a manner of speaking." He looked over to his son. "They obey my every command without question. They know how important you are...to they themselves and to me." His father stopped speaking, letting the quiet surround them again.

“I’ve been doing research on Bae’din, as well.” Luke finally spoke. “He seems to have been a simple, ordinary man other than his Force gift...and he was unaware of it at that. But I wonder...what kind of accident did his wife have? She disappears from record rather abruptly.”

“With the Emperor, there are no accidents, Luke,” his Father said. “Her fate was certainly more kind than her husbands. Palpatine took care of her quickly. He used her as part of his threat tactics to turn Bae’din. Palpatine used the girl as well. He told Bae'din the child would be orphaned, sold, and worse. It worked...the very real possibility of losing a loved one makes people do strange things...” Vader let the sentence trail off, and Luke sensed that he had said more than he’d planned to...he wasn’t just speaking of Bae’din.

"And what happened to her...the girl?" Luke asked mildly.

"Palpatine took her. He recognized her Force potential and realized he could shape her to be whatever he wanted. She was raised at court, trained by Palpatine, taught languages and history, self-defense, the art of espionage, dancing, intruigue...and Sith techniques. In short, she became his personal little pet...his spy. She is the most dangerous woman at court. Palpatine uses her to gather information and take care of various and sundry problems that pop up, anything that needs a quick, quiet touch." He added with seriousness, "We are fortunate that she did not find you first."

Luke pondered that a moment. The Force was telling him something...he could not quite understand. It was like hearing whispers in a language you only partly speak. Something about that girl...she had a part to play in his future..one way or another.

"What is her name," he asked.

"Mara." His father pronounced. "Her name is Mara Jade." Vader said no more.

He was watching several fighters returning to the ship. From the view port they looked so small, like tiny grey-winged bees returning to the hive.

The tawny-amber planet was disappearing from view now, and Luke watched it go with a measure of regret, though he was not able to say why. Silence. Luke decided to seize the opening his Father had left. Calm, you must remain calm, he reminded himself. Standing back from the view port, he faced Vader fully.

“I’ve tried to do some research on you, as well, Father. I can’t find any records of Anakin Skywalker in any database, search engine, Imperial file...you simply don’t exist.”

“There is a very simple reason for that, Luke.”

His Father leaned menacingly toward him, using his height to emphasize his point. “It is because Anakin Skywalker never deserved to live. The best thing Kenobi ever did was leave him to burn on Mustafar. Anakin was a weak minded, blind fool. There was no need to keep records on such a disgrace of a man.”

Stung, Luke was momentarily speechless. Finding his voice, he said, “You speak as if you wish to erase every aspect of your past, Father.”

“I do...and I have. I will not tolerate hearing that man’s name again, Luke. I will not wallow in the shameful memories of the past. It is dead to me.”

His Father was angry, seething...and Luke was provoking him further. Vader backed up a step and swung around, walking away from his son. Luke caught up with him, matching his father’s long strides with two of his own.

“I am a part of that past, the very proof of its existence, would you deny me as well?” Pain was evident in Luke’s voice. “I live with your legacy every day, Father. If you will not acknowledge your past, that you were Anakin Skywalker, you leave me fatherless. What is there to stop you from killing me outright now, if there is no connection between us worth saving?”

Vader stopped abruptly, leveling a black-gloved finger at the boy.

“You are my son...no matter what form I take. The proof is in the very power you possess." A beat, conflicting emotions and words unspoken warred in him. Finally, "Luke, why can you not let go of the past?”

“Why can you not embrace it?” Luke countered. He was feeling weak now...this was too much. He needed to rest, to regain his calm. His knees gave a little, and he was in danger of collapsing. He reached out for his Father.

Vader responded instantly, steadying the boy. ‘Stang,’ he thought, ‘this has gone too far.’ They had reached the entrance to one of the officer’s lounges, and Vader helped Luke into one of the plush seats near the table. Luke smiled weakly at his father, sinking into the chair.

Luke opened his mouth to speak, when Admiral Piett strode into the lounge, face grave as usual.

“Forgive me, my Lord, but I have just received a transmission from one of the squadrons surveying in the Iskander system. A Rebel base has been discovered and is under attack as we speak. Many of the ships have been destroyed, but some Rebels were able to escape off-planet. On our current course, we should intercept them within ten minutes.” Piett paused, taking in the sight of Skywalker looking rather piqued in the chair. “Do you need the medic, sir?” he asked Luke.

“Admiral, see my son back to his quarters, send Dr. Zsofi to him, then join me on the bridge.” Vader commanded. Piett nodded crisply, and the Dark Lord strode away.

“Father...wait!” Luke called, but Vader was gone. He turned back to Piett. “Are they taking any prisoners?” he asked, though he knew standard Imperial protocol.

Piett’s mouth thinned grimly. “No sir, we are under no orders to take prisoners.”

Luke’s heart sank even further...and a memory came to him, after he‘d decided to leave the Alliance. He‘d been asking Leia what her next steps were in stirring up some more resistance groups.

“I’m going to the base in the Iskander system, Luke. There’s a few Rebel sympathizers in the area who may be willing to join our cause. And, some Alderaanians who were off planet when...well, who weren’t there, have settled in the system. It will do me good to see them.” Leia had smiled at him, a sad smile...she was remembering Alderaan.

And now she was in grave danger.

Waving off Piett, Luke struggled to rise and headed as briskly as he could toward the bridge.

The Falcon bucked and shook in her twisting escape through space. In the cockpit, Leia gripped her chair. They’d made it out of the base, to the Falcon, into the air, and out of orbit...right into a veritable sea of Imperial ships. ‘Out of the frying pan, into the fire’, she thought wryly. Well, if she had to be on any ship trying in vain to elude capture, she’d certainly rather be with Han. Chewie was next to him, co-piloting, and 3PO was next to her, offering odds and statistics. She grimaced as the Falcon took a hard turn, then dove planet-ward.

Imperial ships were all around, and lasers were blazing. Many Rebel star fighters gracefully rose and swerved with the Falcon, glancing quicksilvers against the deep black of space. And yet, with all that, Leia realized they were in a lot of trouble. The Rebel ships were systematically being destroyed...one by one. No prisoners, no bargaining chips...just outright slaughter.

As if to prove the universe had a sense of humour, a huge Star Destroyer loomed out of space in front of them. When had that arrived? An uneasy feeling settled over her, and she went eerily still, despite Han arguing with Chewie in front of her, despite the Falcon’s alarms sounding, despite 3PO’s annoyingly unhelpful advice. Han noticed it first, and stopped mid-insult, finger aimed squarely at Chewie’s fur-laden chest, to look at her. A mildly puzzled and concerned look came over his face.

“Hey, Leia. Are you OK?” he asked her.

She was staring up at that great hulk of a ship in front of them, mesmerized by it. She spoke as if in a trance to Han.

“Vader’s on that ship.”

He turned to look out the view port, to better see exactly what ship she was referencing. Swinging around to Chewie, he told him, “Take the controls,” and he was by her side, taking her hands. “Now listen, sweetheart...there are lots of Command ships. Vader could be half-way across the galaxy right now. Don’t make yourself all jittery.”

Still not taking her eyes off the Star Destroyer, Leia answered slowly, “No, Han...I...I can feel it. Almost as if...something is whispering in my mind. I know he’s on that ship,” she stated firmly. Slowly, she turned to face him, eyes glazed over with a mixture of horror and hope. “And if Vader is on that Star Destroyer...that means Luke is there too!”

Dropping his hands, she crept up into the pilots seat. Chewie growled a question to Han, who could only shake his head from side to side, utterly baffled. She tried to reach out to him...could she sense him? All she could get was a barrage of noise and confusion...explosions, screams, the sensation of soaring...and, somewhere in the centre of that bedlam, a very Dark presence. Vader. She closed her eyes, concentrating harder...there...wasn’t that a glimmer of light near him? It was so weak...was that Luke? Why was his light so dim?...She called out to him, sent a mental cry so strong that he’d have no choice but to hear her.


“Leia...I think we should...” She waved him off.

More silence.

A mournful cry from Chewie.

Then, the unexpected...the Falcon was caught in the unmistakable pull of the tractor beam...just as Leia felt Luke’s light go out.

By the time Vader reached the bridge, a squadron of his fighters had joined the melee in space. He watched impassively as Rebel and Imperial ships alike were destroyed. It was just as well he’d sent Luke back to his quarters...this would only distress the boy.

A voice, one belonging to a young Captain on his ship, broke his reverie. “My Lord, we’ve just received word from the ground troops which infiltrated the base. They are trying to access the information systems there and report that the base is now secure. Any Rebels left alive have made it off-planet and our men are pursuing them now...as you see.”

Vader merely nodded, watching the conflict outside. A surge of longing swept over him, like it had Luke when he’d first been on the bridge. The desire to be flying with them...the sheer need to be behind the controls of a sleek ship. To spin and turn in space, ride the edge of a star or out-manuvere an enemy...diving, turning, soaring...heady memories assaulted him. He grapsed those memories with his mind...grapsed them and wrung the joy out of them. He mentally flung them into a deep, vast pit...he never wanted them to resurface again. Those days were behind him...he rarely flew now. More’s the pity...he thought to himself.

Suddenly, a familiar ship came into focus. The Falcon! That aggravating pirate Solo had actually made it off-base. Well, this would be the end of him, and good riddance. Jabba would be disappointed, of course, not to have achieved vengeance himself...but beggars could not be choosers, could they? The little ship flashed and weaved. He was a damn good pilot, even without the Force...that was something Vader had to concede. The Falcon was fluid, almost graceful in her elusion of the Imperial ships. No wonder he’d never been caught...Solo and his ship seemed almost one.

Lost in his thoughts, he almost did not notice Luke join him at the view port. The boy was agitated, tired,...weak.

“I believe I ordered you back to your quarters, Luke. You should not be here,” Vader growled.

“Father...these are my friends. Surely you don’t believe I would abandon them so easily? I may be your son, but I am still a Rebel...and still a Jedi.” He gestured to the fighting, “This is slaughter, and you know it. It isn’t right.”

"This is the result of what happens to traitors who betray their Emperor. This is justice, " Vader responded firmly.

"It isn't justice, it's cold-blooded murder. You haven't even given them the chance to surrender!" Luke's outrage was palpable.

“Luke, I have no desire to argue politics with you now. You need rest, and I need to oversee this operation.” The Dark Lord lowered his voice to a rasped purr. “Now go back to your quarters before I have you dragged back.”

But Luke was not listening. He was rapt with attention, staring out at the ships which roared past the view port. Closing his eyes, he reached out with the Force...yes, he could hear her! It was Leia. Opening them again, he fought a moment of vertigo. His Father, noticing this, reached out a black-clad hand to steady his elbow. But Luke shrugged him off.

“Father, listen...please. Leia’s out there...Leia! Tell them to stop...tell them to stop!” He was frantic now, blue eyes desperately pleading with his Father. “They’ll kill her!”

Vader was unmoved...black marble as still as a monument.

“This is war, son. People die.” I will even learn to stop people from dying...the memory came so clear to him then, he took a step back from Luke, trying to empty his mind. But Luke would not give up, faltering toward his Father again. “Please, Father. I am begging you...save her...save her.”

I won't let you die, Padme!...more univited memories flooded his mind. Her dark eyes, so calming after his nightmares. She would die in childbirth...he was certain. Die bearing this boy that stood begging before him now. Begging for the life of that Princess...ahh, yes, the Princess Organa. How many times had she crossed Vader's mind since that day in the turbolift? The Force was trying to say something to him, something important...an orphan, raised in politics...so like Padme...So. Like. Padme.

And suddenly, like a bolt of Force-lightning...he was struck by an epiphany. What had Luke said? 'She's the closest thing to family I have...' Perhaps that liar Kenobi had been keeping other things from him as well. Hadn't he himself told Padme he thought the child she carried was a daughter? Small wonder the Princess and his son could hear each other so well through the Force. Small wonder she reminded him so of Padme...she was her very mother all over again.

Vader looked down at his son...his light was fading, little by little, and this exchange was making him grow more dim. It was like watching the twin suns of Tatooine set, he mused...and seeing the blue-tinged moon take over. His son’s light was fading, and twilight was setting in. Looking to the battle again, he made a choice. He had already crossed the line of treason...what difference would one more step make?

“Admiral Piett!” he roared. “I want the Falcon brought safely here. Get me prisoners!”

“Yes, milord,” Piett answered, going back to the officers present and barking quick, successive orders.

Luke whispered a broken, “thank you, Father,” and went quiet. His vision was getting fuzzy...tunneling in from the outside and turning black. There was a rush in his ears, like the pounding surf of some distant ocean. A warmth crept over him...and he felt his knees give way.

Vader was able to turn back to the view port in time to catch Luke as he fell.

Recognizing your ignorance is the first step toward wisdom. Mara realized this with no small measure of self-chiding as she readied her ship. She should have known...really, it was so obvious to her now. Well, you never see anything so clearly as with hindsight. It had surprised her at first to hear the tenacity at which Vader was pursuing Skywalker. He was a Jedi, to be sure...but an untrained one at that. She could probably best the boy using only one hand. Anyway, Skywalker was a member of the Alliance, so why pursue him so adamantly? There were other Force-sensitive men and women who lived as law-abiding citizens of the Empire. They would be easy to train and obedient to Palpatine. If another Sith Lord was what he wanted, or, she thought, hackles rising, if the Emperor wanted another spy...well, then, one would be simply obtained enough. Why Skywalker? Why this aggravating, traitorous, young Rebel upstart?

Now she knew...now that final puzzle piece had fallen into place. They pursued him not out of any sense of some kind of a challenge,...not out of a misplace vengeance against the fledgling Rebel Alliance...but rather as an attempt to recognize the heir-apparent to the Empire. To keep the bloodline of the Darkness pure. To crown a new prince.

At least...for Vader. The Emperor had set his own plans in motion the moment he learned the name of the boy. He had Mara track him down, learn every scrap of information about him...seek him out. She had orders to bring the boy to Palpatine using whatever means necessary other than killing him. What dark intentions he had for Skywalker, Mara never learned...though she had her ideas. What made her uneasy was the underhanded way Palpatine was dealing with his second-in-command. Vader had always been loyal to his Master in all things...save this. It seemed that he may have had good reason to be wary of Vader. The disquieting thought crossed her mind, as she made her final adjustments before take-off, that she didn’t really know Palpatine at all. And if he could so easily replace Vader...then she was on even less stable ground. Would he dismiss her so quickly as he seemed to be the Dark Lord? Did he already have someone in the wings...better, quicker, more intelligent...more stealthy? Wasn’t she like a daughter to him?


Never his child.

He was not her father.

Shaking her head, she tried to clear her mind. Just because that brat Skywalker had discovered his true lineage, just because the boy had found his father...well, it was not an excuse for her to pin the same label on Palpatine. He’d never treated her like family and she had never thought of him as such. Mara realized that the Emperor was withholding things about her past. He knew things that he would not tell her...and so did Vader.

She thought it ironic that she and Skywalker had probably, at one time or another, felt the same despair, desired the same truths, longed for the same information. Again, that pang of jealousy struck her...to be able to know something about her parents would be the greatest gift Palpatine could ever give her.

He never would.

So how strong were her ties to him now? Were they as strong as Corellian steel? Or ephemeral...tenuous links that were could be cut...as if they were severed by the brilliant glow of a lightsabre blade? Time would tell, she decided...time would tell.

The Emperor was ready now. His ship prepared and crew set to leave. Mara fired up her ship and settled in behind his craft. Hers was a specially designed starship...there was not another like it in the universe. Palpatine had it commissioned solely for her. She glowed with pride whenever she piloted it. It was sleek, and silver, fast and dangerous. It fit her like a glove. She tried to turn her thoughts to the journey at hand...to the task ahead of her.

Reports had come in earlier that Vader’s ship had engaged some Rebel scum who had managed to escape the base attack of Iskander. Reports also said Vader had taken prisoners...and Mara knew the Emperor was expecting a very good reason for this move. He had ordered even high-ranking members of the Alliance destroyed. So why did he capture these traitors? And what were his plans with Skywalker?

Vader was treading treacherous waters. Skywalker was dying, and like a pinned butterfly there was no escape for him, from the disease nor from Palpatine. The Emperor would have his revenge...one way or another. She gunned her ship faster, punched in her co-ordinates, and watched the stars melt together as light speed pulled her toward destiny.

Seeing his son collapse may have been one of the most horrifying moments in the life of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. Even considering the skirmishes, petty fights, all out wars, personal vendettas, and all other acts of violence he’d ever witnessed or been party to...nothing sickened him as much as those few bleak seconds of time. Strangely, part of Vader seemed to be detached from the whole disturbing event. He was able to observe exactly what was happening with discerning vision. The other part of him, the father part, he realized...was terrified for his child. It struck him with no small measure of realistic finality that he could lose Luke. His son could very well die in his arms at that moment...without knowing anything. Without having heard about his father’s past, learned about his mother...been told he had a sister.

Vader lifted an unconscious Luke into his arms with an effortless grace, and Piett, watching, was moved in way he could not name by the terrible beauty it evoked. Vader seemed to him the very vision of a dark angel of death, bearing his son’s soul to whatever lay beyond. The Dark Lord strode past him and without a word Piett fell into step next to him.

“Send Dr. Zsofi to Luke’s quarters, Piett, and have the Princess Organa separated out from the other Rebels in the Millennium Falcon. I want to speak with her alone.”

Piett nodded briskly as he struggled to keep step with Vader. Things were moving very swiftly and he was determined to not be overcome by the chaos.

Vader continued, “I also want you to run a blood comparison between the Princess and Luke. You have access to his medical files, Piett, and the Imperial Senatorial Database should have her complete medical profile available as well. If you are unable to obtain her information, take a sample from her when she comes onboard. I do not want her harmed.”

Piett swallowed down a surprised comment...just how many offspring did Vader have? Instead, he merely said, “As you wish, my Lord,” and disappeared down a side corridor to execute his master’s commands.

Vader continued on to Luke’s rooms, trying to focus on staying calm...for his son’s sake. A moment of nostalgic regret hit him, as he realized this was the first time he’d ever held his son. He should have been there when Luke was a baby, new to the universe, small and innocent. He could have held him then, like this...just a tiny miniature version of himself. Luke would have fit so perfectly in his arms then. Not that the boy weighed anything now, he chided himself...he was so slight, like Padme. Another memory flashed into his mind...he was holding his mother like so, cradling her after he’d found her being held captive by the Sand People...dying in his arms, like his son was now. He held Luke closer to him, willing his strength into the boy. Would he turn his anger on the Empire if his son died, like he did on the Tusken Raiders all those years ago? Would the black rage take him over completely then? If Luke died, he was unsure what he would have to live for anymore...the child affected him that much. As unable as Vader had been to admit it to anyone, not to himself...and certainly not to Luke, he loved the boy. He would never be able to return to dark tyrant he had been before he knew about his son. Luke had changed him in ways he may never even know.

Reaching Luke’s room, he placed him gently on the bed. The doctor was already waiting for him, but Vader stopped him before he could even lay a hand on him.

“Dr. Zsofi, I want you to verify the results of some medical tests I have had Admiral Piett run. They should be ready momentarily.”

The tall man acquiesced with dignity, his graying hair silvery in the starlight. He moved to the computer terminal and contacted Piett. The medical data had been easily obtained, and Piett was a precise, quick worker. He sent the findings over to Dr. Zsofi, who scanned them quickly, nodding to himself as he perused the information.

“Well, Doctor?” Vader asked lowly, “What do the results tell you?”

The doctor looked up at Vader, and slowly stood from the terminal. He gestured unemotionally to the screen and stated simply, “My Lord, you have a daughter...Luke has a twin sister.”

The Dark Lord said nothing. A long moment passed between the two men, and Vader turned away first, looking down to his son, who was stirring on the bed. Dr. Zsofi made a small crisp bow, and left the room. He was a clever man, aware of when his services were no longer needed.

What had Padme said to him, once? Something about pain and joy. He’d been so desolate for one reason or another, and she’d told him...what was it? Ah, yes..he could remember now. ‘Find a place where there is joy, and the joy will burn out the pain, Anakin.’ He’d taken her advice, and found his joy in her. She was his happiness, and with her he thought all his pain would disappear. But that love had only caused him pain. When he’d found Luke, he had believed he found joy again, in a way. Now he had another reason for joy, with Leia. But once again, destiny seemed to have a cruel sense of humour where he was concerned, and Luke’s light was almost gone now. His joy was leaving him again.

Piett entered the room, and informed Vader that the prisoners were secure, and that the Princess was in a holding room.

“And how is she?” Vader asked, his gaze never leaving his son.

“She is extremely agitated, my Lord, and very vocal about it.”

“Just like her mother,” Vader conceded, “I would not expect anything else.” He turned to Piett, and said gravely, “Stay with Skywalker, Admiral. I will go and speak with the Princess now. You will notify immediately of any change in his condition.” It should have sounded like a threat, but was instead a sort of plea, an almost plaintive request.

“Yes, my Lord. I will stay with him.”

Piett was part of the family drama now, whether he like it or not.

One last look at Luke, and Vader left the room, dark cloak billowing. Time to face his daughter.

In the small holding room, Leia Organa had lost her control. After the Falcon was brought on-board the Executor, she’d been separated from Han and Chewie. Even 3PO was taken away from her. She’d asked over and over again where Luke was. No one answered, of course. She was taken to the room in which she now sat. Irate, she’d demanded to see Vader. Instead, a man she knew well entered the room, and greeted her. A young Imperial Officer...Leia had spoken to him every so often. He was occasionally at Senate sessions, in and around the Imperial Complex on Coruscant. What had he said his name was? She searched her memory. Captain Janinn. She sensed something different in his tone. The steel, sure condescension had left his voice and a gentleness had crept into his speech. It unnerved her, and she was instantly suspicious. She rounded on him.

“Where is Luke?” she demanded, “What have you done with him? I can’t sense him anymore...what has Vader done?” She was pacing, back and forth in the narrow room. “I want to see him. I want to see him now!” Janinn was unsure who she meant, and raised his hands in a placating manner.

“Your Highness, please...calm down. Lord Vader asked specifically to see you, alone. Your friends are perfectly safe.”

Leia gave a snort of derision...she didn’t believe him.

“Then where is he. I must speak to him now!”

She stopped her tirade, aware that Janinn was unmoved. The calm in the centre of the storm.

“Please,” she whispered brokenly, “I have to know where Luke is.”

The young Captain did not need to answer the question. Leia froze in place as a movement outside the room caught her eye. In spite of her demands, in spite of her need for answers, the sight of Darth Vader striding purposefully into the room chilled her to her very core. She could sense Vader’s darkness...could feel the fear of her friends on the Executor...but where was Luke? His light was faint but unmistakable. She would be brave for his sake.

Janinn left the room after Vader walked in. For a moment, the two stood staring at each other. As prepared as he had tried to make himself, Vader was in no way ready to look into her face. She could not have resembled Padme more. He was still unable to grasp the fact that she’d been under his nose all these years. He’d met her countless times, spoken to her at countless functions, challenged her in Senatorial debates, argued with her, demeaned her, lied to her...and had always respected her. He had never been able to name a reason for it. Vader had just assumed it was because she was a strong leader, an extremely intelligent young woman with a mind of her own and a single-minded dedication to her people. She was smart, and savvy, loyal and sly. How had he never seen the resemblance? That thought came to him, the one he’d had in the hallway just a short time ago, while watching Luke at the view port. Having to face a child that looked like his long-dead wife would have been unbearable. Yet here she stood before him, unaware of her heritage and thinking of nothing but Luke.

She narrowed her eyes and prepared to say something acid with that barbed tongue of hers...something she’d gotten better at ever since meeting that scoundrel Solo, he thought absently. But he cut her off before she could even begin.

“Princess, I apologize for the way you’ve been received on-board the ship, but I assure you it was necessary. We do not have much time. Tell me, Princess, do you remember your mother...your real mother?”

She was so taken aback, she opened and shut her mouth twice over before lifting her chin defiantly.

“You have no right to ask me such impertinent questions, my Lord. My birth parents have nothing to do with Luke. I demand you take me to him at once.”

This statement was mildly amusing to him, in the way that Padme’s frustrated outbursts would sometimes amuse him. He held up a black-gloved hand to stop her.

“On the contrary, Princess, it has everything to do with Luke. It has everything to do with you. It is true, is it not, that you and Luke have the ability to hear each other, through the Force? That you speak to him, contact him with the Force. Sometimes, it seems that you know what is going to happen before it does, is that correct, your Highness? Did you ever stop to consider why that is?”

He was overwhelming her with his questions, and she was shaking her head in frustration.

"The Force runs strong in my family, Princess."

Again, she could think of nothing to say, no defensive cynic remark to make. She simply wanted Luke.

“Come with me, Leia. I will take you to see Skywalker.”

He turned and left the room, door open. Leia blinked in surprise and shock, but recovered quickly. She had to move fast to catch up with him, his strides were so long. He said nothing to her as they wound through corridors and past Imperial officers. She felt like she had entered some sort of strange dream...and everyone in it with her knew exactly what was going on, but she was absolutely clueless. What was going on?

She didn’t have to wait long. Before she knew it, Vader had stopped her outside a dimly lit room.

“Your Highness...Leia, I have a request to make of you...an order, if need be. Do you understand?” His voice was nothing if not serious, and it sobered her. She nodded in agreement. “Good. You must be absolutely calm. Luke’s life depends on it.”

She followed him into the room, and gasped loudly in the silent room. A sharp look from Vader silenced her, and she went immediately to Luke’s side. He was so pale! But at least he was awake, he hadn‘t succumbed completely to unconsciousness. Luke smiled weakly when he saw her. She pulled the chair near his bed closer and sat down, taking his hand in hers. Unnoticed until now, the tall figure of Admiral Piett slipped out of the shadows. He'd been watching over Luke. Piett gave Leia a small bow and silently left the room. Before she could speak, Luke was looking to Vader, raising his other hand toward his father. The Dark Lord came over instantly and took it, small pale hand engulfed in his massive black gloves, and sank down on the opposite side of Luke’s bed. Leia was touched by the obvious tenderness in that gesture, and unbidden tears came to her eyes.

“It is time for both of you to know about your past. You are more connected than you could ever realize.” Vader looked at Leia now, and addressed her. “I want you to know that what I am about to tell you is the truth. You may not want to believe me, and you may deny what you hear...but if you search your feelings you will know it to be true.”

The Dark Lord paused, taking in his two children, one weak and one strong, both trembling before him. He was losing Luke, and he would never truly have Leia, even if she accepted her heritage...but at least he could give them this gift. To learn about their past, to be proud of their lineage and accept their legacy. And maybe, somehow, they could still defeat Palpatine. But now was not the time for such thoughts. Now was only for them...together, as a family.

He would not waste any more time. He forged ahead.

“A long time ago, a young boy...a slave...lived on Tatooine. One day, a girl came into his life and changed his life forever...changed the course of the universe forever. She was dark and beautiful, as beautiful as an angel. She was a Queen, from Naboo.” Vader paused, Luke and Leia were rapt with listening, waiting with bated breath for his next sentence. “Her name was Padme Amidala...and she was your mother.”

Are you looking into the abyss? For be assured, the abyss is peering into you. That was one of the first lessons she had learned about Sith techniques. While never fully trained as a Sith, (too risky, Palpatine had thought), Mara had some meager training in the craft. She had never been the type to feel the darkness completely...not one to immerse herself in anger out of anger’s sake. She felt all beings had the potential for good and evil in them somewhere...even Lord Vader, she mused. Surely his love for Skywalker proved he was capable of some pureness of heart. For certain, Vader was power and strength, steeped in darkness and dwelling in the blackness of his chosen path. But the Emperor...he was the blackness itself. The darkness lived in him, saturated every pore of his being and left no room for any spark of light. Vader wore the mask, while Palpatine embodied.

What did that make her? She had been raised by the Emperor...a ward of the State. But that was not her choice. She had been trained by the best instructors in all manner of things...but again, it was not of her choosing. She was, at best, the trained little show gualama, trotted out to perform her tricks before an eager to be entertained master. An interesting dichotomy...she loved her life...didn’t she? Mara tried, in that long flight toward the Executor, to rationalize in her mind exactly what it was she was attempting to prove. She felt an overwhelming need to make some sort of point to Palpatine...and Skywalker was her means to do it. What this would ultimately accomplish, she was unsure of. Perhaps it would show him she was no longer a child...maybe she was looking for just a smidgen of actual real respect from the man. Sadly, she thought, it was possible that she was placing him in that father role...and wanted to do something to make him proud.

Doubt filled her mind, not for the first time...and Mara absently chewed on her lower lip as she read the latest report come in from the Executor. Vader’s seemingly about turn, his act of treason, made her question her loyalties to Palpatine. If his second-in-command, a man who could instill terror into the entire universe, a man who had almost complete and exacting power over all sentient beings, a man who could have anything he wanted...if that man, that inhuman being know as Darth Vader, was now ready to risk everything for the sake of a boy...well, that said something for the Light side of the Force, didn’t it? Was she destined to brood unendingly... a satiric, sharp-tongued, un-trusting woman alone forever? Or would this act of bringing Skywalker to her Master raise her in his eyes? Would she be granted what she wanted...access to her past?

Perhaps the information she’d always longed for would be given to her. She would learn about her parents...like Skywalker had surely learnt about his. Mara would have her heritage back, her legacy would be hers to claim. Palpatine may tell her the name of her father, or what her mother looked like. Would he grant her that? Would he give her back her history? Or, dare she think it...some kind of a normal life?

She cursed her indecisions. Never in her life had she been so conflicted. She would have never second-guessed her Master had Vader not committed treason. The seed of doubt had perhaps always been there, but Vader’s act of turning away from Palpatine...his severing of his ties with the Emperor...these things had watered that seed, awakened it from its deep slumber, and now doubt grew and blossomed, surged forth over those still marble-stone, concrete beliefs she’d been raised on. The vines of this doubt wrapped around the pillars of her loyalty, and worked its way into the rock with an even, steady sense of purpose. Scarlet and white flowers were beginning to bud, she thought, and the marble was cracking. There was only one thing to do. Trust in the Force. Closing her green eyes, Mara drifted off to sleep. And in her dreams, her mother danced.

In his private ship, Emperor Palpatine exuded pure hate. One of the teachings he’d learned on Naboo came back to him. Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding. This saying had always aggravated him, though he’d kept his thoughts to himself. One day, he’d promised himself long ago, one day peace will be kept only by the understanding of what the Force can do...an iron fist will rule this galaxy and I will be at the helm.

Well, now he was. He steeped his fingers together in thought. The better part of his life had been spent searching for the perfect apprentice. Years ago, with Anakin, he’d thought he had found him. But Vader was unable to surrender completely to the Dark Side. Some little light had survived inside the black shell that encased him. His reaction to his son proved that. What Palpatine needed was the boy. Vader had power, but his son had more. Anakin had had potential, young Skywalker had better. The Force instilled Vader, but it was boundless in Luke. Could he be turned?

Anakin’s downfall had been his blinding love for Padme, his inability to see anything beyond his own selfish need to hold desperately on to her. His son was very similar...a more brilliant version of his father. It would have been a misnomer to call him the very shadow of Anakin, as the boy had less darkness in him. But Luke’s loyalty and commitment to his friends, and especially, his love for his father could be used against him. The sins of the father...the Emperor mused.

What he needed was an apprentice with the power and strength of a Skywalker that he could shape from a young age. It was true he’d had Jade...but, of course, she was merely female, and therefore less useful. She had her advantages, certainly; her beauty could allow her to be involved in listening to conversations men thought her too insipid to understand, her slightness and lithe body spoke of a fragility she did not possess. Jade could easily fool many. But she was still not capable of inspiring an awe of any brute strength. She was unable to instill terror, control millions with any dark, brooding look. Had Palpatine more insight or less prejudice, he may have been able to realize her potential. Sometimes power could be handed to a woman with fiery looks and a heart of ice. Seduction was a powerful tool.

Perhaps...perhaps it was possible to gain that apprentice. Palpatine did realize that power of seduction, to a point. He could use Jade as a trump card. Skywalker was a man, after all. His father had not been able to resist Padme...a strong-willed, beautiful girl. His son could be susceptible to the same...a strong-willed beautiful spy. It was a probability that the boy could be tempted by an irresistible offer. To rule at his side as Lord of the Sith with Mara Jade as his consort.

Then...then it would be possible to have what he most desired. A child of his own, a boy to raise and corrupt. He could seize the power that was granted so freely to the Skywalker family. Yes, a child with the blood of the Chosen One in his veins...his to turn into the greatest Sith Lord the universe had ever known.

It would be tricky convincing Jade...but she was his little pet, loyal to him completely. She would do what she was told.

But the boy was dying. From a disease the Emperor himself had created. If Skywalker died...there would be no apprentice, no dark alliance with Jade...no Sith Prince for him to raise.

Well...the Emperor mused...a cure would have to miraculously appear...and soon.

Leia was in shock. Tightening her grip on Luke’s hand, she inhaled deeply. The feeling that she may pass out overtook her, and she exhaled slowly. She closed her eyes...and willed herself to find her balance. In her mind...she was on Alderaan again...somewhere in the mountains, near one of the lakes. The only sound the wind, the birds...her mother calling her. Not her real mother, but her mother all the same. Her happiest times had been spent on her native planet...but now it was gone. A frown overtook her delicate features, she moved her thoughts away from that day. Back to the mountains, then. Her mother calling her, Leia...Leia...

“Leia,” a voice, not her mothers, calling her name. “Leia, hey, come back.”

Luke’s voice. He was squeezing her hand. She slowly opened her eyes...and looked into the face of her brother. The threat to pass out again. Inhale one, exhale two, inhale one, exhale two...over and over until she could focus on Luke and really see him.

Vader had stood, and was at the windows now. He faced them, still, motionless. How long had he known? This was certainly news to Luke, but obviously their father...she almost choked on the word...their father had known for some time. A memory came to her then, of leaving Luke with Vader, speaking to him in her mind. That ridiculous thought that the Dark Lord could hear her, that he was really seeing her for the first time...maybe he’d known since then. She felt, and she knew Luke felt it too, like she had come home, at last.

It was strange...she’d always wanted a sibling, begged for a brother or sister. Then her adopted mother had died young and her father had never remarried. She was the Heiress Presumptive...the Princess Royal and he would not take that away from her. Well, now she had a brother. Although, there had been times in her childhood when she’d felt she wasn’t alone. Somewhere, she’d imagined, she had a brother or sister, waiting to be discovered, like a little lost treasure. When she had met Luke, the connection they shared as only children, as orphans...had strengthened over time and they had become a sort of family unto themselves. They had already played at being siblings...now they could own it.

Vader spoke for the first time in many moments.

“If you wish, Your Highness,” fitting he thought, that she had at least retained her birthright of nobility...although he could not picture Luke as a royal...always the farm boy, like himself, “you may view the results of the diagnostics on the view screen just there. All the proof you could want is available to you.”

She shook her head slowly, looking to Luke, and back to Vader.

“No,” she whispered brokenly, “I don’t need to see it. I know what you say is true.”

For Luke’s part, he had never been happier. It sounded unbelievable, given his current state of health, but being there, at that moment, surrounded by not one but two family members...was pure euphoria to him. And now he felt like he really knew his mother...and he could see her embodiment next to him in Leia. As he mused over what he’d heard, a pang of sadness struck him...his parents had been a pair of star-crossed dreamers...fated to share a love so deep that it would forever keep them apart. Luke was humbled to realized he and his sister were a result of one of the greatest love affairs the universe had never known. How much pain had they both suffered? Enough, he was aware, to bring them all to this moment now. The Force moved in mysterious ways indeed.

He needed to save his strength, he knew. His emotions threatened to overtake him, running recklessly throughout him, one moment elated, the next deep in sorrow. He struggled to maintain his grasp on the Force and find his centre. He was unsure what would happen next...what his Father would do...but he felt something was coming...something was about to happen.

It was at that moment Luke sensed the agitated presence of Admiral Piett hurrying back toward his room. Vader caught it, of course, and a moment of pride surged through him as he realized Leia could feel it as well. A moment or two after her brother, certainly, but she could sense him. Vader watched the epiphany of it pass over her beautiful face. She could feel the Force. Leia looked up to him, and for an instant it was Padme who gazed up to him, dark luminous eyes shining with unshed tears. How had he lived so long without her?

Piett entered with a rushed apology. “My Lord, may I speak with you a moment?”

Vader left the room immediately with Piett, leaving Luke and Leia to themselves, each taking comfort in the presence of the other.

“My Lord, I feel we may be in some danger. Our sensors have picked up several ships approaching, which we thought at first were remnants of the Rebel base survivors. But our scouts have sent back word that it is a court retinue...and the Emperor’s personal ship.” Piett swallowed hard, more bad news. “He brings a transport ship that is without doubt full of Stormtroopers...and Mara Jade is en route as well.” He looked up to Vader for the first time, meeting his eyes. “Is it time, my Lord?”

A silence. Just respirator and Piett’s dark worries. Then, “It is time, Piett. Alert all officers to standby, but do nothing until they hear from me. Go to the captured Rebels and inform them of the situation. Tell them this may be their chance to rid the universe of Palpatine once and for all. Find General Solo, he will be a valuable asset. And prepare the reception hall. I will meet the Emperor myself.” He turned to re-enter Skywalker’s quarters, but the Admiral stopped him.

“My Lord, what about your children?” There was very deep concern there that was unexpectedly touching.

A pause...then the simple truth. No bravado, no bragging...

“They are Skywalkers’. They will meet their destiny with honour and grace." Vader turned back to Piett. "They have better than I had. They have the truth...something that I was denied.” His fists clenched and even Piett could feel the dark power flowing from him. “One thing is certain...Palpatine will not have them. He has taken enough from me...and I will not allow him to corrupt my children.” Clench, unclench... “His reign is about to come to an end.”

Leaving Skywalker’s quarters, Admiral Piett was deep in thought. Twins...Vader had twins. He was perhaps more shocked at the revelation that the Princess Organa was a child of the Dark Lord than Luke. Piett was not familiar with the boy, but the Senator from Alderaan, he knew well. He’d followed her career, of course, as a matter of security. And while she was a traitor and a Rebel, he’d always had a grudging admiration for her. She was a skilled orator, confident, dedicated, passionate about her people and values, and nothing if not determined. Some of those traits, Piett realized, had come from her father.

Vader may have been ruthless, exacting, impatient...but he was also not without mercy. Many never would know of the various beneficial and, dare he think it?...kind things Vader had done. He still retained his sense of justice. In that sense, his children were reflections of him. That exacting standard of fair-play and justice, acknowledgment of a job well done, and a harmonious work environment was why the morale on the Executor was the highest of all enlisted Imperial Officers. And that was why Vader chose carefully any new Ensigns on his ship. He had no need for men loyal to the Empire...only those loyal to him.

And so Piett was. And, vicariously, to Vader’s offspring as well. The Dark Lord had made a request, a command. ‘If anything should happen to me, Admiral, I would hope that my trust in you has not been misplaced. My children would benefit greatly from you allegiance.’ Vader had waited pointedly for Piett’s acquiescence, which he freely gave. The Dark Lord could sense no deception in Piett’s reply, and gone back to his children. The Admiral felt oddly calm, though he knew his act of treason would be more than enough to earn a death sentence. The Empire’s tactics, values, and general dealings were not to Piett’s taste. Perhaps it was time for a new regime.

Piett made his way to the holding bays...he had some prisoners to see.

A long, mournful sound emanated from the R2 droid, and it didn’t take 3PO’s help to translate what it meant.

Han patted R2 on the top of his dome and said ruefully, “I know exactly how you feel.”

He looked around at the crew that was tossed together in one of the larger holding bays on the Executor. Chewie, the droids, several pilots he was not familiar with, an Officer or two, and Wedge Antilles.

Han gave Wedge a lopsided grin and asked, “Can’t you keep him under control?”

He patted R2 again with affection. The droid blatted back at him.

“Not a chance, Solo. You know he only listens to Luke. I’m just happy he hasn’t gotten into any serious trouble with me. I’ll never know why Luke gave him to me.” R2 gave another beep, this one sounding insulted. “That’s not a put down, R2...” But the little droid had rolled away, joining 3PO on the other side of the bay, beeping angrily the whole way. Wedge didn’t need to translate those either. He got the point.

Han laughed outright. “Luke gave that droid to you ‘cause he knew you were the only one who could put up with him.”

“Yeah, well...I’m honoured,” Wedge replied dryly.

He assessed Han, who was holding up pretty well considering being separated from Leia and back in Imperial custody. But, knowing Han, he was already considering some kind of escape plan. It was odd that they were all here, together. No one had been culled from the rest, no one had been subjected to any sort of torture or questioning...it just seemed they were waiting. In a way, it was more unnerving not knowing what to expect at all.

“So, Han...what’s going on here? I mean, I’d have expected to be in some kind of Force grip choke hold divulging some top secret Alliance information by now. What are they waiting for?”

Han gave a non-committal shrug.

“I dunno, Antilles. Although I’m pretty happy not meeting up with Vader again. Our last encounter didn’t go so well for me.” Han shifted round to move closer to Wedge. “I hope Leia is ok...and the kid too.”

Wedge nodded slowly. “I’m sure Luke is fine. I mean, I doubt Vader would hurt his own son. And Luke can protect Leia. She’ll be alright, you’ll see.”

Wedge didn’t sound all too convinced, but Han appreciated the sentiment all the same. Chewie gave a supportive growl and asked a garbled question.

“I don’t know pal, but I’ll think of something. I always do.”

Another lopsided smile. Chewie gave a derisive yowl.

“I just wish we could at least talk to someone...you know, find out what’s going to happen or what they want from us. I hate just standing here waiting.”

Wedge was antsy now, shifting his weight from foot to foot. R2 had re-joined them, abruptly forgiving his new owner. It was unusual for so many of them to be here. Rarely, if ever, did the Empire take prisoners...especially ones from the Alliance, at least as far as lower-level officers and pilots were concerned. Why had they been spared? Wedge’s normal sense of calm and patience were wearing thin, like a fraying rope, he would only be able to stand so much before he snapped. His worry for Luke and the Princess was a serrated knife, and it worked at that rope as well.

“Somethin’s about to happen. I just don’t know what,” Han stated with finality.

He’d been around enough to know. If he could only get to Leia, find Luke, and blast off this ship he’d be a happy man. A terrible thought seized him, at that moment...something he hadn’t thought of before. What if Luke was already dead? Why had they taken Leia away from the others? They could use her against the Alliance. Stang! He was incredulous to the amount of trouble they were in. Again.

Han and the others did not have to wait long. The security doors swished open, and an Officer Han knew by reputation entered the room. Vader’s right hand man...Admiral Piett.

“Gentlemen,” Piett started, then corrected himself, “and Madame,” that directed to a tall, dark haired pilot nearer to Wedge, “I am Admiral Piett. You have been brought aboard Lord Vader’s personal Star Destroyer, the Executor.” He paused then, taking in the whole of the room. “A rather delicate situation has developed...and I am afraid we may need your help.”

His children were still lingering together, but now they had moved to stand near the view port. The Executor passed a blue-white star, and for an instant they were backlit against the glittering darkness of space. It was a moment frozen in time...if Vader lived one hundred years he would always see them bathed in the starlight. Concern for Luke was foremost in his mind...the boy had suffered another relapse in his health and Vader was afraid that his son would attempt to push himself too far. It would be imperative to seclude the twins somehow...keep them from Palpatine’s clutches...keep them hidden from that stealthy minx Jade. Could he smuggle them off-ship somehow?...impossible. Palpatine had all but landed, and he would be on alert for any errant ships leaving the Executor...anything not following the protocol befitting the arrival of the Emperor. Was it possible to keep them hidden from him?...not likely. Palpatine would most certainly be able to sense them...even with Vader’s cloaking.

On the other hand...it was possible the Emperor had no idea the two young Jedi were even on board. True, they had not received an alert that Palpatine was on his way, but, unexpected, inspecting of the troops, reminders of just who was in charge were not unusual either...even on Vader’s personal ship. As the man holding the ultimate power in the universe...Palpatine hardly needed a reason. He may never even know Luke and Leia were there. If he did find out, however...it was still possible to deceive him. The Rebel prisoners in the holding bays were proof that they had assisted in the attack on the base, and the presence of Luke and Leia could be explained away easily enough. They were captured along with the other Rebels and separated out from the rest. Then they could attack...bring down the man he now realized he hated more than anything. The man who had taken his family from him.

It could happen...he could hope. That was a word he had not entertained in many years...hope had died for him with Padme. But he felt it rush back into him...filling him like the light of a new star. The moment felt sacred, and he hesitated...honouring it. He understood now the perseverance of Leia in the Senate...the reasons she would never give up on the freedom she fought for. He understood, as well, Luke’s unerring and determined belief in his Father. It was hope. It lived them. It drove them. It sustained them.

It could sustain him as well.

A coup may be the only choice. Use the Rebels and the Imperial Officers, his children and his own dark powers to commit mutiny. After that...well, that was a future for Luke and Leia to decide...he realized he had long forfeited his rights to make decisions where his children were concerned. They were capable of far better choices than he. The lives they had lived so far were proof of that.

Vader continued into the room, and the twins turned to face him at the same time. They’d been speaking of their mother, he was certain. A lot of information had just been passed to them, and they were trying to make sense of it...relive it, own it.

“Seeing you like that reminds me of a more innocent era.” Vader admitted, “It is...refreshing.” He stepped forward again, this time focused and serious. “I am afraid we do not have much time. The Emperor is almost here and he must not find you. Leia...I want you to accompany me, if you will, to speak with your friends on ship.”

“Think you’ll have trouble with Han, hmm?” Leia asked with a small measure of humour.

“I do not believe that Captain Solo will trust a word I say to him, and I will need your powers of persuasion to make him comply.” The Dark Lord conceded. The thought of facing the cocky pilot was exhausting. “ I am not sure exactly what you see in Captain Solo, Princess. He is exasperating, arrogant, impatient and extremely aggravating.”

An arched eyebrow and a droll response. “Remind you of anyone you know?”

No reply. Instead, “Luke, you must remain here. It is imperative that you stay as calm as possible...do nothing which will draw attention to yourself. If the Emperor discovers you are on board, everything which I have planned will fail.” A step closer to his son. “Mara Jade is accompanying the Emperor, son. If she finds you...”

He trailed off. Luke knew too well what the woman was capable of. It made sense to stay where he was. Luke was not happy to have to stay behind. His disappointment at being separated from his sister was palpable...his sorrow at being away from his father was even more so.

But he understood. He said nothing, merely nodded. Vader thought he’d never seen Luke’s eyes so clear, so blue. Again he had that feeling that his son was seeing him with more levels of understanding than he’d thought possible...and he fought the urge to actually embrace the boy. As if he’d never see him again. As if this were the last time they’d meet.

Luke smiled to Leia, a wan smile...less reassuring than he’d meant. To his Father, he simply said, “May the Force be with you.”

He watched them leave together, then turned back to the stars.

Leia had to move quickly to keep pace with Vader. She was not yet able to concede the idiom of Father to the man next to her...a lifetime of knowing him as Vader placed a mental roadblock in front of her. He had some kind of a plan...involving Luke and the Alliance...overthrowing Palpatine...it was almost too much for her to process. She grappled with all the obvious and not so obvious things that it would mean for them. What it would mean to Luke and herself...to the Alliance. What would it mean for Vader?

How in the Maker’s name would she ever convince Han and the others? They’d never believe what she would say! They would have to know everything...her parentage, Vader’s plot...all of it. The most important thing would be to keep Luke safe. If they could get through this, then maybe the Alliance and what was left of the Empire could work together...find a cure for Luke. What would be left of the Empire, she mused. If Vader lived through this, then he would certainly be at the helm. That was an unsettling thought. No matter what he seemed to be like now, Leia had always known Vader to be a cold, calculating despot...the shadow of the Emperor. Would they dispose of one tyrant only to install another? And if that happened, what would stop Vader from keeping Luke with him, making him next-in-line to the Imperial throne? They’d all be back where they started, essentially, save Luke.

Save Luke.

That’s what she was here for. She tried to clear her head as she hurried along after Vader. Such dark thoughts helped no one, least of all her brother. Luke trusted his Father...she trusted Luke. Leia would have to try to put her faith in a man she’d always despised.

But there must be something good left in him. He was obviously capable of love...weren’t she and Luke proof of that? Death and despair could make people do awful things...perhaps her Father was simply guilty of being the prisoner of his own grief...her Father...

“Did you love her?” It was straightforward, and without rancor.

Vader slowed, looking over to her minutely and then straight ahead again.

“My mother...Padme.” Leia pronounced the foreign name with delicacy...like a sacred word. “Did you love her?”

Vader stopped then, and faced his daughter fully. This was not really the time nor the place for such a conversation, but if she felt she was entitled to it...so be it. He was done hiding from the truth.

“I did. She meant more to me than anything in the entire universe. More than my beliefs, more than my teachings...more than the Jedi code.” He let that settle with her. “My life ended when she died. It only began again when I discovered Luke...and you.”

Unsure how to handle tenderness from him, she narrowed her eyes in a disbelieving way.

“I find it hard to believe that a man with so much love in him could suddenly change and bring the universe so much pain. How do you account for that?” She shifted her weight...feeling like she was on the Senate floor again, arguing her point. “Perhaps you didn’t love her as much as you thought...perhaps you’d always planned to turn to the Dark Side, and drag her down with you. Raise Luke and I as children of darkness...your lust for power killed any love you had.”

He contemplated that a moment. It was true, in a sense. But it had been his lust for the power to do good things that had blinded him. I will learn to stop people from dying... everything he’d planned for he and Padme had changed in an instant. Always in motion...the future...the Force.

“I will admit that I have done terrible things, your Highness, but I will not stand by and have you accuse me of not loving your mother. It was love of her that governed everything I have done...for good or for ill. And it is that same love which motivates me to defend my family now. You are a part of that family...whether you want it or not. Luke has accepted his legacy. You would do your mother a disgrace by not accepting it as well.” He raised a black-gloved hand, and Leia, to her credit did not flinch away, although she fully expected to be struck. Instead, he placed his palm on her cheek, forcing her to look at him fully. “You are so like her...”

Tears threatened to overtake her then, and she vowed she would not break down in front of him. She must maintain her composure...show no weakness. She inhaled deeply, but did not move away from him.

“I would never do anything to disgrace my mother,” she said, voice trembling. “And I understand...why you’ve done the things you have done. I am trying to forgive you...for Luke’s sake.”

“But not your own?” he asked, lowering his hand.

“You’re going to have to prove it to me,” she said, and gestured down the corridor...waiting for him to lead the way.

A lot of people on a lot of planets at many different times had attempted to pull a fast one over on Han Solo, but even he had to admit this took the proverbial cake. Honestly, what did Admiral Piett expect from him? He was no fool, and he would not stand by and let some Imperial scum make him out to be so.

The Rebel pilots and Officers were murmuring to themselves, discussing what they’d just heard. They were just as incredulous as he was. They were waiting for Han to say something, to react in some way. He may not have a senior credential in the group, but he was certainly the one they looked up to. Well, he was reacting now, wasn’t he?

“Do you really expect me to believe...Admiral, that Darth Vader needs our help?” It was unbelievable. “So, let me get this straight...Luke’s dying and his father decides that he’s made some bad decisions in his life...so instead of turning the kid over to the Emperor, he hides him away on board the Executor. Meanwhile...and I’m not sure how none of you saw this coming...somehow word gets out that Luke is here...so Palpatine isn’t so happy about that. And now, the Emperor is on the way, Luke is still infected, the Executor is a sitting duck and Darth Vader himself is asking for the assistance of the Rebel Alliance to commit the ultimate treason and overthrow Palpatine?” Han paused, taking in the flustered face of Piett. “Is that about it?”

Piett, grave and pale, answered, “Yes, General...that is everything.”

Han looked around the crew assembled behind him. Chewie growled something uncertain, and most of the pilots were wearing looks of disbelief. Next to him, R2 gave a helpful beep.

“Ummm, forgive me if I find it hard to trust you, Admiral. But our past little trysts together have not turned out exactly in our favour.”

He could hear the pilots nearest him murmuring their agreement. Chewie huffed in support.

“I understand, General, and I am not sure I can offer you anything which will prove to you the enormity of the situation.”

The sarcastic remark that perched on Han’s lips never left them. The enormity of the situation made itself remarkably clear as Han could see, over the shoulder of Piett, the massive black shape of Darth Vader approaching. He grimaced and took a step back, but Chewie, with a distinct height advantage, growled to him that Leia was coming too. Piett stood aside, and Leia ran to Han’s embrace. Solo glared at Vader as he pulled Leia to him.

She held him tight a moment, then stepped away. The look on her face would have been all he needed to believe whatever she was going to say. But the presence of Vader again brought the feeling of being trapped to him...something was not right.

“General Solo.”

It was a neutral greeting. The last time he had seen Solo he was retrieving his son. He’d noticed the General then, true, but his thoughts had been more focused on Luke than anything else. He seemed as he remembered him...distrustful, wary, arrogant and completely protective of Leia.

“My Lord.”

It had taken Han quite a lot to swallow his pride and concede Vader his title. He had done it for Leia’s sake. Something had changed between them, it was obvious to Han. The way Leia looked to Vader and back to him was more telling than words would have been. He set his jaw...he had the feeling he wasn’t going to like what either of them had to say.

“I assume you have been briefed by Admiral Piett on the situation?” The seriousness in Vader’s voice...though Han had never heard him as anything but serious...confirmed his worries. The fact that Leia had moved back to stand next to Vader did not help either. Han nodded in response. “I would have preferred to speak with you privately first, General, but we are pressed for time.”

“Thanks for the offer, but every time we have a private little chat, I always end up getting tortured or stuck in carbonite.” Not smart, he thought...but he could not resist a verbal jab. Leia gave him one of her looks...tread carefully, Solo...and raised her chin imperiously at him. He’d better stop. Looking from Leia to Vader, he said, “Why don’t you tell us exactly what it is you’d like us to do...and why we should believe you.”

Vader had to fight the urge to use the terror he was obviously inspiring in the assembled Rebels to his advantage, and simply bully them into submission. But Leia’s presence at his side reminded him of all he had to lose. He controlled his simmering rage and launched into an explanation.

“I am sure that most of the Rebel Alliance are aware that Luke Skywalker is my son,” Vader started. “The Force is strong in him, and the Emperor seeks to exploit this. My orders were to bring him before Palpatine...and assist in turning him to the Dark Side.” A beat, this seemed to be old news to the Rebels...perhaps they had already conjectured such. “While this was certainly what I had planned to do from the first moment I’d learned of his existence, I am unable to do so now. The virus and several...personal interests prohibit it.” He leveled his dark gaze to Han. “I will not attempt to describe the reasons why...all you need to know is that Luke will not come to any harm while he is with me.”

“So why was Princess Leia taken away from us? How do we know you haven’t used some kind of Force trick to brainwash her?” Wedge asked skeptically. He still didn’t like the situation.

"Wedge..." another pilot cautioned.

There was a long, searching moment as Leia looked to Vader and he back to her. Again that feeling of unease overtook Han, and he had learned long ago not to ignore his gut. He may not have the gift of the Force, but he knew when to follow his instincts. He was not disappointed when Vader spoke again.

“For many years I had suspected that the child that my wife carried, the child that I thought had died with her, was a daughter. When I discovered Luke, I assumed I must have been wrong.” Vader again spoke directly to Han. “But the Force was telling me the truth...only a part of it. I do have a daughter.”

Realization settled into the rest of the group faster than it did Han. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready to accept it. He gaped a moment before R2 gave him another helpful beep. Vader watched the truth sink into Solo, saw him silently ask Leia if it was true, felt her send him back the assurance it was so.

“Let me speak to him...just a moment,” Leia said to her father, and pulled Han away from the rest of the group.

The little R2 droid was beeping away, but no one seemed to be able to understand him. Vader reflected on it a moment...it was vaguely familiar to him. Wasn’t that Luke’s little R2 unit? Why did it strike him so? It was only when the translator droid joined the R2 unit, helpfully interpreting its beeps to the pilot they called Wedge, that it hit him fully. That was Padme’s droid...and that was 3PO. What an amazing twist of fate, seeing the droids that had at one time been such an important part of his life, now such an integral part of the lives of his children. How fitting. He doubted the protocol droid would remember him at all...it had been on board Organa’s ship...which meant it was the property of Bail Organa. Well, if the Viceroy had an ounce of intelligence, 3PO’s memory would have been erased. The very fact that it had not reacted at all the name Skywalker was proof enough of that. Vader looked over to Leia, who was still trying to explain things a little more fully to Han. Back to the R2 droid then. He strode purposefully to where it sat, beeping away to Wedge. 3PO stopped his prattle immediately, and Wedge took several steps back as Vader approached. The little droid swiveled its dome to take the Dark Lord in fully.

“R2D2...were you not once the property of the Royal House of Naboo? Did you not once serve the Queen Amidala?”

R2 gave a short blat and rolled backward until he bumped into 3PO. His tone was unmistakable, even to those who could not understand him. I do not trust you. “If you are indeed that same R2 unit, you surely must remember me, though perhaps by a different name...Anakin Skywalker.”

R2 responded with a mournful sound, and Vader did not need to translate that either...R2 remembered ... and he did not like what he saw before him now. Best to leave the little droid alone, though perhaps later he’d be able to question him. R2 may have some memories of Padme...remembrances of times with her when Anakin was not with her. Stories he could tell him about her...things she’d said or done...or the truth about how she’d died. Vader raised a placating hand and turned back to where Leia stood. The entire gathering of Rebels including Solo and the Princess were watching him now, and he felt entirely exposed. He did not like it.

“Well, General?”

He did not need to elaborate any more. Leia had surely told him everything. The grim set of Solo’s jaw proved he’d believed her.

“I hope we don’t regret this,” that was to Leia. “Are we all in agreement?” That was to the Rebels. Stony-faced acceptance from them. Then, to Vader, “Just tell me where to aim my blaster.”

You must be willing to be rid of the life you have planned, so as to have the life that is awaiting you...Leia could not remember which of her Scholars had taught her that particular phrase, but she did recall it referring to a life in politics. Well, she was certainly living the phrase, wasn’t she? If she’d have been told two days ago that Rebel Alliance members would be fighting side by side next to Imperials...she’d have wondered how much Spice they’d taken. But it was all for Luke...all of it. Her brother...what a thought... She’d have to remind herself later to ask Luke just when Vader had changed from cold-hearted, evil tyrant to caring Father...but there wasn’t really time for that now. The Emperor’s ship was landing, his support troops arriving, and some supposedly particularly dangerous spy named Jade was here too.

Vader had left the Rebels with Piett...he’d station them where he thought best. Leia had elected, over Han’s protests, to go back to Luke. He was alone now, save for the single Officer their Father had put on sentry near the door. She’d do what she could to calm him, keep him safe. Palpatine and Jade could not find him...Luke may not survive the encounter. She picked up her pace as she stealthily made her way back to his quarters. All around her, Officers and enlisted men were hurrying about, preparing for the Emperor’s arrival...and worse. She tried to clear her mind...and focus only on Luke.

As he pulled his cloak around him, and settled his lightsabre at his side, Luke tried to conserve his strength. Leia was coming back, he could feel that...and his Father was agitated...but trying to mask it. He needed to do the same. If he could stay as quiet and small as possible in the Force, he may go unnoticed by Palpatine...if, and only if, the Emperor did not already know he was here. He worried for Leia’s sake...she’d been through quite a bit in the last few hours, and things were not going to get any easier.

She hurried into his room then, as he tucked the Japor snippet into his tunic. She smiled, and he hugged her to him.

“How’re you holding up?” she asked mildly, trying to be stoic.

“As well as expected...things are happening a little fast, you know? It’s one thing to have your Father...well, I won’t say turn from the Dark Side, but at least...step away from the Darkness. Then to gain a sister,” he squeezed her hands, “and finally get some answers about Mother...” he paused, a fatigued grin on his face. “It’s a little exhausting.” He sobered, eyes darkening with the gravity of the situation. “And now Palpatine.” He dropped her hands and turned from her. Pulling his lightsaber from his belt, Luke hefted it in his hands, looking out to the stars, watching the ships come in. “If things had been different...if I were stronger, I could help Father defeat the Emperor. He needs me...and I am useless to him now.”

“Luke, think about what you are saying...” Leia rushed to stand by him, turning him from the view port. “If you weren’t sick...Luke...if you were well Vader may have tried to turn you to the Dark Side himself...don’t you remember what he told you on Bespin? You would have stayed with us and who knows how we’d have ended up...” She gathered her emotions. “Luke, you know I’ve never had any love for Vader, and it was hard to trust your decision when you wanted to leave. But I understood your need to be with your family...and the hope you had that you could change him. No matter what happens...you should remember that it was your love that brought him back...you saved him.” Her brown eyes threatened tears, and Luke thought she’d never seemed more beautiful. “Now Father’s trying to save you...”

“And you,” Luke countered.

A watery smile.

“And me...your little sister.” He laughed despite the seriousness of the moment. “The thing to do, Luke...the best way to honour that...is to stay here and keep calm. Don’t let Palpatine sense you.”

“You’re right...of course you are.” Luke sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I wonder if Mother was as persuasive as you are...she was a Queen,” he gave Leia a bright smile, “she must have been a formidable woman.”

“She’d have to have been, putting up with Father.” She was only half-joking. Leia contemplated him a moment, then ventured, “I wish they hadn’t separated us. I would have loved to have grown up with you.” She laughed at the thought, “Though I am not sure how you’d have done in politics...you are too honest! And I can’t picture you in court dress or Senatorial robes. You’ll always be a farm boy to me, Luke.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment...I think,” he responded. He replaced the lightsabre to his belt absently.

She moved closer to him, wrapping an arm around his waist...like the time they watched the Falcon fly off with Calrissian and Chewie...going to search for Han. They stood together, silent, for some time. Luke wondered, that in all the times he’d spent on board ships, space stations, or here in his quarters and looked out into space, he’d never appreciated how beautiful and breathtaking it really was. So many stars and planets, glowing, far-off galaxies and passing nebulas. If he listened, still now, he could hear the sound of that beauty...the tones the Force made inside him, like music. Leia could hear it too...and their bond sang to him through the Force. He pulled her closer to him, savouring the moment.

“How very touching,” came a sardonic voice from behind them.

He’d never even sensed anyone coming. They turned, together, to face the intruder. The guard by the door was no where to be seen.


Red hair, green eyes, and a look of pure malice greeted him. He was struck, even as she glared at him, by the very haunting beauty she exuded and the Force potential she possessed.

“Mara Jade,” he returned.

He was calm, and centered, and it infuriated her. She controlled her anger, aiming the blaster directly at them...what was the Princess from Alderaan doing here anyway? No matter...she had her prize...she’d prove herself to her Master.

Your Father has some explaining to do, Skywalker. What do you say to having a little chat with His Highness, hmm?” She waved the blaster at them. “You can bring the Princess along too...I’m sure she’ll find it all very informative...she’ll learn a lesson about what happens to traitors to the Empire.” Mara cocked her head, considering. “And I’m sure the Emperor has a few words for her, as well.”

Leia had an answer for her, but Luke held her, hands clutching her arm and pulling her back as she went for Mara.

“No, Leia...just let go. Use the Force...it will guide you.”

Leia was incredulous...how could Luke give in so quickly? But she’d trusted him so far, and she’d follow where he led. She had a better chance of helping him if she went along anyway. Biting back her insult, swallowing her threats, she relaxed. Luke nodded solemnly to her.

“Good,” a faux smile from Jade. She gestured theatrically to the door. “If you’d be so kind...” The blaster was still trained on them. “Don’t try anything...you’ll be stunned before you could even finish the thought.”

“Stunned...you’re not going to try to kill us?” Leia asked.

“No, no, your Highness.” Mara gave another evil smile. “The Emperor has something special planned for him...just Father and Son.”

Mara pushed them forward, Luke and Leia moved down the corridor together, two beacons of Light...heading into the all-consuming Darkness.

Palpatine knew that upon his arrival, Lord Vader would not be there to greet him. Or at least he surmised as much. Having given no forewarning that he was on the way, the Dark Lord would not have had much time to prepare to receive his Master. Of course, the other reason Vader would be conspicuously absent, was the fact that he was trying to find some way to hide his son. The Emperor was well aware that his Second-in-Command was unsure just how much he knew...whether or not he was aware that Luke was on board. He felt Mara Jade slip into procession behind him as the simpering figure of a lowly Captain approached them. Where was Piett? Probably shaking at Vader’s side like some cowering lap dog, licking his Master’s boots in the hopes of a scrap or two. What had Vader promised Piett? Palpatine turned down the corners of his mouth. He would enjoy crushing the Admiral at a later time...for now, he had more important concerns.

Behind him, Mara stepped lightly...moving like a shadow in his wake. She was single-minded and completely focused on finding Skywalker. He grinned inwardly. If she had only a glimpse of the plans which he had for her and Skywalker...well, everything in its own time. His dark dreams would have to wait, for now.

“Your Highness, we are honoured and pleased you have seen fit to grace us with a visit.”

The simpering Captain was espousing some useless prattle, all lies. Palpatine was tired of waiting, his desire to end this and start a new dynasty was foremost in his thoughts.

“Enough, Captain. I know you have no true joy in having me aboard. Tell me...where is Lord Vader?”

The breach of etiquette displayed by the Dark Lord at not attending his Master’s arrival was an extremely callous act. The Captain knew this.

“Your Highness, Lord Vader is taking care of a few loose ends concerning a group of Rebel Alliance pilots and Officers which was brought on board after the attack on the Iskander base. We have only recently taken them into custody, Milord.”

The Captain was unable to stop the tremor that ran through his voice. Palpatine chose to ignore it.

“I see, Captain. And tell me,” he paused in his progress to address the boy fully, “is the Jedi Luke Skywalker among them?” Trap baited and set...

And sprung...he’d caught himself a rat. The terror which had seized the Captain was physically evident now. He shook, slightly, and a bead of sweat had appeared on his forehead. Mara snorted and looked away, bored. She was tired of his teasing. But Palpatine was waiting to hear what sort of lie the man would say next...it was lecherous, this devotion to Vader.

“I am not aware of any man of that name, Milord. But we have only just begun to question them...it is possible that he is here.”

A shakily exhaled breath, the Captain was beginning to think he maybe had pulled the wool over Palpatine’s eyes. But you can never deceive the deceiver...not beat the master of deception at his own game. He had given away the fact that Skywalker was on board the Executor the moment Palpatine had set foot upon the planking. Fortunately for the Captain, the Emperor was willing to play along, for now. His own plans still needed to be finalized, and the charade of simple little visit must be kept up.

“Inform Lord Vader I wish to see him immediately. The prisoners can be questioned later. Do not keep me waiting, Captain.”

Palpatine’s voice was low, graveled, but without that honeyed tone Mara was so used to hearing. A chill took her, and she thought it mush be the coldness of space, the frigid air in the landing dock...she hoped so. She could not face the other option...that it was the sharp edge of doubt once again invading her mind. Her Master’s voice brought her abruptly back to the present.

“Jade,” he spoke quietly, his visage hidden from her by his dark cloak. He was contemplating her, and she was unnerved. She brought up her shields again, quicksilver mind barriers, and bowed to him.

“Are you certain you are aware of what lies before you?” There was a warning note in his voice...he trusted no one.

She knew how to answer him, what he needed to hear. “Give me free rein, Milord, and I will prove to you my certainty.” Her green eyes flashed, and he saw what he wanted in them.

“Go then, and bring him to me.”

She needed no other encouragement. Her black boots made no sound as she made her way out of the landing dock, intent on Skywalker like a vornskr on the hunt. It didn’t take her any time at all to find him. The single man stationed by his quarters was a pale attempt at protection, but Mara could see the value in keeping the room low key...why beef up security outside a room that was supposedly not holding Luke Skywalker?

He was standing near the view port, that self-righteous Senator from Alderaan at his side. Mara had never seen Skywalker in the flesh, and she took the opportunity to observe him unnoticed. He was shorter than she expected...which hardly mattered, as he was taller than she was. His hair was different, too. It was no longer the sun-kissed colour of the sands of Tatooine, but had deepened, as if the discovery of his parentage had outwardly darkened him as much as it had inside. And when he turned at her voice, the purity of his blue eyes stuck her...and something in her shifted. It was as if many portals had lined up, for just an instant...and she was able to glimpse far further than she’d ever been able to. Mara did not know what it meant, but she knew that her destiny and Skywalker’s were linked somehow, more intricately intertwined than she would have thought possible. She could see the same realization flicker through his eyes, though it only lasted a moment.

Back to business. Take him to Palpatine. They were moving down the hall now, and Mara could not shake the powerful feeling of doubt again. That feeling of being overtaken by her uncertainty. Scarlet blossoms cracking the edifices upon which she based her beliefs. White blossoms and green vines twisting around the stone foundation of her devotion to the Emperor. Over and over she saw those Khayrian statues overrun with new life...sat in the gardens again. She had to master these thoughts...needed to conquer her misgivings. Besides, what kind of life awaited her outside of the Empire? What did she gain by sympathizing with Skywalker? These were questions she did not want the answers to. Mara wasn’t ready to face the truth of her doubts...that her whole life quite possibly had been a lie. And Skywalker could see right through it. That angered her...and she used it to centre her purpose.

The Skywalker orphan had found his Father...and she was fatherless.

Skywalker’s Father cared for him, enough to commit treason...hers had obviously not cared for her at all...he’d abandoned her, hadn’t he?

Skywalker had become the centre of Palpatine’s life...she’d always been on the periphery.

She hated him. She hated him and she would use that hate to burn out all thoughts of doubt and confusion. The hate would see her through.

Mara had to believe it.

Technically, the throne room was designed for him, like the ship had been. But, being that everything within the Empire belonged to the Emperor, Vader could hardly raise an objection. The Executor was Lord Vader’s in name only. As it was, Palpatine was waiting for him now, in that very throne room. Waiting for what, Vader was unsure. He was still uncertain if the Emperor was aware of Luke’s presence onboard or not. In his mind, Vader was formulating a desperate plan; there had to be a way to cure Luke and keep him from Palpatine’s clutches. And Leia too. Having been summoned to meet his Master, Vader was unable to return to his children...and that weighed heavily on his mind. He had yet to see that scheming little spy Jade either. Surely she was prowling the ship now, seeking out her prey.

The turmoil of the situation roiled through his mind as he strode down the corridors. Even if he saved them, even if they could overthrow the Emperor, he could not say what fate lay ahead. It was unlikely that the Rebellion would welcome him with open arms...and there would still be remnants of the Empire to consider. Perhaps the two factions could merge, become one under the reign of himself and Luke. It was something to strive for.

He just had to live through this first.

The Emperor’s malevolent presence emanated from the throne room like a foul stench...some rotting beast full of the Dark Side. Whereas it used to comfort him, surround him with a dark warmth, Vader found it repulsed him now. He preferred the bright radiance of Luke, the soft glow of Leia. Strange...what Luke had been able to accomplish. Perhaps he had always been teetering on the edge of Darkness, never fully immersed. He’d truly believed he would never turn back to the Light, and in some ways he still had not...but he was close. Some grayer shade of twilight would be the best description for where his soul dwelt now.

He steeled his resolve. The Executor, the men on board, his status and his titles may only have been Vader’s in name only, but Luke and Leia...his children, belonged to him and him alone. Because of that name. Not Darth Vader, not Dark Lord of the Sith...but Skywalker. He would not allow Palpatine to possess their birthright, not after everything that had already been taken from him.

Black cloak billowing around him like the wings of some dark creature borne of a nightmare, Vader swept into the throne room and knelt on one knee before his Master. His mind was blank, empty...cloyingly obedient.

Palpatine regarded his apprentice with a darkened critical eye. Nothing outwardly marked his Second in Command as a traitor, no swirling undercurrents of doubt or lies, no conflicting ambiguous thoughts. Vader had learned well from him to be able to hide his feelings so completely. Perhaps he had trained him too well. That was a mistake he would attempt to rectify with young Skywalker. All he needed was to use the boy’s love for his Father turn him to the Dark Side...let the hate wash over him and burn out the virus lurking within him. The cure...the only cure was hate. And Palpatine was convinced that the boy would be the echo of his Father. It never ceased to amaze the Emperor that the Skywalker clan was unable to avoid that most revered of Jedi code.

A Jedi feels no attachment.

They were living proof that the Dark Side was stronger, to be corrupted so. The foolish tenants of their weak faith shackled them and dragged them down into the very aspect of the Force they wished to avoid. It was beautiful, really, the simple poetry of it.

Vader was kneeling still, awaiting the command of his Master. Palpatine inwardly wondered just how anxious Vader was. Well, he had every reason to be worried, for himself more than his son.

“Rise, Lord Vader,” the Emperor stated. May as well start things off with some semblance of normalcy. The Dark Lord rose, obedient, and Palpatine scowled at him from under his dark hood.

“We are honoured, as always, Master, to have you onboard the Executor.” It was the safest way to go, start off on neutral ground. Time would tell where he stood. Vader kept his mind blank and his senses sharp...he searched for any sense of mal-intent from his Master. Considering this, Vader knew a moment of irony. The Emperor was nothing but mal-intent and vicious treachery. How could he expect anything else?

“Yes, I know,” Palpatine replied, irritated. “But I will inform you of my displeasure, Lord Vader, at not being met by yourself at the landing bay. What kept you?”

He was attempting to draw Vader out, make him confess his sin himself. That Luke was onboard.

“I apologize, Master. Shortly before your arrival we intercepted a Rebel fleet attempting to escape Iskander. Our attack on the base was successful, and the Executor was of assistance in cleaning up the remnants of the Alliance members who managed to escape off-planet.” He paused, gauging Palpatine’s reaction. Impossible to read. “I was about to interrogate several of them when I was informed of your arrival.” Vader bowed his head, hoping the half-lie would be enough.

“What value did you see, Lord Vader, in capturing these Rebels?” Palpatine’s voice was dangerously low, and the Dark Lord could sense his displeasure.

“I believe that several high-ranking members may be among those taken. They could prove valuable in negotiation or blackmail, your Highness.” Vader again tried to craft a persuasion around what he said. If this was only a cursory visit, then maybe that would be enough for Palpatine and he would soon be on his way.

Deciding to play along, the Emperor asked, “Indeed? And who are these ‘high-ranking members’?”

Sithspawn...Vader thought, then regretted his choice of words. Never before had that particular insult bothered him, but now hit too close to home. “General Solo, General Antilles,” he listed, “and two droids who may have pertinent information, Master.”

Vader regretted having to name Solo. He knew how much the pilot meant to Leia, but there was nothing to be done. Perhaps he could distract Palpatine with familiar names, with the promise of obtaining information.

“No others, Lord Vader? Is young Skywalker not among them?”

Palpatine leaned forward, to better hear Vader’s reply.



He knew he was found out. The next words out of his mouth may damn Luke or himself or them both. Calm...he needed to stay focused, for the sake of his children. He could still salvage this...he could.

“Yes, milord. My son was with them.” He claimed Luke with a resounding, clear finality that Palpatine did not miss.

Deathly stillness from his Master. Palpatine raised his hands and pressed his fingers together. “And you chose to keep this information from me, Lord Vader?” He sank back in the seat, voice a whispering accusation. Silk over cold steel. “Why would you withhold this from me, my friend? Are your feelings in this matter entirely clear?”

“They are clear, my Master,” Vader lied.

That was true from a certain point of view...He was entirely clear concerning his plans for he and Luke, and disposing of his Master. Better to make Palpatine believe that he was still trying to turn his son.

“I have only just separated him from his friends. My next step would have been contacting you.” Believe it, believe it, believe it...

But the Emperor did not. He knew. In that brief moment where they stared each other down, Vader realized it. Palpatine knew everything...and the twisted old man was going to make both Luke and his Father pay for their treachery. It was all a game to him.

“Oh, no, my friend. Your next step was going to be mutiny, was it not?” His voice changed from silky steel to grating iron. “Even you are not above suspicion, Lord Vader. I am well aware of your little treaty with the Alliance. My Jade has told me of Skywalker’s deflection to your care.” He cackled bitterly. “And I know he is ill. I am unable to hide my joy at this convenient turn of events.” He stood up, came down a few steps, and leaned maliciously toward Vader. “The Eryoundi virus...it really is too perfect.” He slowly straightened, hand tightening on his walking staff. “My most fervent desire is to turn Skywalker to the Dark Side, and the boy has been foolish enough to contract a disease in which the only cure, the only chance at salvation...is damnation itself. To turn to the Dark Side.” He gestured dramatically. “To live, your son must give in to darkness. But that is not what you had planned, is it, Lord Vader? You were going to use the boy against me, were you not? Rule the galaxy as Father and Son?” He returned to the throne now, his anger at Vader’s deception palpable.

Vader knew it was pointless to deny it. Somehow, word had reached his Master...everything that had happened, Palpatine knew. Now he had to find a way out of the situation. “Master, my son is...”

“Your son is now mine, Lord Vader, and I, not you, will decide his fate. You may consider yourself fortunate I do not dispose of you here and now. But I have other plans for you, my friend.” The Emperor’s tone was icy, and Vader realized the depth of danger they were all in. “Ahhh, here he comes now.”

Stretching out with the Force, letting down the barriers that he was keeping up to protect Luke, Vader could feel his son approaching. Not just Luke, but Leia as well...and that blasted spy Jade. He could feel Palpatine’s confusion over the presence of Leia...so he didn’t know everything. This was going to be even harder now, with his daughter involved. Things were not looking well.

Again that terrified feeling overtook him, one that hadn’t reared its ugly head in many years. Not since Padme had he felt it. The fear of loss. The fear of losing someone he loved. Fear leads to suffering, suffering leads to the Dark Side...and he had come ironically full circle. Back to this decisive moment from twenty odd years ago. Only now it was his son he would have to watch fall. And that was something he could not do.

Vader would have to find a way to catch him.

Irony was not lost on Han Solo as he realized he was once again back in an Imperial uniform on an Imperial ship. Considering the way he’d left the Empire’s employment, he found it amusing in a tiresome way that they’d actually given him the uniform of a General to wear. It was all part of Piett’s plan, of course. They needed him to blend in with the enlisted men on board. He could not be seen dressed as the Rebel Han Solo. Chewie had gruffed at him with humour, sarcastic remark quick to follow. Han had merely shrugged. He was with Piett now, others in the group had been sent to pilot ships and assist other Officers, but the Admiral had wanted Han to stay with him. Solo wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or a means of keeping his eyes on him. Either way. At least he had his blaster back, Chewie his crossbow, and access to the Falcon was assured.

They were currently assembled on the bridge, waiting for...well, Han was unsure. Piett seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Han wished for a moment that Wedge and Chewie were still with him, but Piett realized the value of having Wedge man a ship, and he was currently heading for a TIE fighter. As for Chewie, well, a non-human on the bridge would have been extremely unusual, especially to Palpatine’s Officers, so he had been relegated back to the Falcon. Han missed his presence.

The Executor’s enlisted men mingled with several of the Officer’s that had arrived with the Emperor. Han was impressed with the way Piett’s men revealed nothing in their visages. To all outward appearances, nothing seemed out of place. No planned treason, no sinister plots...just Imperial men going about Imperial business. Han knew better.

“So, Admiral, can you tell me exactly what Vader’s planning or is it top secret?”

Han was fidgeting with his collar, tugging at the unforgiving gray material. Memories of his time spent at the Academy flooded him, and Han recalled them without sentiment. His reasons for leaving were still valid now, and although he realized the need to work with Piett, being forced into the uniform left a bitter taste in his mouth. He couldn’t wait to get out of it.

Piett clasped his hands behind his back, keeping one eye on several Officers who had arrived with the Emperor’s retinue. He had to speak softly, keeping low key. He gestured with his head toward one of the consoles, and Han followed him without comment.

The Admiral pointed to several readouts, which had nothing to do with their conversation. Mere misguidance for anyone watching.

“My orders are to subdue the Emperor’s troops, as quietly as possible, and retain control over the Executor. We will apprehend and secure all of Palpatine’s Officers and block all communication channels from this ship.” Piett turned to scan the bridge. “Then we wait.”

Han shifted his weight and turned with Piett. “Wait for what?” Irritation laced his voice. He was tired of waiting.

“For Lord Vader, General. We wait to hear from Lord Vader.”

Han spoke out of the corner of his mouth, keeping his gaze on Palpatine’s Officers.

“And just how is he going to contact you, Admiral? Isn’t he a little busy right now? And what about Luke and the Princess? How are we going to get them away from the Emperor?” He was itching to start some trouble. “You can’t just expect me to stand by and leave my friends to deal with him alone.”

“They are not alone, General. Their Father is with them.” Piett emphasized that pointedly.

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I don’t completely trust in Vader’s paternal instincts.” A beat. “How can you be sure he won’t turn Luke and Leia over to the Emperor? How can you be certain that Vader hasn’t betrayed us all?”

Piett leveled his gaze directly at Han. While he’d never met him before, Han knew of the Admiral by reputation, and had to admit to having a grudging respect for him while at the Academy. He knew the man was loyal, unfailingly honest, and completely direct. Solo knew he’d have to believe whatever Piett said. But the poignancy in the Admiral’s words convinced Han fully.

“Because, General Solo, I’ve seen Lord Vader with his son. I’ve spent time with them, and I’ve witnessed the way that Skywalker affects his Father.” Piett paused, focusing straight ahead. He watched as the Executor drifted serenely through the darkness of space. “He loves that boy, General. And he’ll do anything to protect him.” Another slight pause, and then more quietly, “Of that, I am most certain.”

Han nodded slowly, considering this.

“And you’re completely willing to abandon your loyalties to Palpatine? Prepared to help the Rebel Alliance in it’s quest to free the galaxy? Are you certain of what that entails, Admiral?” Han allowed a note of disbelief colour his voice. He wanted to know just what moved Piett to act.

Piett gave a small, irritated sigh...as if Han were some sort of exasperating child he’d been minded to watch. “General, my loyalties are to a just, fair government. My allegiance is to Lord Vader, and the concept he has always had of a ruling form of power based on uncorrupted, allied planetary systems. His ideas were never along the same lines as Palpatine’s. Most of the men on board here sought a better way to keep star systems under control...that’s why he chose them. Lord Vader may have unconventional methods and sometimes cruel forms of punishment and regulations, but he is a far better leader than the Emperor. That man is nothing but corrupt through and through, and thinks of nothing else. At least Lord Vader gives some thought to the welfare of others.”

Han digested this information a moment. It was not something he’d expected to hear about Vader.

He betrayed nothing in his countenance, merely remarked without expression, “Sounds like we’re after the same things, Admiral.” Han set his mouth in a grim line, worry for his friends taking hold of him. “I just hope we both live long enough to see them come to light.”

“I can assure you, General, of one thing. As long as he has Skywalker by his side, Lord Vader will do everything possible to defeat the Emperor. He has too much to lose, otherwise.”

They both fell silent, tracking Palpatine’s spies and marking their every move. And waited.

With an unnecessary shove, Mara Jade pushed Leia forward into the throne room, causing her to stumble. Luke caught her arm, gave a scowl in Mara’s direction, and helped his sister steady herself. Mara only sneered in response, twisting her pretty features in an unbecoming way. Luke had the feeling she didn’t smile much anyway...and more’s the pity, he thought. He was still getting that curious feeling about her, that sense that fate had more planned for either of them then they knew.

A few paces in, they stopped, and Mara made no move to urge them forward. “Master,“ she greeted Palpatine. The Emperor merely dipped his head once in acknowledgement. Luke threw a concerned glance to his Father, attempting to gauge the mood of the room. He tried to read his Father’s feelings, sense him through the Force. He was met with ambivalence and uncertainty. He was going to have to let go for a while, see what lay ahead. Vader before him and Palpatine above, settled calmly, betraying nothing. A long, slow raspy purr came from the Emperor, and it took Luke several moments to realize he was laughing. Not a good sign. He set his jaw, peered over to Leia. She was glaring at the Emperor, wearing her Senate face...and Luke sent her a soothing touch, tried to make her see the sense of remaining calm, for now.

It was the Emperor who spoke first. Luke was glad of it...he could not imagine what he would say anyway, and he was concerned Leia would only utter something impertinent. As for Vader, well, Luke was certain his Father was on shaky ground. He leveled his gaze, drawing down deep into himself to maintain a visage of complete stoicism, and faced Palpatine.

The Emperor clasped his hands together, tapping his chin with his forefingers thoughtfully. “Young Skywalker...it seems you are ever as predictable as your Father. I have foreseen your every move, and here you stand before me now, just as in my visions.” He dropped his hands to the arms of the throne, imperiously scowling down at them. “Tell me, my young apprentice, are you aware of how much your Father must atone to me?”

Luke stepped forward, and gave Vader an anxious glance. His Father was as yet unmoving, still in his dark robes, watching silently. “I was under the impression that he’d done exactly as you’d asked, your Highness, by convincing me to join him.” He shifted his weight, molding his voice with a tone of persuasion. A certain point of view...Ben’s words came back to him. Although he knew it was useless, Vader knew a moment of pride at Luke’s attempted use of voice manipulation. That was something the boy must have learned from Obi-Wan. The Emperor was far too clever to allow his son to influence him with the power of his voice, however. Luke would have to do better than that.

Palpatine waved him off, he would not play that game. “Do not give your Father so much credit. I am well aware of the logistics of your so-called deflection from the Alliance. My spy has brought me information on Lord Vader’s every treacherous act.” He indicated Jade with his hand, emphasizing her role. Luke could feel her glow with the sudden pride that filled her. Jade’s presence was more vibrant in the Force than he’d been prepared for. It was distracting. The Emperor leaned forward, lowering his voice again to that honey over gravel tone Mara was so familiar with. “The only question now, my young Jedi, is how to properly punish him...and what to do with you.”

Luke felt a moment of fear pierce through him and settle in his gut. Fear for his Father, and fear for Leia. He was certain he’d not make it out of this alive, but Luke was determined to see his sister through, and bring his Father back to the Light somehow. He would not rise to Palpatine’s goading bait, and the Emperor spoke again. “I am also curious as to how you fit into this picture, Senator. I’m afraid there is much more here than you being a part of the escaping Rebel fleet of Iskander...just so fortunately picked up by the Executor.” He focused on Leia now, fixing her with a contemplative gaze. “Yes...” he said slowly, “ I do believe that much more is happening here than appears on the surface...isn’t that so, Lord Vader?” Palpatine directed that with obvious venom, and Luke winced at the raw hate emanating from the Emperor. Leia stepped forward to stand next to her brother, and they both looked over to Vader.

Never hesitating, Vader replied, “Master, the Princess was indeed a part of the Rebel convoy attempting to escape Iskander.” Now Vader tried to shape a truth from a lie. He had to protect Leia’s identity. “She expressed a desire to meet with Skywalker when she was brought on board, and was granted a private interview with him. The Princess was...”

But he was cut off by Palpatine, who rounded on him icily, “The Princess was not brought to my attention when I came aboard, my old friend. I will add that to your growing list of treasonous intents, Lord Vader, and you may rest assured you will be dealt with appropriately.”

Desperate to turn the Emperor’s attention away from his Father, Luke asked mildly, “Tell me, your Highness, do you really believe that torturing my Father will convince me to join you? I’ve never had any love for the Empire...” behind him he could hear Mara give a sarcastic snort, “and now you threaten the life of a man whose whole world you destroyed... the only thing in your despicable Empire that has any value to me.” Luke took several steps away from Leia, moving out so that Palpatine’s attention would be divided between himself and his Father. He clasped his hands serenely in front of himself, and again Vader was reminded of Obi-Wan. “Is this what you truly believe will tempt me to turn to the Dark Side?”

“Luke,” a quiet warning from Vader. What was his son doing? Was he actually goading Palpatine? No longer resembling Obi-Wan, Luke now was an echo of himself at that age. Self-assured with an arrogant air...not the way to approach the Emperor.

Palpatine was deadly stillness as he answered Luke. “Yes, my young apprentice, I truly believe that the very weakness which runs in your Father also lives in you. As I have said, the Skywalker Jedi are very predictable...and you have yourself as much told me exactly how to win you over...that, and other inducements will bring you to my side.”

Never taking his eyes off Palpatine, Luke furrowed his brow at this comment, unsure as to just what he was referring to. No sense from Vader as to the meaning either. Luke could sense Leia shift impatiently behind him, and Jade murmuring something threatening to her, to keep her in place. He needed to get Leia away from Palpatine, before she did something they’d all regret. His sister was not very adept at holding her tongue. Perhaps he could barter for his Father’s life as well. It was worth a try.

“I can assure you, your Highness, I’m not interested in whatever your other inducements are. But I am prepared to make a deal...a certain agreement, if you will.” Luke paused, waiting to see how the Emperor reacted to this. Both Luke and Palpatine could feel Vader bristle at this statement...and the Emperor realized that Skywalker was acting on his own. Whatever Luke was going to offer, it was not something that he and Vader had planned together. Good...so they were already starting to distrust each other. It made everything so much easier that way. Palpatine gestured with his hand for Luke to continue.

Taking a deep breath, and never looking at his Father, Luke said, “Everyone on the Executor leaves...Senator Organa with her friends, unharmed, back to the Rebellion, and Lord Vader under the control of your Royal Guards...or even of Jade...however you see fit, as long as he's left alive. Imperials and Rebels completely off this ship.”

Luke felt, rather than heard, Leia’s quick intake of breath. His Father took a menacing step toward Palpatine, but stopped at Luke’s upraised palm.

“And you, young Skywalker?” the Emperor asked in a hushed whisper, “what of you?”

A lingering silence, then, “I stay...and we finish this.”

Taking back the Executor was surprisingly easy, considering the enormity and complexity of the situation. Piett had to admit, the Rebels were a rather organized and efficient group. Each and every one of Palpatine’s agents and Officers were rounded up quietly and consigned to the holding cells which once contained the Rebels. General Solo relished this kind of work, that much was apparent to Piett, and he headed up his small mix of Rebel and Imperial troops with skill.

Back on the bridge, Piett and Solo stood once again, each with a higher respect for the other than when they’d begun. “Any word from Vader yet?” Han asked quietly, hands clasped behind his back.

“Not yet, General. I am certain that Lord Vader has things completely under control. He’ll only contact me if necessary.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any way to get into that room, is there Admiral? I mean, how exactly do you know that Vader doesn’t need your help?” Solo was restless, and desperate to make sure his friends were safe. Piett was sure there was a certain Princess at the top of that list. A small, faint smile flitted across Piett’s face as he though of Leia...the very daughter of Darth Vader. Well, Solo was in for it, wasn’t he? If she were anything like her Father, and by some accounts she was, the General had his work cut out for him. As much as he admired the Senator, Piett did not envy Solo one bit. Or perhaps he was just getting too old. One button on his cuff had come undone, and he examined it absently.

“Well, Admiral...are you listening?” Solo was getting irritated. “Is there a way into that throne room?”

Piett shook his head. “Even if there was, don’t forget for a moment that we are dealing with the Emperor. He’d know instantly if we tried to storm the throne room.” He rebuttoned his cuff and continued, “I will not attempt it unless I hear directly from Lord Vader, too many lives are at stake. Until then...there is nothing we can do.”

Han, as aggravated as he was, realized the sense of this. Luke and Vader were the Force sensitive ones...they’d be the only hope there was of defeating Palpatine. He’d be dead before he even made it through the door...Han knew this even though his heart told him to fly straight into the throne room, blasters blazing, and pull Leia out of harm’s way.

At least Piett had allowed them to contact Mon Mothma. Even as they spoke, Rebel ships were on the way, heading for the Executor. They’d stay out of range until called for...only if needed. That gave Piett a small sense of security...even if Skywalker was unable to destroy the Emperor, the firepower of the arriving Rebel ships could. Han, however, could not be comforted by that information the same way Piett was...but Solo had more at stake. His only thoughts were for his friends. There had to be a way to get them out of the throne room, away from Palpatine and off the ship before the Rebellion came for the Executor.

Han was mulling over this for several moments before Piett was able to gain his attention. Joining the Admiral at a consol, he squinted at the view screen, adjusting his mind to Imperial readouts. Ships were approaching, and for a moment, Han felt fear freeze in his chest. The Rebellion ships...he hadn’t called them yet...the Rebels were too early! There was no way now to hide from Palpatine. He'd know his own men had betrayed him. He'd kill Luke and Leia...he'd...Next to him, Piett was shaking his head, pointing to the view screen. “No, General Solo...those aren’t Rebel ships. They’re Imperial...the Emperor has sent for re-enforcements.”

Han’s freezing fear dropped, if at all possible, several degrees colder. Midnight on Hoth. The Emperor already knew...Stang...stang stang stang!

Looming out of the darkness, several Star Destroyers came into view. Imperial fighters dropped out of them, like tiny flecks of silver paint flaking away from the hull. Speeding away from their parent ships, they were heading straight toward the Executor.

The Emperor had outwitted them all.

The bridge went silent.

They were surrounded.

Mara Jade could not believe what she was hearing. Could the boy be any more altruistic or predictable? It was the very thing she’d expect Luke Skywalker, as hero of the Rebellion and all around upstanding, self-sacrificing, and simpering fool to do. The real surprise was the way that smug Princess and his own Father had reacted. Honestly, this was all a little too dramatic for her. She resisted the temptation to roll her eyes, and pushed the muzzle of her blaster deeper into Organa’s back.

And yet, in spite of the overwhelming tension roiling in the room, and the many conflicting emotions she could feel, one sensation struck her above all others. It came from Vader. Though her Sith training was incomplete, though she was not as strong in the Force as Skywalker or her Master, Mara felt Vader’s deep concern for Luke. Sensed his desire to protect his son. She tried to find an exact label for this emotion...it seemed so very complex yet deceptively simple. As she watched Skywalker’s words settle in Vader, witnessed the reaction they caused...it dawned on her. Luke turned to face his Father, and more was said in the silence of his blue eyes than ever could have been spoken aloud. Even hidden under layers of dark armour and machinery, his face masked, that emotion radiated from Vader and enveloped his son. Mara realized, with a pang of jealousy, that it was something she would never know. Here, now, watching the last of the Jedi with his Sith father...was the closest she’d ever come to feeling the love of a parent. The concern of a father. To be that important to someone... It was beautiful, and heart-breaking...and Mara was forced to experience it second hand. Vicariously. Through Skywalker, the very man she’d been taught to hate; and from Vader, a man who had earned it.

The universe seemed in that long moment to hold its breath. Waiting. There were important decisions to be made which could have dire consequences, and Fate was wise enough to know what moments needed to be marked. When Destiny would deign to pause. The moment passed, though, with the first cackling laughter which came from Palpatine. He seemed genuinely amused by Skywalker’s proposal.

“Ah, my young apprentice, I am certain you realize that is impossible. I will not allow your Father to escape his punishment...nor you to elude your fate. No one leaves the Executor...I have seen to that.” He gestured languidly out toward the view port, indicating the darkness behind him. Perfect timing...Mara thought, as several Imperial flagships appeared, filling in the emptiness with their massive silver hulks. No way out.

Luke thinned his mouth grimly, flashing a glance to his Father before speaking. “Point taken, your Highness.”

Palpatine nodded slowly, and spoke directly to Luke. “Perhaps you would be interested in hearing exactly what I propose, young Skywalker?” He fairly beamed with his dark intent, his obvious enjoyment of tormenting the boy seemingly radiating off him.

“Luke, no. Whatever he offers, don’t except it...he...” Leia pleaded with Luke, but was silenced by another shove from Mara.

“Quiet, Princess. Don’t speak until you are spoken to...didn’t your precious royal upbringing teach you any manners?” Jade hissed from behind her. She readjusted her grip on the blaster, and realized that Vader was watching her intently. Mara gave him a blank stare, letting her face betray nothing. Inside, she went cold as she faced down the Dark Lord. If Vader lived through this...if Skywalker somehow beat Palpatine...well, she’d have a lot of answering to do. Mara doubted she’d survive Vader’s wrath.

“What is your answer, Skywalker?” The Emperor was in no mood to mince words. “Are you prepared to hear what your destiny is?”

Visibly bracing himself, Luke faced the Emperor fully. “Yes. I am ready.”

“The virus you carry, this disease...you are aware that I engineered it. I designed it. It is my creation.” A hesitation, long enough for Luke to assent. “You must also know I hold the cure for it. It is possible for you to be free of this disease. You can overcome it. But not without some sacrifice.” Palpatine stood, emphasizing his words. “You must give in to the Dark Side. Become my willing apprentice and I will free you from the virus. The Princess will be sent back to the Alliance...Lord Vader will remain here, until I have determined what exactly to do with him.” Vader kneeled at that, relief flooding him. Time to play the penitent servant. If he could stay here, with his son, there was still a chance for redemption. Palpatine took a few steps closer. Leia was shaking her head in disbelief, but uttered no sound. Time to add a small incentive. Indicating with his hand, his gravel voice carrying effortlessly across the throne room, the Emperor said, “Jade, come before me.”

She went to him instantly, re-holstering her blaster and ignoring Skywalker completely. Mara stood below him, several steps down, between her Master and Luke, and waited.

He would have wanted to present her differently, but unfortunately it had to be done now. “I am sure you are aware of Mara Jade’s Force potential, young Skywalker, as well as her beauty.” Mara frowned at this...she was already getting the feeling she wasn’t going to like what she heard. Again that sickening sensation was taking her over...the sense of revulsion he gave her. His next words shocked her to the core. “She is yours, my young apprentice...your consort as my new Dark Prince. I can assure you she is a worthy match for you, and will be completely obedient. Together you can be the beginning of a new Sith Empire. Your children will be the heirs to the greatest power the universe has ever known.” Palpatine never even looked at her.

Time seemed to freeze. Although she knew it was only a matter of moments, more than one thought flew through Mara’s mind. He was giving her away...as if he owned her. She was transferable, like some physical token of an intangible power. Mara knew she owed the Emperor for many things, quite possibly even her life...but the idea that he could barter her body to obtain what he wanted was sickening. In all her missions, any of her undercover work or mundane Imperial functions, Palpatine had never treated her as a simple concubine.

And now, she was for sale.

He didn’t care for her...not at all.

Before Mara could even become properly incensed, someone came to her rescue. The Princess, of all people, had stepped up to stand next to Skywalker, and was actually defending her, in a way. Mara only half heard what she was saying...she watched to see how Luke was reacting to the Emperor’s offer. The colour had drained from his face in disbelief.

“How dare you...how can you be so despicable? This...this girl isn’t some kind of trinket you can trade to gain Luke’s favour. What makes you think that Luke would even consider something so heinous?” Leia huffed her indignation, unable to properly articulate her anger. Vader, for his part, had stood again and was slowly moving closer, one hand on his lightsabre.

But Palpatine didn’t give Organa’s words much weight. The fire in them, he payed attention to. Her mannerisms, the flash of her eyes...they seemed familiar to him somehow. He studied her...and Luke. Back and forth between them. They stood next to each other and faced down the Emperor himself. Palpatine regarded them a long moment, and the epiphany came to him so in that moment he would have sworn he’d been physically struck. He could feel their bond sing in the Force, could sense the connection with Vader, but even had he not been Force-sensitive, Palpatine would have been a fool not to have seen it. They were the very likeness of their parents, and standing side by side, save for the difference in height, the Emperor was transported some twenty odd years back. It was Padme and Anakin all over...and suddenly the ghosts of his past were materializing before him. Now he knew why the Princess was on board the Executor. Now he understood why they’d been found together, Luke and Leia. She’d come to be with her brother, and Vader had welcomed both his children with open arms.

If the temptation of Jade could not convince Skywalker...then perhaps a threat to not only his Father but also his sister could sway him to the Dark Side.

And suddenly everything changed. They all felt it, like a ripple across a dead-still lake, the realization of their relationship quivered through the room. A deep sense of dread filled Vader then...his shapeless worries had materialized into his greatest fears, like some looming dark beast. Now Palpatine knew all. Now there was no escape.

“Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan...or perhaps more appropriately, should I say Leia Skywalker? Tell me, Senator, did your Father tell you about your mother?” he was goading her. “Did he tell you how he turned to the Dark Side for the love of her? How he desperately tried to save her life and failed because of his jealousy and hate?” Palpatine paused, letting his words sink in. “That he killed her?”

That had the effect he’d wanted.

He could feel anger starting to brew in them, bubbling just below the surface. How far could he push them?

Mara had backed off the stairs, slinking away like a snubbed lap dog whose Master has no time for her. The twins had stood their ground, and Vader’s pride surged in his chest watching them. He unhooked his lightsabre carefully from his belt, and slowly approached the Emperor.

“Stay where you are, Lord Vader.” Palpatine rasped, his eyes never leaving the twins. Vader did as he was told, but shifted his grip on his lightsabre, concealing it beneath his cloak. “I have grown tired of this game, young Skywalker. If you will not willingly turn, I will be forced to use drastic measures to motivate you.” His voice dropped again to a whisper. “I warn you not to force my hand.”

“I will not turn,” Luke said quietly. “I am a Jedi, like my Father before me.“ Indicating Vader with a nod of his head, Luke took a deep breath. He was fatigued...he had to conserve his strength. There wasn’t much time left. He could feel the virus draining away his energy. He could sense his Father was moving ever so closer to them. Not knowing what exactly, he knew Vader had something planned. Luke stepped in front of Leia, pushing her gently aside.

The Emperor’s anger was palpable, but he seemed to accept Luke’s denial of the Dark Side. He could not make him turn. Raising his arms straight out toward Luke, he rasped, “So be it...Jedi.”

And the air exploded with a blue-white intensity as the dark Force lightning ripped through the room. Through the noise, Luke could have sworn he’d heard the familiar snap-hiss sound of a lightsabre. But the pain Luke had been expecting never came. Still, he could hear the crackle of the lightning, smell the burn of the ozone. Opening his eyes, Luke could see he was not the chosen recipient of Palpatine’s wrath.

His Father was.

Lightsabre burning, Vader was trying to ward off the Emperor’s assault.

And he was losing.

With a sickening realization, Luke watched as his Father fell to his knees under the barrage of lightening. His Father would die...and he would be the cause. With a strangled sound in his throat, Luke surged forward, igniting his own lightsabre. Heading straight for Palpatine, he raised his blade upward, intending to cut the Emperor down with a single stroke. Taking one last leap forward, Luke swung down with all the strength he had left.

His lightsabre never found its target. Mara Jade appeared before him, and met his blade with her own, blocking his attack. Luke stumbled back several steps, taking a more defensive stance. Mara’s green eyes burned, and he sensed a thrill of excitement from her. Stealing a glance to his Father, Luke could see him prone on his knees, lightsabre extinguished...completely vanquished. Palpatine’s laughter only grew as Mara advanced toward Skywalker with murderous intent.

And Luke felt, for the first time since being brought before the Emperor, a total and all-consuming sense of despair and overwhelming guilt. He would die...Leia and his Father too...and it was all his fault. He’d brought them to this very moment.

And there was no way out.

“Well Admiral, what do you suggest we do now?” Han asked with a grimness which betrayed his anxiety.

Watching the approaching Imperial fighters with a sinking feeling, Piett didn’t have a chance to answer before his comlink buzzed. Vader. He didn’t know what, but he knew something was going on in that throne room. This was it, the signal he’d been waiting for. Now he could do something. “Send all fighters to their ships, and pull up the shields.” This was directed to the men on the bridge, all of whom instantly sprang into action. Next to him, Han gave Piett a lopsided smile.

“That’s more like it,” he quipped dryly, “I prefer a straight fight to all this sneakin’ around.” Han placed an absent hand on his blaster.

Piett returned Han’s smile, and stated, “Spoken like a true Corellian. Our fleet is deploying, and will engage the Emperor’s fighters. Meanwhile, we’re going to hold on to the Executor. No one gets onboard.”

Han felt relieved to know that they were actually doing something, no more waiting around. He was torn between the desire to find Leia and the need to be out there, flying with his friends. He was never one to be idle. Overseeing never was his forte...he wasn’t a management type. His trigger finger was literally itching to be used. Piett seemed to sense this. Finishing up with his subordinates, the Admiral turned back to Solo. “Seeing as you are so very desirous of being useful, General, I was hoping you might accompany me on a little mission.”

Han again gave that lopsided smile, pulling his blaster completely out of its holster. “Lead the way Admiral.” Falling into step next to Piett, Han asked, almost as an afterthought, “where exactly are we goin’?”

Piett gave Han a grave look, his eyes dark. “Straight into the mouth of Hell, General.”

“I’m afraid subtlety is not one of my strong points, Admiral. I’d appreciate it if you just shoot straight, so to speak.”

Stopping fully and facing Han, Admiral Piett said simply, “You’re getting your wish after all. Time to rescue that Princess of yours, General.” Turning on his heel and striding away down the corridor, he added, “We’re going to the throne room.”

No voices, only sounds. The hum of his lightsaber, and Mara’s. The laboured breathing of his Father. Leia’s quiet sobbing as she knelt next to Vader. The disquieting rasp of Palpatine’s laughter. His own ragged breaths.

Stepping back, Luke raised one hand up to Mara in a pacifying gesture. “I will not fight you.” He tried to keep his tone calm.

An arched eyebrow. Then, taunting, “Why Skywalker? Are you afraid to lose to a mere girl?” She advanced on him several steps, keeping her lightsabre low. She was young, he realized. He remembered then that she was at least two years younger than he was. Children, both of them.

“No,” he answered smoothly, “I merely have no desire to perpetuate the corruption of such a young, impressionable mind. You have potential, Jade, but you are heading down a dark path.” They circled around each other. “Although I sense that you are only being controlled...with Palpatine pulling your strings. Tell me, Mara, do you really want to kill me, or are you just acting in service to him?”

She swung at him then, her deep violet blade humming through the air. He parried easily, and they exchanged several blows before she backed off.

“Shut up, Skywalker. I don’t owe you anything, least of all answers.” She growled at him, not so much in anger as frustration. She didn’t want him to get to her, but her doubts were still there.

“I didn’t say you did, I only want you to think for yourself for once. Don’t let him control you any longer. You can break free.”

She gritted her teeth. She wanted to break free, she was simply afraid to do it. So she did the only thing she knew how...respond with sarcasm to protect herself. Throw up her barriers and cower under the protection of a man who’d ruled her life ever since she could remember. “The only thing that’s about to break here, Skywalker, is my restraint.” Mara spun her lightsabre around in a graceful arc. With a dancer’s leap, she charged him again. The energy pulsating off their lightsabres matched only by the energy which surrounded them. She could feel him tiring, weakening under her assault. It made sense. She was good with her lightsabre, but not good enough to have taken him if all things were considered even. If he wasn’t dying. He’d have made short work of her, she knew that much to be true. Despite this, he was still trying to reason with her.

“Mara, use the Force...focus it on him and you’ll see all he’s ever done is deceive you.” Luke pleaded with her...if he could just make her see...

“You know nothing about me, Skywalker. Don’t be so presumptuous. You are so predictable...you think you know everything, don’t you?” She was angry now, steadily wearing him down.

Then, quietly...

“He killed your father, Mara.”

And she stopped. Her world stopped. Mara stood ramrod still in that moment, eyes narrowing, disbelieving. How could he know? Vader. Vader must have told him lies.

“That’s not true...you’re only saying that...to twist my mind somehow. Don’t for an instant think you can create some kind of sympathetic bond with me by lying. I’m an orphan too, true...but don’t mock me. Don’t you dare mock me.” She was breathing heavily.

“It is true. Mara, search your feelings and you’ll know it’s true. Father told me...everything about you. This virus...this disease I’m infected with was tested on your father...and when he refused to turn to the Dark Side, Palpatine used you as blackmail. You, and your mother too...then he killed them both. Once he had what he wanted...once he had the proof he needed, the Emperor murdered your parents. You’re just a pawn to him!” He was in earnest, and Mara knew, from every report she’d ever read, from every scrap of information she’d dug up about him...that he never lied. She probed Vader’s mind, looking for deception, but felt only, astonishingly enough, pity...pity coming from the Dark Lord. From Palpatine she sensed nothing. And hadn’t he just proved to her that she was only a pawn to him? Just a way to obtain what he wanted?

Unable to do anything else, unable to properly process the information she’d been given, Mara did the only thing she could. She attacked Skywalker again, this time more ferociously than ever before. She wanted to beat him down, make him stop, silence him. He defended himself meagerly for a while, but his exhaustion got the better of him, until she’d driven him to his knees, and only sheer willpower kept his blade locked with hers, inches from his throat.

“Enough!” Palpatine’s raspy voice echoed loudly throughout the room. “Well, done Jade...but remember, he is your future...he is your Master now. You cannot finish him.” The Emperor had again stood from the throne and was now at the top stair. “Leave him.”

Shaking her head, trying desperately to clear her mind, Mara closed down her lightsabre and stepped away from Skywalker. Again, her doubts surged through her. A sickening feeling hit her gut, and she fought the urge to be sick. Once more, she’d been reminded of her place...as nothing more that the property of the future Sith Prince Skywalker. Bowing her head, she moved away from Luke. Looking up to her Master, she asked him, "Is it true?" tears were welling up in her green eyes. "Is it? Did you kill my parents?"

He never even hesitated, didn't try to hide behind any facades. He brushed her off cruelly. "Yes, it's true. Your father turned to the Dark Side for the same reason Lord Vader did, and for the same reason his son will turn." Palpatine gave her a hard, cold stare. "For that most pathetic of sentiments...for love." His tone was mocking. He turned his attention then back to Luke, promptly dismissing Mara, and her pain.

Skywalker had shut down his lightsabre, his sister calling to him. Leia was at his side now, torn between her Father and brother. She was speaking to him, soothing him with words, but he didn’t seem to hear her. He was fighting unconsciousness. He was so close...so close to simply letting go...letting the virus rampantly take over. It would be so easy...just let go...

Palpatine sensed this as well. He could still turn Luke. The boy had just proved how easy it could be. Now that he’d removed Mara from the equation, all he had to do was inflict some real pain and damage to Vader, and threaten the Princess. If the boy did know all about Bae’din, if he’d learned anything from that story it was that history repeats itself. Love can make men do things they’d sworn never to do. Blackmail was a powerful tool. The Emperor gestured with his hand, and instantly Mara had pulled the Princess away from Luke, years of obedience taking over. Despite the warring emotions in her mind, her body responded to his commands. She didn't know what to do. Leia struggled briefly, but only long enough for Mara to ignite her lightsabre again and force her back.

“I will ask you one last time, Skywalker...will you join me as my new apprentice?” Palpatine asked slowly, his words reaching Luke faintly, settling on him with a grim finality.

A ragged whisper in the silence of the room. “I’ll never join you...”

The Emperor didn’t waste any time. As Jade threateningly pushed Leia away from Luke, Palpatine unleashed his Force lightning again on Vader. He’d drive Skywalker to turn to the Dark Side by killing his family, break him down by forcing him to watch them die. If he could just push Luke far enough, make him give in to the darkness in order to save them...all his plans would come to fruition.

Luke was so very tired...so completely helpless, and it angered him. He watched as Jade backed Leia into a corner, the blade of her lightsabre a dark violet glow. He watched as the Emperor punished his Father with round after round of Force lightning... so ironic the very substance which gave Vader so much power was now being used to destroy him. Luke was exhausted, he could veritably feel the virus destroying him cell by cell, and he knew he was powerless to aid either his Father or his sister. A feeling of despair came over him, and he gave into his hatred of Palpatine bit by bit. And, oddly, the more the hatred built up in him, the better he felt. It was as if his abhorrence was burning away the exhaustion, eating up his fatigue. And he gave in a little more...if he could destroy just so much of the virus with his anger, then there was the possibility of saving his family, along with the chance of saving himself. The very dichotomy of the plan struck him with humourless irony...to save what he loved, he must give in to the very thing he loathed.

Little by little, Luke was able to sense each virus-infected cell of his body being invaded by and successively commanded by his ever increasing anger. And although he tried to fight it, attempted to maintain the balance between controlling his hate and the hate controlling him...it was a losing battle. Luke was unable to allow himself the luxury of slowly transforming himself, of burning out the virus. Had he the time, it may have been possible for him to use his hate in a measured way, dosing out the Dark Side the way a Doctor doses out medications, and thereby heal himself without succumbing completely.

But time had run out.

His Father was dying before his eyes...

His sister was in grave danger...

And he knew his end was near whether by the virus or at the Emperor’s hands.

He had to act...and now. There was no turning back. And so he did what his Father had, did what his legacy had decreed. Luke Skywalker let go and allowed the Force to guide him toward whatever destiny had been planned for him. He gave in, surrendered, allowed himself to fall like the last dropping leaf of a wind-torn tree. And just like his Father, he turned for all the same reasons. To save his family, to keep people from dying...for love. It was effortless, unnervingly easy, and strangely comforting. At first.

And then the pain came, as his utter and complete hatred of Palpatine surged through him, destroying the virus in its path. The disease in him was systematically replaced by his sorrow, his hate, his despair...until there was nothing left of the Eryoundi virus. He was cured. But he’d payed a heavy price. One evil for another. Now, the Dark Side dwelled where once there had been Light.

They all sensed the change in him. Mara, still on the Princess, watched him warily from the corner of her eye. Leia could only say his name, and Vader may have bit out a strangled “no”, but with his respirator so damaged, it was hard to say. Only the Emperor’s reaction reached his ears. His triumphant laughter rang in Luke’s mind. “Come before me, boy,” Palpatine commanded. Luke stood slowly, painfully, and went to the Emperor.

He didn’t look at Leia. He spared no glance for his Father. Luke could only see Palpatine before him, atop the stairs. Reaching the bottom step, he stopped.

With a graceful reverence, Luke kneeled before his new Master.

And Vader sensed something pass through him which he’d never wanted to experience again. Something he’d felt the night he’d learned Padme had died. The night he had thought the baby had died along with her. A grief so insurmountable, it had almost killed him the first time the feeling had coursed through him...

...the death of his son...

Moving quietly down the corridor, Han wondered off-hand exactly why they were attempting to be so stealthy. If the Emperor was so powerful in the Force, if he could sense where they were...what was the need for all the sneaking around? Surely the old man knew they were on the way...sensed somehow the deceit. Still, he admired the Admiral and needed to be active in doing something, so this was better than simple waiting. Especially where Leia was concerned.

Ahead of him, Piett had slowed down even more, waving a hand at him to reduce his speed. Blaster drawn, Han complied. “General, this may be an opportune time for you to call in your Rebel friends...can you contact the Alliance Fleet from here?” Piett paused, disappointment passing over his features. “I did not think of it on the bridge, Solo. The message from Vader, I confess, had my complete attention.”

Han responded, voice low, “I’ve already done that, Admiral. I wasn’t gonna wait for your OK on that, no offense. When I saw Palpatine’s ships arrive, I didn’t want to waste any time. They’re on their way now.”

Piett gave an amused huff. “Still adverse to authority, General?”

Han shrugged easily and gave his trademark lopsided smile. “Depends on the situation, Admiral. Right now, I’d say we were both telling “authority” exactly where to stick it. But that’s beside the point. How close are we?”

Piett motioned down the corridor. “Not far now. There’s a private entrance to the throne room from Lord Vader’s quarters...we’ll have to go in through there. It will place us behind the dais...if we’re in luck, the Emperor will be facing away from us. That will be our only advantage.”

A grimace from Han. “Well, let’s not forget Luke’s in there, and Vader too. Perhaps they’ll be able to take him.”

“If...if they’re not already dead, General. And if they are, or are somehow incapacitated...then we are all in very serious danger.” Piett’s tone was somber.

“You really don’t sugar-coat things, do you? Either way, I’m not goin’ anywhere until I know the Princess is safe. I’m ready if you are.” Solo hefted his blaster up, in a ready position, his eyes meeting Piett steadily.

The Admiral said simply, “Then let’s go, General.”

Wedge Antilles felt decidedly better already. Prepping the X-wing, R2-D2 twittering away, he felt the familiar sensation of excited anticipation come over him. The thrill of the battle. His fellow Rouge Squadron members were similarly readying their ships, preparing to head out. By now, Han must have sent for the Alliance Fleet. With that back-up, handling the Imperial ships may not be too much trouble. If they were lucky. All they needed to do was contact the Alliance fleet, tell them which Imperial ships to avoid. Thankfully the Emperor’s personal ships were of a different design than the rest of the Fleet, so it should be easy to tell them apart. His ego was far too grand to be defended by the same ships that patrolled the rest of the galaxy. Well, thank the Maker for small favours. They’d put Rebel ships in with Imperial ones as well, to set them apart...let Mon Mothma and the others know they were on the same side.

Taking a moment for himself as the crew readied his X-wing, Wedge shook his head thoughtfully. How in the name of the Maker had he ended up fighting next to Imperials? Alliance and Empire struggling side by side. The Officers on the Executor were certainly not the type of Imperial he’d expected to come across. The short amount of time he’d spent with them here conversing had been eye-opening. These men, personally hand-picked by Vader himself, were different. They weren’t so very opposite after all. They had the same goals, they’d just been waiting for Vader to make his move. Now, they could work together to achieve them. No longer Alliance or Imperial, they were all simply rebels with one common enemy. The Emperor.

R2 chirped to him, snapping him out of his reverie. As he settled into the cockpit, the blackness of space greeted his vision. The canopy closed, and Wedge smiled in spite of himself...that thrill was back. “All right R2, ready to go?” The droid beeped back, translation rolling across his screen. Biting back a moment of frustration, Wedge answered, “No R2...Luke’s not going to be flying in this one...sorry to disappoint you, but you’re stuck with me.”

The droid gave a mournful sound, his dome swiveling back and forth between the opened hanger doors and Wedge. “Come on, R2. Luke wouldn’t have had you come with me if he didn’t think you’d be perfectly safe.” A pause, no answer from R2. Finally, the Corellian said, “Let’s go R2...I promise I’ll get you back to Luke in one piece.”

A final short blat from the droid, and the X-wing headed out of the Executor, the rest of Rouge Squadron falling in behind, Imperial ships scattered throughout. As each member of his group signed in over the comm, Wedge focused his thoughts and surveyed the scene in front of him. Being Coreillian, he’d practically been born spouting odds. But this was a battle he wouldn’t want to hedge a bet on. He knew only one thing...this would be a day he’d never forget...however long he lived.

Han Solo had been to some pretty strange places, with the Alliance and without. He’d spent time on unique planets, in odd cities, and in peculiar parts of space. Yet, despite all this, being in Lord Vader’s personal quarters may have been the most unexpected place he could have ever dreamt of being in. If he’d anticipated some sort of dark torture chamber, or a grand tribute to the malevolence in which Vader dwelt, Han Solo was duly shocked. It would have been a good lesson in being judgmental...but try telling that to a Corellian.

Sparse, dimly lit, clean lines and open space. A simple computer terminal and view screen. Something Han could only assume was the mediation chamber. He’d heard rumours of that while at the Academy, but no one was able to prove it existed. A grand view port, and all trappings in soft, deep blues. Except for something on the far wall...Han squinted. What was it? Stepping closer to it, Han heard Piett’s quick intake of breath as he hissed, “General, we don’t have time to take in the sights. We need to get into that throne room.”

“Relax, Piett, I’m just lookin’. What is that, anyway...artwork? That’s kinda odd, don’t you think?” Han gave a sarcastic laugh. “Imagine, Darth Vader, art aficionado.”

Piett was still anxious. “I am not sure what it is, Solo...even I’ve never been here before.”

Walking closer to the far wall, Han said, “Then how do you know there’s a door to the throne room here?”

“Because I know the layout of this ship, General, and I have been present when Lord Vader leaves the throne room and returns...here. I simply have not been on this side of the door.”

Han had reached the wall, and sure enough, it was artwork. A painting, Han couldn’t say what media...he’d need Leia for that, but it was of someplace familiar to him. The twin suns setting over some rocky outcroppings in one of the deserts of Tatooine. Pale golds, deep reds, browns and blues so vibrant...Han wanted to reach out and touch the painting. Interesting. Luke had told Han once that his Father had also grown up on Tatooine...part of the reason why the sad excuse for a planet held such a prominent place in Luke’s heart. Obviously, it was important to Vader too. But the real question was not why Vader had the painting at all...it was when he’d obtained it. Had he always owned it? Or had he acquired it after he’d learned he had a child. Luke, who’d grown up on Tatooine. Like his Father. A visual reminder of the son he knew existed but who was not with him. A symbol of longing. Very interesting...

“Are you ready now, General, or would you prefer to have a seat and sketch the painting in your notebook?” Piett asked dryly.

“Sarcasm really isn’t you, Admiral. I’d stick to management.” Han rejoined Piett across the room, seeing for the first time the doorway nestled near the far corner. He could hear nothing coming from inside, but knowing that they were in Vader’s personal quarters probably meant that the walls were thicker than usual to block out all noise from the outside. One of the perks of being a higher-up. Han remembered his time at the Academy...the student quarters walls so thin...he could never get any sleep.

“General...General. We really must move on!”

“Uh, sorry Admiral...just lost in thought, that’s all. Sorry.”

Piett gave Han a slight frown, then, “Are you ready to save your Princess?”

Bringing up his weapon again, Han merely answered flatly, “Like I said, Admiral...just tell me where to point my blaster.”

Something welled up deep inside of him, and it took a moment for Palpatine to recognize it. Joy. The euphoric feeling of complete and total victory. Kneeling before him now, just as in his visions, were the past, present and future of the Sith. Skywalker remained on his knees, flanked by his dying Father and future consort, Jade. Only the Alderaanian Princess had the audacity to remain standing, but she would be dealt with later. The sensation of vindication and control which came over him was almost overwhelming. He was drunk on it. They had all played into his hands exactly as he had wanted. Nothing here had happened that he had not planned. There were just a few loose ends to tie up and the elimination of the Rebel Alliance would be complete. Even that fool Piett and the Rebel pirate he brought with him would play a part in this saga. Oh yes...he could sense them. He could feel the treacherous intent in the Admiral’s mind the moment he’d boarded the Executor. Vader really should have chosen better...the men on his ship may be loyal to their last breaths, but they betrayed him with their thoughts constantly, unable to shield their minds. Palpatine knew exactly where they were and what they intended, Solo and Piett. He merely needed to finish them off. And they were so close...any moment now he expected their arrival. Then he could test his new apprentice for the first time.

With a final shot, Wedge finished off one of the last of the Emperor’s TIE fighters. Sweeping the X-wing back around, he headed toward one of the large transport ships that had arrived with the Alliance fleet. R2 was beeping something about re-joining 3PO, and to be honest, Wedge would be glad to get the droid off his hands for a little while. The rest of the Rebel ships, quite a few less than when they’d started, Wedge thought with chagrin, were similarly heading back toward the transports. While the Emperor had summoned his fleet to keep the men on the Executor under control, it seemed he hadn’t banked on the captured Rebels onboard to join forces with Vader’s men. The arrival of the Alliance Fleet was a well-timed fortunate break. The Star Destroyers and TIE fighters of the Emperor’s personal guard had taken out a number of the Rebels, but the new quasi-alliance had prevailed. It seemed that Palpatine was perhaps banking on using Vader and Luke to his advantage. So far, there were no signs of what was going on in that throne room, but Wedge couldn’t dwell on that. Han was there, and he knew his fellow Corellian would take care of things.

Wedge could hear Chewie through his comlink animatedly saying...something. He wasn’t sure, and without Han there, he’d never be able to understand the Wookiee. Fortunately, 3PO was translating for him, and he caught part of the conversation as he brought the X-wing in to the landing bay. Chewie wanted to head back to the Executor and go after Han, but Alliance High Command wouldn’t hear of it. Any Rebel off that Star Destroyer was staying off. Han was on his own...and Luke and the Princess too. Wedge grimaced under his visor. They’d all just have to wait.

A traitorous Father is better than no Father at all...this thought swirled around and around in Luke’s mind, like a twisting sand-storm in one of the canyons on Tatooine. Who was the traitor now? What had he set out to do?...Luke tried to clear his mind. Everything was so very muddled and confused. He could hear Leia’s sobs, sense his Father’s deep sorrow, the cold resentment coming off of Mara, and the Emperor’s malicious joy. They all wanted something from him...and he couldn’t hear them all at once...so he blocked them all out. Inhaling deeply, still on his knees before Palpatine, Luke pulled up the barriers of his mind and ceased to listen. He tried to fade out the Force signatures of those around him. Leia, shimmering behind him. His Father, whose Force presence was fading anyway. And Mara, who knelt next to him. Mara who had some part to play in his future. Was it for the all the reasons Palpatine wanted? Was that really his destiny? He’d tasted this Dark power, and was uncertain it was something he could turn away from. Perhaps...perhaps this was what the Force wanted for him. Could it be possible to achieve all the peace and harmony he’d wanted for this galaxy not as a Rebel Commander or a Jedi Knight...but instead as a Sith? And Force, what about Leia? She’d never willingly turn to the Dark Side...what would they do with her? Too many questions tumbling in his mind.

He couldn’t breathe. Needing to get air, Luke reached up and pulled the dark fabric of his tunic away from his throat. His fingers became entangled in something. What was that? Palpatine was speaking, spewing some of his dark proclamations and Luke tried to focus, or at least seem as if he were focusing. Pressing the object back against his chest Luke finally realized what it was. The Japor snippet necklace. The same one his Father had given to his Mother...the same one that Luke had been given on Tatooine...the Japor snippet he’d always worn to remember his parents. But not only to honour their memory. It was, he recalled, his way to remind himself of all the choices he could make. A tangible way to tell himself to avoid the mistakes which had killed his Mother and turned his Father to Darkness. And here he was, following in Anakin’s footsteps.

But he could change that...his destiny was not written in stone. Luke could turn back...just as his Father had. Maybe they were meant to follow the same path after all. To fall and be redeemed.

Luke let his barriers down slightly, and reached out to his Father. The man was dying before his eyes, and a fathomless despair had overtaken Vader. Luke could understand why. After all they’d gone through together recently, the steps the Dark Lord had taken back toward the Light...now Vader had to watch as his son turned into the very creature he himself had turned away from. The universe indeed had a sick sense of humour. Luke knew what he needed to do. Sending his Father a mental image of the Japor snippet, he slowly nodded. Vader would understand.

And then, Luke felt a slight, gentle touch to his mind. Mara, reaching out to him, that same confusion he felt was also rampant in her. He could feel her uncertainty, the sensation of being used, of being thrown away. She was trying to ascertain the situation...and she seemed to be saying she’d follow him now...her allegiance to Palpatine was over.

Suddenly, Luke sensed a change in the atmosphere...someone...no, strike that, Han was nearby. And Piett too...heading this way...very close now...something was going to happen...anticipation and excitement from them...and then...a rush of energy.

Behind him, Luke could sense Leia’s slight shock as a door whooshed open somewhere on the other side of the dais. He was in no position to see, and neither were Mara or Vader, but Leia had the perfect vantage point. Luke didn’t need to see them anyway, he knew who’d just burst into the throne room. Now could be the chance they’d been waiting for. He would try to muster his strength again.

But Luke didn’t even have the chance to draw his lightsabre. Palpatine was already reacting to the situation. Using the Force, he pulled the blasters out of Piett and Solo’s grips. They clattered uselessly to the floor on the far side of the throne room. The sense of rage roiling off Han amused the Emperor, and taunted them from the dais. Solo was speaking to Leia but Luke could not make out the words. He re-formulating a plan.

Slowly circling the outer part of the throne room, the Admiral and the General attempted to make their way to Leia and their strewn weapons. They both knew it was a hopeless endeavour, but it could buy Luke and Vader the time they needed. Not much, but just enough. If they could just keep the Emperor's attention for just a little longer...

Palpatine smiled a slow, evil smile. “Well, my young apprentice. What shall you do with these two traitors? It is time, perhaps, for you to use your new power, and witness for yourself the strength of the Dark Side .”

Keeping his face stoic, Luke shook his head. “No, Master. I believe it is just the opportunity for my consort to prove herself to me.” Never looking at Mara, he sent her a message through the Force, praying that only she could sense it. Palpatine, too lost in his dark glee, could never have guessed the connection he’d hoped to force upon them had taken place naturally. She understood. She knew what she could happen. All Mara had to do was make that final choice between her old Master and a new allegiance. The memory of the gardens near the Khayrian temples invaded her mind. She could see herself, a stone edifice, a cold monument to the Empire. Then the blossoms came, covering over her and crumbling that hard facade. Scarlet and white flowers erupting and changing the essence of the statue...the essence of her.

“Jade,” Palpatine rasped out, “kill them. Prove to Skywalker that your loyalty is now to him.”

She never even blinked as she replied, “As you wish...your Highness,” and her lightsabre lit with a snap-hiss. Mara spoke with a calmness and something else, which Luke would later recall as sounding like ironic sincerity. But the tone was lost on the Emperor. He thought only of the legacy he would build.

As Leia’s resolve gave out, and she flew toward Han, Mara brought up her lightsabre high. Luke remained kneeling, still too exhausted to move. But next to him, Vader rose. He knew this was the chance he’d been waiting for, the only chance he had left. Igniting his own blade, Vader gathered all his remaining strength and charged Palpatine fully. Expecting this to some degree, the Emperor struck back with more Force-lightning, intending to finish his useless Second-in-Command once and for all.

She attacked from behind, and Palpatine never sensed her. Directing his complete focus on killing Vader, he’d let all thought of Mara drift from his mind. It was easy to do...she was Skywalker’s now. He could hold her leash from now on.

Mara brought her lightsabre downward as Vader swung up, and the two blades met in the middle, cutting directly through Palpatine. Sparks flew as they collided, and for a few moments the Emperor and Luke at his feet were both bathed in eerie shades of deep violet and scarlet red. The Force lightning continued only for a split-second more, then ceased as Palpatine spat out a garbled curse, his features frozen in a visage of shock. Mara’s squinted her eyes and turned her head away, and Vader stumbled on the stairs and dropped back down next to his son.

And in that instant, Palpatine exploded. The Darkness inside him ripped outward, tearing him open even further and killing him instantly. The billowing ripples of dark energy swept across the room, and Mara was flung backward and down the stairs, tumbling over and over before lying still, unconscious. Across the room, Leia, Han and Piett fared better. Protectively pulling her to him, Han spun Leia around so she faced away from Palpatine. Shielding her from the rushing power, they were buffeted backward, flattening out against the far wall, Piett crouching near them.

When the winds stopped, when the terrible noise ceased and an unnerving silence has settled on the room, Leia was able to look. Nothing was left of Palpatine save his dark robes, puddled on the top of the stairs. Piett had rushed to Mara, who still lay unconscious. But Leia was already by her Father, Luke to one side, she on the other. She could feel the change in her brother...no longer filled with despair, he only radiated concern and love.

Han stood a respectful distance away. This was a private moment, a family thing...and so he didn’t intrude. Watching them all together, Han was reminded of what Leia had said when Luke announced he wanted to leave the Alliance and join his Father. You may not be able to choose your family, but you are able to choose to embrace the family you have...never was that better illustrated than now. For the rest of his life, Han would always recall the stark beauty of watching a family once torn apart brought together again by love and redemption. Only the births of his children years later would be able to compare.

It didn’t take long...Vader was obviously severely wounded, and death came quickly. Luke and Leia sat a while next to their Father after he’d crossed over, clinging to each other in their shared sadness. Eventually, they regained a measure of composure and stood. Han came over and gathered Leia to him in a comforting embrace. He could only whisper, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” to her, but it was enough. Han watched over the top of Leia’s head as Luke went to Piett. They spoke quietly a moment, assessing the red-haired woman unconscious on the floor as they knelt by her side. The Admiral extended his arm in a conciliatory gesture and placed it on Luke’s arm. A few more exchanges, a nod from Piett, and Luke slowly scooped up the girl and rose with her in his arms. He spoke to Han for the first time. “We need to get Mara to medical. She’s coming with us.” Turning back to the body of Vader, he said, “Piett’s going to assist me in moving Father to a shuttle...will you help as well, Han? I’d like to get him off the Executor before the rest of the Alliance comes onboard.”

Han nodded once, gravely. “Anything you need kid...I’m here for you. I won‘t leave his side until you get back. No one will get in here, I promise.”

Luke was silent as he left the throne room, Mara in his arms, and headed toward the medical bay.

Several standard days later, Han Solo found himself piloting the Millennium Falcon once again to Tatooine. It was only he and Chewie, along with Luke and Leia. As the twin suns set, the Corellian and the Wookiee remained onboard as the children of Vader said their goodbyes. The glow from the burning pyre met the glow of the gathering twilight as their Father’s spirit was finally set free. A sense of peace settled over them both as Anakin's remains were consumed by the fire. Leia took a small vial of sand after the pyre had burned down to embers deep in the night. It was, she told Luke, the visual reminder of her Father’s redemption. Luke didn’t need any...he clutched the Japor snippet around his neck instead, and turned his face up toward the stars.


Five standard months later

The overall skyline hadn’t changed that much since last she’d been here. The same endless columns of air traffic streamed overhead. Lights, glowing blue, red, green, yellow...glimmered in the distance. She’d been on this very balcony more than once...in a very different capacity, of course. The breeze that gently lifted her red-gold hair seemed familiar to her, but oddly different, in some way. Everything seemed the same...yet all of it had changed. Her life had changed.

The universe had changed.

Mara stood facing the vibrant and glittering Coruscant horizon. Shifting in her new gown, she thought of the last time she’d been up here dressed this formally. For this event, she’d chosen to shun the mandated court-dress from the past, and gone with a simpler, less extravagant style. Outwardly, she seemed poised and collected. On the inside, her feelings were muddled and ambivalent. It was something Mara had been struggling with since the incident on the Executor. She knew, from her own intuition and through the Force, that the decision she’d made was right. It just was hard to get used to.

Knowing that soon she’d have to make her way back inside for the ceremony, Mara tried to hold on to these few precious moments of quiet and solitude. The organized chaos of the Treaty Signing was overwhelming her right now...as her old life and her new one collided. Too many people...too many faces...from her past and her future, awaited her in the Grand Ballroom. So she’d slipped out, and made her way up here. Not all of the offices and rooms had been taken over by the New Republic yet, and she still had access codes to many of them. Getting in had been easy, despite the locked door.

These past few months had been trying, to say the least. Her past being what it was, many New Republic members had openly voiced their distrust of her. And although the Princess Organa had spoken up for her, despite General Solo’s vouch for her...she was still treated warily. Even Skywalker’s open admiration and quite confidence in her had not helped with some higher-ranking members of the Rebellion. But, given Luke’s recently disclosed lineage, that wasn’t a surprise. The Emperor’s Hand being endorsed by the son of Vader? It seemed laughable even to her...but she knew better. She understood now that darkness and light could exist in one person...not just one or the other exclusively. And she knew that forgiveness and redemption were possible for everyone. She’d seen that first hand, and she was living it now. So, eventually, Mara would go back down to that Ballroom and answer questions, smile and be calm, stay centered and focused. Ignore all those distrustful people. It was only one night.

She could sense someone coming, a seeking, searching presence. Luke. He was looking for her. So she hadn’t slipped away unnoticed. Well, if anyone had missed her in all the noise and confusion of the spectacle downstairs, it would have been Skywalker. While they hadn’t seen much of each other in the time since the Executor, there was a new element to their relationship. An understanding, a deep connection. It seemed that she could always sense him, a vague non-tangible link. New, unnerving, unexpected...and very reassuring. It terrified her. It thrilled her. It made her feel complete.

When the door opened behind her she didn’t turn to him. Luke stepped up next to her at the stone balustrade, and rested his arms on the deep gray of the railing. Not finding anything interesting in the distance, he turned around and pressed his back against the barrier, palms down on the smooth surface. Luke turned his head so he could see her clearly, and gave Mara an understanding smile. “I’ve been dying to get away myself, all night. This really isn’t my forte either.” He smiled again. “I suppose it was a good thing Leia ended up in the Royal Family and I got stuck on Tatooine. She’s far better at this whole diplomatic public relations, important function events fiascos than me.” Turning to face her, one elbow on the railing, he cocked his head to the side, taking her in. “Although I’m a little surprised that you’re not completely at home down there...considering all the functions you must’ve been to...well, before.”

Mara gave him a sidelong look, complete with arched eyebrow. “Yes, but please remember that “before” I wasn’t caught in-between two rival factions of government. Don’t forget, Skywalker, that half of those people in that ballroom trust me less than they trust a Corellian at a Sabacc table. They won’t...they can’t forget who I was.” With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes, tipping her chip upward. “And I don’t blame them.”

Luke reached out to her, then re-considered. They still hadn’t really had the opportunity to see each other much since the Executor. He could sense the change in their relationship, the subtle deepening of their connection day by day. But they still hadn’t spoken about it. So he went with his gut. He gently placed his hand over hers on the balustrade. “Mara...don’t let that get to you...in time they’ll get to know you like we have. Me and Leia, and Han...we all only have the best things to say about you. And with Piett’s support as well, you’ll see Mara. They’ll all come around.” Giving a self-depreciating laugh, he said, “And don’t forget, they still don’t even completely trust me. And I don’t want to sound arrogant, but...”

Mara finished it for him. “But you only destroyed the first Death Star and are a decorated Alliance Commander.” She smiled at him sarcastically, “But that doesn’t really count for much given who your Father was, does it?”

“No, not really.” Luke admitted. He pulled his hand away from her with regret. “We are more alike than you realize, Mara. Even though Leia’s my sister, I feel, in some ways, a stronger report with you...on some things at least.”

She could sense the slight shift in his mood, and said, “Out with it Farmboy...what’s on your mind?”

Luke rolled his eyes at her. “Are you really going to call me that? I do have a first name, you know. I’d even rather have you call me Skywalker than that.” She laughed at him outright. He liked the sound.

“Sorry...but it just seems to fit. And everyone else around here calls you Master Skywalker or Commander. Or they just don’t address you at all. Way too much bowing and scraping for someone who grew up on a backwater planet. Besides I know that you don’t much care for all that deference anyway. So, I’m going to call you Farmboy...because I can.” She looked at him seriously then. “And I know I’m the only one you’ll let call you that. So...so it makes it more...special.”

Luke sobered a moment. “That’s true, Mara. Sometimes I think you’re the only one who sees me as I really am.” He spoke without rancor now. “I’m not ashamed of how I grew up, you know. It helped shape who I am now...I appreciate it. I’m proud of it.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to say, Skywalker. You’re not the one who was raised by the most hated man in the galaxy.” Mara said bitterly.

“But I was fathered by the most feared man in the galaxy. My point is that you should be proud of yourself, Mara. Yes, you were trained by the Emperor, but you never lost your sense of goodness. That came out in the end...it saved you.” He took her hand again. “It saved me.” A beat. They studied each other. “Honour your past, Mara. Learn from it...and embrace your future.” He slowly shook his head. “Don’t let them get to you. You mean a lot to us...to me.”

Mara decided then was a good time to get back to the matter at hand...she wasn’t quite ready to delve into that subject right now. She succinctly untwined her fingers from his. “So, Farmboy...what is on your mind?”

Luke gave her a long, quite look. “It’s interesting how strong our connection is, don’t you think? I’m not sure even Leia would’ve picked up on what you have.”

With a patient sigh, Mara said, “That’s nice, Skywalker...would you please just tell me? Or are you enjoying keeping me in suspense?”

Luke answered almost inaudibly, “I’m concerned you’re not going to stay, after this treaty is signed. That you’re not going to take Leia up on her offer to become a Liaison between the New Republic and what’s left of the Empire. That you won’t stay to train as a Jedi...with me.” Almost a whisper now. “That you’re leaving.” He finally looked into her eyes. “I’m not sure I could be separated from you, now. Not permanently.”

Biting her lip, Mara nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, Luke. More than you know. But I don’t think now is the time...to discuss this.” She took his hand now, returning his reassuring grip, and gave him an encouraging smile. “But soon...I promise. I haven’t made any decisions yet. I’m not sure I’d like being all that far away from you, either.” She turned back to the skyline again. “Interesting, isn’t it? The city seems the same...but everything has changed.” She threw a genuine smile over her shoulder at him. “For the better, I hope.”

He beamed back at her. “For the better. But for now...we really should think about sneaking back down for the ceremony. Both of us will be missed soon, and I don’t want to start any untoward rumours about us, and you know that’s exactly what will happen if we’re both discovered missing...together.” Fingers still entwined, he pulled her away from the stone balustrade and turned her once around, her deep blue gown flowing gently about her. “But, seeing as you are the expert and the only one I trust myself with on the floor, I was hoping you’d save me at least one dance before the evening is through.”

Her laughter bubbled up again. It had been a long time since the balcony had heard that sound. “Sure, Farmboy. Anything to avoid those stuffy diplomats...but we’d better not go back down there together, or those rumours will start.” She paused before letting his hand go. “I’ll head down first...” Mara turned and walked away, through the ornate stone framework and back into the darkened room.

Watching her walk away, Luke felt the pull of longing...the desire to chase after her. But he knew she was right. They needed to work things out before the media started speculating about them. Besides, he’d be with her shortly anyway.

Recalling everything he’d been through, the events with his illness and his Father, the struggle to bring Vader to the Light, to keep himself from the Darkness...his fall and redemption...Luke inhaled deeply and savoured his memories. He realized things had turned out the way they should have...the will of the Force. The time he’d been able to spend with his Father was priceless, and he would forever cherish it. It now occupied a part of him that had always been empty. While a deep ache would always exist at the loss of his Father, he would attempt to fill it in with the memories of the moments they’d had together. Perhaps someday he’d share them all with Leia as well.

And now...well, now was the dawn of a new era. His childhood on Tatooine seemed like another lifetime ago. Things were changing, and he planned on changing with them. Training new Jedi, assisting the New Republic, resolving things with Mara...the sheer potential possibility of what the future held was exciting. Luke felt an echo of the sensation he’d had when Leia had joined him on the Executor. When it had just been himself , Leia, and their Father. This time it was deeper, more complete. The feeling he’d never had, the one he’d always been searching for.

The sense of coming home.

Home Fiction Art Mail List Staff Links

Graphics by Alicorna