Luke stood before the Imperial recruitment center and felt a slight shudder work through his body. But what could he do? He had no prospects and no family. No family left, he amended, ignoring the burn of his eyes. Tatooine was a hard place.
He would sign up for the minimum. Once he got out ? he'd be fine, he'd have money saved up, skills to enter the workforce of a planet besides Tatooine.
Merchants and customers walked around him like a river of people, and he was a break in the stream as he stared at the small, dilapidated building. The Empire always wanted soldiers, but he could avoid that, be a cook or something. He couldn't imagine himself as a pilot anymore, shooting down ? who? The Rebellion? He wasn't even sure they existed; Tatooine was distant from such things. He just wanted out, he couldn't imagine killing for the Empire.
No one looked twice at him when he entered the center, ready to hand his life over. Just another boy looking for a way offplanet.
Luke tilted the glass, watched the wine swirl, and thought about gravity, and flying, and pulling against the force of speed.
"Something interesting about the wine, Lieutenant?" A heavy, familiar hand landed on his shoulder, and Luke twisted his neck to look up at his commanding officer without rising.
"Should be. It's expensive enough," Adair said dryly.
Luke smiled briefly, then went back to tilting his glass, swirling the wine, nevertheless being careful not to spill it on his white dress uniform.
"I thought you'd be happy about being assigned to the 81st," Adair commented, settling himself into a patio seat next to Luke's, staring out at the lake just off the property. Adair's style of command wasn't confrontational; he rarely felt the need to stare down his pilots. "Not just the thick of the action, Skywalker, but your career will take off."
"Careers are funny things that way," Luke replied, and dumped the wine into the grass beneath his feet.
"It's a new galaxy, Skywalker. You're young enough to take advantage. I suggest you do it." Adair's voice was flat, and his eyes dark when he looked at Luke. He was, Luke remembered, an old loyalist to the Empire. Palpatine being struck down by Vader - in a fight for power, most assumed - had been a big blow to the image of the Empire as being a purely stabilizing force, not just to the public, but to its own forces.
Luke had been surprised, certainly. But he knew nothing in life was stable. "I think I will," he replied at last.
"Will you? You're a good kid, a better pilot, but hardly ambitious where it counts."
Luke tilted the empty glass. "I will be."
"Pilots don't lead. They fly and can't do anything else."
Luke didn't turn at the remark, though he knew he was supposed to hear it. He wasn't eating or drinking like the others at the subdued party of status, but wandering around, watching and learning. The newest Emperor was dying, by poisoning. Confirmed fact in the rumors of great halls.
It was seen as a good time for those who wanted power. Who came into power no longer mattered, just what they did with it, just how long they lasted; all the people wanted was stability. They were fools, but then again, that's why they were citizens and not leaders.
Elegant and suspicious, everyone watched everyone else, and Luke got more disdained looks than the rest. Career military. Hadn't Vader been? They watched, and thought, does he hope for a political career? Too young, too young, they believed, but Luke knew better than most this had nothing to do with youth, and everything to do with advantages.
"No manners, either," another voice muttered, meant to be heard, but Luke kept looking, a pull in his gut like the force of gravity, the element inside of him that pushed him towards action and warned him in battle.
He met the eyes of a dangerous woman. Green eyes, the color of envy. She smiled at him, and there was no disdain in her eyes. She walked away without a word from the man she had come with, some politician too frightened to move towards the vacuum of power, but heady with it nevertheless. Luke dismissed him, followed her with his gaze.
She was wary of him.
She walked up to him without pretense, beautiful, but not playful. "Arica," she said of herself. No title, and even the name a lie.
"Mara," he replied, the name - bitter - falling away from him like he wasn't the one who said it.
Her eyes widened, and then her smile grew. "Yes, Commander Skywalker." Her eyes narrowed, but she was pleased; he in turn was wary. "Come?" she asked, turning her body away, but never breaking the meeting of their gaze.
While she led him outside to talk-for a reason he could not quite imagine-he let his hand trail through her vividly red hair, the strands separating.
"In the old days, you would have been killed," Mara said, stalking, moving around him in a semi-circle too far away for him to reach her. "For your ability, for the possibility of you using it against them."
"Is that how Palpatine led?" Luke asked idly, watching.
"It's how he destroyed the Jedi," Mara replied with a careless shrug. "It's an advantage, Skywalker. One that can be used to great effect."
Luke didn't ask why she hadn't used her own to seize power; he sensed from the beginning it was a talent, but not her strength. All of which explained his presence, but granted no certainties.
While he considered her words, he tried to reach out, to react like he did in a dogfight, to feel before he thought. Reaction before decision.
He spun out of reach. Hand to hand combat was not his gift, but he had sensed her move before it occurred.
"So why does a Force-sensitive have to be in charge?" Luke asked, stilling and relaxing, then readying himself again.
"Doesn't have to be, Skywalker." She raised an eyebrow, gave a disdainful wave of her hand. "I haven't had to kill anyone yet; no one has had the strength to keep their power."
But she wanted, Luke realized, someone to follow who understood. Her life existed in Palpatine's mind and power; outside of it, it was a struggle to survive. She wanted stability.
She attacked him without warning, an indistinct blur that he guessed-no, he reacted without thinking, he didn't know what she was trying, but he floundered away regardless, somehow her attack avoided. He felt the danger like a tingle on the edges of his mind, real danger.
She smiled at him, and he realized she, at least, knew the danger of false stability.
Mara drowsed on the collection of blankets, body positioned elegantly as always, the awareness of a dancer. Luke was curled up beside her on the bed, not so elegant, but at least graceful. His touch was light, not enough to bring her to full wakefulness.
After a few moments, she turned to him, and flicked his mind - he pushed back, that was easy enough, and she smiled. There was a rare nervous energy to her, when he used what she had taught him, when it came so completely and easily to him, as natural as breathing. Still with the starts and stops, the hitches of breath, but he was always learning and practicing.
He soothed her, kissed her wrist at the vulnerable pulse, and she relaxed a little. He wanted her to trust him, for the sake of trust.
This isn't love, he thought, with a trace of uncertainty.
Mara was always confident in the Imperial Palace; she moved in it as if it were her territory already. Luke supposed it was, in the sense of knowledge. The position she had held was powerful, and had given her much, if never publicly.
He had watched her, and pushed away inquiring minds, as the seventh Emperor-a little longer lasting than the rest-was poisoned with a graceful tilt of Mara's wrist. She hadn't even been nervous.
They sat in the Imperial gardens, talking and holding hands as young lovers, but their words were of death and betrayal. They watched the birds flit around, landing on plants of all colors and worlds.
"It's not time," Mara said firmly, the curve of her lips remaining smooth and unstressed.
"I feel something, Mara," Luke insisted. "Did you ever find out how and why Palpatine and Vader died?"
Mara shook her head, a flash of irritation in her eyes. "No. It's true enough that Vader did it, and died in the process, but the reason why remains unknown." She paused, while he thought of the Rebellion. "Do you think you're developing precognition?" They had been uncertain he would, beyond the danger-sense that both were skilled in.
"It's like I'm about to dodge a missile, I feel like I need to duck and roll," Luke said, voice almost harsh even as it was under his breath. The sense of danger when not in battle - it burned uncomfortably, he didn't like it at all.
She took his hand in hers, palm over his wrist. "The danger is probably vague, for the risk of what we plan."
He sighed but didn't answer, trusting the Force, this thing inside which suddenly had a name, which felt almost like home if he listened hard enough.
His eyes opened as something brushed by like shimmersilk. He looked away, to the side, and his squeezing of Mara's hand put her on alert, even as her posture remained lazy and relaxed.
A woman stood there, staring at him, unabashed and unafraid, with a stiff posture and striking face, calm but stern, as if the soft beauty had been burned out. Her long brown hair was drawn back, and she wore perfect white. A former Senator, then, one of those who had protested its dissolution.
"Former Senator Leia Organa," Mara whispered. "Supposedly of the Rebellion, but nothing has ever been proven."
"She hears us," Luke said quietly. "No. She feels us. She recognizes us."
Mara glanced at him, but did not doubt his words. "What, then?" she asked, vaguely, but her gaze was clear.
Luke looked at her, and kissed her. He slipped his hands into her hair, and brought her closer. From her lips he moved to her neck, and whispered, "For now, here, we are just lovers. But it's time, Mara. It's time."
He felt it when Organa left.
Luke tilted the empty glass, but looked outside, past the wide veranda to the limitless sky of Coruscant. They were so high that nothing impeded his vision, the planet below just a vague light. "We should reconstitute the Senate," he said. "Take the power from the Moffs, what little they have left from the mob rule."
Mara took the wine glass out of his hand, put it on a table, and moved over him, straddling him. "Soon," she agreed. "When public opinion is fully swayed to us - and already it's showing, Skywalker, that they want to adore us - it will give us all the power we need to stay."
Luke looked up, met her green eyes. "Emperor Skywalker..."
"Empress," Mara said with a smirk.
"I like the sound of that," Luke whispered, and something Mara's eyes faltered, in the wake of surprise.
"What of Organa? Her message?"
"Do you believe it?"
"Do you?" Mara returned.
"It doesn't matter," Luke replied honestly. "Families are made, not born." Said with the wisdom of an orphan, carelessly lost, by the Jedi, by his twin, by a harsh world of sand.
Mara paused, careful. "She's a Jedi. If ?" Refusing her could mean she would seek to kill him, as her duty to reestablish the Republic would mandate.
"Be with me," Luke said softly. "Be my Empress." Be my family, he thought. My stability. Nothing false here.
Mara nodded, slowly. Then her smile, wide and open, and a light in her eyes, sharp and cutting like only unexpected happiness could be. Still some wariness, lurking, but he could feel her, and she was a whole, complete person, so that was only normal.
Luke didn't have to think at all about whether he loved her.
Original cover design by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2007 TheForce.Net LLC.